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Should You Be Concerned About Your Superstar Running Back?

Week 10 marked a Black Sunday of sorts for the stocks of rushers like Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, and Le’Veon Bell. Who should we expect to bounce back?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Fears of a nationwide recession are fading, but for NFL running backs Week 10 was football’s inverted yield curve. While blue bloods like Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook have returned outrageous gains in their last 40 quarters, the rest of the league’s star running backs are destabilizing the position. Last week Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson, and Le’Veon Bell combined for 72 carries for 181 yards. Those are five of the six highest-paid running backs who double as five of the six highest-drafted running backs in fantasy football this year all crashing at the same time. Let’s check the concern index on these stars to figure out whether this is an acute blip or a macro trend.

David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals

An inverted yield curve is when short-term securities are more valuable than long-term mature bonds, like when Detroit’s third-string running back, J.D. McKissic, might be better to own in fantasy football than David Johnson. Fantasy owners were better off forgetting to set their lineups than starting Johnson this week when he had six touches for 10 yards and one fumble against the Buccaneers. That is zero points in point-per-reception leagues. In any other type of scoring, like the half-point PPR that is default on Yahoo, Johnson had negative points. It’s the second crushing performance in two months after Johnson left Week 7 against the Giants with one carry and backup Chase Edmonds ran for three touchdowns and 126 yards.

Markets were bullish on Johnson this summer. With the Cardinals under new management from head coach Kliff Kingsbury, Johnson was expected to be used more often in open space where he thrives. Johnson agreed. “I think it’ll be similar to 2016,” Johnson told the official Cardinals website in May in reference to the season he led the league in scrimmage touches, yards, and touchdowns. It turns out this season has been 2016 turned upside down. Johnson has just 625 yards and two touchdowns from scrimmage this season, putting him on pace for career lows in both categories. Johnson has been limited by injuries to his wrist, back, and left ankle this season. He was taken off Arizona’s injury report last week, but Kingsbury told reporters that Johnson is still “working through” those injuries. Newly acquired running back Kenyan Drake has led the team in carries and yards each of the last two weeks. When Edmonds returns from a hamstring injury, Johnson could be the third back in Arizona.

Concern Index: 6.5/10

Le’Veon Bell, New York Jets

Bell ranks dead last in yards per rushing attempt (3.1) among 47 qualifying running backs. He has not had a single rush of 20-plus yards this season and has just three touchdowns in nine games. Most amazingly of all, Bell has looked like the Jets’ best offensive player. He dips, ducks, and darts past opposing defenders with almost as much ease as he did in Pittsburgh. The difference is how many defenders are getting to him in the backfield. The Jets are the second-worst run-blocking team, according to Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards. They constantly let opposing defensive linemen penetrate into the backfield, and it shows in games (Jets fans are nodding) and on the stat sheet. On average, Bell rushes 1.2 yards downfield before being contacted by a defender, tied for the second-lowest number in football among 47 qualified players. Bell’s surface numbers make it easy to criticize him in his first season as a New York Jet after signing a deal that pays $28.5 million in its first two seasons, but he is working with the best he’s got. Unfortunately, the Jets’ best is not good, and there is little hope their blocking will get better anytime soon, considering guard Brian Winters went on injured reserve this week. Their other starting guard entering the season, Kelechi Osemele, filed an injury grievance with the team after a lengthy dispute on whether he needed shoulder surgery.

Concern Index: 5/10

Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

Elliott is not worth panicking about, but he does get paid a lot of money for a running back who has trouble making players miss. He was given two opportunities to get 2 yards on a crucial Dallas drive against the Vikings on Sunday and ended up losing 3 yards. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to blame the running back in these situations, but it’s always worth looking at the offensive line first. Left guard Connor Williams blew his assignment on third-and-2, leading to Elliott’s getting tackled 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage. That specific play may have been the fault of the Dallas line, but the players up front also deserve credit for the Cowboys’ overall performance, which has been excellent. Dallas gets stuffed for a loss on runs the lowest rate of any team, according to Football Outsiders, and they rank second in rushing yardage accrued at the second level, where offensive linemen peel off defensive linemen and begin blocking linebackers. But in situations where it is on the running back to make defenders miss, like rushing more than 10 yards down the field, Dallas ranks 25th. Despite being tied for the fifth-most carries this season, Elliott has avoided just 23 tackles this season, according to PFF—half the number of Oakland rookie Josh Jacobs. Elliott’s been an average short-yardage runner in situations where the Cowboys need him to produce, and that’s reflected in acute games like their divisional-round loss to the Rams in January and again on Sunday night. Elliott got paid, but now he must produce beyond what the Cowboys offensive line is providing him.

Concern Index: 3/10

Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

Kamara had just four rushes in his first game back from injury on Sunday, but he turned them into 24 rushing yards. He also added 50 yards on eight catches. While the low workload looks like the Saints eased their star back into the lineup, it was likely the result of unexpected game flow. The Saints—favored by 14 points, the largest margin in their rivalry with the Falcons since at least 1978—were clobbered on offense. Atlanta entered with a league-low seven sacks on the season and brought Drew Brees down six times. Injured guard Andrus Peat was replaced by backup Will Clapp, which exacerbated matters. Peat is out six weeks with a broken arm, but the Saints will have a week to regroup and fix what went wrong on their offensive line. Kamara ranks sixth in yards after contact per attempt among running backs with at least 90 carries, and the ankle injury that kept Kamara out for two games didn’t look like it hobbled him on Sunday.

Concern Index: 3.5/10

Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

Saquon had 13 carries for 1 yard against the Jets last week. As Peter King noted, Saquon earned 2.8 inches per rush. It’s the least yardage by a nonquarterback with 10 or more carries since Reggie Bush in 2006 (another running back drafted second).

Barkley has been struggling since he returned from the sprained ankle he suffered against Tampa Bay in Week 3. Worsening Barkley’s situation is the Giants’ blocking. They are in the bottom quarter of teams in run blocking, according to Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards, and their ranking could drop with left tackle Nate Solder in concussion protocol. A reporter asked Barkley this week about sitting out the rest of the season to preserve himself, and Barkley was dumbfounded.

”The mind-set of sitting me out and resting me for the rest of the season is beyond me,” Barkley said. “I do not agree with it. It won’t happen. I’m going to keep going until I can’t go no more. That’s the player I am and I’m going to do it for my teammates.”

Any time sitting out for the season is broached, things are not going well.

Concern Index: 6/10

Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons

Freeman was not having a good year before he sprained his foot on Sunday. He has averaged between 2.0 and 2.8 yards per carry in more than half of his games this season. His 3.5 yards per carry average on the season is the worst mark of his career, and his time with the Falcons could be coming to an end. He’s slated to miss two weeks with the sprained foot, but Atlanta has only five games left after that and may prefer to see the main workload handled by third-year back Brian Hill. The Falcons can save $3.5 million while eating $6 million if they cut Freeman next year. While that’s a raw deal for most teams, Atlanta is going to need every penny of cap savings it can scrounge. The Falcons have the least available cap space next season of any team with less than negative-$1 million. Forget belt tightening. Re-signing tight end Austin Hooper and fixing the rest of their roster will require poking new holes in the belt with a steak knife. Freeman may be the first casualty, and it might be in his best interest to ride the aluminum (benches aren’t made of pine) and hit free agency healthy.

Concern Index: 6/10

Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams

Uber categorizes drivers as independent contractors instead of full-time employees. By changing what drivers are called, Uber saves money. The Rams have the opposite situation. Los Angeles calls Gurley its starting running back even though he is a rotational player. Changing what he is called wouldn’t save the Rams money, but it would save face. After some initially successful deflections, both organizations are having trouble hiding the scope of this labeling lie.

Todd Gurley did not touch the ball in the fourth quarter of the Rams’ 17-12 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. It’s the latest example of how much L.A. has scaled back its usage of the league’s second-highest-paid running back after his knee problems arose last year. Gurley is on pace for fewer than 15 touches per game this season, the first time he’s dropped below 20 in his career. Not only is Gurley getting the ball less, but he’s also doing less with it. In 2017, Gurley’s 6.1 yards per touch ranked fourth among running backs. In 2018, his 5.8 yards per touch ranked 12th. This season, his 4.3 yards per touch rank 40th. That’s a function of the Rams offense declining because their line has collapsed. They had the highest run-blocking grade by Pro Football Focus in 2018 but have the 27th-highest grade this season. Of the 77 guards who have played 200 snaps this season, Rams right guard Austin Blythe ranks 73rd. Left guard Joseph Noteboom, who is on injured reserve with a torn ACL, is dead last at no. 77. Last week Rams center Brian Allen joined Noteboom on injured reserve with a torn MCL. Now Blythe is playing out of position at center, and 2018 no. 33 pick Austin Corbett, who Cleveland gave up on, is stepping into the guard position. This unit is a disaster, and it might get worse. Even a full-strength Gurley would be struggling behind this line. Unlike Melvin Gordon, Gurley would be wise not to ask any Uber employees (sorry, contractors), about what they think of the Rams.

Concern Index: 8/10