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A new generation of NFL running backs is ready to carry the torch

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The last great group of running backs is turning 30 and headed into oblivion. A new group led by Devonta Freeman and Todd Gurley is already taking their place.

I wouldn't say an official changing of the guard is happening from the NFL's veteran running back elite to up-and-coming bellcows, but it's closer. We're already getting a picture of the league's future superstars at the position.

Age is starting to take its toll. Adrian Peterson is still running hard, but he's 30. Frank Gore is still performing at 32. Marshawn Lynch is 29, and still runs with his physically taxing style. Matt Forte is 29 years old and averages 21 carries per game. But some of their peers are starting to feel the strain. Arian Foster, 29, just tore his Achilles tendon. Jamaal Charles is 28 and faces the specter of battling back from another ACL tear.

They say that running backs don't gradually decline -- they simply fall off a cliff -- so when these guys disappear into the sunset, who will carry the torch?

We already know that Le'Veon Bell is one. Doug Martin's renaissance this year means he could be another. Mark Ingram's been running well for New Orleans. Eddie Lacy is another, when he's healthy. But there are a group of first- and second-year backs emerging this season who look like they could blow the doors off defenses everywhere.

Guys like Devonta Freeman, Todd Gurley, Carlos Hyde, Latavius Murray, T.J. Yeldon, Melvin Gordon, Matt Jones, Thomas Rawls and Jeremy Hill, among a few others, have all looked very impressive and form the nucleus of what looks to be the future at the position.

The stats

AGE ATTEMPTS YARDS YARDS PER CARRY RUSHING TD RECEPTIONS RECEPTION YARDS RECEPTION TD
Devonta Freeman 23 131 621 4.7 9 34 310 1
Carlos Hyde 24 115 470 4.1 3 11 53 0
Todd Gurley 21 74 442 6.0 2 7 55 0
Latavius Murray 25 95 421 4.4 3 18 99 0
TJ Yeldon 22 101 406 4.0 1 16 82 1
22 65 366 5.6 1 3 8 0
Melvin Gordon 22 85 328 3.9 0 12 86 0
22 63 249 4.0 3 7 62 0
Alfred Blue 24 60 234 3.9 1 3 22 0
Jeremy Hill 23 74 232 3.1 5 3 27 1
22 62 222 3.6 1 13 113 1
Duke Johnson 22 55 176 3.2 0 31 263 1

Devonta Freeman and Todd Gurley have been, by far, the most impressive of the bunch this season, and the traditional stats bear that out. Freeman is leading the NFL in rushing with 621 yards (on pace for 1,419 on the year) and nine touchdowns (pace of 20.5 on the year).

Gurley, for his part, already has 442 yards on just 74 attempts (6.0 yards per carry) and has done all of that in just four games. Extrapolated to a full season, Gurley would've been on pace for 1,768 yards. Really, Gurley's done all that in three games, but he did get six carries in his first game as a pro.

Freeman and Gurley are both very impressive runners, obviously, but they have different styles. When I think of Freeman, I think of quick, choppy feet and explosiveness getting downhill. Great vision. Great in the pass game. When I think of Gurley, it's power and speed. Creativity. Blowing through arm tackles and eviscerating pursuit angles. Gurley, in just a few games, already has a highlight reel of runs.

Carlos Hyde looked incredible in Week 1 against the Vikings but has leveled off with what's been described as a stress fracture in his foot. When healthy, though, Hyde displays a sick combination of brute force and explosive speed, picking a lane an hitting it like a runaway beer truck. He also has very quick feet -- and you may remember his ridiculous spin-move touchdown against the Vikings where a man his size changed direction on a dime and cut the run back out the other side of the play for a score. He's been a little up and down since that game, dealing with offensive struggles by San Francisco, a shaky offensive line, and a foot injury, but again -- he looked like a world beater when healthy early on.

One other standout here would be Seattle's Thomas Rawls, who has quietly outpaced the much-lauded Matt Jones this year in both carries and yards, albeit in completely different circumstances. Rawls took over for two games when Marshawn Lynch was injured while Jones has worked a time-share with Alfred Morris, so while we may see more and more of Jones as the year goes on, if Lynch stays healthy, Rawls will likely be in a very complementary role, diminishing much of a chance for a true "breakout." That said, he's a guy to keep on long term for Seattle -- he runs with a reckless abandon, shows great vision and explosiveness and maybe more importantly for the Seahawks, finishes runs like a berserker.

On the other hand, Melvin Gordon's season thus far has not looked good by traditional stats. He's averaging just 3.9 yards per carry and has failed to find the end zone. A second-quarter benching two weeks ago after he lost two fumbles hasn't helped matters, nor has an ankle injury that's limited his snaps. All is not lost with the first rounder, though, as some of the advanced stats might indicate.

Elusiveness rating

I really like the elusive rating and its related stats from Pro Football Focus. Huge tip of the cap and thanks to Jim Seki of PFF, who sent me the info for this chart below. In a nutshell, the Elusive Rating, as explained by PFF, "charts missed tackles forced by a running back - either by juking a guy out of his tackle attempt or simply by powering through it - and yards gained after contact. Both power runners and shifty runners can score high in this metric."

Here's what the Young Guns have done thus far this year:

PFF ELUSIVE RATING BROKEN TACKLES BROKEN TACKLES PER CARRY YARDS PER CARRY BEFORE CONTACT YARDS PER CARRY AFTER CONTACT % OF TOTAL YARDS COMING AFTER CONTACT
Carlos Hyde 78.6 32 0.278 1.26 2.83 69.19%
Todd Gurley 73.7 17 0.23 2.49 3.51 58.50%
Melvin Gordon 69.2 22 0.259 1.44 2.42 62.17%
TJ Yeldon 52.3 18 0.178 1.57 2.45 60.95%
Duke Johnson 51.0 12 0.218 0.89 2.31 72.19%
Latavius Murray 43.2 15 0.156 2.05 2.24 52.19%
Devonta Freeman 38.6 20 0.153 2.69 2.05 43.24%
Thomas Rawls 37.3 8 0.123 2.81 2.82 50.08%
Matt Jones 28.8 8 0.127 1.93 2.02 51.11%
Jeremy Hill 23.2 10 0.135 1.47 1.62 52.35%
Ameer Abdullah 21.3 6 0.097 1.89 1.77 48.34%
Alfred Blue 21.0 6 0.100 1.70 2.2 56.41%

Hyde is tops on this list with an incredible 32 forced missed tackles (first in this group) and very nice 2.83 yards per carry after contact (second among these backs). Again -- the hype around Hyde has dissipated a little bit as the year's gone on, but his numbers are still strong and his elusive rating really points to how he's doing a lot without much to work with. He's breaking tackles at a higher rate than any of these other backs and he's getting almost 70 percent of his yardage after breaking a tackle. That's incredible.

Unsurprisingly, Gurley is impressive in elusiveness as well. On the other hand, it's Gordon's numbers that are surprising, considering his raw traditional stats. Gordon's breaking tackles at a rate only behind Hyde on this list, and 62 percent of his yardage has come after contact. While the pick may appear disappointing early on, keep that in mind as he settles in.

T.J. Yeldon's elusiveness looks nice here as well, and Duke Johnson's numbers are pretty crazy considering he's getting less than a yard on average before getting hit. Life's dealt him lemons, but he's made lemonade, with over 70 percent of his yardage coming after contact.

Rawls' elusive rating isn't anything to write home about, but the number you like to see is that 2.82 yards per carry after contact, third on this list behind Gurley and Hyde. Remember what I told you about him finishing runs? Dude puts his head down and picks up the hard yards. Makes sense that the three NFC West rivals would all go get guys like this.

Success rate

I love Football Outsiders' DVOA and DYAR stats, and for running backs, "success rate" is a particularly cool stat. Per FO, this number represents the player's consistency, measured by successful running plays (the definition of success being different based on down and distance) divided by total running plays. In other words, a two-yard run on first down is not a "success," nor is a three-yard run on third-and-4. This metric tries to capture how consistently successful a running back is for his team. Read more about it here.

What do the numbers say?

Football Outsiders DYAR (Rank) Football Outsiders DVOA (Rank) Football Outsiders Success Rate
Thomas Rawls 12 8 58% (1st)
Devonta Freeman 1 6 56% (4th)
Alfred Blue 22 21 50% (9th)
Carlos Hyde 21 23 49% (14th)
Matt Jones 17 13 49% (12th)
Melvin Gordon 38 37 48% (18th)
Ameer Abdullah 35 35 48% (17th)
Jeremy Hill 27 27 47% (21st)
Todd Gurley 16 12 45% (27th)
TJ Yeldon 30 29 44% (28th)
Latavius Murray 29 30 40% (36th)
Duke Johnson n/a n/a n/a

As you can see, Rawls, in his limited touches this year, has been a badass. Not only is his success rate tops for the NFL right now, his DVOA and DYAR* are both very high as well. In other words, he's made big plays, a lot, consistently, and has relatively few negative plays.

(Note: as for DVOA and DYAR: The simple version: DYAR means a running back with more total value. DVOA means a running back with more value per play.)

Freeman is unsurprisingly highly-rated in everything here as well. His DYAR is tops in the league (duh -- most yards and most touchdowns) and his success rate (fourth best in the NFL) shows why the Falcons have leaned on him so hard.

Alfred Blue's up there as well in success rate, but his lower DVOA number illustrates something that FO explains: A player with lower DVOA and a high success rate "generally gets the yards needed, but doesn't often get more." That sounds about right for Blue. Ameer Abdullah and Gordon definitely slide into this general area as well.

Meanwhile, a player with a higher DVOA but a lower success rate -- like maybe Gurley -- mixes long runs with downs getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage. This would make some sense, as Gurley's ripped off some huge touchdown runs in his three games as a starter. The Rams will take those explosive, game changing plays, no doubt.

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It's still early in the season, but these numbers paint a picture of the effectiveness and impact some of these young running backs are providing for their teams. Don't be surprised when you start hearing their names called more and more, they start showing up in fantasy football discussion more frequently, and their teams start leaning on them to carry the load.

The truly interesting part of all this, though, is finding out who will end up being a flash in the pan, and who'll end up turning into a superstar.

I've got my money on Gurley and Freeman, first and foremost, as the true studs of this group. But Rawls, Hyde, and Jones seem like they could end up being steady producers for their respective teams as well. Gordon is the big wild-card still for me -- I wasn't incredibly high on him prior to the draft and the numbers and tape thus far have been confusing to say the least. Regardless, I can't wait to see how these players perform the rest of the season.