We’re taking a closer look at the advanced data to pinpoint the best NFL running backs at making defenders miss in the open field before they’re even able to get close.
They have an uncanny knack of leaving guys in their wake, making ankle-breaking moves that juke defenders into submission.
They are the ball carriers who excel at making opponents miss before they’re even close enough to breath on them. But who are the best running backs at this skill?
Is that something that you can even place a number on?
More on that later, but let’s first take a look at what we are able to measure in relation to the various skillsets of running backs during the 2023 NFL season.
For example, while average rushing yards before contact can give an indication of how good an offensive line is paving holes for a back, average yards after contact can help reveal which running backs have been the NFL’s best at plowing through defenders through pure will and brute strength.
Among those with at least 45 touches in the 2023 regular season, Raheem Mostert of the high-flying Miami Dolphins leads the league with an average of 3.2 yards after contact (YAC).
AJ Dillon of the Green Bay Packers is second with 2.8 YAC, followed by Jonathan Taylor of the Indianapolis Colts (2.7), Emari Demercado of the Arizona Cardinals (2.7) and Breece Hall of the New York Jets (2.4).
Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans and Josh Jacobs of the Las Vegas Raiders likely come to mind as the best at making these type of runs from scrimmage. But Henry is only slight above the league average this season (1.9) at 2.0 average yards after contact and Jacobs, who was the NFL’s top rusher last season, is below at just 1.4 YAC.
Now let’s add a layer to this by looking at not only which ball carriers break the most tackles per touch, but also cause the most missed tackles.
Nick Chubb of the Cleveland Browns was far ahead in this category with .410 missed/broken tackles per touch (MBTK/TOU) before suffering a horrific season-ending injury. And De’Von Achane was having a great rookie season with 455 yards and five touchdowns over a three-game stretch before going down with a knee injury.
Achane, a third-round pick of the Dolphins in the NFL Draft this past offseason, still has the league’s highest rate of breaking a tackle or forcing a defender into missing an attempt at .320 per touch among those with at least 45 touches.
Jaylen Warren of the Pittsburgh Steelers (.300), Khalil Herbert of the Chicago Bears (.280), Pittsburgh’s Najee Harris (.250) and Kenneth Walker III of the Seattle Seahawks (.240) round out the top five among backs.
By the way, 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson is the top quarterback in MBTK/TOU and tied for third overall at .280. Jalen Hurts of the Philadelphia Eagles, who had three rushing TDs in the Super Bowl last year, isn’t that close as the next-best QB at .120.
That leads us back to our initial question: Can we measure which running backs are the league’s best at dancing past defenders before they can even think of making contact?
We can get a clearer indication of who is in that group by breaking down both of these data points further. First, it’s important to get something out of the way – YAC and MBTK/TOU don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand.
If a player jukes an opponent out of his shoes, it won’t be tracked as contact, but it will be counted as a forced missed tackle. And if a ball carrier ranks high in MBTK/TOU but low in yards after contact, it’s a pretty safe assumption that he’s really good at making guys miss before they’re even close enough to make contact.
So we’ve identified the players who have an MBTK/TOU above the .148 NFL average and an average YAC below the 1.86 league average (with a minimum of 45 touches).
What’s left on this list are the NFL’s best cutters and jukers out of the backfield. And the group certainly passes the eye test.
RBs Better Than NFL Average in MBTK/TOU, Worse in YAC
- De’Von Achane, Miami Dolphins (.319/1.85)
- Jaylen Warren, Pittsburgh Steelers (.296/1.52)
- Kenneth Walker, Seattle Seahawks (.244/1.83)
- Cam Akers, Minnesota Vikings (.217/1.82)
- James Conner, Arizona Cardinals (.211/1.76)
- Travis Etienne Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars (.208/1.52)
- Justice Hill, Baltimore Ravens (.200/1.57)
- Zack Moss, Indianapolis Colts (.199/1.80)
- Rachaad White, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (.174/0.40)
- Miles Sanders, Carolina Panthers (.154/1.28)
- Craig Reynolds, Detroit Lions (.152/1.66)
- Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos (.150/1.61)
Achane, who is eligible to return in Week 10, became the first player in NFL history to have multiple rushing touchdowns of 60 or more yards with his fist four career games, per @OptaSTATS.
Travis Etienne Jr. of the Jacksonville Jaguars fits the mold of this type of back. He leads the NFL with 35 forced missed tackles, ranks third in the NFL with seven rushing touchdowns and is tied for sixth with 13 big plays. He’s also a great weapon in the passing game, ranking second in the league in receiving yards (266) behind two-time Pro Bowler Christian McCaffrey of the San Francisco 49ers (292).
Arizona’s James Conner, also currently out with a knee injury, ranks second in the league with 5.35 yards per rush and fourth with a big-play percentage (runs of 10+ yards) of 14.7. Indianapolis’ Zack Moss is tied for second with 15 runs of 10+ yards, fifth in stuff percentage at 7.2 and seventh with a big-play percentage of 12.0%.
Moss and Walker of the Seahawks are interesting cases in that they fall within our criteria for the best jukers and cutters, but they also have shown a great ability to break tackles. Walker is not only third in the league with 25 forced missed tackles, but he’s also tied for third with seven broken tackles.
Moss is tied for fourth with 22 forced missed tackles to go with six broken tackles.
Sure, wide receiver Tyreek Hill might be every defender’s worst nightmare at the moment. But these are the running backs opponents shouldn’t want to face in the open field either.