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NFL 2021: Reliable Running Backs do matter


AFC East Running Back Rooms

One of the NFL media’s most promulgated phrases is “Running Backs don’t matter”. Generally I have issues with that but the AFC East Brass seem to uphold it’s sentiment. Few of the East’s administrators are paying a Running Back more than $1 million a year, with New England positively splurging at the position with their room costing nearly $10 million!

Now, I understand fully and have looked through the data on the ease with which teams seemingly pluck a “nobody” off the street and have them play a major impact role through a season. The best example is perhaps James Robinson last year with the Jaguars earning nearly 300 touches for over 1000 yards rushing, 300+ receiving and 10 total Touchdowns!

With costs of Corners, Edge Rushers, Tackles and now Tight Ends trending sharply upwards and the ever present shadow of a Franchise QB contract (if you’re lucky enough to find or have one) on most GM’s minds, the opportunity to shop cheaply at RB is most welcome.

Running back by committee is the natural balance for those teams looking for consistent output. A solid stable of Backs is often easier to manage and a better whole than the sum of its parts for most Head Coaches. It creates competition, insures against injury and is cost effective. 

That being said, having a Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook or Nick Chubb gives a Franchise a game changing and game winning piece. There’s an out and out divide in the NFL between Running Teams and Passing teams as much as the stats and narrative are skewed to the aerial game.

In the AFC you have the Dolphins, Chargers and Chiefs all heavily favouring the pass game compared to Baltimore, Tennessee and Indianapolis keeping it old school. In the NFC, Atlanta, New York and Carolina are predominantly passing teams compared to San Francisco, Minnesota and Seattle favouring the run.

While – in the NFC – the Vikings have a feature Back, the Niners run through a stable. Likewise, the Titans succeed with a totem feature back while the Ravens threaten with a blend of rushing options in the AFC. There’s no right or wrong way of doing it. The contention comes in paying everybody.

The NFL salary  cap really prevents any team from having – and paying – an Elite QB, Left Tackle, Number 1 receiver AND a top paid RB. This somewhat forces GMs to maximise Running Backs Rookie contracts and move on when payday comes around. It seems anecdotally true that second contracts for Runners don’t play out well financially. So let’s look at the AFC skedaddlers: depth, Cap hits, Rookie Potential scale.

  • () = cap hit US$ rounded
  • A/AVG = Annual Average (cap hit)
  • R = Rookie 2021 draftee
  • RPS = Rookie Potential Scale 1-5 (5 being explosive)

Buffalo Bills:

Devin Singletary (1.1), Zack Moss (1), Matt Breida (0.9), Taiwan Jones (1.7), Antonio Williams (0.7), Christian Wade (0.7)

Position Group Total = 6

Position Group Cap Total = 6.1


Oh my if Buffalo are able to drop a feature back into this offense the Lombardi Trophy will quiver. Us older NFL fans can easily see the parallels with Buffalo’s  4 consecutive Super Bowl teams of the 90s. Allen for Kelly, Diggs for Reed, Thurman Thomas for…?

And that’s the question. Do any of this current group have a next level. Do they need to? Brain Daboll is a balanced kinda guy. He had the Bills average 29 runs to 32 passes through the 2020 season. Singletary accounted for just shy of 10 of those game snaps finishing the year with 156 rushing attempts for near 700 yards and another near 300 yards receiving. 

With nearly 200 touches on the year and 4.9 yards per touch average his production and contribution is very solid indeed. Add to that reducing his fumbles from 4 in 2019 to 1 in 2020 and he is certainly a capable and trusted face in the backfield.

Being a 1000 yarder off 57% of the annual snaps is a tidy role which may not see him get big bucks but conversely a 10 year career with a couple of Super Bowl Rings and steady paychecks looks pretty enviable.

Zack Moss was another diminutive yet productive player as RB2. 37% of the snaps earned him 126 touches with a 4.6 average. Playing in 13 games that equated to a little over 8.5 carries per game netting near 500 yards on the season. 

Matt Brieda is this offseason’s addition and his special skill is speed. A lot of speed. He failed to claim the number 1 spot in Miami and for a team perceived to struggle in the run game one wonders why both the Niners and now Miami were so stoic about moving on from him after only a year.

As a complimentary piece his athleticism and after-burners will almost certainly catch a frazzled Defence off Guard more than once this season. After you’re done chasing Allen, Diggs and Singletary down the “helter skelter”, Breida isn’t who you want to see in the backfield.

Miami Dolphins:

Myles Gaskin (0.7), Malcolm Brown (1.8), Salvon Ahmed ((0.8), Patrick Laird (0.9), Jordan Scarlett (0.8), Gerrid Doaks R (0.7)

Position Group Total = 6

Position Group Cap Total = 5.7

RPS = 2

Nothing raises the bile of a Dolphins fan more than a Running Back chinwag. For many, a feature back was a premium need in this year’s Draft. Eyes were set on Alabama’s Najee Harris and when some happily conceded Phillips at Edge was a more pressing need it was on the basis that one of the other two elite backs would be pursued.

There are rumours Grier made inquiries to get back into the first round for Harris, but one can only imagine the extreme cost opportunistic GM’s were asking. Pittsburgh swept him up. One pick later the Jags broke convention to snag Etienne.

Picking 4th in the 2nd Round Dolphans let out an audible groan when Denver GM George Paton made a bargain with Atlanta to jump ahead of the Phins and grab Javonte Williams. So convinced the league and fans were that Miami was in the market for a RB1 Denver parted with their 40th and a 4th round pick to leap the Fins.

We’ll never know the truth, but Miami’s use of Backs, their belief in Gaskin and the blistering speed with which Grier turned in the card for Safety Jevon Holland suggests the Aqua & Orange Spin Doctors played a blinder.

Gaskin is RB1. He’s been a Flores favourite since he was Drafted 234th in the 2019 Draft. The Huskie had mind boggling College output with 945 carries, 5,323 yards (that’s not a typo), 57 Touchdowns (neither is that) and a 5.6 average. Throw in another 500 yards and 5 TDs receiving and you’ve got yourself a Runner.

In his Rookie year he did all the things coaches love: showed up early, stayed late, studied the playbook hard, built strong teammate relationships and busted a gut improving his strength and conditioning. What he didn’t do was get bigger or “flash” in front of the cameras, neither could he buck the trend in Miami’s struggling Offense in year 1 of a rebuild. 

The upshot was fans and media moved on from Gaskin, lazily writing him off as a depth piece 7th rounder who’d struggle to make the roster. In year 2 his efforts were rewarded by the coaching staff and he stepped into the starting lineup. Playing in 10 games, starting 7 he only managed 43% of the snaps. 

He ended the year with 142 carries for 548 yards and 3 TDs. Also catching 41 passes for 388 yards and another 3 TDs. That makes him a shifty player picking up well above average yards in the league’s lowest running Offence.

Beyond Gaskin, Malcolm Brown was added as a 5 year Veteran with more goal line power and an all round bigger unit in pass protection. Ahmed will be Gaskin’s replacement if he can’t stay healthy again this year and as former Huskie “Roomies” they compliment each other well. 

Look for Scarlett and Doaks to quietly graft in the background through 2021. Doaks has a lively skill-set so if he can replicate Gaskin’s work ethic don’t be surprised if Flores gives him reps at the back end of the year.

New England Patriots:

Damien Harris (1), James White (1.2), Sony Michel (3), Brandon Bolden (2), JJ Taylor (0.8), Tyler Gaffney (0.7), Rhamondre Stevenson R (0.8)

Position Group Total = 7

Position Group Cap Total = 9.5

RPS = 2

As Shirley Bassey would sing “Hey Big Spender”! Bill must be getting soft in his old age. Or Michel and Bolden are soon for the block. Neither have been “men of distinction” and New England is rebuilding on the fly.

I’m being unfair, in an injury curtailed season Michel still managed 700 yards of production with just 18% of the snaps. The rumour is Bellichick is ready to move him though so only time will tell. Bolden exists simply as a Patriots Veteran Special Teamer, he won’t be getting any meaningful touches through the offense. 

In steps Mr Damien Harris to be the feature runner behind a revamped OLine and two Tight End (12) formations. With a 5 yard average off 130 carries in 2020 he has a solid foundation to push on in 2021. He has prototype size and good athletic ability to manage the workload.

Next on the conveyor belt of Running Back doom is 120th overall pick in the 2021 Draft, Rhamondre Stevenson. The well built Sooner notched 1180 yards off 165 carries and 13 TDs in two years with the University.

New York Jets:

Michael Carter (0.8), La’Mical Perine (1), Tevin Coleman (1.1), Ty Johnson (0.9), Josh Adams (1.2), Austin Walter (0.8)

Position Group Total = 6

Position Group Cap Total = 5.8

RPS = 3.5

The Jets did a very solid job with their mid round picks in this year’s Draft. I crafted that sentence simply to allow me to mention Nasirildeen again, who really doesn’t have anything to do with Running Backs. In the same ilk Douglas did manage to snag Michael Carter.

Carter seems like a very robust selection at 107. Just outside the top 100 there was a legitimate case for him being RB4 though clearly a tier below the big 3. As Javonte Williams running mate at NC State he put up some gordy performances.

Playing the vast majority of games over a 4 year career with the Tar Heels, Carter logged over 500 carries for 3,404 yards, 22 Touchdowns and a healthy 6.6 yard average.

His best totals in all categories were in 2020 despite sharing the workload with Williams who was picked 35th overall. An 8 yard average while running and a 10.7 yards per catch average with his slight frame provides a firework in the backfield for LaFluer.

Tevin Coleman may provide a bit more physical presence and experience in pass protection  and downhill power, but Carter should be the feature Back from day 1. Coleman has been a below average journeyman for 6 years so there’s little to suggest any reason for excitement.

Perine is largely an unknown commodity as Gase refused to utilise him while Frank Gore was available. Perines 20% snaps barely got his tyres wet so one hopes the new regime can tap into the skills that saw him generate 30 TDs, 5 yards per carry average and 9.4 yards per catch at Florida.

We all wait with baited breath to see how the Jets intend to manage their Offence in year 1, but a Carter/Perine pairing should be fair value to move the chains and provide a hot receiver out of the backfield. Coleman may be the preferred solution in 11 personnel in obvious passing situations.

Simply through continuity and predictability I favour the Bills in the running game this year. They have an established hierarchy and system in place that produces the right outcomes at the right time. Sure they don’t currently field a modern version of Thomas but they’re their own team writting their own history.

Miami and New England are difficult to assess. We know not what McDaniels is planning or who will be QB1. We can make sage guesses that Newton will be leading a run heavy 12 personnel system but there are many “buts” in that hypothesis.

Miami remains an enigma wrapped in a cypher with the “Godsville” Offensive system still a vague mystery. Will they run more than the league’s lowest this year? What effect will the additions of Fuller and Waddle have on Tua and game planning? How will the new look OLine perform? The only certainty is Gaskin is RB1 going into training camp.

In our final two articles we’ll look at Special Teams and then that completely unimportant and rarely debated Quarterback position.

Join me @CJEphgrave on Twitter & Instagram.


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