The days of workhorse backs are gone. Star power will only take a player so far in the slam-bang, fast-paced, brave new world that is a reality for NFL runningbacks. Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, and Barry Sanders may never be caught in career yardage. The words “running back by committee” are now commonplace in NFL discussion and players’ time in the limelight depends on how durable they can be. At 29 and with multiple lower body surgeries under his belt, Vikings’ Adrian Peterson might be the last entry (for a while) into the top ten rushers of all time if he can stay active for three more years.
2014 was the second straight year that a running back wasn’t picked in the first round. Before that, 1963 was the last time this anomaly happened. Have athletes changed or declined? No, the game speed has ratcheted to a level where cuts and hits happen faster than ever before. Some might argue that the anti-concussion hit rules have put the lower extremities at more of a risk than ever. Running backs, much like quarter horses will be put down (career wise) after ACL and MCL injuries. These findings have put NFL teams into a quandary about preventing a heavily invested player from seeing the field when they are run-down or less than 100% healthy, thus creating the RBBC system.
Sylvester Croom, the running backs coach for the Tennessee Titans (who drafted the first RB of 2014’s draft, Bishop Sankey with the 54th pick) understands the process of backfield rotation. He will employ former Washington Husky Sankey as his change-up back to complement incumbent starter Shonn Greene, as well as rotate in journeyman Jackie Battle (who just re-signed for $855,000) to spell the other two and provide a red zone presence. “We’ll play the hot hand, regardless of where they were drafted.” Croom said about what is quickly becoming a normal, three-deep backfield.
Sankey and Forty Niners’ banger Carlos Hyde are billed by experts as the top RBs in this year’s class as far as fantasy goes. Behind them is an incredibly deep class of talent, who may or may not find a niche with the “right team” to produce immediately or not at all. Hyde and Sankey get the press, not only because of their being the first two RBs drafted, but their respective teams have a immediate opening to get carries right away.
Carlos Hyde’s role as Frank Gore’s heir apparent should get started right away. The Forty Niners have a string of drafted RBs that loom behind workhorses Gore and Hyde and former South Carolina Gamecock Marcus Lattimore are the most talented. Technically Kendall Hunter is the listed backup at the moment, but if Lattimore is completely healthy after his ACL/MCL surgeries, he and Hyde will split the majority of excess carries behind Gore. Hyde will get all the chances he can, being the fresh face in camp. Lattimore’s success prior to his injury is of some concern to Hyde’s status, hinting that Marcus was possibly one of the most electrifying RBs in recent college football memory before the blowouts. Ultimately, the power back Hyde’s upside will be dampened by the excess of talent on the roster.
The Rams cut what looked like a very solid back in Daryl Richardson this offseason. Making a slightly less crowded backfield for incoming quick-burst Auburn alum Tre Mason to rival carry numbers with slightly bigger, less athletic Zac Stacy, who at times has set the fantasy world on fire, with at least 28 carries in five games last year. Look for Stacy to carry on the trend of workhorse while Mason picks up solid YPC on his 8-12 looks a game this year. It’s very debatable who is the superior dynasty back in St. Louis now.
Atlanta’s Dirk Koetter has done something different with the Falcons’ backfield, pitting ‘water bugs’ against each other for carries behind oft-injured workhorse Steven Jackson. Jacquizz Rodgers and rookie Devonta Freeman will see plenty of action, especially if Jackson goes down again. Freeman is a slightly bigger version of Rodgers and will also benefit from the PPR in the Atlanta system. Head coach Mike Smith and GM Thomas Dimitroff have given every indication that Freeman can be a feature back in the NFL.
Jeremy Hill was drafted before Carlos Hyde. While seemingly similar, Hill is an accomplished blocker and can wear down opposing defenses better than anyone else in the draft. He won’t catch a lot of balls, but can provide a stable pocket for Andy Dalton and extra room for Gio Bernard to get free. BenJarvus Green-Ellis will be moved to the background as Hill will garner a significant share of Bernard’s carries, especially within the red zone.
The clock may be running out on David Wilson’s time with the New York Giants. Andre Williams will join the team, fresh off a Heisman finalist campaign and looking to work into a backfield that also gained proficient back Rashad Jennings. Jennings may get top billing right away, but if Wilson is still injured and Williams finds success with early opportunities, he might just run away with the feature back role. Major drawbacks to the former Boston College Williams include his terrible hands in the backfield and some fumbling issues. Tom Coughlin has shown that he can put the brakes on players’ careers when they show a repeat history of turnover problems. Ask previously mentioned Wilson.
Doug Martin is coming off a season-ending shoulder injury. West Virginia alum Charles Sims might be the most well-rounded running back in the 2014 draft and will get his share of opportunities behind Martin in a crowded backfield that includes Mike James and Bobby Rainey. Sims’ draft pick and pass-catching talent bodes well for him, especially in PPR leagues. Martin will have to share quite a bit of carries in 2015 if Sims finds yards early and often. Tampa might be home to the biggest dark horse in the offensive rookie of the year award with Sims.
The Bears think they have found a new backfield mate for Matt Forte in KaDeem Carey. The highly productive, uber competitive Carey has had some off field troubles, but will have a turn to show off his hard charging style when he spells Forte. He might not be the pass catcher the Bears are accustomed to, out of the backfield, but has plenty of moves and is willing to put a shoulder into defenders. Look for Carey to produce from any carries he gets and will hold off Michael Ford for the primary backup to Pro-Bowler Forte.
The 2014 running backs may not be the most flashy, but each will find their time to shine in the new era of RBBC and backfield rotation. This is the deepest, most competitive class at this position since 2008 and will most certainly produce several feature backs. One thing we have learned from rotating backfield players, circumstance and injury play a huge role in defining careers. 2014’s class records for durability and consistency should be able to find carries and define the new face of NFL running backs for the future.