Jesse Pantuosco (@JessePantuosco): Oh running back, you cruel mistress. I can’t remember entering a year with less clarity at the halfback position. In Oakland we have Marshawn Lynch, who is back after a year of binge-eating Skittles and going on Conan. Mark Ingram, fresh off a career year in 2016, must now contend with the likes of Adrian Peterson and third-round rookie Alvin Kamara. The Packers are entrusting former wide receiver Ty Montgomery to carry the team’s backfield while the depth charts in Cincinnati, New England, Philadelphia and Seattle are all rife with uncertainty. Even the sure things come with question marks. Half of Jay Ajayi’s rushing output last year came over a three-game stretch while drop machine Jordan Howard is just begging to be replaced on passing downs.
So, wise writers of Rotoworld, help me decode the league’s increasingly bleak backfield landscape. Who emerges from the dense fog at running back and who gets left behind?
Evan Silva (@evansilva): I think Jordan Howard busts in Chicago, for some of the reasons Jesse alluded to. His passing-game role is going to be minimized and the Bears are going to be a bad team. They have a brutal schedule and a quarterback controversy is inevitable.
The running back thirst in drafts this year was strong, and not entirely rational. We had five rookie RBs going in the first three rounds. We had running backs on bad teams being scooped up there and even before that. We had running backs who dealt with injuries all camp as borderline first-round picks. All in all, I think it was a terrifying year to be a herd-chasing, RB-early drafter.
Rich Hribar (@LordReebs): Perhaps it's just recency bias, but when I look at the uber backs like David Johnson, (6'1/224) and Le'Veon Bell (6'2/230) and how they’ve revitalized the top of the position, I feel like that's the archetype you want in today's NFL. These bigger, taller backs that use their size and speed, have major receiving ability and never come off the field are the spade suit for a game now built around pace and spacing. Dallas has been the exception, but always guessing right with offensive linemen in the draft and getting efficient quarterback play is a difficult formula to replicate (keep trying, Jacksonville). Also, don't forget that Ezekiel Elliott is an elite talent catching the football, even if he wasn’t used that way last season.
Three guys really fit the mold I’m talking about and they are Joe Mixon (6'1/228), Ty Montgomery (6'0/223) and C.J. Prosise (6'1/220). All fit the profile, have the receiving background and upside to become stars like Bell and Johnson. Of those three, Montgomery has the most immediate path to opportunity. Although Aaron Rodgers' red-zone proficiency and ability to move the ball downfield may prevent Montgomery from hitting his ceiling, he still averaged 17.4 PPR points in games where he played over 50 percent of the team’s offensive snaps.
Mixon not starting for Cincinnati is typical Marvin Lewis, but Jeremy Hill has gotten progressively worse every season and has an expiring contract. I have no doubt Mixon will usurp him at some point and I doubt he’ll have to wait as long as David Johnson did when he was behind Chris Johnson.
Things are a little murkier for Prosise in Seattle. You can see Eddie Lacy still has good instincts but his body just doesn’t play at the speed needed in today's game. That's not a weight jab, either—I think his roasted ankles are the bigger concern. Thomas Rawls is already hurt and is also an unrestricted free agent after this season. Chris Carson showed flashes during the preseason, but he’s a seventh-round talent and his athletic profile isn’t that enticing. I'm not down on him by any means. I just think we need a bigger sample size and I don’t see why he and Prosise can't co-exist as soon as next year.
But I can’t get that Sunday Night game out of my mind when Seattle went into Foxboro and won with Prosise dominating. That's how the Seahawks need to play with their rag-tag offensive line. They need to spread teams out and have Russell Wilson throw quick passes to maximize their efficiency. Of course, Prosise needs to stay on the field, which has been his main bugaboo, but those are the guys I want on my roster. As Evan touched on, the top of the position is littered with red flags that required high draft capital while the guys I’m talking about were much cheaper. If any of them hit, they have week-winning potential and will set you up better than some of the early-round landmines.
Raymond Summerlin (@RMSummerlin): Darren Sproles is going to do Darren Sproles things, but the Philadelphia lead-back situation is interesting because it could end up being highly valuable. Philly has one of the best offensive lines in the league and Eagles backs combined for 14 rushing touchdowns last season including eight by Ryan Mathews.
The problem is we do not know who will get those opportunities. LeGarrette Blount is the obvious candidate, but he did not look particularly good in the preseason. Wendell Smallwood looked much better in his limited action, but he was sidelined for a large chunk of camp with an injury.
Doug Peterson has said he will use a committee, which would make it difficult to trust anyone. But it is difficult to believe the Eagles will continue to use Blount, a 30-year-old on a one-year deal, over Smallwood, a fifth-round sophomore, if the latter performs. I am stashing Smallwood wherever I can and I would not feel good about Blount if he were on my squad.
Connor Allen (@ConnorAllenNFL): Rich brings up some good points in reference to the new idealistic RB prototype. Echoing his points on Mixon and the lack of clarity in the Bengals backfield, poor run-blocking is another factor that could hold Mixon back this season. Despite being an uber-talented prospect, with the losses of LT Andrew Whitworth and PFF’s seventh-ranked guard Kevin Zeitler, Cincinnati’s offense may struggle to open up holes in the run game. With Mixon splitting carries, his production may not live up to the expectations of his fourth-round ADP.
The Miami vs. Tampa Bay game this week has been rescheduled, meaning Doug Martin won’t return from suspension until after Week 4. However, with the Buccaneers shifting to a run-first offense and Martin’s only current competition for touches being career backup Jacquizz Rodgers, Martin should emerge as the clear-cut starter. Reportedly having the best offseason of his career and running with the first-team for the majority of camp, he has tons of upside in an offense that added weapons this offseason.
Pantuosco: Well we have to talk about Kareem Hunt, right? What he did against the Patriots last night was incredible. Andy Reid tried to fool us all with his bogus RBBC committee narrative but we should have known better. Undervalued in the draft because he didn’t go to a power-five school, Hunt left no stone unturned in Foxboro, breaking off huge runs (his longest run went for 58 yards), showing well in the passing game (five catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns) and taking care of business on the goal line. I think it’s also notable that he accomplished all this after losing a fumble on his very first carry. Young players have a tendency to let mistakes haunt them but Hunt was completely resilient. That will serve him well as he navigates the choppy waters of the NFL.
I suppose we also learned a bit about Mike Gillislee on Thursday night. Though his performance was marred by a pair of failed fourth-down conversions, Gillislee was the goal-line weapon we all expected him to be, scoring all three of New England’s touchdowns. He also led the Patriots with 15 touches compared to 13 for James White and only four for Rex Burkhead. We’re predisposed not to trust Bill Belichick and for good reason, but I think Thursday confirmed that Gillislee is the player to own in New England’s backfield.
Jeff Brubach (@Jeff_Brubach): As Evan mentioned, the early rounds of drafts this season were stuffed with dicey options and I personally feel that my best squads were assembled with a crew of mid-round running backs. Adrian Peterson is a player that I found myself drafting frequently at his price and I think that he puts up RB2 numbers this season and contributes respectable stat lines on a weekly basis. Obviously his 2017 profile carries some red flags but is it possible that we are simply overthinking a generational talent joining one of the NFL's best offenses? Despite the presence of Ingram and Kamara, Peterson should be good for a solid touchdown total at minimum, so I'm rolling with him in the New Orleans backfield.
Patrick Daugherty (@RotoPat): Draft Kareem Hunt, amirite? I've decided to go all in on Christian McCaffrey. Didn't really get him in many drafts, but ecstatic about the few leagues where I own him. I'm just not buying Jonathan Stewart as a long-term threat. Maybe he'll keep his early-down role for a few weeks, but this is a 30-plus back who never stays healthy and no longer averages even four yards per carry. The Panthers did not take a running back at No. 8 overall to simply catch passes, no matter how good he is at that. Even if J-Stew legitimately keeps goal-line duties, I don't think it will be enough to keep McCaffrey from RB2 status in standard leagues. He's a special player. The Panthers targeted him as such. Now they will use him as such.