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  • Will Eddie Lacy's diet pay off and help him win the starting job over Thomas Rawls in Seattle? Can the young Mark Ingram carve out a spot alongside veteran Adrian Peterson in New Orleans?
By Chris Burke
August 08, 2017

Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott was the only player in all of the NFL to top 300 carries last season (he finished with 322), which makes it quite obvious that the days of the classic, bell-cow running back in the NFL have dwindled, with teams now focused on sharing the load.

Nonetheless, it still helps to have a clear go-to option on the ground. In some spots, like Dallas with Elliott or Arizona with David Johnson, that lead role is filled. In others, much of the preseason will be spent figuring out which back is most trustworthy with the ball in his hands.

A glance at a dozen of the running back battles to watch this month:

Baltimore: Terrance West vs. TBD

The Ravens have led the league in pass attempts each of the past two seasons, so establishing a little more offensive balance is near the top of their 2017 to-do list. Taliaferro led the club last year with 193 attempts, 774 yards and five TDs, and the next closest in all three categories was Kenneth Dixon: 88, 382, two, respectively.

Baltimore just lost Dixon for the year to a knee injury, though, so with whom West might split carries is an unknown. Buck Allen? Bobby Rainey? Pass-catching specialist Danny Woodhead? Of those, Woodhead is likeliest to see playing time, for his hands alone.

Certainly, GM Ozzie Newsome will be tracking any high-profile RB cuts that go down in the coming month. The Ravens might not be done adding help in the backfield.

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Cincinnati: Jeremy Hill vs. Gio Bernard and Joe Mixon

Speaking of relatively high-profile cuts, could Hill land on that list? He was the Bengals’ leading rusher in 2014, ’15 and ’16, but his work last season (839 yards on 3.8 yards per carry) was more of a grind than a standout performance. His contract is up after the season and Cincinnati just spent a Round 2 pick of talented-if-controversial back Joe Mixon, so is this the end of the line?

Further muddying the mix is that Bernard returned ahead of schedule from his November ACL tear, putting him on track to reclaim his versatile role in the backfield. The Bengals need an early-down/short-yardage back to complement with Bernard can offer. There likely won't be enough carries to keep both Hill and Mixon well fed.

Green Bay: Ty Montgomery vs. Jamaal Williams

It didn’t take long, once the Packers opened camp, for Williams to earn time alongside QB Aaron Rodgers. From Aaron Nagler (whom you might recognize from his guest appearances on SI Now):

The Packers are going to find Montgomery touches. He's too explosive to ignore—last season, he averaged 6.7 yards per touch, while shifting into a backfield-heavy role. But Montgomery also carried the ball just 77 times in 2016, so there will be understandable questions over what sort of workload he can handle.

Jacksonville: T.J. Yeldon vs. Chris Ivory

The key name missing here, of course, is that of rookie Leonard Fournette. The starting job is his, assuming he stays healthy for the next month. The coaching staff may not make that official until later this summer, but Fournette already has been leading the first-team reps.

Things get interesting in the backup slot. In one corner, Jacksonville has the hard-nosed Ivory, who is coming off a complete mess of a season; in the other, it’s the 23-year-old Yeldon, who already has 114 receptions to his name in just two NFL seasons. Yeldon’s all-around game offers more of a change from Fournette’s downhill style. Will that be enough to tip the scales his direction?

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Kansas City: Spencer Ware vs. Charcandrick West, Kareem Hunt and C.J. Spiller

Before the Chiefs fired John Dorsey this offseason, the former GM traded up in Round 3 of the draft to land Hunt, a highly productive back at Toledo. Should anyone unseat Ware atop the depth chart, it will likely be the rookie.

Chiefs running backs coach Eric Bienemy, via the AP:

“Kareem is a smart kid. His football IQ is very high. He’s done a good job of retaining a lot of information, and trust me, we’ve been throwing the book at him. He’s done a heck of a job retaining information. On top of that, he’s done a great job of working out there.”

Ware did rush for 921 yards last season, with a 4.3 yards-per-carry average, and he also posted an impressive 13.5 yards per reception. QB Alex Smith actually led the team in rushing touchdowns, though, with five.

West and Spiller may have to pick up the scraps, if there are any. Neither is a roster lock, and that’s especially true for the veteran Spiller.

Minnesota: Latavius Murray vs. Dalvin Cook

After a stop at Vikings camp in Mankato, Minn., this week, The MMQB’s Albert Breer wrote that Murray’s starting spot is “already gone,” conceded to the team’s exciting rookie.

“They see [Cook] out there on the field with the other guys, and it’s like, ‘There’s something different about this guy, the way he runs, accelerates, the creases he can get to,’” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer told Breer. “He’s got a tough mentality. Players can see exceptional athletes. When they go out there and they’re going against guys, they can see: This guy is pretty good.”

Granted, in order to be part of the competition, Murray at some point will have to get on the field. The Vikings placed him on the PUP list before camp opened, and he was down for OTAs and minicamp after ankle surgery.

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New England: Everyone vs. everyone

The Patriots bid farewell this offseason to their backfield hammer, LeGarrette Blount, who signed in Philadelphia off an 18-touchdown year. They then added a pair of weapons: Rex Burkhead, arguably Cincinnati’s best back—albeit underused—last season; and Mike Gillislee, plucked from the Bills. They have joined Dion Lewis, James White, D.J. Foster and Brandon Bolden in a crowded positional group.

Above all, New England may love nothing more than for Lewis to stay healthy. He’s played just seven regular-season games in each of his first two Pats seasons, but Bill Belichick’s club has never lost a game with Lewis in the lineup. He averaged 10.8 yards per reception two season ago. Last year, with Lewis banged up again, White posted a 9.2 ypr clip, on 60 catches.

Much to the chagrin of fantasy football owners everywhere, odds are against Belichick providing a clear answer. He’s always been prone to riding a hot hand, no matter who it is, and he has myriad options this year.

New Orleans: Mark Ingram vs. Adrian Peterson

Seemingly every time the Saints have taken the field this summer, Peterson has been the focal point of the post-practice buzz. So much so, in fact, that it can be easy to forget Ingram is just 27 years old and is coming off a season in which he produced 1,362 yards from scrimmage and 10 TDs. Peterson, for comparison, is 32 and rushed 37 times for all of 72 yards last year.

Also part of the plans moving forward is rookie Alvin Kamara, whose ability in the open field stands to pair well with the Saints’ offense. He’ll have to stand in line behind the Ingram-Peterson duo.

Ingram’s all-around game is superior to that of Peterson, to this point in his career far more of an early-down back. Will that be the deciding factor come Week 1?

New York Jets: Matt Forte vs. Bilal Powell

Frankly, this job should be Powell’s. He is the younger, healthier back, and he was the more effective player last season—Powell averaged 5.5 yards per carry to Forte’s 3.7, and he caught 58 passes to Forte’s 30. With the Jets doing little to hide their tanking plans, continuing to feed work to a 31-year-old Forte would be hard to figure.

And yet, that does seem to be the idea. Multiple Jets coaches have confirmed this offseason that the plan is to go “backfield-by-committee.”

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Philadelphia: LeGarrette Blount vs. Darren Sproles

Two completely different backs there, so the Eagles’ real decisions boil down to:

1. Do they cut Ryan Mathews, once he is medically cleared from a neck injury. (Answer: probably.)

2. How many carries per game do they chance with Sproles, rather than leaning on the more physical Blount? (Answer: TBD, but Sproles has never hit 100 carries in a season since entering the league in 2005.)

3. What are the roles for rookie Donnell Pumphrey and second-year back Wendell Smallwood? (Answer: Probably limited, but both are capable of providing a little lighting as movable pieces out of the backfield.)

This is less a straight-up competition than it is a grab bag of possibilities.

Seattle: Eddie Lacy vs. Thomas Rawls

Arguably the best of the preseason RB competitions is ongoing in the Pacific Northwest, where Lacy arrived as a free agent back in March, on a one-year deal. The Seahawks immediately put him on a weight program—he's being put through a series of weigh-ins throughout the summer, and receives a bonus each time he's under 250 pounds.

Had Rawls been able to stay healthy last season, the Seahawks may not have pursued Lacy. He was not, though, playing in just nine games and struggling when he did suit up (3.2 yards per carry). Flip side: Rawls is not far removed from his surprising 2015 campaign, in which he chalked up 830 yards rushing.

C.J. Prosise is the other name to remember here. He caught 17 balls, at 12.2 yards per reception, last season.

Washington: Rob Kelley vs. Chris Thompson and Samaje Perine

Almost as soon as Washington drafted Perine (Round 4, No. 114 overall), speculation turned to when—not necessarily if—he would bump Kelley from the No. 1 RB role. It has not happened yet, with Kelley reportedly handling the bulk of first-team duties thus far.

Thompson is to this race what Prosise is to Seattle’s: a third-down back who can chip in as a runner, too. No matter what happens in the Kelley-Perine battle, Thompson will see reps. He finished last season with 49 receptions, good for fifth on the team and easily tops among the Washington backs.

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