Bell-cows, workhorses, lifebloods — all of these terms are used to describe players that are heavily showcased in NFL offenses. Because of the sheer amount of touches needed to earn the monikers, the player is almost always a running back.
This analysis does not adjudicate any quarterbacks because it is quite evident than any starting quarterback is a leadership engine by default. Instead, the focus will be on offensive skill position players and in this particular case — running backs.
In 2019, 17 running backs accounted for north of 1,200 yards from scrimmage. Eight of them even topped 1,500 total yards. In many respects, once a yards-from-scrimmage total reaches a level higher than 1,500, that player cannot easily be considered replaceable.
There is a frequent (and relatively recent) mentality among football fans that claims running backs are interchangeable. Sometimes, that is true. So long as a player can break tackles, avoid negative-yard plays, and protect the football, tailbacks that make it to the NFL level are fairly serviceable on the whole.
And then there are the engines. That is — players that tally a copious chunk of a team’s total yardage and vastly outpace other running backs on different teams.
The following five NFL engines are determined by the particular player’s yards from scrimmage per game divided by his team’s total yards per game. All numbers come from the 2019 season to seize the most recent and applicable source material.
Let’s examine the top five.
5. Nick Chubb (RB) – Cleveland Browns
2019 Yards from Scrimmage per Game: 110.75
2019 Browns Total Yards Gained per Game: 340.94
Chubb Engine Metric: 32.48%
What’s most remarkable about Nick Chubb placing in the top five is that he managed to do so even with Kareem Hunt joining the Browns halfway through the 2019 season. Hunt is a playmaking Rembrandt in his own right, but Chubb maximized his own business despite Hunt’s addition.
The Browns had a dispiriting year, and head coach Freddie Kitchens was terminated as a result. Former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski has since signed on as skipper and will look to extrapolate all of the Cleveland talent that Kitchens could not.
Chubb was the spearhead of nearly one-third of all the Browns offensive yards — even with men like Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, and the aforementioned Hunt to divvy up the load. The 24-year-old will be featured with the same prevalence, we think, in 2020 as the Browns hope to experience an uptick from their chintzy 6-10 record.
4. Leonard Fournette (RB) – Jacksonville Jaguars
2019 Yards from Scrimmage per Game: 111.60
2019 Jaguars Total Yards Gained per Game: 341.75
Fournette Engine Metric: 32.66%
The 2019 Jacksonville Jaguars did not experience a superfluity of offensive output. The team ranked 26th in points scored during rookie quarterback Gardner Minshew’s debut season and finished with a 6-10 record. Yet, of the offense they did bring to life, Leonard Fournette was Frankenstein.
Fournette was responsible for almost 33 percent of the offense’s total yards. Unlike the rest of the engines on this list, Fournette was primarily a yard-getter and lagged in touchdowns. He only found the endzone three times, which is flummoxing as he touched the football on 341 occasions.
Fantasy footballers remember this interesting split vividly. Heck, his rookie teammate D.J. Chark had nearly three times as many scores as Fournette.
For 2020, Jacksonville slathered Minshew with the undisputed starter title when the team traded Nick Foles to the Chicago Bears. Fournette’s production and happiness will largely benefit from Minshew’s sophomore performance if he evades a development downturn. You know, like Baker Mayfield incurred.
3. Saquon Barkley (RB) – New York Giants
2019 Yards from Scrimmage per Game: 110.85
2019 Giants Total Yards Gained per Game: 338.50
Barkley Engine Metric: 32.74%
The New York Giants, like the Jaguars, were another team that was less than stellar on offense. They, too, shared the similarity of a rookie quarterback at the offense’s helm. Duke alumnus Daniel Jones led the charge last season and did a fairly admirable job. It helped tremendously to have Saquon Barkley in the backfield.
Barkley was responsible for over 32 percent of the Giants offense. Unlike Fournette, Barkley was a destructive pass-catcher along with his ground-and-pound prowess. And, he chipped in eight touchdowns — a dip in production for him. In 2018, his rookie season, Barkley scored 15 touchdowns en route to an Offensive Rookie of the Year trophy.
This season, Barkley will aspire for a cleaner bill of health and more development for the Giants offense in year two of Daniel Jones’ leadership tenure. The scheme should look different. New York hired New England Patriots coordinator Joe Judge as a replacement for the jettisoned Pat Shurmur.
2. Dalvin Cook (RB) – Minnesota Vikings
2019 Yards from Scrimmage per Game: 118.14
2019 Vikings Total Yards Gained per Game: 353.5
Cook Engine Metric: 32.42%
25-year-old Dalvin Cook is a locomotive within Minnesota’s offense. Stylistically, he emulates Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk. He also has the muscular faculties to bulldoze opposing defenders, which is serious perk for a slasher-style tailback. In that respect, Cook has downhill-runner tendencies.
That’s why Dalvin is a peerless commodity. He led all rushers on this list in percentage of 15+ gains to touch (8.6 percent) during the 2019 season.
His explosiveness is special because he’s also not the type of feature back that gets dropped behind the line of scrimmage all that often. For instance, as a Viking, he’s only been dropped for losses on 9 percent of all snaps. His franchise counterpart, Adrian Peterson, was stopped for negative rushes 13 percent of the time during his career in Minnesota.
More recently, Cook has been in the news for contract-related matters. He wants a longterm contract, but he and the Vikings front office remain separated on the monetary figures.
1. Christian McCaffrey (RB) – Carolina Panthers
2019 Yards from Scrimmage per Game: 149.5
2019 Panthers Total Yards Gained per Game: 341.8
McCaffrey Engine Metric: 43.73%
No player motorized his team more in 2019 than Christian McCaffrey. His percentage of individual yards to the Panthers total yards is frankly obscene.
This can be interpreted as a testament to McCaffrey and an indictment of the Panthers offense. Had Carolina been a rip-roaring squad racking up the wins, this McCaffrey-only strategy would be saluted. But the Panthers finished the season with a 5-11 record and owners of the NFL’s 20th-best offense via points scored.
So, the Christian-or-bust approach did not work, at least not yet. The team hired a new coach, Matt Rhule, to take over for expelled skipper Ron Rivera. They also dumped 2019 signal-caller Kyle Allen in favor of ex-Viking Teddy Bridgewater. Carolina made its changes. This season will determine if the offense remains singularly faceted.
For context on McCaffrey’s workload, remember that he is a running back. He was targeted via pass 142 times. Altogether in 2019, Minnesota Vikings wideouts Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen were targeted 142 times — combined.