Heading into the 2014 season, these running backs were listed as starters on their respective teams:
Rashad Jennings of the New York Giants
Darting the “Black Hole” for the “Big Apple,” Jennings showed that he can be a do-it-all back in limited action. He took advantage of opportunities with the “Silver & Black” and the G-Men snagged him away despite an injury-riddled history. Unfortunately, Jennings did get banged up in 2014 and never got fully healthy, but before that he was producing like a top-7 back in the first half of action. Jennings was head and shoulders better than rookie, Andre Williams, in all facets for the Giants. His playing style is in the mold of Matt Forte, except he’s a better pass blocker.
Williams struggled with blocking and catching the ball, and the power runner took half of the season before starting to make an impact in the ground game. The Giants struggled with injuries across the O-line, and just when Jennings became the featured player and a good check-down option for Eli Manning, Williams was forced to be the main back and wasn’t ready for that big of a role. Entering 2015, they are expected to split the load evenly, between the 4th rounder Williams and injury-prone veteran. Unless Williams drastically improves his blocking and receiving, don’t e surprised if Jennings separates himself again and they ride him until the wheels fall off, again.
Montee Ball of the Denver Broncos
Injuries seem to be the story with Ball in his first two seasons. The thing is, the physical back just doesn’t fit into a supporting cast for Peyton Manning. He’s not a passing down back, although he has the ability to develop into one, but right now he’s a runner between the tackles that is ore suited for a run-oriented offense. Backs that flank Manning and succeed, can run out of the shotgun formation and pass protect, which i a must to keep the future Hall of Famer vertical. Ball isn’t fully behind the 8-ball, however.
Ball was beginning to lose his job to Ronnie Hillman, who was shining in the first half of the season, even before being sidelined to injury. Hillman ran with it for a good month of the season, got hurt, and the baton was passed to C.J. Anderson. Anderson ran hard and did it all, running and receiving, and the Pro Bowl alternate played in the vacation game when other guys backed out. Ball is a first round pick that will garner another opportunity, but the leash is definitely shorter this time after seeing the impact of Anderson and a healthy Hillman in his absence. Anderson is the favorite to remain the starter, but the competition is open this offseason and preseason, and that doesn’t necessarily mean the week 1 starter will be the week 17/playoff starter.
Free Agent Reggie Bush
Damn, the first word that comes to mind when I think about Reggie Bush’s career and his potential. The situation just has to be ideal for some players to reach their expectations. I like his ability to return kicks, punts, with elite elusiveness in the passing game and in the open field. He gets banged up when teams try to give him a crack to run between the tackles, even with limited snaps in a timeshare. He’s split the load in New Orleans, with Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles. Most recently, he’s rotated with Joique Bell and Theo Riddick, which again, made him expendable.
This is an elite playmaker in the NFL, so hopefully he can find the right offseason program to make his body more durable. Seeing how the 31-year-old Sproles has made an impact for the Eagles, you can bet that Bush will find a new home and be involved. Bush could benefit playing alongside Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton in Carolina, where he would absolutely play and get a lot of targets. Or, returning to USC territory and replacing Ryan Mathews down the freeway in San Diego. He would be a great passing back for Philip Rivers, or any other quarterback for that matter. But, they do have passing backs and are trying to see if Mathews is their between-the-tackles guy. Just don’t expect Bush to earn a feature role, wherever he winds up.
Free Agent C.J. Spiller
There’s been word that Spiller would like to reunite with former Buffalo offensive coordinator, Chan Gailey, down the road with the New York Jets. New offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, has orchestrated an offense around a stronger Frank Gore for years. Who’s to say that Roman couldn’t feature a quarterback-less offense around the speedy Spiller? The free agent has experience as a returner too, but durability concerns may keep him of offense in a timeshare role, like he has with Fred Jackson on the Bills. For insurance, Buffalo brought in Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon last offseason, but only Brown is known to have the speed to get around the edge. Jackson is entering the final year of his deal at age 34, while Dixon is more of a backup and Brown is still raw.
Toby Gerhart of the Jacksonville Jaguars
After showing glimpses as Adrian Peterson’s backup in Minnesota, Gerhart signed on with the Jags and lost the starting gig early in the season. Really, he was unfortunate to get nicked up in the opener against Philly, because he tried to play through the pain and was simply ineffective for the first month. Gerhart then gradually saw a decrease in snaps for the struggling Jaguars, then was too hurt to play. That opened the door for Denard Robinson to flash playmaking ability as the eventual starter, and they made a solid tandem when both were health for a couple of games in the second half of the season, before Robinson landed on injured reserve.
Jacksonville believes in their young offensive line, and the receiving core is pretty deep and young themselves. “Shoelace” was able to make something out of nothing, breaking out for a few triple-digit performances with rookie Blake Bortles under center. A rookie quarterback is usually the guy that’s challenged the most, so defenses stacked the box against the ground game and the growing pains started in week 3 when he relieved Chad Henne. Gerhart will get another crack at starting from a contract standpoint, but expect a timeshare between him and “Shoelace” entering the season. Gerhart is more of a power, between the tackles, take what the line gives you type of runner, that could fight for extra yards. Robinson is the exciting dual-threat that can catch and run out of the backfield, and the former Michigan quarterback has transitioned and produced more in 2014.
Zac Stacy of the St Louis Rams
In 2013 he was the guy that the backup running back that the Rams turned to, and he started in the second half of the season. That was when Darryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead were ahead of him on the depth chart. In 2014 he returned as the starter, but was outplayed by Benny Cunningham all season long, and was later benched for third round pick Tre Mason. Mason continued the carousel int he backfield, doing the same thing that Stacy did, and he will return as the starter with Cunningham getting snaps as well. That leaves Stacy as a candidate to be released, like Richardson and Pead were after they lost their roles. With starting experience and entering his third season, Stacy would likely have to compete to make a roster as a backup going into a new situation. The Rams didn’t have that great of a offense, to be fair, not in his successful rookie campaign, nor in his less-active sophomore season.
Ben Tate of the Pittsburgh Steelers
What a whirlwind since leaving the Houston Texans. Ben Tate nibbled on Arian Foster’s touches enough to ink a deal to become the starter for the Browns. That was before losing his grip, due to injury and lack of production, to a pair of rookie tailbacks. Isaiah Crowell and Terrence West emerged in a sputtering offense, then hit a wall, but Tate found himself released with attitude issues. He caught on with the Minnesota Vikings and played in 3 of 5 games, before getting released again and joining the Pittsburgh Steelers with a minimal impact behind Le’Veon Bell. Rookie Dri Archer is a fast, inexperienced passing-down back and special teams player right now, so Tate has a chance to claim the role of spelling Bell in 2015.
Free Agent Ray Rice
From declining starter in Baltimore to being expected to produce in Gary Kubiak’s zone scheme heading into the opener, Rice lost some carries to Bernard Pierce before getting suspended for the year to domestic violence. Rice is still a free agent. Usually, good players are given a second chance, but this whole domestic violence situation is treading unknown waters when it comes to second chances. Still under the dreaded 30 years of age at 28, Rice may not have much gas left in the tank after a handful of productive seasons, which is about the expiration date of a common starting running back. Perhaps, a season on the sidelines helped him to recover from the wear and tear, to be able to contribute in a complimentary role to revive his career with another team.