"We try to maintain a respectful distance when doing it. Just as much as (Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach) Dirk Koetter and (Bucs general manager) Jason Licht hate cutting players, we hate shooting it. But it's unfortunately part of the business. It's terrible. And it's also terrible afterwards when you [say], ‘Uh, can I ask you a few questions?' But it's part of camp, it's part of the reality of the NFL. ... We work really hard to get the audience invested in these guys and to really show a well-rounded portrait of who they are." -- Matt Disinger, director of HBO's "Hard Knocks" and producer for NFL Films.
For fans, the boring, linear action the NFL preseason provides only becomes interesting when big-name players and starters are either cut or demoted, especially when we actually get to see the conversation. I don't think many people shed tears when the Buccaneers cut kicker Robert Aguayo this summer when they first saw the news, but the actual moment on camera may have elicited different reactions.
Today, let's look at some big-name, starting NFL running backs that may be looking at a slot on the bench come Week 1 or later on this season. Unlike some of our other lists, there's no real ground rules for this list other than the running backs have to be eligible to play (no IR or PUP) and have to be under contract. In other words, someone like Reggie Bush obviously wouldn't be on this list.
Ready to speculate and make sense of an ever-changing league? Let's do it.
16 Isaiah Crowell - Cleveland Browns
We start off with an interesting one as Crowell had a career-year in 2016, rushing for 952 yards and seven scores on 198 attempts (4.8 yards per rush!), but will the presence of Duke Johnson Jr. put Crowell on the hot seat? This is actually an interesting one to consider because part of it is on what coach Hue Jackson is going to help whoever is behind quarterback (because you know we're going to have three or four changes this year, as is tradition), but Crowell should be safe...should.
While I do trust Hue Jackson to make smarter choices than Rob Chud...Chudzn...Rob Chudzinski or Mike Pettine, this is one to keep an eye on. I promise that the rest of these will be more clear-cut than this...well, most of them.
15 Jeremy Hill - Cincinnati Bengals
Maybe I say this because I'm personally torn on Jeremy Hill as a long-term option and I also think the Bengals would consider a trade (I'll discuss that later) of Hill given his stock and the presence of both Giovanni Bernard and rookie Joe Mixon. Though Hill has had a decent preseason while Mixon has been...well...mixed (stop laughing), we know what the former second-rounder can do - he's quick, he shows breakaway speed, and he's good at making adjustments - so is it unrealistic to think he'd be traded?
If Hill does stay, I do think he'd be on the hot seat with Marvin Lewis likely needing a playoff win to save his job and at least one proven running back behind Hill on the depth chart. Would a strong preseason help Mixon's cause as well?
14 Terrance West - Baltimore Ravens
Am I being too harsh on West? Maybe, but with Danny Woodhead healthy and with the Ravens in need of some type of offense, West could be relegated to a backup role after rushing for 74 yards and five touchdowns on four yards a carry last year...or he'd be the 1B to Woodhead's 1A. If Woodhead shows no signs of rust after last year's ACL tear, I'd have to think he's the guy in an offense in need of legitimate playmakers.
Now granted, none of this is going to matter so long as Joe Flacco is making bad reads and costing the Ravens winnable games, but I digress. If you've yet to do your fantasy football draft, make sure to land Woodhead as you would every other year, though be safe with West.
13 LeGarrette Blount, Philadelphia Eagles
Alright, Doug Pederson, what do you think?
"I mean, the guy is a beast of a runner. I don't know what else to tell you. 18 touchdowns; 15 in the red zone last year. That's the production you saw yesterday [and] the style of running that he can do. And the other thing is, listen, we're not game planning these [preseason] games. So it's really hard to go into a game saying, ‘This is best against this team.’ We're trying to execute our plays. As coaches, we might be doing our players an injustice by putting them in bad situations. I'm just going to be honest with you. But you saw what he's done these last couple of days. I'm excited that he's here, and he's going to be a big part of our offense."
Perhaps, but with Darren Sproles still around as Blount struggles this summer, would Pederson consider giving Sproles more carries? Given the Eagles' offense, I'd have to think so, but this is an organization that rarely gets things right.
12 Jonathan Stewart - Carolina Panthers
Like with Isaiah Crowell, this is an example of a guy who will probably be part of a 1A-1B system early in the system with a younger guy (Christian McCaffrey) splitting carries, though I do think we'll see the latter take over main duties this season. Carolina didn't draft McCaffrey with the eighth overall pick to have him sit on the bench, especially not if Cam Newton struggles or gets hurt again and the Panthers quickly find themselves in the NFC South basement.
I've heard some people suggest the Panthers trade Stewart, but it makes more sense to keep him around as a mentor for McCaffrey, one that can help him adjust to the NFL and hand the keys over this season. It's all about winning a Super Bowl at the end of the day, right?
11 Darren McFadden, Dallas Cowboys
This one comes with an EXTREME what-if because there's still a possibility Ezekiel Elliott gets cleared of his suspension, but if the ex-Ohio State Buckeye remains out, McFadden appears primed to start the season as Dallas' lead back. Though McFadden is only two years removed from a 1,000 yard season as DeMarco Murray's replacement, the former first-rounder's preseason struggles and Alfred Morris being on the roster raise the possibility of Run-DMC starting the season as the number two running back.
And if it is Morris who starts the season hot for the Cowboys and gives them a boost in their running game, that'd be a nice story as McFadden's former coach, Lane Kiffin, tries to help the Florida Atlantic to their first bowl game since Morris was their running back. You have to love the Lane Train...
10 Dion Lewis - New England Patriots
In Dion Lewis' defense, you could put ANY of the Patriots' running backs on this list because Bill Belichick is the mad genius that will swap players on the depth chart whenever he feels like it, but it's looking like the former fifth-rounder could begin the season behind Super Bowl LI hero James White. Most media outlets have the two as a 1A-1B set right now with Lewis as the 1A, but with Rex Burkhead in the mix, I think it will simply be White-Lewis/Burkhead on the official chart.
But again, this is a Bill Belichick-led team we're talking about, so anything can change and likely will change by the time we hit week four. But as of right now, look for Lewis to be getting fewer carries than White when the season starts.
9 Paul Perkins - New York Giants
Paul Perkins is one of the younger players on this list after having been drafted in 2016. Paul Perkins is also one of the only players on this list to earn public criticism from his coaches.
Giants coach Ben McAdoo after the Giants' preseason opener: "First play of the ballgame, Paul Perkins was 1-on-1 with the safety, and we need more than seven yards there. He has to make him miss or he has to run him over. We have to at least get a first down on that play."
Giants offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan: "If I had to pick one area where we would like to see some improvement, it's when they're able to break the second level and there's the safety, let's run him over, let's make him miss."
With Shane Vereen still on the team and Jeremy Hill potentially available through trades, is Perkins long for the starting job? We'll see...
8 Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers
It feels like every year is when Carlos Hyde, the 49ers' second-round pick in 2014 and Frank Gore's replacement, is set to break out. While he has improved each year and made the Pro Bowl last season, Hyde could find himself on the hot seat with a new coaching staff in town and free agency looming. Though the 49ers aren't likely to do much this year, you have to think Kyle Shannahan is going to do everything in his power to win and if Hyde struggles to make plays, newcomer and ex-New Orleans Saints running back Tm Hightower could be looking at a starting spot.
But, part of that also comes from the 49ers having missed the playoffs for three straight seasons and needing to show fans the organization isn't planning on accepting losing. How much of that will be on Hyde?
7 Thomas Rawls - Seattle Seahawks
While the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks are currently polar opposites of one another, Thomas Rawls is essentially in the same situation as Carlos Hyde; we've thought Rawls would break out - though he's also had injury issues - and with free agency looming and the Seahawks signing Eddie Lacy, Rawls may not be long for the Emerald City.
Rawls, however, also doesn't have full control of the situation because Lacy has weight incentives in his contract that will pay him bonuses and motivate him to stay in shape. We know what Lacy can do when he's healthy and he's been good so far with those incentives, so what is Rawls' future in Seattle? If you think we're being too cynical, remember the Seahawks also have 2016 third-rounder C.J. Prosise in the wings.
5 Matt Forte - New York Jets
At this point, you know the New York Jets are going to tank in 2017 and seriously weigh letting their remaining veterans go, so where does Matt Forte's future lie? I won't pretend the Jets' depth chart behind Forte and Bilal Powell is much - though sixth-round rookie Elijah McGuire (La. Tech) could be an interesting option if he makes the active 53 and isn't stashed on the practice squad - but there's not much incentive to have Forte as the starter.
In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Jets trade Forte later this month not only because of how popular Bilal Powell is in that locker room, but because there's no real place for the ex-Chicago Bear at this point. Remember when the Jets signing Forte seemingly was a move that'd propel them to the Super Bowl?
4 Doug Martin - Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This is a bit unfair because Martin is serving the final three games of a drug-related suspension, but when he does come back in week four, where does his future stand? Will he be the immediate starter? Will Jacquizz Rodgers and/or Charles Sims have shown enough in the first few games to warrant them starting even after Martin's return? At the very least, Martin seems to be thankful for what he calls a "journey."
"Everybody has tough times. Everybody reaches a low point," Martin said on HBO's Hard Knocks. "I stood up and said I needed help, and definitely turned a negative into a positive. Because right now, I'm definitely a better person because of it. I'm getting to the vet years and I've just got to start acting like a vet."
We're rooting for you, Doug!
3 Mark Ingram - New Orleans Saints
Well, you knew this was coming as soon as Adrian Peterson signed with the Saints earlier this year. Many fans seem to be divided on what Ingram's play has been like since the Saints used a first-round pick on the former Heisman Trophy winner in 2011, but most people seem to be at a consensus now in admitting Ingram is headed for the bench.
It's not only Peterson that Ingram will have to worry about, but third-round rookie Alvin Kamara, who has dazzled in the preseason and seems like a perfect fit for Sean Payton's offense. All it will take is one injury to a running back and Ingram will probably find himself starting somewhere else, but for now, he seems primed to be the backup behind a healthy, game-ready Adrian Peterson.
2 Spencer Ware, Kansas City Chiefs
Update: Three days after initially writing this, Ware tore his ACL. Maybe we were onto something...
Are the Kansas City Chiefs going to regret letting Jamaal Charles go after two ACL tears and his rusty performance last year? I doubt it. Are the Chiefs going to go places with Spencer Ware as their lead running back? I'm not quite sure, especially with me being high on rookie Kareem Hunt and the Chiefs entering a win-now season; this could very well be Alex Smith's last season with the Chiefs (it's already his fifth year in Kansas City, somehow) and as rookie Patrick Mahomes II is primed to take over next year, Andy Reid needs to do something major this year if he doesn't want to wind up like John Fox.
Part of that may be putting Hunt, who ran for 4,945 yards at Toledo, in the starting role over Ware. Knowing Reid, I doubt this would be a 1A-1B situation, so keep an eye on the Chiefs' running back depth chart.
1 Le'Veon Bell - Pittsburgh Steelers
Well, if Le'Veon Bell doesn't report to the Pittsburgh Steelers, he'd technically be backing up one of Fitzgerald Toussaint, Knile Davis, or rookie James Connor. Fine, we're cheating with this one because Bell has promised he'll be in camp on September 1, but would the layoff cost him a starting job? Though those three aren't anywhere close to what Bell provides, is there a possibility Mike Tomlin lists and plays Bell as a backup to start the season solely off him skipping camp?
Of course he wouldn't. Tomlin is here to win games and bring a Super Bowl back to Pittsburgh knowing full well he'll need Bell. Or, the Steelers wind up simply trading him to a team willing to take the risk on him for one year. Who knows? This IS the NFL, after all.
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