Explosive plays remain a priority for all coaching staffs in football at every level. Offenses want to create them; defenses want to prevent them.
But what makes an explosive play? And who is the best in the NFL at producing them?
In past years, I’ve tackled this annual series by creating a set of criteria utilizing Next Gen Stats data with the intent to separate the best from the rest. To identify the most explosive runners of 2021, I used a set of requirements that included two benchmarks — a minimum of 100 carries and a minimum of 20 carries in which a runner gained 10 or more yards — and relied on the total number and percentage of 15-plus mph runs to sort out qualified runners.
This time around, thanks to the continued advancements at Next Gen Stats, we have another all-encompassing metric to utilize: explosive score.
Explosive score takes into account each player’s top speed, average speed, number of big plays and more to produce a composite score on a scale of 0-100. As you’ll see below, my ranking of the 10 most explosive runners of 2022 relies primarily on explosive score to separate top performers, with supporting information to help you — the reader and football fan — understand exactly why they’re among the best in the NFL.
JUST MISSED THE CUT: Jalen Hurts, QB, Philadelphia Eagles; Josh Jacobs, RB, Las Vegas Raiders; Aaron Jones, RB, Green Bay Packers; Daniel Jones, QB, New York Giants; Miles Sanders, RB, Carolina Panthers (Eagles in ’22); Jeff Wilson, RB, Miami Dolphins (split ’22 season between Dolphins and 49ers).
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- Explosive score: 83
- 10+ yard runs: 30
- 10+ pct: 11.4%
- 15+ mph runs: 57
- 15+ mph pct: 21.6%
Here’s an example of explosive score bringing a dose of reality to a player whom I initially expected to rank higher on this list.
Cook’s raw numbers paint a picture of a back who runs hard and isn’t stopped easily. That’s still true: He broke 20 mph on carries three times, and logged one of the best top speeds of any qualifying running back at 21.68 mph. His 57 runs of 15-plus mph support what we already know, which is that Cook runs like a wrecking ball intent on felling a skyscraper in one swoop. But he didn’t consistently rack up enough runs of 10-plus yards (at least when compared against his 264 total carries) to land any higher on this list.
Cook is still one heck of a running back. He’s just not quite as elite as the others listed here when it comes to explosive plays — likely a product of Minnesota’s offense, which uses him as a building block for its play-action passing game.
- Explosive score: 84
- 10+ yard runs: 26
- 10+ pct: 21%
- 15+ mph runs: 44
- 15+ mph pct: 35.5%
The first quarterback to appear on this list shouldn’t shock anyone. The numbers reflect how Allen — who was fifth on this list a year ago — operated in Buffalo’s offense, too, which arguably relied too heavily on his rushing exploits to power its ground game in 2022. Instead of possessing astronomical numbers similar to the top signal-caller on this list, Allen’s production was more in line with the best running backs (and Lamar Jackson) among this group. If anything, it illustrates the impact of opponents’ increased focus on limiting mobile quarterbacks who are known to change games with their legs.
Still, Allen was among the premier big-play producers in 2022. He didn’t break the sound barrier with his running, but he did manage to gain 10-plus yards over expected 10 times last season. He also tallied enough runs of 15-plus mph and 10-plus yards to earn this place. And if anyone is wondering whether Allen is still making a difference with his legs, well, he is: Allen logged the highest expected points added per carry of any qualifying rusher in the league at +0.44. Yep, still quite good, folks.
- Explosive score: 85
- 10+ yard runs: 37
- 10+ pct: 10.6%
- 15+ mph runs: 57
- 15+ mph pct: 16.3%
It shouldn’t be a surprise to see Henry receive the same explosive score as Saquon Barkley, who is seventh on this list. They finished with the same percentage of runs at 15-plus mph, and Henry fell just 0.2 percent short of Barkley in percentage of rushes gaining 10-plus yards.
Henry’s 2022 season was a bit different from the previous couple of years in that he didn’t start too strongly. Henry didn’t break 100 rushing yards in a game until Week 4. From Week 4 through 9, Henry recorded 100-plus rushing yards in each game. Naturally, Tennessee won four of the five contests it played in that span.
Ever the bulldozing back, Henry finished second in rushing yards gained after contact (1,252 of his 1,538), logged 11 gains of 10-plus yards over expected, and his 57 runs of 15-plus mph showed he isn’t declining just yet. Henry will turn 30 years old before the end of the 2023 season, but as of now, he’s still among the league’s best at creating big plays.
- Explosive score: 85
- 10+ yard runs: 32
- 10+ pct: 10.8%
- 15+ mph runs: 48
- 15+ mph pct: 16.3%
Last season was an incredible comeback campaign for Barkley, who eased concerns that the injury bug would prevent him from making his way back onto lists like this one. Barkley shook off that pest with emphasis in 2022, racking up 1,312 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on 295 carries, posting the third-best per-carry average (4.4) of his career and his best mark since 2019. That effort was good enough for a third-place finish in Comeback Player of the Year voting, and a seventh-place ranking among the league’s most explosive runners.
Finishing with the second-most gains of 10-plus yards over expected (17) didn’t hurt Barkley’s case for this list, nor did his six runs of 20-plus mph. Despite a lengthy lower-body injury history, Barkley consistently proved he had rediscovered the explosive abilities that led to his selection as the No. 2 overall pick of the 2018 draft. It came at a good time, too, as Barkley was in a contract year. Barkley’s 2022 performance showed that the Giants shouldn’t give up on him. After receiving the franchise tag this offseason, he now has to prove he can maintain that level in 2023.
- Explosive score: 86
- 10+ yard runs: 47 (most in NFL)
- 10+ pct: 15.6%
- 15+ mph runs: 50
- 15+ mph pct: 16.6%
Chubb’s numbers remain impressive, but Cleveland’s offensive struggles certainly contributed to his sixth-place ranking on this list. Initially, I put him in the top three, partially because of his league-leading 47 runs of 10-plus yards. But a deeper look into his production reveals a symptom of Cleveland’s deficiencies: His success rate was lower than some of his peers on this list, due in part to Cleveland’s blocking giving him an expected yards per carry below four (3.8), and he received the second-most carries (302) among runners in this group. As many know, his top-end speed doesn’t quite stack up with some of the faster backs in this group, either — although his top gear packs some sneaky get-away burst.
Still, this No. 6 ranking is nothing to scoff at, and a lot of it has to do with Chubb’s ability to run through tacklers with power. Of Chubb’s 1,525 rushing yards, 1,177 came after contact, good for a third-place finish among qualifying ball-carriers. Chubb has built a career on exceeding expectations, routinely leading the league or finishing in the top three in rush yards over expected. In 2022, he was the only qualified running back to post double-digit first downs gained over expected — a category dominated by quarterbacks, thanks in part to the unexpected nature of QB scrambles and misdirection of designed QB runs. Chubb, though, consistently maximized his potential on runs, gaining 14 first downs over expected, twice as many as the next-closest qualified running back (D’Onta Foreman), and also dominated gains of 10-plus rushing yards over expected (22 such carries). Chubb’s hard-running, never-quit style continues to produce.
- Explosive score: 87
- 10+ yard runs: 31
- 10+ pct: 16.1%
- 15+ mph runs: 43
- 15+ mph pct: 22.3%
Pollard is currently projected to be the top option in Dallas’ backfield, but he earned a spot on this list despite splitting carries last season with Ezekiel Elliott, who was released in March.
Pollard ripped off 31 runs of 10-plus yards, including 15 gains of 10-plus rush yards over expected. Like Chubb, Pollard’s top speed didn’t make a huge difference in his explosive score, but his 43 runs at 15-plus mph showed off playmaking speed that contributed to him finishing with 1,007 rushing yards on just 193 carries (5.2 per attempt). Unfortunately, Pollard’s Pro Bowl 2022 campaign finished with a serious leg injury in the playoffs. How long will it take him to get back up to full speed? And will he be able to carry an increased workload following Zeke’s departure?
- Explosive score: 88
- 10+ yard runs: 31
- 10+ pct: 27.7%
- 15+ mph runs: 41
- 15+ mph pct: 36.6%
Jackson’s injury issues have been well documented over the last two seasons, limiting him to 12 games each year. One might think that would eliminate him from consideration. That individual would be wrong.
Jackson qualified with 112 rushing attempts, and as is the case for a number of mobile quarterbacks, his advantage of unpredictability helped vault him up these rankings.
Surprisingly, Jackson didn’t threaten the leaders in top speed reached as a ball-carrier, but that didn’t keep him from earning the fourth spot on this list. Jackson still recorded 15 gains of 10-plus yards over expected, and his ability to pick up chunks of yards saw him break 10 yards on 27.7 percent of attempts. A 15-plus-mph percentage of nearly 37 fueled a good portion of his explosive score, reminding us of what we already knew: Jackson is a big-play threat on every down.
- Explosive score: 90
- 10+ yard runs: 26
- 10+ pct: 11.8%
- 15+ mph runs: 56
- 15+ mph pct: 25.5%
After a foot injury sidelined Etienne for his entire rookie year, he came back ready to contribute to Jacksonville’s turnaround campaign in 2022. Instead of languishing in the nightmare that was 2021 for the team, Etienne and Co. started fresh under Doug Pederson, who wasn’t afraid to use the Clemson product’s versatile skill set to propel the Jaguars.
The results were fantastic: 1,125 rushing yards (5.1 per carry) and five touchdowns. Etienne added another 316 yards as a pass-catcher, bringing his yardage total close to 1,500 for the year. Much of this ranking, though, is built on Etienne’s ability to hit full speed with the ball in his hands. Etienne tied for the second-most runs at 20-plus mph among qualified runners with six, trailing only Justin Fields. Add in 13 gains of 10-plus yards over expected, and you have one of the NFL’s most explosive runners of 2022. Not to mention, he’s only getting started.
- Explosive score: 90
- 10+ yard runs: 29
- 10+ pct: 12.7%
- 15+ mph runs: 57
- 15+ mph pct: 25%
Walker’s arrival in Seattle last season filled a void at running back for Pete Carroll, providing the Seahawks with a reliable, powerful option in the backfield. What might be surprising to some is just how explosive Walker was in 2022.
Walker finished third in explosive score thanks to a stellar big-play résumé. He led all rushers in top speed reached with the ball in his possession at 22.09 mph, tied for third in gains of 10-plus yards over expected (15) and hit 20 mph on four carries on the year (tying for fourth in the category). Walker managed to break 1,000 yards as a rookie with an average of 4.6 yards per carry, adding nine rushing touchdowns in an offense that was surprisingly productive with well-traveled veteran Geno Smith playing quarterback.
Oddly enough, Walker didn’t exceed expectation often, but some of that is a product of Seattle scheming and blocking its way to an expected average of 4.2 yards per Walker carry. That will happen when a passing game is finding success, opening up more avenues for a runner to make a difference. Walker certainly did so in 2022.
- Explosive score: 98
- 10+ yard runs: 33
- 10+ pct: 20.6%
- 15+ mph runs: 89 (most in NFL)
- 15+ mph pct: 55.6%
It’s fair to say today’s NFL is only going to continue to produce premier runners at the quarterback position.
Lamar Jackson’s effectiveness on the ground upon becoming the Ravens’ full-time starter wasn’t the first instance of a quarterback finding success with his legs, but it was a turning point. In the last two seasons, quarterbacks have topped my rankings, and much like last year’s top 10, three quarterbacks made my list this time around.
Fields’ 2022 season was visually thrilling. Statistically, it was incredible, especially considering the state of the Bears last year.
The 2021 season’s most explosive rusher was another quarterback — Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts — and Fields’ Next Gen totals were even better than Hurts’ in 2021. Only Kyler Murray has been more explosive on the ground in the last three seasons, with the Cardinals’ quarterback setting the standard (32 runs of 10-plus yards, 94 of 15-plus mph) back in 2020 — and he finished that season with 324 fewer rushing yards than Fields posted in 2022.
In fact, Fields’ Next Gen numbers closely mirror Jackson’s from 2020.
What Fields did in 2022 was a matter of making the most out of a less-than-ideal situation. The Bears lacked weapons offensively and struggled because of it, but Fields often kept them afloat otherwise. His ability to create positive gains with his legs only makes him more dangerous, and unless Chicago confines him to the pocket indefinitely, it’s safe to expect he’ll end up on this list again a year from now.
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