The Running Back Rebirth

Story by: Dimitri Tzamaras

It doesn’t take a pro football aficionado to realize that the NFL has become a pass-first, quarterback driven league. This fact is inarguable—without a viable passing game, an NFL offense has a very slim chance of becoming a truly elite unit. However, teams like the Dallas Cowboys, Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, and Pittsburgh Steelers have showed how a balanced offensive attack is still the key to developing a dominant offensive assault.

Each of the four teams listed above finished in the top ten in the league in yards, and all finished with over 3500 yards in the air and over 1700 yards on the ground. In fact, the only team in the top 10 in total yardage to finish with barley over 1500 yards rushing was the San Diego (now the Los Angeles) Chargers with 1510 yards.

The truth is, we are witnessing a Renaissance age for the running back position right in front of our very eyes. While the players who play the position are still being undervalued, they have become more and more versatile, making them some of the most valuable players in the NFL.

Now, more backs are displaying the ability to catch the ball from the backfield and out wide. In fact, nine of the ten players with the most yards from scrimmage this season were running backs (the only exception being TY Hilton, who led the NFL in receiving yards).

One of the more interesting aspects of this recent running back revival is when you dive into where the top backs in the league are being drafted. Aside from Ezekiel Elliot and Melvin Gordon, all of the other backs in the top ten in yards from scrimmage were second round picks or later.

Some of the most dominant running backs in the league are guys who didn’t hear their names called until the second or even third day of the NFL Draft. David Johnson, who led the league in yards from scrimmage was the 86th overall pick in 2015 and in 2016 was a unanimous first team all-pro selection.

You can just go down the line of the best running backs in the NFL last year and see that this late-draft pedigree is more a movement than a trend. Guys like Le’Veon Bell (2nd Round, 48th overall), DeMarco Murray (3rd round, 71st overall), LeSean McCoy (2nd round, 53rd overall), Jordan Howard (5th round, 150th overall), Devonta Freeman (4th round, 103rd overall), Freeman’s teammate, Tevin Coleman (3rd round, 73rd overall), Spencer Ware (6th round, 194th overall), and Jay Ajayi (5th round, 148th overall) have shown that you don’t need to pick a running back in the first round of the draft in order to get a serious difference maker at the position.

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When you put this list in perspective, you begin to realize that the upcoming NFL Draft has some special depth at the running back position. There are a multitude of guys who could end up being late round steals when we look back on this class a couple of seasons from now.

We all know the top of the class is special with guys like Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, and Christian McCaffery, but there is some serious versatility and skill that will be available to teams at a huge discount in draft capital in the later rounds. Here is some of my favorite post-first round guys in this year’s class:

Samaje Perine (Draft Range: 3rd to 5th round)—The big back from Oklahoma displayed his ability to carry a heavy workload his freshman season, when he broke Melvin Gordon’s NCAA record for rush yards in a game with 427 yards in a game against Kansas. After missing three games this season, Perine still finished with over 1000 yards rushing and over 100 receiving.

Wayne Gallman (Draft Range: 4th to 5th round)—Gallman is one of my favorite players to watch in this class, and after a down season this year, it was surprising to see him declare for the draft. Regardless, Gallman is probably the most advanced back in pass protection in this class, which goes a long way in getting a rookie running back on the field. I like Gallman’s upside as a third down back in a two-running back system you see Atlanta utilizing. I do believe he good be an every down back, but think he would be best utilized in short spurts.

Alvin Kamara (Draft Range: Late 1st to Mid-2nd round)—Kamara is one of the most well-rounded backs in the class, and is shooting up draft boards. While at Tennessee, Kamara often had to share time with Jalen Hurd, but once Hurd left the program, Kamara was able to show NFL scouts his stuff. He had a game that displayed his jaw-dropping potential against Texas A&M in which he finished with 288 total yards from scrimmage (127 on the ground off of 18 attempts, and 161 through the air off of 8 catches). It wouldn’t be a shock to me if Kamara heard his name called before Christian McCaffery.

Jeremy McNichols (Draft Range: 5th round or later)—McNichols’ biggest upside is his ability as a pass catcher, but I do enjoy his ability as a one-cut downhill runner. While he isn’t the same level of athlete as fellow ex-Boise State Bronco Jay Ajayi, I think McNichols could be a difference maker on passing situations for some teams. If he lands in the right situation with a team who knows how to use him, he could become a matchup nightmare.

James Conner (Draft Range: 4th round to 6th round)—How can you not love James Conner? The big back from Pitt battled with cancer and won, and he balled out in his last season at Pitt. He is the type of guy you want in your locker room, and someone who can help establish a winning culture. On the field, he’s someone who is tough to bring down, and can make a difference in multiple facets of the game. I love his upside as a pass catcher considering his great vision and feel for the game, and could see him evolving into an every down force in the league.

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Matt Dayes (Draft Range: 6th round or later)—Dayes is someone who isn’t big enough to take the beating of an every down back at the next level, but checks so many other boxes, that he is a great guy to have on your team if you’re looking to spell your work horse back. He’s a guy with above average vision and pass catching ability which could make him a steal later in the draft. Like with most of these backs, his career path is heavily dependent on the situation he lands in, but I like him as a slot/running back hybrid at the next level.

Marlon Mack (Draft Range: 5th round or later)—Since he is a USF Bull, Mack has personally tormented our UCF Knights, and strikes me as a guy who just has it. I don’t know how else to describe it. He shows a knack for making the home-run play, and I have an unexplainable faith that he will somehow make an impact for an NFL team when next season rolls around.

Featured image for this post courtesy of USA Today

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