Before I look at stats though, let's see how Matt Miller ranked the RBs: At 54, Vick Ballard, with a grade of 69/100. Maurice Jones-Drew received a 83/100 grade, ranking 14. Chris Johnson was ranked at 12th best, and scored 83/100 too. And the winner here was Foster, ranking 9th overall and scored 85/100. So, yeah, that is what Miller thinks after looking at the tape.
So, without further ado, I will analyze the various stats and declare who I believe the RB in the AFC South I'd want on my team.
Arian Foster kills it here. A staggering 1,424 yards, 15 rush TDs, 4.1 yards rushing average, 2 receiving TDs and only 1 fumble per 130 touches (130.333 to be more precise). Chris Johnson too had big plays. 1,243 yards rush yards, 6TD- including a 94 yard TD home run, 4.5 rushing yards average and fumbled every 62.4 carries. Jones-Drew was largely inactive last year, but hey, durability is a major determinant in being a top player. To be a little fair towards him, i'll average out his 2011 and 2012 stats here: 1010 yrds/yr, 4.71/carry and an average of 6.5 total TDS/yr. Finally, Vick Ballard had 3 total TDs, 3.9 yards/carry and 814 rushing yards (8.9 yrds/reception too: the most of the AFC South RBs). All in all, it seems Foster or Johnson wins these statistics. Moving on..
Foster too wins here, receiving a Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement score ("DYAR means a running back with more total value") of 105 (he ranked 20th/play), ranking 13th of the 42 players that had 100+ carries. Ballard had 10 DYAR value (he ranked 27th/play- fairly close to Foster's rank), ranking 27th/42 overall. CJ had a disappointing -30 grade, 33rd/42 overall (he ranked 32nd/play). Jones-Drew qualified for another group (the 20-99 rushing category), scoring a DYAR of 27. Of the three AFC South rushers that qualified in the 100+ carries category, Vick Ballard had the best Success Rate (representing consistency) at 48% (10% lower than McGahee, who was ranked #1 in this category). Foster's success rate was close to Ballard's at 47% and CJ disappointed again, as his 41% ranked 38/42 of those who qualified. Lastly, the Effective Yards, which is "DVOA into a yards per attempt figure.... players with more Effective Yards than standard yards played better than standard stats would otherwise indicate"). Foster had a monster 1461 EYards (approximately 40 more than his raw yards). Johnson had a dramatic dip between his raw yards and his EYards, having only 895 (351 under his raw yards). Ballard saw a slight dip, having 767 EYards. MJD too dipped from his raw yards, scoring 347 EYards. To compare their EYards more fairly (as Foster and CJ had much more carries than MJD and Ballard), Foster had 4.162 EYards/rush. MJD had 4.035 EYards/ rush. Ballard had 3.635 EYards/rush. CJ had 3.243 EYards/rush (Football Outsiders really contradict CJ's standard stats). Thus, I can tell you Football Outsider statistics rank Foster the best. Followed by MJD (before he got injured) and then Vick Ballard. Which leads us to CJ, whose advanced stats here painted a much different picture than his raw stats painted (Raw stats: 4.5 yards/carry. EYards: 3.243 only!). Moving on...
PRO FOOTBALL FOCUS
Let's first look at a (so to say) less important aspect of being a runningback: receiving ability. Ballard ranked first of the three AFC South RBs that qualified (MJD didn't qualify), as he scored .88 Yards per Route Run (YPRR), ranking #37/50 as he had 1.11 YPRR than the receiving RB master: D. Sproles. CJ had .65 YPRR (45th) and Foster had .6 YPRR (46th).Of course QB play has a role in the YPRR (Luck is the best QB in the AFC South), which could explain why Ballard's the top here (he topped yards/reception too).
Using the same site, Vick Ballard had an awesome 38.6 elusive rating. He ranked 43/172 (he was labeled 'undervalued) and did well when his oline simply couldn't block for him. CJ had an 18.9 ER and Foster had an ER of 17.9. So was there oline mainly responsible for their inflated yards? I'd say maybe.
Another article by PFF clearly indicates how overvalued (contract wise) the RBs in the AFC South were(besides Vick Ballard- thankfully) in 2012. According to PFF, CJ was overpaid $10mill (most out of ANY RB), Foster was overpaid $5.4mill and so too MJD. The fact CJ had the poor ER and the 5 fumbles led to this mediocre label. Foster claimed to be overpaid due to his poor pass block efficiency grade and due to the fact he only broke one tackle every 12.2 carries. An interesting take on Foster's play in 2012: "If you are paying a running back $8m he better be an elite runner or a complete back. Foster was neither in 2012."- he made the 2012/13 Pro Bowl (and is a three time Pro Bowler). This could suggest we as NFL fans overrate him. MJD had his injury, which made it difficult for him to live up to his $6.4mill cap hit. Overall, Vick Ballard wins it here: he was the only RB to be called undervalued and not overvalued, he had the best YPRR and had the best ER of the RBs in the South.
Now onto my favorite advanced stat site (As it's free totally free :D). In the grading process, an individual player’s WPA or EPA or Success rate is the sum of the WPA or EPA or Success rate of the plays in which that player was directly involved. Being directly involved is defined as an offensive player who ran, threw, or kicked the ball, was targeted by a pass, or flagged for a penalty. The Runningback grades here suggest Vick Ballard had the best Win Probability Added (.55), ranking 12th/83 (ranked 18th/G). Foster had a .18 WPA, ranking 35th/83 (36th/G). Johnson ranked at a shocking 73 (68th/G) and MJD ranked at 78 (81/G). To define WPA, Advanced stats say it is "the measure of a play’s impact on the outcome of a game". Vick Ballard won the more games than the other RBs in the South for their team, according to this site (and it makes sense: just look at that spectacular receiving touchdown at Nashville). Expected Points Added and Success Rate painted this similar picture: Johnson and MJD were ineffective.
Matt Miller and most NFL viewers believe the top 3 South RBs are Foster, MJD and Chris Johnson and given their resume' of 3 Pro Bowls each, it's easy to see why. However, Advanced Stats point out that there Ballard should be graded close to these players. Given his higher Elusive rating (by far) on PFF of the four RBs, it is most surprising that Miller thinks Ballard lacks 'lateral agility and speed'. I don't know, but I assume the lack of lateral speed and agility perhaps were more due to the offensive line's wrong doing. Does Ballard actually lack it? Or could he not use his agility and speed to get to the edges and in between tackles to satisfy Matt Miller because the defenders were on top of Ballard straight away. 25% of the Colts' runs were stopped behind the line of scrimmage. That is much more of the wrong doing the poor interior line play (Linkenbach, Reitz and Satele were not good in 2012) , letting players through quickly before Ballard can use his lateral agility and speed: PFF rated the Colts run blocking 31st, so I wonder if it really was just due to the fact Ballard was just too isolated. I believe Miller underrated Ballard as his oline was just woeful. Other things advanced stats indicate: Johnson seems to be severely overrated and was one of the worst RBs last year, yet, his cap hit was second most. Foster should not be considered elite, even though his raw stats are mind- bottling. If I were to pick a RB from the South, I’d still go with Foster as he scores heaps of TDs. However, he seems to be the product of a good oline. Next, I’d pick Ballard over MJD. Ballard has underrated speed for his stocky build, his ER by PFF is solid and he is much more fresher/younger than MJD. MJD is in the twilight of an amazing career and his injury plagued 2012 season demonstrates this. He is quite risky. Lastly (and God forbid), I’d want (not really though) Chris Johnson. If you look past his raw stats and research his advanced stats , they’re shocking. His runs of 80 yards, 83 yards and 94yards inflate his production on the year severely. He is too much of a hit/miss player/ too inconsistent to want on your team and the fact that he criticized his oline in the offseason speaks a lot about him.
Note: Advanced stats go much more into details than 'raw' stats...Statistics don't tell the full truth. However, they don't lie either and once you see a trend in the statistics (eg CJ is severely overrated), it has a lot of meaning.