Top 10 NFL rushers exceeding expectations in 2021: Browns trio thriving; 49ers' Deebo Samuel stars

The NFL’s current rushing leaderboard has one king, and his name isn’t Derrick Henry.

Jonathan Taylor has dominated in 2021, going from promising youngster to bona fide star in his second season. No other player is within 460 yards of Taylor’s rushing total (1,626) with two weeks to play.

The Colts RB likely would have found himself in quite a battle with Henry, had the Titans star not suffered an injury in October. Instead, the throne is Taylor’s — but what do the advanced metrics say about Taylor’s fantastic production?

In this piece I’m taking a look at the players who excel at overcoming adverse circumstances to pick up the tough yards — the yards over expectation. We’ll be using Next Gen Stats’ rushing yards over expected metric to determine who is the best. This metric relies upon NGS’ measurement of expected rushing yards on each individual play, which takes into account position, location, angle and speed of each of the 21 other players on the field at the time the runner receives the handoff. From there, the actual yards gained are compared against the expected rushing yards for a given rushing attempt.

Seventy attempts were required to be considered for this list. Those 70 or more attempts must be designed runs, as well, eliminating quarterbacks, who often make their rushing hay on scrambles, from consideration. You’ll see I did make room for one player who didn’t have a minimum of 70 designed rushing attempts this season, but there’s a legitimate explanation for that in his blurb.

Here are the league’s premier rushers when it comes to making the best out of most every situation.

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It’s indisputable: No NFL running back has been better than Taylor in 2021. It should be no surprise, then, to see Taylor atop this list. In the simplest of terms, 448 of Taylor’s 1,626 rushing yards have been yards gained beyond expectation. That total is also the highest for a running back in a single season since 2018, the year in which Next Gen Stats started tracking these metrics. His 1.54 RYOE per attempt is also the highest mark for a running back since 2018 (minimum 200 rushes). So, Taylor is not only the league’s best in terms of total rushing yards — he’s also the best at exceeding expectation to rack up those yards. 

Chubb has been a RYOE monster since NGS started tracking the metric in 2018. He leads all RBs in RYOE per carry in that span of time at 1.22 yards (minimum 600 carries). In fact, he’s the only running back with an average above 1 yard in that span, so it’s no surprise he’s on this list. As for 2021, Chubb is currently second among RBs in total rushing yards over expected at +228, and he’s averaging +1.11 RYOE per attempt. Essentially, it’s more of the same from Chubb, who has built a still-young career on breaking tackles, picking up extra yards and occasionally sprinting to the end zone. The deceptively quick back has proven to be tough to bring down. He’s gained 12 first downs over expected on rushes outside the tackles (tied for the second most in a season since 2018), teaching us all one important lesson: Don’t let Chubb get to the edge. He’s the best of the Cleveland runners, and just so happens to also be one of the best in football.

Look, a massive surprise! I set the carries minimum to 70 for running backs to include some players who have had to step in and proved to be productive in a big spot, and Johnson has defined this role in 2021. He has carried the ball just 70 times, but has certainly made the most of them, gaining an average of 2.36 yards over expected per carry, far and away the best mark in the NFL among qualifying running backs. He’s used his elusiveness and quick change-of-direction to pick up many of those extra yards, gaining four first downs over expected in 2021. More than 55 percent of his attempts have included rush yards gained over expected, perfectly capturing just how effective he’s been in a minor role. The Browns had to call upon Johnson to carry them to victory against the Broncos in a Thursday night affair, and he was up to the challenge.

And get this: Cleveland’s offensive line is setting a fairly low expectation in 2021, tying for 22nd in expected rushing yards at 4.2 per attempt, below the league average of 4.29. Johnson, Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb have teamed up to help the Browns gain rush yards over expected on a league-high 41.1 percent of all carries this season. 

The Seahawks’ 20th-ranked rushing attack has left plenty to be desired, but that isn’t the fault of Penny. He hasn’t stuffed the stat sheet — he has just 389 yards and three touchdowns on 71 carries this season — but has built up his numbers by doing more than expected. Penny ranks third among RBs in RYOE per attempt at +1.38 yards, and 95 of his 389 yards have come beyond expectation. He’s done it in surprising fashion for a speedster, barreling through traffic for positive gains. He leads the NFL in rushing yards per attempt versus a stacked box (8 yards per such attempt; minimum 10 attempts). He’s built his RYOE total in the latter portion of the season, flipping a negative total into a positive one with +123 in Weeks 11-16, the second-best mark among non-quarterbacks behind only Jonathan Taylor. There’s a lot that needs to be fixed in Seattle, but Penny might finally be making some progress in his fourth NFL season, even if it doesn’t show in the win column.

Harris is one of four players on this list who average less than five yards per carry, but that doesn’t diminish his value to the Patriots’ rushing attack. Harris is RB1 in New England with the stats to back it up: 182 carries, 857 yards and 12 touchdowns. He ranks fourth in the NFL among qualified ball-carriers with +151 RYOE on the year, and he only lands behind Penny and others on this list because of his lower average in RYOE per carry (0.86). Harris’ value is easy to see in how the Patriots have fared without him this season. Exhibit A: Week 15, when the Patriots rushed for just 81 yards in a loss to Indianapolis. Harris’ hard-running ability might have helped the Patriots swing that game in their favor, as they certainly missed his penchant for picking up unexpected first downs (he’s gained three first downs over expected on rushes inside the tackles, tied for the second-most among running backs) and the extra yards (+85 RYOE inside the tackles this season, third most) on the tougher runs through traffic. Harris’ play is a big reason why the Patriots are in contention for the AFC East title.

Our first (and only) anomaly is here. Samuel is a receiver, but has become a chameleon in Kyle Shanahan’s offense in 2021, carrying the ball just 44 times on the year but making a massive difference with the rock in his hands. Samuel has rushed for 301 yards, averaging 6.8 yards per attempt, and has seven rushing touchdowns to his name this season. He’s gaining rushing yards beyond expectation on 50 percent of his attempts, has picked up nine first downs over expected and is averaging an incredible 2.82 RYOE per attempt, the best among all non-quarterbacks. He doesn’t meet the minimums we set for running backs, but he’s not a running back — he’s a receiver masquerading as a running back. Yet, he’s made a significant difference and helped jump-start a turnaround for the once-struggling 49ers. That’s enough to get him into this group.

Ezekiel Elliott’s running mate has shown plenty of big-play ability in 2021, and although he doesn’t get a full workload in Dallas’ loaded offense, he’s done enough to end up on this list. Pollard is averaging 5.6 yards per attempt, has racked up +114 RYOE, and added two rushing touchdowns to his totals for good measure. He’s gained +139 RYOE outside the tackles this season, the third most among running backs, and he’s picked up five first downs over expected on such rushes. Elliott can be the between-the-tackles hammer with breakaway capability, but Pollard is the ideal complementary back. In an offense that has looked unstoppable at times this season, Pollard is a perfect fit for his role.

Edmonds’ four-game absence created room for James Conner to flourish enough to earn his second Pro Bowl bid, but let’s not overlook Edmonds’ contributions in Arizona. He is still gaining 5.5 yards per attempt, and his average of +0.93 RYOE per attempt ties him with Pollard. Despite not being Arizona’s power back, Edmonds has made a lot of his hay between the tackles, gaining +86 RYOE on such attempts, the second-most among running backs behind only Jonathan Taylor. Are most of those attempts out of the gun, with the defense spread out? Sure, but the production still counts. Now the Cardinals will hope they can restart their offensive engine in the final two weeks heading into the playoffs, with Edmonds providing plenty of the fuel.

Hunt has missed a significant chunk of the season (seven games), but he deserves a spot on this list because of what he’s produced when he’s been available. Hunt is averaging +0.95 RYOE per attempt and has gained +73 RYOE on 78 carries. In total, he’s rushed for 386 yards and five touchdowns. That’s good for a 4.9 yards-per-carry average, but the real reason he lands on this list comes down to how often he’s exceeding expectation. Hunt has gained positive RYOE on 43.1 percent of rushes outside the tackles this season, the second-best mark among running backs with 50-plus such rushes behind only his teammate, Nick Chubb, whose mark stands at 44.8 percent. He’s also gaining RYOE on 44.2 percent of his total carries. The lesson to be learned: Much like Chubb, Hunt is likely to pick up RYOE if allowed to get to the edge. 

Williams was in a tight race with both Dalvin Cook and Elijah Mitchell for the final spot on this list, but after plenty of hand-wringing and number-crunching, he gets the nod because of a few key statistical differences. Williams is averaging slightly fewer rush yards over expected per carry than Mitchell (+0.50 to +0.53), and he has fewer total rush yards over expected than Cook (+88 to +93), but he’s significantly outperformed them in one key category. Williams has gained seven first downs over expected this season, which is seven more than Mitchell and six more than Cook. He’s also gaining RYOE on 36 percent of his attempts, slightly better than Mitchell’s and Cook’s marks. And he’s not just a between-the-tackles bully — Williams has gained +5 first downs over expected on rushes outside the tackles, which is tied with Tony Pollard for the fifth-best mark in the league among RBs. Just wait until be he becomes a true feature back in Denver.

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