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NFL Backfields, Who’s RB1…Does It Matter?

Who’d predict NFL Backfields? There are very few bell-cow Running Backs in the league nowadays. Even those teams that we have got used to seeing with a bell cow have started to spread those carries around a little more. This year, with the extra game, this is likely to be much more of a thing. Health of the players will start to become more of a consideration.

Whilst it is still clear that the majority of teams have their RB1 in place, there are those who have gone full blow RB-by-committee. Whilst this is obviously going to be good for the health of the players, it does make it hard for us as fans to work out exactly what we can expect from some players this year.

This week I thought I would take a look at 5 of the murkier backfields to see whether we can make any sense of them. That is, if there is sense to be made.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

  • Depth Chart: Ronald Jones II, Leonard Fournette, Giovanni Bernard, Ke’Shawn Vaughn, C.J. Prosise, Troymaine Pope

What started out last year as a clear RB1 situation changed with the signing of Leonard Fournette. Ronald Jones had shown signs at the end of 2020 of being the back that Tampa hoped they drafted when they took him in the second round of the 2018 Draft.

As the 2021 season progressed and Fournette became more acclimatised to the Bucs scheme he started to make inroads. Then came the Playoffs. Somehow, and for some reason, Fournette decided this was his time to shine. He posted 300 yards as the Bucs took the Championship.

This season I expect to see an almost 50:50 timeshare between the two backs with Giovanni Bernard picking up some 3rd down work. Arians has shown he his happy to ride the hot hand. It should also be noted that Jones was injured for parts of last year and Fournette capitalised on this. All this means that Ke’Shawn Vaughn is unlikely to feature much at all. I would expect him to record less than his 31 attempts from last year.

Look out for Jones and Fournette as a solid 1-2 punch, everyone else here is just an after-thought.

TAMPA, FLORIDA – OCTOBER 18: Ronald Jones #27 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers runs against the Green Bay Packers during the third quarter at Raymond James Stadium on October 18, 2020 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

San Francisco 49ers

  • Depth Chart: Raheem Mostert, Wayne Gallman, Trey Sermon, Elijah Mitchell, Jeff Wilson, JaMycal Hasty, Josh Hokit

Kyle Shanahan has spent his entire time in San Francisco baffling everybody with his weird and wonderful Running Back room. This year it looked as if the situation should clear with the departure of Tevin Coleman. Then they went and drafted two further backs in the form of Sermon and Mitchell.

Injuries are a big part of any players career with the 49ers. I cannot think of any back they have had in the last 5 years who has managed to remain healthy the whole time. True to form, as I write this Jeff Wilson is out with a torn meniscus. Mostert is in the last year of his contract and I would be shocked to see him back next year. That said he will be the notional RB1 to start the year.

Wayne Gallman played well for the Giants last year once Barkley went down, that said he is nothing special. Hasty showed flashes for the few snaps he received before also succumbing to injury. What this indicates however is that Shanahan is right to ensure he always has replacements available. Sermon was a bigger back in College and has the skills to carve out a role for himself in this team, if OTAs and Mini Camp have been anything to take note of, he is already making a good impression.

The X-factor for me is Mitchell, in 3 his final 3 years in college, the years he saw meaningful play time, he posted 3,010 yards rushing and another 572 receiving for a total of 46 touchdowns. In my eyes he is Mostert’s replacement ready for next year. He could easily jump ahead of Sermon this year in the depth chart, possibly even Gallman as well.

I would expect to see Mostert get the larger share of the work with a supporting cast of Sermon, Mitchell and Gallman supporting him. It will be hard for Wilson to get a look in once he returns from injury and Hasty may find it even harder. Come Week 1 the four backs to make the 53 (yes they will keep 4) will be Mostert, Gallman, Sermon and Mitchell. Hasty may clear waivers and make it to the practice squad. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Wilson revert straight to IR for the first 6 weeks of the season so he doesn’t take up a roster spot.

New York Jets

  • Depth Chart: La’Michael Perine, Tevin Coleman, Michael Carter, Ty Johnson, Josh Adams, Austin Walter

I could go back to the rushing stats from last year but there’s no point with this Jets team. Johnson, Adams and Perine return however the ground attack was so anaemic that it’s not worth it to be honest. None of them cleared 200 yards.

This year new faces in the form of Tevin Coleman and Michael Carter bring some quality to the attack. The improved O-line will also make a big difference. That said I don’t expect the Jets to set the leagues on fire from a rushing standpoint. Carter is exciting, in 44 college appearances he rushed for 3,404 yards at 6.6 yards a carry. Splitting work with Javonte Williams had a negative affect on both players figures though. He also offers a legitimate pass catching threat.

If he is willing to work hard, and let’s face it, what rookie isn’t (aside from Isaiah Wilson), then Carter could very quickly see major action on this team. In my opinion he is already the best back they have. Coleman will grind out yards early in the season but his knee will fall apart again at some point. The rest of the crew offer very little threat. Perine showed glimpses as did Johnson but nothing to write home about.

Carter’s only drawback is his size. At 5’8 and 201lb he is light. He is not a bruising between the tackles runner and it’s this which will ensure he won’t act as a 3 down back in the league. Used correctly, he may be able to bring some of his YPC to this Jets team that desperately needs a run game. If Coleman can stay fit then it will very quickly become their backfield. The rest will make up the numbers. Ty Johnson has made some nice plays since entering the league, I’d expect him ahead of Perine should Coleman go down.

Michael Carter in action for UNC – (Image Credit – NFL Draft Diamonds)
While you’re here….

Arizona Cardinals

  • Depth Chart: Chase Edmonds, James Conner, Jonathan Ward, Eno Benjamin, Tavien Feaster, Khalfani Muhammad

What do you do when you have the 16th pick of the Draft. The possibility to take any of the stellar Running Backs coming out of college? If you’re the Cardinals you sign an oft injured Back in the form of James Conner and focus elsewhere. Time will tell if this was the right choice. All I will say is that there must be a lot of faith in Chase Edmonds.

Conner will be the Week 1 starter I would imagine. You don’t bring someone in on a large contract, albeit for a year, to not play them. Edmonds showed last year he is better as an impact back rather than an early downs one. Edmonds does offer the upside of the big play however. He will see the field often as a result of this and will rip off a couple of fantastic plays.

Should Conner rediscover some of his early career form, the Cardinals may not need much more from the rest of the room. Eno Benjamin was an afterthought last year, I fully expect him to find himself in the same position again. That is unless he produces some magic this offseason.

On his day James conner can cover 100 yards easily in a game. The problem is ‘his days’ are few and far between thanks to a body that seems to constantly have some injury or another. Should he go down this year the the Cardinals better hope that my claim that Edmonds is not a true 3 down back is incorrect. He will be asked to try that role before the Cardinals look elsewhere. If he cant stand up to that challenge then the Cardinals may have to look to Tavien Feaster, who will be residing on the practice squad, to carry the load. He is the only back they have, other than Conner, over 210lbs.

Houston Texans

  • Depth Chart: David Johnson, Mark Ingram, Phillip Lindsay, Rex Burkhead, Buddy Howell, Dontrell Hilliard, Scottie Phillips

Well this looks like the home for those Running Backs who had nowhere else to go. It is a motley crew headed by one time All-Pro Johnson. Johnson quietly had a good year last year, amassing over 1,000 yards from scrimmage and 8 touchdowns.

The signings made this year appear scattershot to say the least. Mark Ingram’s race is pretty much run, the same with Burkhead. Lindsay and Hilliard offer nods to the future of the team however neither have set the league on fire to date. If given a chance Lindsay looks like the one who could benefit the team most moving forwards.

This Running Back room is a mess, they will all get time on the field and I expect that none of them will eclipse 600 rushing yards for the season. I suppose they’re covered if guys go down injured but with what they have, maybe they would have been better off dipping into the free agent market should that happen.

This team will start with David Johnson as the leader and everyone else is there to pick up any slack that exists. The Texans will be playing from behind so often though that rushing attempt numbers will fall this year. I say that on a per game basis. They had 282 attempts last year, that is 17.6 a game, if they manage 15 a game this year I will be impressed.

David Johnson against the Vikings – (Image Credit – CBS Sport)

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