The NFL has become more of a passer-friendly league in the last 15 years, a progression that has coincided with the devaluation of the individual contributors to a team's ground game. No running backs were selected in the first round of the NFL draft in 2013 or 2014, the first two-year drought at the position in league history.
But this off-season, several teams still felt the need to drastically restructure their running games. Six of the league's 10 worst rushing offenses either drafted a tailback in the first three rounds of the draft or signed a new projected starter in free agency. Meanwhile, three of the NFL's top 10 running games lost their most productive contributors through a flurry of stunning transactions that fueled an unusually active start to the league year.
So, where do things stand now after all the reshuffling? With some help from data visualizations hosted on sports research engine PointAfter, let’s take a look at the teams that have lost the most production from their 2014 rushing attack along with the teams who have added the most 2014 production to their rosters this spring.
Note: You can hover over each dot to see the team it corresponds to, then click through to see each team’s profile page complete with unique graphics on PointAfter.
One last bit of housekeeping before we dive in: To project the rushing totals for incoming rookies, we calculated the average production of running backs who were drafted in the same round last year (or, in the case of first-round backs, back in 2012). It’s an imperfect system, but it provides a reasonable projection that actually declines linearly with each round: First-round picks in 2012 averaged 920.6 yards as rookies, 2014 second-rounders averaged 675.3 yards, 2014 third-rounders averaged 440.2 yards, and so on.
Without further ado, a closer look at two teams that appear to have greatly improved the outlook of their running game this off-season, as well as two that may need their quarterbacks to carry a heavier load after losing much of their production from a year ago.
Buffalo made perhaps the flashiest running back acquisition of the off-season by landing LeSean McCoy from the Eagles in return for linebacker Kiko Alonso. The Bills shipped away a talented young tackler who more than held his own in the middle of their defense during his rookie year, but it’s hard to fault them for wanting to put a new face on a rushing attack that ranked 25th in the NFL last season.
After putting up just 300 rushing yards in an injury-shortened 2014, C.J. Spiller ended up signing a four-year, $18 million contract with the Saints. With only an aging Fred Jackson and sixth-year pro Anthony Dixon on the roster to take the pressure off an unsettled quarterback situation, the Bills decided they wanted a surer thing this year. In McCoy, they get a proven veteran who’s still only 26.
Much was made of McCoy’s slow start last year, but he heated up midway through the season and finished with 1,319 rushing yards on 4.2 yards per carry. And he's still just two years removed from 2013, when he averaged more than five yards per carry while leading the NFL with 1,607 yards, nearly 300 yards clear of the runner-up for the rushing title.
McCoy is still an elite weapon. His presence gives his new team the highest net gain in 2014 rushing yards of any NFL team going into 2015 and will undoubtedly ease the burden on whoever ends up under center for Buffalo this fall.
Note: You can hover over each individual bar to see the team it corresponds to.
Although the decision to draft a running back in the first round carries plenty of risk, recent history shows it can also pay off in a big way—at least in the short term.
Back in 2012, Doug Martin and Trent Richardson combined for 2,404 yards in their rookie seasons. Even with the lackluster 358 yards David Wilson totaled within the Giants' backfield rotation that year, that trio of first-round picks averaged a robust 920.6 yards as rookies.
And though the rookie campaigns of the four other first-round running backs dating back to 2010 weren’t as impressive, three of them have gone on to make the Pro Bowl, including Ryan Mathews, whom the Chargers selected with the No. 12 pick in 2010.
Though Mathews once held a lot of promise, it was smart for San Diego to let him walk this spring. Slowed by injuries, Mathews’s best days are likely behind him. On the other hand, there’s more than enough reason to think that Melvin Gordon could thrive in 2015 behind a Chargers line that was devastated by injuries last season but should be in much better shape this year. San Diego was down to its fifth center by year’s end in 2014, and a second year of persistent bad injury luck is highly unlikely.
With Branden Oliver and Donald Brown acting as capable third-down options, Gordon should take over the lion’s share of carries and give Philip Rivers some stability in the backfield after an offseason characterized by wild rumors and uncertainty.
Before last season, it seemed inevitable Adrian Peterson would wind up in Dallas before the close of 2015, but after Peterson’s prolonged stay on the commissioner's exempt list due to felony child abuse charges that Peterson pled down to reckless assault, the disgraced star remains in limbo with the Vikings. Meanwhile, the Cowboys could only watch this March as DeMarco Murray signed with the rival Eagles after leading the league in rushing in 2014, leaving Dallas without a whopping 78 percent of its total 2014 rushing yardage heading into the summer.
As of now, Dallas plans to replace Murray with some combination of Lance Dunbar and Darren McFadden, another longtime favorite of Jones. But McFadden hasn’t looked like the former Heisman hopeful he once was at Arkansas in a long time.
McFadden has missed 10 games since 2011, and when he has been healthy, he hasn’t been good. Over the past three seasons, McFadden has only averaged 3.3 yards per carry and scored just nine touchdowns on the ground.
On the bright side, McFadden will go from running behind one of the worst offensive lines in football in Oakland to one of the very best. Just how much of a difference that will make is yet to be seen.
Bill Belichick and the Patriots have employed a revolving door of running backs since long before it became trendy to treat rushers as disposable commodities. However, it seems as though New England will be putting quite a bit of faith in LeGarrette Blount in 2015.
With the departures of Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley this spring, the Pats waved goodbye to two of their top three tailbacks, who accounted for 42 percent of their rushing yardage last year. Their leading rusher in 2014, Jonas Gray, compiled over half of his yards in oneabreakout Sunday night rout of the Colts before being sidelined by Belichick for showing up late to practice the following week.
The only tailback of note the club added during the off-season is former Saints backup Travaris Cadet, who will apparently take over the versatile role vacated by Vereen. Cadet had 38 receptions and 296 receiving yards out of the backfield in 2014 but finished with just 10 carries for 32 yards. It’s unlikely he’ll be taking many hand-offs from Tom Brady in 2015.
Who will step up if Blount falters? Maybe Brandon Bolden or Jonas Gray will redeem themselves. Perhaps second-year backs James White and Tyler Gaffney will emerge as options in training camp.
There’s no doubt Belichick has a plethora of options to choose from. But it’s unclear if any of them can duplicate the production of Vereen and Ridley, a pair of 2011 draftees who complemented each other so well during their four seasons in Foxboro.
But in today’s NFL, Vereen and Ridley are just two more tailbacks considered to be interchangeable assets. If Belichick doesn’t want to have Jimmy Garoppolo throw as much as Brady usually does during the latter’s four-game suspension, that line of thinking will likely be tested once again this fall.
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