The explosive play is the most valued one in the NFL. It's been that way since the game's inception. After all, who doesn't like a big play that could put points on the board?
Next Gen Stats helps us track explosive plays with a combination of metrics, including distance and speed measurements, among others. I've taken a close look at the top runners in these categories to compile a list of the most explosive runners in the NFL from the 2021 season.
In order to qualify for this list, runners must have had a minimum of 100 carries in 2021 and at least 20 or more carries of 10-plus yards. From there, we examined the total number and percentage of 15-plus mph runs as the defining measurement of an explosive run. I'm looking for the runners who made significant gains most often, and these requirements provide clarity in such a task.
To review, here are our three criteria:
- A minimum of 100 carries in 2021.
- At least 20 carries of 10-plus yards.
- The defining metrics: the total number and percentage of 15-plus mph runs.
You might notice one absent player here: After headlining this list last year, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray didn't make the cut because he only finished with eight rushes of 10-plus yards.
As for the rest, well ... let's dive in.
- 10+ yard runs: 21
- 10+ pct: 8.8%
- 15+ mph runs: 38
- 15+ mph pct: 15.8%
With the Saints attempting to fight through the loss of their starting quarterback and top receiver in 2021, Kamara was their lifeline. He set career highs in touches (287) and carries (240). Unfortunately for the Saints, though, it seemed defenses were well aware of the offense's limitations.
Kamara finished with -133 rush yards over expected in 2021, the lowest mark in the NFL, including -106 RYOE versus a stacked box (eight or more defenders). Interestingly, even as Kamara often seemed to be New Orleans' best weapon, his targets dropped significantly from 107 in 2020 to 67 in 2021. However, his target rate was 28.3 percent, the second-highest among all running backs (minimum 200 routes run), further emphasizing how much the Saints knew he was their best option.
As for explosiveness, Kamara, still posted a 15-plus mph rate north of 15 percent and ripped off 21 runs of 10-plus yards, even with an entire defense often keying on him. He finished with the sixth-most yards after the catch among running backs (445) and gained 634 of his 898 rushing yards outside the tackle box. Also, he finished with 759 rushing yards after contact. That's nearly 85 percent of his entire rushing total.
- 10+ yard runs: 24
- 10+ pct: 9.3%
- 15+ mph runs: 38
- 15+ mph pct: 14.7%
Commanders coach Ron Rivera waxed poetic last month about the benefits of a committee backfield entering 2022, but in 2021, Gibson received the vast majority of carries, finishing with 258 for 1,037 yards (4.0 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns. He served as the bell cow for Washington, helping keep the offense on schedule. He posted a 44.6 percent success rate on runs (percentage of carries resulting in positive expected points added), second only to Jonathan Taylor among running backs on this list.
He operated largely out of the shotgun, gaining the sixth-most rushing yards against light boxes (six or fewer defenders in the box) among running backs. Also, Gibson figured into Washington's passing game prominently, with the second-most targets (16) on screen passes among RBs, catching 15 of them (second-most) and gaining the third-most yards (121).
Washington's offensive struggles certainly didn't help Gibson's overall production, but the explosiveness was still visible in his 38 15-plus mph runs and 24 10-plus-yard runs. Perhaps he'll benefit from the Commanders having more options in 2022.
- 10+ yard runs: 29
- 10+ pct: 14%
- 15+ mph runs: 39
- 15+ mph pct: 18.8%
Are we really surprised a running back from Kyle Shanahan's offense ended up here?
Mitchell became the apple of the 49ers faithful's eye in 2021, proving he was capable of ripping off the big play while powering San Francisco's rushing attack with 963 yards in just 11 games (10 starts). It didn't matter if defenses loaded up to stop him: Mitchell averaged 4.8 yards per rush versus stacked boxes, the third-highest rate behind only Nick Chubb and AJ Dillon (min. 25 such carries). He also gained +122 rushing yards over expected, the best among rookie running backs and sixth among all backs.
Mitchell proved to be a threat on the perimeter, gaining +170 RYOE outside the tackles (third among running backs). He packed a punch, too, gaining 4.1 yards per carry after contact, good for fifth in the league. And he's just getting started.
- 10+ yard runs: 24
- 10+ pct: 18%
- 15+ mph runs: 49
- 15+ mph pct: 36.8%
This is what we've come to expect from Jackson, the 2019 MVP and most important player in Baltimore. The main reason he landed seventh here, though, is because Baltimore tried to establish better offensive balance in 2021, limiting his rushing production a bit.
Jackson still finished with +269 rushing yards over expected, tying for the third-most league-wide and ranking second among quarterbacks behind only Josh Allen. The difference in his production compared with past years speaks to that offensive adjustment (and the injury that sidelined him for the final month of the season). Jackson went from a best-ever +631 RYOE in 2019 and +431 in 2020 to +269 last season. Meanwhile, Baltimore went from having the 32nd-ranked passing offense in 2020 to ranking 13th in the NFL in 2021.
Jackson still finished with 49 15-plus mph runs and 24 10-plus-yard runs, and tied for the most first downs gained over expected with 17. He just wasn't quite as jaw-droppingly effective as he was in past years.
- 10+ yard runs: 26
- 10+ pct: 8.9%
- 15+ mph runs: 51
- 15+ mph pct: 17.5%
On one hand, Mixon is indeed an explosive rusher. His 51 15-plus mph runs and 26 10-plus-yard rushes prove that. At the same time, he's a runner who didn't gain much more than expected in 2021. Sure, he finished with the second-most rushing yards after contact last season (1,054), but he gained only one rushing yard over expected for the entire season. He also tied for the fifth-fewest average yards gained before contact in 2021, making the 15-plus mph runs a bit of an outlier.
Mixon rushed for 901 yards outside the tackles, the third most in the league. He is essentially a runner who wins by getting to and around the perimeter before taking off. It's a slow build, but it can be devastating -- and blinding, judging by his three carries that reached a top speed of 20-plus mph (tied for third-most in the NFL).
- 10+ yard runs: 28
- 10+ pct: 23%
- 15+ mph runs: 51
- 15+ mph pct: 41.8%
Allen headlined our first installment in the NGS series this offseason, landing atop the best deep passers in the NFL. However, to truly understand why Allen makes the Bills so dangerous, we have to look beyond his arm.
Allen finished second in rushing yards gained over expected with +310, trailing only Jonathan Taylor, and he ranked among the top five on designed quarterback runs in a number of categories: carries (third), yards (third), touchdowns (tied for fourth) and rush yards over expected (fourth).
Allen posted the second-best pressure evasion rate in the NFL (24.3 percent) while also carrying the ball on scrambles 50 times (third most) for a league-high 494 yards and 210 RYOE. His 54.9 rushing expected points added were the most among quarterbacks, proving he's not just dangerous with his arm -- his legs are scary, too.
- 10+ yard runs: 41
- 10+ pct: 18%
- 15+ mph runs: 46
- 15+ mph pct: 20.2%
Cleveland's wide zone scheme appears to be a perfect fit for Chubb. He led the NFL in 10-plus-yard runs outside the tackles in 2021 with 39, gaining the most rushing yards over expected on such attempts (+324). It's where Chubb butters his bread.
Loading the box with defenders against Chubb doesn't work out too well because of his elusiveness and physicality as a runner. He gained a league-leading +109 RYOE versus stacked boxes (eight or more defenders) last season, and that was while sharing a backfield with an injured Baker Mayfield, who didn't strike much fear in the hearts of opposing defenses. The same style of running helped Chubb post the highest 10-plus-yard rush rate in the NFL among non-quarterbacks at 18 percent, and the second-highest yards gained after contact per rush at 4.5. Chubb continues to be deceptively fast, too, finishing second in rushes of 20-plus mph among running backs with five.
- 10+ yard runs: 36
- 10+ pct: 14.5%
- 15+ mph runs: 54 (2nd-most in NFL, most among RBs)
- 15+ mph pct: 21.7%
When Cook receives the handoff, he's proceeding forward with a full head of steam.
Cook gained 1.6 yards before contact per carry in 2021, tied for fourth among RBs, and it paid off nicely for the Vikings. He ranked first with 12 15-plus mph rushes inside the tackles, and tied for second with 14 10-plus-yard rushes inside the tackles.
Cook’s 36 10-plus-yard runs are nothing to scoff at, and neither is a 15-plus mph percentage above 21. The only issue holding Cook back on this list is he ranked 12th in rushing yards over expected with just 81, far behind the likes of even Seattle's Rashaad Penny, who didn’t qualify for this list because he posted fewer than 20 10-plus-yard runs. Cook’s initial impact is easy to see, as is the gross production -- it's just the little extra (rush yards over expected) that's missing here.
- 10+ yard runs: 50
- 10+ pct: 15.1%
- 15+ mph runs: 48
- 15+ mph pct: 14.5%
Sifting through the NGS data made it even more clear that Taylor was the best running back in football last season. He led all RBs in rush yards over expected (481), rushes of 20-plus miles per hour (six), rush yards after contact (1,418), first downs gained via rushing (107), first downs gained over expectation via rushing (+16) and yards per rush against light boxes with 6.8, which is a single-season record in the NGS era (since 2016; min. 100 such carries). The only reason Taylor isn't atop this list is because we're talking about the most explosive players, and his total of 15-plus-mph runs pales in comparison to that of the player ranked No. 1 on this list.
Regardless, Taylor is spectacular. Posting 50 10-plus-yard runs is truly astounding, as was the rest of Taylor's 2021 campaign. If it serves as a predictor of things to come, we should get used to seeing Taylor's name at or near the top of this list each year.
- 10+ yard runs: 29
- 10+ pct: 20.9%
- 15+ mph runs: 78 (most in NFL)
- 15+ mph pct: 56.1%
Philadelphia found itself in a bit of an offensive rut in 2021 before reimagining itself as a run-first, dual-threat attack with Hurts leading the way. From there, the Eagles, well, took flight, with Hurts using his abilities to keep defenses guessing. The shift in philosophy produced the league's top rushing offense.
Hurts led the league in designed QB runs (72), rushing yards gained on such runs (377) and yards per carry on such runs (5.2, min. 30 such runs). In addition, his 146 rush yards gained over expected, eight touchdowns scored and 11 first downs gained over expected on such runs led the league. So did Hurts' +20 rushing expected points added on designed QB runs.
Philadelphia's offensive identity has set an expectation for which every defense must prepare. It's not just about containing Hurts' arm; they'll have to plan to stop his running, too (and it's not just Hurts -- his teammate, Miles Sanders, nearly made this list, as well).