PART II – Running Backs
When I wrote my quarterback ranking, I said the NFCE is perhaps the only division where all four teams are relatively happy with their current QB situations. Running backs… not so much; at least for half the division. I’m ranking the RB groups in this division as:
1. Dallas Cowboys
2. Washington Redskins
3. Philadelphia Eagles
4. New York Giants
4. NEW YORK GIANTS
Depth Chart: Paul Perkins, Shane Vereen, Wayne Gallman, Orleans Darkwa
It’s been a rough few years for Giants’ RBs. I think a lot of the poor performance can be chalked up to an OL that has really struggled, particularly at tackle, but that list of names above doesn’t inspire much confidence. Even when the OL did their job, the Giants were among the worst teams in the NFL in gaining 2nd level yards and open field yards (i.e. runs plays > 5 yards) and they had the third-fewest run plays of 10+ yards in the NFL last year. The leading RB from last year, Rashad Jennings, isn’t on the team anymore, so it’s difficult to project too much improvement.
I do like Wayne Gallman as an RB prospect, and the Giants did bring back Shane Vereen, whom I actually like a lot but is woefully under-utilized and is coming back from a season in which he was placed on IR twice with triceps injuries. Paul Perkins is another guy with talent who could take a step forward, and with four legitimate receiving targets it’s possible spreading out the defense could help the run game face some lighter resistance in 2017. But overall there just isn’t much to be excited about with this group in 2017.
3. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
Depth Chart: Wendell Smallwood, Darren Sproles, Donnell Pumphrey,
(Corey Clement),LeGarrette Blount
The Eagles depth chart at running back is not much more impressive than the Giants. Honestly the only reason I gave them the very slight edge is that they have a proven commodity in Darren Sproles, and he’s a part-time player. It’s pretty clear the Eagles will go with a committee approach in 2017, but it will be interesting to watch if one of the RBs can seize a lead role and merit more touches. I have a hunch the Eagles are a little higher on Wendell Smallwood than people outside the building are, but that’s just a guess. It will be interesting to see how they work both Sproles and Donnell Pumphrey into the rotation. Pumphrey was a lead back in college and got a ton of touches, but I think the Eagles see him as another Darren Sproles type situational back in the NFL.
I have Corey Clement penciled in among the RBs, which is a big assumption for an undrafted free agent. I like his game and he brings something to the Eagles RB corps that they don’t otherwise have on the roster, so unless the Eagles make a trade before the season starts, I think he has a good chance of being in the mix at RB.
I should note that as murky as the picture is for the Eagles at RB, they do have some guys who can be a threat as receivers out of the backfield. Sproles was the 6th most targeted RB in the NFL in 2016 and showed he’s still got it. Pumphrey brings a similar skill set and the Eagles project him in a similar role.
2. WASHINGTON REDSKINS
Depth Chart: Rob Kelley, Chris Thompson, Samaje Perine, Matt Jones
Frankly the Redskins group of RBs wasn’t all that impressive in 2016 either. Their most efficient runner was Matt Jones, who may not be on the roster in 2017. Rob Kelley did a decent job replacing Jones, but honestly he’s nothing to write home about either. The Redskins ranking on this list reflects mostly an underrated weapon in Chris Thompson, who, when he got his hands on the ball, was one of the more productive RBs in the league both rushing and receiving, and the addition of Samaje Perine. I like Perine for the Redskins system a lot, and I think he takes over as he lead back for Rob Kelley before long.
The RBs above and a great run blocking OL combined to make the Redskins one of the more efficient rushing offenses in the NFL in 2016. They were outstanding in short yardage/power situations and were one of the best in the league at not getting stopped for 0 or negative yards. Alas, the Redskins only ran the ball on about 37.5% of plays last year, eighth-fewest in the NFL. When they call runs, they run it really well. If Jay Gruden calls the plays, the rushing yards will come for the Redskins in 2017.
1. DALLAS COWBOYS
Depth Chart: Ezekiel Elliott, Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris
This one is a no-brainer. The Cowboys have the only proven stud RB in the division in Ezekiel Elliott, who was a monster at RB behind that OL last season. Elliott is big, strong and fast and can power for tough yards or break open big gains. He is most effective on 1st and 10, where he averaged just under 6 yards per carry and set the Cowboys up for favorable 2nd and 3rd down conversions all season long. If there is a chink in Elliott’s armor, he’s not what you look for in a third down back receiving out of the backfield. Elliott’s raw numbers as a receiver are really good, but he was targeted 12 times on third downs last year, caught 11 of them but only converted three first downs. So a lot of those third down yardage figures are kind of hollow, but I doubt any Cowboys fans are all that worried about it.
For depth, the Cowboys have Alfred Morris, who is looking more like Olandis Gary and less like Terrell Davis, and Darren McFadden, who is still in the NFL because…. Reasons? Maybe Jerry wants to support a fellow Razorback, I guess.
As impressive as Dak Prescott was as a rookie, the strength of the Cowboys’ offense (and whole team, really) is the run game. With the key players on the offensive line returning, Elliott again figure to be the best and most productive back in the division in 2017.
Up next: Wide Receivers