Making Sense of the NFL's Most Crowded Backfields
The NFL might have put the running back position on the back burner, but that doesn't mean fans care any less about the position in training camp and depth-chart debates. Quarterbacks might be heavily scrutinized, but teams only use one. Running back rotations are all the rage in the modern NFL.
We break down the most crowded backfields coming out of minicamps, projecting the pecking orders and analyzing each player's potential for a starting job and touches this season. We limit our list to the 10 most intriguing groups in our eyes, but this slideshow could almost undoubtedly have run 32 teams deep.
From the running back factories of the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots to the question-mark places like the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins, we break down fantasy football's most intriguing position battles in depth here.
San Francisco 49ers: Frank Gore Leads Talented, Eclectic Group
- Frank Gore, 31
- Kendall Hunter, 25
- Carlos Hyde, 22
- Marcus Lattimore, 22
- LaMichael James, 24
San Francisco 49ers RB Depth Chart
Goal-line back: Gore
The 49ers have one of the oldest starting running backs in the league, which is why they draft a running back every year. Some teams never bother with the position, filling it in the late rounds or via free agency. The 49ers are one of the more run-heavy teams in the league and have the thickest depth chart at the position.
The 10-year veteran is beyond the age of breakdown and has had multiple knee reconstructions. He will have to be managed early in the season if he is going to last as the lead back. He won't. Expect the 49ers to need their depth.
Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee expects Hunter to be the first reinforcement for Gore this season. He is undersized for a feature back, though, so expect him to give up carries in short yardage and near the goal line.
One of the first backs off the 2014 draft board, Ohio State's Hyde was rated the No. 1 running back prospect by many going into the draft. He is a physical, power-running back who fits the 49ers mold. ESPN.com's Bill Williamson sees Hyde as the favorite to get the feature-back role if Gore goes down.
If he had never seen the bright lights of an operating room, Lattimore might not only be No. 1 on this list, but he could have been No. 1 in the NFL already. Instead, he is no sure thing to ever be an NFL regular. The Bee's Barrows has seen improvement, but Lattimore still has a lot to prove health-wise to get any looks among this group.
A speed back and undersized like Hunter, James is more likely to be cut than to be getting any significant touches for the 49ers this season. He still has potential, but he is merely roster depth in this group.
New England Patriots: Does Fumbling Stevan Ridley Get His Job Back?
- Shane Vereen, 25
- Stevan Ridley, 25
- James White, 22
- Brandon Bolden, 24
- Stephen Houston, 22
New England Patriots RB Depth Chart
Goal-line back: Ridley
The Patriots have one of the youngest stables of running backs in football, and that's perhaps because they have one of the oldest starting quarterbacks.
The Patriots usually rely heavily on their depth, even using LeGarrette Blount (signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers this winter in free agency) as their feature back down the stretch last year. Everyone gets time as a feature back for Bill Belichick, making this one of the more important groups to watch in training camp.
The Pats have receiving backs and big backs. Vereen is the leader of all, but he is more of a receiving back. He only got significant carries a year ago because of Ridley's fumbling issues. Vereen enters training camp as the likely starter and projects to get the bulk of the touches, particularly as a back with potential for 50-plus catches.
Ridley is in a contract year, as NFL.com's Chris Wesseling writes, but he needs to improve his ball security to get out of the Belichick doghouse. Ridley lost four fumbles each of the past two seasons, a number that is four too high for his head coach.
The former 1,200-yard, 12-touchdown rusher is still in his prime, though, so consider him a candidate to regain his role in the Pats power-rushing attack. Ridley is decidedly the leader of the Pats' big backs.
In the Pats' dichotomy, White is more of a receiving back, the Boston Herald's Jeff Howe writes. White only fumbled twice in 754 career touches with Wisconsin, according to Howe, so he is the anti-Ridley in that regard too. White backs up Vereen but won't get significant goal-line touches because of his sub-200-pound frame.
Bolden has served as a goal-line threat for Belichick in spurts, scoring five touchdowns in two seasons, so consider him Ridley's big-back backup. We list him behind White only because he was an undrafted free agent. If the Pats liked Bolden, they probably wouldn't have needed to burn a pick on White.
The 230-pounder was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Indiana. Clearly, that is big-back size. He is third in the pecking order as a short-yardage and goal-line runner, though.
New York Giants: After Year of Question Marks, They Boast Plenty of RB Depth
- Rashad Jennings, 29
- David Wilson, 23
- Andre Williams, 21
- Peyton Hillis, 28
- Michael Cox, 24
New York Giants RB Depth Chart
Goal-line back: Jennings
The Giants had issues with the health and depth of their backs a year ago, but they add Jennings via free agency and Williams in the draft. They also hope Wilson's career-threatening neck injury will be healed enough to allow him to be cleared for contact in training camp, as Michael Eisen of the Giants' official website writes.
Jennings fits the Giants' traditional running-back mold. He is a big back at 6'1", 231 pounds, so he will handle the early downs and goal-line work regardless of Wilson's health.
Jennings hasn't been a full-time feature back in his four-year career, only emerging in that role in spurts last season. He also hasn't played a 16-game season, which might be because of his physical running style getting him banged up. He is going to need plays, if not full games, off.
Wilson was drafted to be a game-breaker. He has merely wound up broken. He needed career-threatening spinal fusion surgery and told Eisen:
I sat down (in early June) and Dr. Cammisa showed me the X-rays and the CAT scan and my surgery has been successful. We're just waiting for the bone to heal strong enough for contact. The doctors will know when that point is. I feel perfectly fine. ...
I can do anything and everything that's asked of me at this point. I'm removed when it's defense vs. offense so as not to have an accident. I'm catching passes, taking handoffs from the quarterbacks and getting reps with the offense without the defense.
There's no need to have contact (now). We want to wait until it's fused all the way, but there's no need to have unnecessary contact at an unnecessary point in the season. We don't have full contact in OTAs, anyway. We don't have pads on. Any contact that happens in the OTAs is accidental and wasn't meant to happen. There's no need for me to go out there and have an accident that takes us backward when we've come so far and my surgery went well and I'm making such good progress. There's no need for me to go out there and have an accident. We're just working hard, and I'm learning the playbook. As long as I'm getting my mental reps, I think the coaches believe in my athletic ability to take over after that, and I'll be just fine.
Wilson, despite promising reports, just doesn't have the stature for a feature back in a power-running scheme. He is more of a change-of-pace guy now...and not as a third-down back because he lacks the pass-blocking strength and skills.
Williams rushed for over 2,000 yards as a senior at Boston College, and at 230 pounds, he will be an option to follow Jennings as the early-down back. He will have to jump veteran bruiser Hillis in camp, but as you see above, we don't think that will be much of an issue. Even if Williams doesn't possess Wilson's speed, he has the feature-back potential because of his size and physical running style.
He is merely roster depth at this point in his career. He hasn't proved capable of staying healthy since his 1,000-yard season and subsequent Madden cover appearance. We fully expect him to slide down the depth chart as Wilson proves healthy and Williams proves capable.
Cox is a big back who can do more than he did a year ago, but that is close to multiplying by zero. He is merely a special teams option at this point.
New Orleans Saints: Will Mark Ingram Ever Reach His 1st-Round Potential?
- Pierre Thomas, 29
- Mark Ingram, 24
- Khiry Robinson, 24
- Travaris Cadet, 25
- Tim Flanders, 22
New Orleans Saints RB Depth Chart
Goal-line back: Thomas
The loss of Darren Sproles gives this group a chance to make a more significant impact than it has in the Sean Payton regime. Sproles' departure to the Philadelphia Eagles will free up a lot of touches, particularly in the pass-happy Saints attack.
Thomas is the veteran with the most pass-protection skills, but he's nearing the age of breakdown for backs and is coming off a year in which he averaged just 3.7 yards per carry. That just won't get it done for a Saints team that uses the run to offset a wide-open passing offense with Drew Brees under center.
Thomas might get the early downs, goal-line touches and initial starts, but he is almost assured of surrendering that role in short order.
We are going to go ahead and blame Ingram for the devaluing of the running back position in the NFL draft. He has been a first-round bust, and he heads into a contract year without much hope to change that. Ingram did average 4.9 yards per carry in his limited time a year ago, so perhaps there is still juice in those first-round legs.
Watch him for a potential breakthrough, if only because Thomas is old and a high injury risk.
If Ingram wasn't such a slug, no one would even know who Robinson is. Alas, Robinson is in the mix for the feature-back role behind Thomas.
ESPN.com's Mike Triplett reports "Payton famously revealed that his mentor, Bill Parcells, compared Robinson to Hall of Famer Curtis Martin and insisted that Payton needed to use him more." Robinson would have more juice if he wasn't a third option in an offense that rotates backs too much and hardly focuses on the running game.
With three big backs ahead of him, Cadet is the leading candidate to pick up some slack left in the shifty, pass-receiving role vacated by Sproles. That makes Cadet someone to watch in camp, but he is no threat to be a starter among this group.
The undrafted free agent out of Sam Houston State is more of a stocky, bowling-ball-type runner than a shifty Sproles replacement. It leaves him little chance to make a significant impact at this point.
Indianapolis Colts: Trent Richardson Yet Another RB Trying to Shed Bust Label
Indianapolis Colts RB Depth Chart
Goal-line back: Richardson
The Colts dealt a costly first-round pick for Richardson last fall, so they have to give him another shot to make good on his potential. They also get Ballard back from a season lost to injury and have Bradshaw hanging on at the end of his career. The Colts want to run the ball to balance the offense under offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, but they need someone to step forward to do so.
Having a full offseason and training camp should help Richardson with the Colts this year. Expect him to be the starter and goal-line back, at least initially. ESPN.com's Mike Wells reports Richardson has gotten his weight down to 225 pounds this spring. The Colts paid dearly for Richardson, so they have to try to get something out of him.
He is coming off reconstructive knee surgery that cost him a potential breakthrough season a year ago. Because Richardson has been so lackluster, we should probably expect to see a lot of Ballard this season as long as his health/knee hold up. He is a sleeper to steal Richardson's thunder.
He is not yet old, but his history of injury woes makes him seem like the oldest 28-year-old back in the NFL. Even if he proves healthy in training camp, the Colts wouldn't dare pin feature-back duties on a back who just won't be able to hold down that role for long. He is a situational reserve at this point in his career.
The former University of Florida speedster can make the team for his return capabilities, but he is too small to be counted on in the running game.
San Diego Chargers: They Keep Adding Running Backs to the Mix
- Ryan Mathews, 26
- Donald Brown, 27
- Danny Woodhead, 29
- Marion Grice, 22
San Diego Chargers RB Depth Chart
Goal-line back: Mathews
The Chargers finally got a 16-game season out of Mathews, but that didn't stop them from adding depth to the position, signing Brown away from the Indianapolis Colts and drafting Grice, a well-regarded prospect who slipped to Round 6.
Consider last season a breakthrough for the glass-like back. Tom Krasovic of U-T San Diego reports Mathews' weight is up to 222 this spring, which could help him handle feature-back duties with more durability. The offseason additions might seem like a vote of no confidence, but consider those just insurance policies for an important position in the Chargers offense.
Brown finished last season as the Colts' starter, but he hasn't been a full-time feature back in his career and doesn't project to be in San Diego, barring another serious Mathews injury. Consider him Mathews' backup and a 10-touch guy if everyone stays healthy.
Undersized, undrafted and an overachiever, Woodhead might not have ever had an NFL career. Now the question is how much does he have left? He will be one of the most prominent receiving backs in the league and do just enough around the goal line to frustrate the heck out of Mathews fantasy owners.
Despite falling to the sixth round, Grice has a 6'0" frame that can develop into a solid NFL feature back. The Arizona State product is real raw and stuck behind three backs who will get a lot of use, but he could emerge as the Chargers' running back of the future. Watch him in camp.
Cincinnati Bengals: Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill Prepared to Take the Reins
- Giovani Bernard, 22
- Jeremy Hill, 21
- BenJarvus Green-Ellis, 28
- Cedric Peerman, 27
- Rex Burkhead, 23
Cincinnati Bengals RB Depth Chart
Goal-line back: Green-Ellis (until Hill proves worthy)
The Bengals were the first team to draft a running back in 2013 and the second this May. Clearly, they want to make over that position. They also want to go to a power rushing attack under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who replaces a pass-happy Jay Gruden, who left to become Washington's head coach.
The second-year back is taking over as the starter for BGE, and he wants to step out of his conservative approach he took as a rookie. He told ESPN.com's Coley Harvey:
If you're a running back, you always want to be able to have explosive runs. Maybe not so much just the 10-yard runs or 15-yard runs or the 20. I want to be able to break the 50s, 60s and 70s. And who knows? Maybe the 80s and 90s. Things like that take hard work and dedication. That's really where your skills come into play is on those explosive runs.
Your rookie year you don't want to take too many chances, so you get what you can, you get the yardage you can and you live on the next play. This year, I'll take a few more chances. A lot of people talk about the Miami run [last season]. That was a chance that I took. But that was a run where, I don't do that often. ...
Maybe on a deep run I can cut back a little and do things like that. But that's all I'll tell you. I won't put too many of my secrets out there.
While the Bengals are confident in Bernard's ability, they also didn't believe he could do all the lifting, choosing the second running back off the board in Hill. Hill, a 6'1", 235-pound bruiser, has already jumped BGE this spring, according to various reports from offseason workouts.
Hill will do the inside running Bernard's smaller frame won't allow him to do. Hill might also emerge as the Bengals' goal-line back.
The 28-year-old has to see the writing on the wall. It is written in big red marker, covered in red tape and potentially tagged with a pink slip. If Bernard and Hill prove capable of handling all of the duties in training camp, BGE could be cut, which would save the Bengals as much as $2.5 million, according to Harvey.
BGE's potential salary cut is the saving grace for this duo. They are merely backups behind two of the highest-drafted running backs in recent years.
New York Jets: Chris Johnson Adds a Playmaker and Depth-Chart Battle
- Chris Johnson, 28
- Chris Ivory, 26
- Bilal Powell, 25
- Daryl Richardson, 24
- Alex Green, 25
New York Jets RB Depth Chart
Goal-line back: Ivory
Johnson might not be a power back in the Rex Ryan mold, but the Jets haven't gotten much out of an offense using the slow pluggers they have gone with in recent years. CJ2K adds a measure of explosion and figures to be too good to use as a backup.
He has a New York-sized personality and showed it this week, declaring himself a candidate for 2,000 yards again, according to the N.Y. Daily News' Seth Walder.
I'd just retire and not play anymore if I didn't feel like I was still capable of being a 2,000-yard back. I know I have the ability. ... I don't feel like I'm getting older or I lost a step. I still feel good. I still feel explosive. I just know the type of player I am, I'd never sell myself short. ... If I (were) to come in here and not really believe in my mind that I can't play, then why would I continue to go through all of this stuff?
Johnson is still a potential game-breaker and threat to take it to the house anywhere on the field. In the run-heavy Jets attack, he can get a ton of carries and not even have to do the inside running. Those brutal carries can fall on his disposable underlings.
You might think the physicality of Ivory fits the Jets better, but don't be fooled into believing Ivory will start over Johnson, barring injury. If the Jets liked Ivory so much, they wouldn't have been so intrigued by Johnson's speed. Ivory can serve as Johnson's caddie and goal-line back, though.
He has a role because the Jets will run the ball so much, but he is behind Johnson and Ivory in every aspect going into training camp. He might get pushed by offseason acquisition Richardson, though.
He was a potential starter for the St. Louis Rams, but he is merely roster depth here. The Jets will roster at least four backs, if not five, because of the pounding they need to divvy up.
The former Green Bay Packer is not old, but he is an NFL hanger-on. Odds are long he even makes the roster.
Buffalo Bills: C.J. Spiller Has Proved He Needs Plenty of Assistance
- C.J. Spiller, 26
- Fred Jackson, 33
- Bryce Brown, 23
- Anthony Dixon, 26
Buffalo Bills RB Depth Chart
Goal-line back: Jackson
The Bills should have had an NFL superstar in Spiller by now. Instead they have a question mark. The undersized speedster will need help to carry the load in the Bills' fledgling offense under head coach Doug Marrone and second-year quarterback EJ Manuel.
He is a starter and the game-breaker, but last year's injury-plagued season revealed he is incapable of being a lone ranger for the Bills. Consider him a candidate for 15-20 touches, but plenty of them will need to be low-impact carries to the edge and pass receptions.
Jackson is too old to be a starter or be trusted to stay healthy for 16 games. He will be a short-yardage and goal-line plugger behind Spiller.
He has had his moments with the Philadelphia Eagles, but some of them have featured fumbling woes. The Bills traded for a young back with considerable upside and feature-back potential. He will have to bide his time behind Spiller and Jackson, but their history of health woes gives Brown a very good chance at making a midseason splash.
The big back will back up Jackson in the short-yardage role if he makes the roster. With the ability of the trio ahead of him, he doesn't project to get many touches at this point.
Miami Dolphins: Lamar Miller Holding Off Knowshon Moreno Thus Far
- Knowshon Moreno, 26
- Lamar Miller, 23
- Daniel Thomas, 26
- Mike Gillislee, 23
Miami Dolphins RB Depth Chart
Goal-line back: Thomas
Knowshon Moreno's current status as No. 3 on the depth chart, according to various reports, has been one of the NFL's biggest headlines of the minicamp season. It is clearly not changing our opinion of what will be Week 1 here, though.
Call Moreno's 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown breakthrough a product of the Denver Broncos system and a contract year all you want, but those numbers don't come easy. At the end of training camp, Moreno will be the Dolphins' starter in our book, assuming he gets over his knee injury that could require surgery, per NFL.com's Ian Rapoport.
He is running with the starters this June, according to the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson, and a third-year breakout candidate, but if the Dolphins liked him so much, they wouldn't have spent the free-agent money on Moreno in a suppressed market for running backs. Miller is the Dolphins' running back of the future—perhaps even the present—but wait until training camp to really buy the latter.
Moreno and Miller are both on the smaller side, so Thomas still has a role with the Dolphins as a big plugger at this point. He could pick up a handful of short-yardage touchdowns if he sticks with the team out of camp. Size needs suggest he will.
He is a case study in why we don't put too much stock in Miller's headline-worthy spring. Gillislee was a popular name in Dolphins camp a year ago. Now, he might not even stick around. He could impress in camp and push Thomas off the roster, but he seems to be a third iteration of Moreno and Miller right now.
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, was the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this past season. He is now an NFL featured writer here. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.
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