Running back is an interesting position to determine which players will breakout as so much of it comes down to opportunity. Last year was another indication of that as Le’Veon Bell and Justin Forsett both broke out in big ways in their first full years as starters. That doesn’t even include backs like Lamar Miller and C.J. Anderson (a perfect example of just needing an opportunity) who excelled while receiving career high workloads. This year, the players I’ve selected have shown potential in smaller sample sizes, but most of them project to have much bigger roles this upcoming season.
Joseph Randle, Cowboys: Due to the dominance of the Cowboys offensive line last season, some believed any running back could put up numbers similar to DeMarco Murray’s. For those who felt that way, Randle’s 2015 campaign will be their first case study. While it looks likely the Cowboys will use the running back by committee approach, Randle should lead the pack getting 15 to 18 touches a game.
After struggling as a rookie, Randle showed improved burst in 2014 averaging 6.7 (!) yards a carry in what was a relatively small 51 carry sample size. If he can continue to show the improved burst from last season, there is a very good chance Randle could just lock-in a role as the Cowboys primary back. The thorough injury history of Darren McFadden also boosts Randle’s odds of seeing more touches throughout 2015. However at the time of this writing, Randle has been dealing with his own health issues as an oblique injury has been nagging through camp. Whether it is the NFC playoff picture or a fantasy league, Randle’s play in an increased role is likely to play a huge factor in determining either the Cowboys or a fantasy team’s fate later this year.
Carlos Hyde, 49ers: You may not have heard, but the 49ers lost a lot of key pieces this offseason. One of which, is the franchises’ all-time rushing leader Frank Gore, who Hyde is tasked with replacing. No pressure. As Gore’s primary backup, Hyde showed flashes but in a totally different system so it would be tough to tell how some of that production would translate.
Due to losing two of their best power run blockers in Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis to free agency and retirement, the 49ers are going to use more zone blocking schemes in 2015. As a result of this, Hyde lost some weight in order to be lighter on his feet. For those who don’t remember, this same move paid off in a big way for Le’Veon Bell last offseason. It will also be interesting to see how the slimmer Hyde fairs in regards to breaking tackles as that was an area in which he excelled during his rookie season. While things like that sound like you should be all aboard the Hyde hype train, I do have a reason for concern.
If the 49ers play to the level many are expecting this season, they will be playing from behind quite often. That would leave less work for Hyde as both Reggie Bush and Kendall Hunter would take work from him in passing situations. Despite that, Hyde should still see his good amount of touches and while he may not burst onto the scene the way Gore did for the 49ers in 2006, a year with 1,000 plus rushing yards and at least a half dozen touchdowns would be nothing to scoff at.
Latavius Murray, Raiders: At this point, all we have is 82 carries to assess Murray on for his career, but you can’t help but like what you see. At 6’3” 230 with the ability to run a sub 4.4 forty, the sheer physical talent is all there. Finally, the Raiders have decided it is time to see what he can do in a full-time capacity. In an offense tailored by offensive coordinator in Bill Musgrave that uses a run heavy approach, he is going to have a chance to succeed.
One thing that will really help Murray is if Derek Carr and the passing game take the next step. Carr’s overall numbers impressed as a rookie, but a lot of that was a result of dink-and-dunk type passes. If the passing game is able to add more of a vertical element, it would really open up some running lanes for Murray. There are some concerns over how he’ll handle a full workload, and odds are a decent amount of passing down work could end up going to Roy Helu. But despite that, Murray should still see 15 to 20 touches a game. At the least, Murray figures to establish himself as a prominent member of the “All NFL Redzone” team for the foreseeable future.
Isaiah Crowell, Browns: We’re now towards the end of August and the Browns running back competition is wide open. Duke Johnson and Terrance West have been hurt the majority of camp so by default Crowell is likely to be the starter come week one. As an undrafted rookie last year, Crowell had his share of moments but really struggled towards the end of the season. This is where I point out that when Alex Mack and Joe Thomas were both healthy the Browns actually had one of the most effective rushing attacks in the league last year.
While he currently doesn’t bring much as a receiver, Crowell has some burst and is able to run inside between the tackles. The Browns best bet to win games sure isn’t going to be having Josh McCown letting it rip 35 times so they will look to establish the run early and often. When West and Johnson do get back to full health, there is a chance this could be a difficult running back committee to assess. However based off what I think Crowell has the potential to do behind the underrated offensive line, he has the chance to cement himself as the Browns starter for all of 2015 and possibly beyond.
Jerick McKinnon, Vikings: Each year I tend to make one longshot breakout prediction with running backs. These players won’t start off receiving a ton of carries, but if they do I feel they could be in for big things. My pick this year is McKinnon who physically has all the tools you could ask for. The only thing blocking him however is a generational physical freak and future hall of famer in Adrian Peterson.
My thinking is that despite essentially having an off year in 2014, Peterson enters this season at 30 years old where most mortal running backs tend to start breaking down. If Peterson does prove to be mortal (a big if), McKinnon figures to see a big chunk of work in his place. While there are a lot of scenarios needed for McKinnon to get a big chance this year, there is just too much raw talent for him to not be a relevant player at some point in 2015.