Several teams are getting getting a lot out of their running backs this year.
Arizona, Baltimore and New England lead the team rushing statistics in terms of YPG. However, their numbers are boosted by the impact of a running quarterback.
The next four teams on the list — Cleveland, Minnesota, Tennessee and Las Vegas — lean on star-studded running backs to provide a spark.
Where would the 6-3 Browns be without Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt? The entire offense is structured around the pair. Minnesota are experiencing a mid-season revival thanks to the brilliance of their skill position players — in particular Dalvin Cook. Ryan Tannehill has been terrific since taking over as the Titans quarterback but nobody can deny the importance of Derrick Henry in Tennessee. Meanwhile Derek Carr is having a strong season for the Raiders but we can clearly see how much he’s aided by Josh Jacobs.
Great players matter, even at running back.
Anyone who follows football closely would acknowledge there’s a hierarchy of positional importance. Quarterback, left tackle, pass rusher. We all know the most important positions when you’re building a team.
Those positions deserve to be prioritised early in the draft and when a less important position is taken instead — such as a running back — criticism is rarely unfair.
That said, when a GM such as Dave Gettleman takes Saquon Barkley with the #2 pick he does so because he believes, rightly or wrongly, he’s acquiring a special player. Someone who can elevate his team and be a figurehead, even at a position that is less important.
Nobody is taking Barkley in that spot because ‘we’ve got to get a runner’. You’re taking him because you believe the talent is special enough to warrant that decision — and presumably Gettleman wasn’t convinced by Sam Darnold, Josh Allen or Josh Rosen (with hindsight, that’s at least understandable). Gettleman gets his fair share of criticism — some of it justified — but it was long reported the player he badly wanted at quarterback was Justin Herbert (and that he was prepared to wait on drafting a QB as a consequence). Herbert’s decision not to declare in 2019 meant the Giants had to pivot and reach (arguably) for Daniel Jones. Again, we can debate the merits of the idea but Barkley + potentially Herbert wasn’t a bad plan.
While virtually everyone accepts the running back position isn’t of first-tier level importance — we’ve clearly seen teams feel it’s worth investing in. Look at all the big contracts dished out to Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Joe Mixon, Ezekiel Elliott, Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook. We also saw teams invest in the position early in the draft this year — including the Super Bowl champions Kansas City, the LA Rams, Detroit, Green Bay and Indianapolis.
You can always find runners later on, of course. James Robinson in Jacksonville, an UDFA rookie, is currently the fifth leading rusher in the NFL. The four players in front of him though include a first round pick and three second round picks.
Statistically the top five receivers currently are Stefon Diggs (fifth rounder), DeAndre Hopkins (first rounder), DK Metcalf (second rounder), Terry McLaurin (third rounder) and Robby Anderson (UDFA). Davante Adams was the #53 pick in 2014.
J.C. Jackson, an UDFA, leads the league in interceptions. Blake Martinez, a fourth rounder, leads the NFL in tackles. David Bakhtiari, another fourth rounder, just signed a deal to become the highest paid offensive tackle in history.
The top five quarterbacks in terms of yardage include a third rounder and a sixth rounder. I’ll let you guess their names.
Talent is acquired at all positions at every level. The key is to find it.
A special player, even at a lesser position, can still do so much for your team.
We should know better than any other fan base what is possible. Marshawn Lynch was irreplaceable in the formative years of the Pete Carroll era. There’s no way the Seahawks reach the pinnacle without Lynch. He dominated games on the field, dictated how opponents played the Seahawks, defined the culture and connected with the LOB defense.
He was the catalyst for the team coming together.
Okung just summed up what Lynch means: “He’s the embodiment of who we are as a team.” Yup.
— Dave “Softy” Mahler (@Softykjr) November 10, 2014
Baldwin on Lynch: “He is our engine. He is our heart on the offensive side of the ball. Everything runs through him.” That enough for you?
— Dave “Softy” Mahler (@Softykjr) November 10, 2014
Go back and watch the Super Bowl victory against Denver and how the Broncos defense sold out trying to stop Marshawn. It’s immensely beneficial when you have a player who dictates game plans. If you have a running back and a quarterback you need to account for — you’ll win a lot of games.
Replacing Lynch will be the toughest thing this franchise has to do in the post-Super Bowl era. You could argue running backs are easy to plug into an offense. How else can you describe 29-year-old Justin Forsett posting 5.4 yards-per-carry in Baltimore as the fourth most productive runner in the NFL? I think for most teams it’s a valid point. But not for Seattle. Not with Lynch.
He is so integral to this teams identity. He is a phenom, a truly unique runner that deserves to be remembered as fondly as any other running back since the turn of the century. His physical style, ability to break tackles, his attitude on the field. These are not easily replaced by just plugging in another player. The moment Seattle loses ‘Beast Mode’ the team will also lose a part of its identity. There’s no getting away from that.
When Lynch departed, the Seahawks predictably suffered. They struggled to find a replacement. They tried plugging in Christine Michael, C.J. Prosise and Eddie Lacy. Thomas Rawls offered a fleeting flourish before disappearing.
By 2017 the running game had totally collapsed and it contributed towards the Seahawks missing the playoffs for the only time in Russell Wilson’s NFL career. Here’s what I wrote in reaction to a loss during that 2017 season:
Lynch and Wilson used to share responsibility for the offense. Now it’s all on the quarterback.
He was brought in to be the star point guard, not a one-man LeBron James show.
The idea of a Seattle running back getting over 100 yards in a game is currently unfathomable. It’d be a major surprise if it happened. A 100-yard rusher? What a luxury. We used to take something like that for granted.
It’s something they don’t have now and they miss the comfort and stability that Lynch brought to the offense. He grounded them. If he wasn’t getting the ball, it felt necessary to get him involved. What draws Seattle back to the running game now? The opportunity to see which of Lacy, Rawls or McKissic can struggle for a short gain? It’s too tempting to turn to Wilson instead.
Yesterday is a good example of the difference between the two versions of the Seahawks. In 2014 you imagine they would’ve come out in the second half featuring Lynch. In 2017 they practically abandoned the running backs and put the game on Russell Wilson, trying to chase the big play.
They badly need some balance and some help for the quarterback.
The situation isn’t quite as dramatic as that today. Russell Wilson has grown into an even better player than he was three years ago. He’s already shown he can carry this team to wins — even if he’s folded under that weight of expectation in the last two weeks. You would never actively desire to take the ball out of his hands — it’s more a case of further supporting him and providing Wilson with another dynamic skill player for the arsenal.
I think there’s something to be said for reading through those words from 2017 though.
“They practically abandoned the running backs and put the game on Russell Wilson, trying to chase the big play.”
That’s what we’re seeing now. The Seahawks don’t trust their cobbled together combo of Alex Collins, Deejay Dallas and Travis Homer to lead the rushing attack. There’s no pressure to focus the running game — either from the offensive coordinator or the quarterback. Both Brian Schottenheimer and Russell Wilson probably think, rightly, this is all on #3 — regardless of the situation the Seahawks find themselves in.
Paired with the ugly defensive performances, Wilson is chasing the big play far too often. He’s trying to make things happen that aren’t there. At his best, he protects the football better than any QB in the league. In the three losses this year, he’s looked like the worst version of Jay Cutler.
We’ve never seen Wilson like this. There are seven regular season games left and he’s already on the brink of setting a career record for interceptions.
So much of it is down to the rank bad defense piling pressure on the offense to score +30 a game. Even when they don’t need +30 — it’s difficult to shake the feeling when that’s what you’ve been seeing week after week.
It also feels, somewhat, like Wilson’s shaky form has coincided with the absence of Seattle’s top two running backs — including RB1.
Chris Carson is by far the best running back Seattle has had since Lynch. While he lacks the culture-building connecting qualities that were exclusive and unique to Marshawn, he carries some of the physicality and skill and he helps bring needed balance to the offense.
‘Balance’ sometimes gets construed as an ugly word by the anti-run crowd. I’d argue the Seahawks were well balanced early in the season when Wilson looked set to streak away with the MVP award. He was the focal point but the run complemented what he was doing. Carson is also suitably talented that he was an asset on hot routes and as a receiver in general.
Seattle’s offense just doesn’t look the same without Carson. We saw that at the end of last season too. The Seahawks — and Wilson — are simply better with a really good running back. That was the case with Lynch and now it’s the situation with Carson.
He’s as important as D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. They are a fantastic trio.
His inability to get back on the field, especially in a vital contract year, has to be concerning.
Carson’s inability to stay healthy isn’t just a short term concern either. We’ve seen, again, how the offense is impacted when he isn’t there. They can’t afford to pay him mega money with his injury record. Yet they can’t really afford to lose him either when his contract expires in a few months. They can’t bank on Rashaad Penny leading the way along with Dallas or Homer as a #2. That won’t cut it.
It creates a dilemma for the off-season. The Seahawks practically have to risk losing him to allow him to set his market. Then, due to the injuries, they might get him back at a reasonable price. Alternatively, they could lose him and find themselves in a bind.
The other option is to pay him early — but unless he’s feeling particularly reasonable, that will be tricky and/or expensive.
The situation could’ve been aided if they’d tapped into a strong running back class early in the draft this year. I understand why they didn’t — a section of the fan base would’ve gone apoplectic if they’d used a second high pick in three years on a runner. Yet the insurance a Clyde Edwards-Helaire or D’Andre Swift could’ve provided (the top two runners drafted) would’ve been valuable. Imagine either of those two starting right now, at a fraction of the salary Carlos Hyde is on. The Seahawks would also be in a much better position next year in terms of negotiating with Carson, knowing they had a talented fall back if he departs.
I’m not sure drafting another linebacker instead was better value. The Jordyn Brooks pick is just as much of a luxury. At the end of the day, making life as easy as possible for Russell Wilson is of vital importance. More so than setting the table for life beyond K.J. Wright.
The late first and second round has turned into a good draft range for running backs. With the positional value decreasing, good players tend to last into that range. Edwards-Helaire and Swift are perfect examples this year. In previous years we’ve seen Chubb, Henry, Cook, Ronald Jones and Miles Sanders go in that range too. For a team that does place value on the position, it’s frustrating that the one time they tapped into it in the top-50, they came away with Rashaad Penny (who has had injuries and only flashed in spurts).
Again, there would’ve been uproar had the Seahawks spent another high pick on a runner. I’m not sure many would be complaining if one of the names listed in the previous paragraph were filling the void left by Carson currently.
One way or another, they’re probably going to have to find a way to keep Carson. Otherwise they run the risk of trying to avoid a repeat of the Eddie Lacy fiasco.
If we didn’t appreciate it fully before — the 2020 season has shown this team needs a lead runner.
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