Every year there are running back changes, just like it seems like every year the New England Patriots make it to the Super Bowl. Or how people feel a need to renew the discussion about Tom Brady and his legacy these past few seasons. Apparently, his legacy can’t be cemented until he has 18 rings and has defeated Ivan Drago on foreign soil.
Now, not all us are Patriot fans, and so we look forward to the adjustments that our teams make. We hope that these changes will bring them to the land of consistent success. For some of our teams that potential success hinges on if there are changes at the running back position. Some of the teams will be looking for a new starter. Some will just be adjusting their depth. And some will be hoping they can retain as many pieces as possible. The teams of the AFC North fit into each of these categories.
NFL Running Back Changes for 2018 – AFC North Edition
When you look over the Ravens season, it’s easy to see that it didn’t go exactly as planned, and that’s especially true for their running backs. First, the NFL suspended Kenneth Dixon, and then he suffered a season-ending injury. Then Danny Woodhead performed his own disappearing act after his injury in the first week of the season. This chaos led to a backfield that was led by Terrance West and Javorius Allen. That worked for about five weeks. Finally, the improbable team leading rusher, Alex Collins, took ahold of the job and didn’t let it go.
Collins taking over the job was obviously good news for him and his team. Adding to the good news is that Collins is an exclusive rights free agent, so it’s up to the Ravens if they want him back. The bad news is that the return of Dixon complicates things. Dixon has the superior athletic profile, but Collins has the recent production (ninth in evaded tackles and fifth in juke rate). Also, the Ravens couldn’t have been happy with Dixon and his suspension, so Collins should have a smoother road to the starting job.
The rest of the options–Allen, Woodhead, and West–don’t figure to be huge factors in the competition for the starting job next year. West will be unrestricted free agent, so he may not even be with the team next season. Allen put up some decent numbers, but the return of Woodhead hurt Allen’s numbers. Allen averaged about 63 yards a game in weeks one through nine, and about 29 yards a game after Woodhead returned. That doesn’t create a lot of hope for Allen as a future starter.
Woodhead will cost the Ravens $3.3 million this year. If nothing changes around the league, that would make him the 21st highest paid player at his position. That is quite the cost for a 33-year-old running back, who has only played 10 games in the last two years. The Ravens could cut him after June 1st and save $2.5 million. Woodhead is a good guy and all, but saving $2.5 million to use Allen’s receiving chops more often makes too much sense for the team going forward.
The Ravens are a real wild card. John Harbaugh has already said that he is “looking to upgrade everything.” In other words, the team could turn to the draft or free agency rather than their current roster. In terms of free agency, the team has close to $10.5 million in cap space, which makes them unlikely candidates to be big players in the market right away. Although they could free up more cap space by eliminating some bad contracts.
In terms of the draft, the Ravens are unlikely to draft a running back in the first round. However, Derrius Guice would be enticing if he fell them at pick number 16. In all likelihood, the Ravens would pass on Guice, but still use a pick on this really talented, deep running back class.
It wasn’t exactly a banner year for the Bengals rushing attack, in part because of the changes to the offensive line. But PlayerProfiler ranks their run blocking efficiency as the 18th best in the league, which isn’t exactly terrible. Still the backfield struggled to gain much yardage throughout the year. And the eventual starter, Joe Mixon, only had success through two rushing gaps, which put a damper on what some were hoping would be a great rookie season. Well, as Cubs fans used to say “there’s always next year.”
The aforementioned Mixon leads this list. And why shouldn’t he? He has a great athletic profile, draft pedigree, the ability to be a three-down back, and age all on his side. There stands a good chance that Mixon could increase his carries (more on this later) from 178 to somewhere in the 250+ range next season. Combine that carry total with his ability as a receiver and you have a potential breakout player for next year.
One player that could hinder Mixon’s chances is Giovani Bernard. Bernard was able to take advantage of the moments that Mixon was out. The former Tar Heel averaged over 109 yards a game in weeks 13 through 16–weeks that Mixon was either out or limited. While that may not be enough of a sample size for the Bengals to anoint Bernard as the starter, it certainly points to the fact that Mixon will not completely dominate the snaps on all three downs.
Jeremy Hill, now a free agent, is one of the reasons that Mixon could increase his carries next year. While there is always a chance that Hill gets re-signed by the team, logic suggests that the team will be moving on. Sure, they have $35 million in cap space to work with, but that’s not the point. The point is that the team invested a high draft pick in Mixon, and Hill has struggled since 2014.
What also doesn’t help Hill’s chances at returning is that the team has a more athletic power back option in Brian Hill. This Hill doesn’t factor to be a threat to the starting job. However, he does provide a cheaper, younger option for the Bengals.
The Bengals don’t figure to change many things going forward. Mixon should be their starter. Bernard is in the mix as well. And Brian Hill could provide depth. The team could cut Hill and carry over no dead money. Which means the wild card option here is that both Hills are gone, and the Bengals turn to the draft to replace them and Cedric Peerman, who is also a free agent.
As you can imagine, a 0-16 season doesn’t exactly spell success for a team’s rushing attack. In fact, the Browns had the worst game script in the league. In other words, their rushing game was, as the kids say, not good. Isaiah Crowell led the team in rushing with 853 yards. Duke Johnson only had 348 rushing yards, but Crowell and Johnson were able to cross the 1,000 yard mark when their receiving totals are added.
There’s a lot of opportunity for change here. Crowell is a free agent. Johnson is still on the roster, but the Browns have hardly treated him like a potential bell cow back. The most carries that Johnson saw in a game this season was ten. That’s not to say that Johnson couldn’t potentially handle more. It’s just the Browns have seemed to cap him around 15 touches per game.
If the Browns let Crowell walk, they have the draft capital and cap space (a whopping $110 million) to make things interesting. Or they could go crazy and buy 10 Crowells, because why not? It’s not like people are expecting much out of the team right now. In terms of draft capital, the Browns have eight picks in the first four rounds. It would be a huge surprise if one of those picks didn’t involve a running back.
Matthew Dayes is the only noteworthy depth on the team. And he’ll likely remain as depth as the Browns search for a new starter. One thing that Dayes has going for him, however, is that his coach believes he has three-down-back potential. Although, it would take a suspension and/or injuries for him to showcase that potential.
Out of the entire AFC North, the Browns are the most likely team to see changes at the starting position. The team has both the draft capital and cap space to bring in an impactful player, and they have an opening at the position now that Crowell is a free agent.
The Steelers season certainly didn’t end the way they wanted it to end. It did, however, contain another stellar season from Le’Veon Bell. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Bell was third in rushing, fourth in receiving yards, and he had the most receptions for a running back. The season may have ended on a sour note, but Bell continues to impress.
If this was a typical year, Bell would be the only person worth talking about here. However, this isn’t a typical year. Bell is technically a free agent right now, which puts the Steelers in somewhat of a bind. On one hand, dedicating a decent chunk of the cap to a running back hasn’t been a likely winning formula. On the other hand, Bell deserves to get paid by the team. At this point, even though there has been progress between the Steelers and Bell, there is still a chance that someone else would be starting for the Steelers next year.
That someone else could be James Conner at this point. However, Conner suffered a MCL injury in week 15, which required surgery. In other words, depending on the severity of the tear, Conner might not be ready to start. Or that someone else could be a different running back that they drafted. The only thing that seems unlikely at this point is the Steelers using their limited cap space (about $4.1 million) to find a different starter out in the market.
In addition to figuring out what they are going to do with Bell, the Steelers will have some decisions to make regarding their depth. Both Fitzgerald Toussaint (restricted) and Stevan Ridley (unrestricted) are free agents. Which leaves Conner as the lone halfback on the roster right now.
The Steelers have a big decision to make regarding Bell. If they choose to move on from him, expect them to use a draft pick to fill Bell’s spot. If Bell does re-sign, the Steelers could choose to use a draft pick to fill the spot left behind by the likes of Toussaint and Ridley (assuming either doesn’t re-sign).