Before the offseason really gets going, I want to look back at the 2018 season once more and identify some running backs who exceeded or fell short of expectations. Below are five running backs whose stock rose after strong seasons and four backs whose stock fell after disappointing performances.
Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers: After sitting out the entire 2018 season, Bell should be quite the hot commodity if he does indeed hit the market in March. He was the best running back coming into the 2018 season, and a year off, in which he was able to rest and get 100 percent healthy, only makes him more dangerous for 2019. Plus, the Pittsburgh Steelers failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013, further supporting Bell's worth.
Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans: Over the last three seasons, Henry has shown that he'll be productive if he gets the opportunity. Like a fine wine, he is getting better with each passing year and put an exclamation point on his most recent campaign by averaging 146.2 rushing yards per game in the final quarter of the 2018 season. Henry went from averaging 10.7 carries per game through 12 games and losing his starting spot to Dion Lewis midway through the year to averaging 21.8 carries per game and establishing himself as one of the biggest threats down the stretch. As I mentioned in this space a month ago, Henry, who will enter his fourth NFL season next fall, is deserving of a new deal.
Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts: Mack saw a huge increase in production from Year 1 to Year 2. After rushing for 358 yards and three touchdowns in 14 games (zero starts) as a rookie, he put up 908 yards and nine TDs on the ground in just 12 games (10 starts) in 2018. Behind a stout offensive line, Mack proved he is capable of being the future in the Colts' backfield.
Sony Michel, New England Patriots: The rookie running back was one of the highlights of Josh McDaniels' offense and certainly took a lot of pressure off 41-year-old Tom Brady, which was ultimately the goal when the Patriots drafted him in the first round last April. As well as Michel played in the regular season -- in which he fortunately avoided a serious knee injury -- he was a beast in January and instrumental in New England's run to a sixth Lombardi Trophy. He rushed for more yards (336) and touchdowns (six) this postseason than any other Patriots running back in the Bill Belichick-Brady era, and his rushing touchdown total tied for the second-most in a single postseason in the Super Bowl era.
Kerryon Johnson, Detroit Lions: The Lions have long searched for a dynamic running back to complement Matthew Stafford, and they finally found one in Johnson. He had an impressive rookie campaign with 641 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns before missing the final six weeks with a knee injury. He finished second in the league in yards per carry (5.4) and had two 100-yard rushing games -- he was the first Lions RB to hit the century mark in a game since Reggie Bush in 2013.
Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints: Ingram was again productive in his eighth season with the New Orleans Saints as he averaged 4.7 yards per carry (better than his career average of 4.5). However, it's clear the Saints are transitioning to Alvin Kamara as their starting running back. Ingram, who's due to become a free agent this offseason, hopes to work out a deal with the Saints before hitting the market, but even so, he's probably not going to be the go-to guy in New Orleans or elsewhere due to his age (29).
Lamar Miller, Houston Texans: Since signing with the Texans in 2016, Miller has just once rushed for over 1,000 yards in a season (2016; he had 973 rushing yards in 2018) and has failed to get into the end zone more than six times per season. He had splash plays throughout the 2018 campaign, but Miller has yet to show Houston that he can provide a run game capable of taking pressure off its young quarterback Deshaun Watson on a consistent basis. With Miller turning 28 in April, I expect the Texans to turn to youngster D'Onta Foreman, who has slowly returned to action after rupturing his Achilles in 2017, going forward. Bill O'Brien told reporters in January that Foreman still has a bright future with the team, pending his health.
"Look, D'Onta Foreman's obviously a very talented guy, but it took him forever to come back from his injury," O'Brien said. "So, hopefully with a good offseason, here's a guy that can really, really be an excellent player in this league. I have a lot of belief in his ability, in D'Onta Foreman's ability.
"I know he's from right down here and he wants to be a Houston Texan and he wants to play well. I think he's somebody that can help us."
Not a great sign for Miller.
LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills: McCoy had the worst production of his career in almost every category in 2018. Specifically, his rushing totals have plunged from 1,267 in 2016 to 1,138 in 2017 to 514 this past season. Even his numbers in the passing game dipped from 59 receptions in 2017 to 34 in 2018, and his combined touchdown totals since 2016 have declined from 14 to 8 to three. His production dip (he was benched in late December) was in part due to a Bills offense that lacked in a lot of areas, but McCoy also had several injuries this season (ribs, hamstring, concussion). For me, that's the biggest question surrounding the veteran, who will be 31 when the 2019 season begins.
Jay Ajayi, Philadelphia Eagles: Ajayi has had his ups and downs since being traded from Miami to Philadelphia midway through the 2017 season. He provided burst to the Eagles' rushing attack and averaged 5.3 yards per carry (including playoffs) during their Super Bowl run. A year later, Ajayi averaged 4.1 yards per carry before suffering a season-ending ACL injury against Minnesota in Week 4. Ajayi, who will enter his fifth NFL season next fall, is set to hit free agency in March with major health concerns.