2019 midseason RB rankings: Frank Gore to the fore

Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey lead the way in the race for the rushing title, but it's an older head that leads the way in our PFN OSM 2019 midseason RB rankings as Oliver Hodgkinson explains.

As we head into another NFL Sunday, Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey lead the race to be crowned 2019 NFL rushing champion. The Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers running backs are separated by just two yards. On the surface, the two are having phenomenal seasons and seem crucial to the success of their team. However, how do they stack up in our 2019 PFN OSM midseason RB rankings?

While the quarterback position is arguably the most important position in football, the value of running backs in the league has been questioned in recent seasons. Often, if a running back is successful, the credit goes to the offensive line. If they fail, it’s squarely on their shoulders.

What defines a successful running back? Is it rushing yards? The number of touchdowns? Using Pro Football Network’s Offensive Share Metric and NFL Next Gen Stats, I’ll look at some of the good, bad, and surprising performances from our midseason RB rankings.

OSM determines how much of a team’s performance can be attributed to an individual. While most statistical analysis focuses purely on team performance, such as passing yards and completion percentage, where the statistics are the total of a combination of the efforts of multiple players, OSM isolates just the factors that an individual can control. As such, it gives an accurate indicator of an individual player’s contribution to their team.

OSM is graded out of 100, although it is near impossible to achieve this score. A grade of 40 or over can be considered an “elite” performance.

The Good

Frank Gore – 23.07

In a league where running backs are thought to be easily replaced by younger models, Frank Gore is a modern miracle. The ageless wonder leads the way in our midseason RB rankings.

Does he lead the league in rushing yards? Has he scored the most touchdowns? Is he a part of one of the most potent rushing offenses in the league?

The answer to all the above questions is no.

Gore ranks only 20th in rushing yards for a Buffalo Bills offense that ranks 14th in rushing yards.

Despite this, Gore has twice been the top-ranked running back in our OSM weekly rankings. No other running back has achieved that feat. He has also featured in the Top 10 on four separate occasions. In all bar one of those, the Bills have been victorious. The only defeat in those four weeks came at the hands of the New England Patriots in Week 4.

The reason that Gore is the highest graded running back is because of how he has had to get his 449 yards this season. No other running back has had to face a higher percentage of stacked box defenses than him this season. A stacked box defense is defined as a defensive front with eight or more defenders lined up on or near the line of scrimmage. Gore has had to face a stacked box defense on 41.44% of his snaps.

Usually, facing such a large percentage of stacked box defenses would hurt a running back’s efficiency, but not in Gore’s case. On average, he travels 3.5 yards to gain a yard, which is the 10th best of qualifying backs.

The Bills may have drafted a running back in the 2019 NFL Draft, but it’s their veteran who’s leading the way.

Leonard Fournette – 20.92

Fournette burst into the NFL with a phenomenal rookie campaign for the Jacksonville Jaguars. His second year, however, was a major disappointment. He was plagued with injury, and indiscipline saw him suspended for a game. Just two seasons into his career, some were writing him off as a bust.

After a quiet start to the 2019 NFL season, Fournette has come to life. He is ranked number four in our midseason RB rankings.

Two weeks stand out amongst the rest.

In the Week 7 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, Fournette was the highest-graded running back with an OSM grade of 29.51. Before that, his 22.57 grade in the Week 4 win over the Denver Broncos was good enough for the fourth-ranked running back. In the win over the Broncos, he rushed for a career-high 225 yards.

Like Gore, Fournette has had to find success the hard way this season. He has faced the 5th most stacked box defenses, with 36.21% of his snaps coming against a stacked box. He has always had the reputation of being a bulldozer of a runner, so it’s no surprise that it hasn’t impacted his efficiency too much, traveling 3.6 yards to gain a yard.

Further evidence of Fournette’s toughness as a runner can be found when looking at yards after contact. Fournette leads the league in the statistic, averaging 3.6 yards after contact. His closest rival is Derrick Henry, half a yard back. It doesn’t sound like much, but when you consider that seven running backs feature within half a yard of Henry’s mark, it shows how truly dominant Fournette is.

Minshew Mania has been sweeping the Jaguars. Maybe it should be Fournette Fever.

The Bad

Joe Mixon – 7.83

The OSM grade boundaries define anything from 0-10 as being a poor performance. It depicts a performance that is detrimental to the offensive production of the team.

Joe Mixon has four weekly grades that fall in that grade boundary.

Those four don’t include the two weeks where he had a negative grade. No one is disputing that the Bengals have been bad in 2019, but Mixon isn’t helping.

Let’s look at those two negative grade games.

The first was in Week 2. The Bengals took a beating at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers, 41-17. Mixon had 11 carries for 17 yards. Nine of those came on one run. He was the league’s most inefficient back with 8.65 traveled yards per 1 yard gained. This despite not facing any stacked-box defenses. It contributed to him receiving a -4.08 grade.

Worse was to come.

In the Week 7 loss to the Jaguars, Mixon received an OSM grade of -86.28. Not only was it the worst running back OSM grade of the season so far, but it came about by one of the worst efficiency ratings of the season too. Mixon traveled 72.19 yards per yard gained. He ended the night with 2 yards on ten carries.

Outside of those two games, his whole season has been a bleak observation. Only Le’Veon Bell has fewer yards per carry. Only DeVonta Freeman and Sony Michel have been less efficient.

A lot has gone wrong for the Bengals in 2019. Joe Mixon is one of those things.

David Johnson – 7.5

In three of his five previous seasons, Johnson has surpassed the 1000 scrimmage yards marker. In his breakout 2016 campaign, he looked like an unstoppable force on his way to 20 touchdowns, 1239 rushing yards, and 2118 total yards. Although he lost 2017 to injury, he had managed to stay healthy in 2018 and was expected to be a fantasy football darling once again in 2019.

Unfortunately for Johnson, and the Arizona Cardinals, that hasn’t been the case.

In our PFN OSM midseason RB rankings, he ranks 46th out of 47 qualifying running backs. Only teammate Chase Edmunds (7.36) is lower. In Edmunds defense, he only has one qualifying game. He also has a higher yards per carry average (5.1ypc vs. 3.7ypc).

Despite the Cardinals ranking as the 10th in total rushing yards, and 16th in rushing attempts, Johnson has been more successful as a receiver than he has as a conventional running back. Even quarterback, Kyler Murray, has more rushing yards than Johnson, despite the Cardinals having less than 40% of their snaps as designed rush plays.

Johnson has seen three games with an OSM grade within the poor boundary. In those games, they tied with the Detroit Lions, lost to the Panthers, and only narrowly beat a poor Bengals team.

What’s gone wrong for a player once considered the best back in the league?

Despite facing one of the lowest percentages of stacked box defenses (6.1% of snaps), he has been one of the least efficient backs in the league, traveling 4.24 yards to gain 1 yard.

For a player who was once unstoppable, Johnson has just three broken tackles and averages a meager 1.8 yards after contact.

It’s telling that the Cardinals felt the need to bring in Kenyan Drake to provide a running back by committee for the rest of the season.


Running back tandems

Outside of the Cardinals, several teams have used multiple running backs this season. Whether that is by design, or having it forced on them by injuries or other factors (see Melvin Gordon), some have been noticeably more successful than others.

Some of the biggest surprises from our OSM midseason RB rankings are how the backs involved in those tandems rank against each other.

Let’s start with Gordon and the Los Angeles Chargers. Gordon’s holdout was one of the major talking points of the pre-season and start of the season. The Chargers refused to pay Gordon what the running back believed he was due and started the season with Austin Ekeler in the backfield. Some still believe that Ekeler could have carried the Chargers rushing attack without Gordon. However, Ekeler has an OSM grade of 8.1, including a poor 4.64 grade from the Week 2 defeat to the Lions. Since returning to the Chargers, Gordon has an overall grade of 10.35, with his grade increasing each week.

Dalvin Cook leads the league in rushing yards. However, he doesn’t even lead the Minnesota Vikings in PFN OSM. Although Cook has been impressive, rookie Alexander Mattison is making better use of his opportunities. Mattison is our 3rd ranked running back, with an OSM grade of 22.00. He faces more stacked box defenses than Cook, yet he has been more efficient with the same yards per carry.

In San Francisco, the 49ers lead the league in rushing attempts (330) and rank third in total rushing yards (1456). They’ve done this on the back of an unheralded running back tandem. Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman both feature in the Top 10 of our midseason RB rankings, with grades of 19.81 and 19.62, respectively.

In the Week 8 annihilation of the Carolina Panthers, Coleman led all running backs with an OSM grade of 38.13. He has faced the second most stacked box defenses in the league this year, while Mostert leads the league in average yards per carry. When you throw Matt Breida into the mix, you have a truly imposing backfield. Breida is the 13th ranked running back with an OSM grade of 17.17.

Rookie running back rankings

A total of 25 running backs were drafted in the 2019 NFL Draft. Some of those will shine in the league, while some may never play an NFL snap. One of the biggest surprises comes in the rookie running back rankings.

Josh Jacobs has been a shining light for the Oakland Raiders this season. He leads all rookies in rushing yards by some margin.

However, he ranks behind Alexander Mattison in the PFN OSM midseason running back rankings. Jacobs’ 15.92 grade is only slightly better than third-round rookie David Montgomery (15.58) of the Chicago Bears. Jacobs has faced far less stacked box defenses than Montgomery, but as a result, has been more efficient. Montgomery has the reputation of being more of an elusive back, where Jacobs is a bulldozer, which is evidenced by his fourth-best yards after contact average.

Behind Jacobs and Montgomery, it is a long drop off to the next best rookie, Miles Sanders.

Despite a respectable 4.4 yards per carry, Sanders has struggled so far this season and has an overall grade of just 8.8, one of the lowest of all qualifying running backs.

You can find all the PFN OSM grades and see how your favorite players rank, right here.

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