The NFL’s Most and Least Efficient Shotgun Running Backs

Brace Hemmelgarn – USA TODAY

Almost one year ago, I posted this article analyzing the efficiency of the shotgun formation in the NFL. I found that the frequency of the shotgun formation has sharply increased over the past ten years, along with the efficiency of passing outside of the shotgun formation.

The theory I posed to explain the discrepancy between passing efficient in and outside of shotgun formation was that defenses are more likely to expect a passing play when the quarterback is lined up 5-7 yards away from the center. After all, 79.5% of offensive plays from the shotgun formation since 1999 have resulted in passes. It would make sense for the defense to prepare for the quarterback to drop back and pass.

If this theory were to be true, it would also make sense for rushing to be more efficient in the shotgun formation because the defense is expecting a pass. And it is: since 1999, designed run plays gain an average of 4.71 yards per carry from the shotgun and just 4.05 yards otherwise. Running plays from the shotgun formation add approximately -0.044 expected points, versus -0.088 expected points in other formations. Running isn’t incredibly efficient in general, but it is more efficient from the shotgun.

Well, for most players. Adrian Peterson is widely regarded as one of the best rushers in league history. His 2012 MVP campaign is arguably the all-time greatest single-season performance from a running back. However, one of the biggest criticisms of his on-field performance is his ineffectiveness in the shotgun formation. Through Peterson’s career, he has gained an average of 4.71 yards on rushes when the offense isn’t lined up in shotgun formation. When opposing defense are more likely to anticipate a pass, Peterson’s rushing efficiency actually plummets to a mere 3.85 yards per carry.

Is Adrian Peterson the most extreme example of a running back who under performs in the shotgun formation? And which rushers are at their best when the quarterback isn’t lined up under center? To find out, I determined each running back’s average Expected Points Added (EPA) on carries out of the shotgun formation along with their separate EPA on carries from under center. The data goes back as far as 1999, but due to running in the shotgun formation not being prominent prior to the past decade, most of the eligible players are active players.

The straight line through the center of the graph is the line y = x. If a player is directly on that line, they are equally as efficient on shotgun runs as they are on runs from under the center. Alvin Kamara is the only real example of this. Kamara and Jamal Charles are the only two players to average a positive EPA on both types of runs.

The players to the right of the straight line are more efficient shotgun runners. Marlon Mack is by far the best runner in the shotgun formation since 1999. The top three is rounded out by Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara.

On the left, you see the players that are better at runs from under the center than from the shotgun formation. As expected, Adrian Peterson is among those names. But an even greater disparity is seen with Todd Gurley, something that I was not personally aware of.

The bottom left of the graph is obviously where no running back wants to be — awful efficiency on both types of runs. It’s amazing to think that Trent Richardson was the third overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft. What a legendary bust. He’s the worst shotgun runner since 1999 and one of the worst runners from under center, but not the worst. That titles belongs to Carlos Hyde.

Also, notice that large clump of unlabeled points directly to the right of the line. This group demonstrates the fact that the straight line is not the line of best-fit because, as previously discussed, shotgun runs tend to be more efficient. So, more players are better at shotgun runs than under center runs than vice versa.

As the NFL shifts to becoming more shotgun-oriented, running backs like Adrian Peterson are becoming less valuable. Players like Alvin Kamara or Christian McCaffrey are the prototype of the modern day back. Someone who can run from different formations and be of value on passing downs is exactly what NFL teams need. Not the one-trick ponies of the past.

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