Kareem Hunt, Dion Lewis among 10 most elusive running backs


An exceptional running back class in the 2017 NFL Draft added a bevy of new faces to an assembly of skilled young ball-carriers already in the league. With the talent pool at the position becoming more impressive by the year, dazzling runs were broken off with stunning regularity in the 2017 season. Ankles were ruined, jukes were delivered and stiff-arms were doled out at breakneck pace each week.

Here, we'll attempt to measure which running backs created the most yardage on their own rather than just taking what's blocked for them. One of the Next Gen Stats metrics we deploy using the tracking data from the chips placed inside each player's shoulder pads is "average yards gained after defenders close within 1 yard" for running backs. This data point correlates with other metrics for yards after contact and elusiveness. The Next Gen Stats help reveal which backs are gaining extra yardage after opposing defenders close in on them, whether via broken tackles, evasion or other elusive moves.

In this ranking, we'll look at the top 10 running backs in "yards gained after close" among players with 175 or more carries on the season. With so many split backfields in the NFL today, we set the threshold here to help quantify the ability of some of the league's lead backs who held down top roles throughout most of the season. For players who excelled in this metric but fell below that minimum threshold, see the "bonus notes" section below.

For context throughout the list, the league average for YGAC is 3.66 yards among all running backs.

Note: Apparent ties on this list are due to averages being rounded up to the nearest hundredth. The higher-ranked back in those cases gained slightly more per carry.

Kareem Hunt

YGAC: 4.63.

Hunt announced his presence with authority in his first game as an NFL player, dropping 246 total yards (148 rushing, 98 receiving) and three total touchdowns (one rushing, two receiving) on the New England Patriots during the season-opener. The rookie showed he was no one-game fluke by going on to lead the NFL in rushing. Particularly during his dominant stretches to begin and close the season, Hunt was a true challenge to tackle for opposing defenders. He averaged 4.63 yards after defenders closed within 1 yard of him this season, leading all backs with 175-plus carries. If any running back personifies the term "elusive," it's Kareem Hunt.

Dion Lewis

YGAC: 4.44.

The veteran seized control of the Patriots' starting running back job around midseason and went on to post career highs in carries (180), rushing yards (896) and total touchdowns (nine). In 2015, Lewis flashed special ability as a satellite pass-catching weapon before an ACL tear ended his first season with the Patriots prematurely. This year's iteration of Lewis was more of a steady early-down runner, routinely making the first defender miss, and he played a full 16-game season. Despite checking in at 5-foot-8 and 195 pounds, Lewis averaged 4.8 yards per carry on his inside runs this year. He is truly one of the best pure runners in the NFL. Lewis will have no shortage of suitors in free agency this offseason if he doesn't return to New England.

Derrick Henry

YGAC: 4.09.

In 2017, the Titans' play-callers rolled with DeMarco Murray as the lead back, even though he appeared to have lost a step and battled multiple injuries. All the while, Henry shined in a complementary role. At 6-3 and 247 pounds, Henry is one of the more unique specimens at the position, combining elusiveness with his hulking frame. With Tennessee turning over its coaching staff at the end of the season, and with the team having an out from Murray's contract this offseason, Henry could conceivably sit atop the depth chart as the feature back in 2018, provided the staff assembled by new coach Mike Vrabel believes in him. If he is a full-time starter next year, finding consistency will be key to unlocking a breakout season. Henry decisively cleared 3.7 yards gained after close in five games, but he fell under that mark in all the others.

Jordan Howard

YGAC: 4.06.

Howard followed up his excellent rookie season with yet another 1,000-yard rushing campaign in 2017. He's a tough back to bring down when he gets rolling. Howard gained an average of 4.06 yards after defenders closed within 1 yard of him. He was also a top performer in this metric in 2016, as his 4.64 yards gained after close ranked first among backs with over 175 carries. The Bears hired former Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy to take over as their head coach this offseason. While Howard doesn't come with the receiving chops of some of the backs featured in Nagy's Kansas City offenses, Chicago's new coach will no doubt look to keep the bruising Howard in place as the scoring attack's identity.

Mark Ingram

YGAC: 4.04.

Alvin Kamara became the talk of the town while putting together a campaign worthy of Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. That should not take away from the utterly fantastic season offered up by Kamara's veteran teammate. Ingram enjoyed a career year, with 1,124 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. The former first-round pick has quietly been one of the best backs in the league for the last several seasons. He was a top-five performer in this metric last season, as well, averaging 4.41 yards gained after defenders closed within 1 yard of him in 2016. At age 28, Ingram looks as fresh as ever coming off an excellent 2017.

Ezekiel Elliott

YGAC: 4.0.

Elliott's 2017 was tumultuous off the field, and from a production standpoint on the field, he wasn't quite as dominant as he was as a rookie in 2016. However, Elliott didn't see much of a drop-off as a pure runner, especially when he got into a groove after the first few weeks of the season. As a rookie, Elliott averaged 4.4 yards after defenders closed within 1 yard of him, and he made a repeat appearance in the top 10 in 2017, with an even 4.0 average. The bigger issue for the Cowboys' run game lay with turnover and injuries on the offensive line. Elliott averaged 0.6 yards gained before defenders closed within a yard in 2016, but fell to 0.06 this season. (The NFL average is 0.29.)

Jay Ajayi

YGAC: 4.0.

The Dolphins apparently grew tired of Ajayi this season, shipping him off to Philadelphia -- and a road straight to the Super Bowl. Ajayi didn't have the eye-popping, headline-grabbing 200-yard games that marked his 2016 campaign, but he was once again a strong pure runner, especially with the Eagles. He arrived in Philadelphia averaging 3.51 yards after close, ranking 21st at the time among running backs with 60-plus carries -- and he clawed his way into the top 10 by season's end, getting within range of his 2016 figure (4.41). Ajayi could be in line for another big year if he's fully integrated into Doug Pederson's offense next season.

Marshawn Lynch

YGAC: 3.99.

The Oakland Raiders were one of the most disappointing teams in 2017, and their supposedly talented offense was a primary culprit for the letdown. As such, the return of Lynch to the NFL, while a popular offseason storyline, amounted to a largely forgettable footnote. However, Lynch's 3.99 average yards gained after defenders closed within 1 yard of him shows he still has some juice left. Not surprisingly, considering he was retired in 2016, Lynch took a few months to heat up and got better as the year went on. Four of his five best performances, according to this metric, came after Week 8. If new head coach Jon Gruden can keep the Raiders competitive in more games next season, the team could feature Lynch more. The veteran cleared 18 carries just three times all year.

Todd Gurley

YGAC: 3.97.

Gurley was perhaps the most improved player in the NFL in 2017. There's no question that a strengthened offensive ecosystem under rookie head coach Sean McVay and a retooled O-line were catalysts to a rebound season, but Gurley also just straight-up ran better in 2017. In the year prior, Gurley averaged a measly 3.25 yards gained after defenders closed within a yard of him, ranking second-to-last among backs with over 100 carries, but he leapt up to 3.97 this year. That was one of the largest jumps between the last two years. Gurley came off the first five weeks of 2017 averaging just 3.18 yards after close, but finished the year white hot. Truly elite backs not only survive handling a heavy workload but heat up as the season wears on. Gurley firmly established himself as a member of that camp this season.

C.J. Anderson

YGAC: 3.96.

Even as the Broncos cycled from one insufficient quarterback option to another, Anderson turned in a career year, playing in 16 games for the first time in his five seasons as a pro and racking up 1,007 rushing yards. Anderson averaged 3.96 yards after defenders closed within a yard of him this year. When he's running hot, Anderson is one of the more difficult backs to bring down. The issue for him has always been consistency. He'll go through stretches where he seems to disappear for one reason or another, and this deep into his career, that's just who we should expect him to be. With no dead money left on his deal and the team looking to retool its offense, the Broncos could move on from the veteran back. If so, his bowling-ball style would make him a fine addition to another team's backfield stable.


Alvin Kamara and Kenyan Drake fell below the 175-carry minimum to qualify for this list, but otherwise, they were star-level performers in this metric. Drake took over as Miami's feature back a few weeks after Ajayi was shipped out of town and instantly started tearing through defenses. The second-year back averaged 4.55 yards after defenders closed within 1 yard of him in 2017, proving to be tough for other teams to tackle. He will be a popular candidate to have a breakout season in 2018. Kamara was the most difficult back to bring down in the league this past year. He averaged 4.76 rushing yards gained after close, more than any other back with triple-digit carries. If he can maintain anything close to that level of rushing effectiveness, combined with his receiving prowess, Kamara's potential is through the roof.

Alex Collins was one the surprise players in the NFL this season, and he would rank 11th, behind Anderson on this list, with 3.91 average yards gained after defenders closed within 1 yard. The Seattle castoff nearly hit 1,000 yards with the Ravens and broke tackles at will in his second NFL season. Collins closed 2017 on a low note with fewer than 80 yards in each of his final three games, but he gave Baltimore's offense an identity early in the year, when it was struggling to find one.

Given that Le'Veon Bell is one of the three or four best backs in the NFL today, his absence from this list may come as a surprise. Bell has averaged 3.94 and 3.71 yards after defenders closed within 1 yard of him in each of the last two seasons. His unique running style may have something to do with his less-than-elite marks in elusiveness. As is well-known, Bell spends more time behind the line of scrimmage than any other player, and Pittsburgh has adapted its entire offensive line to accommodate for that. As such, he doesn't necessarily have to break close-quarter tackles at nearly the same rate as his peers, because he sets up his runs so far in advance.

LeSean McCoy was one of the most elusive backs in the NFL in 2016, averaging 3.96 yards after defenders closed within 1 yard. While he still enjoyed a fine season, McCoy was far easier to bring down in 2017, with his YGAC falling to 3.29. That drop-off between the last two seasons was one of the largest among backs with over 100 carries in both years. The Bills' offensive line deserves plenty of credit for keeping their run game going, as they allowed their backs to gain 0.69 yards before defenders closed within a yard, trailing only the Saints.

Follow Matt Harmon on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB.



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