Want to know who is really a third-down back? That guy who has to keep the drive alive as the most reliable weapon for that play? Some of the names will surprise, but this shows every third-down attempt made by a running back that had at least ten attempts during the season. Overall, the players with the most third-down plays were Najee Harris (43), Jonathan Taylor (40), and Ezekiel Elliott (38) but let’s take a look at how they broke down.
Below are the Top-20 in the category considering the 44 running backs with least ten third-down attempts. This is an interesting and relative measurement as to how reliable and successful running backs were for their team as they strived to keep offensive drives alive. Plays resulting in touchdowns on third down were counted as a first down since they were the most successful conclusion to a play.
James Conner was expected to be the No. 2 back in Arizona but was given the most rushing attempts on third down of any back. Jonathan Taylor naturally shines in this category and it’s encouraging to see that Javonte Williams was the preferred rusher on third downs for the Broncos. This also indicates how more complex offenses have become, with running backs averaging fewer than two such plays per game at most.
And it also points at how committee backfields spread out their workloads, with surprisingly high ranks for Rex Burkhead, Sony Michel, Brandon Bolden and Jamaal Williams. Of course, third downs are very often passing downs, and these stats only reflect totals without considering games missed due to injury. But these are how often a back ran the ball on third down.
The yards-per-carry can reflect how many yards there were to go for a first down and the infamous “run the ball on third-and-18” does apply. D’Andre Swift (7.3) and Javonte Williams (6.7) were the best with over 20 carries. Several “no names” like Travis Homer, Ty Johnson, Mike Davis appear, but they all had low carries to judge.
Third-down rushing success
Aaron Jones (88%) was the best at converting third-down runs, but AJ Dillon (71%) was also effective which indicates the strength of the Green Bay offensive line. The most successful rushers on third down were mostly those with fewer attempts. Ezekiel Elliott had a down year but was still the most successful rusher of those with higher attempts. J.D. McKissic surprises with 86% of his seven rushes gaining a first down. Antonio Gibson (57%) was also Top-20 indicating the Commanders blocking was better than expected this year.
This only counted catches, not targets. In fairness, many if not most incompletions to running backs are the quarterback throwing the ball away. So only receptions were considered.
This is where the third-down backs should shine. But Najee Harris dominated the category and yet had far more rushes than the others. Javonte Williams did well as a third-down rusher and split 26 catches with Melvin Gordon, which shows where the passes end up on third down in Denver. Still, only Harris and Bolden averaged more than one per game.
James Conner shows his worth to the Cardinals in many metrics, and while he only had five catches on third down, he made the most of them. He averaged over ten yards per catch in five different matchups. Jonathan Taylor did well despite being the focus of most opposing defenses regardless of down or distance. The Patriot backfield was very well represented in all of the metrics since their passing scheme was so short in most weeks, and that’s likely to recede for 2022 as Mac Jones throws more downfield.
Third-down reception success
Half of the NFL teams had a running back with over 50% success when catching a third-down pass. James Conner and Antonio Gibson had minimal catches but gained a first on each. Gibson was expected to play a far larger role as a receiver in 2021 than he did, but this says they under-used him to be sure. None of the Top-20 had more than ten first downs as a receiver, but this metric says as much about the offensive scheme as it does the player. Plenty of the names here had only minor fantasy value at best.
This is the “Big Daddy Ranking” for how successful running backs were combining rushes and receptions on third down.
These were the 44 running backs with at least ten attempts on third down. Some running backs didn’t reach ten due to injury. Some reached ten while filling in for better running backs who missed time injured. But this is what third-down looked like for running backs in the NFL in 2021.
The Good – Christian McCaffrey is such a force when he is healthy. Ezekiel Elliott seemed less effective this year, but not on third down. Jonathan Taylor was the top running back for 2021 and showed up with 58% success on third down. Most of the top backs did well in this overall measurement that yields encouragement for this season for AJ Dillon, Antonio Gibson, Michael Carter, and Leonard Fournette where ever he ends up. Kenneth Gainwell and Jamaal Williams were surprisingly effective in their respective roles in committee backfields. The expectation was that the top fantasy backs would be at the top, but the Top-20 was chock-full of lesser players with marginal fantasy value. It speaks to the continued division of duties in backfields, along with the effects of injuries and COVID-19.
The Bad – Alvin Kamara – are you okay? The Saints entered the year with one of the best offensive lines, but he was only successful on 28% of his third-down attempts. Austin Ekeler had a fine year for fantasy but just wasn’t that good on third down on a team that featured a very capable passing game to concern the opposing defense. Each running back had a unique situation and their success is still dependent on the entire offense doing their job. Dalvin Cook (42%), Josh Jacobs (38%) and D’Andre Swift (41%) were all highly rated backs entering 2021 and just didn’t fare as well on third down as most other starting running backs.
The Interesting – It may be overly optimistic to make any hard and fast conclusions about these running backs, but it is one more piece of information to throw in to each players’ bucket of characteristics. Here are a few of the questions that this spawns for me – you might find others as well.
James Conner – He’s only 26 and a free agent. He outperformed Chase Edmonds in every measurement, and even more so here. He was in a “pass first” offense but was effective rushing and receiving on third down. The Edmonds experiment is over, what will the Cards do?
Leonard Fournette – He’s only 27 and a free agent. He was already the most productive back on the market and second only to Christian McCaffrey on third down. The Bucs are undergoing a change in 2022 anyway, but Fournette’s outlook seems bright regardless of where he ends up.
Kenneth Gainwell and Miles Sanders – The success of Gainwell (65%) over Miles Sanders (47%) was maybe the biggest surprise. What will Year 2 under HC Nick Sirianni look like?
Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift – The first season for HC Dan Campbell was hoped to unleash Swift more, but both he and Williams missed three games. And the backfield overall was split. Williams was effective on third down (60%) but Swift (41%) lagged on his 34 attempts as opposed to the 20 for Williams. Can Swift justify being more than just a busy third-down back? He didn’t last year.
Michael Carter – He squeaked in with only ten third-down attempts but was successful on 60% while a rookie on a very bad offense. And behind one of the worst lines in the NFL. Hard to expect much with the Jets in a perpetual cycle of rebuilding, but has he earned a bigger role this year as the most effective rusher and Tevin Coleman likely gone? Then again, Ty Johnson (57%) was nearly as effective and had double the third-down attempts.
Third down is a critical part of all offensive drives and running backs tend to be the most relied on for most NFL offenses. But this is evaluating only one or two plays per game for the listed backs. It is an interesting measurement, but certainly not the only one or even the most important. But the importance of third-down success is hard to overvalue.