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Is LeSean McCoy the NFL's Best Running Back?

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Is LeSean McCoy the NFL's Best Running Back?
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In the football world, there's long been a near unanimous notion that Adrian Peterson is the NFL's best running back. But LeSean McCoy of the Philadelphia Eagles quite literally has something to say about that.

Monday on ESPN, McCoy stated that he, not Peterson, is the best back in pro football. 

McCoy made his comments on ESPN's "First Take" when asked whether he believed he was the league's top back. He replied, "Yes, sir" and then expanded on why he feels that's the case.

"My brother always rips me all the time, trying to make me play harder. I say, 'I'm the best,' and he'll say, 'Did Adrian Peterson retire?' I look at the last three years and everything. I think AP has been the best back for so long, and he's been doing it for so long, that's why he automatically gets the best running back [title]," McCoy said.

"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."

And Peterson's response on FOX Sports Radio, per NJ.com

I definitely started laughing. It was funny because when Stephen [A. Smith] asked him the question, you know, he kind of hesitated. If you watched it, you know he didn't believe it when he said it. So I've got to tell the youngsters, 'Next time, say it with your chest, man. Say it like you mean it!

We can't say for sure whether McCoy believes it, but it's clear this has become a small battle between two of the game's best players. Does Shady have an argument? Let's break it down.

 

He might have a leg up on Peterson

Comparing McCoy and Peterson isn't simple because AP was the best offensive player in the game two seasons ago, while it was McCoy who led the NFL in rushing while earning an Associated Press first-team All-Pro nod in 2013. 

LeSean McCoy vs. Adrian Peterson, 2011-2013
McCoy Peterson
Total yards 4,983 4,860
Yards/attempt 4.8 5.2
Yards/game 115.9 115.7
Touchdowns 36 37
First-team All-Pro 2 1
Pro Bowl 2 2

Pro Football Reference

But, I guess that's the key. With an unbelievable 2,097 rushing yards in 2012, Peterson had this crown without a debate. But the Minnesota Viking is now less than a year away from his 30th birthday. With his yards-per-attempt average sinking from 6.0 to 4.5 and his yardage total plummeting from 2,097 to 1,266 in 2013, it's fair to speculate that Peterson's best years are behind him. History says he'll now decline. 

Meanwhile, McCoy is still somehow only 25 years old and is coming off the best season of his five-year NFL career. 

So Peterson's done more, but McCoy has done more lately. And in the world of NFL running backs, that's almost all that matters. 

It also helps that McCoy has consistently been a much more productive receiver than Peterson, while neither is particularly strong or consistent when it comes to blocking (although they've both had their moments). 

Based solely on his scouting profiles, our own Matt Miller still ranks Peterson ahead of McCoy, albeit by what he admits to be a slight margin. But if we're going to bring numbers and trajectory into this discussion, McCoy should probably be moved ahead of the 2012 MVP. 

 

But who says it's just Shady and AP?

It would only be fair to bring a few more backs into this debate, which is why we'll expand the statistical analysis to include Jamaal Charles, Marshawn Lynch and Matt Forte. Those three rank third, fourth and fifth on Miller's list and have all put up some absolutely dominant performances in recent seasons. 

They're all somewhat unique. Peterson has that unreal combination of strength and speed, McCoy has superb vision and is extremely versatile, Charles is a straight-up speed demon, Lynch is a brick house who can't be taken down and Forte is a jack of all trades out of the backfield. 

Let's break down the rate-based numbers, first over a three-year span:

Elite running backs: Rate-based stats since 2011
McCoy Peterson Charles Lynch Forte
Yards/rush 4.8 5.2 5.2 4.5 4.6
Yards/game 115.9 115.7 115.7 101.6 112.9
TD/game 0.84 0.88 0.79 0.83 0.51

Pro Football Reference

And now based solely on what went down in 2013:

Elite running backs: Rate-based stats in 2013
McCoy Peterson Charles Lynch Forte
Yards/rush 5.1 4.5 5.0 4.2 4.6
Yards/game 134.1 102.6 132.0 98.3 120.8
TD/game 0.7 0.8 1.3 0.9 0.8

Pro Football Reference

McCoy doesn't stand out over that three-year stretch, but neither does Peterson. Though on a per-carry and per-game basis, he was clearly better than his top-tier peers in 2013. 

Let's dig a little deeper, though, with some key advanced stats from 2013:

Elite running backs: Advanced stats from 2013
McCoy Peterson Charles Lynch Forte
DYAR 341 60 247 185 193
DVOA 18.1 -3.1 13.7 5.9 7.4
Broken tackle% 13.9 13.6 11.9 17.5 6.6
DYAR as receiver 137 -20 135 55 113
DVOA as receiver 23.8 -22.8 8.5 9.1 8.5
PFF blocking grade -4.2 -0.9 1.1 2.9 -5.5

Pro Football Focus/Football Outsiders

As you can see, McCoy finishes first in every single category except blocking efficiency and broken tackle percentage, although he ranked a close second in the latter. For more context, we should explain some of those numbers.

DYAR: Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement measures a running back's total value over the course of a season over an average replacement. The number is adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage, per Football Outsiders

In those areas, McCoy leads the league by a wide margin, with nobody else above 300. Anybody with a DYAR total of over 100 had a pretty good year.

DVOA: Defense-adjusted Value Over Average is similar, except it compares a back's performance to the average, rather than a backup. Oh, and it is measured on a per-play basis.

A really good back would like to be above 10 percent here. McCoy is well north of that threshold, ranking third in football behind DeMarco Murray and Donald Brown. Charles ranks seventh. 

Broken tackle percentageFootball Outsiders determined how many broken tackles each back had on a per-touch basis in 2013.

Lynch, McCoy, Peterson and Charles ranked first to fourth, respectively. But McCoy actually ranked first in this category in both 2011 and 2012. During that three-year stretch, nobody in the league has broken more tackles than he has. 

DYAR and DVOA as a receiver: Pretty self-explanatory based on the information above. Knowshon Moreno was the only non-specialty back to rank ahead of McCoy, who once again trampled his peers in both areas. 

PFF blocking grade: This is McCoy's worst area, but it should also be noted that he was ranked respectably in this category in 2010 and 2012. It's tough to get a gauge on with stats, and none of these guys stand out in this area.  

 

Shady is Mr. Fourth Quarter

There are a few other factors to consider. For instance, in 2013, McCoy seemed to be at his absolute best when it mattered most. There was that unforgettable 148-yard fourth quarter in the snow against Detroit, but that wasn't the only time he came up big late. 

Elite running backs: Fourth-quarter production in 2013
McCoy Peterson Charles Lynch Forte
Yards 463 240 438 248 282
YPA 5.9 4.4 5.5 3.8 4.1
TD 3 1 3 5 1

NFL.com

The number to note is that 5.9 average, which is just phenomenal in that quarter. He's also averaged 5.9 yards per carry in seven-point games in the fourth, while Peterson's average drops to 4.1 and Lynch's to 2.7 in those situations. 

 

Playmaking ability is a difference-making attribute

But it's also about McCoy's fourth-quarter explosiveness. According to CSN Philly's Reuben Frank, McCoy now has seven fourth-quarter touchdown runs of 40 yards or more. Amazingly, no other back in NFL history has had more than four.

Pro Football Focus (subscription required) keeps track of runs of 15 yards or more, while NFL.com has stats for 20-plus-yard rushes. Here's how McCoy compares to those elite peers dating back to 2011:

Elite running backs: Big plays, 2011-2013
McCoy Peterson Charles Lynch Forte
15+ 54 65 57 50 50
15+ % 6.9 7.8 7.4 5.6 7.7
20+ 30 43 27 19 27
20+ % 3.8 5.1 3.5 2.1 3.6

NFL.com/Pro Football Focus (Charles' sample uses 2010 in place of 2011 due to injury)

McCoy has a higher rate of 20-yard runs than everyone but Peterson, but he's fourth out of five in terms of 15-yarders. Again, though, it gets better when you focus just on 2013.

Elite running backs: Big plays, 2013
McCoy Peterson Charles Lynch Forte
15+ 26 16 20 13 20
15+ % 8.3 5.7 7.7 4.3 6.9
20+ 9 8 6 6 9
20+ % 2.9 2.9 2.3 2.0 3.1

NFL.com/Pro Football Focus

It appears the 25-year-old McCoy has begun to pull away from the 29-year-old Peterson, Lynch and Forte, who are both 28, and Charles (27). 

 

But consider the Chip factor

This might work against McCoy here. The Eagles are very good offensively, and Chip Kelly's system is running back-friendly. In 2013, McCoy, DeSean Jackson and Nick Foles all had the best statistical seasons of their respective careers, which might not be a coincidence. 

Foles had the third-highest passer rating in NFL history last season, and defenses were constantly having to worry about him finding weapons like Jackson and Riley Cooper. That and a stellar offensive line certainly helped McCoy, especially when you consider what Peterson was working with in Minnesota. 

Vikings quarterbacks had a combined average passer rating of 76.0, throwing 19 interceptions and averaging just 6.7 yards per attempt. Eagles quarterbacks had a 102.7 rating, just nine picks and a league-high average of 8.7 yards per throw. 

If you took McCoy and placed him in Minnesota or Kansas City, where Charles has been the focus of opposing defenses throughout his career, he might not be a part of this conversation, let alone a front-runner. 

We'll never know what kind of difference it makes that McCoy is playing in an offense that is built perfectly for him to succeed, but the guy still dodges tackles and breaks into the second level at a rate that can't be ignored, and it appears he's only getting better. 

You could argue that Peterson hasn't surrendered this crown quite yet, and there are arguments to be made for the bruising Lynch and the electric Charles, but McCoy has at least put himself in position to become the league's undisputed top back in 2014. 

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