When the news broke just before training camp that Cam Akers tore his Achilles and would be out for the season, most of us assumed that he would be out for the season. It wasn’t surprising that the LA Rams then traded for Sony Michel after Xavier Jones and Raymond Calais also landed on IR, and already the results of dealing a fifth and a sixth round pick for the former Patriots first rounder should net a W for Les Snead.
Not only has Michel done an admirable job as the starter since December (99 rushing yards per game over the last five contests) but he probably played well enough to net roughly a sixth round compensatory pick if he signs a deal similar to that of Kenyan Drake’s contract from 2021. Was it worth one fifth round pick to have Michel this season?
In the words of Tom Cruise, “So-ny the money!”
One potential reason that the Rams could let Michel leave in free agency to receive that comp is the return of Akers, who has surprisingly re-joined the 53-man roster and is set to make his season debut on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. Akers may or may not have a sizeable role in the offense come playoffs time, and not even Sean McVay likely knows the answer to how much he plays other than to say, “As much as needed.”
That gives LA an intriguing three-headed backfield for whichever team they face in the wild card round and makes me wonder, “How good is the Rams’ current two-headed backfield already?”
This is where I think the duo of Sony Michel and Darrell Henderson land as compared to their 2021 peers—and yes, I’m excluding running back duos that include quarterbacks. It’s interesting to see what sort of impact players like Jalen Hurts, Lamar Jackson, and Josh Allen have had on rushing totals but I want to focus on the running backs today.
1. Jonathan Taylor & Nyheim Hines, Colts
Total rushing stats: 373 carries, 2,010 yards, 20 TD, 5.38 YPC
Really the answer is “Jonathan Taylor and anybody” because Taylor has more rushing yards this season by himself (1,734) than any other running back duo on this list combined. Taylor has had a great season but I also think it is worth noting that part of the reason he gets attention is because of volume: Taylor has 80 more rushing attempts than the running back who has the fourth-most attempts.
Most teams do not seem to believe anymore that any single running back should get 300 carries (Taylor has 317) and only two others are on pace to eclipse 300. They might not get there. Part of that is related to injury, but also part of the reason that teams split their backfield work and have specialized players at the position—just like wide receivers do—is also related to injury.
There are not many running backs in the NFL as good as Taylor, however I think there are a few who could have put up wild numbers under Frank Reich this year. Still, no running back duo could possibly rank over Taylor+anyone right now. Hines has averaged 4.9 YPC, caught 38 passes for 291 yards, and returns punts.
2. Javonte Williams & Melvin Gordon, Broncos
Total rushing stats: 382 carries, 1665 yards, 11 TD, 4.35 YPC
As surprising as it might be to see Williams and Gordon this high, consider a few things:
- They have the second-most rushing yards of any duo on this list
- Williams is first in broken tackles this year, Gordon is sixth—no other team has two running backs in the top-15
- Remember to think of them as a duo, a combined force, not as two individuals that you’re judging against two other individuals; teams used to give 350 carries to one player, now instead Williams and Gordon each have had 191 attempts
If there’s not currently a belief out there that Javonte Williams could be the next Jonathan Taylor, maybe there should be. He’s quietly had a good season and is only 21, also catching 41 passes during his rookie campaign. What can he do if complemented by a great quarterback?
Javonte Williams has a 33% broken tackle rate pic.twitter.com/QrWonSEDeE— PointsBet Sportsbook (@PointsBetUSA) January 6, 2022
3. Aaron Jones & A.J. Dillon, Packers
Total rushing stats: 344 carries, 1,539 yards, 9 TDs, 4.47 YPC
Would Aaron Rodgers be as much of a favorite for MVP this season if Jones and Dillon were one player instead of two? What’s even the difference between a quarterback from 1996 who has one 1,500-yard rusher supporting him and Rodgers in 2021 sharing the backfield with two players who have 1,500?
Yes, there are roster benefits to having one player who is capable of 1,500 yards but just from a football standpoint for the 11 offensive players on the field at any given time it is undeniable that Rodgers has an advantage because of Green Bay’s strong rushing attack.
Dillon, a second round pick in 2020, ranks sixth in DVOA at FootballOutsiders. He is fifth in DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) and first in success rate. One of the most overlooked advantages to the Packers’ much-maligned draft decisions last year is that A.J. Dillon appears to be one of the best running backs in the NFL.
Yet because he shares his snaps with Aaron Jones (11th in DVOA, 10th in DYAR, 31st in success rate), people act as though he went “too high.” I’m not sure that Green Bay can claim that an undrafted free agent would be having as much success as Dillon, who has also caught 33 of 36 targets for 309 yards.
Jones has caught 52 passes for 391 yards and six touchdowns.
4. Nick Chubb & D’Ernest Johnson, Browns
Total rushing stats: 294 carries, 1,612 yards, 10 TD, 5.48 YPC
Cleveland’s number two rusher this season is Johnson, not Kareem Hunt. Not only does Johnson have more rushing yards (411 to 386) but a higher YPC average (5.5 to 4.9) and comparable receiving statistics.
Of course, any Browns duo is going to be ranked in the top-five because of Nick Chubb, a player who was one spot shy of being a first round pick four years ago. Note how many of the running backs in the top-10 were either first or second round picks in the draft.
5. Ezekiel Elliott & Tony Pollard, Cowboys
Total rushing stats: 349 carries, 1,634 yards, 12 TD, 3.9 YPC
Some are ready to anoint Pollard as the best running back in Dallas at this point but it is a true duo effort. Pollard ranks seventh in DYAR, second in DVOA, and 15th in success rate, while Elliott is 11th, 20th, and 22nd in those categories, respectively.
Lowest pct of rushes gaining zero or negative yardage among RB this season— NFL on CBS (@NFLonCBS) January 6, 2022
Tony Pollard 10.0%
A.J. Dillon 10.4%
C. Edwards-Helaire 10.9%
Miles Sanders 11.7%
Devin Singletary 11.8% pic.twitter.com/UgLhku0HQm
Elliott carries a much larger portion of the workload though (265 touches to 169) and that’s going to bring down his overall rate stats. He’s also scored 12 of the duo’s total 14 touchdowns.
6. Derrick Henry & D’Onta Foreman, Titans
Total rushing stats: 331 carries, 1,434 yards, 13 TD, 4.33 YPC
Even having missed the last eight games, Henry still ranks sixth in rushing yards (937) and the Titans are hoping to have him back for the playoffs. Henry was a second round pick but try pondering where a Heisman-winning running back prospect like Derrick Henry could have been drafted if he existed in 1992? That prospect seems more like a top-five pick to me.
Foreman has rushed for over 100 yards in three of the last five games. He has a higher DVOA and a higher success rate than Henry this season.
7. Sony Michel & Darrell Henderson, Rams
Total rushing stats: 336 carries, 1,490 yards, 9 TD, 4.43 YPC
This seems like a fair place to finally go to the lead back that LA didn’t plan for until August. Sony Michel has surprisingly worked his way up to being 15th in rushing yards in spite of the fact that he didn’t become a starter until December 5th.
There’s the Sony Michel we all know and love pic.twitter.com/okEq3FA1uO— Russell Brown (@RussNFLDraft) December 22, 2021
Michel has rushed the ball 108 times and gained 497 yards with three touchdowns over the last five contests. Prior to that, Henderson had 142 carries for 648 yards and eight total touchdowns, including through the air. After missing a short amount of time, Henderson has carried the ball seven times for 40 yards in his last two appearances.
He still ranks 12th in DYAR, ninth in DVOA, and seventh in success rate this season. Michel is 18th, 22nd, and 12th in those categories, respectively.
Now Sean McVay adds Cam Akers to this group.
8. Dalvin Cook & Alexander Mattison, Vikings
Total rushing stats: 364 carries, 1,553 yards, 9 TD, 4.26 YPC
Cook is fifth in rushing yards and he has four 100-yard efforts (one 200-yard game) but is just 37th in DYAR and DVOA, 35th in success rate. Minnesota has had far too many games with under 4.0 YPC, Cook adds little as a receiver, and he has three fumbles.
Mattison is a nice complement, doesn’t offer more upside to the Vikings than Cook.
9. Damien Harris & Rhamondre Stevenson, Patriots
Total rushing stats: 330 carries, 1,464 yards, 19 TD, 4.43 YPC
New England traded Michel to the Rams to open up opportunities for Harris and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson. It has paid off for the Patriots, as Harris has broken out for 14 rushing touchdowns and Stevenson is a more than adequate counter-punch.
David Andrews said Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson get the offense going. “They’re two really good backs.” pic.twitter.com/Uwa2lqbDoR— Mark Daniels (@MarkDanielsPJ) January 7, 2022
The duo has combined for seven 100-yard rushing efforts, but they do have four fumbles. Harris is eighth in DYAR, 21st in success rate, while Stevenson is 23rd in DYAR and eighth in success rate.
10. James Conner & Chase Edmonds, Cardinals
Total rushing stats: 303 carries, 1,292 yards, 16 TD, 4.26
Some of you may have gotten to this point loaded up to fire off that I didn’t focus enough on the passing game—it’s true, for running backs and the purposes of this article, I am more focused on how well they run the football. But I didn’t completely ignore the receiving aspect.
The Cardinals running back duo in James Conner-Chase Edmonds is very similar to that of the Cowboys in Ezekiel Elliott-Tony Pollard— Andy Kwong (@akwong31) January 1, 2022
Conner has exploded as a receiving threat in the second half of the season, catching 26 passes on 28 targets for 300 yards over the last six games; Conner had only been targeted four times all year prior to Week 9. He was named to his first Pro Bowl after scoring 16 touchdowns in 14 games.
Edmonds is averaging 5.1 YPC and has caught 43 passes for 311 yards.
That is the top-10. I can see the Rams ranking around seventh overall for duos, but perhaps moving up the list with the addition of Akers for the postseason. Other notes:
- The Eagles are first in rushing yards as a team, but much of that has to do with quarterback Jalen Hurts. Despite all those rushing yards, the Eagles’ top two running backs by rushing yards (Miles Sanders, Jordan Howard) have combined for only three touchdowns. That’s the fewest of any duo on this list. Hurts and Boston Scott have combined for 17 rushing scores. That’s a different Philly duo.
- The most rushing yards for a duo that didn’t make the list is 1,451 by Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine in Cincinnati. As a matter of fact, “Sean McVay offenses” could account for a lot of the names here, including for the Bengals, Packers, and Rams. The Seahawks and offensive coordinator Shane Waldron have even see a resurgence for Rashaad Penny late in the year.
- The biggest disparity between a number one running back and a number two is Najee Harris and Benny Snell in Pittsburgh; Harris has 296 carries compared to only 24 for his backup. No other team has near a disparity to that one.
- Mark Ingram is the number two running back by rushing yards for two different teams this season, the Texans and the Saints.
- Houston went into the season overloaded at running back—Rex Burkhead, Phillip Lindsay, Mark Ingram, and David Johnson. The end result: the Texans are dead last in rushing yards and yards per carry, 31st in rushing touchdowns, and no lead duo has fewer yards than Burkhead and Ingram (697). All four of those players combined to rush for 1,023 yards and five touchdowns. The team even added Royce Freeman too and he has 35 carries for 92 yards. Tyrod Taylor’s three rushing scores is tied for the team lead despite Taylor missing all but six games.
- The Dolphins, Ravens, Seahawks, and Jets would round out the five worst duos of 2021, by rushing yards.