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The NFL Rushers And Receivers Who Are Carrying Their Teams

More than in any other sport, in football, individual statistics reflect a player’s environment as well as that player’s individual talent. A running back can be hamstrung by a poor offensive line, and a wide receiver can’t do much if his quarterback can’t get him the ball. While there’s no one advanced stat that can perfectly contextualize individual performance within a team environment, there are a few that do a pretty good job. Today, we’ll look at four stats that help demonstrate a player’s contribution to his team.

Yards from scrimmage … as a percentage of team yards

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David Johnson has been remarkable this season: He was my midseason choice for Offensive Player of the Year, in part because he had gained at least 100 yards from scrimmage in every game to that point. He has maintained that streak since then and is now just the second player since at least 1950 to hit the century mark in each of his team’s first 11 games.

Johnson leads the league in yards from scrimmage with 1,534, but he also leads the league in percentage of team scrimmage yards. He’s gained 35.8 percent of all Cardinals yards this year, making him one of only three players to gain at least 30 percent of his team’s yards:

PLAYER TEAM TEAM YARDS PLAYER YARDS PLAYER SHARE
1 David Johnson Cardinals 4,290 1,534 35.8%
2 Ezekiel Elliott Cowboys 4,573 1,502 32.8
3 Melvin Gordon Chargers 4,225 1,273 30.1
4 DeMarco Murray Titans 4,716 1,352 28.7
5 Spencer Ware Chiefs 3,769 1,077 28.6
6 Lamar Miller Texans 3,638 1,032 28.4
7 Le’Veon Bell Steelers 4,136 1,136 27.5
8 Todd Gurley Rams 3,431 882 25.7
9 LeSean McCoy Bills 3,877 994 25.6
10 Matt Forte Jets 3,784 961 25.4
11 Jordan Howard Bears 3,984 1,008 25.3
12 Mike Evans Buccaneers 4,153 1,020 24.6
Players with the highest share of team scrimmage yards, 2016

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Some other players stand out here despite less impressive raw totals. Kansas City’s Spencer Ware plays on a low-octane Chiefs offense, but he’s a big driver behind any success the offense has. Ware is averaging 4.7 yards per carry; all other Kansas City backs are averaging just 3.5 yards per rush. And Ware has averaged 12.4 yards per target, compared to just 6.5 on passes to all other players.

Also note the presence of Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell high on the list, despite the fact that he missed the first three games of the season. Since returning from suspension in Week 4, Bell has gained an impressive 37.6 percent of all Steelers yards from scrimmage. When he’s active, no team relies on one player like the Steelers do with Bell, who’s been used heavily in both running and passing plays — he ranks third in the league in receptions per game and second in rushing yards per game.

Percentage of team carries

How many yards a player averages per carry is subject to a lot of random variation, making yards per carry one of the most overrated stats in football. And the number of carries a team has in a game is often the result of what’s happening on the scoreboard. But how often a team chooses to hand off to a particular running back — as a percentage of all handoffs to running backs — says a lot about how much his team trusts him relative to the other backs on the team.

While L.A.’s Todd Gurley has had a frustrating year, he leads the league in this metric. Rams running backs have rushed 227 times this year, and 200 of those carries were given to Gurley. The Rams aren’t a good team, so they can’t afford to run as frequently as teams like the Cowboys, but the Los Angeles coaches still have a ton of faith in Gurley (or perhaps they just have very little faith in the other Rams backs):

TEAM RUSHES
PLAYER TEAM HANDED TO PLAYER HANDED TO ANY RUNNING BACK PLAYER SHARE
1 Todd Gurley Rams 200 227 88.1%
2 Melvin Gordon Chargers 234 273 85.7
3 Frank Gore Colts 178 211 84.4
4 LeGarrette Blount Patriots 212 259 81.9
5 David Johnson Cardinals 210 261 80.5
6 Matt Forte Jets 202 252 80.2
7 Ezekiel Elliott Cowboys 243 311 78.1
8 DeMarco Murray Titans 229 301 76.1
9 Lamar Miller Texans 211 284 74.3
10 Christine Michael Packers 118 163 72.4
11 Isaiah Crowell Browns 145 202 71.8
12 Jay Ajayi Dolphins 161 233 69.1
Running backs handed the highest share of team rushes, 2016

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

The Colts’ Frank Gore and Patriots’ LeGarrette Blount are overshadowed by playing alongside star quarterbacks in Andrew Luck and Tom Brady, but don’t overlook how important those players are to their teams. Indianapolis has only given three carries per game to other running backs, while the Patriots are calling Blount’s number 81.9 percent of the time when handing off to a back. And Chargers second-year back Melvin Gordon ranks second in this category, after ranking third in our first metric. He’s having a remarkable bounce-back year after struggling as a rookie.

Receiving share of targets

Antonio Brown and Julio Jones are the two biggest stars at the wide receiver position. Brown leads the league in receptions, and Jones ranks first in receiving yards, a year after the duo far outpaced the rest of the league in those same two categories. But the Steelers’ Brown and the Falcons’ Jones also benefit from playing with a pair of star quarterbacks in, respectively, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan.

The passing games in Pittsburgh and Atlanta revolve around their star receivers, of course: Brown has accounted for 28.8 percent of all Steelers targets this season, and Jones is at 27.6 percent for the Falcons. Those are great numbers, but not quite good enough for No. 1.

PLAYER TEAM TEAM TARGETS PLAYER TARGETS PLAYER SHARE
1 Mike Evans Buccaneers 410 132 32.2%
2 Antonio Brown Steelers 417 120 28.8
3 Emmanuel Sanders Broncos 362 104 28.7
4 Julio Jones Falcons 370 102 27.6
5 Jarvis Landry Dolphins 321 88 27.4
6 Julian Edelman Patriots 364 99 27.2
7 DeAndre Hopkins Texans 386 102 26.4
8 Odell Beckham Giants 407 107 26.3
9 Terrelle Pryor Browns 415 109 26.3
10 Brandon Marshall Jets 371 97 26.1
11 T.Y. Hilton Colts 402 103 25.6
12 Demaryius Thomas Broncos 362 92 25.4
13 A.J. Green Bengals 382 95 24.9
14 Larry Fitzgerald Cardinals 442 109 24.7
15 Jordy Nelson Packers 432 105 24.3
16 Michael Crabtree Raiders 408 99 24.3
17 Allen Robinson Jaguars 430 104 24.2
18 Amari Cooper Raiders 408 98 24.0
19 Greg Olsen Panthers 370 88 23.8
20 Stefon Diggs Vikings 371 87 23.5
21 Jeremy Kerley 49ers 345 78 22.6
22 Golden Tate Lions 377 84 22.3
23 Jordan Matthews Eagles 382 85 22.3
24 Kelvin Benjamin Panthers 370 81 21.9
25 Kenny Britt Rams 367 80 21.8
Receivers with the highest share of team targets, 2016

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

No wide receiver is a bigger part of his team’s passing offense than Mike Evans is for the Buccaneers. And you may have noticed his name on the first table too — he was the only wide receiver to rank in the top 12 in percentage of team yards (all the others are running backs). Evans had a dominant game in Week 12 against Seattle, helping Tampa Bay pull off the upset: He was targeted on 39.3 percent of Tampa Bay’s 28 pass attempts and caught eight passes for 104 yards and two touchdowns.

The Broncos’ Emmanuel Sanders beat out Jones for third on this list, despite playing with an inexperienced passer in Trevor Siemian, the 250th pick in last year’s draft. Denver doesn’t pass very often, but when they do, Siemian tends to look toward Sanders, who is quietly having a phenomenal year. Sanders, like Evans, was one of the stars of Week 12: In a losing effort, he caught seven of 10 targets for 162 yards and a touchdown.

First downs per route run

Gaining a first down is one of the most important things a wide receiver can do, and he has a chance at it whenever he runs a route. Yards per route run is the wide receiver version of yards per pass, but by replacing yards with first downs in the numerator, we can focus on a less-popular (but very important) statistic that shows us which guys move the chains.

Evans ranks first in this category1: He has picked up a first down on a remarkable 15.3 percent of his routes. One reason for that is that Evans runs deeper routes, and he easily leads the league with 62 first-down receptions (no other player has more than 50).

PLAYER TEAM FIRST-DOWN RECEPTIONS ROUTES RUN RECEPTIONS PER ROUTE RUN
1 Mike Evans Buccaneers 62 406 15.3%
2 Cole Beasley Cowboys 39 281 13.9
3 Julio Jones Falcons 49 361 13.6
4 Tyreek Hill Chiefs 23 171 13.5
5 Jordan Reed Redskins 38 298 12.8
6 A.J. Green Bengals 41 337 12.2
7 Stefon Diggs Vikings 39 321 12.1
8 Antonio Brown Steelers 50 428 11.7
9 Greg Olsen Panthers 41 362 11.3
10 Kelvin Benjamin Panthers 37 328 11.3
11 C.J. Fiedorowicz Texans 23 204 11.3
12 Michael Thomas Saints 43 383 11.2
Receivers with the most first-down receptions per route run, 2016

Among players with at least 20 receiving first downs

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

But a few other players are worth mentioning. Cole Beasley plays on a run-heavy offense, but when the Cowboys pass, the team is extremely efficient. One reason for that is Beasley, who is adept at getting first downs.

Jordan Reed and Stefon Diggs have each missed two games this season, depressing their raw numbers, but both players fare well in this metric. Reed leads all tight ends, while Diggs ranks seventh overall despite suffering from poor quarterback play.

Footnotes

  1. Among players with at least 20 receiving first downs.

Chase Stuart writes about football statistics and history at FootballPerspective.com

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