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The Rise of the NFL Air Back

Athletic backs like Chris Thompson, Tarik Cohen, and Duke Johnson are testing NFL defenses with elite speed and phenomenal pass-catching ability. They’re the successors to Darren Sproles—guys who can keep a defense honest on every down and hit the jets for electrifying highlights.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s no official name for the role that Darren Sproles has played during his 13-year NFL career with the Chargers, Saints, and Eagles. At 5-foot-6 and 190 pounds, he’s never fit into the traditional running back mold, but he’s not a wide receiver, either. Some might call him a pass-catching back, or a third-down back. But my favorite way to describe him, and players of his ilk, is as an air back. The diminutive speedster has certainly always been capable of running between the tackles, but that’s not his forte. He’s most dangerous when he gets outside the tackle box—whether by pitch, by pass, or on a punt return—and out into space, where he can take advantage of his otherworldly acceleration, agility, and explosiveness to leave defenders in a cloud of dust.

In the same way that, say, DeSean Jackson has been a deep threat without equal during his career, Sproles has been the paradigm for that make-you-miss creator out of the backfield during the past decade. But after suffering a broken arm and an ACL tear on the same play last Sunday, we may have seen Sproles, who has hinted at retirement before, play his last game (or maybe not?). Either way, it’s hard to imagine we’ll ever see someone who plays quite like him—but there will be plenty of players who follow in his footsteps, and we are already seeing the next class of air backs emerge this year.

In Week 3, two running backs finished with more than 100 receiving yards, as Redskins playmaker Chris Thompson caught six passes for 150 yards and a touchdown, and Panthers rookie Christian McCaffrey reeled in nine catches for 101 yards. A running back reached that receiving benchmark just five times total last season. We’d have to go back to Week 13 of the 2015 season to find the last time it happened twice in the same week, and we’ve seen multiple running backs eclipse the century mark in the same week only seven times prior to that in the past decade. But going forward, it’s bound to be a much more common occurrence because of these versatile players’ skills in the passing game.

From the high school level to the pros, football is spreading out. Teams are playing basketball on grass, as Ringer colleague Kevin Clark put it in January, and we’ve never seen this many eligible receivers running routes this often. The game is about movement. It’s about deception. It’s about getting pass catchers and runners into space where their athleticism and speed is on display. Players at the tight end and running back positions are becoming more comfortable in the open field and are being used more creatively and more frequently as receivers. As teams continue to spread the field, the lines are blurring between each position group. That’s where these air backs, who thrive on mismatches and foot speed, should increasingly make their mark in the NFL.

Thompson’s been the poster boy in that role so far this season, as his incredible explosiveness and cut-on-a-dime agility has allowed him to put up a combined 350 yards on 27 touches for Washington. He scored his first touchdown against the Raiders on Sunday on a play known as “scat protection” that’s a staple of spread offenses around the league. Instead of blocking pass rushers with a body, Washington relied on the quick decision-making and pass release from quarterback Kirk Cousins. On a third-and-6 from Oakland’s 22-yard line early in the first quarter, the Raiders brought the heat, blitzing five at the snap. Instead of staying in to pick up a blitzer, Thompson leaked out toward the sideline and Cousins lobbed the ball to him before any pass rusher could get home. From there, Thompson waltzed into the end zone.

Later in the game, his incredible foot speed and agility helped him pick up 74 yards on third-and-19. It was a simple screen pass, but the electric playmaker made three Raiders defenders miss before getting a huge block by guard Brandon Scherff to escape downfield. He was finally caught and forced out of bounds at the 10-yard line.

Cleveland running back Duke Johnson Jr. has displayed a similar skill set, and the Browns have deployed him as both a runner and a receiver in their offense. In Cleveland’s 31-28 loss to the Colts last week, the Browns got themselves a touchdown by utilizing Johnson’s speed and creativity in the open field. Taking a pitch from DeShone Kizer from the Indianapolis 19-yard line with 13:32 left in the second quarter, Johnson worked off a block or two before navigating through four defenders and diving into the end zone.

That play was almost as impressive as a catch he had against the Ravens in Week 2. On a third-and-1 early in the third quarter, the Browns lined Johnson up in the slot out of an empty shotgun set, where he drew man coverage by 31-year-old Baltimore defensive back Ladarius Webb. That’s a matchup that Cleveland will take any day for their young speedster, and Johnson got himself a step on the out-and-up route. However, backup quarterback Kevin Hogan's throw went to the outside, on Johnson’s back shoulder, forcing him to adjust and extend fully to reel in a one-handed catch.

The Seahawks and Saints have tried to utilize their pass-catching, route-running air backs—C.J. Prosise and Alvin Kamara—as mismatch creators in the same way. Against the Titans on Sunday, Seattle split Prosise all the way out to the wing, where the former college receiver drew man coverage from rookie linebacker Jayon Brown. Prosise faked a quick in-breaking route, which turned Brown around, and sped down the sideline, reeling in a bomb from Russell Wilson. The play picked up 46 yards and led to a Seattle touchdown three plays later.

The Saints ran almost the same play with Kamara in their Week 2 loss to the Patriots. Sean Payton lined his agile rookie back up out close to the sideline, where he drew single coverage from safety Patrick Chung. Drew Brees knew that all the routes in the middle of the field would hold the attention of the deep middle safety for long enough that he’d have an opening for a shot down the sideline. Kamara ran a go route, and Brees hit him for a 38-yard gain.

Because these air backs are frequently on the field on third down or in obvious passing situations, they’re bound to see plenty of six- and seven-man boxes and nickel or dime defensive looks. With one fewer run-stuffing defensive lineman or linebacker on the field, offenses can use their changeup and run against these lighter defensive looks as well—and you’ll see each of these guys get carries in the run game to exploit these looks this year.

What’s interesting about the way the Bears have been using rookie Tarik Cohen, though, is that he’ll frequently come onto the field in early-down running situations or heavy personnel groupings. Against the Steelers, Chicago brought Cohen, a tight end, and 240-pound fullback Mike Burton in on a first-and-10 late in the second quarter. This type of offensive personnel group signals “run” to the defense, and the Steelers responded with their base package, which meant that instead of having five really fast defensive backs on the field, they had four linebackers and three linemen. This is typical for a team loading up to stop the run, but in this case, a slight loss of overall team speed compared to a nickel look may have allowed the incredibly speedy 5-foot-6, 179-pound rookie to bob and weave his way through Pittsburgh’s defense for 26 yards. It also helped that the Steelers’ fastest linebacker, Ryan Shazier, shot the gap and missed Cohen in the backfield.

The Bears did this same thing in overtime: On a second-and-9 from its own 27-yard line, Chicago went into the huddle with three tight ends, a receiver, and Cohen, and Pittsburgh responded again with its base defense. Lining up with eight on the line (five offensive linemen and three tight ends), the Bears initially blocked left before Cohen reversed it to the right. He then used his Formula One–car acceleration to flip the field (with the help of a nice block on the edge by receiver Josh Bellamy) and turn the corner on the Pittsburgh defense. Once he got into the second level, he had just one man to beat to get to the sideline, and he burned past safety J.J. Wilcox to get upfield.

Officials ruled that Cohen stepped out at the Steelers’ 37-yard line, but it was the big play that the Bears needed. They won when Jordan Howard ran it in two plays later.

Air backs come in all shapes and sizes: Cohen probably looks the most like Sproles, and Prosise is built like an every-down back at 6-foot-1, 220 pounds. It’s not necessarily the size that matters, though. It’s vision, feel for space, route-running aptitude, reliable hands, and most importantly, quickness that makes these guys their money. And while none of them are likely to get a full load in the run game—Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said this week that he’s not going to give Thompson too many touches (for fear of exposing the injury-prone back to too many hits)—these air backs will continue to see their roles slowly expand in the passing game as teams continue to spread out and throw the ball more.