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Photo provided courtesy of Vikings.com

There have been numerous discussions around Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy’s comments crowing himself as the best running back in the league.  Although there were plenty of immediate scoffs echoing from the state of Minnesota, it is hard to argue that McCoy does not have somewhat of a case for such a bold claim.

McCoy is coming off a highly productive season in which the he served as a legitimate mainstay of the high octane Chip Kelly offense.  With so many online polls taking opinions about the topic, I wanted to take a deeper look into the facts to settle the score once and for all.  As we move forward, Vikings fans, try to stay unbiased.

No homers allowed here.

For starters, we need to admit that the definition of a running back has greatly changed in today’s modern game.  No longer can you simply look at statistics like carries, rushing yards or yards per carry.  You must also take into consideration statistics like receptions, yards per reception, total yards and total touchdowns.

The modern day running back is asked to do more than just carry the ball; the best can do it all.  Just like a tight end might have exclusively blocked in the past, a tight end in today’s NFL must not only block, but run excellent routes and catch the ball.  The same could be said about a linebacker, who no longer is simply asked to help in the run game, but must be able to rush the passer and help in coverage as well.

The debate at hand is focused on who is the best running back in the league right now.  Because of this, we can only look at statistics from 2013.  The NFL has so much parity and influx of new talent on a year to year basis that looking back 3 seasons doesn’t give a realistic view of the current state of the league.

Unfortunately for Vikings fans, that means when you are trying to decide who is the best running back in the league at the moment, Adrian Peterson’s 2,000+ yard season does not apply.  I do see where some fans might go up in arms in this sentiment.  Peterson has been the most consistent in terms of production for a long time and when looking back on his career, this will absolutely be noted.

However, when Peterson entered the league and started making waves, Vikings fans everywhere began to claim that Peterson was the best back in the league.  Although many agreed, it neglected to take into consideration the fact that Ladainian Tomlinson had shown the same consistent production Peterson is now showing.  Although we’d like to, we can’t always argue in favor for those who wear purple and gold, the argument for the best running back in the league has to be consistent.  In my opinion, that takes a look at production from a single season.

Now that we’ve set that standard, let’s take a look at the statistics from 2013 and try to understand which running back had the best year in 2013.  For the analysis, I used the top 6 rushers from 2013.  Note, a player like Arian Foster is not on this list.  Although Foster is a dynamic running back, his 2013 season was cut short at the midway point.  If we’re only considering the 2013 season, his production was too far below the water line to draw any substantial conclusions.

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When you look at the statistics in this format, it is clear that there are running backs that catch the ball much more than others.  The versatility in a running back is obviously highly valued and it’s no longer an anomaly; it is now a common reality in today’s NFL.

However, you can’t simply assume that a running back that catches the ball more is a better running back; you have to understand how often that running back is scoring with the ball in their hands.  In my opinion, that is the true metric of success.  Of course, I am not talking about a Mike Alstott type of player who simply comes in at the goal line to pound it home, this touches per touchdown statistic must be used for feature backs, not simply goal line specialists.

An additional metric that serves as a good barometer of production is breakaway percentage.  The ability to take the ball to the house at any given moment is why everyone finds themselves at the edge of their seat every time Peterson touches the ball.

The same could be said about every single one of these running backs we’re currently debating.  All have shown the ability to produce a massive play at the drop of the hat.  Let’s take a look at the numbers surrounding the breakaway statistic.

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With these numbers, it’s easy to see which running backs produce the most breakaway gains.  However, if you dive deeper, you’ll see that Peterson produced a gain of 15 yards or more on 6% of his carries, as did Washington’s Alfred Morris and Chicago’s Matt Forte.  McCoy did so on 8% of his carries and Charles found bigger gains on 7% of his carries.

When you take the breakaway gains out of the equation, both McCoy and Charles averaged 3.5 yards per carry, Peterson’s YPC fell to 3.0.  Both Forte (3.1 YPC) and Morris (3.3 YPC) actually ranked higher than Peterson when comparing yards per carry after removing the breakaway runs.

It’s clear that all running backs relied on the big gain to help build their annual production, however, McCoy and Charles proved to be more consistent on a carry per carry basis.  It is important to note that Peterson’s ability to break off big runs is what makes him incredibly special, it’s equally important to note that others are doing so at an equal or better ratio with better consistency overall.

To play devil’s advocate, I am sure some Vikings fans would argue that Peterson’s numbers were down because he played two fewer games than others.  Although that is indeed the case and with the monster games Peterson has put up in his career, you could argue that his statistics are skewed a bit.

However, you do have to factor in health when determining the best player at the position.  A player that can’t stay healthy is not a player that can be considered a top performer at their position because they are not on the field to produce for the team.

Do not get me wrong.  I am not undermining Peterson’s career in any way.  Peterson is the ultimate warrior who would give his all to play the game.  When looking at 2013, I believe Peterson would have played all 16 games if the Vikings were contending at a respectable level.  Instead, the Vikings front office learned from their 2011 mistake of letting Peterson march out onto the field in week 17 and suffer a devastating injury.  Peterson in full health in 2014 is always better than Peterson trying to play at 75% with the season all but lost.

Adrian Peterson is without a doubt in my opinion one of the best players to ever wear a Vikings uniform.  He’s a once in a generation type of running back who has made watching Viking games exciting for the entire season no matter the team’s record.  He has driven defensive coordinators and players crazy.  He’s made unbelievable plays in such a fashion you can’t believe your eyes.  He is the consummate ‘team first’ player who is always sure to mention his offensive line and teammates for helping him find success.

There are likely no less than a hundred reasons to love Adrian Peterson and deep down, I too, want to believe that he’s not only the best running back, but the best player in the entire NFL.

I hate to break it to you, Viking diehards; I don’t believe that is the case anymore.

With new Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner in place, Peterson might find himself as the #1 running back with very little debate.  Turner’s offense will call for even more deep play action play calling than Viking fans are used to.  Furthermore, the addition of Teddy Bridgewater might add enough of a dynamic at quarterback to keep defenses honest and pull the 8th or 9th man out of the box, leaving more lanes open for Peterson to run wild.

Turner is notorious for using his running backs as receivers as well, meaning Peterson will have more targets than years past.  In 2013, Peterson was tied for 31st in targets for running backs with 40.  To add some perspective, Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles led the league with 104 targets.  Peterson did catch 72% of those passes, but it was no secret to those who watched Vikings games that the best receiving running back we had in 2013 was Toby Gerhart.

With Gerhart signing with Jacksonville via free agency, Peterson will potentially get his fair share of targets out of the backfield.  With that thought in mind, it should be noted that Georgia Southern rookie Jerick McKinnon will very likely see opportunities to catch the ball and make plays in space as well.

Although this would limit Peterson’s ability to be a dual threat running back, there is a reason why the Vikings used a 3rd round pick on McKinnon.  With other holes to fill on the team, they must feel very good about his ability to add value immediately and Turner must have a strategy to make this so.

Going into the 2014 NFL season, I have a very strong opinion on who the best running back in the league is.  Rest easy, Vikings fans, it’s not LeSean McCoy, however, it isn’t Adrian Peterson, either.  The best running back in the league is Jamaal Charles.  Charles not only puts up very solid numbers as a runner, but his ability to be as dynamic as he is catching the ball and making plays makes him my #1 feature back currently in the league.  Not only that, Charles had the best yards per touch and touches per touchdown ratio out of those measured.

In some instances, Charles needs almost half as many touches to score.  This tells you how big of a playmaker Charles has proven to be.  Not only is he consistent, but he’s a touchdown threat every time he touches the ball.  Charles’ proven ability to be an excellent runner and tremendously dangerous catching the ball and making defenders miss makes him the epitome of modern day running backs.  With all of that said, I’m still looking forward to watching Peterson run through Green Bay in 2014.

Images and statistics courtesy of www.vikings.com, NFL.com & profootballfocus.com