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The NFL doesn’t care about rushing or running backs and neither should you

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NFL: Detroit Lions at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

One of the hottest debates of the last couple of years in the NFL is, “What is the true value of a running back in the modern era?” This is treated like one side saying, “I don’t think running backs are being used as much as they used to be,” and the other side saying “You’re wrong” but it’s much more simple than even that:

There’s no “I think” about it. Running backs, statistically, factually, are not being used as much as they used to be. A single-back system is becoming harder and harder to find, and the ones that you do find, are often the least-effective offensive gameplans in the league. It doesn’t matter what you believe, it only matters what you can prove. I want the truth.

Can you handle the truth?

The truth is that a rushing attempt is gaining far less than a receiving play and teams are compelled to go with the plays that are going to gain them more yards. If Derek Carr can somehow complete 29 of 32 attempts against the Broncos (oh no, Russ, what happened in Week 1?) for 288 yards, then why worry so much about who gets the 10-20 carries next to him? Especially since the offensive linemen aren’t very good at blocking for him and most opposing front-sevens are simply going to outmatch them?

If a team can find an effective rushing attack (the 2012-2015 Seahawks of course qualify) then you do have a unique weapon in today’s NFL. But even Seattle didn’t have to give up much to acquire their Hall of Fame-caliber back and the same could be said about many of the leading rushers through two weeks.

While most of the higher-cost backs around the league are doing less, and are way, way below the levels of “elite” they are expected to achieve.

Here are the NFL’s top 10 rushers through two games (Seahawks-Bears excluded):

Matt Breida, 49ers, 22 carries, 184 yards, 8.4 YPC, 1 TD (undrafted)

Joe Mixon, Bengals, 38 carries, 179 yards, 4.7 YPC, 1 TD (2nd round)

Phillip Lindsay, Broncos, 29 carries, 178 yards, 6.1 YPC, 0 TD (undrafted)

Lamar Miller, Texans, 34 carries, 166 yards, 4.9 YPC, 0 TD (free agent, $26m over 4)

James Conner, Steelers, 39 carries, 152 yards, 3.9 YPC, 3 TD (3rd round)

Todd Gurley, Rams, 39 carries, 150 yards, 3.8 YPC, 3 TD (10th overall)

Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys, 32 carries, 147 yards, 4.6 YPC, 2 TD (4th overall)

Isaiah Crowell, Jets, 22 carries, 137 yards, 6.2 YPC, 2 TD (free agent, $12 over 3)

Saquon Barkley, Giants, 29 carries, 134 yards, 4.6 YPC, 1 TD (2nd overall)

Tevin Coleman, Falcons, 25 carries, 126 yards, 5.0 YPC, 1 TD (3rd round)

To sum:

The first thing to note is that none of these players are over 200 yards. Breida is tops at 184, and there are currently 14 receivers who have more yards in the air than any running back has on the ground. 14. The NFL leader in receiving yards is DeSean Jackson, who has 275 yards on only nine catches. (In fact, he only even has nine targets, making Jackson the most efficiently dangerous weapon in the league through two games.) Next is Michael Thomas, who has 269 yards, catching 28 of 30 targets. That’s a not-so-efficient 9.6 yards per catch but his ridiculous 93.3% catch rate makes Thomas a very valuable weapon for Drew Brees, as does his three touchdowns.

Continuing that line of thinking before looking at the leaders above is the fact that Thomas does have 30 targets. Only 11 backs have 30 or more rushing attempts. That means that Brees has gone to one receiver more times than all but 11 backs have had carries this season. It goes more to the point I’ve been making this year that the running back position has become more like the receiver position in that you have to have multiple options who do different things. It’s harder than ever for a single running back to be significantly impactful on his own. That’s seen in a couple of the names above who were drafted to be singularly-impactful backs and the ones who aren’t on the list above.

Five of the ten running backs listed above were not even supposed to be the starters a week or two ago.

Matt Breida, a UDFA in 2017, got his opportunity after Jerick McKinnon (a four-year, $30 million contract in the offseason) went on injured reserve. He had rushes of 20, 28, and 66 yards against the Detroit Lions on Sunday, giving him a league-leading 8.4 YPC so far. Still, Breida only had 11 carries this week while Alfred Morris had 14, gaining just 48 yards. Will Breida get more carries moving forward? Will he be as effective if he’s not in a split situation?

The Seahawks helped rookie UDFA Phillip Lindsay do this:

Of course, Lindsay is still in a split. He has 29 carries and rookie third round pick Royce Freeman has 22. The Broncos have ridden these two rookies to being second in the NFL in rushing yards so far.

Conner was not supposed to be playing this much, but Le’Veon Bell really, really wants to test this “The true value of running backs” debate. On one hand, the Pittsburgh Steelers are 0-1-1 and Conner had just eight carries for 17 yards in Sunday’s 42-37 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. On the other hand, Conner has managed to handle 49 touches (most in the NFL), has 10 catches for 105 yards, three touchdowns, and had nearly 200 total yards in Week 1.

Would the Steelers be 2-0 with Bell? It’s hard to deny that there’s an argument that they would be. However, Conner has also done a decent job and Pittsburgh clearly has other flaws on their team (giving up the day they did to Patrick Mahomes) and Bell himself could have struggled in these games. We can’t assume perfection. Through two games last year, Bell had 37 carries for 119 yards and seven catches for 19 yards. He was worse at this time last season than Conner is right now. Significantly worse, actually.

In the offseason, the Browns gave Carlos Hyde $15 million over three years, replacing Crowell, who got $12 million over four from the New York Jets. Crowell, who splits with a so-far ineffective Bilal Powell, had 10 carries for 102 yards in Week 1. And 12 for 35 this past Sunday. Meanwhile Hyde, who splits with nobody yet, has 38 carries for only 105 yards.

Finally, for the backups crowd, is Coleman. He’s been in a split with Devonta Freeman ($41 million and injured) for the last three years, but given the chance to start against the Panthers this week, Coleman had 16 carries for 107 yards. The Falcons still gave nine carries to Ito Smith, a fourth round rookie, and he had 46 yards. What will Coleman get in free agency in 2019?

Now look at the other five. The “expected” starter types.

Mixon doesn’t really split with Giovani Bernard at all, having almost total control over the position one year after being a controversial second round pick. He he 17 for 95 in Week 1 and 21 for 84 this past Sunday. He’s had a good two games and his full season pace would be 1,432 yards on the ground and another 456 in the air. And all for a team that right now looks pretty good. Mixon was the 48th overall pick, going after Leonard Fournette (4th), Christian McCaffrey (8th), and Dalvin Cook (41st). You won’t see those names listed on the leaderboard above, so will have to discuss them a little later. But here’s another issue with using resources on backs: Mixon is injured now and will undergo knee surgery that’ll keep him out for at least a week.

Lamar Miller was an originally a fourth round pick and now he’s a decently-paid free agent ($6.5m APY ranks eighth among active backs), and while he’s been somewhat effective in picking up 3-7 yards (Miller is good at avoiding losses or no gain), he doesn’t break off many long runs and he’s been silent in the passing game.

Todd Gurley is like the anti-Miller. He had three touchdowns on Sunday but overall had 19 carries for 42 yards. He has 12 carries this season that have gone for one, zero, or negative yards. And he’s still waiting for some of those breakaway plays; Gurley has just two runs of 15+ with a long of 23. He’s also not producing as much in the receiving department in the early going of the season. As the highest-paid back in league history, he’s one to monitor closely.

Ezekiel Elliott’s two games: 15 for 69, 1 TD and 17 for 78, 1 TD. He’s caught eight passes for 26 yards. If he kept at this pace, Elliott would finish at 1,176 rushing yards for the season. The Cowboys have only given one other carry to a running back, with former Seattle player Rod Smith picking up five yards on that play. Dallas only carries two backs.

And finally there’s Saquon Barkley, a controversial draft pick for reasons entirely less appalling than that of Mixon. Barkley didn’t do anything wrong, it was just a matter of whether or not he was worth the second overall pick and if the Giants should take a running back over a quarterback (like Sam Darnold) to replace an aging, not-very-good-anyhow Eli Manning. But people argued that Barkley was not just a running back, he was the optimal version of a running back. He was perfect. He was the Universal Soldier of the position. Running. Receiving. Blocking. Build your offense around him and make the defenses gameplan for him all week long. But one glaring weakness in that line of thinking is that the NFL is so pass-heavy that teams probably aren’t even prepared to gameplan for a running back and most of them don’t even really need to because the offensive and defensive lines are stacked against the running game.

(The Giants are 0-2 and have scored 28 points. Nobody is better. Nobody is playing well.)

Offensive linemen are worse than they used to be, defensive linemen are better than they used to be. This includes in run blocking and run stopping. The Giants are still starting Ereck Flowers at tackle and starting center Jon Halapio just went on injured reserve. They also have a rookie at left guard and a veteran without a good track record at right guard. Meanwhile, run-stopping defensive tackles are so readily available and cheap that Johnathan Hankins only just found a team last week. Jarran Reed was viewed as an elite run-stopper who would have been a top-15 pick a few years earlier but was available in the middle of round two in 2016.

Back to Barkley.

In Week 1, Barkley had 18 carries for 106 yards, but 66 of those came on a single play (great play by Barkley, no question there) and he had 12 carries that went for three yards or less. In Week 2, Barkley had 11 carries for 28 yards and seven of those went for three yards or less. That means that 23 of his 29 carries have gone for three yards or less, a rate of 79.3% of his attempts. Barkley did have 14 catches on Sunday night against the Cowboys, but only gained 80 yards for an average of 5.7 yards per catch. An average that’s even lower than Christian McCaffrey’s already-low 7.4 YPC for the Panthers.

Saquon Barkley is a rookie and these are the first two games of his career. We’ll note that and give it the weight it deserves. But another argument for drafting Barkley as early as they did is that he can change their offense now. That development time isn’t as necessary for backs, as we saw with Elliott’s rookie season. Of course, Elliott had an all-time great offensive line. And Dallas had an adequate threat in the passing game. Which brings me to the most important point of all:

To have an effective running attack, you have to have a high-quality offensive line and quarterback/passing attack. So if you don’t have those things, why are you drafting McCaffrey and Fournette and Barkley? And then if you do have those things, then your offense is now setup to succeed with just about anyone at running back, so why are you drafting Elliott?

The running back is ineffective without an offensive line, but obsolete with an offensive line.

He does get to spin a lot:

I wrote about the ten rushing leaders, but what about some of the big names who aren’t here?

Kareem Hunt, Chiefs

Everything is right for KC’s offense, and it barely involves Hunt. He has 34 carries for 124 yards and no touchdowns, with just a single catch for five yards and one touchdown. The team belongs to Patrick Mahomes now. Jacksonville drafted Fournette over Mahomes and Deshaun Watson and one of the primary arguments for Fournette is that he’s the type of back who can help you overcome a mediocre QB; you know what else does that? A not-mediocre QB.

Leonard Fournette, Jaguars

An exciting back at LSU, Fournette doesn’t have many NFL highlights yet and he missed Week 2 with injury. Jacksonville has yet to miss Fournette when he’s been out.

Melvin Gordon, Chargers

A first round pick in 2015, Gordon scored three times on Sunday, which disguises his nine carries for 28 yards on the ground. Two of his touchdowns came in the air, where he had 38 receiving yards and 6.3 YPC.

Dion Lewis, Titans

He got a four-year, $19.8 million deal in the offseason. Lewis has 30 carries for 112 yards and one touchdown, plus six catches for 36 yards. Teammate Derrick Henry has 28 carries for 82 yards and no touchdowns.

Dalvin Cook, Vikings

He has 26 carries for 78 yards and no touchdowns, plus nine catches for 107 yards and no touchdowns. Teammate Latavius Murray has 15 carries for 61 yards and no touchdowns.

Alvin Kamara, Saints

Everyone’s favorite running back who is not at all a classic running back, Kamara 21 carries for 75 yards and two touchdowns. His YPC has dipped from 6.1 as a rookie to 3.6 so far this season. He has 15 catches for 165 yards, a much better mark than most of the backs we’ve talked about today.

David Johnson, Cardinals

Sunday featured the two highest-paid backs facing off (Gurley and Johnson) and neither were very good. Johnson has 22 carries for 85 yards and one touchdown, plus six catches for 33 yards. This would be a pace of 680 rushing yards and 264 receiving yards over the course of a full season. Johnson averages $13 million per year.

Adrian Peterson, Washington

Peterson’s decent Week 1 (26, 96, 1, 70 receiving yards), he had 11 carries for 20 yards against the Colts in Week 2. Peterson is averaging 3.1 YPC this year, which is also what he’s averaging over his last 230 attempts dating back to the start of 2016.

Marshawn Lynch, Raiders

29 carries for 106 yards and two touchdowns.

Jay Ajayi, Eagles

He’s got three touchdowns but has carried it 22 times for 85 yards, giving him 3.9 YPC. Doug Pederson spreads his carries around with four different running backs, none of which are particularly effective on their own.

Christian McCaffrey, Panthers

He has 18 carries for 87 yards and no touchdowns. He also has 20 catches for 147 yards and also no touchdowns. He has more targets and catches than rushing attempts though, so why call him a running back? Also, 15 of his 20 catches did not go for a first down because passing plays to McCaffrey are not as effective as passing plays to other receivers.

Le’Veon Bell, Steelers

Won’t play.

Devonta Freeman, Falcons

Injured.

LeSean McCoy, Bills

16 carries for 61 yards, no touchdowns, five catches for 28 yards, no touchdowns. Injured ribs in Week 2.

Duke Johnson, Browns

Eight carries for 20 yards, three catches for 15 yards. Johnson signed a three-year, $15 million deal in the offseason.

Giovani Bernard, Bengals

Signed a three-year, $15 million extension in 2016. Has seven carries for 25 yards.

And here’s some backs we didn’t talk much about before the season:

Austin Ekeler, Chargers

Gordon’s backup, an undrafted free agent out of Western State, Ekeler has 16 carries for 116 yards. He also has eight catches for 108 yards. On 15 fewer touches than Gordon, Ekeler has only eight fewer yards.

T.J. Yeldon, Jaguars

A second round pick two years before Fournette entered the picture, Yeldon has 24 carries for 109 yards. Last season, Fournette had a DVOA of 2.1% (ranked 17th among qualified backs) and he ranked 26th in success rate at 44%. It’ll be interesting to see how Jacksonville splits the ball moving forward and where Yeldon and Corey Grant rank in those categories, if they qualify. Grant had a DVOA over 53% last season.

Kenyan Drake, Dolphins

A third round pick in 2016, Drake averaged 5.0 YPC over his first two seasons. He is now splitting with Frank Gore and both are adequately effective: Drake has 25, 101 and 1, while Gore has 18, 86, 0. Gore signed a one-year deal worth barely more than $1 million.

Finally, to cut off the comments about “The Seahawks drafted a running back in the first round!!!” Yeah guys, I am not Seattle’s general manager. This also isn’t a website run or owned by the Seattle Seahawks organization. I don’t represent or endorse all of their moves. I also do not sheep along and agree with everything they do. I do have a DEFINITE bias towards the Seahawks and I always try my best to turn that down, if not mute it, and I can be objective. So telling me about Rashaad Penny is your right but it’s not proving anything. Not to me.

Seattle used a first round pick on Penny and it’s obvious that Chris Carson is the starter and the better running back right now. The move to trade down looks good to me and the decision to draft Penny is questionable. I think the reason they did it is because they believe a decade ago, Penny would have been a top-12 pick, like Marshawn Lynch was, and that they were getting good value at 27. Better value would have been in the mid-to-late second round. Or later. Carson was a seventh rounder. Many names listed above were day two, day three, and undrafted free agent choices. Penny was a pick of a decade gone by.

And it has indeed, gone, bye.