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Higher Education: The best third-down running backs

In a continuation of the recent "Higher Education" series, in which we looked at how rookies would best fit their new teams, we thought it might be interesting to take a look at certain performances and rankings from the 2010 season that go a bit outside the box. With the help of statistics from Football Outsiders, we'll be looking at different metrics that will hopefully illuminate the game in different ways.

In the first installment, we'll be talking about the 10 most efficient third-down running backs, based on FO's DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) metric. FO's efficiency metrics are opponent-adjusted and based on every play in a season. DVOA is one of the two primary stats; DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) will be discussed in future installments. The quick way to differentiate the two stats is to think of DVOA as a percentage reflecting value above average on a per-play basis; and DYAR as a point value that indicates the cumulative value over average based on every play.

When dealing with stats that feature small sample sizes, it's better to use DVOA, because of the per-play dynamic. So, here are the 10 most efficient backs on third downs with a minimum of 15 third-down carries. We've also included the Success Rate of each back, which indicates the percentage of plays in which a back gained the necessary yardage for a first-down conversion on third down. In all cases, we've thrown in the rare fourth-down carries as well.

Cadillac Williams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: -- 74.9% DVOA (16 carries, 166 yards, 63% Success Rate)

Not bad for a guy who's gone through more than his share of injuries in recent years; the combination of Williams and rookie LeGarrette Blount(notes) was one of the reasons the Bucs were the NFC's surprise team in 2010. But as much as Blount was touted as the power back, and thus more conversant with short-yardage situations, it was Williams who led the way, and Blount had a third-down DVOA of minus-27.9%, and 14 yards and a 33% Success Rate on just nine carries.

LeSean McCoy(notes), Philadelphia Eagles -- 41.6% DVOA (19 carries, 131 yards, 58% Success Rate)

His nickname is "Shady", and McCoy lives up to it with his scattershot running style, but he's also one of the more effective short-yardage backs in the league. It was a good thing, too, because all the other Eagles backs (Jerome Harrison(notes), Eldra Buckley(notes), and Mike Bell(notes)) were among the least efficient third-down backs in the league.

Michael Bush(notes), Oakland Raiders -- 32.8% DVOA (18 carries, 112 yards, 50% Success Rate)

Bush and Darren McFadden(notes) comprised one of the league's best rushing attacks; that's why the Raiders ranked sixth overall in Rushing DYAR despite a passing attack that was well below average. It's unknown how a new coaching staff, many new offensive linemen, and a change in blocking scheme will change that; it has to be frustrating for Raiders fans that just as Oakland got an offensive philosophy together for the first time in years, everything's now up in the air.

Arian Foster(notes), Houston Texans -- 28.0% DVOA (40 carries, 244 yards, 63% Success Rate)

The NFL's leading rusher in 2010 was pretty darned solid in every category; Foster was one of the few backs last year to post a positive rushing DVOA on every down. Foster cured Houston's longtime red zone issues as well; the Texans were one of the NFL's best red zone teams whether passing or running following several sub-par seasons. Now, about that pass defense…

Michael Turner(notes), Atlanta Falcons -- 27.4% DVOA (18 carries, 62 yards, 72% Success Rate)

Turner's numbers are, to a certain degree, symptomatic of his running style and the style of the Falcons' offense in recent years — with Turner as the inside grinder for the most part, and the Atlanta offense as a chew-'em-up system without a lot of per-play dynamism. With Julio Jones(notes) and Jacquizz Rodgers(notes) on board via the draft, it's possible that things will open up a bit for Turner, allowing him to bust a few more long runs.

Higher Education: The best third-down running backs

Jamaal Charles(notes), Kansas City Chiefs -- 24.6% DVOA (30 carries, 155 yards, 43% Success Rate)

At FO, we've long been on Kansas City head coach Todd Haley's back to have him get Charles more involved in the offense, and we're not the only ones. Haley's familiar claim that Charles isn't a consistent third-down back may br true from a blocking perspective, but it certainly isn't true from a production perspective, especially in contrast to Thomas Jones(notes), who put up a minus-30.9% DVOA, and a 42% Success Rate in those similar situations.

Lousaka Polite(notes), Miami Dolphins -- 24.3% DVOA (16 carries, 39 yards, 88% Success Rate)

Polite has been one of the real old-school backs over the last few years. He amassed 15 first downs on 26 carries in 2010, his first-down percentage is always among the league's highest, and he's known as perhaps the best back in the pros when it comes to that necessary final yard. 15 of Polite's carries came on third-and-1 last year, and he converted 14 of those third downs. That, friends, is the kind of guy you want on your roster.

Chris Ivory, New Orleans Saints -- 24.3% DVOA (17 carries, 105 yards, 71% Success Rate)

The rookie from Tiffin showed a surprising versatility for a bruiser; he was fairly successful with the occasional screen pass and outside run. Ivory was actually a bit more successful on third-down situations with more than one yard to go; we'll have to see how the Saints fit him in with first-round pick Mark Ingram(notes).

Shonn Greene(notes), New York Jets -- 19.3% DVOA (18 carries, 77 yards, 67% Success Rate)

Greene converted all but one of his third-and-one chances, but he was especially good at extending drives from third-and-longer compared to the league average, converting half of his chances from two yards out or longer and making himself a key cog in the Jets' power running game. The challenge now will be for him to succeed at this level as a feature back.

Frank Gore(notes), San Francisco 49ers -- 14.2% DVOA (22 carries, 85 yards, 55% Success Rate)

After all these years, and all those quarterback issues, and all those offensive line problems, it's good to see Gore on this list, and it's more than a bit revealing when it comes to his overall greatness as a 49er. For years, he's done it well without a lot of help.

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