Breakout Player Recap: Running Backs

untitledThe running backs I predicted to breakout in 2014 all entered the year with the one thing every back dreams of: opportunity. Some made the most of it, others were injured or didn’t have their role expand in a way I would have predicted. Regardless, while they didn’t all pan out in 2014, a majority of these players are still worth heavily monitoring entering the 2015 season. What I wrote about the players leading up to this past season can be found here.

Andre Ellington, Cardinals: I have firmly been on the Ellington bandwagon for quite some time and after his first year as a feature back, I might be one of the few remaining. Right before the first week of the season, Ellington suffered a foot injury that lingered all year and limited his ability to cut which is a huge deal to a back known for their big play ability. Add in a hip injury and an offseason sports hernia surgery and you might see why he averaged 3.3 rushing yards per attempt last season.

The good news for Ellington is that he will not have that kind of workload anytime soon. David Johnson the Cardinals recent third round draft pick can do some of the things Ellington does and will cut into his snaps. This will allow for Ellington (where proneness to injury was a concern coming into the league) to hopefully maintain his health over the course of a full season. At this time, Ellington figures to enter training camp as the Cardinals number one back so fans/fantasy football players alike should hope he is healthy enough to show what he’s truly capable of.

Hit or miss: Miss

Giovani Bernard, Bengals: After an impressive rookie season, Bernard was a popular breakout candidate in what figured to be an enlarged role. However due to both injury and the emergence of Jeremy Hill, we didn’t really get to see that. His rushing stats were similar to those his rookie year totaling 680 yards and 5 touchdowns on 168 carries. For a player with his big play ability, Bernard’s yards per carry was much lower than one would expect. If you eliminate his 90 yard touchdown against the Panthers he averaged just 3.5 yards per attempt which is closer to Trent Richardson than Jamaal Charles.

There are positives to note about Bernard entering 2015 however. In the last three games of 2014 when used as a change of pace to Hill, he was much more efficient averaging 4.7 yards a carry. Bernard also continued to show impressive receiving skills from the background as well. While the idea of Bernard as a feature back sure sounded like a lot of fun, it seems he’s best utilized in a Shane Vereen type role. The expectations will be tempered, but a nice post-hype season from Bernard in 2015 wouldn’t be surprising in the least.

Hit or miss: Miss

Le’Veon Bell, Steelers: Entering the year, I said Bell was going to be good for around 300 touches 1,400 yards and double digit touchdowns. What I didn’t know was that those numbers would practically come just from the running game. Bell emerged as one of the league’s top backs in 2014 rushing for 1,361 yards and eight touchdowns on 290 carries. That doesn’t even factor in his 83 catches for 854 yards and three touchdowns as a receiver.

Not often do we see backs Bell’s size that can beat defenders just as easily in the air (either the passing game or via hurdling) as they would running through them. He is scheduled to miss the first three games of the 2015 season due to suspension, but should be back to his full role shortly after. Either way, us as fans should be in for a treat.

Hit or miss: Hit

Montee Ball, Broncos: Ball had a fantastic opportunity to be the Broncos lead back in 2014, but unfortunately some circumstances got in the way. He needed an appendectomy in early-August and has revealed since that it sapped his strength early in the year. Not long after that, Ball also had reoccurring groin injuries which limited him to just five games for the season. In that time frame, Ball had 172 yards and one touchdown while barely averaging over three yards an attempt.

Ball figures to be fresh heading into this offseason, but he now enters 2015 as the backup to C.J. Anderson who really shined towards the end of the year. Anderson looks like he will be a great fit in Gary Kubiak’s running scheme, so Ball is facing an up-hill battle to get the starting spot back. Barring injuries, he’ll probably see around six to eight touches a game as a complementary back.

Hit or miss: Miss

Toby Gerhart, Jaguars: Granted he was dealing with an ankle injury most of the season, but we didn’t see much of the Gerhart people were expecting to see in 2014. For the year, Gerhart had 326 yards averaging 3.2 yards per carry which would be one of if not the lowest number among players with 100 plus carries.

With the addition of T.J. Yeldon and Denard Robinson impressing before injury, Gerhart figures to be the third back on the Jaguars depth chart entering 2015.

Hit or miss: Miss

Khiry Robinson, Saints: Despite the talent showing every time he touches the ball, Robinson just hasn’t received the chance to have a huge role in the Saints offense. His role grew from his rookie season as in 2014 he had 22 more carries, had 362 yards and three touchdowns. Unfortunately for Robinson, an arm fracture in week seven cost him a lot of chances to get reps. And in that time a Saints running back did breakout in Mark Ingram and after receiving a new deal he figures to see the majority of the carries again.

The Saints backfield is looking crowded in terms of getting touches these days if you also factor in the addition of C.J. Spiller. If Robinson is going to have a big year that the small sample size has indicated is possible, he’ll probably need a change of scenery ala Chris Ivory a few years back.

Hit or miss: Push

Latavius Murray, Raiders: In my Murray write-up, I mentioned that a full-on breakout could be premature, but would get his chances in 2014. From his first impression to the common fan he made the most of it. In a Thursday night game against the Chiefs, Murray had four carries for 112 yards and two touchdowns (one of which was a 90 yarder) before a concussion took him out of the game.

Murray finished the year averaging over 5 yards an attempt with 424 yards. He also showed decent receiving chops catching 17 passes in the time he did play. With a Raiders offense that figures to improve and not much in front of Murray on the depth chart, 2015 very well could be his year.

Hit or miss: Push

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