Truth About Running Backs: NFC East

Tom Kislingbury

This is the next in a series of articles that attempt 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 NFC East.

The division isn’t the most interesting to be honest because two of the teams have a clear top back who was on the verge of being a true bell-cow in 2019 and could easily be so again in 2020. But there are always things we can learn by looking at backs in more detail.

Dallas Cowboys

Ezekiel Elliott is, of course, one of the lead backs mentioned above and he was extremely close to being a bellcow in 2019. As mentioned before, the threshold is 75% – 75% of offensive snaps, 75% of RB carries and 75% of RB targets. Elliott only fell down on the targets part and he still managed about 74% of them. He was technically outside the definition but to all intents and purposes, he was one player on a very short list.

As a result, it’s hard to learn much about him. He dominated his team’s RB use in most metrics. So, here’s a look at his career in terms of touches vs yardage:

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Elliott is one of those players who invite strong opinions. His fans insist he’s one of the few backs that transcend modern running back value. His detractors think he’s the product of high volume. The chart above suggests that Elliott has not proven to be a difference-maker so far in his career. He’s racked up a lot of yardage and fantasy points but that has been the result of high touch volume rather than any special talent or efficiency.

In his four seasons, he’s been extremely close to the expected efficiency line. Put another way, he’s achieved what is expected rather than any more. Certainly, staying available enough (bar his suspension back in 2017) is an impressive ability and we should expect similar usage for another year or two but a he goes into his age-25 season (peak age for a running back) he’s going to find it ever-harder to handle such high volume.

New York Giants

The Giants are the other team with a dominant back in place. Saquon Barkley was picked second overall and the Giants are determined to prove themselves right.

Barkley was spectacular as a rookie but his 2019 saw some time missed (not surprising as the average starting running back misses two or three games a year) and a general malaise compared to 2018.

The first chart shows the top ten backs in combined 2018 and 2019 big plays (carries or targets that gained ten or more yards) split by season:

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As a rookie, Barkley was explosive as he ripped off 54 big plays for 1,037 yards. That’s right – he went over 1,000 yards on purely big plays.

In 2019, he dropped back down to Earth with just 36 for 672 yards. He fell from the fourth-best big-play back to the 11th-best. The chart above shows that only Todd Gurley among his peers had a similar drop in 2019.

The next chart shows the rate of big plays compared to volume over the two years.

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In 2018 Barkley was exceptional as a big-play threat and it showed up on the stat sheet. In 2019 he was much less prone to creating long runs which led to the general decline he saw. Big plays are extremely unpredictable for RBs so you should not be worried about this. The fluctuation Barkley saw is perfectly normal and a big part of why RB productivity can change so much across seasons. It’s more noteworthy that Christian McCaffrey and Ezekiel Elliott managed to stay at the top of the charts last season.

Philadelphia Eagles

The first two teams in this division have running games built on lead backs. Lots of dynasty owners like to think that most teams “want to” find a back like this and are searching for one. This is old fashioned thinking. Teams are smart. Most of them know that it’s not the 90s anymore and you cannot “build around” an RB like in the old days. The Eagles are a great example of this. Here are their weekly RB snap counts for the past three seasons:

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They’re relatively small charts but the details are not important. The point is that ever since Doug Pederson took over (actually in 2016 but three years is enough to strain your eyes) the Eagles have used a deep, weekly rotation at the position – with only a few weeks where injury has forced themselves to lean on a single back.

Dynasty owners saw them draft Miles Sanders relatively early in 2019 and thought that they loved him as an every-down back but it’s really not the case. Hoping for the Eagles to totally change their established philosophy in favor of a more old-fashioned approach is not logical. It’s wishful thinking.

The next chart shows the proportion of carries for the three main backs by gap:

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Look at Sanders here and especially on the runs out past the end. Weird, eh? The vast majority of these outside runs were handled by Sanders. About 70% of all rushes off-end were Sanders, compared to the 43% of inside rushes he owned. That’s a big enough split to be significant. People often think that smaller backs run outside and big backs between the tackles but that’s not true. And even if it were, Sanders was 211 pounds at the combine last year. That’s significant. The Eagles coaches seem to think he was best utilized this way. It’ll be very interesting to see if it continues in 2020.

Washington Redskins

The Redskins are a bizarre team for RBs because all the attention and dynasty value is focused on the least productive player. Derrius Guice has excited people since he was drafted but he has yet to really show what he can do. Hopefully he can get fit in 2020 and show us what he can do under a new coaching staff but until that happens we need to look at what he has done.

The first chart shows the rush/target split for the four major Washington backs in 2019:

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Chris Thompson is very much a receiving back and you can see it here. On the other hand, Adrian Peterson was never much use in the passing game and that’s also visible. Wendell Smallwood was closer to Thompson and Guice (albeit in limited time) closer to Peterson. Under Jay Gruden, Washington very much favored specialist early-down rushers and receiving backs.

Speaking of which – the next chart shows usage by down:

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Peterson and Guice both saw over 95% of their carries/targets on early downs – among the highest rates in the NFL (alongside Derrick Henry). Thompson and Smallwood both saw 20-25% of their usage on third down. Guice and Peterson were clearly not significant factors in the receiving game or on late downs.

With Ron Rivera taking over, we may well see significant changes. He certainly used Christian McCaffrey as a workhorse in the past two seasons. But it’s just not feasible that Guice can slide into that sort of every-down workhorse role. It’s just too big a leap for a seemingly injury-prone player who has built his whole career as a powerful, inside rusher to learn to be a weapon in the passing game. It’s possible Guice does turn into a big fantasy asset, but he’ll need high volume and lots of touchdowns to do that. It’s tough to see that happening any time soon on a team with this many problems.

Now you’ve got a little bit more information on how some of the backs in the NFC East were used in 2019 and you can use that information to make better decisions about how they’ll be used in the future. The two lead backs aren’t that interesting – but hopefully, we’ve shed some light on what you can expect from them and how their success is actually built – and some of the dangers to it continuing.

Thanks for reading.

tom kislingbury