For 8 consecutive weeks this Spring/Summer I will be going division by division and evaluating the RB corps of each team. I’ll be assessing both the overall talent and depth that each team has at the position, while taking into account whether they use a workhorse back as their primary weapon or if they use a committee of backs to get the job done. This week’s featured division will be the AFC East.
BUFFALO BILLS: LeSean McCoy, Frank Gore, Devin Singletary, TJ Yeldon, Senorise Perry, Marcus Murphy
LeSean “Shady” McCoy has been one of the best running backs in the league for close to a decade now, but in 2018 he finally started to show some decline. The elite explosiveness and balance he once had was no longer there, and that diminished a good amount of the big plays that we’re so used to seeing from him. McCoy is still a solid weapon and can still produce, it’s just probably best to use him as part of a committee now to limit the wear and tear of a full season.
To help bolster their RB corps, the team brought in 3 new additions: veterans Frank Gore and TJ Yeldon, and rookie Devin Singletary.
Usually when a team has an aging RB as their starter, they bring in a younger guy to be his backup and eventual replacement. However, that wasn’t the case with the Bills as they went the complete opposite direction and signed the ageless Frank Gore. He’s had a remarkable career and is undoubtedly a future Hall of Famer, but at this point of his career he’s very limited in what he can provide. Yes, he still has the vision and experience to pick up positive yards and remain efficient, but he also will leave yards on the field due to his lack of explosiveness and dynamic ability. Plus, even though we have yet to see it, it’s only a matter of time before he breaks down.
TJ Yeldon is a solid complimentary option who can contribute on passing downs. He’s no Alvin Kamara or Christian McCaffrey, but he’s better than most people realize. And he brings a little bit more juice and wiggle as a runner than Gore does right now.
Devin Singletary is the one guy in this backfield that intrigues me. He drew a lot of comparisons to McCoy during the pre-draft process because of his standout agility and cutback ability, which are on display when you watch any of his highlight videos. The concern with him is that he’s not the level of athlete that McCoy was in his prime. Singletary’s athletic testing was lackluster for the type of player he is and the running style he uses. You have to wonder whether he’ll be able to pull off the types of runs at the pro level that he had when he was in college.
— A2D Radio (@a2dradio_com) February 28, 2019
Those 4 players will most likely be the 4 that will make the final 53, meaning Senorise Perry and Marcus Murphy are probably on the outside looking in. Perry is a special teams player primarily, but he’ll have to have an absolute standout preseason to convince the coaches on keeping 5 running backs on the roster.
The Bills have the oldest RB duo in the league with McCoy and Gore. And while TJ Yeldon isn’t a bad rotational option and Singletary has a chance of being an exciting player, the group remains rather unspectacular.
MIAMI DOLPHINS: Kenyan Drake, Kalen Ballage, Mark Walton, Myles Gaskin, Kenneth Farrow
I for one am glad that Adam Gase and Frank Gore are no longer in Miami because that means Kenyan Drake will finally get his opportunity to be the lead back for the Dolphins. For some reason Gase insisted on giving Gore most of the carries despite Drake being the better offensive weapon overall. Part of the reason Jay Ajayi became expendable (Philadelphia is forever grateful for that) was because of his potential. He’s a highly elusive runner who isn’t afraid to grind out tough yards between the tackles. He’s also already a deadly weapon in the passing game as a receiver. He does have issues in pass protection, and he tends to go for the big play at times when he should be taking whatever yards are there to be had. But I’m still a believer that Drake is one of the better running backs in the league and he deserves the opportunity to shine.
The past couple days I charted every 2018 touch by Kalen Ballage. Suffered through watching him being tackled by the first man on 43 out of 45 touches. Sit down to study Kenyan Drake and this is literally the first play I see: pic.twitter.com/r3IoGznYkD
— J Moyer (@JMoyerFB) June 17, 2019
Kenyan Drake doing football things: pic.twitter.com/8QBY68Vy6E
— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) October 10, 2018
Behind Drake the Dolphins have a few young options on their roster in Kalen Ballage, Myles Gaskin, and Mark Walton. All 3 have some notable skills worth keeping an eye on.
Ballage is a big back who can really move. He’s 6’2” 237 pounds, ran a 4.46 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, and is an overall impressive athlete for his size. The main knock on him though is that his vision and decision making are spotty, and he’s not necessarily someone who will force missed tackles. Some believe that Ballage is good enough to move ahead of Drake, but I don’t see it.
Walton was released by the Bengals after he got into legal trouble last year and the Dolphins signed him with the hopes of him staying out of trouble going forward. His game is very similar to Gio Bernard’s who has been one of the better scat backs in the game over the past several years. My guess is that Cincinnati drafted Walton in hopes that he would replace Bernard in the near future, but that’s obviously no longer the case. If Walton can clean up his off the field stuff, he could end up being a significant addition. However, that is a big “if”.
Gaskin was drafted in the 7th round of the 2019 Draft, probably as a “Plan B” in case the whole Walton experiment didn’t pan out. Gaskin isn’t as athletically talented as Walton is. He doesn’t have great long speed and his burst is only solid, but he has the quickness and pass catching ability to still be a contributor. What separates Gaskin from a lot of running backs of his mold is that his vision is exceptional. He may not “wow” you, but he’s effective and can get the job done on the ground if the blocking is there.
Kenneth Farrow has an advantage over the rest of the guys in that he’s the only true power back of the group. Having that distinguishing skill could end up earning him a roster spot as the short yardage runner in this offense.
I have a lot more excitement over this Dolphins’ backfield now that Gase and Gore are gone. And it’s not that Gore is a horrible runner, but more so that the team has young guys with some potential, and I’d like to see how they develop and perform with more opportunities.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Sony Michel, Damien Harris, James White, Rex Burkhead, Brandon Bolden, Nick Brossette
A big reason why the New England Patriots have managed to stay so successful over the past 18 years is because Head Coach Bill Belichick always seems to be one step ahead of everyone else. He doesn’t follow the trends in the league; he’s one of the very few people that start them. So while most of the teams right now are focusing on spread offenses and passing the ball a ton, the Patriots decided to get back to smash-mouth power football and beating up teams with the running game.
In an effort to solidify the change in their offensive approach, they drafted Sony Michel with the 31st overall pick in the 2018 Draft (thus triggering all those who claim that running backs should never be drafted in the 1st round). He had some impressive performances during the regular season, but the post-season is where he really shined. In 3 playoff games Michel ran for 336 yards on 71 attempts (an average of 4.73 yards per attempt) and scored 6 touchdowns. He fits well with what the Patriots want from a runner because he’s a slasher who makes one cut to get to and through the hole before attacking upfield. He has a great understanding of angles and he knows how to attack running lanes against the flow of linebackers and the secondary. Investing a 1st round pick in him has already paid dividends for the team.
Here are all six of Sony Michel’s runs of 20-plus yards last season. Vision (or reading his keys as he put it), patience, sets up his blocks, contact balance.
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) June 15, 2019
However, in true Belichick fashion, he didn’t let Michel’s success as their new lead back deter the team from adding even more talent to the position. In this past Draft they went out and selected Damien Harris in the 3rd round. Harris’ skillset reminds me a lot of Mark Ingram. He’s a very safe prospect with little risk because he does a lot of the little things well. He may never be one of the elite running backs in the game, but there’s little chance he won’t be at least a good one.
James White will once again be the team’s main receiving back. He’s been one of the best in the league in that role for a few seasons now and there’s no reason to believe that won’t continue.
Rex Burkhead returns after missing the most of the 2018 season with a neck injury. He’s the type of RB who is a “Jack of all trades, Master of none”. He’s solid in all areas but doesn’t really stand out in one particular area, but for a coach like Belichick that type of player is an absolute asset.
There’s a good chance that the Patriots end up keeping 5 running backs through final cuts, with the 5th guy being Brandon Bolden. Bolden returns to his hometown after one season playing in Miami. Because of the contract he signed it’s not likely that he would be cut.
Nick Brossette signed as an undrafted free agent but I’ll be shocked if he makes it over the other guys mentioned.
The Patriots have always been one of the more confusing teams when it comes to running back usage. Not only do they like to use a committee of guys, but also their lead back could vary on a week-to-week basis. Belichick has shown that he likes to go with the hot hand and rely on whoever is running the best at that moment. I’m not sure what that’ll mean for Sony Michel and the rest of the committee in 2019, but regardless the Patriots have a very good and deep group at the RB position.
NEW YORK JETS: Le’Veon Bell, Bilal Powell, Ty Montgomery, Elijah McGuire, Trenton Cannon, De’Angelo Henderson, Valentine Holmes, Jalin Moore
The New York Jets were able to land the marquee free agent of the offseason, Le’Veon Bell. Before sitting out the entire 2018 season, Bell was arguably the best running back in the league. His signature patient running style and skills as a receiver who can line up all over the field made him one of the most dangerous players in the league. It will certainly be interesting to see just how much the time off has affected his game, if at all. But he’s definitely a weapon that’ll help Sam Darnold’s development.
Bilal Powell just recently re-signed with the Jets after being medically cleared from a serious neck injury he suffered in the middle of the 2018 season. He will likely rotate in with Ty Montgomery as the backups. Powell’s history and tenure with the Jets definitely gives him an advantage, and he is the more elusive runner of the two players. But where Powell has those advantages, Montgomery is certainly the more established receiver. He signed shortly after Bell and was projected to be the primary backup before Powell’s return. The former wide receiver adds even more versatility to a backfield that is already loaded with it. Now if only he would wear an actual RB number and stop with the #88 nonsense.
Elijah McGuire figures to have the best shot at securing that final RB spot on the roster. He’s shown flashes before, but has never been consistent enough to establish himself as a starter.
Trenton Cannon, De’Angelo Henderson, Valentine Holmes, and Jalin Moore round out the rest of the crowded backfield for the Jets, and all of them will be competing to earn a spot over McGuire. Cannon is a scat back with speed and return ability, so he’ll have to make his mark on special teams to have a chance. Henderson is a former Denver Bronco who looks like a very poor man’s version of Maurice Jones-Drew. Holmes is a converted Rugby player who needs to learn the NFL pro game still. Moore signed as an undrafted free agent and certainly has an uphill battle ahead of him to win a roster spot.
My main concern about the Jets’ RB Corps doesn’t have to do with the players they have but with the new Head Coach that is in place, Adam Gase. This is the same guy who ran Jay Ajayi out of town and over to the eventual Super Bowl Champions. This is the same guy who also limited Kenyan Drake’s touches in favor of a less dynamic Frank Gore. And this is the same guy who reportedly claimed that he didn’t want the team to sign Le’Veon Bell in the first place because his price tag was too high. I’m not too confident in Gase’s ability to properly manage and use RB talent, but we’ll have to wait and see how it plays out.