With each week it becomes clearer that 2019 is indeed the year of the backup quarterback in the NFL. And with each week it becomes more obvious that this is anything but the year of the running back.
The three teams who most recently gave top-of-the-market extensions to running backs they intended to build their offense around – the Cowboys, Rams and Cardinals – are having big problems, and even when the woeful team that gave out the biggest free agent running back contract in years (the Jets), somehow finds a way to win a game, it's almost despite Le'Veon Bell, given the issues on their offensive line and ground game. The two teams to most recently invest top-five draft picks on a running back – the Giants and Jaguars – are mired in a deep rebuild/transition (whether they want to admit it or not) and while I will grant you that Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook are doing heroic things, the moral of the story in the NFL, now more than ever, is beware investing huge bucks and prime draft capital on this position.
Don't get me wrong, many of these players are truly elite … but there is only so much value to be gained from this dependent position, and it was impossible to miss while watching games in Week 10. How about Saquon Barkley and Bell combining for 35 yards on 31 carries (!!!) despite getting to go against the struggling Jets and Giants defenses, respectfully. There was David Johnson, oft injured since signing his top-of-the-market deal with Arizona, fighting for timeshare on a bad team with a player who was acquired for almost nothing two weeks ago. There was Todd Gurley, who reset the RB market just 15 months ago, once again watching much of the Rams' offensive collapse from the sidelines. There was Zeke Elliott, who got his extension just two months ago, running 20 times for a mere 47 yards (with a long of six yards) in what could be a season-defining loss for the Cowboys to the Vikings Sunday night.
Not a pretty picture.
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Bottom line is that when you assess the franchises that have recently drafted a back in the top 10 and/or then extended that runner well before they had to, or waded heavily into the running back market in free agency, the returns are not great. In the last four years, five teams have selected a RB with a top 10 pick:
Of that group, only Dallas would be in the playoffs if they started today, and that is a tenuous-at-best grip on the NFC East title with a rematch with he Eagles (5-4) looming. What about the teams to give out free-agent deals or extensions to a RB that average $10M or more per season over the last four years:
2019: Cowboys (5-4) – Elliott; Jets (2-7) – Bell
2018: Rams (5-4) – Gurley; Cardinals (3-6-1) – Johnson
Combined record: 15-21-1
Again, show me the team in this groups that is trending upwards? It's not all on these runners, of course, and many are faring well individually. But putting this much stock in this particular position at this stage in the evolution of the passing game comes at a real opportunity cost, especially in terms of where those picks or dollars could have been spent (elite pas rusher, left tackle, etc). And this could be an even bigger issue for many of these teams moving forward, especially with Rams QB Jared Goff now making mega-bucks himself and Cowboys QB Dak Prescott looking to surpass that contract with his, and given the gaping holes on many of these rosters.
Let's take a look at the top 10 running back cap hits this season:
|Player||2019 cap hit||2020 cap hit||Team's record|
David Johnson, Cardinals
Todd Gurley, Rams
Le'Veon Bell, Jets
Leonard Fournette, Jaguars
Lamar Miller, Texans*
Saquon Barkley, Giants
Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys
Jerick McKinnon, 49ers*
Gio Bernard, Bengals
*Player on IR, Did Not Play A Snap This Season
Combined record: 37-54-1
Combined record for teams with RB on active roster: 23-50-1
Hard not to see a lot of this as a sunk cost. Gurley and Johnson have not been the same physically since signing and you have to wonder about both of their futures. McKinnon will likely be an offseason cut without ever playing a down for the 49ers, as Kyle Shanahan's run scheme is effective with backs interchangeable. The Jets were already trying to peddle Bell's deal at the trade deadline, with scant interest. Trades for Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde more than replaced Miller. The Falcons may have to eat some money to move Freeman, Bernard is not a starter on the worst team in football and you have to wonder if Fournette or Barkley will sniff the playoffs on their rookie deals.
How NFL can find needed kickers, other overlooked players
Hearing a continued buzz in the scouting community about the second Pac Pro Scrimmage, a mini-combine of sorts for elite street free agents. I reported earlier this season about the first event, which gathered top street free agents for several days of instructions from former longtime college and pro coaches for intense practices which simulated game activities. Half of the participants with prior pro experience from the first event have already signed with an NFL or XFL team, and at least five NFL and five CFL teams will be at this week's event at Whittier College in Los Angeles
There are over twice as many players taking part in this camp, as four new NFL teams have committed to attend, and a quarter of the league will have attended at least one of the camps. It continues to gain traction as a way to develop, identify and showcase top young talent.
Given the brutal state of kicking around the NFL, there will be a special teams bent to this week's event. Former NFL kicker Nick Novak (who is still interested in a return himself) helped identify a handful of young kickers who have not been previously making the rounds for tryouts to showcase for the pro scouts. Teams have not been overwhelmed with the names making the circuit for auditions each week, and Novak believes there are several young kickers who have yet to be seen who could do the job. The Patriots and Colts are just two contenders who are unsettled at best at the kicker spot.
"There are some guys out there who I think can kick in the NFL, but they haven't been a part of the workouts this season, for whatever reason," said Novak, who served as a coaching intern for the Chargers in training camp and is a student of the art. "I really want them to get some exposure now, rather than the guys who are getting all of the workouts."
We'll see if a few diamonds in the rough emerge. Teams should be willing to consider anything at this point, with missed 40-yard field goals and extra points an epidemic at this point.
Ravens making big strides on defense
For all of the talk about Lamar Jackson – and he is as special as they come – the Ravens' surge has been due to making huge gains on defense as well. GM Eric DeCosta overhauled the linebacking group on the fly, added much-needed help at corner, dealing precious little for Marcus Peters, and the addition of safety Chuck Clark as a full-time starter at safety has been huge. Clark has played 100 percent of the snaps alongside Earl Thomas since Tony Jefferson was lost for the season last month, and the unit has been far better off. He is vital in getting everyone aligned, Thomas is thriving since his addition and it's gone too far under the radar. He's someone I'd be trying to extend to be honest, as the Ravens did recently with Willie Snead on the other side of the ball.
More insider notes
- Love the way the Raiders are playing and the strides they are making on defense, but they are going to have to curb one nasty trend down the stretch if they are going to reach the postseason. Only the Bengals (56) have allowed more 20-plus yard pass plays than Oakland (53), and the bottom six teams in this category are a combined 15-38-1 (and 10-34-2 excluding the Raiders). This is not where you want to be. Curtail this propensity to fall apart on the back end and they just might ride Derek Carr and Josh Jacobs to a wild card …
- As great as the Packers have been, I'm a little surprised that they are sixth-worst in the NFL when it comes to offensive three-and-outs (doing so almost 25% of the time). Getting Davante Adams back should help with that. The other five teams at the bottom of this stat are a combined 13-32-1 and none is even .500 …
- A lot of talk about Jadeveon Clowney's dominant game Monday night, and rightfully so, but he has been making an impact all season. Sacks aren't everything and Clowney is sixth in the NFL in QB knockdowns and hurries, with 51, trailing only Chandler Jones, Joey Bosa, J.J. Watt, Za'Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter. Not bad company at all, especially when the Seahawks gave up so little to rent him for a year while the Texans pay half of his salary …
- Only Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield have been worse than Mitchell Trubisky in the red zone this season, and even in victory last week Trubisky was shaky at best. He is 12-for-25 for 66 yards and a 60.8 rating in the red zone this season, a big reason why the Bears can't score, especially in the first half of games …
- The Ravens are still nearly averaging 200 yards rushing per game as we head closer to Thanksgiving (197.2 yards per game). Next closest is the 49ers at 161.8, but Baltimore averages over one yard more per carry. Crazy …
- The Vikings defense is the only one in the NFL with two players in the top eight in the league in QB knockdowns and hurries, yet another reason I believe we'll see them in January …
- We all know the Skins are horrible, but I didn't grasp the depth of their struggles at home. Washington has not won at FedEx Field since last October, going 0-8 and being outscored 229-94 in that span (an average defeat of 29-12). They have failed to top 21 points in any of those games and have the Jets, Lions, Giants and Eagles still to come. If they manage to take this streak into 2020, I guarantee you they'll pick no lower than second overall.