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 NFC South.
ATLANTA FALCONS: Devonta Freeman, Ito Smith, Brian Hill, Qadree Ollison, Kenjon Barner
For a few seasons Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman were one of the better RB duos in the league. But with Coleman now in San Francisco, the Falcons have a couple of questions to answer this season in regard to their RB corps.
Freeman missed all but two games in 2018 and has played in only 16 games total in the past 2 seasons. The Falcons’ “1A” lead back signed a 5-year contract extension before the 2017 season but hasn’t been able to consistently stay on the field since. However, when he is on the field, he is one of the better running backs in the league. He’s a compact and agile runner who also packs quite a bit of power despite his shorter stature. Freeman is a good weapon in the receiving game as well, making him a dangerous and versatile weapon for the Falcon’s offense.
Ito Smith stepped in as the primary backup to Coleman last season with Freeman out, and the rookie played well when called upon. When I scouted him during the 2018 draft process, I saw him as a prospect who could be a day 3 gem because of his elite elusiveness and ability to make defenders miss. He still has a way to go when it comes to being the reliable zone runner that Coleman was, but at worst he’s a dangerous “satellite” player whom they’ll focus on getting into space.
Taking @ItoSmith in the 4th round?
We’d say that’s working out pretty well for us. pic.twitter.com/4Wh2lhBrCI
— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) October 24, 2018
Brian Hill and Qadree Ollison were selected in the 5th round of their respective drafts (Hill 2017, Ollison 2019) and both are physical downhill type of runners with little versatility. Hill had a short stint on the Bengals roster before returning to the Falcons and even getting some playing time late last season. But by drafting Ollison the Falcons are giving Hill some competition to earn that 3rd spot on the depth chart. Some see Ollison as a potential future replacement for Freeman as the team’s lead back, but I don’t see it. I do think he’ll end up beating out Hill though.
Eagles fans are familiar with Kenjon Barner. The veteran RB will provide solid depth who can contribute in certain spots, including special teams as a returner. But that’s assuming he’ll make the team as the 4th RB.
The Falcons had been using primarily 2 running backs in their offense for a while now but starting in 2019 we could see them making use of 3 on a weekly basis. I see Freeman remaining as the lead with Smith being the passing down back and either Ollison or Hill serving as the situational short yardage back. But the success of the running game depends on the durability of Freeman. If he misses time yet again, the backfield will suffer a significant drop in talent.
CAROLINA PANTHERS: Christian McCaffrey, Cameron Artis-Payne, Jordan Scarlett, Elijah Holyfield, Elijah Hood
Christian McCaffrey was such a highly touted prospect in the 2017 Draft. His explosiveness, elusiveness, and elite receiving ability resulted in him being drafted in the top part of the 1st round. The one concern that evaluators had, myself included, was his ability to consistently run between the tackles. That concern was legitimized during his rookie season as McCaffrey struggled to find success running up the middle. However, those concerns were mostly erased in 2018 as he showed vast improvement in this area of his game. The Panthers use McCaffrey so well, especially in the passing game, and he should continue to be the most dangerous offensive weapon for the Panthers’ offense and one of the most dangerous in the whole league.
The depth behind McCaffrey will need some clarity as the offseason progresses. The Panthers re-signed Cameron Artis-Payne and Elijah Hood to extensions early in the offseason in an effort to provide some stability to the backfield. Neither of them may be standout talents but they’re already familiar with the system and Artis-Payne has had a degree of success in prior seasons.
However, the team still wanted to look for upgrades, therefore they drafted Jordan Scarlett in the 5th round and signed Elijah Holyfield as an undrafted free agent. I actually had Holyfield ranked higher than Scarlett on my big board, but Holyfield’s alarmingly bad 40-time results at both the Combine and his Pro Day raised red flags about his speed and caused him to go undrafted. But aside from his long speed, I believe Holyfield is still a decent prospect. He’s a very physical runner with exceptional footwork and good vision. He doesn’t have notable skills as a receiver but if you’re looking for someone who can grind out yards in small chunks, Holyfield fits that role well.
I’m in on Elijah Holyfield, folks pic.twitter.com/Xo1I8l468E
— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) February 2, 2019
Scarlett is also someone who has very good short yardage ability because of his active feet and violent running style. Plus, he ran a 4.47 at the Combine which helped raise his stock. But despite showing good speed in workouts, Scarlett isn’t someone who is going to impress you with his lateral movement or versatility, and his vision is inconsistent. With the Panthers offense in need of a reliable short-yardage option, the competition between Scarlett and Holyfield will definitely be one to keep an eye on.
It’s difficult not to like a backfield that has McCaffrey leading the way. What will make me confident in this RB corps overall is if either Holyfield or Scarlett can prove to be a reliable compliment to him. With Cam Newton’s recent injury, having another legitimate running threat in the backfield will make that offense even more difficult to defend.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Alvin Kamara, Latavius Murray, Devine Ozigbo, Javorius Allen, Dwayne Washington
The Mark Ingram era in New Orleans has come to an end with the veteran RB now in Baltimore. But while one-half of the league’s best RB duo is gone, the other half is ready to lead the way as the top weapon for the Saints. Alvin Kamara is a Top 5 RB in the league and an absolute phenomenal talent with tremendous versatility and unbelievable contact balance as a runner. During Ingram’s 4-game suspension in 2018 Kamara showed that he could be the lead guy in that backfield. But regardless, the Saints still needed to find a way to replace Ingram’s role in the offense as the change-of-pace and
Latavius Murray was signed as a free agent and is slotted to be the primary backup to Kamara, at least at the start of the season. Murray has been really solid as a rotational piece for the Minnesota Vikings the past couple of seasons, especially with Cook battling injuries. He’s a big back with a good blend of speed and power, and he should fit in quite well in that system.
The player that intrigues me the most though is Devine Ozigbo. He went undrafted but I had him as a borderline round 3 or round 4 talent. Ozigbo has a thick build and runs with power but he also has very good agility and quickness. He’s great in zone schemes because of his ability to see and hit the cutback lanes and then explode into the second level. He wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine so he wasn’t one of the well-known names in the draft class, but he had an excellent workout at his Pro Day and his skills are apparent on tape. He has the potential to be a real steal as an undrafted free agent for the Saints. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t make the team over Javorius “Buck” Allen and Dwayne Washington, who will both be in the mix for the 4th spot.
I’ve been impressed with Nebraska RB Devine Ozigbo while putting him under the microscope. Career year this season and at 235 lbs, he’s got some nice movement skills. pic.twitter.com/m19cqzR217
— Kyle Crabbs (@GrindingTheTape) December 12, 2018
Even with the departure of Mark Ingram, the Saints still could have one of the best RB units in the entire league.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Peyton Barber, Ronald Jones, Shaun Wilson, Bruce Anderson, Andre Ellington
The Buccaneers’ RB corps right now seems like an unspectacular group. It’s even possible that they have the worst unit in the entire league. But there are two names that have my attention and could be surprises in 2019.
Ronald Jones was looked at as one of the better RB prospects in 2018 class, drawing comparisons to guys like Jamaal Charles and Chris Johnson. He was expected to immediately be their lead back, but unfortunately that never came to fruition and his rookie season was a massive disappointment. It’s still too early to label him a bust, but he’s going to have to show at least some improvement in 2018, and by all accounts coming out of OTA’s and minicamp so far he’s already made huge strides in his development.
The other guy that I’m watching closely is Bruce Anderson. One of my sleepers in the 2019 RB draft class, Anderson’s versatility and skills as a receiver could be a real weapon in Bruce Arians’ offense. One thing that Barber and Jones are lacking is proven receiving skills. Some evaluators project that Jones has the ability to be a decent receiver, but he wasn’t used that way in college it is nothing more than just a projection. But with Anderson there are numerous plays on film from his time at North Dakota State that show his ability as a receiver. And he’s not that bad of a runner either.
Bruce Anderson has some of the more natural hands of the entire running back class. Not all RBs catch balls above their eyes that easily and some will just let it fall into their hands. Anderson high points these balls with ease. pic.twitter.com/mheaDbs3TG
— Kent Swanson (@kent_swanson) April 14, 2019
Peyton Barber will most likely start the season as the lead if Jones doesn’t impress enough during training camp and pre-season. Barber is an adequate/solid runner, but nothing more. His production dropped as the season went on, showing that he needs someone else to help carry the load with him.
Andre Ellington is on the roster right now because of his familiarity with Arians’ system. It’s possible he’s just a camp body who won’t end up on the final 53, but his ability as a receiving threat out of the backfield could give him another advantage over a guy like Shaun Wilson when it comes to competing for a roster spot.
Again, the Bucs’ RB corps is not very impressive on paper right now, but that doesn’t mean that guys like Jones and Anderson can’t develop and give the backfield a much-needed boost. I’ll be keeping my eye on the both of them this season.