Happily, mass death does not appear to have befallen AFC West backs. Gazing over AFC West rosters, it is clear that the environment still teems with the curious species known as the running back. (Not a dinosaur in sight, however; those suckers remain down for the count, unless you count Peyton Manning and Charles Woodson, which you should not.)
Let’s rank them.
1) San Diego Chargers.
What they lack in top-tier talent, the Chargers have in depth. The running back position may not be fighting extinction, but it has become more variegated than ever before, and the Chargers can do more at the position than any other team in the division. There are few teams in the NFL that can match the Chargers’ ability to execute between the tackles, outside the tackles, and in the screen game.
Ryan Matthews is coming off the best season of his four-year career – yardwise, at least. In 2013, he ran for 1,255 yards, good for seventh league-wide. He tacked on six touchdowns – he put up the same number in 2011 and seven in his rookie season – but this statistic understates the success of his season. The Chargers often subbed in Ronnie Brown and Danny Woodhead in scoring situations – much to the chagrin of Matthews fantasy owners everywhere – limiting Matthews’ scoring opportunities.
Should Ryan Mathews falter, Donald Brown, Danny Woodhead, and Marion Grice still stand in the wings.
Brown spent the first five years of his career inexplicably moldering away much of that time on the bench. Last season, for instance, he rushed only 102 times to Trent Richardson’s 157 despite averaging nearly twice as many yards per attempt as Richardson (5.3 to 2.9). Some of the discrepancy is probably explained by the different role played by each (Richardson was seemingly the go-to guy inside the tackles, while Brown saw most of his action springing to the outside); the rest of it is explained by head scratching.
Woodhead was a pugnacious pass-game pinball inside the red zone and on the third downs – generously listed at 5’8”, he might have trouble reaching the levers on a real-life machine, however. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Woodhead forced 17 missed tackles on 76 receptions, good for sixth-best league-wide.
Grice rushed for 996 yards – averaging 5.2 per attempt – and 14 touchdowns. This is all the more impressiveness given the 173 carries diverted to dual-threat quarterback Taylor Kelly. Only five FBS quarterbacks ran the ball more: Kennan Reynolds (300, notably from Navy’s triple-option offense), Jordan Lynch (292, out of Northern Illionois’ use-Lynch-as-a-running-back offense), Taysom Hill (246, Robert Anae’s “Go Fast, Go Hard” offense), Vad Lee (182, James Madison, which apparently has a football team to have an offense), and intrastate rival, B.J. Denker (181).
From top to bottom, this is a running back corps that can do everything in the evolving, but most assuredly still-breathing, RB game.
2) Kansas City Chiefs
Here is a riddle. What do you get when you cross elite physical talent with superb vision?
You get Lesean McCoy, actually, but Jamaal Charles is not far behind.
Charles somehow led the Chiefs in both rushing and passing yards last season, racking up a combined 1,980 yards, and throwing in 19 touchdowns to boot. (This was part of the Chiefs’ dearth at receiver, a continuing issue, but I digress). That the Chiefs have the best running back in the division is not in doubt. However, all that separates Charles from Knile Davis or Cyrus Gray is a catastrophic injury. In the NFL, this is a not an insubstantial workplace hazard.
Between the two of them, Davis and Gray have 86 attempts for 310 yards and four touchdowns (most of those belong to Davis, who added 67 yards and a score in last season’s first-round playoff detonation against Indianapolis). The Chiefs also brought in former prep-star and more recent New York Jet disappointment, Joe McKnight, and jitterbug De’Anthony Thomas, but it is fair to assume that they will be competing for a single roster spot in return duties. (McKnight had almost as many kickoff returns (76) as rushing attempts (112) as a Jet, and found the end zone more often from the former (twice) than the later (never). Thomas, meanwhile, never hit the century mark in single-season attempts, and he was progressively phased out of the backfield in favor of Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner in his final collegiate season.)
Rounding out the running backs heading into camp, I bring you Charcandrick West, rookie out of Abilene Christian and exceedingly long shot to make the roster.
The Chiefs do have one of the NFL’s best fullbacks in Anthony Sherman. He has carried the rock three times in four years; I think it’s fair to say he is primarily – and secondarily and tertiarily – a blocker.
When Charles tore his ACL two games into the 2011 season, the Chiefs racked up a 7-9 record and missed the playoffs. Coincidence? I’ll let you decide. (Hint: the answer is no.)
3) Oakland Raiders
The Raiders running game was not nearly as bad as some are led to believe. It ranked 16th in DVOA. There are three problems with this number. Two of them are named Rashad Jennings and Terrell Pryor. The third is that neither one is on the team any longer.
Jennings unexpectedly exploded last season after a career playing second-fiddle to bigger names. (One of those names was Maurice Jones-Drew; we will get to him in a moment.) He ranked seventh in DYAR and fifth in DVOA (minimum 100 rushes) in his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stint in Oakland.
In nine appearances – I am excluding mop-up duty against the Chiefs and the odd single-drive interstice in the second quarter of the Jets game – Pryor spent 2013 padding the Raiders rushing stats when he was not busy being flummoxed in the passing game. All told, Pryor was the team’s second-leading rusher with 576 yards and a truly staggering 6.9 yards per attempt (as opposed to 6.6 through the air; ’nuff said).
Entering 2014, the Raiders have assembled an aging chimera at running back, bringing in Jennings’ former partner in crime in Jacksonville, Maurice Jones-Drew – though given the Jaguars ongoing offensive anemia, it was merely petty theft – and inexplicably retaining the oft-injured, oft-disappointing Darren McFadden instead of Jennings to split the workload in 2014.
If ifs and but were candy and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas. And if running backs were cheese and scotch,age would be no object.
Sadly, Jones-Drew and McFadden come with a lot of ifs and buts, and even more years of injury between them. It is well-nigh redundant at this point to recount all of the preseason optimism followed by the cold embrace of reality that has been McFadden’s career thus far.
Jones-Drew was a premier running back until the injury bug bit him in 2012 and kept on biting. From 2009 though 2011, Jones-Drew had three straight 1300+ yard seasons, averaging a healthy 4-mid per during that span. An injury-addled 2012 season limited him to six game appearances and a paltry 414 yards with a single touchdown. He slogged his way through fifteen games in 2013, looking like a shell of his former self, and a totem of inefficiency, averaging only 3.4 yards per hobbled attempt.
Interestingly – in a masochistic sort of way to a Raiders fan – Jones-Drew’s declining numbers are in perfect accord with the expectations for an NFL running back. The last fully productive season that Jones-Drew experienced came when he was 27 years old, at just the time that running backs can look forward – despondently, one presumes – to falling off of Chase Stuart’s curve. He is now 29, and the curve does not slope upward.
Latavius Murray is a tantalizing prospect in his second season, who spent his rookie season remaining just that. Murray is a 6’2”, 225 lb., and reportedly ran a sub-4 second forty. On tape, he puts those measurables to use, with lightning-quick, east-to-west cuts and a punishing north-south finish. He also has soft hands out of the backfield and a decent-to-good awareness of route concepts. His blocking is…not so good. But that is not the role for which he will be utilized if he can shrug off the injuries that nagged him throughout 2013 (although I do have my suspicions that they were not as severe as reported, and that the Raiders instead wanted to stash him on IR for a season to allow him to develop – as they did with Marquette King the prior year – rather than assigning him to the practice squad, from which other teams are allowed to pluck a player signed to the 53-man roster.)
Aside from these three, the Raiders have brought in CFL-refugee and Grey-Cup-MVP Kory Sheets, and brought back career special teamer, Jeremy Stewart, to compete for a roster position. They also drafted Raiders’ legacy George Atkinson III, but he wil primarily be gunning for a job as a return specialist and perhaps, well, gunner.
Oh, and the Raiders also have the best fullback in the NFL, as my colleague Shane Schilperoort exhaustively detailed last week. If only he were used properly. Again and again, season after season, the Raiders offensive non-gurus have inexplicably refused to employ one of the most unique weapons in the game. That, as Einstein (almost certainly did not say), is insanity.
4) Denver Broncos
The Broncos parted ways with Knowshon Moreno this offseason. He promptly lost the starting job to Lamar Miller, if reports are to believed – often, they are not – and is now in danger of being cut altogether – though, again, reports.
That leaves second-year man Montee Ball to carry the load in 2014. Many, especially in the fantasy community, are high on Ball’s prospects, but I am less sanguine. Where other saw a promising 559 yards and a healthy 4.7 average last season, I saw unacceptable slip-ups and hesitation betraying inadequate vision. Of course, I also saw blue and orange, which for an ardent Raiders’ fan is a bit like a bull seeing red, only slightly more enraging. So, you know, keep that in mind.
More concerning, is the workload that Ball assumed in four seasons at Wisconsin. I made a chart showing all of the running backs drafted in 2013 showing the career rushing attempts and receptions for each. I then tabulated their combined total touches by simply adding up the two numbers in attempt to estimate the punishment each absorbed prior to entering the NFL. It is rough, to be sure – for instance, running backs receive contact blocking and an incompletion does not assure the absence of a hit – but it will do for our purposes here.
By this measure, Ball has a staggering lead over the bulk of his competition. The only two players within two hundred total touches of Ball are Taylor and Franklin. Taylor came out of the smash-and-dash Stanford system, and was little-used in his rookie season compared with Ball (44 vs. 140 total touches). Franklin is already retired after suffering a tragic neck injury in Week 12.
A small sample size can breed facile conclusions, and as noted above, there are a number of variables for which this chart does not account. By no means am I suggesting that Ball is somehow “due” for an injury. What I am saying, however, is that Ball is the type of high-tread back on which no team ideally wishes to hang its helmet.
The threat of injury to Ball becomes even more alarming looking over the remainder of the depth chart. Ronnie Hillman, a major disappointment to the Broncos – Raider Nation is also shedding tears over the letdown, crocodile tears – was selected in the third round of the 2012 draft. He was easily surpassed on the depth chart by Ball last season, and C.J. Anderson appears set to do the same this year. Anderson himself is no great shakes, an undrafted free agent, who by all accounts has done yeoman’s work at practice, yet has racked up all of seven career rushing attempts.
The only other back of whom to speak is Kapri Bibbs – I am assuming here that Brennan Clay, Juwan Thompson, and Jeodis Williams have little chance of making the roster, much less becoming factors during the season, due to the distinct cricket-sounding buzz they have generated. Bibbs led the NCAA in rushing touchdowns last season, tied with Navy’s Reynolds, and that is about the best thing he has going for him. As Matt Waldman explains here far more eloquently that I ever could, Bibbs lack several of the key traits that one would like to see from a NFL-ready back.
Despite the comparative barrenness of the Broncos running back roster, they are not resigned to divisional basement-dwelling status in terms of the full rushing game. That is what Peyton Manning can do for you (see: Moreno, Knowshon). Nevertheless, it seems clear that, in isolation, running back is one of their least inspiring units, and the weakest in the AFC West.
Tags: Oakland Raiders