Around the NFL  

 

Bounceback backs: Who'll be this year's Doug Martin?

Print

Preseason games can be incredibly misleading, particularly in the evaluation of quarterback play. Leery of tipping their regular-season plans, defensive coordinators roll out vanilla schemes. The defensive pressure is less intense, the passing windows open up and the secondary is easier to read.

One position that does offer clues every August, though, is running back. Watching Ryan Mathews in 2013, Mark Ingram in 2014 and Doug Martin in 2015, it was evident that bounceback seasons were in order for hard-charging runners flashing explosiveness that was noticeably missing in previous campaigns.

Who might be this year's Martin, a former standout poised to carry prescient fantasy football owners to the championship or, better yet, challenge for the league lead in rushing? The Around The NFL Podcast discussed four potential breakout stars last week.

Let's examine the top candidates:

1) Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers: Lacy is the most obvious candidate because we can directly attribute his 2015 woes to his ballooning to 260 pounds in a dysfunctional offense with debilitating injuries to the offensive line and wide receiver corps.

The 2013 and '14 game film shows that Lacy is one of the NFL's top 10 running backs when healthy and in reasonable football shape. Going back to 2014, he was the only player in the league to exceed 100 yards from scrimmage in each of that season's final nine games, totaling 1,111 yards and nine touchdowns over that dominant stretch. Now that he's slimmed down to around 240 pounds in a restocked offense, a second Pro Bowl season could be on the horizon.

2) Arian Foster, Miami Dolphins: Never in true football shape following training-camp groin surgery, Foster might have been the NFL's slowest running back last October before an Achilles tear ended his season prematurely. Now fully healthy, the four-time Pro Bowler has been the talk of Dolphins camp, taking advantage of Jay Ajayi's injury absence.

Offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen has made it clear that the three-down role is there for the taking. Foster certainly boasts that skill set, but it's fair to wonder if his body can handle the workload. The Dolphins' latest depth chart lists Ajayi atop the RB depth chart, though these early-August releases are anything but gospel. If Foster starts flashing the sublime form he sported throughout the 2014 season, Ajayi will become an afterthought.

3) Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati Bengals: Coming off an impressive rookie campaign in which he led the NFL in rushing yards and yards per carry in the second half of the 2014 season, Hill was expected to be the focal point of the Bengals' offense in 2015. Instead, a sluggish, tip-toeing Hill was thoroughly outplayed by Giovani Bernard as play caller Hue Jackson sacrificed the power-rushing attack to a lethal three-wideout aerial assault.

After recommitting with a successful offseason, Hill is listed atop the depth chart in training camp. With wide receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu out of the picture and Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert in doubt for the season opener, it's natural to wonder if new coordinator Ken Zampese will return to the run-centric offense in which Hill excelled as a rookie.

4) Terrance West, Baltimore Ravens: A draft bust in Cleveland and a washout in Nashville, West has discovered a new lease on life with his hometown club. It's natural to cast a skeptical eye at the tried-and-true offseason trope trumpeting a player in the "best shape of his life." When that hype bunny starts turning heads in camp, though, the antennae should be tingling.

Multiple beat writers have noted that West is the Ravens' most explosive offensive playmaker since camp opened. Coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Marc Trestman have sung his praises, noting diligence in pass protection, quickness to and through the hole and an improved attitude. If West runs with explosiveness and authority on preseason game tape, it will be time to get excited about his 2016 prospects as the lead back in Baltimore.

5) Ameer Abdullah, Detroit Lions: At this time last year, Abdullah already had emerged as a trendy Offensive Rookie of the Year dark horse with uncanny vision, explosive lateral agility and rare suddenness that makes it seem like he's actually picking up speed when he makes a cut. The drumbeat grew louder when he left Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle high and dry with a nasty cut on a 21-yard touchdown run in the Lions' season opener.

The wheels came off soon thereafter, though, as Abdullah's hype train ran headlong into fumbling issues and the league's least effective run blocking. The next month's worth of game film will be even more telling for Abdullah than it will be for other backs because he's returning from January shoulder surgery. Recent history suggests we should lower expectations. In the past few years, we've seen talented backs -- including the aforementioned trio of Ryan Mathews, Mark Ingram and Doug Martin -- run with more hesitation and less power while protecting their own sore shoulders.

More names to watch in preseason action: DeMarco Murray, Tennessee Titans; Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers; Melvin Gordon, San Diego Chargers; Matt Jones, Washington Redskins; C.J. Spiller, New Orleans Saints.

Print