Team-by-team RB picture: Browns need a jolt; Bills need a plan


It's roster-remake season, as NFL teams get ready to overhaul or tweak the personnel formulas upon which their 2018 fortunes hinge. Before free agency and the draft open the transaction floodgates in earnest, let's review the needs of each team at four key positions: running back, receiver, cornerback and quarterback. Who needs a serious upgrade? Who can promote from within? Who can stand pat? And who should be thinking seriously about the long-term future?

Today, Matt Harmon assesses each team's running back situation.


Cleveland Browns: The Browns' leading rusher over each of the last three seasons will likely hit free agency, as Isaiah Crowell's contract is set to expire in March. The former undrafted back carved out a nice role as a two-down banger, but he eclipsed 200 carries just once in four years. He will likely look for greener pastures. That will leave Duke Johnson and Matt Dayes behind on the depth chart. Johnson is a talented player, but the Browns seem to believe he is primarily a pass-catching specialist. He caught 74 passes while handling just 82 carries in 2017. He's explosive, and it might be worth considering whether it's a mistake to pigeon-hole him as a receiving asset. Cleveland has little choice but to pursue an upgrade, but with all the Browns' needs, one must question the wisdom of sinking major resources into such a replaceable position.

Detroit Lions: Since the Lions last had a running back rush for 100 yards in a game, we've had a new president elected and inaugurated, David Letterman retired and came back, and Ed Sheeran released two albums that sound exactly the same (and wasted five minutes in "Game of Thrones"). The back who accomplished that feat on Nov. 28, 2013 -- Reggie Bush -- hasn't been a factor for an NFL team since 2014 and retired in December. So, yes, it might be time for the team to consider upgrading the position. The team has an excellent pass-catching asset in place with Theo Riddick, but after 1,250 rushing yards in three seasons, Ameer Abdullah has failed to live up to expectations as an early-down back.

Houston Texans: The Houston Texans have middling returns to show for the signing of Lamar Miller in 2016. He hasn't looked comfortable with the task of being the team's feature back. Houston can get out from under Miller's contract with just $2 million in dead money, but the team would have little else at the position if it threw in the towel on that signing. D'Onta Foreman looked like a potential difference-maker as a rookie, averaging 4.03 yards gained after defenders closed within 1 yard of him (NFL average: 3.66), per Next Gen Stats. Unfortunately, he tore his Achilles tendon in mid-November, making it unwise for the Texans to count on him as their lead back next year. The team should pursue possible options to usurp Miller while also holding out hope Foreman can return to form for his sophomore campaign.

Indianapolis Colts: Frank Gore is a free agent, and it seems unlikely that he or the Colts would be eager to extend their relationship, given the status of both parties involved. Letting Gore walk would leave a hodgepodge of mostly unproven young players at the position, headlined by Marlon Mack. A fourth-round pick from the 2017 NFL Draft, Mack flashed big-play ability as a rookie but saw his snap count swing between 20 percent and 50 percent throughout the season. He showed nothing in his first season for the team to feel comfortable counting on him as a starting back who can sustain the offense. Indianapolis will likely look to the draft to find a player it can pair with (hopefully) Andrew Luck under new head coach Frank Reich.

New York Giants: Orleans Darkwa led the team in rushing with 751 yards -- and he's not even under contract for 2018. Not much more needs to be said to show the Giants' dire need at the position. If Darkwa bolts, the only player the Giants have in the backfield who showed anything of worth in 2017 is Day 3 draft pick Wayne Gallman. The rookie turned in some workman-like efforts as a runner and finished the year averaging 4.8 catches in his final four games. Gallman can figure in as part of a committee, but expect new head coach Pat Shurmur to pursue a more tantalizing solution. He could look to reunite with free-agent-to-be Jerick McKinnon, whom he coached when he was offensive coordinator for the Vikings. The former third-round pick had 40-plus catches for the second straight year in Minnesota.

San Francisco 49ers: Despite scoring a career-high eight rushing touchdowns, Carlos Hyde had an overall middling year in his first season with Kyle Shanahan. Hyde is set to hit the free-agent market, and it should surprise no one if he dons a different uniform next season. The 49ers will explore both the free-agent market and this year's crop of rookies as they look to build around their newly-inked franchise passer (Jimmy Garoppolo). Pending free agent Dion Lewis could attract Shanahan, who also comes from a long coaching line known for unearthing starting running backs from the scrap heap.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Buccaneers already severed ties with former starter Doug Martin after he flamed out to the tune of 2.9 yards per carry in a 2017 season shortened by suspension. Expect Tampa Bay to explore both the high end of the free-agent market for a veteran starter and the early rounds of the NFL draft. As it stands today, the Bucs only have Jacquizz Rodgers and Peyton Barber set to inhabit their running back depth chart for 2018. Few teams need help at the position like the NFC South's basement-dweller.

Washington Redskins: Samaje Perine did about the worst thing a young player can do to endear himself to his team and the NFL world at large: He started slow and finished with a thud. Often, young players are remembered for hot starts or strong finishes in their first year on the scene. Perine did neither in his rookie season. Still, Washington only used a fourth-round pick on Perine and shouldn't feel any reservations about chasing an upgrade. The team will have Chris Thompson back after a fractured fibula ended what was shaping up to be a career year. However, injuries have been a theme for Thompson all the way back to his days at Florida State. While he is an exciting player who can offer special possibilities in the open field, Thompson's contributions need to be viewed as gravy to the potatoes of an early-down back not yet discovered.


Carolina Panthers: The Panthers enter 2018 in a strange spot with their backfield. Despite drafting a player labeled "running back" eighth overall a year ago, they were not a top-level rushing team, aside from the contributions of their quarterback. Christian McCaffrey was a useful force in the offense last season, leading the team with 113 targets. However, he didn't offer the same level of play as a pure runner. Especially out of the gate, McCaffrey struggled mightily to make defenders miss, averaging just 3.38 yards after defenders closed within 1 yard of him (ranked 38th out of 47 backs with 100-plus carries), per Next Gen Stats. With that said, the Panthers could still look to make him their feature back in 2018, unless they're set on squeezing every ounce of juice from what's left of Jonathan Stewart's career. Despite leading the team in carries (198), Stewart essentially offered Carolina two good games in 2017. The team could free itself of his $5.2 million cap hit this offseason and simply add some options to supplement McCaffrey on the early downs.

Philadelphia Eagles: At times, in-season trade acquisition Jay Ajayi looked like the same thrilling player who popped off multiple 200-yard games with the Dolphins. The Eagles owe it to themselves to test him out as their feature back next season. Along with his promotion, the Eagles' brain trust should find more ways to get Corey Clement into the top ranks of the running back rotation. Clement scored six times on 84 touches as a rookie and led the team in receiving in the Super BowlLeGarrette Blount is set to hit free agency. While he was an effective member of the Eagles committee backfield last year, his return feels unlikely with the team tight against the salary cap.

Seattle Seahawks: Many forget, but 2017 seventh-rounder Chris Carson was once the talk of the town in Seattle before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 4. The team never found a replacement for the surprising starter throughout the rest of the season. The situation was so dire that Carson's 208 rushing yards led the running back room until Mike Davis (240) finally passed him in Week 17. The Seahawks have enough questions to answer this offseason. If they have even an inkling of hope that Carson can reprise his role as their starter, they should eschew creating another offseason query by chasing upgrades at running back over the offensive line.

Tennessee Titans: Veteran DeMarco Murray is a likely cap causality, as he was both injured and ineffective for the Titans last season. If Murray heads out the door, Derrick Henry can make a charge for the top spot on the depth chart for the first time in his career. Henry was excellent in part-time duty in 2017, and his playoff game against the Chiefs was one of the best efforts offered by a running back all season. The hulking back racked up 191 total yards on 25 touches and was the ultimate tone-setter. It makes sense for the Titans to at least give their former second-round pick a shot to show if he can be a full-time feature back. However, the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry is anything but the cookie-cutter NFL ball-carrier. A new coaching staff may not feel comfortable simply handing him the reins, even if doing so would be a prudent move.


Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals' backfield was a disaster in 2017, as David Johnson landed on injured reserve with a dislocated wrist after just 11 carries. Adrian Peterson ended up leading the team with 448 rushing yards despite playing just six games for Arizona, sandwiched between an in-season trade from the Saints and a season-ending neck injury. With the prolific Johnson set to return as the starter in 2018, the Cardinals can afford to hang tight at the position. If anything, they may add some depth behind Johnson to join 2017 fifth-rounder T.J. Logan.

Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens have receiving backs Danny Woodhead and Javorius Allen under contract for 2018 and are all but assured of retaining the services of Alex Collins as an exclusive rights free agent. Collins was a breakout player for the Ravens after being promoted from their practice squad early in the 2017 season. He nearly hit 1,000 yards and ranked as the 11th-most elusive back (minimum 175 carries), per Next Gen Stats. Collins earned another shot to prove he can sustain his excellent 2017 play, and the Ravens have more than one option to cycle into the pass-catching mix.

Chicago Bears: For all the work the Bears need to do to get their roster back into playoff-contending shape, they're in an ideal spot in the backfield. Chicago has two skilled young backs under contract that count for just $1.4 million combined against the cap in 2018. Jordan Howard has proved to be one of the best running backs in the NFL over his first two seasons. He was one of four players at the position to rush for over 1,000 yards in each of the last two years, and he'll be the foundation of the offense once again. New head coach Matt Nagy should make it a priority to get the ball in the hands of explosive 2017 rookie Tarik Cohen more often. Though Cohen touched the ball 140 times on offense, his usage swung wildly week to week. Anyone with a set of eyes can identify how explosive Cohen is, and Nagy's Chiefs' offenses consistently made use of players who thrive in space.

Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals certainly did not get the sort of return they hoped for out of Joe Mixon in his rookie year. The Oklahoma product fell to the second round following the toxic fallout surrounding a video of him as a student hitting a woman in the face. Yet, he was regarded by many as the most talented back in the 2017 draft and a potential bell-cow. All of that didn't amount to much on the ground, as Mixon took his 178 carries for 3.5 yards a pop. Veteran Giovani Bernard outproduced the rookie across the board when he got chances to start last year. The Bengals should give Mixon another shot to rebound from a slow rookie year while keeping Bernard around as both a nice complement and a more-than-capable insurance plan, should the younger back falter. Cincinnati's priority should lie in finding players to revamp an offensive line that couldn't consistently open holes for their backs last year.

Dallas Cowboys: Unlike in 2017, Ezekiel Elliott will enter the 2018 offseason without the massive specter of a league investigation clouding his future. Despite the six-game suspension he ended up serving last season, Elliott still led the league in rushing yards per game (98.3) for the second straight season. The Cowboys are in perfectly good hands with Elliott locked-in as their feature back for this coming season and beyond. Veteran backup Alfred Morris will hit free agency and could return on a team-friendly deal, but the intriguing Rod Smith showed enough ability for the team to have some faith that he could be Elliott's primary running mate.

Green Bay Packers: The Packers drafted a pair of backs on the third day of the 2017 NFL Draft, and it looks like they hit on both, as Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones took turns shining as the Packers' starter. Jones showed signs of being a future star while replacing an injured Ty Montgomery from Weeks 4 to 7, averaging 5.6 yards per carry in that span. After Jones himself went down with an injury, Williams was next up. He carried a beefy workload and showed bell-cow potential, averaging 20.4 touches per game during the final eight weeks of the regular season. Offseason debates will rage about which 2017 rookie is the better player, but for Green Bay's purposes, all that matters is they have two clearly talented young backs cost-controlled on their roster for the foreseeable future.

Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars sank major draft capital into Leonard Fournette, selecting the former LSU Tiger fourth overall in 2017. Fournette turned in 1,040 rushing yards and 10 total touchdowns in 13 games. The only concern Jacksonville should have surrounding the future of its prized back is whether he can avoid the nagging injuries that followed him from the college ranks to his rookie season. The Jaguars will look to add depth at the position, having shed Chris Ivory's overblown cap hit from their books in the coming weeks.

Kansas City Chiefs: Rookie Kareem Hunt took over the top running back job in Kansas City following an injury to Spencer Ware in the preseason and never looked back. The third-round pick went on to lead the NFL in rushing while tacking on 53 catches. The Chiefs found a true gem in Hunt and have their feature back for the foreseeable future locked in. Ware sustained his knee injury so early in 2017 action that he should be able to return in time for offseason proceedings in the coming months. He provides excellent insurance behind Hunt. Don't expect to see the Chiefs expend significant resources on their backfield.

Los Angeles Rams: Todd Gurley snagged Offensive Player of the Year honors for the work he did during a rebound 2017 campaign. A year after suffering through Jeff Fisher's final season coaching the Rams, Gurley racked up 19 total touchdowns and 2,093 yards from scrimmage in Sean McVay's first season at the helm. Figure that the Rams will exercise Gurley's fifth-year option for 2019 this offseason with an eye toward handing him a contract extension down the line. In the meantime, Los Angeles should explore adding young depth at the position, as the roster is bereft of talent behind their Pro Bowl starter.

Miami Dolphins: Expect to see the Dolphins connected to running backs throughout the offseason, though the team would be best served focusing its attention elsewhere. Miami might have uncovered a high-end starter at the position when it elevated Kenyan Drake to replace the traded-away Jay Ajayi midseason. Drake averaged 106.8 total yards in his six starts to close out the year -- and he looked damn good. The data confirms the eye test, as Drake ranked third-best among running backs with 100-plus carries by averaging 4.55 yards gained after defenders closed within 1 yard of him, per Next Gen Stats. Miami has a litany of needs to address this offseason and would be best served passing on major additions at the running back position in favor of letting Drake try to pick up where he left off.

Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings looked like they had a budding superstar on their hands in the first four weeks of the regular season. Dalvin Cook was off to a roaring start to his career, taking his 74 carries for 354 yards and a pair of scores. Alas, Cook went down in Week 4 with a torn ACL. Minnesota more than made do with Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon for the rest of the year, but the Vikings will look forward to welcoming a hopefully healthy Cook back into the fold in 2018. Behind him, the waters are far murkier. Murray could return to the team as Cook's primary backup, but the team could get out of his contract and save cap room. McKinnon is set to hit the free-agent market and has already expressed interest in potentially playing elsewhere.

New Orleans Saints: Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara combined to form one of the best backfield tandems the NFL has ever seen. Both backs went to the Pro Bowl. They both cleared 1,500 yards from scrimmage and scored an outrageous 25 combined touchdowns. The duo is locked into contracts for the 2018 season that count for less than $8 million against the cap. The only question the team has to ask itself this offseason is this: How frequently can the Saints get the ball in the hands of the ultra-dynamic Kamara?

Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers will secure Le'Veon Bell's services for 2018 in the coming days by either placing the franchise tag on him or laying out a long-term deal. Bell has an argument to sit in the center seat of the NFL's running back pantheon. The Steelers secured a solid backup to their star player by picking James Conner in last year's NFL draft. They're set at the position and should focus on maximizing their Super Bowl window rather than making contingency plans at running back.


Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons have one of the best backfield tandems in the NFL, with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman locked in for another year. On the surface, they appear to be set. However, the team needs to take a peek down the road when examining its running back room. Coleman's rookie contract will expire at the conclusion of the 2018 season. The team didn't use him enough in 2017, despite his scoring eight-plus touchdowns and averaging over 10 yards per catch for the second straight year. If Atlanta wants him to be a part of its future, the Falcons will need to find a way to fit a deal for him alongside Freeman's hefty contract. If not, they can look to the draft class to plan ahead.

Buffalo Bills: The Bills have one of the top running backs in the game at the top of their depth chart, but they have next to nothing behind LeSean McCoy. No other non-quarterbacks in Buffalo topped 250 rushing yards last season. The team needs to explore adding depth in the backfield, at the least. Then there's the murky status of McCoy's future. The Pro Bowl back will turn 30 years old this offseason and averaged a career low 4.0 yards per carry in 2017. He also finished among the basement-dwellers in both yards after contact and Next Gen Stats' elusiveness rankings. Despite enduring a beefy workload throughout his NFL tenure, McCoy has avoided the career cliff to this point. The sun sets on us all, however, and the Bills can't afford to be left without even a flashlight when the night finally comes for Shady.

Denver Broncos: On the surface, the Broncos don't seem to have a big need at the running back position. However, as often is the case in the NFL, things aren't always as they appear. ESPN's Jeff Legwold wrote that Denver "seems intent" on making 2016 fourth-round pick Devontae Booker its lead back. The team is in penny-pinching mode as it hopes to chase a veteran quarterback this offseason, and it could look to C.J. Anderson's contract for relief. Anderson enjoyed a career year, but the Broncos can cut his $4.5 million cap hit from their books without incurring any "dead money" penalties. No matter what the Broncos want to believe, Booker hasn't shown enough to just waltz into 2018 with him alone atop their depth chart. Denver's plan at the position needs to include a few more layers than that.

Los Angeles Chargers: The Chargers have Melvin Gordon on the roster on a cost-controlled basis for the 2018 season, with a fifth-year option on the table after that. Gordon hasn't cracked 4.0 yards per carry in any of his three NFL seasons, but he's proven himself to be a workhorse-type back the last two years. The former first-round pick absorbed a massive 637 touches over the last two seasons, a burden matched by few other backs in the league today. The Chargers are nearing an inflection point with Gordon. They'll need to decide whether to sink more resources into this player and whether it's wise to continue to ask him to shoulder such a sizable workload. Expect Los Angeles to at least search for another back to ride in the sidecar, unless the Chargers believe 2017 rookie Austin Ekeler to be that player.

New England Patriots: With Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead's contracts set to expire in the coming weeks, the Patriots only have James White and Mike Gillislee locked in for 2018. The former will almost certainly reprise his role as the team's pass-catching back in the hurry-up offense. Gillislee, on the other hand, could get cut after spending a large chuck of the season on the inactive list. The Patriots typically don't make heavy financial investments in the running back position, and both Lewis and Burkhead will have other suitors on the open market. New England could break its long-held rules for one or the other, or the Pats could simply look to mine the market for low-cost free agents once again.

New York Jets: Matt Forte's time with the Jets looks to be all but over, as the team can rid itself of his $4 million cap hit with relative ease. The Jets could decide to ride it out another year with Bilal Powell as the starter and eschew sinking major assets into the position in favor of sorting out other needs. The team has shown little faith in Powell's ability to be a 16-game workhorse to this point in his career, however. Should New York not secure a major addition in the backfield, keep an eye on 2017 rookie Elijah McGuire. The sixth-round pick showed some explosive ability in his first season, especially in the passing game, averaging 10.4 yards per catch.

Oakland Raiders: Old/new Raiders head coach Jon Gruden believes Marshawn Lynch will be the team's running back in 2018. Yet, even the optimistic Gruden wouldn't go so far as to guarantee the mercurial Lynch would even be with the team. It seems we should get used to hearing such strange proclamations in the Gruden 2.0 era. Either way, the Raiders can ill-afford to just assume what Lynch's place in their future looks like. Lynch was quietly one of the most elusive backs in the NFL last season and really got cooking as the year went on. Even if Lynch is back, though, he'll be in the final year of his contract and heading toward his age-32 season. Oakland should at least explore adding more starting-caliber bodies to the running back room.

Follow Matt Harmon on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB.



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