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Saints' Thomas: Best All-Purpose Running Back in the NFL?



Drew Brees was recently quoted saying that New Orleans Saints’ running back Pierre Thomas is the best all-purpose back in the NFL, which isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds.
After Drew Brees called Pierre Thomas the NFL’s best all-purpose running back, many people had the natural reaction to quickly dismiss this notion. But Brees, who has played alongside running backs such as LaDainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner, Duece McAllister, and Darren Sproles would know a well-rounded running back when he saw one.

“…Pierre can do everything. He’s the best all-purpose back in the league in my opinion“ Brees said. “Run, pass, screen game, pass protection ... you name it, he can do it.”

Surely, a player like Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, or Marshawn Lynch should claim that title as they are consistently atop the league in statistics such as rushing yards, yards per carry, and/or touchdowns – right?

Not necessarily. These statistics are undoubtedly an important part of the formula that comprises an effective all-purpose running back, but are by no means the only part. Other equally-important aspects include the route-running ability to beat linebackers in coverage and the hands to make a difficult catch, the patience and vision to let blockers get into position on screen passes, and the ability to protect the quarterback from pass rushers.

Although the aforementioned running backs may be better at running the football, they lack the proficiency at either receiving or pass blocking that Thomas possesses. He may not be the best all-purpose running back in the NFL, but it is by this logic that he is definitely one of the best.

It can be difficult to assess the receiving or blocking abilities of a running back, but luckily the guys at Pro Football Focus grade running, receiving, and blocking separately. See below to see where Thomas ranked in terms of an overall PFF grade over the past five seasons (not including 2010 in which injuries cut his season short):

2008: 3rd (+3.3)
2009: 3rd (+7.8)
2011: 2nd (+14.3)
2012: 3rd (+14.7)
2013: 12th (+10.0)

While numerous running backs graded higher than Thomas as runners over these years, it was their shortcomings as receivers or blockers that ultimately resulted in them receiving a lower overall grade than Thomas – who was no slouch of a runner himself. He has managed 4.6 YPC and only three fumbles on 773 regular season carries throughout his career. Moreover, Thomas has dropped just seven career passes while hauling in 280 successfully. As a pass protector, Thomas has received a positive PFF grade over the past three seasons.

So as it turns out, Drew Brees wasn’t that far off after all. Considering Thomas’s salary averages out to just $2.3 million over his three-year deal, the Saints seem to be getting quite a value.
  • Chris Lehman likes this



11 Comments

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Jake Arthur
Aug 05 2014 01:01 PM

I guess that's not totally farfetched - just not a name you'd think about.  However, when he was with the Giants, Ahmad Bradshaw was the NFL's best all-purpose back, and no one would have thought much about that, either.

    • Brian Gagnon likes this
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Brian Gagnon
Aug 05 2014 01:11 PM

I completely agree - he could do it all, yet was never in consideration for the best running back. People tend to focus on the guys with the big rushing numbers. Totally different conversation. 

    • Jake Arthur likes this

Marcel Reese should be right there in the conversation.

    • Jake Arthur and Brian Gagnon like this
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Brian Gagnon
Aug 05 2014 01:44 PM

Very good point - didn't even think about him. He definitely can do a bit of everything

The biggest difference is P. Thomas gets consistent touches and playing time.  Reese really doesn't (although he should).

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Brian Gagnon
Aug 05 2014 01:55 PM

Agreed. May be tough for Reese to see much action with MJD around now.

I can also see Thomas's touches decreasing with the emergence of K. Robinson and Ingram late last year. He may play mostly passing downs due t his receiving ability. We will see, though.

Thomas it top5 in my book. 

Jamaal Charles is the best all around.  He led in 5 offensive categories last season and didn't' allow a sack in pass protection.

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Brian Gagnon
Aug 05 2014 03:11 PM

Definitely won't argue against Charles in anything, he's amazing. Though PFF has different numbers on Charles' blocking - 2 sacks, a hit and 7 hurries in 110 pass blocking snaps. Still slightly more efficient than Thomas, nonetheless

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Chris Lehman
Aug 05 2014 03:24 PM

Nice. As one of my former articles would suggest, I'm huge on Pierre. Glad to see him getting more love

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Brian Gagnon
Aug 05 2014 03:37 PM

He deserves it. Brees and Payton always say he's not underrated to them whenever a reporter brings it up.

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Anthony Rizzuti
Aug 05 2014 05:48 PM

Often wonder how he'd do in an offense other than Payton's. Great stuff, Brian. 

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