NFL Buck The Trend – The Ultimate Running Back

Daniel Essien with a breakdown of the evolution of the running back position in recent years to kick off TOJ Digital’s new podcast: BUCK THE TREND

Trends in the NFL often start a whisper and eventually turn into a violent scream. So it has been with the evolution of the running back position in recent years. The amount of talent coming into the league at this position has really increased over the last few years. Let’s look at what is different about today’s modern running backs as opposed to the ones entering the league a few years ago. Also, we’ll look at a few examples of how they’re utilized schematically. Lastly, we’ll take a look at the direction of the Jets’ running back depth chart in light of all this.

Listen to further discussion on this topic and more in our new podcast: BUCK THE TREND. Check out episode 1 below and look out soon for the iTunes feed!

RB Software Update

The best running backs in today’s NFL are much different than the best of the past. As NFL offenses have advanced through the years, the attributes that add value to the position have changed. As the NFL became more pass oriented, the running back position was put in the balance. Instead of it dying out, it evolved.

Not too long ago, the ideal running back used to be based more on power and durability. Players like Adrian Peterson,  Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch, Maurice Jones-Drew, and more, were all from that mould. Teams wanted running backs they can give 25 carries per game and methodically try to break the will of the defense. As that strategy began to phase out, a new build of running back also started to become more prevalent. The league began gravitate towards running backs that could offer more to the offense, particularly those that can be effective as receivers. As a result agility and overall athleticism began to be valued over bulk.

It started with a whisper, with a player like LaDainian Tomlinson dazzling the league with a skillset few others have had. In today’s NFL, he be considered the ultimate running back. Eventually, in the following years you began to see more running backs pop up that were mould breakers like he was. Pre-2015 it was Lesean McCoy, Le’Veon Bell that ushered in the new era. In the last 3 years, there’s been a complete overhaul in the NFL of these new age running backs. Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffery, Alvin Kamara, and Kareem Hunt have all taken the league by storm. Majority of these backs are capable of 1000+ rushing yards, 60+ catches and 500+ receiving yards a season. They also fit modern NFL offenses better. We saw that specifically last season when the Saints couldn’t do anything with Adrian Peterson and Kamara ended up busting out with 700+ rushing and receiving yards.

Ultimate Usage

The big benefit of a versatile running back is how many ways you can use them in your offense. Here are some examples of how some of the previously mentioned running backs have been creatively utilized in their team’s offenses:

Kareem Hunt

Kareem Hunt was a big surprise last season. What really helped him was playing under coaches like Andy Reid and Matt Nagy. They both identified his ability and used him accordingly. Here’s an example of how they used Hunt in the passing game. Matt Nagy is a freaking genius, please indulge this analysis.

On this play, Nagy really utilized every weapon in his offense. Hunt is lined up to the right of Alex Smith. The play starts with a Tyreek Hill in motion, keying the defense to watch for the “jet sweep” handoff to Hill. Right before the snap, the Patriots safety to the would-be sweep play side dives down while the opposite side safety begins to drops back. At the snap, Hill does not get the ball, the two outside WRs run vertical. Travis Kelce runs a crossing route and gets the attention of the safety of the opposite side who began to drop. Then there’s Hunt breaking open in the middle of the field. He roasts a linebacker on a seam route in the space cleared out by the Hill motion and Kelce crossing route.

Alvin Kamara

Kamara was so good last season. Ironically, in terms of pure value, he already looks more useful to Sean Payton than Reggie Bush did. He’s been a mismatch nightmare for defenses. Here he is matched up against a linebacker on a option route. Advantage, Kamara.

Todd Gurley

Here’s 2017 MVP finalist, Todd Gurley. Similar to the Kareem Hunt clip, the Rams (McVay of course), use jet motion to draw in the defense, and Gurley flames the linebacker in coverage and then shatters the safeties ankles after the catch to complete the play for a touchdown.

So you can see, this new edition of running backs really give their teams so much to work with. None of the above clips even show Kamara, Hunt, or even Christian McCaffery’s work in the slot. It’s so important to have a back that’s so multi-talented because it limits what the defense can key on.

So how can the Jets take advantage of this new trend? The easier answer: draft one. But obviously it’s more complicated than that. The Jets have more important roster concerns at this stage in their rebuild. However, their current depth chart at running back could use a face lift in the coming years. Bilal Powell is probably the best running back on the roster. But Powell is injured quite a bit and is approaching 30 years old. Isaiah Crowell is a decent back but his skillset is pretty straightforward. Eli McGuire and recently drafted Trenton Cannon both have intriguing physical attributes, blessed with speed and suddenness. But can the Jets ever count on either of them to produce starter quality numbers on offense? Let’s watch what the Jets get from the current group this season. But don’t worry. There are plenty of ultimate running backs that will make their way to the NFL in the coming years. Here’s one of my favorites for 2019, Zack Moss.

Listen to further discussion on this topic and in our new podcast: BUCK THE TREND. Check out episode 1 below and look out soon for the iTunes feed!

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