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 North.
BALTIMORE RAVENS: Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, Justice Hill, Kenneth Dixon, De’Lance Turner, Christopher Ezeala, Tyler Ervin
The Ravens changed their offense once Lamar Jackson became the starter last season, using more read-option concepts to help maximize Jackson’s skills as a runner. With that in mind they knew they would have to bolster the talent and depth at the RB position to better fit what they want to do.
The main addition to their RB Corps this offseason was Mark Ingram. The long-time Saint is still one of the better runners in the league and I’d be surprised if he isn’t a good lead back for them. Elite vision, great balance, good enough burst, and more versatility as a receiver than some people realize, his running style complements Jackson’s very well.
The other notable addition is 4th round pick Justice Hill. The playmaker out of Oklahoma State may not have the best vision behind the line of scrimmage, but he’s an outstanding and dynamic athlete. He has remarkable speed, burst, and agility and is lethal in open space. He will add another level of explosiveness to the Ravens offense as their scat back, making it even tougher for opposing defenses to defend the read-option.
Despite those 2 new faces there are 2 running backs returning from last season that shouldn’t be forgotten about: Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon.
Gus Edwards produced well for the Ravens his rookie season, amassing 718 yards on 137 carries for an average of 5.2 yards per carry. Edwards has good size and enough burst when reaching the 2nd level. He benefitted a lot from the read-option with his decisiveness and no nonsense running style. His ceiling may be a bit limited, but he’s already proven to be a reliable option in this offense.
Gus Edwards and Lamar Jackson and their synergy in the #Ravens run game.
Video refers to Gus Edwards as Gus Johnson. When I’m tired I start thinking of former NBA players. pic.twitter.com/71FRTxJVuH
— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 26, 2018
Kenneth Dixon was once looked at as the future starting RB for the Ravens back when he was drafted in 2016, but injuries and suspensions have prevented that from coming into fruition. The team has historically kept only 3 running backs on their roster, which would make Dixon the odd man out. However, with the switch in offensive philosophy, it is possible that they keep 4 this time around and that would increase Dixon’s chances of making it to the final 53. He has been a good player when he’s seen the field, showing the elusiveness and receiving ability that warranted him being selected where he was.
But don’t be surprised if Dixon is traded or cut in favor of one of the younger options, most notably De’Lance Turner. Turner was making waves last year during preseason as an undrafted free agent before getting hurt and getting placed on injured reserve. If Turner develops enough, he could be a surprise candidate to earn a spot on the final 53 over Dixon and the two other camp bodies Christopher Ezeala and Tyler Ervin.
CINCINNATI BENGALS: Joe Mixon, Giovani Bernard, Trayveon Williams, Rodney Anderson, Darrin Hall, Jordan Ellis, Quinton Flowers
Joe Mixon had a breakout season in 2018 rushing for 1,168 yards on an average of 4.9 yards per carry to go with 8 touchdowns. With an improved offensive line in front of him, Mixon was no longer getting swallowed up at the line of scrimmage on every other handoff and he was able to showcase his top-tier running ability. He’s also very versatile, showing he can be a threat as a receiver lined out on the outside or in the slot. Mixon’s name absolutely deserves mention when talking about the top 10 running backs in the league.
Didn’t realize how good of a season Joe Mixon had last year (1,168 yards and 8 TDs). So many explosive runs. pic.twitter.com/SEfUi8r44B
— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) June 4, 2019
Long-time scat back Gio Bernard returns once again to the same role for the Bengals offense as their change-of-pace guy. There’s not much to say about Bernard. We all know what he is and what he provides.
What’s interesting is that for the second year in a row the Bengals have seemingly drafted Bernard’s potential replacement. Last year it was Mark Walton, but after all the legal issues Walton had he was let go, so this year they invested in Trayveon Williams. Williams’ skillset reminds me more of Nyheim Hines than it does of Bernard. He is good in the passing game and has good burst, but he has more straight-line speed than he does lateral quickness. He’s someone who will tend to run by defenders rather than juke around them. Regardless though, he’ll have the opportunity to do what Walton was incapable of doing.
Overall, this past RB draft class didn’t have many standout prospects, but one of the very few was Rodney Anderson. The reason why he fell to the 6th round is because of his vast injury history. Out of his 4 years at Oklahoma, Anderson spent all or the majority of 3 of those seasons sidelined with some sort of major injury. But when he was healthy for that one season, Anderson performed at a very high level. He’s not the most explosive athlete but he has really good size, strength, balance, vision, and receiving ability. He still needs time to recover from his last injury, so I wouldn’t expect much from him this season. But if he can somehow find a way to stay healthy going forward, he can be a real steal for the Bengals and make a great 1-2 punch with Mixon.
Anderson’s absence for now opens a roster spot for one more RB, and if I had to bet on who would end up earning that spot, I’d probably go with the 3rd rookie they’ve brought in this offseason Darrin Hall.
CLEVELAND BROWNS: Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Duke Johnson, Dontrell Hilliard, Trayone Gray, D’Ernest Johnson
The questions surrounding Nick Chubb before the draft were if he’d be able to be the same type of runner he was before his serious knee injury at Georgia. But one year into his pro career and he’s already shown that he still is capable of being highly productive and is on his way to be one of the top runners in the NFL. He fell just 4 yards short of 1,000 yards rushing and averaged 5.2 yards per carry, scoring 10 touchdowns along the way. Chubb is one of the strongest and most physical runners you’ll see. He has an elite ability to fight and power his way through contact. And while he may not wow you with speed or elusiveness, he has enough agility to get in and out of running lanes smoothly and the hip flexibility to wiggle through tackle attempts.
The most rushing yards by a @Browns rookie… ever!
Nick Chubb’s TOP 10 PLAYS of 2018! pic.twitter.com/xILfmLqvUu
— NFL (@NFL) January 16, 2019
We’re all aware of the situation surrounding Kareem Hunt. But I’m not here to address and give my take on all that; I’m just here to talk about how these players perform on the field and what they bring to their respective teams. When Hunt is on the field and is at the peak of his ability, there’s no doubt that he’s one of the true elite running backs in the league. He’s the type of RB that just doesn’t have many weaknesses to his game, if any. He’s facing an 8-game suspension to start the season, but if he can come back and be the same player he’s proven to be while staying clean off the field, he’s going to be an enormous addition to the Browns offense that’s already littered with offensive talent.
It was no secret that Duke Johnson wanted out of Cleveland this offseason. Baker Mayfield even came out and criticized him for making his trade demands public. But as of now, Johnson remains a Brown. He’s one of the best RB receivers in the league and is the type of scat back that can be moved around the formation to create mismatches. Head Coach Freddie Kitchens needs to get creative with him, which is something previous coaches failed to do in the past.
Dontrell Hillard should be the frontrunner to make the team as the 4th RB on the depth chart (3rd while Hunt is serving his suspension). With some very talented names ahead of him it’ll be very difficult for him to get many opportunities, but if Johnson does get dealt at some point then Hillard would be the guy to fill his role as the offense’s receiving back.
The Browns’ overall RB situation has a lot of question marks going into this season. Chubb is the starter right now, but will Hunt eventually beat him out later in the year or years from now? Will Hunt even be on the team beyond this year? What are the team’s plans for Duke Johnson? And if all 3 of them are active and available, how will they be used and how will Kitchens manage their touches? If everything works out though, then the Browns would have my vote for the best RB Corps in the entire league.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS: James Conner, Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell Jr, Trey Edmunds, Travon McMillian, Malik Williams, Ralph Webb
James Conner’s story has been an incredible one so far. He beat cancer in 2015 and didn’t just return to the Pittsburgh Panthers for the 2016 season but also played very well, gaining 1,394 yards from scrimmage and scoring 20 total touchdowns in 13 games. He was then selected in the 3rd round by his hometown team the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2017 Draft. With Le’Veon Bell sitting out the whole 2018 season, Conner seized his opportunity and played great in Bell’s place. What’s impressed me about Conner is that he’s become a better overall athlete since coming into the league. When he was drafted, he was a pure power back with good receiving ability. However, he slimmed down before the 2018 season and became quicker and faster. Doing so allowed him to raise him game to another level. It’s hard to look at Conner and not root for the guy.
— NFL Films (@NFLFilms) June 4, 2019
There will be an interesting competition for the primary backup spot behind Conner between 2nd year player Jaylen Samuels and rookie Benny Snell Jr. Samuels is a hybrid HB/FB/TE player you can do a lot of things with. He’s been working a lot this offseason to slim down and add more speed to his game though (much like Conner did), which would help him be more of a running threat than he was before. Snell was a highly productive RB at Kentucky. He has good vision and power and is an ideal short-yardage guy, but he is also limited athletically and doesn’t really have much explosiveness or versatility to his game.
Trey Edmunds, the older brother of fellow Steeler Terrell Edmunds who plays safety, is doing his best to convince the team to keep 4 running backs as part of the final 53. He’s been impressive in Spring & Summer workouts so far.
The Steelers made a calculated risk last season in letting their superstar RB Le’Veon Bell hold out for an entire year. They banked on the talent of Conner and their offensive system to be enough to make up for his absence, and so far, it’s paid off. If Samuels improves as a runner and Snell can at worst be a reliable power runner for short-yardage situations, the team should be able to improve their 31st ranked running attack from last 2018.