Truth About Running Backs: AFC West

Tom Kislingbury

This is the next in a series of articles that attempts to shine a light on how various teams really do use their backs and what we can surmise about them going forward. Today we focus on the AFC West.

Denver Broncos

Phillip Lindsay is currently going at 73rd overall according to DLF ADP (next to Mike Williams and TY Hilton), with Royce Freeman back at 119th (next to Tyler Higbee and Mike Gesicki).

This shows that dynasty owners think Lindsay is a much better asset and you can see why. He’s performed much better than Freeman has two straight years.

However, this chart shows the total combined targets and carries per week through 2019 for the two backs:

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As you can see it really was much more even than ADP suggests. In fact, for much of the first half of the season Freeman was getting more volume. Lindsay had a larger share later in the year, but (aside from week 17) it was still a job share.

If we look at how that usage was actually shared out we can see a clearer split:

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They were used very, very similarly in the passing game. The difference came on the ground. Lindsay had a much higher share of carries on early downs. This is not what most people think. The common perception seems to be that Lindsay was more of a receiving threat, but that’s not really true.

There’s a significant chance that the gap between them narrows in 2020 and that creates a buy/sell window.

Kansas City Chiefs

The narrative before 2019 was that “Andy Reid always uses a lead back” – just as it was for Reid disciple Matt Nagy. It’s not true for either of them anymore.

The following chart shows combined carries and targets by week:

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Don’t hurt your eyes trying to decipher this. The key takeout is that the title-winning Chiefs were about as far from a lead back system as you could imagine. A single back received over 75 percent of the volume in just three of 17 weeks.

Lots of people will argue that injury forced Reid’s hand, but if that were true we’d see lots of different backs dominating different weeks – not a full-on committee like this.

The next question is “well, how are the different backs used?” This chart gives you a big clue:

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They were all used very similarly. Their pass/rush splits were all very close to each other, and that is indicative of overall usage. Darrel Williams and Spencer Ware were used more as third down backs, but even they saw around 70 percent of their usage on early downs.

This backfield was much closer to that of the 49ers in that multiple backs were used interchangeably. It’s interesting that the two teams to most use a system like that made the Super Bowl, eh? Coach Reid has proved that a stable of backs with fairly average talent is enough to win a title. What motivation is there for him to invest draft capital or cap space into upgrading this position?

Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers had one of the more interesting backfield narratives with Melvin Gordon sitting out the early part of the season. Austin Ekeler was excellent in his absence, but when Gordon returned he steadily earned more and more of this backfield.

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Here you can see the key difference: Ekeler was used much more as a receiving back. He actually finished second among all backs this season in targets, as well as second on the Chargers (significantly ahead of WR Mike Williams).

Ekeler may have lost out on overall volume, but his presence was certainly a handbrake on Gordon.

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Ekeler and Gordon are actually very similar here, but look at Justin Jackson. His use on third down was markedly lower than the other two backs (albeit on limited volume). He is routinely referred to as a third down back, which was very much untrue in 2019.

Gordon is likely to leave the team this off-season. How Ekeler and Jackson are used in 2020 will be fascinating.

Las Vegas Raiders

The Raiders definitely took a step forward in 2019. In 2018 they were horrific, but this season they were merely dull.

Rookie Josh Jacobs was the headline of course, but there are significant worries about his usage.

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This chart shows just how little Jacobs was used as a receiver in comparison to the other backs on the roster. He had far more overall volume than either of them, but was comfortably out-targeted by both. This is pretty major red flag.

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Similarly, here you can see usage by down. Jacobs dominated first down, saw about half the volume on second down, and saw very little use on third down.

When you put the two bits of information together you see a clear picture. Jacobs was an early-down rusher with limited use as a receiving target and on late downs. Given the team just gave Jalen Richard a new contract it seems this will continue. Jacobs looks to have a very similar usage pattern to Sony Michel – but without as much touchdown potential.

Now you’ve got a little bit more information on how some of the backs in the AFC West were used in 2019, and you can use that information to make better decisions about how they’ll be used in the future.

Of course, it’s absolutely possible that things change in 2020. Sometimes teams use backs in different ways from year-to-year. Leonard Fournette in 2019 was a great example, but it’s rare. Most of the time coaches tend to see backs in a certain way and use them accordingly.

Good luck.

tom kislingbury