7 Most Talented Backfield Tandems in the NFL
The strategy for NFL offenses has drastically changed in the last decade. With five-wide formations and West Coast-based offenses being led by quarterbacks who have played in pass-happy schemes since high school, pro offenses are producing at historical levels.
But for teams that want to win, a successful running game is crucial. In 2014, the top 11 rushing teams compiled a record of 100-74-2. The 11 teams with the worst ground games mustered a record of 76-112. The end results confirm that teams that can establish the run tend to win more games.
Many factors go into a successful rushing attack but none more than the talent at running back. Some offensive schemes have a single back who receives the majority of carries. Such an approach lessens the resources a team might invest at the position, and keeps the offense unpredictable because it will engage in fewer situational substitutions.
More teams have started to utilize multiple backs throughout the season to keep talented players fresh. Reducing wear over long-term periods is also important, as a recent study by Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com suggested that running backs see decline in production at age 27.
Since there is great value in having a very good backup, we will look at the seven most talented running back tandems in the NFL. There are notable star running backs not included on this list because their backup is not starter quality if they were to be injured.
This list focuses on pure talent and how these tandems will perform in 2014. How the combination performed last season has been included.
All stats used are from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required) or sports-reference.com. All combine and pro day info is courtesy of ESPN.com. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac.com.
1. LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles (Philadelphia Eagles)
2013 Combined statistics: 367 carries, 1,827 yards, 11 touchdowns; 123 receptions, 1,143 yards, four touchdowns.
When the Philadelphia Eagles traded for Darren Sproles this offseason, opposing defensive coordinators might’ve started getting nightmares.
Of all NFL running backs, the only more versatile and dangerous playmaker than Sproles is LeSean McCoy. It’s only fitting that head coach and offensive guru Chip Kelly would have both in his stable of backs.
Matt Bowen of Bleacher Report produced a terrific breakdown of Kelly’s offense, and a major focus of the offense is the motion that occurs pre- and post-snap. The motion forces defenses to choose among which receivers to cover, and more importantly, which receivers are to draw coverage from linebackers. The agility of McCoy and Sproles in the open field make them nearly impossible to cover with a linebacker. Hence, huge production occurs.
At just age 26, McCoy is still in his prime as a runner. 2013 was a career season, when he posted a league-leading 1,607 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, as well as 539 receiving yards. It should come as no surprise he was easily PFF’s top running back last season. There’s no reason to think McCoy will slow down in 2014.
The great value with Sproles is that he can play simultaneously with McCoy. Despite being 31 years old, Sproles figures to be a major contributor. In his 427 snaps for the New Orleans Saints last season, Sproles accumulated PFF’s top receiving grade among all running backs. Seeing as he is going to another system that will benefit his style of play, another monster receiving year is likely coming for the diminutive playmaker.
2. Reggie Bush and Joique Bell (Detroit Lions)
2013 Combined statistics: 389 carries, 1,656 yards, 12 touchdowns; 107 receptions, 1,053 yards, three touchdowns.
The Detroit Lions’ backfield of Reggie Bush and Joique Bell has two very different career paths to this point. But each has had to prove oneself over again in the NFL, and together now they form one of the best tandems in the league.
In Bush’s first season as a Lion, he set a career-high in total yards, logging 1,512 yards on offense in 14 games. His ability to turn the corner on running plays is still among the fastest in NFL history. Entering his ninth NFL season, his speed is complemented by his improved vision and patience.
As a receiver, Bush had 506 yards on 54 catches. He finds creases in the defense and creates in the open field, benefiting from Calvin Johnson roaming the outside of the formation. Of Bush's 54 catches, only two were made beyond 10 yards downfield.
Unheralded running back Joique Bell finished 2013 as PFF’s 10th ranked for a reason: consistency. At 220 pounds, he’s not reliant on explosiveness, rather his ability to routinely gain yards. He averaged just 3.9 yards per carry, but his role as a short-yardage and goal-line back early in 2013 limited his opportunities to break off big runs.
If looking for proof of his ability, Bell also racked up 53 receptions for 547 yards in 2013. With a total of 2,096 yards from scrimmage since 2012, Bell is one of the best backups in the league.
3. C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson (Buffalo Bills)
2013 Combined statistics: 408 carries, 1,832 yards, 11 touchdowns; 80 receptions, 572 yards, one touchdown
The Buffalo Bills’ dynamic running back duo of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson haven’t been able to stay healthy in the same season since Spiller was drafted in 2010. Despite the extensive injury list for each player and the inconsistent play at quarterback, the Bills have one of the most talented running back tandems in the NFL.
Spiller is one of the best big-play threats in the league, averaging 5.1 yards per carry throughout his career. The fifth-year playmaker affects the game as a receiver as well, notching one reception every 10 snaps in 2013. His versatility will allow the Bills’ offense to spread the field and be less predictable.
Spiller doesn’t need a fullback to be an effective runner, as he has the necessary skill to be a top-10 running back in the league. He has tremendous burst through the lane, and his lateral agility can leave defenders on the ground.
To complement Spiller, the Bills have Fred Jackson. Despite entering this season at age 33, Jackson continues to be one of the most consistent players in the league. PFF’s 13th-ranked running back in 2013, Jackson attempted 10 or more carries in all but two games, producing 4.3 yards a carry. Unlike his counterpart, Jackson relies on his vision, patience and great balance to be productive. At 210 pounds, he’s difficult to bring down. His lack of speed limited him to just one 20-plus yard gain in 2013, but he has been a top backup and solid spot starter in recent seasons.
To succeed, this tandem just has to stay healthy. The two backs combined to play 1,076 snaps in 2013, and for a team trying to groom a young quarterback, it needs to have as many offensive weapons on the field as possible.
Considering Jackson’s age and the injury history for each, some may be surprised that this is still a top-eight tandem, but the production and talent will still be high in 2014.
4. Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde (San Francisco 49ers)
2013 Combined statistics (not including Hyde’s senior season at Ohio State): 276 carries, 1,128 yards, nine touchdowns; 16 receptions, 141 yards.
How did the talent-rich 49ers get richer this offseason? In part by acquiring the best running back in the 2014 draft, according to Doug Farrar of SI.com and Matt Miller of Bleacher Report. Hyde joins a deep stable of running backs, but his ability to impact the 49ers offense immediately will help him rise to the backup position on the depth chart.
But for now, incumbent Frank Gore will continue to receive the majority of carries. PFF’s 11th-best running back averaged over 70 yards a game for his eighth consecutive season in 2013. Gore has adjusted well as he ages, as he no longer relies on lower-body explosion to gain yards at the line of scrimmage. His vision is elite. He is powerful yet patient, which fits his offense perfectly. Don’t be surprised when Gore eclipses 1,000 yards once again this year.
Hyde may not see the same type of carries he did in 2013 with Ohio State, where he rushed for 1,521 yards on 208 attempts. His average of 7.3 yards per carry was partially due to offensive scheme, but he often created those opportunities for himself.
Like Gore, Hyde has great vision and feet. He doesn’t waste steps in the backfield, instead hitting the running lane as soon as it is opening. Hyde’s balance is tremendous for a 230-pound player. He’ll be ready for his number to be called when the time comes.
5. Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill (Cincinnati Bengals)
2013 Combined statistics (not including Hill’s senior season at LSU): 170 carries, 695 yards, five touchdowns; 56 receptions, 514 yards, three touchdowns
The Cincinnati Bengals continued to stockpile offensive talent to surround quarterback Andy Dalton this offseason when they selected running back Jeremy Hill in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft. He joins Giovani Bernard, who was selected in the same round of the 2013 draft. Although this tandem doesn’t have the experience that some of the others on this list do, it has as much physical talent as any in the league.
Bernard had a tremendous rookie season for the Bengals, logging 1,209 total yards in 627 snaps. His ability to reel off big-chunk plays in the open field should continue to increase as he gets more opportunities.
Bernard earned the trust of former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden in Week 9 against the Miami Dolphins, when he recorded 104 total yards on 13 touches. After that performance, he played 61.2 percent of the offensive snaps the rest of the season. Ending 2013 as PFF’s third-best back, Bernard should see the majority of snaps in 2014.
To become more consistent running the ball, the Bengals acquired Hill to battle incumbent starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis. In 2013, Green-Ellis mustered only 3.4 yards per carry, a figure that shouldn’t be tough for Hill to improve upon, especially since he possesses a level of physical talent that Green-Ellis doesn't. As a senior at LSU, Hill ran for 1,401 yards and 16 touchdowns. That type of production isn’t fair to expect, but his capability to produce consistently will be welcomed.
Predicting success in the NFL can be difficult, but under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, Bernard and Hill will have many chances. While calling plays for the Oakland Raiders in 2010 and 2011, Oakland averaged 30 rushing attempts per game. That rate would’ve been good enough for a top-five finish in 2013. Expect Bernard and Hill to be one of the top tandems in 2014.
6. Ryan Mathews and Donald Brown (San Diego Chargers)
2013 Combined statistics: 387 carries, 1,792 yards, 12 touchdowns; 53 receptions, 403 yards, three touchdowns
The San Diego Chargers offense had a major renaissance in 2013, finishing 13th in rushing yards per game. The Chargers benefited from a tremendous season from Ryan Mathews, who rushed for a career-high 1,255 yards on 285 carries and added 189 yards as a receiver.
This production wasn’t random for the former first-round pick, though. His 1,444 yards from scrimmage was his best season as a professional, since he racked up 1,546 total yards in 2011 in 14 games. To have another monster season, Mathews just has to stay healthy. He has all of the physical tools needed to be one of the top backs in the league.
One of the best signings of the offseason was Donald Brown, who was the best Colts’ running back in 2013. Despite little offensive line help, Brown averaged 5.3 yards a carry and provided a much-needed spark to the running game.
As the backup to Mathews, Brown will be a quicker, change-of-pace back who will allow the Chargers to use Danny Woodhead more as a receiver. Surprisingly, Brown was PFF’s 19th-ranked running back last season, as he’s a good pass protector and consistent runner.
7. Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley (New England Patriots)
2013 Combined statistics: 222 carries, 981 yards, eight touchdowns; 57 receptions, 534 yards, three touchdowns.
The Patriots’ talented duo of Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley played just 638 snaps in 2013. Vereen missed eight games due to wrist surgery, and Ridley struggled with fumbling issues, causing him to be benched. When both are on the field, the Patriots undeniably have one of the best tandems in the league at running back.
Vereen is one of the more unique backs in the league because of his ability to catch the ball. He produced 47 receptions in 2013 and ran the ball 44 times in 362 snaps, showing he’s a key component to the Patriots attack. His 12-reception, 153-yard performance in Week 14 against the Cleveland Browns was incredible because of the way he consistently found the open field and made plays after the catch.
Vereen isn’t the best athlete or the most elusive runner, but he gets the job done. He finished last year as PFF’s 17th-rated back.
Ridley has been working on correcting his fumbling problems, which should help get him out of Bill Belichick’s doghouse. Ridley’s a much better pure runner than Vereen, as he uses his 225-pound frame to batter defenders.
The Patriots’ offensive pace also works to his advantage. Ridley plays better as the game progresses because his size and the tempo of the offense wears out linebackers and safeties, which leads to bigger running lanes in the second half.
2013 was a tough season for this tandem, but in terms of raw talent, they’re well deserving of this ranking. Expect 2014 to bring more success than last season.
Green Bay Packers (Eddie Lacy/James Starks); Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Doug Martin/Mike James); Pittsburgh Steelers (Le’Veon Bell/LeGarrette Blount).