The FFF Position Grades moves onto running backs this week. In case you missed the latest article, which focused on NFC quarterbacks, you can catch up here.
With the NFL’s growing dependence on backfield committees and utilizing runners in narrowly defined roles, grading becomes more complex than evaluating quarterbacks. Depth and versatility weighs more heavily in the ratings. The grades below take this into consideration – along with starting talent and long-term outlook. Keep in mind that the provided depth charts include fullbacks and players with a chance to make the team. Some camp bodies won’t be included.
Buffalo Bills: A
Depth Chart – LeSean McCoy, Jonathan Williams, Mike Tolbert, Cedric O’Neal, Patrick DiMarco
You can never go wrong with Shady. LeSean McCoy has been the strength of Buffalo’s offense, and he will continue in that role during the 2017 season. The shifty back starts the year with 8,954 rushing yards and will likely eclipse the 10,000-yard career mark by season’s end. He provides Tyrod Taylor with a dynamic weapon out of the backfield. McCoy has had 40+ catches in six of his eight NFL seasons. Although injuries are always a concern with LeSean and he recently turned 29, the Bills do not overwork him. He’s averaged 219 carries in two years with the team. The inexperienced Jonathan Williams appears to be a capable backup, and Mike Tolbert provides a bowling ball option at the goal line. Buffalo is unlikely to carry more than four runners. Look for Cedric O’Neal to make the practice squad unless he shines in the preseason.
Miami Dolphins: B
Depth Chart – Jay Ajayi, Damien Williams, Kenyan Drake, Storm Johnson
Jay Ajayi stormed onto the scene last year after a shaky start to the season. It seems so long ago that Miami tried to turn back the clock with Arian Foster while their sulking young star remained home for the season opener. Ajayi responded to the initial demotion with a 1,272-yard (4.9 Y/A), eight-touchdown season. Those numbers look amazing, but take away his admittedly incredible three 200-yard games and this is his stat line: 175 carries, 648 yards (3.7 Y/A), and four touchdowns in 12 games. Those aren’t amazing numbers. It remains to be seen if Ajayi finds a consistent middle ground between setting the world on fire or rushing for a measly 48 yards on 20 carries. His recent concussion also raises concerns regarding depth. Damien Williams and Kenyan Drake shouldn’t be relied on as more than change of pace options.
New England Patriots: A-
Depth Chart – Mike Gillislee, James White, Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, James Develin, Brandon Bolden
Bill Belichick’s Patriots don’t require an every down back. The organization stocks up on niche players, and Belichick combines them as if they were one mecha-running back. James White, the true Super Bowl LI MVP (14 catches for 110 yards and one touchdown), will look to build off his success along with fellow pass catching back, Dion Lewis. Rex Burkhead should seamlessly transition into the thumper role vacated by LeGarrette Blount. He was a sneaky pick up in an offseason that New England dominated. Mike Gillislee posted a ridiculous 5.7 Y/A last year while relieving LeSean McCoy. The Patriots robbed him from their division rival Bills. The maneuver likely sent Robin Hood spiraling into a deep depression. The rich continue to get richer.
New York Jets: C+
Depth Chart – Matt Forte, Bilal Powell, Elijah McGuire, Brandon Wilds, Jordan Todman
The first three runners included in the depth chart are the only locks for a roster spot. Wilds and Todman may catch on through special teams. Matt Forte and Bilal Powell combined to make New York the NFL’s 12th ranked rushing team in 2016. They have displayed the potential to be a dynamic duo. The only problem is that Forte is 31 years old. He’s the aging, lone holdover from the Jets’ doomed attempt at wresting the AFC East from New England. Bilal Powell will likely overtake Forte in carries, but he turns 29 during the season. New York will soon need to revamp their running back position as well. Elijah McGuire represents the future. However, the versatile 6th round selection from Louisiana-Lafayette likely won’t play a major role on offense in 2017.
Baltimore Ravens: D+
Depth Chart – Terrance West, Danny Woodhead, Lorenzo Taliaferro, Bobby Rainey
It must be difficult for Ravens fans to look at the glass half full when injuries are essentially draining their glass of liquid already. Let’s try looking at the glass a quarter full, because that’s what Baltimore is working with. Joe Flacco has been hampered by a back injury. Tight end Crockett Gilmore and running back Kenneth Dixon are both out for the season with knee injuries. Dixon never lived up to the hype last year and was already facing a four-game suspension. That leaves the Ravens with Terrance West, a serviceable but unexciting option. Danny Woodhead is a superb threat out of the backfield on a team that throws more than anyone else, but he’s also suffered two season-ending injuries in three years. Taliaferro has transitioned to a fullback role and Rainey joined the team in the wake of Dixon’s surgery. There’s a definite lack of punch of the offensive side of the ball.
Cincinnati Bengals: B+
Depth Chart – Joe Mixon, Gio Bernard, Jeremy Hill, Cedric Peerman
The Cincinnati Bengals shocked everyone (not) by taking a chance on a player plagued by character concerns. Joe Mixon joined the Bengals as a second round pick in the 2017 Draft. He’s a complete player and possibly the most dynamic running back from his class. He’ll be an upgrade over the Bernard/Hill combo that the team has employed for several years, but Cincy is still in good hands if Mixon struggles or falls to injury. Gio Bernard hopes to regain his speed and dynamic cutting ability after suffering an ACL tear in week 11 of 2016. Jeremy Hill doesn’t always seem capable of anything other than falling into the endzone from two yards away, but he is more than sufficient at that part. The Bengals will improve on their 13th overall rank in rushing yards.
Cleveland Browns: B
Depth Chart – Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson, Danny Vitale, Matthew Dayes
Isaiah Crowell proved himself a fearsome runner last year. He ran for 952 yards and seven touchdowns on 198 carries. Crowell likely would have reached 1,000 yards if it wasn’t for the fact that Cleveland plays from behind so often. His numbers should creep up even farther in his contract year. Duke Johnson is essentially a wide receiver playing in the backfield. He had 73 rushes last year for 358 yards compared to 74 targets (53 receptions) for 514 yards. Vitale will serve as fullback and Dayes enters camp as the 252nd pick in the 2017 Draft. The Browns could be in trouble if Crowell suffers an injury.
Pittsburgh Steelers: A+
Depth Chart – Le’Veon Bell, James Conner, Knile Davis, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Roosevelt Nix
Le’Veon Bell is currently holding out from camp to express his desire for a better contract. He has not signed his franchise tender. The gap in negotiations could theoretically spell disaster for Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl hopes, but there’s no chance Bell sits out real games. He knows the team’s window to win a championship is right now. It might close as early as next year if Roethlisberger retires. Bell sits atop the NFL world with David Johnson as far as running back ranks go. You can already pencil him in for a few missed games thanks to injury, but Pittsburgh has confidence in rookie James Conner and others to pick up the slack. The team specializes in getting the most from its backup running backs.
Houston Texans: A-
Depth Chart – Lamar Miller, D’Onta Foreman, Alfred Blue, Tyler Ervin, Akeem Hunt, Jay Prosch
Lamar Miller left Miami to get more use in Houston, but the dire quarterback situation didn’t allow for much room in the box. He still managed to put together a 1,000-yard season despite averaging 3.3 yards per carry or less in six of fourteen games. Miller has fresh legs at 26 years old. He should find more open space if the passing game improves. Regardless, the Texans drafted D’Onta Foreman to craft a more dynamic one-two punch and to possess a better safety net behind the injury prone Miller. Foreman has the potential to become a monster between the tackles. The rest of the cast is somewhat forgettable. Jay Prosch likely makes the team as fullback. Alfred Blue has the inside track on the team’s third halfback slot.
Indianapolis Colts: D+
Depth Chart – Frank Gore, Marlon Mack, Josh Ferguson, Dalton Crossan, Robert Turbin
One would figure that the 34-year-old Frank Gore breaks down sooner rather than later, but his numbers don’t suggest a fatal drop off just yet. While his Y/A has dropped below 4.0 since joining the Colts, he’s supplemented the decline by becoming a presence in the passing game. He has caught more passes in a two-year period as a Colt (72) than any stretch since 2009-2010. If, however, Gore does finally falter, that leaves Indianapolis with a hodgepodge of mediocre options. 4th rounder Marlon Mack and undrafted rookie Dalton Crossan are unproven commodities. No team wants their primary rusher to be Josh Ferguson or Robert Turbin.
Jacksonville Jaguars: B+
Depth Chart – Leonard Fournette, Chris Ivory, TJ Yeldon, Corey Grant, Marquez Williams
Go ahead and make fun of Jacksonville for whiffing on Chris Ivory, but you have to give them credit for admitting the mistake immediately by drafting Leonard Fournette. The Jaguars have supposedly been on the cusp of breaking out every year since Washington crossed the Delaware, but they really do have a slew of weapons at their disposal. If the defense can keep games tight, Jacksonville’s three-headed backfield can win games with or without Blake Bortles. Chris Ivory should feel more comfortable playing second fiddle to Fournette. He thrived in a timeshare during his career with New York. Yeldon, although a disappointment, has quietly become an excellent third down back. He logged 50 receptions last season. A team could do much worse than having Yeldon as a tertiary option.
Tennessee Titans: A
Depth Chart – DeMarco Murray, Derrick Henry, Khalfani Muhammad, Jalston Fowler
Tennesse rode its exotic smashmouth football to 2,187 rushing yards last season, good for third in the NFL. DeMarco Murray proved doubters wrong after a miserable campaign with Philadelphia. Derrick Henry might eat into his carries, but Murray should once again be a huge part of the offense. If the injury bug visits Murray for the umpteenth time in his career, the Titans have one of the league’s most promising fallback options. Henry looked every bit as dominant as Murray on 183 less carries last season. He totaled 490 rushing yards and five touchdowns. The Murray-Henry combination should be a huge help to Marcus Mariota as he continues his maturation.
Denver Broncos: C-
Depth Chart – C.J. Anderson, Jamaal Charles, Devontae Booker, Andy Janovich, De’Angelo Henderson, Juwan Thompson
Denver sat 27th in rushing by the end of last season. C.J. Anderson ran with purpose in the 2016 season opener. He then struggled through the next five games and lost carries to Devontae Booker. His lone 100-yard effort came in week 7, the same game he suffered a season-ending knee injury. Many were high on Booker in the immediate aftermath, but the rookie barely made an impact the rest of the season. Booker is now out for 6-8 weeks with a wrist injury. Jamaal Charles will likely see limited use in special packages – at least early on in the season. He’s had 83 regular season carries since the beginning of 2015. There’s little reason to think Charles will spark Denver’s running game. Expect Janovich to be the team’s starting fullback. Sixth rounder De’Angelo Henderson may push Thompson for a roster spot.
Kansas City Chiefs: B-
Depth Chart – Spencer Ware, Charcandrick West, Kareem Hunt, C.J. Spiller, Anthony Sherman
Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West kept the train moving two years ago when Jamaal Charles went down. The team didn’t miss a beat. Spencer Ware eventually surpassed West as the primary runner, and he looked poised to continue his ascent in 2016. He began the season averaging over five yards per carry in four of five games. In his remaining 11 contests, Ware averaged 3.7 yards, climbing above 4 Y/A in only four games. He wore down and lost his luster, much like West. The silver lining here is Kareem Hunt. The third round pick poses a threat on the ground and in the passing game, something that Andy Reid loves from his backs. He’s not as highly touted as a few other rookies, but Hunt could take over the Chiefs’ backfield if he catches on quickly enough.
Los Angeles Chargers: C+
Depth Chart – Melvin Gordon, Branden Oliver, Kenneth Farrow, Kenjon Barner, Derek Watt
Melvin Gordon’s breakout last season probably makes this grade look shockingly low, but the perception of his performance was aided by his disastrous rookie year. There were no expectations coming into Gordon’s second season. His 997 rushing yards was a product of improved running, yes, but it was also thanks to a heavy workload. The Chargers fed Gordon the rock 254 times (including 128 carries weeks 6-10) before his week 14 injury. He still averaged below 4 Y/A. There’s certainly evidence Gordon could continue evolving, but the Chargers aren’t in A or B territory grade-wise. Branden Oliver and Kenneth Farrow can’t replace Danny Woodhead. They also aren’t ideal if Gordon goes down again.
Oakland Raiders: C-
Depth Chart – Marshawn Lynch, DeAndre Washington, Jalen Richard, Jamize Olawale, Elija Wood
Anyone can rack up yards behind the behemoths playing offensive line in Oakland. Unfortunately, the strength of the line doesn’t factor into this grade. DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard are great change of pace options. They bring the speed. The Raiders expect the power to come from Marshawn Lynch. The Beast Mode hype train appears to be in full swing. That’s slightly bizarre considering the conductor last played in 2015 and looked washed up beyond a shadow of a doubt. Why is the 31-year-old Lynch, two years removed from a 417-yard injury-plagued season, garnering more attention than a 32-year-old Peterson (who ran for 1,485 yards that same year)? It’s a mystery. Lynch will get his yards thanks to a tremendous line. He may even deliver a few vintage Beast Mode moments. Just don’t trick yourself into thinking this is 2014.
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