NFL Backfields

Some running back situations to watch around the league.

Arizona Cardinals

  • Andre Ellington has been a dual-threat running and catching the ball. The brunt of the fault should not be placed on him, but rather the mediocre-at-best O-line.
  • After Jonathan Dwyer was released after his domestic violence dispute and meltdown, they nabbed Marion Grice off the Chargers’ practice squad. The late-round pick has yet to be active for Bruce Arians, however, the turnover-free offense mixed him in for some first-team reps. That means they believe in his talent over Stepfan Taylor, whom they drafted. That was until Taylor actually contributed last week, he is slated to get a crack at a bigger role.
  • I got the pleasure to watch the Chargers’ deep running back group in camp, and that depth has showed in the absence of Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead, and Donald Brown. Injuries to the trio of veterans opened the door for Branden Oliver, and the undrafted rookie got pulled up and has shined in 2 starts.
  • Grice could very well get an opportunity to play at some point. Ellington has been hindered by ongoing foot issues and a struggling O-line, so averaging less than 3 yards per carry is something that can be improved. After all, Dwyer was getting some burn when he was in the mix, Grice will have a chance to contribute in limited fashion. If he can pick up over 3 yards per carry he could even dive into Ellington’s workload as the season progresses.

San Diego Chargers

  • Speaking of Oliver, he has a pair of starts that resulted in triple-digit performances. From practice squad to starter, being undrafted means that he will have to continue to prove himself. It is absolutely realistic to believe that Oliver has a chance to win the role for the rest of this season, and possibly beyond.
  • Woodhead is out for the year, Brown is week-to-week in his concussion recovery, and Mathews is due to return in a few weeks. Mathews has been the feature back for the past few seasons and last year was his best. The thing is, he hasn’t been the most durable. He persevered through minor injuries last season to play every game but one, but this is a contract season for him and the Bolts might stick with the hot-handed Oliver if he keeps it up.

New England Patriots

  • Down goes Stevan Ridley. The most reliable back that has had his struggles with fumbling, is lost for the season which leaves Tom Brady with some inexperienced options.
  • Brandon Bolden is a key special teams contributor, his running back role will be to spell here and there, and mostly on passing downs.
  • Shane Vereen is the passing down and change-of-pace back. Vereen is explosive in the passing game with the speed to routinely get past linebackers downfield. His wheel and corner routes have been a matter of catching the ball, which he has done about half the time. He will get more carries and a real chance to be the feature back. He was very productive in Thursday Night’s win over the Jets.
  • Jonas Gray got promoted from the practice squad to get a couple carries in his debut. Supposedly he will get more touches in the coming weeks. With him active and 2nd on the depth chart behind Vereen, that assures that they want to keep Bolden in his 3rd back/special teams role.
  • Rookie James White had a good preseason but when you play for Bill Belichick, you have to earn your stripes on special teams. This means that he hasn’t earned the trust with the playbook, special teams, or pass blocking. He very well might be their best option as an early down replacement for Ridley.
  • I think the passing attack has finally caught their stride. They have so many options that do different things, it will give these backs some wiggle room to operate. For this season, I see Vereen being the main guy, with White being the late season darkhorse to contribute after the experiment with Gray. Of course, you roll with what works.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

  • Doug Martin regained the lead role at the beginning of the year. The Bucs line isn’t special by any means, so the offense has been more bust than boom. Martin is healthy on paper, maybe he changed his style and approach after tearing his shoulder, I couldn’t tell you. He is running differently than before, then again there’s not many holes being paved up front.
  • Bobby Rainey has played well in his spot starts, that was until his fumbling woes this season. Still, the speed back is playing the better of the two backs. Rainey contributes more to the passing game, as a blocker and receiver. He is a better bet to find a hole to the second level of the D.
  • The preseason hype was all over rookie Charles Sims. Lovie Smith, formerly with the Bears, ranted and raved about Sims with Matt Forte Well, Sims is rumored to make his debut around week 10, from an ankle injury that put him on the shelf. He was already slated for somewhat of a timeshare, perhaps the current role Rainey is in. Sims is the only back drafted back Coach Smith, in the 3rd round, while the other two inherited from the previous regime.
  • With Tampa quickly moving on from the veteran Josh McCown, and the injury is just another excuse, Mike Glennon played decent as a rookie and so far this year as well. He looks like a kid that can take a hit with a short memory, he really does give them the best chance to win. So, with a couple blowout defeats, they should turn to the youth movement if the losing continues. That means playing Sims when he returns, and probably more as he gets more practice reps.

St. Louis Rams

  • Alright, Tre Mason just looks like the real deal. It was a short sample size, but his debut in the prime time loss to San Fran easily showed his talent and fire.
  • Last season the Rams were rolling with who? I won’t even tell you, but believe me when I say it wasn’t Zac Stacy or Benny Cunningham. Stacy gradually won the gig from, alright here goes, Darryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead. He looked strong last season as the only bright spot in the 2013 Rams’ offense.
  • The same cannot be said for this season and Cunningham has outplayed him since the preseason. It seems as though the Rams only see Cunningham as a change of pace back. There is nothing wrong with that, but the fact that he’s outplaying the starter behind the same line, has opened the door for the rookie.
  • Mason is the future, but it shouldn’t take too many games before he becomes the present. He looked explosive and beat linebackers to the edge. He would try to shake linebackers and looked for contact against defensive backs. That’s what you want a back to do, Jeff Fisher and Brian Shottenheimer will play him more as the season goes on, especially since they’re losing.


San Francisco 49ers

  • The reports about this team being off is quite evident on the field. The fact that they’re winning some games is even more impressive honestly. Coach Jim Harbaugh kind of just does what he wants. It’s like they cannot wait to give the keys to ride rookie Carlos Hyde.
  • Frank Gore has been the most overlooked back for the past decade. He’s been a reliable, do it all stud that has set the tone for the 49ers. When you think about having a tough runner between the tackles, with breakout speed to bounce outside, someone that seeks contact, bails the quarterback out as a checkdown, takes a screen for a first down, that’s been Gore. He doesn’t need to be taken off the field for any reason, that includes pass protection against the blitz.
  • Hyde is primed for this role, and the understudy is tough to keep under wraps sometimes. Toby Gerhart behind Adrian Peterson was a different story. Even before that in Minnesota, Chester Taylor was coming off a 1,300 yard season when they drafted A.P. This is a similar situation and the conclusion will probably turn out the same, in favor of the younger talent.
  • The Niners don’t want to run Gore into the ground. It’s easy to see that and say they’re playing it right, keeping their best back over 30 fresh as possible. It’s no coincidence that they fed the workhorse for back-to-back wins where he accumulated over 100 yards in both games. It’s a great situation for the team to be in, pairing a productive veteran with a standout rookie gradually cutting into those snaps.