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Lamar Jackson, Dalvin Cook among NFL's 10 most explosive runners

If last week's first three deep dives into Next Gen Stats whet your appetite, we have an advanced metrics treat for you with this piece.

Explosive running is desired by every single talent evaluator at every level of football. As they say, speed kills. Entire college football conferences (hello, SEC) are built on this principle, and it's no surprise that the NFL is chock full of the best of these types of runners.

When one thinks of explosive runners, one tends to think of the running back position, but our leader -- by a WIDE margin -- in this examination of the NFL's most explosive runners is a quarterback, and when you see who it is (no peeking!) you won't be surprised. He did win Most Valuable Player, after all. (And, yes, is mentioned in the headline.)

Before we dive in, we need to explain the criteria. And before you read any further or sprint to Twitter to mention me with your displeasure, the following paragraph is the most important of this entire post.

This is more complicated than last week's exploration, because it doesn't rely on one simple differential to define efficiency or effectiveness over the large sample size of an NFL season. In order to find our top 10, we needed to first establish relative volume by limiting our field to those who logged a minimum of 100 carries in 2019. The reason: Explosiveness, by nature, can't be defined by one statistic. It's a combination of blinding speed and productivity. What's the point of breaking 15 mph if you're not also gaining adequate yardage?

Speaking of 15 mph, that will be our final determining statistic. But before we use that metric -- specifically, the percentage of runs on which the ball-carrier reached or exceeded 15 mph -- we need to separate further by another key indicator of explosiveness: distance covered. For this, we'll institute a baseline for 10-plus-yard runs. The magic number: 20.

In review, here are our three key criteria:

  • A minimum of 100 carries in 2019
  • At least 20 carries of 10-plus yards
  • The defining metric: percentage of runs of 15-plus mph

Before listing these top 10 -- I know, you're getting impatient -- here's an important disclosure for you angry tweeters. The following players barely missed the mark but would have landed among this group if the 10-plus-yard runs minimum was dropped to, say, 15: Matt Breida (18 runs of 10-plus yards), Josh Allen (17), Alvin Kamara (19), Austin Ekeler (15), Alexander Mattison (15) and Miles Sanders (16). Those clamoring for Nick Chubb should know that, while he had 39 runs of 10-plus yards, his 15-plus mph run percentage fell below the top 10 at 12.4 percent, partially as a result of his nearly 300 carries. The same goes for Ezekiel Elliott (who posted a mark of 11.3%), Derrick Henry (14.9%) and Saquon Barkley (15.7%) .

OK, deep breath. Let's dive in.

Lamar Jackson
Baltimore Ravens · QB

Runs of 10-plus yards: 47. 10-plus run pct: 26.7. 15-plus mph pct: 52.8.

Sure, it shows up on television every week, but to see the statistical divide between Jackson and the rest of the league is breathtaking. Jackson carried the ball 176 times in 2019, and he hit a speed of 15 mph or faster on over half of those runs. Add in his ability to stop on a dime, and you see why defenses were so incredibly flummoxed by him for the majority of the season, and why he ended up sprinting (literally) to the MVP award. Jackson's total of 15-plus mph runs crept toward 100 (93), which is 20 more than the next closest runner on this list -- Dalvin Cook, who had 73 -- and was by far the most in the entire NFL, regardless of the criteria we listed above. No one was more explosive than Jackson in 2019, and it wasn't even close.

Dalvin Cook
Minnesota Vikings · RB

Runs of 10-plus yards: 25. 10-plus run pct: 10. 15-plus mph pct: 29.2.

It should be of little surprise to anyone that a few running backs operating in zone schemes will appear on this list. The most notable of these backs is Cook, who flourished in a Vikings offense that committed to two-tight end sets and allowed Cook to build up speed on his carries. Cook averaged 10.93 mph at the line of scrimmage on runs in 2019, the second-highest mark among running backs in the NFL with a minimum of 100 rushes. That build-up helped him rip off 25 runs of 10-plus yards and put together a rush efficiency -- the distance traveled by the ball carrier on a run play divided by the net yards gained -- of 4.2, proving the angles taken on zone runs inside and outside (such as stretches) weren't for naught.

Raheem Mostert
San Francisco 49ers · RB

Runs of 10-plus yards: 23. 10-plus run pct: 16.8. 15-plus mph pct: 28.5.

Mostert's greatest day came in the postseason, but one has to wonder how effective he could have been statistically during the regular season if given a larger workload. Mostert hit 20-plus mph on four rushes in 2019, putting him in elite ball-carrying company -- only seven players reached that benchmark, and Mostert did it with fewer total carries than anyone. Was his success a product of a defense overlooking the lesser-known runner in favor of other weapons in San Francisco, or is this a case of untapped potential? We'll find out in 2020, as defenses will no longer look at Mostert as the guy who was cut a half-dozen times before landing in The Bay. They could, however, look at him as the guy who averaged a max speed of 13.75 mph on touches in 2019 -- the highest mark among all running backs in the NFL with a minimum of 100 touches.

Kenyan Drake
Arizona Cardinals · RB

Runs of 10-plus yards: 20. 10-plus run pct: 16.3. 15-plus mph pct: 26.8.

The Cardinals have some legitimate speed on their roster, starting with Drake, who enjoyed significant success after being traded from Miami to Arizona during the season. Drake nearly doubled his 15-plus mph rush rate when he moved from the Dolphins to the Cardinals, going from 14.9 percent of rushes in Miami to 26.8 percent in Arizona. One might think he probably had more carries in Miami, but that's actually the opposite of the truth. Drake rushed 123 times in Arizona and hit 15-plus mph on more than a fourth of those attempts, while he carried the ball just 47 times in Miami.

Speed is plentiful in the desert, as Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray also posted some eye-catching numbers (he reached 15-plus mph on 62 of 93 rushes in 2019), though he didn't qualify for this list. Drake is a playmaker who utilizes his explosiveness with the best of them to make a difference, and he has a promising future with the Cardinals.

Aaron Jones
Green Bay Packers · RB

Runs of 10-plus yards: 25. 10-plus run pct: 10.6. 15-plus mph pct: 22.5.

Jones arrives after a gap filled by runners who fell short of the requirement for those on this list to have posted at least 20 runs of 10-plus yards, but that's not an indication of ineffectiveness on Jones' part. His numbers are very similar to those of Cook -- and it's no coincidence that the Packers finally used Jones properly last season, with everyone reaping the benefits. Jones' greatest success came inside the tackles; he tied for the NFL lead with 10 touchdowns on inside runs and averaged 4.1 yards per rush on runs inside the tackles in the red zone (most in the NFL among those with a minimum of 15 such runs). His 53 runs on which he hit 15-plus mph were the fourth-most in the NFL. Perhaps no play better captured Jones' explosiveness than his 56-yard touchdown run -- "American Pharoah at the Belmont!" -- to ice Green Bay's key win over Minnesota in Week 16 last season. He broke open that game with the kind of rumble he's poised to post many more of in 2020.

Phillip Lindsay
Denver Broncos · RB

Runs of 10-plus yards: 22. 10-plus run pct: 9.8. 15-plus mph pct: 21.4.

Lindsay's second season wasn't as prosperous as his first, but he still broke 1,011 yards despite playing with three different quarterbacks and watching his team's veteran receiving presence get traded away in the middle of the season. Were opponents trained on Lindsay? Sure, but he still racked up 48 runs of 15-plus mph in 2019, an enduring indicator of his explosiveness, even amid less-than-ideal circumstances. Lindsay likely won't see the 224 carries he received in 2019, thanks to the addition of Melvin Gordon, but his explosiveness should remain, which is the most important factor playing in his favor.

Marlon Mack
Indianapolis Colts · RB

Runs of 10-plus yards: 28. 10-plus run pct: 11.3. 15-plus mph pct: 20.6.

We've spent enough time covering how Mack's broken hand played directly into Indianapolis' late-season descent. Without Mack, the Colts lacked the ball-carrier who broke 15 mph on 51 runs (fourth-most among running backs) and ripped off 28 runs of 10-plus yards. The team's most explosive runner will return in 2020 with the assistance of a similar back in rookie Jonathan Taylor. Multiply these numbers by two backs and consider the possibilities. It's not guaranteed, but the potential is enticing, and it shows how valuable Mack was to the Colts, even if he isn't exactly a household name.

Todd Gurley
Atlanta Falcons · RB

Runs of 10-plus yards: 21. 10-plus run pct: 9.4. 15-plus mph pct: 18.4.

Here's where the numbers are peculiar. Even if we don't quite agree with this result (based on the recent events that saw Gurley fall out of favor in L.A.), Gurley does indeed meet the criteria to land on this list, which suggests that, even during his down year, he was still among the league's more explosive runners. Only one of Gurley's 10 fastest touches over the last two seasons came in 2019, yet he still managed to reach or exceed 15 mph on nearly 20 percent of his 223 attempts. His 21 runs of 10-plus yards show he can still gain significant yards, even if he hasn't been the home-run hitter he once was. Will we see him here again in 2020 as a member of the Falcons? Unlikely, but he's still got at least some juice, or he did in 2019.

Christian McCaffrey
Carolina Panthers · RB

Runs of 10-plus yards: 31. 10-plus run pct: 10.8. 15-plus mph pct: 18.1.

I know, I know -- Gurley ahead of McCaffrey? It sounds insane, and I don't quite disagree, but statistically, this is what we're presented with. Could this be a case of McCaffrey rushing 64 more times than Gurley, thus diluting his explosive-runs percentage? Probably, and McCaffrey's advantage in 10-plus-yard run percentage supports that theory. But they're still neck and neck in terms of percentage of runs reaching or exceeding 15 mph, illustrating that they're both excellent runners, even if Gurley is trending downward as McCaffrey trends up. Some positive notes for you McCaffrey supporters: The running back reached 15-plus mph on 96 touches (key word: touches) in 2019, the most in the NFL, with 52 of those coming on rushing attempts. His 15-plus mph rate of 18.1 percent might have been higher had the Panthers possessed another legitimate weapon, but it's a testament to his effectiveness and explosiveness that McCaffrey was still able to gain 10-plus yards on 31 rushes in 2019. He's a stud, and we all know it. Don't take this No. 9 spot personally -- it's just what the numbers tell us.

Chris Carson
Seattle Seahawks · RB

Runs of 10-plus yards: 32. 10-plus run pct: 11.5. 15-plus mph pct: 18.

Here's a fun one. Carson is a bigger back who's often overlooked because, unlike his beloved predecessor, he doesn't eat Skittles or wear No. 24 in Seattle, but he was incredibly important to the Seahawks' success in 2019 because of his ability to break tackles and consistently churn up yards. His 50 15-plus mph runs and average of 4.3 yards gained after a defender closed within 1 yard proved how his explosiveness lasts just beyond the first burst, and it's a big reason why he was able to gain 1,230 yards on the ground in less than a full season. A healthy Carson should return to again power the Seahawks' rushing attack with more explosion, and more success should be expected.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter @TheNickShook.

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