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Eddie Lacy serves as reminder of how quickly things can decline for RBs

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks-Minicamp Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

This may be hard to accept, but Eddie Lacy was good in 2016. He only had 75 touches for the Green Bay Packers before an injury ended his season after five games, but he was more successful than not on those 75 touches. Lacy had 5.1 yards per carry and broke 26 tackles, giving him the highest broken tackle percentage in the NFL that year for any back with at least 25 touches, per FootballOutsiders.

Granted, that BT% likely declines if Lacy gets another 200 touches, but the rate likely would’ve still kept him near the top of those rankings. That was not nearly as much the case in 2015, when Lacy’s BT% was 14% (compared to 34.7% in 2016), but that was a sign of two things potentially that go way beyond Lacy’s fitness issues:

  • The decline for Lacy started at age 25
  • Lacy’s production has been inconsistent year-to-year

These types of outcomes are so common for the position that it serves as a reminder that franchises might be foolish to look beyond a single season for any running back, and that multiple high-ceiling options should be available on a roster. Having multiple options is also easier to accomplish than most positions because the cost of a running back is so low.

26 receivers/tight ends crossed over 1,000 yards in 2015, and of those, only two are out of the league: Calvin Johnson, who retired “early” according to anyone who follows football and who many believe would still be a Pro Bowl caliber player, and Gary Barnidge, who is still trying to get back in the league after declining offers he saw as lowball in 2017. There are two unsigned free agents: Jeremy Maclin and Eric Decker.

Of the 26, there’s also the players who led the NFL in receiving that season: Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, DeAndre Hopkins, Brandon Marshall, Odell Beckham, Allen Robinson were the top six. Jones, Brown, Hopkins, and Beckham are still four of the best receivers, which is undeniable. Marshall was the oldest in the top eight at 31 and still has an NFL opportunity at 34. Robinson missed almost all of 2017 and is one of the NFL’s top-paid players per year outside of the QBs.

There’s a consistency and reliability at receiver. Others over 1,000 yards that season include Rob Gronkowski, A.J. Green, Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Evans, Jarvis Landry, Brandin Cooks, T.Y. Hilton, Greg Olsen, Delanie Walker, Amari Cooper, Doug Baldwin, and Sammy Watkins. The most inconsistent you may run into on the list may be someone like Allen Hurns, but even Hurns is being viewed as the number one receiver on the Dallas Cowboys right now.

Now compare that to the top running backs of 2015. A much shorter list.

Only seven running backs crossed over 1,000 yards that season and the only two who could be considered starters now, just two seasons removed from 2015, are Todd Gurley and Devonta Freeman. Freeman, just 25 last year, finished with 865 yards over 14 games. Some explanations as to the decline in productivity from Freeman:

  • He’s in a running back committee situation with Tevin Coleman, which falls in line with the above statement about needing multiple options in the backfield
  • He’s dependent on a system, such as the one he was running with under Kyle Shanahan
  • He was dealing with injuries (concussion cost him two games)
  • He’s as inconsistent as most running backs

The Atlanta Falcons signed Freeman to a five-year contract extension last August that made him the second-highest paid back per year in the NFL after Le’Veon Bell, and the highest-paid if we’re talking about players with multi-year deals ($8.25 APY). This extension was a mistake, in my opinion, not because Freeman is bad, but because he’s more likely to decline at 26 than he is to remain effective or improve. That is not really how we view wide receivers or tight ends or pass rushers or offensive linemen — if you’ve had success before 25 at most positions, teams generally are willing to bank on the idea that the best is yet to come, or at least more of the same.

Freeman was fine last season (14th in DYAR, 18th in DVOA) but the idea that Freeman’s best seasons are behind him is not an outlandish one. So, “What about Gurley then?” right?

Well, Gurley was an All-Pro in 2017, but he averaged 3.2 YPC in 2016. He has been: inconsistent. He has been: dependent on a scheme by an offensive coordinator. The LA Rams did the best thing they could do with Gurley, which was exercise his fifth-year option for 2019. That keeps him around for two more seasons at a modest cost, but what happens in 2020? Besides the complications of the next CBA around that time, the Rams could very well be in the same position as the Pittsburgh Steelers are in with Bell: how much will you commit to a back long-term, even if he’s the best back in the league?

I’m not sold that Gurley will become the best back in the league, obviously. But even if he were for a season before his free agency, I wouldn’t feel confident that he’d still be that by age 26.

The other leading rushers of 2015: Adrian Peterson, Doug Martin, Darren McFadden, Chris Ivory, and Latavius Murray. A lot of those guys were “older’ though, right? Maybe they just faded off as they hit a certain age.

In many ways, Peterson could be viewed as elite of a running back as Fitzgerald is as a receiver, but Peterson’s career was finished at 31, even if he’s still trying. Fitzgerald was 34 last season, his third straight going to the Pro Bowl.

Martin was 26 in 2015, and he’s been terrible since.

Guys like McFadden, Ivory, and Murray, just feel like further examples that you don’t need to spend big to have a guy who is capable of carrying the football and gaining some yards for one season. More reason to not spend big in the draft or in free agency. Some of the younger backs of 2015 with some promise and success included Thomas Rawls, Jeremy Hill, Lamar Miller, Ronnie Hillman, T.J. Yeldon, Giovani Bernard, C.J. Anderson, Isaiah Crowell, Alfred Blue, and Melvin Gordon.

How do you feel about that list of players now?

The list of 1,000-yard rushers certainly was in a transition mode in 2016, with 12 players hitting the mark. Of those, seven were 25 or younger: Ezekiel Elliott, Jordan Howard, Jay Ajayi, Bell, David Johnson, Freeman, and Miller. Gordon was right there at 997. What happened the following season:

Elliott: suspended six games, YPC dipped by a full yard

Howard: YPC dipped by 1.1 yards

Ajayi: Traded midseason by Miami Dolphins after averaging 3.4 YPC, still scored just twice on 232 touches despite increased value for Philadelphia Eagles

Bell: YPC dipped by .9

Johnson: Missed all season

Freeman: as mentioned

Miller: 3.7 YPC and just three touchdowns on 238 carries

Exciting, right?

What does this really tell me? I don’t trust anybody to rush for 1,000 yards next season. The highest probability to do so (Elliott, Bell, Gurley, Hunt) just doesn’t seem all that high anymore. We’ve already seen one player who rushed for 1,000 yards last season (Mark Ingram) get his hopes dinged by suspension. Another, C.J. Anderson, who was only 26 and rushed for 1,007 yards with the Denver Broncos, was a late free agent signing by the Carolina Panthers and only on a one-year deal.

Eddie Lacy wasn’t just a good running back as a rookie, he was good — and doing “Eddie Lacy” things like breaking tackles — as recently as 2016. Then he was maybe the worst back in the league. Rawls led the NFL in DYAR in 2015, and was in competition with Lacy for worst back in the league in 2017. The Seahawks response to this:

Use a late first round draft pick on a back with the hopes that it’s a high percentage shot for a low-salary cap player.

While I still think the second or third round could be a better area to draft a running back (and Seattle did that too recently, selecting C.J. Prosise in 2017), the Seahawks didn’t have a second round pick this year and they only acquired a third by trading down in the first. Rashaad Penny is perhaps more likely than an established player to produce a quality season in 2018 because as we’ve seen, backs tend to peak early. I wouldn’t have much confidence in a rookie wide receiver, but I do believe Saquon Barkley could lead the NFL in rushing; I just feel less confident that he’ll be an elite running back every year.

Seattle gets the age 22, 23, 24, and 25 seasons out of Penny, either picking up his fifth-year option if things go really well or moving on if they don’t, paying him about $2.69 million per season, which is less than half than that of a high first round pick:

The New York Giants are paying Barkley $7.8 million per year over the next four years, guaranteed.

The other thing the Seahawks will likely do in the backfield is pair Penny with Chris Carson, the summer’s biggest star at camp. Like mentioned earlier with the Falcons, teams will push to use running backs in combination with each other just the same as we have come to accept with a trio of receivers or a rotation of defensive linemen.

In the Super Bowl, the New England Patriots gave nine carries to Dion Lewis, seven carries to James White, and three carries to Rex Burkhead. (White actually had more than double the number of snaps, highlighting that taking handoffs is not even the most important thing a running back can do sometimes these days.) On the other side of the field, the Philadelphia Eagles gave 14 carries to LeGarrette Blount, nine to Jay Ajayi, and three to Corey Clement, who also had four catches for 100 yards. The snap counts were spread evenly:

Ajayi, 25

Blount, 24

Clement, 24

The New Orleans Saints made some history with their backfield combination of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, a duo likely to inspire copycats all around the league. In their divisional round loss to the Minnesota Vikings, the Saints gave 11 carries to Kamara and 10 to Ingram, with Kamara getting 45 snaps to Ingram’s 27.

It is possible that the Seahawks could be led in carries and touches by Penny, but that Carson could actually get more snaps because he seemed to be the team’s best pass blocker from the backfield as a rookie last season. In fact, as I’m sure you remember, Carson was really exceptional in his short-term stint as starter in 2017 before his injury. It’s encouraging that reports in camp were so positive, because that’s not what happened with Rawls after his own ankle injury. That being said, I am also aware to not get my hopes up for Carson — or for any other running back. It’s not just case-by-case with the player, but day-by-day with the expectations for said player.

Things change too quickly at the position and that’s why it isn’t safe to plan too far ahead. It may not come out right.