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There Can Be Only One Best Young Running Back in the NFL

Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson, and Le’Veon Bell have all dazzled during the 2016 season. Who can lay claim to being the league’s most complete young back?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In an age of running back marginalization, the first seven weeks of this season have seen the position exact a measure of revenge. The rushing kings of last year (Adrian Peterson and Doug Martin) have barely been on the field because of injuries, but a new crop of dangerous young backs has emerged in their place.

Coming into the fall, Steelers star Le’Veon Bell was commonly labeled as the league’s top young back. Despite his injury history and a growing list of suspensions, he had established himself as an adept pass catcher and an ultraeffective runner — an ideal fit for the modern game. So far, though, 2016 has presented more than one running back who seems ready to challenge Bell for the title.

Two AFC rushers, the Titans’ DeMarco Murray and the Bills’ LeSean McCoy, have enjoyed bounce-back campaigns to this point, rushing for 633 and 598 yards, respectively. But both will be 29 by the start of next season. When it comes to crowning the NFL’s best young running back, the league’s top two rushers — the Cardinals’ David Johnson and the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott — are the ones with a legitimate shot to knock Bell off his perch. Whether they can is a different story.

Before this season began, the notion that Elliott would pile up yards behind the Cowboys’ offensive line landed right between “The Browns might go winless” and “The Patriots will win at least 11 games and the AFC East” on the spectrum of possibility. Dallas finished ninth in rushing DVOA last season, with Matt Cassel’s corpse at quarterback and Darren McFadden’s glass bones carrying the ball. Bringing in rookie QB Dak Prescott — who’s a threat to run and occasionally tilts the math even further in the Cowboys’ favor on option plays — seemed to border on cruel.

Ezekiel Elliott (Getty Images)
Ezekiel Elliott (Getty Images)

After two underwhelming games to open the season, that combination has proved lethal. Elliott has trampled defenses over the past month. With a 157-yard outing against Green Bay in Week 6 (on a 5.6-yard-per-carry average), he became the first player since Chris Johnson in 2009 and just the 11th player ever to rush for at least 130 yards in four straight games. And he did it against a run defense that had been historically good through its first four contests.

With 703 yards through Week 7, Elliott leads the league in rushing despite playing one less game than everyone else in the top five. He’s averaging an absurd 117.2 yards per game, the third-best mark in the past 10 years, trailing only Peterson in 2012 and Johnson in 2009. One of those guys was named MVP and Offensive Player of the Year. The other was just OPOY. We’re talking historic, take-home-the-hardware sort of stuff with the production Elliott’s put up so far.

In evaluating Elliott, though, the challenge is separating his impact from the impact of his situation. Elliott is eighth in rushing DVOA — an absurd level of efficiency, given his workload — but he also ranks no. 1 in the league in Football Outsiders’ success rate, a measure of consistency that gauges how often a back rips off solid gains. Given the Cowboys’ ability to dominate games with their offensive line, it’s not surprising that Elliott has avoided recording many mediocre runs.

The line is at the center of Dallas’s ground-game success, and while it regularly gets recognition, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan doesn’t garner credit nearly as much as he should. The design of the Cowboys’ rushing attack stacks up with any in the NFL. Having the best line in football is great, but when paired with a scheme that gives it even a tiny advantage before the snap, Dallas becomes nearly unstoppable.

Take, for example, this first-and-10 play from the first quarter of the Cowboys’ 30–16 win over the Packers on October 16. Dallas sets up at its own 46-yard line, and receiver Lucky Whitehead goes in motion before the snap, eventually carrying out a fake end around. The threat of Whitehead tearing off the edge holds outside linebacker Clay Matthews in place, which leaves one less body for the Cowboys’ blockers to worry about. With Green Bay outmanned, it’s game over.

Center Travis Frederick and left guard Ronald Leary only have to focus on wiping up the nose tackle with the double-team, while left tackle Tyron Smith takes an easy angle to the linebacker. Tight end Jason Witten comes crashing across the formation to handle a flat-footed safety. The resulting hole is massive, and Elliott is off to the races. I have no idea what a defense is supposed to do about that.

After Elliott left cleat marks all over the Bengals a week earlier, carrying 15 times for 134 yards with two touchdowns in a 28–14 Dallas victory, Cincinnati cornerback Pacman Jones told reporters, “Now I see why [Jerry Jones] has got $100 million to his line. Those guys block their asses off, and like I said last week, some of the holes my daughter could have ran through today.” That’s tough to gauge, having never seen Pacman’s daughter play, but I have a feeling he might be right.

The Cowboys’ offense provides a perfect environment for any back, so a lot of the credit for Elliott’s hot start should go to the whole unit, but there’s no denying that Elliott is taking advantage of his circumstances more than an average runner would. After brushing off some rookie troubles early in the season, he’s now letting plays develop and exploiting the seas of green that are made available to him.

Elliott’s talent, explosiveness, and newfound patience are more than enough to make Dallas the league’s most dangerous running team. If he can make at least one defender miss (as he does with Green Bay’s Morgan Burnett in the clip above), there are plenty of 15-yard gains to be had. At this point, though, he’s not quite at the level of Bell and Johnson; it seems like both could do more with the help that Elliott has.

The Cowboys are already trying to fold Elliott into the passing game in different ways (he was motioned into the slot for a quick slant against the Packers, a pretty impressive show of confidence), too, but he’s behind Johnson and Bell in that regard. And on 137 carries, the 6-foot, 225-pound Elliott has broken only 11 tackles. In the Dallas offense, taking what’s available and a little more is enough to produce the league’s leading rusher, but right now it’s still the design and big boys up front that are doing the heavy lifting.

With Carson Palmer struggling in Arizona, the Cardinals have learned that going to a steady diet of David Johnson — rather than sticking with their patented deep-passing game — might be their best offensive approach. In a 6–6 tie with Seattle last Sunday, Johnson tallied a combined 46 carries and targets and 41 touches overall. The Cards’ new plan seems to be to use Johnson as often as possible. It’s hard to blame them.

Through seven games, Johnson has racked up 1,004 yards from scrimmage with eight touchdowns. That puts him on pace for 2,295 yards with 18 scores on the season, which would place him in rare company. Since the merger, only four players have finished a season with at least 2,250 yards from scrimmage with 18 touchdowns. Perhaps you’ve heard of them: LaDainian Tomlinson, Edgerrin James, Priest Holmes, and Ahman Green.

How Johnson — who’s 6-foot-1 and 224 pounds and had a “holy shit” showing at the 2015 combine — went in the third round of that draft still makes no sense. When it comes to physical profile, it’d be hard to manufacture a more perfect back. His strength is obvious. He’s already broken 29 tackles this season, according to Pro Football Focus, which equates to a broken tackle every six touches. Plenty of bigger backs have been tackle-breaking monsters, but what sets Johnson apart is how dangerous he is after shaking off defenders.

The balance he shows after hurdling a hapless would-be tackler or spinning away from another is remarkable for a player his size. Combined with his acceleration, it’s almost unfair. That burst is the biggest gap in athleticism between Johnson and the other two backs in this discussion. He and Elliott have similar top-end speeds (their 40-yard dash times are separated by .03 seconds, 4.47 for Elliott to 4.50 for Johnson), but Johnson’s 9-inch advantages in both the vertical leap (41.5) and broad jump (127.0) show up on the field.

This is a first-and-10 run from the first quarter of Arizona’s 33–21 win over San Francisco on October 6. The two jump cuts he uses to get going are impressive, but the insane part is what happens next. When Johnson’s left foot hits the ground on the second cut, it’s almost like he teleports 6 yards.

That type of suddenness just shouldn’t be possible for a 224-pound running back, and with Johnson, it’s present on virtually every carry. I have yet to see proof that Johnson isn’t a cyborg, and I expect that when the machines rise up, he’ll be the one to lead them. If he were one of the hosts in Westworld, the show would have lasted one episode. He would have destroyed Anthony Hopkins within 20 minutes and already been on his way to world domination.

As if pairing ballerina feet with a linebacker’s body weren’t enough, Johnson is also among the most valuable pass-catching backs in the NFL. A converted wide receiver, he’s comfortable catching the ball in any situation, whether it be wheel routes out of the backfield or slants after motioning out wide. Put it all together, and it’s tough to imagine a more valuable running back for the way the game is currently played.

And that’s what makes Le’Veon Bell so ridiculous.

When it comes to measurables, Johnson has an edge over Bell. Johnson is bigger (Bell claims that he’s 15 pounds lighter than his listed 225), stronger, and faster. Johnson’s home run potential make his get-off-me, blink-and-he’s-gone runs more spectacular, but the beauty of Bell lies in his subtlety.

As The Ringer’s Danny Kelly so excellently broke down in September, Bell is the type of pass catcher who can unlock a team’s entire aerial attack, even as a running back. Asking a linebacker to stick with him on option routes out of the backfield is a clear no-win proposition for a defense. The same understanding of angles that makes Bell such an elusive runner also makes him impossible to check as a receiver when he’s given even a tiny bit of room to operate.

That’s only the starting point of Bell’s value in the passing game, though. In the Pittsburgh offense, coordinator Todd Haley is willing to use Bell as a full-fledged receiver. That can mean running slants out of the backfield against outmatched linebackers, but it can also mean running go routes that rival what most wideouts can do. When I checked the numbers about Bell’s usage in the passing game this fall, I had to make sure that my computer — and my eyesight — was working.

Through four games since returning from his suspension, Bell has been targeted 37 times. That’s a 148-target pace over a 16-game season. Compared to some of the force-feeding we’ve seen in recent years with players like Julio Jones and Antonio Brown, that might not seem like a whole lot. Yet for a running back, it’s historic. Since targets started being tracked as a stat in 1992, the single-season record for a running back is 137, set by Tomlinson in 2003. Bell’s average of 9.3 targets per game is a level of passing-game involvement we haven’t seen in the past quarter century, and considering he’s ninth in receiving DVOA among running backs despite that volume, it isn’t likely to drop off.

Even with his excellence in the passing game, the best part about Bell is what he can do while lined up 5 yards deep and taking handoffs. When we fully realize the possibilities of virtual reality, I want the option to see football the way Bell does. No back in the league has better vision, and it allows Bell to exploit openings that other running backs wouldn’t even consider. Bell’s greatest strength is that he’s never in a hurry; it means that any play where his blocking can come together does.

Bell’s knack for anticipating where and why a hole will open is unparalleled, but it isn’t the extent of his foresight. He has an uncanny ability to understand how defenders are moving and how he can take advantage.

The above play, from the Steelers’ 27–16 loss to the Patriots last Sunday, should be a 2-yard gain at most. For Bell, three cuts and six broken ankles later, it’s a 12-yard gain and a Pittsburgh first down. Bell may not be the threat that Elliott or Johnson are to rip off a 60-yard score, but no back in football is better at turning a play that looks DOA into a double-digit gain.

He conjures first downs unlike anyone else in the league, and as opposed to Johnson, he does it by way of quiet genius instead of superhuman power. Johnson and Elliott will likely be superstars for years to come, but as of now, they still have some work to do if they want to unseat Bell as the league’s premier young running back. No one affects the game more substantially and in more ways from that position — a fact that Bell’s agents are sure to mention when he hits free agency next spring.