The workhorse running back, once a staple of a winning NFL offensive attack, is quickly becoming a relic of the past.
When Adrian Peterson rides off on his horse, an era may officially close.
In 2015, just two running backs in the NFL – Peterson and Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin – had more than Todd Gurley’s 1,106 yards, and only seven running backs broke the 1,000-yard mark, the lowest number in 25 years (!). Way back in 1991, there was a Magnificent Seven once again, but Emmitt Smith (1,563), Barry Sanders (1,548) and Thurman Thomas (1,407) were all superstars.
Flash forward about two decades, and you see the cracks beginning to form in the dominant running back’s clean image.
In 2009, Chris Johnson broke the 2,000-yard mark, but maybe even more impressively, 14 running backs topped 1,100 yards. This was down from the heyday of 2006, when 23 players – 22 backs and one QB, Michael Vick – cleared the 1,000-yard bar, but still … not bad.
In 2010, the peak fell, as Arian Foster paced the league with 1,616 yards, but there were 17 backs who hit 1K. In 2011, there were 15, including an impressive six above 1,200 yards, and in 2012, Peterson set the bar high with a 2,097-yard campaign, but 10 backs surpassed 1,200 and 16 had 1,000-plus.
The first signs of wear and tear were clear in 2013. A baker’s dozen made it to 1,000, but Reggie Bush just limped over with 1,006 yards, and aside from LeSean McCoy’s 1,607 yards for Philadelphia in Chip Kelly’s first season, only Matt Forte’s 1,339 yards were particularly impressive.
In 2014, again just 13, and again, one lone wolf carried the torch – Dallas’ DeMarco Murray, who had 1,845 yards behind the best line in the league.
And then, 2015, the pits.
As the NFL continues to morph into some freak hybrid of the Arena League and the XFL, it is clear that the value of any one running back is nearing nil.
Which means backup running backs have more value than ever before.
Need proof? Six of the league’s top 16 running backs from a year ago started the season on the sidelines.
Who among this season’s crop of able-bodied backups will emerge?
Here are six likely contenders:
DeAngelo Williams, Pittsburgh Steelers
This one is a bit of a cheat. We know Williams will play a major role in at least 20 percent of the Steelers’ games, as Le’Veon Bell is suspended for the first three games of the year. Williams feasted in Bell’s absences last season, gaining 204 yards on the ground the first two weeks of the season and adding three other 100-yard campaigns. The savvy veteran still has enough gas in the tank to fill in when called upon.
Alfred Morris, Dallas Cowboys
Ezekiel Elliott could very well be the home run that Jerry Jones dreamed of, one of the rare top-5 draft picks for the running back position in the new NFL. But running backs have flamed out before, and Morris could be in position to capitalize. He’d have to unseat Darren McFadden, who had a dandy of a season last year – 1,089 yards on 239 carries behind the Cowboys’ smashing offensive line – but when’s the last time McFadden stayed healthy for two straight years? Morris flashed star potential as a rookie with Washington in 2012, and after a few down years, he could emerge as a threat if Elliott falters.
James Starks, Green Bay Packers
Starks isn’t a household name, but with Spaghetti Eddie Lacy chomping up chunks of beef like he chomps up chunks of yardage, the seventh-year pro will factor in again this season. Starks has been a steady presence for the Packers since they drafted him in the sixth round in 2010, but his 148 carries a year ago were the most in his career. With Lacy still battling his weight issues, Starks figures to continue his pattern of reliable contribution.
Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals
Bernard had a nice rookie season in 2013, rushing for 695 yards and five scores, but it’s fair to say more was expected out of the second-rounder from North Carolina the last two years. Still, as it appears he’s eased into a timeshare with lead back Jeremy Hill, Bernard is one of the more intriguing backups in the league. He had 730 yards and averaged 4.7 yards per carry – compared to Hill’s 794 yards on just 3.6 YPC – but lost the touchdown battle to his backfield mate, 11-2. That disparity could be a bit closer this year.
Ronnie Hillman, Denver Broncos
Just when it appears Hillman is ready to seize the day, the Broncos rip it away from him. Which, as evidenced by his three fumbles last year, is a bit of a problem for the San Diego State product. Hillman, though, has some moves, as his four 100-yard games last year show. Big things are expected out of C.J. Anderson this year, but then again, so too were they last year, and that didn’t happen. Hillman, who actually finished with more yards, carries and scores than Anderson last year, has to be considered one of the most valuable backups in the league.
Danny Woodhead, San Diego Chargers
The slight, shifty Swiss Army Knife gets past the line of scrimmage before the defense even spots him. Woodhead, the 5-foot-8 pinball out of unheard-of Chadron State is improbably in his ninth year in the league, and only getting more productive. Last year, sharing time with Melvin Gordon, Woodhead had the second-most rush attempts of his career with 98, but more importantly, he had 80 receptions for 755 yards and six scores. He might not win the game for the Chargers on the ground, but he can do it through the air.