As we hurtle toward free agency and the 2019 NFL Draft, now is the time when every NFL team takes a long, hard look at its personnel makeup. With that in mind, Marc Sessler examines the current state of all 32 backfields, slotting each situation into one of five categories:
Baltimore Ravens: After rookie signal-caller Lamar Jackson took over in Week 11, the Ravens threw the ball on fewer than 38 percent of their snaps. New play-caller Greg Roman has vowed more balance during Jackson's second season, but Baltimore is a solid bet to again finish top-three in rushing attempts using a stable of backs -- and Jackson's unusual talents on the ground. Coach John Harbaugh recently called Gus Edwards"our No. 1 running back," but the Ravens could use more horses. Alex Collins is out of the picture after last week's thorny arrest led to his quick release. Kenneth Dixon is entering his contract year, while Buck Allen and Ty Montgomery (both free agents) are unlikely to return. How about free agent Mark Ingram as a potential fit for one of the NFL's obvious committee jobs?
Buffalo Bills: Buffalo's wayward offense saw rookie quarterback Josh Allen lead the team in rushing yards. A putrid lineup and horrific front five were no help to top back LeSean McCoy, but the once-majestic runner pumped out a career-worst 514 yards at a lowly 3.2 yards per dash. Turning 31 in July, McCoy remains in the team's plans for now, per general manager Brandon Beane, but cutting him in the final year of his deal would shave $6.425 million off the cap. Chris Ivory is under contract for another season as a one-dimensional, streaky hammer-dropper. Real talk: Buffalo's $13.2 million investment in its backfield ranks second league-wide minus the putrid results. With so many holes on offense, praying for a Shady comeback campaign is a fool's chore.
Chicago Bears: Amid whispers the front office is shopping contract-year back Jordan Howard, are the Bears preparing for a run at free-agent prize Le'Veon Bell? Unlikely, considering their cap situation, but Chicago remains in the market for a runner to pair with the versatile Tarik Cohen. Coach Matt Nagy's attack seeks backs who can catch-and-run for real estate. NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah noted the draft is light on those types -- and the Bears don't have a pick until the third round -- making Chicago a candidate to add help off the open market. Even if the organization keeps Howard around for one more year, developing his heir is a must.
Houston Texans:Texans general manager Brian Gaine recently called Lamar Miller his starter for 2019. Color me suspicious. Due $7.2 million in the final year of his deal, the 27-year-old Miller showed moments of speed and power last season, but feels like an adequate-at-best lead dude. D'Onta Foreman re-emerged for a smattering of late-season carries, but the fallout from his Achilles injury is concerning. This backfield is begging for a fresh face. Chris Wesseling's suggestion from a recent Around the NFL Podcast -- nabbing free-agent burner Tevin Coleman -- makes too much sense. Upgrading one of the NFL's junkiest O-lines wouldn't hurt, either.
New York Jets: Wish-casting analysts have linked Le'Veon Bell to the Jets for months. The dot-connecting makes sense, considering Gang Green's mountain of cap space and overt need for an on-field rock star to help second-year passer Sam Darnold. Whispers at the NFL Scouting Combine, though, suggest New York is fishing around for affordable free-agent backs while showing "little interest" in Bell. With Bilal Powell hitting free agency and Isaiah Crowell a potential cut candidate, Elijah McGuire sits in place for a bigger role -- in theory -- but this position group remains in wait-and-see mode as New York zooms toward the open market.
Oakland Raiders: Jon Gruden went out of his way to praise preseason hero Chris Warren at last week's combine, fueling speculation the 22-year-old could see meaty snaps in Oakland after spending 2018 on injured reserve. From that angle, the Raiders arguably belong in the PROMOTE FROM WITHIN pool below, but Oakland's plans remain veiled. Will the Raiders bring back Marshawn Lynch or Doug Martin? Gruden has also talked up pass-catching back Jalen Richard, but I wouldn't be surprised to see the Silver and Black make a serious run at Le'Veon Bell.
Philadelphia Eagles:Jay Ajayi is unsigned and coming off a torn ACL. Darren Sproles is 35 and mulling retirement. Corey Clement, Josh Adams and Wendell Smallwood enter contract years. The Eagles are a lock to draft a young back, add a veteran in free agency -- or both. The committee approach worked wonders two seasons ago with Carson Wentz at the helm, and I'd expect the same in 2019.
PROMOTE FROM WITHIN
Atlanta Falcons: With Devonta Freeman under contract through 2023 on a $41 million deal packed with $22 million in guarantees, Atlanta's starter is no mystery. After last year was washed away by foot and groin injuries, Freeman is under pressure to make good on the monster deal he inked two summers ago. The promote-from-within angle centers on Ito Smith, the second-year back set to replace Tevin Coleman with a "significant increase" in snaps as the critical understudy to Freeman.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Bruce Arians thrived in Arizona with David Johnson operating as a do-everything workhorse. The Bucs lack Johnson's equal -- to put it kindly -- but general manager Jason Licht made it clear at the combine that "nobody's given up on Ronald Jones," saying the team expects the second-year back to make a "big jump" in 2019. Last year's 38th overall pick flatlined from wire-to-wire -- and could be cut if he doesn't improve -- but the intent is to make Jones a bigger part of the attack. Arians, meanwhile, pointed to Peyton Barber as a nice surprise on tape, saying: "I've watched this guy now and I'm like, 'Woof!' He's so subtle in some of the things he does for a big man." Another Arians favorite, Andre Ellington, returns from a season away to help on passing downs.
Washington Redskins:Derrius Guice is running at full speed again after tearing his ACL in August. Last year's second-round pick underwent a string of additional operations to quell an infection -- concerning stuff -- but Guice is viewed internally as Washington's bell cow. Coach Jay Gruden believes the former LSU star will be ready for September and told ESPN's Matthew Berry, "He doesn't have to come off the field on third down," noting the team loved what Guice showed as a pass catcher before the injury. That is notable, with Chris Thompson heading into his contract campaign. Assuming he's healthy, Guice is on tap to absorb the 270-plus touches Adrian Peterson saw last autumn.
STAY THE COURSE
Arizona Cardinals: "We've got to get him his touches and get him going and make him comfortable in what we do. He's going to have a major role. There's no doubt," said first-year coach Kliff Kingsbury of David Johnson. This dovetails with the words of line coach Sean Kugler, who noted "people are going to be surprised by the amount we run the ball." While Kingsbury and friends keep us guessing about the future of quarterback Josh Rosen, it's crystal clear where Johnson stands heading into the offseason.
Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals were a floating ghost ship last season -- well, besides Joe Mixon. The 22-year-old workhorse plowed for 1,168 yards at nearly 5 yards per rush. Mixon is gifted through the air, too, leaving Giovani Bernard -- entering his contract year -- to notch career lows in rushing and receiving yards. The Bengals could look for a developmental second fiddle, but Mixon's role is only going to expand in a Zac Taylor-led, Rams-esque attack looking for its own Todd Gurley.
Cleveland Browns: After sitting atop last year's UPGRADE list, the Browns found a gem in rookie Nick Chubb, who finished as the league's 10th-rated back, per Pro Football Focus, and came within four yards of the 1,000-yard barrier despite playing 430 fewer snaps than Todd Gurley and 571 fewer downs than Christian McCaffrey. Chubb's rise came after the Browns shipped away Carlos Hyde, but he could see fewer snaps down the stretch if Kareem Hunt becomes available following a likely suspension. That 1-2 punch would all but erase the need for Duke Johnson, who sits out there as a trade candidate attached to a contract that runs through 2021 with no guaranteed loot in tow.
Dallas Cowboys: The primary question in Dallas is when the team will furnish Ezekiel Elliott with a monster extension. Cowboys executive Stephen Jones doesn't expect a hometown discount, telling reporters: "We saw what Gurley got paid and we know that's probably where [the price tag] starts." Elliott remains the center of this offense, but the team could use someone to spell its superstar beyond the likes of Darius Jackson and Jordan Chunn.
Denver Broncos: Was there a happier surprise last season than Phillip Lindsay? The dangerously fast, unexpectedly physical firestorm lit up defenses before suffering a Week 16 wrist injury that required surgery. Lindsay's availability remains in question for OTAs, but the second-year weapon should be all systems go by camp. His absence presents an opportunity for big-bodied Royce Freeman as the team's next-best option ahead of a contract-year Devontae Booker.
Detroit Lions:Kerryon Johnson authored a promising rookie campaign before a knee injury shelved him for the final six weeks. I put Detroit in our STAY THE COURSE category because Johnson has the look of a lead runner who also makes plays through the air. At the combine, coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn hammered home the idea of a committee backfield, but I'd put Johnson atop a group that also includes helpful pass-catching back Theo Riddick. With LeGarrette Blount and Zach Zenner hitting free agency, look for the Lions to re-sign one of their own or add help elsewhere for what should be a run-heavy offense under new play caller Darrell Bevell.
Green Bay Packers: Mike McCarthy's successor, Matt LaFleur, told combine reporters that a "committee approach" is the favored way forward with Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams. The message here is that a new coach (understandably) has no designs on calling this race in March. Jones oozed workhorse potential for stretches and memorably scattered the Dolphins for 145 yards and two scores in a November rout. Williams offers a less-flashy skill set, but it was Jones who was dinged in Indy by general manager Brian Gutekunst for iffy conditioning. It's time for someone to win over this fresh-faced coaching staff.
Indianapolis Colts: There is less than zero buzz around the Colts chasing after Le'Veon Bell. General manager Chris Ballard has stayed away from break-the-bank free agents and made it clear at the combine his faith rests with Marlon Mack, saying: "We think a lot of Marlon Mack. We think he can play on all three downs. We think he can carry the load." Coach Frank Reich was equally effusive of Mack, who plowed for 908 yards at 4.7 yards per pop despite missing four games to injury. Nyheim Hines, the productive fourth-rounder, hauled in 63 passes as the team's clear-cut receiving back, while Jordan Wilkins ranked second among eligible runners with a generous 5.6 yards per carry.
Kansas City Chiefs: After four hushed seasons in Miami, Damien Williams earned major points with the Chiefs by stepping into the lineup and excelling down the stretch after Kareem Hunt was sent packing. The 26-year-old runner lashed the Seahawks for 100-plus rushing yards in Week 16 and starred in Kansas City's playoff romp over the Colts with 154 total yards. Mimicking Hunt's starry skill set, Williams earned a team-friendly extension through 2020 and bright words from general manager Brett Veach, who recently called the starting role his "to lose." With undrafted backup Darrel Williams as the only other runner under contract, the Chiefs -- fingers crossed on Damien's career rise -- must think about re-signing front-office favorite Spencer Ware or drafting a developmental runner who fits Andy Reid's scheme.
Los Angeles Chargers: Little mystery here. The Chargers are determined to pound out a new contract for star back Melvin Gordon, who is waiting to see what type of scratch Le'Veon Bell nets before sitting down at the negotiation table. "He's a three-down back and ... a great player," general manager Tom Telesco told scribes in Indianapolis. "We've got him and a number of other guys that [we] will look at extending at some point." Gordon struggled down the stretch due to knee injuries, but that only boosted the stock of walk-year runner Austin Ekeler, one of the league's top backups. With second-year back Justin Jackson looking juicy in limited work, Los Angeles boasts one of the NFL's deepest backfields.
Miami Dolphins: Expected to dump or trade Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins are one of the few teams searching for a quarterback. Miami's running back room, however, requires far less refurbishing with Kenyan Drake and Kalen Ballage returning to the mix. Drake's usage was mysterious under Adam Gase, with the veteran seeing just 173 touches in a scheme that leaned on Frank Gore. I thought Ballage showed genuine promise in limited duty and deserves more work in 2019. It's unclear if Gore or Brandon Bolden will be re-signed, but Miami has something to work with before Drake becomes a free agent next offseason.
Minnesota Vikings: With Latavius Murray hitting free agency, the Vikings are a candidate to add veteran help behind Dalvin Cook, their somewhat-frustrating starter. Two seasons into his NFL career, Cook has missed 17 games due to knee and hamstring injuries. The addition of offensive adviser Gary Kubiak is a positive for Cook, who stands to benefit from the coach's zone-running scheme. Kubiak is essentially working alongside young coordinator Kevin Stefanski, who lobbied for the hire, per the Star Tribune. It's another reminder of coach Mike Zimmer's burning desire to emphasize the run.
New England Patriots: First-rounder Sony Michel was a revelation down the stretch, torching a trio of playoff opponents for 336 yards and six scores at 4.7 yards per pop. The rookie enjoyed stretches of pure dominance on the ground, while James White lit up enemies through the air. It's fair to wonder if Rex Burkhead and his $3 million cap hit will return, but either way, New England's roster will again be filled with nifty jackknives who systematically lay waste to the AFC East and beyond.
New Orleans Saints: Are the Saints serious about bringing back free-agent veteran Mark Ingram? "He's been a big part of our success. Hopefully we can get that done," coach Sean Payton said at the combine. Ingram's hard-churning style paired brilliantly with fever-dream athlete Alvin Kamara over the past two seasons. If they keep the band together, hopes are high for another playoff run, but the Saints might have competition for Ingram's services. If he bolts, look for New Orleans to add another body. If it were up to Kamara, though, he'd spend at least another year with his backfield bestie.
New York Giants: The drafting of Saquon Barkley was a home run by almost any measure. I question New York's strategy to pass on Sam Darnold -- thrusting us into another year-plus of the club publicly backing a declining Eli Manning -- but Barkley was marvelous in 2018. The Offensive Rookie of the Year led the league with 2,028 total yards and proved a massive headache for defenses through the air with 91 grabs. A more balanced attack would help, but Barkley showed he could handle the load. His 261 carries blew away New York's next guy up, Wayne Gallman, whose 51 totes made him the only other Giants runner to top 10 touches on the ground.
Pittsburgh Steelers:Le'Veon Bell is long gone, but the Steelers survived his season-long holdout in 2018 thanks to James Conner. The second-year back came 27 yards short of a 1,000-yard campaign and looked Bell-like through the air despite missing three games. Playing under an affordable rookie deal, Conner is Pittsburgh's unquestioned starter in an offense that will ask him to continue on as a versatile centerpiece. Fifth-rounder Jaylen Samuels is penciled in as Conner's change-of-pace partner. The almost-seamless transition post-Bell is a testament to Pittsburgh's ability to draft and develop skill-position types.
San Francisco 49ers:Jerick McKinnon, Take 2. Last year's free-agent pickup tore his ACL before the opener, forcing the Niners to lean on a committee of Matt Breida, Alfred Morris, Jeff Wilson and Raheem Mostert. Breida fought through an ankle injury to emerge as genuine No. 1 material, giving San Francisco plenty to like about the position in 2019. Coach Kyle Shanahan loves the depth, but he didn't shy away from calling McKinnon his top man come September.
Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks sound confident in the pairing they've lined up for 2019. Coach Pete Carroll waxed poetic at the combine about Seattle's "1-2 punch" of Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny. Carson was the team's most consistent presence last season, while Penny flashed playmaking ability toward the end of his rookie campaign. With play caller Brian Schottenheimer determined to run the ball until the end of days, both backs should see plenty of work. Coming off an injury-ravaged year, J.D. McKissic fits in as a pass-catching specialist if Mike Davis signs elsewhere.
DISTURBANCE IN THE FORCE
Los Angeles Rams: Why all this cat-and-mouse around the status of Todd Gurley? His disappointing postseason is understandable if we accept that he was never fully healthy. At the combine, though, coach Sean McVay promised his star back was "feeling good." Days later, The Athletic's Jeff Howe reported Gurley is suffering from arthritis in his knee. A second report from CBS Sports noted the Rams were eyeing stem cell treatment. "As far as the stem cells, that's not something that's been communicated to me, but there is a program," McVay told CBS Sports. "We've got these doctors and there's always new methods of staying as up-to-date as you can." Rams general manager Les Snead has openly talked about lightening Gurley's load with a "Batman and Robin combination." Perhaps that means re-signing C.J. Anderson or leaning on Malcolm Brown -- EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE -- but lingering concern exists over the long-term health of L.A.'s brightest talent.
PLAN FOR THE FUTURE
Jacksonville Jaguars: Instead of dazzling as a sophomore, the big-bodied Leonard Fournette finished his lackluster second season tucked away in private meetings to clear the air with football czar Tom Coughlin and coach Doug Marrone. Coughlin was peeved at how Fournette carried himself on the bench after being deactivated for the team's regular-season finale. Fournette was also suspended for a Week 12 fight and spent much of the year battling a rash of injuries before clashing with the front office over voided money in his contract. Set to cost $16 million-plus over the next two seasons, Fournette would trigger a bundle of dead money if set free. Still, this marriage feels ultra-rocky, no matter what the Jaguars say. With Jacksonville reportedly shopping backup Carlos Hyde, while T.J. Yeldon and Corey Grant are set to hit free agency, it's not hard to imagine an entirely new cast come 2020.
Tennessee Titans: Which Derrick Henry shows up next season? The underwhelming runner who failed to cross 60 yards in a game before December? Or the hard-charging fantasy playoffs hero who beguiled the Jaguars for 238 yards in Week 13 en route to a dominant 585 yards over his final four games? Yes, Henry is set for a high-volume role in new play-caller Arthur Smith's attack. Yes, both player and coach are talking about picking up where Henry left off -- but how often does that happen at this position? Set to hit free agency next March, Henry has plenty to prove. The Titans, meanwhile, must decide what he's worth on a second deal. Dion Lewis is under lock and key through 2021, but I wouldn't be shocked to see an entirely different backfield in place by then.