The preseason is officially underway, which means most rookies are trying to prove themselves NFL ready, while veterans are trying to keep their roster spots. But there are certain players at certain positions who aren’t worrying about roster spots but rather about being number one at their position. Over the next two weeks I’ll be covering top five players at their position. Today we start with the dynamic running back position.
5. Devonta Freeman
The former 4th round pick in the 2014 NFL draft has done nothing but produce since entering the NFL. His production has been very solid and really makes you wonder what GMs were thinking letting him slip all the way to the 4th rounds.
Last year freeman rushed for 1,079 yards on 227 carries for an average of 4.8 yards per rush. On top of his ability to consistently gain yards on each carry he also turned into a solid redzone weapon for the Falcons racking up a total of 11 rushing touchdowns. His speed is off the charts allowing to consistently break off long runs and gassing the defense, which was perfectly on display when he broke off a season high 75 yard run.
However don’t be fooled: Freeman is far from a one trick pony. On top of his ability to rush the ball he is also a very good pass catcher out of the backfield. This has been the case over the past few seasons, in 2015 Freeman had 73 receptions for 578 yards, 7.9 yards per reception and 3 TDs. He was able to follow that up last season with 54 receptions for 462 yards, 8.6 yards per receptions and 2 TDs. So while his numbers show a statistical drop off, that’s mainly due to the fact that Ryan had both Jones and Sanu along with other weapons to throw the ball to on the outside. The key stat for Freeman is yards per reception as so much of his game is based around his speed and his elusiveness. In that department there was actually a statistical elevation last season.
The criticism that has followed Freeman is he can’t be a true number-one back due to his inability to block blitzing linebackers. The Falcons would actually take Freeman out in deep passing situations since he can be a liability in the pass blocking game. This was clearly on display in the Super Bowl when he allowed Hightower to blow right by him with little resistance which lead to the game changing strip sack.
While he may be unreliable in the pass blocking game, Freeman makes up for it with his explosive play. If Freeman can get more of a grip on reading blitzing defenders and do a better job of chipping them off the quarterback then he will have a very strong case for being a top 3 running back in the NFL.
4. LeSean McCoy
After a really disappointing first season in Buffalo, many started to wonder if LeSean “Shady” McCoy was done. They weren’t wrong to start to question McCoy. Running back is a very physically demanding sport, along with the fact that McCoy rushed for only 895 yards and 3 TDS in 2015 and that he is 29 years old, the writing was on the wall.
However, I don’t think McCoy got the message that he was supposed to be done. Last year McCoy had a bounce back season to say the least. He rushed for 1267 yards on 234 carries for 13 TDs. The most surprising turnaround has to be his yards per carry from 2015-2016. He had rushed for 4.4 yards per carry in ’15, and last year he raised it all the way to 5.4 which was the highest mark is McCoy’s career. Along with his resurgence as a rusher, he also had his best pass catching year statistically since 2013. McCoy was able to add another dimension to a lackluster Bills offense by contributing 50 receptions for 356 yards and a touchdown.
Overall McCoy was one of the most dominate offensive weapons in football and propelled himself back up the list of top running backs in the NFL. Will McCoy be able to repeat this production again this year heading into his 8th year in the NFL? If I was a betting man I’d say no, that he’d continue his slow decline and last year was the exception not the trend. But Shady has proven us wrong once so don’t be surprised if next year we’re back here ranking him higher than number 4.
3. David Johnson
After bursting onto the NFL scene in late 2015, Johnson has quickly established himself as one of the most dominant pure runners in the game. Last season Johnson was the work horse that drove the Cardinals offense. His consistent ability to move the ball up and down the field was critical to the Cardinals all season. Johnson runs with a downhill mentality and he doesn’t just shy away from contact, he looks for it. When he has to he can plow through defenders or he can break their ankles and break of a 20 yard run up the middle of the field.
Defenses all over the league were left with the same question:,”How do you not just stop, but contain this guy?” They all had the same question but little to none had the answer. Johnson’s stats were phenomenal, rushing for 1239 yards on 293 carries for 16 TDs. Johnson averaged about 4.2 yards per carry which wasn’t the highest in the league but certainly serviceable at least. The key to Johnson’s great season was his redzone dominance, whenever the Cardinals seemed to need a touchdown Johnson stepped up and took over.
Like many other top running backs in the NFL, Johnson is no stranger to catching the football. Johnson had 80 receptions for 879 yards with 4 receiving touchdowns. He averaged about 11 yards per reception which allowed him to demonstrate his open field ability and also give Palmer a reliable weapon out of the backfield to pick up key first downs on a consistent bases.
Johnson did have five fumbles on the season which is a little higher than you’d like to see, especially out of your number one back. However, although it’s not acceptable to turn over the ball that much when you have almost three hundred carries and eighty receptions, it’s hard to get frustrated with him over it.
Johnson accumulated 2118 yards from scrimmage last season. The question is can Johnson continue that pace into the 2017 season. While it’s hard to expect him to put up numbers like that again this season, Johnson proved he can be a work horse. Even with that workload Johnson still started 15 games and showed no sign of slowing down.
Arizona must realize however despite Johnson’s overall brilliance and really flawless game, they can’t rely solely on only him to carry their offense. Even someone as good as Johnson can at least be slowed down if he’s the only threat on offense. Now Johnson has to prove he can drive his team farther into the playoffs to improve his case as the top back in the league.
2. Ezekiel Elliot
It’s hard to not put Elliot at number one, especially coming off of such an overall dominant season. Elliot had 322 carries for 1631 yards which is absolutely ridiculous in the pass heavy NFL. Elliot is a monster when he gains momentum. His ability to break tackles is awfully similar to Marshawn Lynch’s running style. When he gets a head of steam it takes two to three men to bring him down because he is just about impossible to bring down one on one once he’s in the open field. For a 225 pound back Elliot moves as if he was 180. His overall ability to hit gaps hard and burst through for a 7 yard gain consistently is so valuable in the NFL.
Elliot averaged 5.1 yards per rush and 108.7 yards per game last year. This not only allowed Prescott to get his feet under him and have a fail safe if he ever felt uncomfortable, but also allowed Dallas to control every game they were in because they would put together 11 to 13 play drives that would chew up the clock and allow them to dictate the pace of the game. While Elliot isn’t the pass catcher that some other running backs are, he can catch it when needed having 32 receptions and 363 yards. He is a solid pass blocker and everyone knows what type of impact he has on this Dallas team.
The biggest and fairest second guess about Elliot is that he played behind the best offensive line in football by far. It’s not nearly as hard to find holes when they’re twice the size that other running backs run through. Elliot has to prove that he makes the offensive line better not the other way around if he truly wants to prove that he is the best running back in the NFL.
1. Le’Veon Bell
Bell is by far the most versatile, patient, and skilled running back in the NFL. Bell still holds the title for best running back in the NFL for good reason. His patience is what catches everyone’s eye. He is never rushing into a bad spot. He has this uncanny ability to just stand and wait for holes to open and he can punch it up the middle of the line or bounce it outside whatever is the best option Bell can do it better than anyone. At 225lbs Bell can break tackles with his extraordinary elusiveness his stutter step leaves defenders swiping at air every single week.
When you watch Bells footwork it’s really an extraordinary thing to witness. There is little to no wasted movement, every step he takes is setting him up to punch through an open hole when their is the chance. Bell adds a whole other dimension to the Steelers offense and is really like no other running back in the NFL. In only 12 games last year Bell racked up 1268 Yards on 261 carries for 7 TDs and had a career high 105.7 yards per game.
The thing that stands out about Bells game on the field is his ability to play both running back and receiver. He had 75 catches for 616 yards, if you put that through a full 16 game schedule then Bell would’ve finished with 100 receptions and over 300 carries. The Steelers offense runs through Bell even more than it does through Antonio Brown. Every thing that the Steelers do is set up by Bells talent, his rushing ability allows them to force defenders to creep up into the box. This sets up the Steelers deep passing game and also their play action game which is critical to the Steelers game plan.
The big knock on Bell has been if he can stay on the field. He’s only started 16 games once in his career and hasn’t started more than 12 the past few seasons. Since the Steelers rely so much on Bells versatility, they can’t afford to not have him on the field especially in the playoffs. If Bell can stay on the field the sky is the limit, he’s the best overall back in the NFL and also the most impactful.
Let me know who your top five running backs are in the comments below. Also what top five should I do next?