Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Running backs benefiting from NFL play shift

Posted on 19 September 2017 by Ben Morse

With the 2017 NFL season once again upon us, it will be fascinating to see how the 32 teams have addressed their needs during the off-season.

Teams tend to differ on their preferred means of filling these holes. One method is to address them by going through free agency, a route preferred by teams such as the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins.

The other method is to draft sensibly and hope the college prospects picked either immediately play at a high standard or develop into the players the teams predict they could. This is the preferred method of the Green Bay Packers and Cincinnati Bengals.

Running backs can be notoriously difficult to draft as they have occasionally failed to reach the heady heights of their predicted potential . A draft pick can go one of two ways. A team could draft a player such as Ezekiel Elliot who was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys last year and in his rookie year rushed for 1,631 yards, looking like an immediate superstar.

Or, a team could draft a player such as Ron Dayne or Trent Richardson who can derail a team’s long-term plans if they do not achieve the level of success the team predict.

In the past ten years, one or two running backs on average have emerged from the draft as successful NFL running backs as rookies. But, from the 2017 draft, it looks like there might be four or five potential NFL rookie running backs starters as, in the first two weeks of the season, Kareem Hunt, Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette, Tarik Cohen and Christian McCaffrey have really excelled.

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This is a draft class the likes of which hasn’t been seen since 2008 when Jonathan Stewart, Chris “2K” Johnson, Matt Forte, Ray Rice, Justin Forsett and Jamaal Charles all featured.

Whereas this level of quality hasn’t been seen at the running back position for a while, the 2014 NFL draft included more than five top class wide receivers, including Odell Beckham Jr and Mike Evans. All of the major receivers in this draft have proven successful for the franchises that picked them. In the case of Odell Beckham, he has become the cornerstone of their offence.

So what has brought about this upturn in running back prospects?

In certain cases, such as Leonard Fournette, he possesses a physique that has rarely been seen in the position. His combination of speed, size and strength was a major reason why the Jacksonville Jaguars drafted him fifth and will stand him in good stead for his NFL career.

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There has been a trend in NFL play calling for the last decade which has seen offensive coordinators moving away from a majority passing offence to a more balanced offence, which means an increase in the number of rushing plays.

This is a clear acknowledgement from coaches that the era of gunslingling quarterbacks has passed and that a strong running game is needed to help keep the opposition defences honest. A good example of this as a successful method is the Dallas Cowboys.

In 2015, their lead back was Darren McFadden, they called running plays 42.11% of the time and finished the season with a 4-12 record. During the next season, they drafted Ezekiel Elliot and called running plays 48.7% of the time, finishing with a 13-3 record. These stats indicate that the old football adage, “you have to run to set up the pass”, is being noticed and respected by football coaches.

This shift in the NFL play calling has been noticed by college football coaches and, despite the play-books being much more exotic in college football, the trend is being reflected in the play calling. In the 2008 season, the pass percentage was 46.1% but that number has dropped to 44.8% in 2016.

This focus on the running game at college level, where the prospects are still honing their skills, has meant that the running backs are more pro-ready, giving them a better chance of succeeding in the big leagues. Combine that with more innovation in the college football playbook and less time between each snap, the draft prospects are fitter, quicker and smarter making them the more complete articles.

It has reached the point now where teams with a suspect defence will makes sure that their front seven is just about passable to be able to restrict the opposition’s running game which, in their eyes, means the opposition quarterback has to have the ball in his hand and makes their offence one dimensional.

In reality however, the defence as a whole suffers from this approach because the secondary is so exposed that they get carved up by a quarterback – as shown by Tom Brady against the Saints – and then because the defence have to adjust to by reinforcing the secondary, the offence can move to a running game that gives them much more control over the clock and therefore over the end result.

So what will happen in future drafts? Will teams begin to prioritise drafting a running back over a quarterback so their offence is more balanced?

In short, no. The reliance on a strong, dominant running game will increase but the quarterback is the most important position in the sport as they have so much control over the outcome of a game, giving justification to the huge contracts that are being signed. Matthew Stafford signed a 5 year contract worth $135 million on 1st September.

But I do believe that we are entering into a golden age for the NFL running back that will see an increase in the contracts being handed out. Le’Veon Bell is in line for a huge contract. Eventually, this may filter through to the NFL MVP prize, with running backs proving more successful than in recent years; there have only been two in the last eleven seasons.