Eagles’ LeSean McCoy says he’s the best running back in the NFL. Is he right?


(Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy led the NFL last season with 1,607 rushing yards and added another 540 yards receiving, setting a franchise record for yards from scrimmage (2,147 yards). During Monday’s taping of ESPN’s “First Take,” McCoy said he was the NFL’s top running back.

But the last three years? I’ve been All-Pro, first-team, twice. I never leave the field. I block. I catch. I never leave the field. I don’t have anybody do my job; I do it myself. Tons of credit goes out to Adrian Peterson. I’m a big fan of his, for sure. But I feel I’m the best.

Looking at Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value, an attempt to attach a single number to every player-season since 1950, McCoy would rank fifth in terms of seasons 2011 to 2013 combined.

That’s not to say Approximate Value is the end-all be-all stat, but it does help put McCoy’s career — and comments — in context. Marshawn Lynch and Peterson get buoyed by their touchdown totals, but their Pro Bowl appearances and first-team All-Pro nominations are also in line with McCoy’s. However, I would agree if you said a five-point difference over three years doesn’t conclude the debate, so let’s look at Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (the value of the performance on plays where this RB carried/caught the ball compared with replacement level); Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (the value, per play, over an average running back in the same game situations); and Success Rate (running plays that were successful, based on down and distance, divided by total running plays). Here is how McCoy ranked among running backs with at least 100 rushing attempts over the past three seasons.

We can also look at two other metrics (courtesy of ProFootballFocus) appropriate for running backs: Elusive Rating, a runner’s success beyond the point of being helped by his blockers, and Breakaway Percentage, illustrating which runners earn the highest (and lowest) percentage of their yardage on big plays (any runs of 15 yards or more). Here are how the top three backs in three-year AV plus McCoy shake out:

McCoy was a distant third last season in terms of how difficult it was to bring him down (Elusive Rating) but held his own with Peterson in racking up yardage on runs of 15 yards or more (Breakaway Percentage). But, as McCoy stated, playing running back in the NFL is also about blocking and catching.

According to PFF’s Pass Blocking Efficiency rating, McCoy is the worst pass-blocker on a per-pass-blocking snap basis among the four.

McCoy did have more yards per route run last season than Peterson and slightly more than Lynch, but was in a virtual tie with Forte.

I get why McCoy thinks he is the best running back in the league, but until he has another dominant season or two, the reality is McCoy is the third or fourth best.

Neil Greenberg analyzes advanced sports statistics for the Fancy Stats blog and prefers to be called a geek rather than a nerd.
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