By: Jonathan Margulis (Twitter: @jon_margulis)

RBs: The NFC West

Can there be a more volatile position in the National Football League than running back? It seems that at this very point each offseason, as we get close to training camps and the Hall of Fame game is only a month away, we are talking about a different running back being number one. Last year the top two running backs were Adrian Peterson and Todd Gurley. Now a new set of running backs have emerged to take the crown. The point is, the consistency in running backs, to stay at the top of their game, is a rare thing.

In this series of articles I will examine the running backs on each team, going division by division. This will allow you to explore the landscape of current running backs, the depth on their team, and who they should be watching over their shoulder.

First we will look at the NFC West, this seemed as good as any place to start. It has defined backfields, ones in which the players are established and will have a guaranteed roles. However, there are backfields which will need close watching as we roll into camp and preseason.

Arizona Cardinals

This is as great team to start with. Not only is it the least contested backfield in the NFL, we are talking about a player that absolutely ravaged the league last season. It is almost funny to think that last season we looked at David Johnson, saw his potential, and said, “Well… Chris Johnson is still there. He may pose a threat.” Now CJ2K is gone, and Johnson is left to again lay waste to the NFL. To illustrate just how crazy Johnson’s season was, let’s just look at the numbers. 293 attempts, 1,239 yards, and 16 touchdowns. Wait let me repeat that, 16 touchdowns. Only LeGarrette Blount had more. Oh, and on top of that he had 80 receptions for 879 yards and an additional four touchdowns.

Those are just wild numbers. Johnson was also on the field for 72 more passing play snaps than any other RB in the league. 879 receiving yards was the most by any running back in this century, since Marshall Faulk and his 107 targets have only been surpassed by Brian Westbrook in 2007 and Matt Forte in 2014. If you were to just take his receiving, Johnson would have tied for WR39 in fantasy scoring. He did that with a lower average depth of target than any qualifying wide receiver!

Johnson had 107 targets on an average depth of target of 4.6 yards. That comes out to 492 yards in the air. Only Marcel Reece in 2012 would come close to that, within 200 yards, among running backs in the last decade. Just to paint the picture a little bit more, only eight players have come within 300 yards of that mark, and only 32 players have come within 400.

Johnson had an excellent 2016 season by pretty much any metric or measurable. He excelled at about every level of the game. However, the most notable thing about his season is that he did it unlike any other running back to have done it before. Running backs who see an average depth of target like his (low) don’t see a lot of targets. Running backs who see a lot of targets will not have a low average depth of target or that many carries. Running backs who see that many carries don’t have that many receiving yards. The fact of the matter is, if you take out Johnson’s receiving he would have been the RB8. Take out his rushing, and he would have been the WR39.

So let’s look ahead, to the 2017 season. You take the unquestionable RB1 from 2016 and you give him a fairly easy schedule, especially to start the season. Through the first six weeks the cardinals play the Lions, Colts, Cowboys, 49ers, Eagles, Bucs. They are ranked as the 28th, 31st, 27th, 32nd, 8th, and 30th in rush defense respectively. And it’s not like it gets worse from there. Over the season Johnson will face a top eight defense only four times, while facing the bottom eight defenses, 7 times. Expect outrageous games from David Johnson to start the season.

While many believe that Johnson is in line for some TD regression. I would also warn the lay fantasy owner that his target share will regress as well. With John Brown and J.J. Nelson healthy, there are more mouths to feed in Arizona. However, have no fear, Johnson will still perform at the top of his position.

Bottom Line: David Johnson is a must own RB1 going as either the first or second pick in most formats. His role in the backfield is not in any danger as Andre Ellington is non-factor and may not even make 53 man roster. Look for David Johnson to repeat his outrageous season as the skills are there and the team needs him to repeat 2016. He is a must own in all formats.

Los Angeles Rams

Unquestionably one of the worst offenses last season, the return to Los Angeles was lackluster to say the least. Yes, one of the issues was an incompetent head coach, but it went beyond that. They had a backup quarterback starting, a rookie quarterback who didn’t know what to do, a suspect offensive line, and a receiving corps that struggled to produce. What suffered the most from this abysmal offense was the rush. Todd Gurley, coming off a stellar rookie season was being touted as the next Adrian Peterson. Playerprofile.com compares him to LaDainian Tomlinson. If that is accurate, we may have a generational running back on our hands. And yet, last season did not live up to the hype that Gurley was getting in the offseason. Gurley followed a 1,106 yard rookie campaign with just a mere 885 yards, having played in more games and with 49 more attempts. In 2015, Gurley had 5 games with 100+ rushing yards. 26 big rushing plays (20 yards or more) and an average of 4.83 yards per attempt rushing.

In comparison, by every metric, Gurley had the same opportunity as his rookie season, but also by every metric, he failed to replicate. He had zero, 100 yard rushing games. He only had 17 big rushing plays, and averaged 3.18 yards per rush attempt. It seems the only metric that improved was his receiving, jumping up in both receptions and yards. Gurley was never a receiving back in college, seeing only 12 targets in six games at the University of Georgia. Coming into the NFL, scouts said he was a North-South runner, who would just pound the ball. While the rushing wasn’t there, his receiving jumped. I associate that with a negative game script throughout the Rams’ season, having to dump off the ball rather than run it.

The Rams’ offensive line ranked 27th according to PFF at the end of the season, while Rodger Saffold was the only shining star. A new coach, a new coordinator, and more stability in the offensive line will be the difference in the Rams’ offense and will help jump start Gurley’s comeback season. The Rams added Andrew Whitworth at left tackle, which is a huge upgrade. Whitworth is graded at an elite 90.2 by PFF. He has been one of the six-highest-graded offensive tackles in run blocking for two of the last three seasons and will help kick-start this much needed offensive line.

While the offensive line may be one of the most critical issues that needed to be addressed, the Rams pass catchers, also improved. Bringing in Robert Woods from Buffalo and drafting Cooper Kupp, Josh Reynolds, and Gerald Everett will give Jared Goff the targets he needs to make plays down the field, thereby opening up the game for Gurley to have more room to run.

Another adjustment that the Rams will look for in 2017, stems from their new head coach. Sean McVay, coming in from offensive coordinator in Washington, hopes to do what he did for the Redskins, for Kirk Cousins and Jordan Reed. In Washington, McVay used his backs for specific roles in the last two seasons, which applied to their individual strengths. Rob Kelley was used in a rushing role, while Chris Thompson was relied upon for pass catching duties. With the signing of Lance Dunbar, who, since 2014, has been primarily used as a pass catching back, I expect McVay to return Gurley back to his roots. Back to running the ball.

Looking ahead to the 2017 season, the Rams play the Colts, Redskins, 49ers, and Cowboys through the first four games. They are ranked 31st, 21st, 32nd, and 27th in rush defense respectively. This will allow a not-so-confident, Gurley, to get his feet under him and get the ball rolling. Through week 7 in PPR Gurley is projected for 95.7 points which almost accounts for half of his total projection for the season.

Bottom Line: Look for Gurley in drafts, and buy low in dynasty formats. This is a player who has the potential to change the position. Still young, the talent is there. All he needs now is a team that can provide him with the opportunity. 2016 was a campaign where Gurley was pushed to run into a stacked box. Expect head coach McVay to utilize this gem the proper way and for Gurley to have a huge bounce back.

San Francisco 49ers

Having dealt with the more straight forward backfields in the NFC West, we set our sights on a backfield that has been gaining a lot of attention recently in the media. Let’s face it, the only team that looked any worse than the Rams, were the 49ers. They went 2-14, where those two wins came from the Rams themselves. While the team had a lost season, it was not all horrible for Carlos Hyde.

Hyde managed to scrape together a decent season, even in the face of a poor at best offensive line. Going for 988 yards on 2017 rushes and for 6 touchdowns, Hyde also backed up his running skills with 27 receptions for 3 touchdowns and 163 yards, which by season’s end had him as RB15 and RB18 in standard and PPR formats respectively.

Each year since Hyde has entered the league he has improved in his yards per attempt. In 2014 he had a YPA of just 4.01. In 2015, 4.09, and in 2016 he had a YPA of 4.55. A steady improvement in an offense that only has been in a decline. When healthy, Hyde has been one of the NFL’s best running backs at generating yards after contact since entering the league in 2014. This is handy playing behind an offensive line that was ranked 31st by PFF in run blocking grades last season. Hyde averaged 2.94 yards after contact per attempt over his career. In context, this is the fourth highest among running backs in that span, with at least 250 carries. The three ahead of him were, Jay Ajayi, Spencer Ware, and Jordan Howard.

The key here however, has been health. Hyde has yet to play a full season in the NFL. Over the course of his 3 seasons, he has missed 15 games out of 48 total. He has had a series of injuries over the last three seasons. Nine to be exact. In 2014, in week 15 he got an ankle sprain and a herniated disk. In 2015, he had a concussion, a leg bruise and week 5 he fractured his foot and ended his season in week 8. Last season, he had a concussion, a shoulder sprain, and then in week 16, in the final game, he tore his MCL. These are not insignificant injuries. They are also not freak accidents. According to sportsinjurpredictor.com, Hyde has an 83% likelihood of getting injured this season. The fact is that there is now a label of injury risk associated with Hyde.

However, looking forward, Carlos Hyde this offseason has received the first-team snaps at running back to begin all of the team’s offseason practices so far. And according to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, he is line to resume his role as the lead back in San Francisco. However there are some wonderings about that backfield. For one, the new head coach, Kyle Shanahan, played a different style running game in Atlanta than the 49ers employed. Shanahan used more of a rush by zone concept rather than a power rush. Second, they drafted a running back. While, this draft choice is quite interesting, I have yet to board the hype train.

Joe Williams out of the University of Utah has had an interesting journey to the NFL. Starting off in my home state school, UCONN, and rushing for 6 yards, he then made his way to University of Utah, where after retiring from football, came back to rush for 1,407 yards, 6.7 yards per carries and 10 touchdowns in his senior year. Williams racked up 1,407 rushing yards on just 210 carries in 2016 and added 3.4 yards after contact per attempt. Williams is by no means the most elusive back, he had only 31 missed tackles in 2016, but he wins with his unique acceleration. At 5’ 11” and 210 lbs. he was picked in the 4th round. The 23 year old ran a blazing 4.41, 40 yard dash, has amazing burst in small spaces, and the speed to take it to the house. He has great lateral shuffle and fantastic wiggle ability to make defenders miss. The thing to note of Williams is that he was handpicked by Kyle Shanahan. A player that was off of the 49ers draft boards, Shanahan stood on the table and forced the pick, basically saying he will burn Santa Clara to the ground if Williams did not get picked. According to his draft profile his speed and acceleration can destroy safety angles and outrun almost everyone. He has excellent lateral agility and change of direction to make successful cuts at the last possible moment. He had no issue carrying the workload after his return to the team, averaging 27.5 touches in his final seven games. Williams will be entertained as the Tevin Coleman in this offense (See what Shanahan did with Coleman in Atlanta) and has upside in 2016 and moving forward.

Bottom line: Both Hyde and Williams are interesting plays. In redraft formats I am taking Hyde in the middle rounds. After a lackluster 2016 if he falls into the 5th round, grab him. He is also young, and an ok pick in startup dynasty drafts. Joe Williams is a great snag in rookie drafts and late in dynasty startups. I would grab him in the 3rd round of rookies as I see his role increasing over time.

Seattle Seahawks

I think the most volatile backfield in the NFC West is in Seattle. Once a bedrock of many a championship teams, the mighty have fallen. Riddled with injury at the running back position, and a declining offensive line, the Seahawks have come to a point where most fantasy players fear the backfield. Hopefully we can quell some of these fears as we delve deeper into the Seahawks backfield.

Since the departure of Beast Mode, the Seahawks, have relied on a carousel of backs to fill the void. Rawls emerged as the apparent savior in Lynch’s injured 2015, but fell off a cliff in 2016. It wasn’t that Rawls’s metrics were something to write home about in 2015. Much like Jeremy Langford, fantasy owners enjoyed a gift from the fantasy gods as Rawls put up four 100-yard games. All of them came against bottom-half run defenses, including his 200-yard performance against the worst run defense, the 49ers. However the truth came out in 2016. Rawls averaged just 3.7 yards per carry, however, to be fair, his offensive line did him no favors. But his 2.2 yards after contact ranked him 54th out of 77 qualifiers with at least 25 percent of their team’s carries.

Enter Eddie Lacy. Seattle this offseason invited the who’s who of older, (I mean established), backs to see who they could bring in as their main bruiser. Lacy came on to the NFL stage and quickly shocked us all. Having two straight seasons with 1,100+ yards. In 2015 two things happened. He got hurt, and the Packers offensive line struggled. In his first three years, he averaged just under 4.3 yards per attempt. Originally a bruiser and deceptively fast, Lacy struggled with injuries, which led him to gain weight. I would be remiss if I didn’t come to the conclusion that in 2016, his injuries were in large part due to the weight gain.

Now almost a year removed from injury and many pounds lighter, I fully expect to see a healthier Lacy out on the field. Having shed weight, as per his contract with Seattle, I expect to see a return in his quickness in open space, better lateral movement, and an increase in his yards after contact. Though Lacy played just 166 snaps last season, he significantly outpaced Rawls in this department with a yards after contact average of 3.4 per attempt. Lacy finished with PFF’s eighth-highest elusive rating (95.4) among all running backs on limited touches last year.

While many have high hopes for Eddie Lacy, there is still one more back in Seattle that needs to be addressed. C.J. Prosise. For some reason, fantasy owners keep mentioning that Prosise will fight it out with Lacy. I don’t see that happening anytime soon. They just have very separate roles in the offense. Prosise is a change of pace back. He is the pass catching back, and the dump off man for the mobile Russell Wilson. Wilson will be running less, coming back from his inured 2016, and as such, Prosise should see an uptick in targets as Wilson will look to dump the ball when the pocket will crumble.

ESPN Seahawks reporter Sheil Kapadia recently wrote he believes Prosise is capable of hauling in 60 receptions if he stays healthy. In the three games he played more than 20 snaps (Weeks 8-10), he was on pace for 58 catches. Now we can’t extrapolate from just three games, but they are a good indication that 60 receptions is not out of the realm of possibility. Prosise tied Ezekiel Elliott and Devonta Freeman in PPR points per opportunity (0.55) before injuries ended his season. Prosise had an un-godly 5.73 yards per attempt last season in his limited time on the field, but more than that, managed 208 yards on 17 receptions, where more than half, 128 yards, came after the catch. Had Prosise played enough last season to qualify, his receiving grade of 79.2 from PFF would have put him as the 10th-ranked half back.

Bottom Line: The backs to own in Seattle are Eddie Lacy and C.J. Prosise. While Lacy is 27 years old, he is a nice play in middle to later rounds of redraft leagues. His ADP is low as people don’t know what is to come. His upside is huge and could be a steal in rounds six or seven. Prosise offers consistent value in PPR formats. He is only 23 years old and is a great pick late in dynasty startups. I would be putting out feelers on Prosise. You should be able to get him for a 2nd round rookie pick.

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