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Running backs may not matter, but “interchangeable” is an overstatement

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NFL: NFC Divisional Playoff-Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The trend of fewer and fewer 1,000-yard running backs continued in 2018, with just nine players hitting that mark. Compare that to a decade prior, it was 16 backs in 2008, and there were 20 such individuals in 1998.

The 20th-leading rusher in ‘98 was Priest Holmes at 1,008 yards with the Baltimore Ravens. Last season, the number nine rusher in the league was Phillip Lindsay at 1,037 yards. Whether or not Lindsay’s name will ever invoke the kind of reactions that Holmes does as a player who is in the Hall of Fame (of players who only had 3.5 peak seasons) remains to be seen, but my gut tells me he won’t be.

No offense to Lindsay, but the NFL doesn’t work that way anymore. Maybe it will again some day, but as of now Lindsay is viewed by many as replaceable as C.J. Anderson ... the running back that Lindsay replaced, and all the Denver Broncos had to do to get him was be aggressive in pursuing him during undrafted free agency.

Anderson himself was once an undrafted free agent and within months of Lindsay bursting onto the scene at 5.4 yards per carry, Anderson replaced an MVP candidate in Todd Gurley and chopped out 299 rushing yards in two games (with 6.96 yards per carry), plus 123 yards in a division round win over the Dallas Cowboys. The Broncos proved they could replace a 1,000-yard rusher with a better one who wasn’t drafted and then the LA Rams showed they could replace a potential MVP with a former UDFA who remained unsigned for weeks last season.

So it really is just that easy to replace running backs, right? I certainly thought so based on my cherrypicking narratives, but a closer examination proves to me that as Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon continue holdouts through the preseason in a potential replication of Le’Veon Bell’s season-long disagreement with the Pittsburgh Steelers, they might have a point.

With that, I wanna start by looking at those top backs and then we’ll expand out from there.

Ezekiel Elliott

Career Games Missed: 7

Darren McFadden: 7 rushing attempts/28 yards

Alfred Morris: 11/53, 27/127, 19/62, 16/61

Rod Smith: 8/11, 12/35


Elliott led the NFL with 1,434 rushing yards in 15 games last season and he’s been the league leader in yards per game in each of his three campaigns. He’s the best running back in the NFL by the value of ground production, but people often point to the presence of three All-Pro offensive linemen. Not only have I heard that, I’ve said that. I’ve pounded the table for that. I’ve mentioned that you could put McFadden or Morris back there and still have a 1,000-yard back. Which is true.

But they’re nowhere near Elliott.

Elliott has rushed for at least 100 yards in 19 of his 40 career games and he’s rushed for over 90 in 25 games. That means that Elliott hits 90 yards in 62.5% of his career starts. Great o-line? Of course. Does Elliott’s presence help Dak Prescott play better? That has seemed to be true — but Tyron Smith also missed significant time during Elliott’s extended absence in 2017. But in seven career games without Elliott, only once has a back topped 90 yards.

In nearly every case, the production wasn’t even half of what Elliott brings and in these examples we have, we know that the ground game wasn’t the same. Again, Smith was also out, but is there proof that the Dallas Cowboys can easily replace Elliott?

No way.

Does it matter? That’s a different question. I am only focusing on if the backs are replaceable, not if they matter.

Todd Gurley

Career Games Missed: 6

C.J. Anderson: 20/167, 20/132

Malcolm Brown: 14/54

Tre Mason: 7/26, 9/16, 18/44


We only have two real examples of Gurley missing a game in Sean McVay’s offense, with Andrew Whitworth at left tackle, and in both cases Anderson was at least as productive as Gurley. If not more so. The games with Brown and Mason almost don’t count to what we’re looking at here, but they do count a little bit and obviously Mason and Brown are nothing like Gurley.

With uncertainty surrounding Gurley’s health once again it seems likely that we’ll have more examples, with new players (Brown is back, but third round pick Darrell Henderson is the one we’ll all be watching) backing him up, and then we can expand on this theory in what has been a very successful system.

But here’s one thing we do know: Gurley is a threat in the passing game, gaining 580 receiving yards. Anderson is not.

(I also don’t know that I believe that players like Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffrey are exceptions to the “RBs don’t matter” rule because of receiving prowess, since their teams don’t win more often when they receive more often. In fact, the opposite has been true.)

We just know that no backs on the Rams roster have replaced Gurley as a receiver.

Kareem Hunt

Games Out: 7

Spencer Ware: 14/47, 15/75

Damien Williams: 10/49, 13/103, 11/51, 25/129*, 10/30*



The Kansas City Chiefs cut ties with Kareem Hunt when there were five games left. Hunt was averaging 75 rushing yards+34 receiving yards per game, 4.6 Y/C, 14.5 Y/catch, and scored 14 times with no fumbles.

He was first replaced by Ware, who had 61 rushing+30 receiving, 4.2, 9.8, 1 TD in two games.

Ware was replaced by Williams, who had 72 rushing+42 receiving, 5.2, 8.7, 8 TDs in five games, including two playoff games

Williams appears to be an obvious answer for Hunt, but the team clearly does not view the two as the same. The carries total for Williams in his three regular season starts: 10, 13, 10. Hunt averaged 16.5 carries per game and only once had fewer than 14. It also seems crazy to say that the KC offense “struggled” with Williams because they consistently scored between 28 and 35 points in all five of his starts, but they topped 35 points eight times with Hunt.

This wasn’t just an offense that utilized Hunt a lot, it was a defense that desperately needed a ton of offense. Williams may have not been the problem at all — but the production on offense was different in his starts for some reason. And Andy Reid is not planning to approach 2019 like he approached 2017 and 2018 with Hunt.

They will be going with a running back by committee, teaming Williams with Carlos Hyde, Darrel Williams, and Darwin Thompson. There was zero committee with Hunt.

The absence of Hunt didn’t hurt production at running back but for better or worse it did change the team’s offensive gameplan, which is even more impactful than just losing a few yards.

Melvin Gordon

Career Games Missed: 9

Austin Ekeler: 12/42, 13/21, 15/66

Justin Jackson: 16/58

Kenneth Farrow: 15/39, 9/28

Ronnie Hillman: 7/41

Danny Woodhead: 16/89

Andre Williams: 18/87

Donald Brown: 14/17, 21/81

Branden Oliver: 9/35

I’ve added in some players here who didn’t start but did have notable carries or were notable running backs who have stepped in for him. And while Ekeler and Jackson had some nice versatility to the LA Chargers in 2018, they could not replace Gordon. Two players couldn’t replace one, which is usually an issue for teams that can only activate 46.


During LA’s best stretch of the season, Gordon rushed for 500 yards in five games, 5.8 YPC, 217 receiving yards, seven total touchdowns and one fumble.

He also missed one game in that stretch, a 20-19 win over the Tennessee Titans in which Ekeler had 12 carries for 42 yards, five catches for 26.

Much like the Chiefs, the Chargers didn’t feel comfortable replacing one back with one. They needed at least two and they began to mix in Jackson when Gordon missed three games midseason. Combined, the two players did not produce at the level of Gordon, but LA went 3-0, so it didn’t really matter.

Ekeler and Jackson couldn’t pick up what Gordon was doing prior to his last injury and then when he returned, he was bad.

Gordon is now holding out and I can see why. He was unproductive after he got injured and as a running back he’s even more likely to be injured again and potentially he never gets paid after 2019. The Chargers can claim that they’ll be fine without Gordon, but they can’t yet claim that they’ve got another running back who can do what he does on his own.

Devonta Freeman

Games Missed in 2018: 14

Tevin Coleman total: 167/800/4

Freeman a year earlier: 196/865/7

Coleman was arguably better in 2018 than Freeman was in 2017, but he was nothing close to the type of back that Freeman was in 2015-2016. What is perhaps more interesting is the trickle down effect, since Ito Smith was nothing like the number two back that Coleman once was and overall the Atlanta Falcons had a weakness at the position that wasn’t there before.

The team scored nearly 4 more points per game in 2018 but saw their rushing attempts from 430 to 351. Of course this could be related to how many games they were winning/losing, but on the surface the Falcons had nearly the same results in DVOA, offensive DVOA, and wins/losses year-over-year. That’s a point in the win column for “RBs don’t matter” maybe but it’s undeniable that Atlanta had a weaker duo without Freeman.

Le’Veon Bell

2018: Held out

2017: 321/1,291, 4.0, 9 TD, 85/655, 7.7, 2 TD, 3 fumbles

James Conner 2018: 215/973, 4.5, 12 TD, 55/497, 9.0, 1 TD, 4 fumbles


Conner had a higher YPC than Bell’s campaign the previous season, but on more than a hundred fewer carries. He also scored more touchdowns on fewer carries, though we can gather that RB touchdowns are a stackable stat: Conner had six 1-yard and two 2-yard scores. Conner found more production within two yards, but Bell has created a little more action in 5+ yard touchdowns.

Similarly to other backs on this list, the team also changed its offensive gameplan when there was a change at running back. Bell received 106 targets in 2017 compared to 71 for Conner in 2018. The Pittsburgh Steelers became much more of a passing team without Bell despite the fact that a much lower percentage of those throws were going to the lead back.

It felt like you threw to Bell because you wanted to and you threw to Conner because you had to. As a backup to Bell in 2017, Conner received one target. As a backup to Conner in 2018, Jaylen Samuels received 29 targets.

The Steelers had a Pro Bowl back in 2018, but they knew they didn’t have a Le’Veon Bell type back and it changed how they played on offense.

David Johnson

2017 Games Missed: 15

Adrian Peterson: 125/448, 3.5, 2 TD, 9/66, 7.3, 0, 3 fumbles

Kerwynn Williams: 120/426, 3.6, 1 TD, 10/93, 9.3, 0, 0 fumbles

Chris Johnson: 45/114, 2.5, 0 TD, 5/43, 8.6, 0 TD, 0 fumbles

David Johnson the year before: 293/1,239, 4.2, 16 TD, 80/879, 11.0, 4 TD, 5 fumbles


It was only two seasons ago that the Arizona Cardinals opened the year believing, with good reason, that they were Super Bowl contenders. They had Carson Palmer at quarterback and All-Pro running back David Johnson, who ranked 12th on the NFL Top 100.

When Johnson got injured in Week 1 of that season, the plan fell apart. Don’t believe it? Johnson had nine targets in Week 1. Peterson/Williams combined for 31 targets on the season. Bruce Arians based his offense around Johnson about as much as he did around Palmer and when he was out, they had to adjust.

Again, the Cardinals might have been able to survive the loss of Johnson if Palmer and the offensive line had been healthy that year — they finished 8-8 despite Palmer missing nine games — but they were not a team that was going to rely on its backs like it had with Johnson. Peterson was terrible, Williams was nearly just as bad.

You can say that running backs don’t matter in the modern NFL, but you can’t argue for a second that other backs are on the same level of athletic talent and ability as Johnson. You can argue that longsnappers have the least amount of value on the team, but could you argue that there isn’t a significant difference between the NFL’s best longsnapper and the NFL’s 20th-best longsnapper?

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Johnson, Gurley, Elliott, Gordon, Bell, Hunt, and Freeman have proven to at least be special players at the position — to the point where the coaches are oftentimes basing their offensive game plan around their availability, just as you would if you had to make a switch at quarterback — so hopefully we can at least agree on that.

If the New York Giants lost Saquon Barkley, I think we can agree that the plan wouldn’t be to move forward just the same with Wayne Gallman and Paul Perkins. They’d have to change everything because everything was based around Barkley’s ability to be a three-down back who gets 150 targets this season. Without Barkley’s athletic abilities, you can’t just go out there and run the same plan. You have to change it. So obviously these running backs are in no way “fungible.”

If Chris Carson is your starter, that’s one plan.

If Rashaad Penny is your starter, that’s a different plan. As we saw on Sunday night against the Minnesota Vikings, that’s a concerning plan.

And if J.D. McKissic is your starter, you know that “starter” is just a title and not an indication of who will get the most carries. That’s how much it changes as you move down the line.

Plans had to change for other teams as well in 2018, including if the back is not as notable as the ones I’ve just listed.

Joe Mixon vs Gio Bernard

In the two games Mixon missed early in the year, Bernard had games of 12/61 and 15/69. These are fine but they would have been two of the least productive games of the season if it had been Mixon’s line. Bernard is more of a receiving threat and it was also important that the new RB2 was Mark Walton, a far cry from Bernard as your number two back.

Chris Carson vs Mike Davis

How could any Seahawks fan claim that “all backs are equal” when they presumably watched the 2017 season switch over from Carson to Eddie Lacy and Thomas Rawls? That season forced Pete Carroll and John Schneider to look at running backs in the first round of the 2018 draft and to give Davis more playing time than he had early in 2017 season.

Davis got two starts in place of Carson last season, having games of 21/101 and 11/58. When Penny got a season-high 12 carries against the Rams, he put up 108 yards. These backup upgrades helped, but neither is the three-down back that Carson is and the game plan had to change.

Better or worse, “interchangeable” is not the word I’d use to describe Carson, Davis, and Penny. Half of Carson’s starts in 2018 went for at least 90 yards. You might get that with Penny and the team paid a premium for that assumed luxury.

James Conner vs Jaylen Samuels

I talked about Bell-Conner but what about Conner-Samuels? In three starts sans Conner, Samuels had 42/223, 5.3, 0 TD, 12/105/1 TD.

The team had already somewhat abandoned the run, but had to do so even more without Conner. And as the new backup, Stevan Ridley had 11 carries for 24 yards in those three games.

Lamar Miller vs Alfred Blue

Miller gets to go down as perhaps the most forgettable consistent starting running back of the decade. He and Frank Gore are tied for the longest active streaks of seasons with at least 700 rushing yards (six and counting) and the difference between him and Blue was clear.

Blue had 20 carries for 46 yards in his first start replacing Miller, then 4/14 in the next, which came a couple months later. Miller made his first career Pro Bowl in 2018. Not that it makes him great, but greater than Blue for sure.

Sony Michel vs Rex Burkhead

Burkhead put up 18/64 in Week 1, then Michel returned and put up an average of 16/70 over the next six games. Then Michel missed two more games — and in the first one, the New England Patriots gave 10 carries to Cordarrelle Patterson, who gained 38 yards. The following week, Patterson had 11/61 and James White had 12/31.

If that’s not changing your plan, I don’t know what is.

Michel returned and his numbers closely mirrored what they were prior to his latest injury. In the postseason, he went off to another level, putting up 336 yards and six touchdowns in three playoff games. We never saw an ability to do that from Burkhead, White, or Patterson. If White had been forced into a starting role, we already know that his strength is as a receiver, not a runner. It’s a completely different Patriots offense.

How could anyone argue “replaceable” in a case like this, where we know Bill Belichick finds almost every player to be expendable, but certainly not replaceable. If Belichick thought that running back was so replaceable, why did he spend a first round pick on one?

That’s another point I want to emphasize: few teams still value running backs from a salary cap stand point, and we also know that it’s rare to be a first round pick at the position, but almost every team clearly still views running back to be anything but “replaceable” with a street free agent or sixth round pick.

Many may call backs to be as valuable as punters and kickers, but you almost never see punters and kickers drafted on day two. Almost every team in the NFL has drafted a running back on day one or day two in the last six years. Just as the RB value is plummeting, it’s not exactly disappeared entirely. You’d think that as vehemently as some people argue that you can use a C.J. Anderson to replace a Todd Gurley that you’d never spend a day two pick at the position, but 28 of 32 teams have done so relatively recently.

And two of the four who haven’t still place incredible emphasis on the position.

Drafted a RB in the 1st round in the last 6 years:

Raiders, Rams, Cowboys, Jaguars, Giants, Seahawks, Patriots, Panthers, Chargers

Drafted a RB in the 2nd round in the last 6 years:

Bengals 2, Titans 2, Lions 2, Niners, Jaguars, Vikings, Washington, Bucs, Browns, Eagles

18 teams have drafted a RB in the first 2 rounds over the last 6 drafts

Drafted a RB in the 3rd round in the last 6 years:

Vikings 2, Rams 2, Browns 2, Bucs, Washington, Cardinals, Falcons, Seahawks, Dolphins, Steelers, Texans, Chiefs, Saints, Broncos, Patriots, Bills, Bears

28 teams have drafted a RB in the first 3 rounds over the last 6 drafts

No RBs: Jets, Ravens, Colts, Packers

But the New York Jets just signed Bell to a massive (RB) deal and the Baltimore Ravens revolutionized the ground game with Lamar Jackson in 2018. We haven’t seen a rushing team anything like the Ravens since, well, running backs mattered.

Of the teams to draft a RB in the first round in the last six years, two of the nine teams were in the Super Bowl last year, while three others made the postseason. Of the two other teams in the championship games, the Chiefs did a lot of damage with a premier back in Hunt, while the New Orleans Saints have arguably the most popular back in the league with Alvin Kamara. Both players were also recent third round picks, which helps emphasize that you can find a great back in the third round — but not that you can just wait until “whenever.”

Third round backs are the new second round backs. Second round backs are the new first round backs. And first round backs are unicorns.

But a real “RBs don’t matter” ground-stomper with any self-respect couldn’t possibly sit here and say that they are truly interchangeable. If that was true, then that person should be able to write in stone that they would never draft a running back ever, because why would you if they were that easy to find? If Lindsay and Anderson are the “norm” and the position is that fungible, why in the world would you waste a pick on one when you know that pass rushers, offensive linemen, and top cornerbacks are among the positions near impossible to find great talent in after the first round?

The “RBs are replaceable” team should be able to say without hesitation: I would never draft a running back. If not, that obviously means that they think running backs matter at least a little bit more than punters and kickers. Not just because of course all positive plays are positive, but also because you can’t replace Elliott with Morris and you can’t replace Gordon with just one back.

Seattle can’t even replace Carson with a first round unicorn, it seems. Finding Carson was an incredible get — and the Seahawks did it in the seventh round — and he’s showing that while you could find a back like him just about anywhere, you won’t find a back like him everywhere.

“Chris Carson doesn’t matter” is one argument, but “Chris Carson and his backups are interchangeable” is another, and I don’t think there’s going to be any evidence to support that.