By Joey Impatient Esquire
The correlation of rushing yards to wins in the NFL has generally declined over the past 40 years or so. Recent analyses tend to show, regardless of game situation, that passing has a higher rate of success than running. But because NFL coaches still inexplicably called runs on 42.4% of plays in 2017, I feel obligated to write this article on the run game as it slowly but inexorably fades into irrelevance.
I’m going to try to predict the performance of the offensive lines in run blocking, the RBs in hitting the holes and getting open field yards, and where a team has a QB that can contribute to the run game (i.e. not the Giants), I’ll note that as well. For explanation: Power Rank reflects the conversion rate on 3rd/4thdown and short; RB Yards reflects yards gained on the second-level or in the open field (i.e. 5+ yards beyond the LOS).
4. New York Giants
RB Depth Chart: Saquon Barkley, Jonathan Stewart, Wayne Gallman
OL Depth Chart: Nate Solder, Will Hernandez, John Halapio/Brett Jones, Patrick Omameh, Ereck Flowers, John Greco, Dan Sparco, Chad Wheeler, (John Jerry), (Nick Becton), (Zac Kerin)
2017 Rankings: Total Rushing – 26; DVOA – 29; Power Rank – 29; RB Yards – 22
A whole lot of change for this unit versus a year ago, which shouldn’t surprise anyone based on those 2017 numbers. The Giants return just one OL starter from 2017, and he is playing a new position. They invested heavily in shoring up the left side of the line, overpaying Nate Solder and drafting Will Hernandez at the top of the second round. That should definitely be an improvement versus 2017. Ereck Flowers, the bad penny you can’t get rid of, will make the move from LT to RT. Overall I think the talent level is probably higher than it was a year ago, but the lack of continuity is concerning. As far as depth goes, I have never heard of these guys. You haven’t either. In fact Dan Sparco doesn’t really exist; that’s just a name I made up. But you didn’t even realize it, did you? You probably didn’t read the depth chart anyway. What is a horse shoe? What does a horse shoe do? Are there any horse socks? Is anybody listening to me?
Fortunately for the Giants, Saquon Barkley has experience from Penn State running behind bad lines. I think Saquon is the most talented RB in the division. I think he’ll show flashes of brilliance, but I just can’t see the Giants having a consistent rushing attack with this line. Jonathan Stewart is washed up and Wayne Gallman is just a guy, but Saquon should be carrying the load anyway.
Pat Shurmur has been an offensive coordinator or head coach at least part of every year since 2009. Setting aside the Chip Kelly years, when Chip was running the offense and calling the plays, Shurmur has never had a team rank higher than 18th in rushing DVOA. On average, his teams have ranked 27th in rushing. I think this unit is better than last year, but I can’t call it a strength. Particularly not relative to the rest of this division.
3. Washington Redskins
RB Depth Chart: Derrius Guice, Chris Thompson, Samaje Perine, (Rob Kelley), (Byron Marshall)
OL Depth Chart: Trent Williams, Shawn Lauvao, Chase Roullier, Brandon Scherff, Morgan Moses, Ty Nsekhe, Geron Christian, Kyle Kalis, (Tony Bergstrom), (Tyler Catalina)
2017 Rankings: Total Rushing – 27; DVOA – 28; Power Rank – 27; RB Yards – 27
2017 was a disastrous year for the Redskins rushing offense, butI chalk that up to a ridiculous rash of injuries that all hit an otherwise talented OL group all at once. No team is built to overcome that, and in 2016, with a healthy line, the Redskins ranked 4th in rushing DVOA. I think the Shawn Lauvao/Chase Roullier combination is still likely a weak spot, but assuming a return to even reasonable health, this OL should be a strong run-blocking unit. The Redskins also shored up their OL depth adding Geron Christian in the third round, but Ty Nsekhe apparently has some lingering health concerns.
At running back, the Redskins caught a falling Derrius Guice in the draft, who projects to receive the bulk of the rushing touches. Guice was one of the best RBs in the draft and should be a significant improvement over Rob Kelley/Samaje Perine from 2017. Alex Smith also adds a rushing element at the QB position the Redskins didn’t have last season.
I wrestled with whether to swap the rankings of the Eagles and Redskins for a while, and I think it could go either way. Jay Gruden’s offenses typically have a high year-to-year variance when it comes to rushing efficiency, and I don’t trust a playcaller who called the 5th highest rate of run plays on 1st and 10 despite having one of the worst rushing offenses in the NFL.
2. Philadelphia Eagles
RB Depth Chart: Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement, Darren Sproles, (Donnell Pumphrey), (Matt Jones), (Josh Adams)
OL Depth Chart: Jason Peters, Stefan Wisniewski, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, Lane Johnson, Haalapoulivaati Vaitai, Chance Warmack, Matt Pryor, (Isaac Seumalo), (Jordan Mailata)
2017 Rankings: Total Rushing – 3; DVOA – 15; Power Rank – 16; RB Yards – 2
The Eagles were third in the NFL in total rushing yards in 2017 and fourth overall in yards per attempt, but those numbers are misleading. They were top ten in the league in rushing efficiencywith Jason Peters healthy, but after he went down they dropped all the way to 18th by season’s end. Part of that is the byproduct of rushing in obvious rushing situations – only three teams in the NFL had more run plays in the 4th quarter with a lead. But short yardage was a struggle for this team all year, and that power ranking is bailed out by Carson Wentz going 16/16 on QB sneaks. Still, this team flashed dominance at times, and the return of Peters should help.
When they did get to the open field, Eagles RBs were among the best in the NFL last season. I seem to be in the minority in thinking Legarrette Blount moving on is addition by subtraction. Too many of his runs just went nowhere, and he was terrible in short yardage. I expect the Eagles to maintain their RB rotation, with heavier loads for Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement to replace Blount’s carries, and some Darren Sproles mixed in. Carson Wentz also adds to the rushing attack; he chipped in 27 rushing first downs in 2017, 5th among all quarterbacks.
The Eagles rushing attack really struggled last season in the red zone, so it will be on Doug Pederson to see if they can get that corrected. Overall I expect a similar performance to 2017 – high volume but moderate efficiency.
1. Dallas Cowboys
RB Depth Chart – Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, Bo Scarbrough, Jamize Olawale, Tavon Austin
OL Depth Chart – Tyron Smith, Connor Williams, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, La’el Collins, Cameron Fleming, Joe Looney, (Kadeem Edwards), (Marcus Martin)
2017 ranks – Total Rushing – 2; DVOA – 2; Power Rank – 3; RB Yards – 20
The Cowboys offensive line is the best run blocking unit in the NFL, and they were among the best in the league in basically every rushing statistic in 2017. That was with Tyron Smith banged up all season and a hilarious lack of depth. The only changes to this unit are likely upgrades, with Connor Williams being taken in the second round and Cameron Fleming brought in to address that depth issue. There is no reason to think they won’t continue to dominate in the run game.
At running back, the Cowboys should have Ezekiel Elliott for a full 16 games again, assuming he is able to get to the regular season without beating any women, which I’m sure he… might do. In 2016 Elliott was probably the best pure running back in the NFL, but his game really regressed in 2017. He declined in basically every statistical category and overall the Cowboys RBs went from top 5 in open field yards in 2016 to 20th in 2017. Frankly, I thought he looked a step slower. That said, I expect a rebound year for Elliott. He could easily see 350+ touches in this offense. Behind Elliott, nothing really impresses me. And who carries a dedicated fullback in 2018?
Dak Prescott was among best rushing quarterbacks in the NFL last season, so that will help increase the rushing numbers for this team. Overall this was an easy ranking. I don’t think it’s close.