Arif Hasan's mid-season review (Running Backs)


Well, I slowed myself down a bit with all the stadium talk, and then I took a nap. So, this one’s coming in a bit later than I planned. Luckily, there are only two more offensive positions to write for before turning my head towards the defense. Maybe I’ll do special teams afterwards.

So we find ourselves discussing probably the least controversial aspect of our team – something we’ve prided ourselves for years on, the running back. Honestly, the biggest difficulty here is figuring out how to evaluate Jim Kleinsasser – should I put him in the Tight Ends article or the Running Back article as a Fullback? In the end, his roster position is a tight end, so I’ll wait until then, knowing he has taken many snaps in the fullback position. Here, I’ll attempt to evaluate Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart, and Lorenzo Booker (non-returning), and Ryan D’Imperio.

Let’s start out by discussing the face of the franchise.



HB: Adrian Peterson – All-Pro, Pro-Bowl, Future HoF Workhorse. He’s Purple Jesus. What can I say?

Grade: A+

OK, that’s copping out. Let me get down and grind out the stats. Running back stats are really easy to come by, although they’ve gotten slightly more complicated with the ready addition and deployment of catching receivers. Typically, the most difficult thing to do with a running back is separating them from their line play. We know that backs like Adrian Peterson put up gaudy numbers regardless of their line play, but what of the Ben Tates, Rashard Mendenhalls, and Donald Browns of the league? Well, Football Outsiders created a metric to evaluate overall line play on the run. They give the line more than full credit for runs for a loss (120%), full credit for runs 0-4 yards, half credit for 5-10 yards, and no credit for 11 yards on. It’s an interesting concept, but then they muck it up by throwing more in there – “These numbers are then adjusted based on down, distance, situation, opponent, and the difference in rushing average between shotgun compared to standard formations. Finally, we normalize the numbers so that the league average for Adjusted Line Yards per carry is the same as the league average for RB yards per carry.”

That may increase its accuracy in comparing lines to each other, but it’s hard for me to take the stat and play with it enough to determine the actual amount of running that an explosive back like AP does, and what he perhaps should be credited for.

I didn’t really like that, so instead I took their power run success percentages (which are probably correctly generally attributed to the line) and also their stuffed success percentages. The power run success percentages are just how often a team successfully converts on 3rd and short and 4th on short on the run (defined as 2 yards or fewer). Stuff success is just how often a run gets aborted for no gain or a loss. What I found interesting was that while the Vikings were generally successful at 3rd and short situations, and 4th and short situations (ranked 3rd in the NFL), we also get stuffed a lot – exactly as much as an average NFL team. The difference is sort of shocking; the average difference in the percentages was 42%, and standard deviation from that average was 9%. That is, 68% of all teams in the data set will differ in their power and stuff percentages by 33-51 points. 95% of teams, generally, will differ in their percentages 24-60 points. We are the 5 percent (#OccupyTheRunGame). Or we would be, if it was completely normally distributed. Only two teams in the NFL have a greater discrepancy of excellent and poor line play. It’s shockingly inconsistent.

It’s not really a surprise if you’re watching the games. In the Chiefs and Lions game, our run blocking was a clinic in What Not to Do. The only consistently good run-blocker has been Loadholt, and defenses had already figured out that AP likes rushing to the right – 40% of his runs have been off the right end, the right tackle, or between the right guard and the right tackle. 26.5% of his runs have been to the outsides, towards the sideline. By comparison, 30% of his runs are up the middle and 30% of his runs are to the left. Compare to McCoy who has 45% of his runs to the left (Jason Peters), 21% up the middle, and a third of his runs to the right 35% of his runs are to the outside. Matt Forte has 21% of his runs up the middle and an astonishing 56% of his runs are to the sideline (can’t trust that line…). That makes 41% of his runs go to the right and 38% of his runs to the left. Fred Jackson is a bit more of a traditionalist, with 38% of his runs up the middle, with a third of his runs going left and 19% of his runs going right. Fred Jackson has a more spread out line (which lines up 6 inches further apart than is common on many snaps) and also doesn’t have the sheer footspeed of AP or McCoy, so has fewer runs to the outside (16%).

When AP’s line is good, it’s really good. When it’s bad, he gets stuffed on 1/5th of his runs.

Add to that that defenses change for different running backs. Matt Forte, Fred Jackson, and LeSean McCoy are the only running backs having anywhere near close to Adrian Peterson’s season. Fred Jackson leads the league in Yards after Contact, broken tackles per touch, and is second in the league in an extraordinary number of categories, including total yards per attempt. In fact, he is so consistently good, that if you took most major metrics of running back play, or took most unorthodox metrics of running back play, his average rank would crush the average rank of any other running back except Adrian Peterson – who runs a somewhat distant second. Matt Forte leads the league in yards from scrimmage, representing a true dual threat. Mike Martz has his new Marshall Faulk in his pass happy system. LeSean McCoy is second in the league in rushing, ties Adrian Peterson for RB touchdowns, and has the most yards per attempt of any running back. The interesting thing is, they all run out of completely different offenses.

Fred Jackson plays in Buffalo’s college spread offense. Matt Forte is the Bears offense. LeSean McCoy works out of an offense with dual running threats and big-play game (except the game against Dallas). He also has one of the best run blockers in the league – Jason Peters. Adrian Peterson plays with a short pass game.

What this functionally means is that each running back plays different defensive schema. Indeed, Adrian Peterson faces the most 8-man fronts in the league. 56 of his 167 attempts have been against stacked boxes. In those situations he averages 3.4 yards per carry, which leads the league in attempts against stacked boxes and in yards per attempted against stacked boxes for those over 20 attempts. When he’s in 7-man fronts, he averages an astonishing 5.6 yards per carry. He has 5 touchdowns when there are 8 man boxes. Really, it’s just the extraordinary amount of times he’s up against stacked defenses. LeSean McCoy (who leads the league in yards per carry), by comparison has had 17 attempts against 8 man boxes, averaging a mind-boggling 4.2 yards per carry in those situations (meaning he averages 5.8 yards otherwise). The problem, of course, is that when defenses account for McCoy’s run game, they have a single-safety look against a team with Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson. Jason Avant and Brent Celek are no slackers either.

In that sense, AP certainly enables the offense, by opening up the passing game. We unfortunately don’t have as much of a passing game as we would like to take full advantage of this. He is also one of the more consistent backs in the league – some statheads think having AP means you can be one of the only teams that can change the normal pass-run distribution to make you successful.

On interesting measure of the value of a running back is success rate – how often their runs can be considered “successes” – that is, plays on first downs that gain 45% of needed yardage, on 2nd downs that gain 60% of needed yardage and on 3rd down gain the rest are considered successes. This is much more sensitive to good line play than even yards per carry or yards after contact (it does not give any weight to large gains), so something interesting happens. LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte (who is a bit more immune to line play with all of those outside runs) and Fred Jackson rank 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in run success rate. Adrian Peterson ranks 20th. 10th if you include only backs with 100 snaps or more.

That makes sense. AP also ranks extremely low in yards gained from runs that are breakaways, also extremely sensitive to line play (as it treats all runs below 15 yards, including stuffs, as the same) and defensive fronts (7 men in the box will be much more likely to allow a breakaway run because twice as many plays are set deep). For backs with over 70 carries, AP ranks 13th. The only truly good running back I see on this list below him is Ray Rice, who really should be doing better with Birk as his center. He also has a smaller percentage of his runs turn into breakaways – 4.8%, compared to Forte (11%), McCoy (8.9%) and Jackson (8.3%). He ranks 16th in the league for backs over 70 carries in that percentage. I am, incidentally, much more willing to give Forte credit for his breakaways than McCoy or Jackson, simply because a) defenses know he will run to the outside and b) these runs to the outside are enabled by his speed. Jackson and McCoy either have great lines and great schemes for running well. Incidentally, the average for backs with over 70 carries is 5.5%.

So despite terrible blocking by 3/5ths of the offensive line, Adrian Peterson has managed to have the 2nd highest yards per attempt and the most rushing yards in the league. He also has the most rushing touchdowns in the league.

Oh, remember Chris Johnson? Plagued by poor decision-making (I mean ON the field) and by extremely poor line play, his breakaway percentage has been 1.8%. He ranks 37th of 38 backs with over 70 carries in success rate. He ranks 38th in that same set in yards per carry. His line has the third worst stuff percentage in the league (25%) and his line is considered by Football Outsiders’ odd metric as the worst run line in the league. He perhaps should have held out for a smaller contract and better offensive linemen.

As a receiving running back, AP holds his own. He ranks second in the league in catch rate for running backs with 15 targets. There are some tabulation problems with “pass routes run” (not all play actions are pass routes or blocking assignments. They are an unpredictable split of the two) so I won’t really use it here, but unsurprisingly, Matt Forte ranks first. AP averages 7.3 yards per carry, or 22nd of all backs with 15 or more targets. We saw flashes during the Carolina game that we would be throwing to him more, but as of right now he’s 26th in the league in reception targets. He’s not as dynamic a catching back as Sproles, Forte, or Rice, but he rarely drops the ball and his catches are consistent (they tend to be successes). His passes tend to be shorter (10 between 0-9 yards, 7 behind the line of scrimmage, no others) and the amount he gets after the catch is pretty absolutely high (92.7%), but relatively low considering he doesn’t get too many catches behind the line (of all running backs who have been targeted twice or more, 42 of them get more yards after the catch than total yardage). LeSean McCoy leads these rankings of backs with more than 15 targets with 142% of his credited yardage coming after the catch. Matt Forte runs many more traditional passing routes, with 65% of his targets beyond the line of scrimmage. He has 91.8% of his yards after the catch.

As a blocking back, AP could do better. His pass blocking has varied a lot game-by-game, including a pretty good performance against Chicago’s formidable pass rush and an “equally” pretty bad performance against San Diego. He should have done better against Carolina and Arizona as a blocker and did well against Tampa Bay. He has given up one sack so far this year. His performance this year is miles ahead of his blocking performance last year, where he gave up significantly more QB hits and pressures, including an awful game against the Arizona Cardinals. He is certainly getting better, but he’s not as good at blocking as some of the other primary backs in the league, like Fred Jackson, Ahmad Bradshaw (an amazingly good blocking back) and Arian Foster (an improvement over last year by far). Matt Forte is a terrible blocking back, but to be fair, he’s not asked to do it a lot in Martz’s offense. That’s what tight ends are for. Tight Ends block, Running Backs receive. Get it right.

Incidentally, I would say that Reggie Bush is the worst all-around back in this league. He can’t run, catch, or block. Montario Hardesty sees as much time as him and is probably worse, but I have to give this one to Bush because of the big name and was the primary back in a Super Bowl winning team. C’mon, guy.

Adrian Peterson is the best pure runner in the league. Defenses do more to stop him than any other running back, including dual threats in nonthreatening offenses – Frank Gore and Matt Forte. Adrian Peterson accomplished the 2nd highest yards per carry and the highest total rushing yardage behind a worse line and with defenses more keyed to him than anyone else. He needs to work on his block and his passing game leaves a little to be desired. While offensive schemes are helping Forte, Jackson, and McCoy, AP is the only one helping himself.

Grade: A+.

This year’s running back class does not curve well for me, though. I would give Forte an A+ as well and Jackson and McCoy, an A. I could see arguments for others, like Mathews and McFadden getting an A, but not a very good argument.

HB: Toby Gerhart ­– Good, but not enough for 4th and 1. As the second back on the roster, he lines up in the fullback position as a lead blocker or a split back. He will also line up as the primary back when AP needs rest (limiting AP to about 30 carries a game is prudent, I would say). His primary responsibilities are therefore a bit different – when he’s on the field, he won’t necessarily be asked to gain yards.

But let’s look at that first, anyway. If you allow for small sample size, Gerhart ranks 12th in the league in yards per carry for all running backs with any amount of carries. My sense is that he’s gotten this off of bigger runs and is less consistent than AP. Yards gained from breakaway runs are 31% of his running yardage. His breakaway percentage is about league average, with 5.8% of his runs going for breakaways (that is, one of his runs). Yea, that one 31-yard gain has helped his numbers out a lot. Without it, he averages 4.3 yards per carry. That isn’t bad, except the only time he’s seen an 8 man box was on 4th and 1. Ahem. His running style is similar to Adrian Peterson, so he’s not a change of pace back, like Michael Bush is to Darren McFadden.

Toby Gerhart’s success rate is slightly better than Adrian Peterson’s (there’s the opposing defensive alignment, screwing our numbers up again) at 41.7%.  He ranks 71 of all backs in Yards after Contact per attempt, with 2.2. 38% of his yards came after contact. He doesn’t tend to run up the middle very often (17.6%) and a little more to the left (35.3%). His runs to the right (47.1%) are the most successful, with runs off of Loadholt averaging 6.6 yards a carry, and comprising 38% of his yards. He runs to the outside occasionally (35.3%), averaging 8.7 yards a carry, generally with a good pull from Herrerra, Berger, or Hutch.

As a pass blocker, Gerhart has as many snaps as a runner – 17. He’s only given up one pressure and it was a QB hurry, with no sacks or QB hits. He picks up blitzes pretty well and more importantly, has good technique when the line breaks down.

More importantly, his run blocking is sound. With 44 snaps as neither a runner or a pass blocker, Gerhart has had a lot of opportunities to block for AP (some of these snaps are play-action pass routes, others are snaps without AP on the field – occasional reverses. Apparently, some of these snaps are just to have two back sets). In these situations, he doesn’t make too many mistakes, but is not stellar, either. He generally picks up his assignment, doesn’t let them go too early and not much else. All in all, a pretty average run blocker, with no standout games in either direction. His game against Tampa Bay was probably his best overall game, with 9 snaps – 2 carries for 36 yards (this was the game with his 31 yard gain), 1 run blocking snap, 3 pass blocking snaps, and 3 pass routes (1 reception for 42 yards. Woo). He was also listed as a starter for the game, taking Harvin’s place on the opening snap (Percy ended with 33 snaps in the game, out of a total of 69 offensive snaps).  This consistent performance has him as the 28th ranked blocking backing by Pro Football Focus. Overall, his performance is been in the bottom third of second-string running backs, but that’s not really fair given the running back committees of some teams (it’s hard to perform as a “2nd string” with as many carries in a non-running offense). If you assume that the “2nd stringers” in RBCs are more like 1st stringers, Gerhart is probably an average 2nd stringer.  Certainly some of the best success rates of the 2nd stringers, however.

Grade: B-. With bonuses given due to low snap counts and explosive plays. He’ll probably never be able to fill in like Ben Tate, Thomas Jones, or Brian Leonard (Or apparently DeMarco Murray. Ye Gods). He’s performing better than Marshawn Lynch and Steven Jackson, and if you heavily penalize fumbles, Maurice Jones-Drew. To be fair, all of those teams have to pass, as they play from behind often. And their abysmal passing games allow teams to key in on them. He’s not better than them.

HB: Lorenzo Booker – Whiz Kid. Having played a total of one game at Florida State with Christian Ponder, you can feel comfortable knowing that they come into these next 8 games with loads of chemistry. In actuality, he’s been a bit of a bust, ever since being drafted in the third round by the Dolphins. He was traded for a fourth round to the Eagles, then cut. He played in the UFL and had a good time of it, before protesting inconsistent transfer policies and being suspended. The Vikings picked him and the now-reduced transfer fee up in late 2010, and generally used him as a kick returner. This year, he sees more action on the field as a 3rd string running back with flighty speed. He ran a 4.42 40 many times reportedly, and is officially clocked in at 4.43. He had the fastest 10 yard split of all running backs, with a 1.46 second burst.

He has an average Yards Per Carry of 11.0 yards, making him the clear-and-away frontrunner for the MVP. Well, no obviously.  He has two carries. I remember both of them. One is a WR Reverse where he lined up as a split end or a slot receiver for 25 yards. The other is a run up the middle off of the left guard for a loss of 3. He has literally 0 yards after contact.

He’s been targeted three times and caught the ball twice, both in the Arizona game.  He has one reception behind the line of scrimmage (but still in the middle) for 10 yards, 15 of it after the catch. The other was also in the middle, but ahead of the line of scrimmage, catching it at the 5 yard line and running it another 5 after that. He has a total of 25 net yards, with 25 yards coming after the catch. He dropped a pass about 2 yards ahead of the line of scrimmage in the Green Bay game.

His pass blocking has been pretty good. He has been asked to block twice and has allowed no pressures. One of these blocks was great; he was ahead of the quarterback and picked up a broken block to his left, outside of what you would think is his peripheral vision, running back and putting in a nice low block to stop a sure sack. Unfortunately, I believe that play was an incompletion. He has literally only seen 13 snaps, but I liked what I saw. Given that I don’t have most HBs who are third stringers on my radar, I would say his performance has been pretty great for HBs seeing fewer than 70 snaps. Again RBCs make him seem worse by comparison, but then they probably should. He will never really start in the NFL, but I can think of teams that would like him as a #2.

Grade: B+.

Again, I should mention that even though he received a better grade than Gerhart, I am not saying Gerhart is a better back. There are about 50 running backs (maybe less) that are better than Lorenzo Booker, but I am again comparing him to his role on the team – there are not many teams that have this good of a 3rd string back. As New Orleans has 3 1.5 stringers and the Browns have no first stringers (come on Peyton Hillis – I had you on my TEAM), I think that’s fair.

FB: Ryan D’Imperio – Sorry, But He Has to Be Graded Like A Starter. Not even a starter for all of the season, and having twice experienced the Vikings practice squad, D’Imperio is no 12th man (Tahi). But he might be better. Tahi, who had one good run blocking game against Washington last year and 4 pretty terrible ones, has already been beaten by D’Imperio, who has no poor games, but no good ones either. Carolina was his worst showing, being asked to run block 13 times and letting one or two blocks cut the play a little short. He had a couple of good lead run blocks in that game, as well, so certainly not an all-negative showing by him. He doesn’t have a complicated job, and he does it without going to the next level.

He’s been asked to pass block 4 times out of his 48 snaps, and has allowed one QB hit (during the Chicago game). Given that Allen Reisner had better blocking in his one game lined up as a fullback (against Tampa Bay), than Ryan has ever had, D’Imperio is no blue chip (he is better than Reisner though, who is/was a tight end). Including tight ends who line up as fullbacks, there are probably 18-20 full backs better than D’Imperio and one or two fullbacks that don’t start for their teams that are probably better.

D’Imperio has been asked to go into passing routes 3 times and has no targets. He has no rush carries.

Grade: C- This is based on his per-snap performance. If it was an overall ranking, I would very easily give him a D+ because he is consistently outperformed by Kleinsasser and deservedly so. Yea, that’s still better than Tahi. What a tool. I’m not even penalizing Tahi for the 12th man business. He’s just not that good.

Also, you know who’s overrated? John Conner. Oof.

This FanPost was created by a registered user of The Daily Norseman, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the staff of the site. However, since this is a community, that view is no less important.

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