The importance of the men in the trenches is often overlooked when trying to find a surefire option at running back.
It is no secret that the running back position has been wildly inconsistent in recent years, and mainstays at the top of positional rankings are few and far between. Per ESPN standard scoring, not a single running back has been top 10 in each of the past three seasons. In fact, just two players have cracked the top 10 the past two years in a row.
There are a variety of reasons for this fluctuation: injuries, suspensions, the emergence of rising stars. But no matter the explanation, the truth of the matter remains that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a surefire option at running back.
Take, for example, Todd Gurley. After a dominant (albeit injury-plagued) college career and a brilliant rookie campaign that featured over 1,000 yards, 10 touchdowns, and 4.8 YPC, the former Bulldog looked like a rising star. Accordingly, he rose to the top of draft boards for the 2016 season. His ADP, according to ESPN, was 5.7, the second highest for the position.
Flash forward a year, and Gurley looks like one of the bigger disappointments in recent memory. Despite playing in all 16 games, he finished the season with 885 yards, 6 touchdowns, and a measly 3.2 YPC. He checked in as the 20th ranked running back for the year, per standard scoring.
So what gives? Were NFL talent evaluators that far off? Despite his injury concerns, Gurley was seen as one of the best running back prospects the draft had seen in the past decade. Scouts compared him favorably to Marshawn Lynch, Jamal Lewis, and Adrian Peterson–-pretty good company to be in. Gurley still has loads of talent and potential, but there are a number of factors holding him back. One of the biggest, and the one fantasy owners should take note of, is the Rams’ offensive line.
Per Pro Football Focus, the St. Louis Rams had the 27th ranked offensive line in the NFL this past season. That alone is not a death sentence for running backs, as guys like Jay Ajayi and Melvin Gordon dealt with less than ideal lines as well. But when coupled with poor quarterback play, it is a recipe for disaster.
Gurley was more often than not met with defenders behind the line of scrimmage. In Week 17 against the 49ers, the Rams running back was held to just 47 yards on 17 carries, a horrendous 2.8 YPC. When you look at that game at face value, it was a terrible performance. But in that same game, Gurley had 52 yards after contact, per PFF. He had more yards after contact than he had in total.
This is not to suggest all of Gurley’s struggles can be attributed to his offensive line. He was often indecisive in the backfield and didn’t make proper reads. But there is no denying that great line play can be a huge asset to a ball carrier.
Take a look at the Dallas Cowboys, famous for their offensive line excellence. Is Ezekiel Elliot an incredible talent at running back? Of course. He ran for 1,631 yards, 15 TDs, and averaged over five yards per carry. Some credit for that success, however, has to go to the men in the trenches. After all, this is a unit that allowed Darren McFadden to run for over 1,000 yards at a 4.6 YPC. To put that in perspective, McFadden averaged 3.3 YPC his previous three seasons in Oakland. Zeke took what the line gave him this past year, and they gave him a lot. Look below, and you’ll see him scamper for a 32-yard score completely untouched.
The trend of superior line play leading to productive running back seasons is consistent throughout the league. If you take a look at PPF’s top six ranked offensive lines from 2016, you will find they blocked for five top 15 running backs, not factoring in missed games or committee approaches.
|Top Ranked Offensive Lines |
|Lead Back and Positional Rank |
(Per ESPN Standard Scoring)
|1) Tennessee Titans||Demarco Murray, 5th|
|2) Dallas Cowboys||Ezekial Elliot, 2nd|
|3) Pittsburgh Steelers||Le’Veon Bell, 4th|
|4) Oakland Raiders||Latavius Murray, 13th|
|5) Green Bay Packers||Ty Montgomery, 38th|
|6) Atlanta Falcons||Devonta Freeman, 6th|
The lesson to be learned here is that offensive lines can be just as important to a running back’s success as any other outside factor. So when looking at what players to invest in next season, take a look at how teams have addressed their O-lines, either through the draft or free agency. For example, the Browns fortified their line this offseason, spending quite the chunk of change to add Kevin Zeitlerand J.C. Tretter. That, coupled with Hue Jackson’s endorsement, makes Isaiah Crowell an interesting RB2 play.
Meanwhile, a number of Cincinnati’s key blockers from last season (such as Zeitler) found jobs elsewhere. If the Hill/Bernard workshare wasn’t frustrating enough, they now have to deal with a potentially leaky O-line. Factor in the surprising selection of Joe Mixon, and the fantasy outlook for any Bengals’ running back doesn’t look good.
By no means should a running back’s offensive line be the most important thing you consider when deciding whom to draft. As previously mentioned, guys like Ajayi and Gordon had stellar seasons despite subpar play in the trenches. It is simply a piece of the puzzle to look at when trying to find a reliable running back, a feat that seems almost impossible these days.
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