Why LeSean McCoy Is the Best Running Back in the NFL

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Why LeSean McCoy Is the Best Running Back in the NFL
Elsa/Getty Images

Adrian Peterson is a beast and Jamaal Charles is a dynamic playmaker, but it's LeSean McCoy who has developed into the NFL's best running back. 

McCoy was selected with the No. 53 overall pick by the Philadelphia Eagles back in 2009 out of Pittsburgh. He's amassed more than 7,400 yards from scrimmage in his five seasons, and 2013 has been his best with just over 2,000.

Whether it's statistics from a box score or advanced NFL metrics, or simply from watching the film, McCoy has climbed to the top of the running back mountain with his performance in 2013. 

 

Looking at the box scores 

McCoy has carried the ball more than any other running back this year.

When you combine that with a 5.1 yards-per-carry average, which ranks second in the NFL among running backs with at least 120 carries, you've got a playmaking workhorse who can carry the load for your team. 

Here are the cold, hard numbers.

LeSean McCoy's statistical ranks in 2013 (through 15 games)
Category Number NFL Rank
No. of carries 287 1st
Rushing Yards 1,476 1st
Yards per carry (min of 120 carries) 5.1 2nd
Total yards from scrimmage 2,012 1st
TDs 9 6th
First downs 72 1st

ESPN.com

These basic statistics are the easiest way to determine whether or not a player has had a successful season, and they're normally the numbers people throw out there to decide how good a running back has been. 

McCoy has the most rushing yards, most yards from scrimmage and has carried the ball more than any other player this season. 

It'd be easy to think a player with the most carries would have the most yards simply because of the number of opportunities, but the fact that McCoy is second in the NFL in YPC means he's not only durable, but also dynamic. 

McCoy's 1,476 rushing yards not only leads the league, but it's 189 more than the second-place player, Jamaal Charles, who has 1,287 yards. McCoy is just 36 yards shy of the Eagles' single-season franchise record, currently held by Wilbert Montgomery, who posted 1,512 yards in 1979. 

Despite wanting to win more than anything, McCoy acknowledges that breaking these records does matter to him, via Alex Smith of PhiladelphiaEagles.com:

To be honest, it would mean a lot. In this game, I think stats and records are meant to be broken. You train hard, and it’s stuff that you dream about. You dream about going to the Super Bowl and winning those games. You dream about breaking records and setting records and rushing titles.

McCoy and the Eagles offense will face a Dallas Cowboys defense next Sunday night that's currently ranked 27th in the NFL against the run, surrendering more than 127 yards per game on the ground. Everything is set up perfectly for him to have another solid performance. 

In three prime-time games this season, McCoy has 69 carries for 475 yards (6.88 YPC) and four touchdowns. 

 

Advanced NFL Metrics

In case the simple box-score statistics didn't convince you, let's take a look at the advanced NFL statistical metrics from the people over at Pro Football Focus (subscription required). 

PFF's top-ranked running backs in 2013 (through 15 games)
Rank Player Team Overall score
1 LeSean McCoy Philadelphia Eagles 29.0
2 Jamaal Charles Kansas City Chiefs 22.5
3 Eddie Lacy Green Bay Packers 17.4
4 Giovani Bernard Cincinnati Bengals 16.4
5 DeMarco Murray Dallas Cowboys 16.3

Pro Football Focus

From simple statistics to advanced metrics, McCoy is still the top-ranked running back. 

The margin between McCoy and Charles (7.0) is larger than the one between Eddie Lacy and the No. 13-ranked running back, Frank Gore (10.2). 

Another interesting statistic from PFF is yards after contact, in which McCoy ranks second in the NFL with 703.  That's not something you would initially think, as he seems more like the player who likes to bounce plays outside and avoid contact.

But besides Peterson, who ranks No. 1 in that category, no other player in the NFL picks up more yards after first contact than McCoy. 

It's not surprising that McCoy's highest YPC average (6.2) goes right through the left guard, Evan Mathis, who is PFF's top-ranked guard. 

According to PFF, McCoy averages more than 5.3 YPC running through all three interior offensive line areas for the Eagles, which might seem odd for a player who isn't known as a physical runner. 

McCoy has found success running downhill this season, but we've all seen his ability in the open field as well. 

 

Film Room

There are three things that make LeSean McCoy such a dangerous player from a skill-set perspective, and we're going to take a look at each of those in three separate plays from this season. 

The first is "vision."

In this play against the Chicago Bears last week, McCoy displays the kind of vision that isn't just about where he's going and a hole that could appear, but how the guys around him affect a hole that could potentially open.

NFL Rewind - BJ Kissel

The H-Back for the Eagles is going to come back around (yellow line) and be the lead blocker for McCoy on this play. 

McCoy will initially get out in front of the blocker and realize that he has no protection entering the middle of the field. He's got a linebacker with a free lane (red circle) to him, so he curls back around (white circle and motion) and allows his blocker to occupy the linebacker (yellow line).

Once McCoy has that block set up, as illustrated by the picture on the bottom left, he then accelerates through the defense and is able to pick up considerable yardage. 

McCoy not only understood where his blocker was coming from and had the athletic intuition to slow down and let it develop, but he also displayed the vision to know when and how to set up that block. 

The second is "agility."

This next play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers shows McCoy's patented "fly-by" move he often puts on defensive backs who overpursue. 

NFL Rewind - BJ Kissel

Because McCoy does possess game-breaking speed and awareness in the open field, it's extremely difficult for defensive backs to take proper angles on him once he breaks through the second level of a defense. 

On this particular play, McCoy has a gaping hole through the first and second level of the Buccaneers defense, and a lot of pressure is then put on the defensive backs to make a tackle. 

The safety (red circle) is attempting to take an angle that would keep McCoy from bursting down the field for a touchdown, but McCoy sets him up perfectly for his jump-cut, "fly-by" move, as he literally stops and jumps in the air before landing and cutting back the other way. 

He jumps back to avoid having the defender, who is flying right past him as he overpursued, grab onto him and not allow him to cut back the other direction. 

This is a move you'll often see from McCoy when he's in the open field. 

Finally, the third is "burst."

This final play was against the Green Bay Packers from earlier in the season. 

NFL Rewind - BJ Kissel

McCoy is going to meet Clay Matthews in the hole once he takes the handoff and gets to the line of scrimmage. Matthews flashes inside on the stunt, and McCoy displays reactions that can't be developed or taught. He cuts back to the outside and bursts into the open field. 

Whether it's vision, burst, agility, innate football awareness or all of the above, McCoy displayed it on this run.  

He could not have anticipated Matthews flashing inside the way that he did, and he didn't have time to think about his jump-cut back to the outside. He just reacted to the play, and the result was a demonstration of what being the best in the NFL looks like. 

Could a number of running backs in the NFL have made this same play?

Sure, but the combination of vision, agility, burst and awareness that McCoy has demonstrated all season has set him apart. 

 

Finishing strong

Another good sign for any running back is how he finishes games.

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Is he getting stronger as the game goes on?

McCoy's YPC average improves each successive quarter. He's averaged 4.3 YPC in the first quarter this season, 4.7 in the second, 5.3 in the third and 6.3 in the fourth. 

Some of that might have to do with the Eagles' hurry-up-style offense under Chip Kelly, as defenses are often worn down toward the end of the game.

But McCoy has also improved his YPC average each month from October (3.4) and November (4.8) to December (6.3). 

Other factors are involved here with these numbers, such as the recent play of quarterback Nick Foles recently. Still, he has played at an All-Pro level the entire season, and if it wasn't for Peyton Manning, McCoy would have a decent case for the MVP award this season. 

McCoy hasn't just put the Eagles on his backhe's done so while proving to the rest of the NFL that he's now the standard to which all other running backs will be compared. 

According to basic statistics, advanced metrics and game film, McCoy is the best running back in the NFL right now. 

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