I truly believe that running backs will eventually get their due justice and day in the sun again.
That the Cincinnati Bengals giving Joe Mixon a four-year, $48 million contract on Tuesday without so much of a whisper of a dispute preceding it, may be a positive sign for the men who play that position. But we could still be a ways away from getting everyone to admit that they matter.
The 2020 rookie class having some dominant campaigns could be both a good (for obvious reasons) and bad (cheaper players outperforming veterans) moment for the movement to get running backs some credit and more pay. The Los Angeles Rams just hope that they not only selected the best one in the draft — but that he can also help them immediately.
On Wednesday, The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia posted some predictions for the upcoming season and he had Cam Akers leading all rookies in rushing yards:
One of Sean McVay’s primary goals this season has to be improving the run game. Los Angeles ranked 20th in efficiency last season and parted ways with Todd Gurley. The team drafted Cam Akers in the second round, and he could be in store for a big role right away, especially considering that Darrell Henderson has been slowed by a hamstring issue.
Sounds reasonable. It just makes me think again on what the landscape will potentially look like in 2020. Who are the candidates?
- Clyde Edwards-Helaire, 32nd overall, Chiefs - Arrowhead Pride has named him the “offensive MVP” of training camp.
- D’Andre Swift, 35th overall, Lions - Hasn’t had a full practice in over two weeks because of a leg injury and is slowly working his way back into the offense.
- Jonathan Taylor, 41st overall, Colts - Positive reports out of camp are no surprise, though it has been pointed out that he’s had issues with dropping passes.
- Cam Akers, 52nd overall, Rams
- J.K. Dobbins, 55th overall, Ravens - John Harbaugh has been impressed with his “coachability” and confidence thus far in 2020, saying Dobbins will have a “significant” role with the team this year.
- AJ Dillon, 62nd overall, Packers - Much has been made of his legs, but Dillon has also gone through some rookie growing pains.
- Antonio Gibson, 66th overall, Football - Gibson has been a popular topic for those who care about fantasy football this year because opportunities keep being presented in Washington it seems.
- Ke’Shawn Vaughn, 76th overall, Bucs - Spent some time on the COVID-19 reserve list and has been described as “quiet” in camp.
- Zack Moss, 86th overall, Bills - Has recently been dealing with a neck issue.
- Darrynton Evans, 93rd overall, Titans - Recently missed more than a week of practices for undisclosed reasons.
Edwards-Helaire had the door for opportunity opened wider when Damien Williams opted out for the season. He’s been projected for as much as 1,630 total yards and 12 touchdowns by The Huddle.
It’s only been two seasons since the Lions took Kerryon Johnson with the 43rd overall pick and Swift’s injury setbacks should be enough to make Johnson the starter in Week 1. If he were to remain healthy, Johnson has the upside to retain the starting gig indefinitely. But Matt Patricia was also okay with drafting Swift for a reason. Because of his injury and the team he plays for, Swift’s odds to lead all rookies seem lower than others.
Taylor is going to start the season behind Marlon Mack as a runner and Nyheim Hines as a receiver. Frank Reich likes leaning on Mack: he is tied with Chris Carson and Joe Mixon for the most games with at least 25 carries (5) since 2018. In a playoff win over the Texans two seasons ago, Mack had 24 carries for 148 yards. The Colts drafted Taylor to help them this season, I’m sure, but the big idea is replacing Mack when he becomes a free agent in 2021.
The Ravens are not afraid to use rookies, as evidenced by Harbaugh turning to Lamar Jackson in the second half of 2018. However, Mark Ingram and Jackson figure to have more rushing yards than Dobbins this season and a “significant” role can still include 100 touches.
Like the Colts with Taylor, the Packers drafted AJ Dillon in part so they don’t have to pay Aaron Jones probably. Jones has averaged 5.0 yards per carry over 450 career attempts and scored an NFL-best 16 touchdowns last season. He also had 49 receptions for 474 yards. Dillon could have an impact but could be limited in opportunities.
Washington released Derrius Guice and has a 35-year-old starting at running back for them. Gibson had 77 total touches over the last two years at Memphis, so he’s mysterious to say the least, but some have compared him to having a skillset like that of former Ron Rivera running back Christian McCaffrey.
Vaughn is buried behind Ronald Jones and LeSean McCoy in Tampa for now.
I think it is fair to expect Buffalo to run the football a lot, they ranked sixth in carries last season even with rookie Devin Singletary and 36-year-old Frank Gore shadowing Josh Allen. The mix this season would appear to be Singletary, who they appear to be very high on after he averaged 5.1 YPC last season, Allen, Moss and TJ Yeldon. Moss could have a successful season but getting the carries to load up on rushing yards would seem unlikely at this stage.
Behind Derrick Henry, Evans won’t get many carries as a rookie. If anything happened to Henry, I would expect Tennessee to go out and sign a veteran to share the load, if not to take over entirely. Evans has not had a ton of reps in camp it would seem and had fumbling issues early on in August.
Those are all the backs drafted in the first three rounds this year. It doesn’t mean they’re the only candidates to lead all rookies in rushing yards ... Two years ago, Phillip Lindsay finished second behind Saquon Barkley among rookies even though Lindsay was undrafted. In 2017, Kareem Hunt led rookies (and everyone else) in rushing yards even though he was the 86th overall pick. In 2016, Jordan Howard was a fifth rounder who finished second to Ezekiel Elliott.
For example, Joshua Kelley was a fourth rounder of the LA Chargers and with Austin Ekeler serving as more of a receiver, it may only take a setback to Justin Jackson for Kelley to start getting a lot of carries. The Seattle Seahawks selected DeeJay Dallas in that same round and with Rashaad Penny not returned yet from a torn ACL, it may only take one Chris Carson injury or fumbling nightmare for Dallas to be integrated into a rushing offense.
Overall, Akers may indeed be the most likely rookie threat to rush for 1,000 yards.
Since 2016, seven rookies have rushed for at least 1,000 yards, with four of those players being first rounders and the other three being mentioned in the paragraph above. Josh Jacobs was the only rookie to do it last season, with David Montgomery, Miles Sanders and Singletary finishing between 775 and 889 yards. No other rookie had more than 500.
Akers is in a position to start like no other rookie running back except for Edwards-Helaire. Kansas City didn’t have any player with more than 500 rushing yards last season. In Los Angeles, Todd Gurley had 857 rushing yards in 15 games even when things weren’t going well. The Rams expect things to go better with the offensive line and rushing attack in 2020 and we also know that Sean McVay is happy to keep hammering home that point even in the face of whatever adversity they find. Example: Darrell Henderson suffering an injury and missing valuable reps.
That has opened the door for Akers more so than Malcolm Brown and it could be that he’s in the best position — headed into Week 1 — to lead all rookies in rushing yards. How things appear after that will change in a rush.