The Buffalo Bills finished 2022 second in the NFL in points per game at 28.4. They were also second in yards per game with 397.6. Analytics loved Buffalo’s offense, as well; Football Outsiders also ranked them second in their DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) with a 19% score. The lowest calculation I could find for their offense came from Pro Football Focus (PFF) which ranked the Bills eighth with a 77.7 grade. There isn’t a ton of room for improvement on that side of the ball… except for running back, specifically, the short yardage back.
We expect sophomore James Cook to get the bulk of the RB1 carries now that Devin Singletary is in Houston and to hoard the pass-catching work, but what about third or fourth and short? It seems obvious that the Bills would like to relieve some of that pressure from quarterback Josh Allen. According to NFL Stats and Solutions (SIS), Buffalo ran the ball 37 times on third or fourth and three or fewer yards to gain. Allen scrambles were converted 100% of the time in those situations, but the running game earned a first on roughly 77% of the time. That sounds good until you see they ranked 20th with two yards to go and 17th with three yards to go, per SIS.
Enter the signings of Damien Harris and Latavius Murray, who received 12 out of a possible 60 points in our Cover1 team rankings. I gave that position the highest value coming in at fourth.
Let’s start this discussion by looking directly at the touchdowns and first downs gained for these two last season. According to PFF, Harris carried the ball 106 times while converting 23 for first downs and scoring three touchdowns. He averaged 3.05 yards after contact. Flipping over to Murry, he toted the rock 170 times for 43 first downs and six touchdowns. His yards after contact were down from Harris at just 2.52. Extrapolating those numbers vs. Singletary, Harris is a touch better with Murray being a virtual wash in per-touch averages.
Digging deeper into box score stats, here are the rest of those numbers: Murray spent last year with Denver and New Orleans. He combined for 760 rushing yards and six touchdowns on the ground. The Central Florida product added 27 catches for 132 more yards. Harris only appeared in 11 games for the Patriots but still managed 462 yards and three rushing TDs. The Bama product added 17 receptions for 97 yards.
“I’m in the camp of taking some designed runs off Allen’s plate, especially in the low red zone. Enter Harris, who ranked top ten in EPA/Att and Points Earned/Att in the RZ in 2022 and has 16 RZ Rush TDs over the last two seasons (Allen has 12),” – @LowBuffa.
I’m going to use @LowBuffa’s feelings on RB2 as a good transition from counting stats to analytics.
Let’s peel back the layers of advanced stats for this duo by starting with Football Outsiders using DYAR or Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. This gives the value of the performance on plays where this RBs carried/caught the ball, compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent, and then translated into yardage. Here they score Harris a 91 and Murray an 86. To put those numbers into perspective, they rank 16th and 18th, respectively. To further understand how good Football Outsiders believe they are, Singletary was 20th, and the three names directly in front of Harris are Barkley, McCaffrey, and Ekeler. NOT! BAD! COMPANY!
The number nerds at PFF love Murray. His overall offensive grade for 2022 is 82.5, or the eighth-highest-graded running back in the league. Harris was no slouch coming in at 75.8 or 25th overall. Let’s be honest, what we care about is how these two scored when running the ball. Murray once again came in at eighth overall with a grade of 86.0. As for Harris, his 77.9 ranks 26th in rushing.
If we’re going simply off of the advanced stats, the Bills were able to add a pair of top 25 running backs to a stable that includes James Cook and Josh Allen. This seems like thievery by Brandon Beane.
When you have Allen, one other number is very important, and that is pass blocking. Harris comes in at 26th overall at 55.7. As for Murray, my kids would say “he’s on the struggle bus,” earning a score of 43.6 or 46th best overall.
Attached are the game-by-game overall scores, per PFF.
What about snaps? Everyone can have a flash now and then in a small sample size. Murray played 447 snaps last season, 422 coming from the backfield. He rarely lined up outside the traditional role of a ball carrier in the backfield, only going to the slot 13 times and wide ten times, per PFF. Harris was dinged up for parts of last season, only lining up for New England 238 times, 224 of those were from the backfield. For me, this says there is a very real possibility these guys platoon in the responsibility of short-yardage back.
If a Harris/Murray combo can be a first down and touchdown relief valve for Allen and the MVP candidate can focus more on his passing and scrambling only when needed, these signings are a huge win for the Bills and why they place #10 in our Cover 1 Most Important Players Not Named Josh Allen list.