Ground Index

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RB Index, Week 2: Get running backs more involved in the passing game!

Week 1 is in the books, and there were certainly some pleasant -- and not-so-pleasant -- surprises. Today, I'm focusing on one of those not-so-pleasant ones, as I've got a bone to pick with several play-callers before teams take the field for Week 2.

I'm going to try to keep my cool here, but it's tough to do after seeing how limited a role some of the league's top pass-catching running backs had in the aerial attack in Week 1. In the Panthers' narrow loss to the Raiders, Christian McCaffrey made three receptions for 38 yards on just four targets. In the Chargers-Bengals tilt, Austin Ekeler and Joe Mixon combined for two catches and 5 receiving yards on three targets. Let me remind you that McCaffrey and Ekeler ranked first and second in receptions among running backs last season. McCaffrey hauled in a grand total of 116 catches -- second-most in the league among ALL players -- and was targeted almost nine times per game, while Ekeler logged 92 catches on nearly seven targets per contest.

The Panthers might be 1-0 instead of 0-1 right now, had McCaffrey been given more opportunities to make plays against those Raiders linebackers in space as a pass catcher, and there's no question that Tyrod Taylor would've benefited from using Ekeler more as a passing option against Cincinnati.

Minnesota's Dalvin Cook is another example: He had only one reception (for -2 yards) on two targets against the Packers in Week 1 after averaging 4.5 targets per game in 2019. Chicago's Tarik Cohen, who registered 6.5 targets per game last season, was thrown at just twice in the opener. New England's James White (three targets, three catches, 30 yards) was underutilized in the passing attack on Sunday, too. The list goes on.

I know it's only one game, but those receiving stats from the season openers aren't anywhere close to what we're accustomed to seeing from many of those backs. Passing the ball to running backs near the line of scrimmage is a safe play that can result in mega production. Just ask the Giants' Saquon Barkley, who jetted for a nice 38-yard scamper on a short pass in the first half against the Steelers on Monday night and finished the game with six receptions for 60 yards. (Thank goodness for that play, because the rest of Barkley's performance was, to put it nicely, subpar.) Smart coordinators know how to create advantageous matchups for running backs vs. linebackers or defensive backs, opening up big-play opportunities in the passing game. Teams like the Saints and Seahawks did that on Sunday, and it paid off. Overall, though, I saw running backs being severely underutilized in Week 1.

Running backs are some of the most talented players on the field. Get them the ball in space, and they'll go to work. Please don't make Week 1 a trend, play-callers: Pass running backs the ball!

Top 15 Running Backs

Entering the 2020 NFL season, former All-Pro running back and NFL Network analyst Maurice Jones-Drew examines all RBs and ranks his top 15. For the first quarter of the season, the Ground Index rankings are based on a combination of:

1) Player accomplishments prior to the 2020 season.
2) Weekly performances, factoring in strength of opponent.

Rankings will be based solely on this season's efforts following Week 4. Now, let's get to it. Entering Week 2, here is MJD's pecking order:

NOTE: Arrows reflect changes from last week's rankings.

Rank
1
Christian McCaffrey
Christian McCaffrey
Carolina Panthers · Year 4

2020 stats: 1 game | 23 att | 96 rush yds | 4.2 ypc | 2 rush TDs | 3 rec | 38 rec yds | 0 rec TDs


There were a lot of questions coming into the season about what the Panthers' offense would look like. McCaffrey was still the focal point -- and rightfully so -- but it was a refreshing sight to see Teddy Bridgewater slinging it around the field to Robby Anderson and friends. However, as I touched on above, I was surprised to see that Bridgewater -- traditionally a dink-and-dunk passer -- did not utilize McCaffrey more regularly in the passing game. 

Rank
2
Derrick Henry
Derrick Henry
Tennessee Titans · Year 5

2020 stats: 1 game | 31 att | 116 rush yds | 3.7 ypc | 0 rush TDs | 3 rec | 15 rec yds | 0 rec TDs


Henry didn't put up the overwhelmingly dominant performance in Monday's opener that we routinely saw late in the 2019 season, but even with a solid showing by the Broncos' defense, the King of Nashville was one of just three players to reach 100 rushing yards in Week 1. The Titans' offense was good enough to win this game several times over -- and had to, given Stephen Gostkowski's four missed kicks. That's a good sign for the unit this early in the season. 



Rank
3
Ezekiel Elliott
Ezekiel Elliott
Dallas Cowboys · Year 5

2020 stats: 1 game | 22 att | 96 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 1 rush TD | 3 rec | 31 rec yds | 1 rec TD


Elliott was everywhere Sunday night, scoring as a runner and pass-catcher, routinely dragging defenders for extra yards and even helping block Aaron Donald. Like I said, he was everywhere. We know how good Zeke is as a runner, but I was happy to see Kellen Moore start to use the talented back's versatility in the passing game and as a blocker.

Rank
4
1
Alvin Kamara
Alvin Kamara
New Orleans Saints · Year 4

2020 stats: 1 game | 12 att | 16 rush yds | 1.3 ypc | 1 rush TD | 5 rec | 51 rec yds | 1 rec TD


A day after agreeing with the Saints to a nice little five-year, $75 million extension, Kamara went out and scored two touchdowns. While his backfield complement, Latavius Murray, received a bulk of the carries and had the better production on the ground, Kamara was a big asset in the passing game, which was much-needed with Michael Thomas banged up. 

Rank
5
1
Nick Chubb
Nick Chubb
Cleveland Browns · Year 3

2020 stats: 1 game | 10 att | 60 rush yds | 6.0 ypc | 0 rush TDs | 1 rec | 6 rec yds | 0 rec TDs


I was a little surprised to see Chubb have fewer carries and overall touches than Kareem Hunt on Sunday. I understand that there are a lot of mouths to feed in the Browns' offense -- and Cleveland was indeed playing from behind for a majority of the game, making Hunt's pass-catching savvy more useful. But still, Chubb is such a useful weapon. With a winnable tilt vs. the Bengals on Thursday night, Chubb should get more burn early on to help open up big plays in the passing game. If he doesn't, Chubb's usage is definitely something to monitor.


UPDATE: Chubb rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries in Cleveland's win over Cincinnati on Thursday night. 

Rank
6
2
Dalvin Cook
Dalvin Cook
Minnesota Vikings · Year 4

2020 stats: 1 game | 12 att | 50 rush yds | 4.2 ypc | 2 rush TDs | 1 rec | -2 rec yds | 0 rec TDs


With the Vikings playing from behind for most of the game, Cook didn't get many chances to wear down the Packers' run defense. He was efficient when he did get the rock, hitting pay dirt twice, but I can't get on board with the offense's best player (by a mile) getting 13 total touches against a division rival. 

Rank
7
3
Josh Jacobs
Josh Jacobs
Las Vegas Raiders · Year 2

2020 stats: 1 game | 25 att | 93 rush yds | 3.7 ypc | 3 rush TDs | 4 rec | 46 rec yds | 0 rec TDs


Jacobs put on a show in Week 1, with career-high marks in rushing TDs, receptions and receiving yards -- and it resulted in a Raiders' victory. The biggest takeaway from Sunday's win over the Panthers for Jon Gruden should be this: The Raiders are 5-0 when Jacobs records a rushing touchdown. Keep giving this man the ball.

Rank
8
2
Joe Mixon
Joe Mixon
Cincinnati Bengals · Year 4

2020 stats: 1 game | 19 att | 69 rush yds | 3.6 ypc | 0 rush TDs | 1 rec | 2 rec yds | 0 rec TDs


I've already expended too much energy bemoaning Zac Taylor's poor usage of Mixon in Sunday's narrow loss. Hoping I see some change against the Browns on Thursday night.


UPDATE: Mixon recorded 16 carries for 46 yards and four receptions for 40 yards in the Bengals' loss to the Browns on Thursday night.

Rank
9
5
Clyde Edwards-Helaire
Clyde Edwards-Helaire
Kansas City Chiefs · Year 1

2020 stats: 1 game | 25 att | 138 rush yds | 5.5 ypc | 1 rush TD | 0 rec | 0 rec yds | 0 rec TDs


Some questioned me for including CEH in last week's rankings before he took his first NFL snap. What do y'all think now? The rookie made me look real good after posting a league-high 138 rushing yards and a TD on 25 carries in Week 1. If last week's performance was an indication of what Edwards-Helaire will regularly be in this league, I am here for it.

Rank
10
1
Aaron Jones
Aaron Jones
Green Bay Packers · Year 4

2020 stats: 1 game | 16 att | 66 rush yds | 4.1 ypc | 1 rush TDs | 4 rec | 10 rec yds | 0 rec TDs


Another game, another Aaron Jones rushing touchdown. Scoring seems to be the running back's signature move of late, as he's tallied 20 scrimmage touchdowns since the beginning of last season. The Packers' offense looks as good as it's been in years, and while Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams are getting their just praise, Jones deserves some credit, too.

Rank
11
2
Raheem Mostert
Raheem Mostert
San Francisco 49ers · Year 6

2020 stats: 1 game | 15 att | 56 rush yds | 3.7 ypc | 0 rush TDs | 4 rec | 95 rec yds | 1 rec TD


With the 49ers losing wide receivers by the minute, Mostert stepped up in a big way in both the run and pass games. He was the team's leading rusher (gaining a bulk of the carries in a deep backfield) and leading receiver (with an electric 76-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the first quarter). Thank goodness the Niners held onto him this offseason after all.

Rank
12
Austin Ekeler
Austin Ekeler
Los Angeles Chargers · Year 4

2020 stats: 1 game | 19 att | 84 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 0 rush TDs | 1 rec | 3 rec yds | 0 rec TDs


Ekeler played well in the run game, gaining 4.4 yards per carry. The thing is, though, that's not his strong suit. Throw him the ball in space and let him open this offense up a bit.

Rank
13
4
Kenyan Drake
Kenyan Drake
Arizona Cardinals · Year 5

2020 stats: 1 game | 16 att | 60 rush yds | 3.8 ypc | 1 rush TD | 2 rec | 5 rec yds | 0 rec TDs


The Cardinals' run game was a thing of beauty in the upset of San Francisco, with Kyler Murray leading the charge. It wasn't all Murray, though, as Drake certainly did his part, recording his ninth rushing TD since being traded in Week 9 of 2019. He continues to prove himself in this offense and should help lead this ground attack to a top-five finish.

Rank
14
7
Saquon Barkley
Saquon Barkley
New York Giants · Year 3

2020 stats: 1 game | 15 att | 6 rush yds | 0.4 ypc | 0 rush TDs | 6 rec | 60 rec yds | 0 rec TDs


If someone would've told me that Pittsburgh's Benny Snell Jr. would be the player in Monday Night Football's opener to gain 100 rushing yards, I wouldn't have believed it. Yet, here we are. Even more surprising: The fact that Barkley finished with 6 yards on 15 carries, thanks to the porous play of his offensive line. Yikes! Barkley did get some love in the passing game, hurdling foes for extra yardage with every opportunity. Still, Saquon's stat line is not what I hoped to see after Week 1. 

Rank
15
NR
Chris Carson
Chris Carson
Seattle Seahawks · Year 4

2020 stats: 1 game | 6 att | 21 rush yds | 3.5 ypc | 0 rush TDs | 6 rec | 45 rec yds | 2 rec TDs


Pete Carroll "Let Russ Cook", all right. After the 12s' incessant cries to allow the star QB to play freely in the passing game, this is the kind of performance we should've expected. Carson had a balanced outing with six carries and six receptions, scoring two TDs in the process. With a confidence-boosting and steady Week 1 showing from Carson, look for him to get more burn on the ground going forward. 

DROPPED OUT: Le'Veon Bell, Jets (previously No. 15).

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