Running back is an interesting position to find breakout players in as on many occasions, it just comes down to opportunity. Last year, backs such as Ryan Mathews, DeMarco Murray and Knowshon Moreno broke out. While some of these backs had the talent and finally stayed healthy, someone like Moreno took his opportunity and ran with it both literally and figuratively. All of these backs mentioned are ones that I feel can take their games to the next level in 2014. While some have the opportunity already established, others mentioned may not make an immediate impact. However, those players will still be contributors to their teams and have the talent to make the most of a bigger role when they obtain it.
Andre Ellington, Cardinals: Ellington was one of my favorite backs in the 2013 draft class, but fell to the 6th round due to size/durability concerns. When the Cardinals did give him the ball, he showed what he was capable of in a big way. Ellington showed off his explosion by averaging a whopping 5.5 yards a carry and that he was also very capable as a receiver out of the backfield. Despite that, the Cardinals decided to give 217 carries to Rashard Mendenhall who averaged 3.1 yards an attempt as they didn’t think Ellington would be able to carry the load.That would have made more sense if the Cardinals decided to add another back to the equation this offseason. It would have proved that a running back by committee approach is how the Cardinals felt Ellington would be best utilized. Instead, they went the completely opposite direction.
Bruce Arians has come out saying Ellington will be “the bellcow of our offense”. Granted, offseason coach speak isn’t always to be trusted (everyone who spent a first round fantasy pick on C.J. Spiller last year since he would “get the ball until he pukes” sadly nods in agreement), but what changed in an offseason? Was Arians simply just overly loyal to a player in Mendenhall who goes back to his days as an offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh? We’ll never know the answer, but we will see Ellington get the ball at least 17 to 20 times a game this year. The Cardinals have six games against stout defenses in the NFC West, but Ellington excels in the open field and will get chances there. If the Cardinals hope to build off last years impressive 10-6 record and make the playoffs, Arians is going to need to be true to his word and get Ellington the ball in as many ways as possible.
Giovani Bernard, Bengals: When he got the ball, Bernard was one of the most exciting rookies in the entire league last season. The scary thing for opposing defenses is that it will happen even more in 2014. With Jay Gruden leaving the Bengals to be the head coach of the Redskins, so are the chances of Andy Dalton throwing 586 passes in a season again. New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson likes to run the ball and finds creative ways to get his running backs involved. Bernard gives him plenty of chances to do that as he showed the ability to excel catching the ball out of the backfield.
While Bernard last year lost some of his carries to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the same thing will take place but this time with new 2nd round pick Jeremy Hill. Like Green-Ellis, Hill is a more powerful runner who will not only tire defenses, but save Bernard from excessive wear and tear on his body. After a rookie season with 170 carries, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Bernard get into at least the 250 range this season with Jackson calling the plays. Factor in his receiving ability, and there is a good chance Bernard could have around 325 total touches. A year with around 1,500 or 1,600 yards is very possible as Bernard should prove in a big way that he is a focal point of a very talented Bengals roster.
Le’Veon Bell, Steelers: Bell didn’t make his NFL debut until week four, but from that point forward he made it count. While he totaled over 800 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, Bell didn’t do it in the most efficient manner. For the year he only averaged 3.5 yards a carry which is half a yard below where you would at least want your starting running back to be. Bell is a diverse runner who can not only lower his shoulder, but can make cuts to elude tacklers. This offseason, Bell is said to have lost at least ten pounds which should help give him even more quickness and long speed.
Despite LeGarrette Blount being added in the offseason, Bell should still see at least 300 total touches in 2014. He is a receiving option out of the backfield which is something that Blount can not say. While many would expect Blount to excel in short yardage due to his size, Bell is a better short yardage runner which could also lead to plenty of goalline carries. In an offense that could end up scoring more than people think, it is very possible for Bell to be in for a year with around 1,400 total yards and double digit touchdowns.
Montee Ball, Broncos: When you’re a running back playing with Peyton Manning, it isn’t pure ability that always gets you on the field but rather your pass blocking ability. After selecting him with a 2nd rounder last year, many thought Ball would be the Broncos feature back. Like a lot of rookie running backs, he struggled in pass protection which led to Knowshon Moreno having a career year. Now Moreno is out of the picture and it is Ball’s job to lose as the team made no additions to the backfield over the offseason.
Despite needing a recent appendectomy, Ball still has a firm grasp on the lead role. Reports have said he has improved in not only pass protection but as a receiver. The Broncos should also be more efficient running in short yardage situations as Ball is a much better inside runner than Moreno. With all of the benefits that come with playing alongside Manning, Ball could be in for a monster season. The real scary thought is that with Ball, an already historic Broncos offense could be even more efficient in 2014.
Toby Gerhart, Jaguars: It’s hard to believe, but Gerhart has already played four seasons in the league. Despite that, Gerhart has only received 276 carries in that time which makes sense considering he spent it all behind Adrian Peterson. Gerhart signed with the Jaguars this offseason in a move that reminded me of one that didn’t happen all that long ago. In 2008, the Falcons signed Michael Turner who up until then didn’t get much of a chance as he was playing behind the most dominant running back of the decade in LaDainian Tomlinson.
The Jaguars general manager David Caldwell coincidentally was in his first year working for the Falcons front office when they brought in Turner. The similarities between Gerhart and Turner don’t end there. Both backs are known for their physicality but have deceptive speed when in the open field. Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley during his time with the Seahawks saw that teams can still win while emphasizing the run with a strong defense. While the Jaguars defense is still improving, Gerhart gives them the running back who can handle 20 to 25 carries a game. A season of around 1,200 yards and double digit touchdowns wouldn’t be surprising for Gerhart as a focal point in a Jaguars offense that is a work in progress.
Khiry Robinson, Saints: In the NFL community, there are certain figures who if they have an opinion, everyone will stop and listen. Bill Parcells is one of those people. When Parcells compared the then undrafted rookie out of West Texas A&M to Hall of Famer Curtis Martin, the media ran with it. The strong performance on the carries Robinson did receive in the Saints two postseason games didn’t hurt either. Last regular season, Robinson only had 54 carries but based on his performance along with showing power and burst, that number should go way up despite sharing carries with two other backs. Sharing with that many backs could make it hard for Robinson to truly breakout. However there is no doubt that he will play a very big role for a Saints offense that once again figures to be one of the best in the league.
Latavius Murray, Raiders: Chance are you haven’t heard of Murray before and nobody could blame you. As a 6th round pick last year, Murray didn’t play in a single game for the Raiders as he had foot and ankle surgeries that ended his year in the preseason. Here is what you do need to know about Murray: he’s 6’3 225 pounds and runs a 4.38 forty. If that size/speed combination doesn’t impress you, then maybe you would be interested knowing that Murray is behind two backs in Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden who have both accumulated their fair share of injuries the past few years. He has impressed so far in training camp, and if either Jones-Drew or McFadden goes down (at least one probably will), the carries will start coming in.
The label of calling Murray a breakout player for 2014 could be a bit premature on my end. However, he is going to end up getting a chance at some point this season and will be doing so behind an underrated offensive line.