Which running backs will give the Jets’ elite run defense the most trouble?
13. Los Angeles Rams
Projected lead back: Malcolm Brown
Notable backups: Darrell Henderson, Cam Akers (R)
Todd Gurley did not look close to his peak self in 2019, ranking 37th out of 45 running backs in yards per carry (3.8), but the Rams backfield looks barren without him. Malcolm Brown is currently slated to be the starter after averaging 3.7 yards per carry in 2019 and 3.9 throughout his career. He also offers nothing as a receiver, with career averages of 0.4 catches for 1.1 yards per game.
Rookie Cam Akers is the X factor. The Florida State product was taken by Los Angeles with the 52nd overall pick after racking up 1,369 yards and 18 touchdowns from scrimmage in just 11 games as a junior. Akers, who ran a speedy 4.47 in the forty-yard dash (87th percentile among RB), ranked seventh in the nation with 76 forced missed tackles this past season. The Rams will desperately need his elusiveness to help mitigate a poor offensive line.
12. Kansas City Chiefs
Projected lead backs: Clyde Edwards-Helaire (R), Damien Williams
Notable backups: Darrel Williams, Darwin Thompson, Elijah McGuire, Anthony Sherman (FB)
Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City’s first-round pick at 32nd overall, ranked second in the nation among running backs with 55 receptions in 2019. That receiving ability makes him a perfect fit for the Chiefs offense, which saw its running backs collect 80 receptions in 2019.
Damien Williams’ two-way ability makes him an ideal partner for Edwards-Helaire. Williams averaged 45.3 rushing yards on 4.5 yards per carry while also racking up 19.4 receiving yards on 2.7 receptions.
11. New England Patriots
Projected lead backs: Sony Michel, James White
Notable backups: Rex Burkhead, Brandon Bolden
Michel has been a workhorse for the Patriots with 15.7 carries for 63.6 yards per game over his first two seasons, but he has not been much of a needle-mover. In 2019, he ranked 39th out of 45 running backs in Pro Football Focus’ “Elusive Rating,” which combines yards after contact and broken tackles. He has yet to score a receiving touchdown and is averaging only 5.0 receiving yards per game.
New England can be comfortable with Michel’s lack of passing game involvement because they have one of the league’s best receiving backs in James White. Over the past two seasons, White leads running backs in receiving touchdowns (12) and is third in receiving yards per game (45.0).
Burkhead gives the Patriots another efficient receiver. He ranks 10th out of 41 qualified running backs with 7.1 yards per target over the past two seasons.
It will be interesting to see how this unit’s involvement in the passing game changes without Tom Brady. The six-time champion loved to use his backs in the passing game throughout his two decades in Foxboro. Will White still make the same impact without him?
10. Buffalo Bills
Projected lead back: Devin Singletary
Notable backups: T.J. Yeldon, Patrick DiMarco (FB)
Frank Gore began 2019 as Buffalo’s bell-cow back, but Singletary eventually took over the starting role after busting out a myriad of huge runs to start his career. Over his final eight games, Singletary averaged 75.4 yards on 16.4 attempts per game (4.6 per carry).
On the season, Singletary ranked third in broken tackles per carry (0.238) with 36 on 151 carries, trailing only Alvin Kamara and Josh Jacobs.
Yeldon was Buffalo’s third back in 2019. He averaged only 3.7 yards per carry on a mere 17 attempts, but was efficient as a receiver with 124 yards and six first downs on 15 targets.
9. Arizona Cardinals
Projected lead back: Kenyan Drake
Notable backups: Chase Edmonds, Eno Benjamin (R)
The Cardinals fleeced the Texans by trading away the inconsistent and oft-injured David Johnson for DeAndre Hopkins, thus entrusting the starting running back job to Kenyan Drake.
Arizona is hoping Drake can pick up where he left off in 2019. Over eight games with the Cardinals after coming over from Miami, Drake ran for 80.4 yards on 15.4 carries per game (5.2 per attempt) with eight touchdowns. He also caught 3.5 passes for 21.4 yards per game, averaging 101.5 scrimmage yards in total.
8. Miami Dolphins
Projected lead backs: Jordan Howard, Matt Breida
Notable backups: Kalen Ballage, Myles Gaskin, Patrick Laird
Miami’s offensive line was awful in 2019, but its run game was further hampered by the lack of any juice whatsoever at the running back position.
Leading ball-carriers Kalen Ballage (1.5 YAC/carry) and Patrick Laird (1.8) ranked worst and second-worst, respectively, out of 61 qualified running backs in yards after contact per carry. Overall, the two combined to average 2.2 yards per carry. That’s incomprehensibly bad.
Ryan Fitzpatrick led the team in rushing yards with 243. That should tell you everything you need to know.
So, the Dolphins went out and added a couple of proven producers.
Jordan Howard is an old-school downhill workhorse who has averaged 68.3 yards on 15.7 carries throughout his four-year career, picking up 30 rushing touchdowns with at least six in each season. He only has five fumbles on 979 touches.
Matt Breida was a breakaway machine for the 49ers. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry in his three years with San Francisco and was one of only three backs (along with Gus Edwards and Nick Chubb) to post 5.0+ yards per carry on 100+ attempts in each of the past two seasons.
7. Seattle Seahawks
Projected lead back: Chris Carson
Notable backups: Carlos Hyde, Rashaad Penny, Travis Homer
Carson is ninth among running backs with 2,810 yards from scrimmage over the past two seasons, and 11th with 18 total touchdowns. He does need to get his fumble totals down after losing the ball seven times in 2019 and thrice in 2018 (most fumbles among RB over span).
Hyde is poised to spell Carson after posting a career-high 1,070 yards with Houston. He is fifth in the league in carries (989) and seventh in rushing yards (4,037) since 2015, so a lighter workload could help extend his career.
Penny, Seattle’s first-round pick in 2018 (27th overall), is recovering from an ACL injury and will likely not be ready for Week 1. His usage has been limited (6.5 carries per game in 2019) but he did average a phenomenal 5.7 yards per carry in 2019.
6. Denver Broncos
Projected lead backs: Phillip Lindsay, Melvin Gordon
Notable backups: Royce Freeman
The Lindsay/Gordon pairing is an intriguing one. Both players have been highly productive, but can Denver figure out how to maximize their potential as a duo?
Lindsay has been an excellent rusher over his first two years in Denver, posting back-to-back seasons with 1,000+ yards and 7+ touchdowns. He has averaged 66.1 yards on just 13.4 carries for an average of 4.9 yards per carry, third-best out of 25 running backs with 300+ carries since 2018. To boot, Lindsay has yet to fumble the ball.
Gordon’s career totals over his five years with the Chargers are impressive (6,113 yards from scrimmage, 47 touchdowns), but there are some red flags. He has averaged under 4.0 yards per carry in four out of his five seasons. In 2019, Gordon ranked 41st out of 45 qualifiers in yards after contact per carry (2.5).
Fundamentals could be a huge issue with this tandem. In 2019, Lindsay allowed more pressures versus average than any other running back, and recorded the second-most drops versus average. Gordon fumbled four times and was also below-average with drops and pass protection. Both backs ranked in the bottom-eight at the position in terms of plays saved.
Freeman gives Denver an experienced third back, with 262 carries for 1,017 yards and eight touchdowns over the past two seasons.
We now head into the top-five. These units – two defined by incredible depth, three by a star headliner – could be the ones that give Gregg Williams‘ elite run defense a lot of trouble.