Running back is a popular breakout position to look at every season as so much of it depends on the opportunity. Last season, David Johnson and Jay Ajayi are two players who certainly took advantage of their respective chances. The crop of backs who could breakout this year is one of the smallest I can remember and some of that could have to do with the strong class of incoming rookies. Many teams drafted players to take over open running back roles, and I personally don’t feel a player can “breakout” as a rookie as there isn’t any prior play to go off of. With that being said, here are some backs I feel can take their games to the next level in 2017.
Isaiah Crowell, Browns: I had Crowell here a few years ago, but 2016 ended up being his best year to date. He saw a career high in carries with 198, a career high in yards with 952 and yards per carry with 4.8. Much of that could be due to Crowell’s penchant for breaking off long runs. According to Pro Football Focus, 47.5% of Crowell’s yards came from 16 runs that were 15+ yards. That percentage was the highest among all qualifying backs. While that number could be discouraging to some, it’s worth noting that the Browns playing from behind prevented Crowell from seeing more carries.
With the Browns figuring to be more competitive in 2017, Crowell should see more touches behind an offensive line the team paid big money to improve. Duke Johnson figures to be the change of pace back for Crowell and could take some snaps in passing situations, but Crowell still managed to catch 40 passes last season. A season of 1,300 plus yards from scrimmage and double digit touchdowns wouldn’t seem out of the question.
Ameer Abdullah, Lions: For Abdullah, it will be a matter of staying healthy. When on the field Abdullah has shown the ability to be a dynamic player who can contribute in multiple facets. In the first week of 2016, he was able to show everyone his well rounded set of skills in what was one of the better performances for the Lions offense. Unfortunately for Abdullah, he is coming off a dreaded Lisfranc foot injury that shortened his 2016 season. Abdullah figures to be the primary back for the Lions entering 2017, and a season with 1,200 or so yards from scrimmage and a half dozen touchdowns seems obtainable with his health permitting.
Rex Burkhead, Patriots: The Patriots backfield will be extremely hard to figure out in 2017, but if there is anyone in line to set career highs across the board, it would be Burkhead. For his career, Burkhead has just 87 career rushing attempts with 74 coming in 2016. In that sample, he showed that not only can he run between the tackles, but he’s a more than serviceable option as a pass catcher too. One thing Bill Belichick values out of his players more than anything is reliability, and with Mike Gillislee sidelined most of camp and James White/Dion Lewis serving more as pass catching specialists, the lead back role could be Burkhead’s for the taking.
Derrick Henry, Titans: Paired with DeMarco Murray to help orchestrate the “exotic smashmouth” offense for the Titans, Henry wasn’t as involved as many would’ve thought his rookie year. He did manage to see 110 carries and performed well with them racking up 490 yards and five touchdowns. While Murray (who saw 293 carries last season) returns and figures to limit Henry’s upside, it wouldn’t be surprising if the second year back was more involved in 2017. Murray is entering his age 29 season so he’s towards the end of what would be the prime of a typical running back. He’s also had a history of nagging injuries throughout his career. If Murray were to miss time, and Henry performed well in spot starts, it wouldn’t be surprising if this backfield became more of a 50/50 split. In a year with limited breakout options at the position, Henry is worth noting.