Backup running backs in the NFL are more important aspects of an offense than what a lot of what the public may believe. We are sometimes so wrapped up in the individual greatness of a Le’Veon Bell, a David Johnson or a Marshawn Lynch, that we forget the backup running backs that play such vital roles to continuing that team’s success on the ground.
For example, the New England Patriots last season ran the ball extraordinarily well with LeGarrette Blount, and he was the clear-cut starting running back. However, come Super Bowl LI, the Patriots realized they could get more production out of a player like James White, who was both solid on the ground and a mismatch in the passing game. James White ended up winning MVP of the Super Bowl, and his impact showed the value of having a running back behind your starter who can get the job done.
There’s simply so much physicality and different scenarios for different running backs in the NFL, that in some seasons, back up running backs can outplay their starters. Injuries are the most obvious sign that a back up running back will outplay their starter, but sometimes the back up can get hot during the season and the team decides to ride that hot streak out(the Redskins in 2016…).
Perhaps the biggest reason any of us actually value backup running backs is that they can save our butts from week-to-week in fantasy football…..but I wouldn’t know anything about that. Today, TheSportster brings you 15 Backup NFL Running Backs Who Will Outplay Their Starter.
15. Danny Woodhead (Terrance West)
The shifty scatback from San Diego will be joining the ranks of the Raven running backs this season, hoping to rebound from a short 2016 due to an ACL injury. Ever since the Ray Rice incident occurred, Baltimore has really struggled to establish any starting running back worth their time. Woodhead is not a starting running back, but he provides the perks of being both a running and receiving option that could very well result in better-combined yardage numbers during the season. Last year, the Ravens’ #1 running back—Terrance West—combined his rushing and receiving numbers for 1010 yards and six touchdowns. What were Danny Woodhead’s numbers in his last full season? 1091 yards and nine touchdowns on fewer combined receptions and carries. Woodhead may not be the better ground option, but his impact on the game is primed to be superior to West’s.
14. Alvin Kamara (Mark Ingram/Adrian Peterson)
With the addition of Adrian Peterson to the Saints backfield and the retainment of Mark Ingram, the Saints have a full backfield in new draftee Alvin Kamara rounding out a possibly dynamic trio. That said, Sean Payton and Drew Brees throughout the years are notorious for utilizing receiving weapons at the running back position(namely, Darren Sproles). Because of Kamara’s proficiency in that area, along with the aging condition of Ingram and Peterson, Kamara has the potential to be the biggest contributor to the Saints offense in 2017. Injuries are the biggest concern here for Kamara, but Ingram and Peterson haven’t always been able to stay on the field as well. Also, even if only one of the two main guys (Peterson and Ingram) gets hurt, Kamara still has great potential to outplay his starter, as he showed at Tennesse last season with his nearly six yards-per-carry average.
13. Mike Gillislee (James White/Dion Lewis)
As mentioned in the introduction, the Patriots have excelled in the past at using multiple running backs. Dion Lewis was a player that I didn’t even mention, who very well could see a lot of playing time for New England in 2017. At around 5’11” inches, 210 pounds, Gillislee is more of a thumper back than James White and Dion Lewis, thus becoming a possible red zone player for the Patriots. Much like LeGarrette Blount last year, I wouldn’t be surprised if Gillislee becomes the main workhorse for New England, particularly given his excellent 2016 season in Buffalo with eight touchdowns on the ground and a 5.7 yards-per-carry average. The Patriots offense can sometimes be as predictable as Odell Beckham Jr.’s cleat of choice, but Gillislee is well prepared for an effective season.
12. T.J. Yeldon (Leonard Fournette)
Much of the hype around rookies in the NFL today revolves around quarterbacks, but running backs have received plenty of attention as well; enter the highly acclaimed Leonard Fournette. Expectations are high for the standout running back from LSU, but I could easily see Fournette suffering an early season injury that paves way for T.J. Yeldon to prove his place in this league. Yeldon had a disappointing season in 2016, but so did the entire Jaguars franchise. With a new head coach and more talent acquired in the offseason, Jacksonville should be able to muster up a complete offense in 2017. Many are counting on Fournette to be the next running hope for Jacksonville, but Yeldon still wants to prove his doubters wrong with a breakout season.
11. Robert Turbin (Frank Gore)
The Indianapolis Colts have shockingly had a 30-year-old running back lead them in rushing yards over the past two seasons. Gore ironically hasn’t disappointed in his production, rushing for 1000 yards in 2016, and nearly hitting the mark with 967 in 2015. The one downside to his game—despite his incredible longevity—is the fact that he is 34 years of age. I understand that Frank Gore is an iron man of sorts, but his time is surely running out. Robert Turbin showed promise last season as a backup, proving valuable in the red zone by scoring seven touchdowns on the ground. Is Turbin the next running back for Indianapolis’ future? Most likely not, but I could see Gore battling injuries this year, and Turbin surpassing his rushing totals in 2017.
10. Jacquizz Rodgers (Doug Martin)
Doug Martin will miss the first three games of the 2017 Buccaneers campaign due to a suspension. Consequently, Tampa Bay will likely start Jacquizz Rodgers in his stead, who played very well in 10 games last year. Martin has always been the guy that is expected to be the #1 running back for Tampa Bay, but year after year it feels as if he is battling some type of injury or suspension that keeps him off the field. Rodgers may not necessarily be a better running back than Martin, but his numbers could definitely trump Martin’s, especially given his early absence. What is most interesting about this running back debate, is the fact that 2017 could be a make-or-break year for Martin, as the Bucs can void his contract due to his substance abuse problems. Look for Rodgers to play a role in the running game that could very well be bigger than Martin’s.
9. Tim Hightower (Carlos Hyde)
Normally, you wouldn’t think that an older backup running back could ever outplay a younger, talented starting running back. In this particular situation though, Tim Hightower has proved that he can still play at a high level, even in his new San Francisco home. Carlos Hyde has the potential to be an exceptional running back in the future…..when he’s healthy. 2016 wasn’t an issue (health wise) for Carlos Hyde, but even if he does stay healthy in 2017, new Head Coach Kyle Shanahan has a past of utilizing two running backs frequently—namely, Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman in Atlanta. With injuries in mind, Hightower could take over a lot of the carries for the 49ers, and therefore pass Hyde up in terms of a total running performance this season.
8. Christian McCaffrey (Jonathan Stewart)
A lot of buzz is surrounding Christian McCaffrey for the upcoming regular season, and rightly so. McCaffrey was one of College Football’s most exciting talents the last couple of years, so exciting, in fact, that he finished second in the Heisman voting his sophomore season. Now in the NFL, McCaffrey finds himself in Carolina as a backup to steady veteran running back Jonathan Stewart. While McCaffrey may not be named a starting running back for Carolina—or even for other teams—his possibility of outplaying a starter may be greater than anyone on this list. McCaffrey could be used in the special teams game, as a wide receiver, a pure running back, or a running back catching balls out of the backfield. There’s no doubt that McCaffrey’s explosiveness could leave everyone looking back on 2017 as the season he outplayed every running back on Carolina by a longshot.
7. Tevin Coleman (Devonta Freeman)
The starting running back for Atlanta (Devonta Freeman) recently signed a five-year $41.25 million dollar contract extension to stay with the Falcons. While this all looks glamorous for Freeman, I could see Coleman reminding Falcon fans why his injury in SB LI was so detrimental to the team’s success in games. Perhaps the main reason why I can see Tevin Coleman playing better than Devonta Freeman in 2017 is the fact that it is so difficult to replicate the success he had. 13 total touchdowns and over 1500 all-purpose yards is no easy feat to accomplish. In addition, if Freeman gets injured at all during the season, Coleman has an excellent opportunity to vault his number totals on the ground and in the air. Stay alert for Coleman to have an even better year in 2017, especially if he can buy himself more playing time.
6. Eddie Lacy (Thomas Rawls)
While the consensus in Seattle is that both Eddie Lacy and Thomas Rawls will split carries this year, Lacy’s limited knowledge of the offense will demote him to at least the #2 spot on the depth chart. Rawls has provided incredible energy and power for the Seahawks running game over the last two seasons, despite his injury struggles. Now fully healthy and ready for action, you would think Rawls would be set for a breakout year. However, he has yet to convince the Seahawks staff that he can consistently pump out results—not to mention the Seahawks offensive line isn’t going to do him too many favors. Because of this dynamic, Lacy has an opening to become a more reliable ball carrier that will be fed in the red-zone. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Lacy play more games and score more touchdowns(at the very least), than Rawls—even with Lacy’s injury problems taken into account.
5. Bilal Powell (Matt Forte)
Bilal Powell’s placement on this list is among the more obvious ones, chiefly because of who is starting in front of him. The New York Jets running back duo of Matt Forte and Bilal Powell might quickly become more of a one-man-show situation for Bilal Powell, as Forte is aging and won’t be able to keep up with some of his great numbers in years past. Powell, on the other hand, averaged almost two more total yards-per-carry last season and almost rounded out the same rushing yard numbers as Forte with nearly 100 fewer carries. It’s Powell’s time to show he is the starter for New York in 2017, and there isn’t much stopping him. After all, the Jets WR corp is almost completely devoid of established NFL talent—given the loss of Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, and Quincy Enunwa’s season-ending injury.
4. D’Onta Foreman (Lamar Miller)
The former Texas Longhorn standout running back will fight for playing time this year behind both Alfred Blue and Lamar Miller. In all honesty, I just believe that Foreman’s upside and flashes of brilliance will be too much for the Texans to pass up on come the regular season. He may not start off getting many carries, but injuries will take place, and Foreman will be given his moment to separate himself from not only other Texan running backs but perhaps the entire loaded 2017 rookie class of tailbacks. The main thing Foreman has going for him Houston is the fact that he provides a combination of power and speed that resembles a workhorse. A player with that type of ability doesn’t come around every day, and Houston is desperate for another running back who can help out their inconsistent offense. Foreman offers more of that than Miller and Blue ever have.
3. Dalvin Cook (Latavius Murray)
With Bishop Sankey missing the 2017 season with an ACL injury, Dalvin Cook out playing Latavius Murray becomes all the more likely. Cook was simply outstanding in his last season with Florida State, and I was astounded that he fell to round #2 in the 2017 NFL Draft. Regardless, he has a golden opportunity to split carries with Latavius Murray, and then to showcase his pass catching abilities as a difference maker for the season. Cook’s versatility will eventually shine brightly in the eyes of Minnesota’s staff, and his ability to be an offensive weapon will surely result in better play than even Latavius Murray could offer. Not that both Cook and Murray haven’t had injury troubles in the past, but Murray has fallen a bit short of expectations thus far, and with an inferior offensive line in Minnesota, I don’t believe he will achieve what Cook can this year.
2. Alfred Morris (Ezekiel Elliott)
Another door has been opened wide for backup running backs in the league, and that door is located in Dallas, Texas. Alfred Morris should be licking his chops with this opportunity; a chance to play with maybe the best offensive line in the league as a starting running back? Heck, if Darren McFadden can rush for over 1000 yards as the starter in Dallas, there’s no reason Alfred Morris can’t do the same. Of course, Morris will likely split carries with some other Cowboy backs (including McFadden) but there’s still no reason he shouldn’t strive to outplay Elliott this year. Morris actually could temporarily make a lot of Cowboy fans forget about Ezekiel Elliott, given his short-lived string of running success in Washington. It’s a tall order to make Cowboy fans forget about Zeke, but Morris really has all the tools to help restore order to the running game while Elliott serves his suspension.
1. Derrick Henry (DeMarco Murray)
The 6’3″ inch, 240-pound mountain of a man out of Alabama, is ready for another solid running season in Tennessee. After playing second fiddle to longtime running back DeMarco Murray, Henry has put himself in a good position. He has a year of experience under his belt, he has learned from one of the better running backs in the league, and he didn’t experience any major injuries. Murray turns 30 in February, and he still looks like he’ll have a great year, but I could see his carry total decreasing from the nearly 300 he took last year. As a result, Henry will take up more carries, and could become the red-zone ball carrier for touchdowns galore. Add that on to the possibility of Murray getting hurt, and you have yourself as great chance that Derrick Henry will outshine DeMarco in 2017.
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