In the past, running back breakouts on many occasions could be determined by opportunity. Unfortunately in today’s NFL where the ball is thrown more than ever, there may not be as many chances to go around. For instance, there were only seven 1,000 yard rushers in 2015. Injuries to some key backs might of limited that number, but that’s a figure that’s usually in double digits. Two of those backs who eclipsed the plateau in Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray did benefit from the opportunity that emerged. Here are some backs I feel can do the same to give their teams a boost in 2016.
David Johnson, Cardinals: If you play any form of fantasy football, you’re well aware of Johnson at this point. In the final five weeks of 2015, he notched 658 yards and five touchdowns on 107 total touches. Those numbers are not only extremely efficient, but also would have made him the most productive running back in the league during that time. Now, the Northern Iowa product is entering his second season and first as the primary starter. As a result, the hype train has left the station.
A bigger back who can reel off long runs and contribute as a receiver, huge things are expected from Johnson. Heck, the Cardinals have even admitted they’re scared of talking him up too much in fear of placing a jinx. While I do think Johnson will be extremely productive, there is reason to have some caution when buying into the hype. Just last year, people like myself bought into Jeremy Hill (I still believe!) emerging as a top end back after an extremely strong finish to his rookie campaign. That didn’t necessarily happen. Despite being burned by small sample sizes in the past, I agree with everyone who feels Johnson makes a giant leap this year. Between his all-around skillset and being in a high powered offense, there is a lot to love here.
Carlos Hyde, 49ers: This is the second year in a row Hyde has made my breakout running back list meaning the opportunities have/will be there. Unfortunately, it all comes down to how his body will respond. We all know Chip Kelly loves to run the football and Hyde figures to be the bell cow in the 49ers ground game. When healthy, Hyde shows a very impressive combination of power and speed that could make him one of the game’s premier backs.
The only thing hurting Hyde is that the 49ers could be in catch up mode more often than they’d like. As a result, that would reduce Hyde’s carries and possibly snaps to other backs who are more skilled pass catchers. Despite that, I still like Hyde’s chances of having a big year running the football and opening up the field for whichever quarterback the Niners have under center.
Jay Ajayi, Dolphins: I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the Dolphins handling of their backfield the past few years. I was high on Lamar Miller as a prospect, but despite showing big time ability when given the ball, the Dolphins reluctantly gave him touches. Last year, the team selected Ajayi whom I was also higher on than most and while he should be the clear starting back, who knows how it will play out.
In typical Dolphins fashion, they were once again enamored by a big name towards the end of their career. In this case, that player is Arian Foster who reeled off a fantastic stretch at the beginning of this decade, but is now 30 and coming back from a torn Achilles. Despite being a bigger back, Ajayi has quick feet and the ability to make people miss. Dating back to his college days, he also showed chops as a receiver out of the backfield as well. My guess is Adam Gase will end up riding with Ajayi and see what he’s capable of producing, but these are the Dolphins so at the end of the day it’s anyone’s guess.
Jeremy Langford, Bears: Someone has to be the back that follows up Matt Forte in Chicago and as timing will have it, Langford looks to be the guy. He had his moments as a spot starter this past season as a rookie, but what makes him most promising is the volume that should be there and that he also showed ability as a receiver when given the chance.
Some may question Langford’s uninspiring 3.6 yards per attempt last season, but that is something he can build on. We can be quick to forget, but another Michigan State running back in Le’Veon Bell averaged just 3.5 yards an attempt as a rookie on almost 100 more carries. While I’m not saying Langford will become what Bell is, but there is a lot of reason to be optimistic that he improves in his first full year as a starter. 1,300 yards and double digit touchdowns isn’t out of the question this season.
Duke Johnson, Browns: While I’m a very big fan of Johnson’s overall game, I’m not placing him here because I feel the volume will be there. Instead, it is that he will able to contribute in ways we’ve already seen backs produce on Hue Jackson teams. To me, there are a lot of similarities between Johnson and Giovani Bernard who Jackson schemed for with the Bengals the past few seasons.
Both backs are tough to bring down in space, can hit the big play and are productive receivers when needed. Last year, Bernard saw a little over 200 total touches and totaled more than 1,100 yards while scoring two touchdowns. Those are what I feel are the baseline numbers for Johnson entering his second season. Even if someone such as Isaiah Crowell does emerge as a true lead back, Johnson is still going to be an essential part of what could be an exciting Browns offense.