Running back can be an interesting position to project breakouts for as so much of it comes down to opportunity. All five players I picked entering 2016 figured to have that, but thanks to injuries and other factors only two truly capitalized. Those two who did make the most of it figure to be mentioned with the premier running backs in the league for the foreseeable future. The others may have had their big opportunity come and go in 2016, but they’re all young enough that they’d be worth keeping an eye on as their careers progress. What I wrote about these backs entering 2016 can be found here.
David Johnson, Cardinals: Towards the end of 2015 Johnson went on an incredible run, but there have been times where impressive stretches by rookie running backs don’t translate to the following year. That certainly wasn’t the case with Johnson. In 2016, Johnson led the league in all purpose yards with a whopping 2,118 to go along with 20 total touchdowns. The Cardinals were apparently hesitant to compare Johnson to him in preseason, but he turned in a year that resembles something Marshall Faulk could do.
As a receiver alone Johnson was moved all around the field and caught 80 passes for 879 yards and four touchdowns. Some wideouts would be happy with that yearly production. In the running game, Johnson obviously stood out with 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns while also being named a first team All-Pro. With the ability to create as a runner and at a high level as a receiver, the case could be made Johnson is the prototypical back for today’s NFL. 2016 should be only the first of many more exciting years to come.
Hit or miss: Hit
Carlos Hyde, 49ers: After being mentioned as a possible breakout candidate for a few years now, Hyde finally had a season that we’ve been waiting for. Playing in 13 games (he tore his MCL in week 16), Hyde ran for 988 yards and six touchdowns on 217 carries. He was also used more as a receiver catching a career best 27 passes even though he averaged just six yards a reception. The main thing working against Hyde in 2016 was the 49ers game script.
As we all know, the 49ers were not a very good football team in 2016 which resulted in them facing early deficits. Due to this, Hyde could of been having games where he was averaging 5 or so yards a carry, but the team had to go away from the run. With a new head coach in Kyle Shanahan, some have questioned if Hyde will be the starter heading into 2017. The 49ers drafted Joe Williams in the fourth round and went out and signed Tim Hightower in free agency. Regardless, Hyde gave us a glimpse of what he can be capable of. Durability is a concern for many with Hyde though as he has now missed 14 games in three seasons.
Hit or miss: Push
Jay Ajayi, Dolphins: My biggest fear with selecting Ajayi to breakout last year was the Dolphins once again being enamored with a former star at the end of his career. It didn’t get off to a great start as Ajayi was told not to travel with the team in week one to Seattle after expressing frustration due to Arian Foster being named the starter over him. The reason I stuck with predicting Ajayi was I figured Adam Gase had enough common sense to see what the younger back was capable of producing leading to an end result of the prediction being justified.
Despite starting just 12 games in 2016, Ajayi made his impact known finishing fourth in rushing with 1,272 yards (4.9 yards a carry) and eight touchdowns. Foster even retired midseason opening things up for Ajayi after the Boise State product had two straight 200 yards games and added a third later in the year. One area where Ajayi excelled was creating yards after contact. Per Pro Football Focus, Ajayi was second amongst all backs in 2016 with 900 yards after initial contact for an average of 3.5 yards per carry. Now coming into the year as the Dolphins clear feature back, it wouldn’t be surprising if Ajayi built on those numbers in 2017.
Hit or miss: Hit
Jeremy Langford, Bears: While Langford’s yards per carry stats weren’t super inspiring in his rookie season, one thing that had me interested in him was the volume of touches that figured to be there. For that reason, I wrote that 1,300 yards and double digit touchdowns wasn’t out of the question in 2016. While I was right about a Bears running back from a Big 10 school rushing for over 1,300 yards it wasn’t Langford but rather Jordan Howard who burst onto the scene in his rookie season.
Langford started the Bears first three games and was on his way to having a nice performance in week three until he suffered a high ankle sprain and was forced to miss the next four games. In that time, Howard took the opportunity given to him and didn’t look back. In the remaining nine games Langford played, he saw less than 50 total touches. For the season, he had 62 carries for 200 yards (3.23 yards per carry) and four touchdowns while also chipping in 19 receptions. While he could be worth keeping as a handcuff for fantasy football purposes with Howard in 2017, Langford going from starting back to compliment in the span of a four week injury is yet another reminder of how cutthroat the league can be.
Hit or miss: Miss
Duke Johnson, Browns: When I put Johnson here, I did so assuming Hue Jackson would use him similar to how Giovani Bernard had been used with the Bengals the past few years. Johnson contributed as a pass catcher, but partially due to the Browns trailing constantly, the touches in the run game weren’t there. For the season, Johnson had 126 total touches for 872 yards and a touchdown. He averaged nearly five yards an attempt on the ground, and emerged as an up and coming pass catching back.
With the Browns figuring to be more competitive this year along with additions to the offensive line, Johnson should see more carries in 2017 even if Isaiah Crowell continues to see the bulk of them.
Hit or miss: Miss