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Fantasy Playbook: The NFL’s Changing of the Guard at Running Back

Young runners are outperforming veteran backs through two weeks

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In the NFL, the running back position has always been the young man’s domain. Nobody on the field takes more of a beating than the league’s bell-cow backs, and on average, no position group has a shorter average career length (just 2.57 years). Effective running backs over the age of 30 are few and far between, and, unless we’re talking about Frank Gore, you can almost always expect a steep performance drop-off from everyone at that spot after the age of 27. But at a position group that’s always been dominated by young players, the NFL seems to be trending even younger—and early this year, we’ve seen a big spike in the workload of rookie running backs.

Through two weeks, we’ve already seen six first-year backs carry the ball 20-plus times, a list that includes the Jaguars’ Leonard Fournette, Vikings’ Dalvin Cook, Chiefs’ Kareem Hunt, Seahawks’ Chris Carson, Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey, and Redskins’ Samaje Perine. Compare that to this time last year, when Dallas’s Ezekiel Elliott was the only rookie back with 20-plus totes. In 2015, we saw four rookies with that many carries in the season’s first two weeks, and in both 2014 and 2013, just one each. In fact, teams around the league haven’t been this reliant this early on first-year running backs since 2008, when instant-impact contributors at that position included three first-rounders (Chris Johnson, Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart), two second-rounders (Matt Forte, Ray Rice), and a third-rounder (Kevin Smith). Before that, you’d have to go back to 1996 to find a year when at least six rookie backs got 20-plus carries in the first two weeks.

This mini-trend has its roots in the evolution of the game. First, the continued devaluation of the running back position—both because of the injury risk and short shelf-life described above, and because of the league’s evolution toward more and more passing—means there are fewer highly paid veteran stars entrenched in starter spots. Along with that, there appears to be a clear willingness from coaches to give these inexperienced players big responsibilities in their systems. For some, it’s just a case of necessity, where injuries pushed guys up the depth chart—like how Spencer Ware’s knee injury in Kansas City opened the door for Hunt, or how Thomas Rawls’s ankle injury gave Carson a chance in Seattle, and how Rob Kelley’s broken rib is going to give Perine a chance to run with the starting job in Washington. In other cases, like Fournette and Cook, a clear talent advantage was the driving factor.

Three guys in particular stand out, and these rookie runners have seized their opportunities and performed even better than could be expected. After two weeks, all three are ranked among the top six rushers in the league: Hunt (30 carries, 229 yards, three touchdowns) sits at the top, Cook is third (34 rushes for 191 yards), and Fournette is fifth (40 rushes, 140 yards, two touchdowns). All three look like future superstars, the kind of tackle-breaking backs that are quicker and more explosive than almost everyone else on the field. Hunt has already forced 14 missed tackles on 38 touches. Cook has already silenced any doubts that a subpar combine performance would have any bearing on how he’d run vs. NFL defenses. And Fournette has already established himself as the centerpiece for the Jaguars offense, a battering ram to build the rest of their scheme around.

The success of that trio has the potential to trigger a larger youth movement around the league. The speed and quickness these players bring to their offenses is certainly a function of their physical talent, but it could also relate to the relative lack of wear and tear each comes with as rookies. My colleague Robert Mays brought this point up on the The Ringer NFL Show last week, and it’s something that intrigued me: In a league that’s experiencing an offensive line crisis to go along with a boom in dominant defensive linemen, the subtle-yet-important edge that a 22-, 23-, or 24-year-old player has in agility and burst over their 26-, 27-, or 28-year-old (or older) counterparts could be more crucial this year than ever. Hell, for some guys, it’s not even a subtle edge.

Teams might be sacrificing reliability, pass-blocking chops, and experience in the system by going with younger, more explosive runners, but as offensive linemen around the league struggle to maintain blocks and control defenders at the point of attack, running backs are being forced to create on their own more and more. For those teams with bad offensive lines, a lack of burst over those first few steps after receiving the handoff—or the lack of lateral agility to evade the onslaught of unblocked defenders these running backs are so commonly faced with—can be a deal-breaker at the running back spot.

That trend is at its most extreme in Seattle, where the heavy-footed veteran Eddie Lacy was a healthy scratch in Week 2 after rushing for 3 yards on five carries in Week 1. That move paved the way for more opportunities for Thomas Rawls and rookie Chris Carson. Rawls still doesn’t look right—he missed Week 1 with a nagging ankle injury—but Carson hits the hole like a runaway beer truck, and his combination of quickness and decisiveness in eluding defenders gives him a chance to be productive behind what looks like maybe the worst line in the league. Speaking of which, I present to you Exhibit A.

This is a good microcosm for the Seahawks’ run game: After receiving the ball, Carson faced three unblocked defenders, who left a trio of Seattle offensive linemen flailing like they just got hit by a Dirt Devil. It’s what Carson did after that, though, that makes him the clear choice for Seattle.

The seventh-round pick out of Oklahoma State finished Sunday’s game against the 49ers with 93 yards on 20 carries, showing an explosive element that none of his teammates can. Barring injury or a resurgence by Rawls, Seattle’s going to end up leaning heavily on Carson, even if the team doesn’t know it yet.

I’d say the same for Texans running back D’Onta Foreman, who is one of four more rookie backs (along with Tarik Cohen, Marlon Mack, and Joe Mixon) who have eclipsed the 10-plus carry mark early this year. Houston head coach Bill O’Brien has been reticent to name the former Longhorn his lead back—Foreman was out-snapped by Lamar Miller 49 to 17 last week—but the rookie ball-carrier looks more elusive and powerful than the guy in front of him. He rushed for 40 yards on 12 carries against the Bengals, with 32 of those yards coming after contact.

That ability to break tackles is what sets Foreman apart, and with the Texans’ issues on the offensive line, it’s an element that Houston is going to need all year in order to run the ball effectively (and they likely want to give Deshaun Watson that run game as a foundation to work from). It’s not a matter of if, but when he takes over as the lead back for the Texans.

I’ve focused on rookies so far, but the running back youth-movement that we may be seeing the start of extends to a bigger subgroup of of players that aren’t rookies but still haven’t been given heavy workloads. In these cases, “young” is synonymous with “plenty of tread left on the tire,“ and for each, fresh legs could be a major factor that gets them time on the field. Titans second-year back Derrick Henry is the first guy that comes to mind.

After 29-year-old starter DeMarco Murray left Tennessee’s 36-17 shellacking of Jacksonville last week with a hamstring injury, Henry took over and rushed 14 times for 92 yards and a touchdown. Henry looked more explosive and dynamic than Murray, which has become a trend for Tennessee. Over the team’s past five games (extending into last season), Henry’s rushed for 253 yards and four scores at 5.3 yards per carry. Compare that to Murray’s last five, in which he’s rushed for 221 rushing yards and no scores at 3.5 yards per carry. In the Titans’ first two games this year, Henry has averaged 4.1 yards after contact per carry (third) compared to Murray’s 1.9 yard average (39th). Like Foreman in Houston, Henry’s ascendency to lead back status feels imminent.

Another non-rookie that showcased plenty of explosiveness on Sunday was third-year Baltimore running back Buck Allen. Allen started six games for the Ravens as a rookie in 2015 but barely played last year, and despite the fact that he and nominal starter Terrance West (who left the game early with a soft-tissue injury) are the same age (26), Allen has carried the ball fewer than half the times West has (453 to 181) for their careers, and it showed on the field Sunday. In Baltimore’s 24-10 win over the Browns, Allen looked like the more explosive of the Ravens’ two backs, weaving through traffic to elude tacklers en route to 66 yards on 14 carries with an additional 35 yards and a touchdown on five catches. He out-snapped West 43 to 15, and is a bigger factor in the passing game.

Plenty of veteran runners are still going to get the bulk of their team’s carries as the year goes on, and barring injury, rookies or inexperienced backs are going to have a hard time unseating transcendent talents like Le’Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy, and Marshawn Lynch. But for the teams out there that don’t have special talents like that aforementioned trio to lean on, fresh, explosive legs have already proved to be enough to win young rookie running backs some snaps. Keep an eye on Chicago, where a banged-up Jordan Howard (shoulder) is already splitting reps with the 181-pound rookie dynamo, Tarik Cohen. In Indianapolis, Gore’s bound to lose some snaps to rookie Marlon Mack. And in San Francisco, Matt Breida has shown enough explosiveness and creativity to cut into Carlos Hyde’s snaps.

After two weeks, the fantasy landscape’s a mess at the running back spot. David Johnson is on the shelf for six to eight weeks with a dislocated wrist, Bell has rushed for just 119 yards and has failed to reach the end zone, and Murray’s nursing a sore hammy and may be closer to a backup role than Titans head coach Mike Mularkey is letting on. If you drafted any of those guys in the first few rounds, the best way to turn your season around might be to pick up or trade for one of these young runners with an eye toward the second half of the year—because if the rest of the season goes like the first few weeks has, we’re going to see plenty of new fantasy stars break out.