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Breaking Down New York Giants' Situation at Running Back

Patricia Traina@Patricia_TrainaFeatured Columnist IVMay 13, 2016

New York Giants running back Paul Perkins (39) moves to another drill with teammates during NFL football rookie camp, Friday, May 6, 2016, in, East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

Moving right along in my series breaking down each position unit on the New York Giants, here now is a look at the running backs, including fullbacks.

2015 in Review

The Giants took the “running back by committee” concept to a whole new level—one that, quite frankly, didn’t work.

I’m referring to, of course, the now infamous four-man committee, a desperation ploy in which the coaching staff tried to keep all of the running backs healthy for the first time in years and get better production out of the unit.

The plan worked as far as keeping the backs fresh and getting them through a 16-game season—starter Rashad Jennings in fact made it through the first 16-game season of his career.

However, the production by this unit left something to be desired.  Per TeamRankings, the Giants collected 27.01 percent of their offensive yards on the ground (25th in the league). They were also at or near the bottom in other categories such as average rushing first downs per game (4.8), rushing yards per game (100.6) and average rushing touchdowns per game (0.3).

Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

Simply put, the four-man committee was a disaster. Players couldn’t get into a groove, and often times the coaching staff stuck to the committee rather than going with the hot hand, which is something it ultimately did for the last month of the season with better results.

When you combine the ineffectiveness of the running game and the fact the Giants only had one consistent threat at receiver (Odell Beckham Jr.), it’s a small miracle the Giants offense finished eighth overall in terms of average yards per game (372.0), despite ranking 27th in the league in average time of possession (28:20).

A closer look at the contributing factors behind that include a low lost-fumble total on offense (seven, tying them for second fewest in the NFL); 53 big passing plays of 20 or more yards, with 16 of those big pass plays going for 40 or more yards (second most in the NFL).

The Giants needed more from their running game. The committee didn’t help one bit, and what good is it to have four healthy backs if none are consistently effective?

 

2016 Outlook: Where Can This Unit Improve?

Gee, where to start with this analysis? How about in average rushing yards per play, where, per NFL Game Stats and Information Systems, the Giants’ average of 3.9 yards per play was below the league average of 4.1 yards?

How about rushing touchdowns? Last season, the Giants tied for 29th (with Cleveland and Jacksonville) for fewest rushing touchdowns (five) in the league.

In fact, since 2013, the first of three consecutive seasons the Giants failed to finish above .500 in the standings, they have failed to record more than 13 rushing touchdowns in any one year.

Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

Statistics aside, let’s talk about the use of the players. First, it goes without saying that the four-man committee cannot be allowed to continue.

Second, the Giants need to do a better job with optimizing their resources. Last offseason, they plunked down $12.35 million on a three-year deal for Shane Vereen, who was widely thought to be the missing piece, that third-down specialist and receiving threat in space from the backfield the team had hoped David Wilson would be.

So what happened? Vereen ended up playing in 38.7 percent of the Giants' offensive snaps, the lowest percentage of his career since 2013.

They also need to identify their hot hand a lot sooner and stick with him. For instance, Rashad Jennings has four 100-yard games when given the ball at least 15 times per contest since 2013.

Andre Williams has two 100-yard games when given the ball at least 20 times and has only twice failed to rush for at least 50 yards when getting the ball at least 15 times a game as a pro.

 

The X-Factor: The Offensive Line

When talking about the running backs, it’s only fair to include the offensive line in the discussion since that unit is responsible for opening the holes for the backs.

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Let’s look at some numbers as compiled by Football Outsiders. First, 19 percent of the Giants’ rushing attempts last year were stuffed for zero or negative yards, the 11th most in the league.

When taking that figure into consideration, the Giants' adjusted average rushing yards per attempt fell to 3.95 per carry. 

Want to talk about second-level yardage? The Giants finished 21st with an average of 1.10 yards at the second level beyond the line of scrimmage and 23rd in open-field yards.

Not all of the blame falls on the offensive line. How the Giants configure their line based on their offensive identity could also play a factor.

In other words, if they want to be known as a passing-first offense—not a stretch given the scales being tipped in favor of the passing game—then expect the right side of that offensive line to consist of guys who are stronger pass protectors than maybe run-blockers.

If they want balance—and it would be hard to imagine they don’t want that at some point—then they’re likely going to need linemen who are able to deliver the goods as both run-blockers and pass protectors.

Whether they have that on the roster right now remains to be seen.

 

Questions

How Many Running Backs Will They Carry?

In the past, the Giants have kept four running backs and a fullback and have usually tried to stash a youngster on the practice squad.

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Don’t be surprised if that changes given the shift in the offense’s play-selection trend of late. According to TeamRankings, the Giants ran the ball on just 38.27 percent of their offensive plays last season, down from 41.34 percent in 2014, the first year of the new offense installed under Ben McAdoo’s watch. 

Part of that reason is that, despite the goal of having a balanced offense, the Giants are more set up to pass than they are to run, and indeed, the passing game has been the bread and butter of this offense for the last two years.

With the addition of Sterling Shepard to complement Odell Beckham Jr. and the optimism surrounding the return of Victor Cruz at receiver, the Giants’ running game could very well continue to take a back seat to the passing game, thereby making the need to carry more than four running backs a luxury. 

Getting back to the question of how many running backs this team will keep of an experienced group that includes Rashad Jennings, Andre Williams, Shane Vereen, Orleans Darkwa, Bobby Rainey and Paul Perkins—I’ll talk about the fullbacks in just a moment—the prediction is four, barring any injuries. (I’ll discuss which four in just a moment as well.)

 

Who Will the Four Be?

Obviously, the health factor will play a huge role in who makes the 53-man roster and who doesn’t. For instance, we know, thanks to Jordan Raanan of NJ Advance Media, that Darkwa is currently sidelined with a broken tibia.

While Raanan reports the injury is considered “minor,” it still remains to be seen as to whether Darkwa is ready for the start of camp given that the tibia is the weight-bearing bone in the leg. 

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - DECEMBER 27: Shane Vereen #34 of the New York Giants carries the ball during an NFL game against the Minnesota Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium December 27, 2015 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  (Photo by Tom Dahlin/Getty Images)
Tom Dahlin/Getty Images

Another factor is performance. Fumbles and dropped passes are huge red flags, as is a player’s limitations on special teams. 

With all that said, here’s a quick look at the four who are projected to make the roster.

Jennings: He’s coming off his best season last year, so if healthy, there’s no reason to think he won’t be the starter again.

Williams: Fans might have given up on Williams after a dismal sophomore campaign, but McAdoo hasn’t, at least not yet, according to Raanan. With Jennings set to carry a $3 million cap figure in 2017, that might be a bit much for a running back who saw his snap total tumble from 53.2 percent in 2014 to 38.0 in 2015.

Vereen: Vereen has shown he can be deadly in space when given the opportunity. He just needs to have more opportunities than he did last season.

Perkins: The fifth-round draft pick comes in with a load of promise and potential that still needs to be tapped at this level. While he is not likely to make much of an impact coming out of the gate, if he reaches his upside, he should start to contribute sooner than later.

 

Will They Carry a Fullback?

Not exactly. By that I mean that the days of this team carrying a pure fullback are finally going to end in favor of a player who can provide a little more versatility in terms of the options in the backfield.

Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

Let’s look at some numbers regarding this team’s use of a pure fullback. Per Pro Football Focus, Nikita Whitlock, who beat out Henry Hynoski for the starting job, played in 15 games last season, taking just 133 of the snaps on offense.

The year before, Hynoski, playing in 16 games, played in just 209 snaps. If we go back to 2012 (Hynoski was on injured reserve for most of the 2013 season) and 2011, Hynoski as the pure fullback had played in 428 and 372 snaps, respectively.

The proof is in the pudding. The need for a pure fullback is being phased out in the Giants' version of the West Coast offense.

However, the position itself isn’t going away. The Giants signed free-agent fullback/H-back Will Johnson in the offseason, a player who offers a little more versatility than a traditional fullback.

ORCHARD PARK, NY - OCTOBER 4: Nikita Whitlock #49 of the New York Giants warms up before the start of NFL game action against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium on October 4, 2015 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Per Pro Football Focus, Johnson has caught 31 of 44 pass targets since entering the league in 2012 with 163 of his 235 yards coming after the catch.

In the past, when the Giants would put a pure fullback on the field, the opposing defense wouldn’t have to account for him in the passing game. But having a guy who is capable of being a receiver gives the Giants' offensive play-callers another option to consider based on the personnel.

What’s more, if sixth-round draft pick Jerrell Adams, who comes in with a good reputation as a blocker, can learn how to block from the backfield, he too would give the Giants another option to consider down the line.

Key Newcomers

Bobby Rainey

Brian Blanco/Associated Press

Rainey spent the 2013 season with current Giants offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, who at the time was the offensive coordinator for Tampa Bay. Playing in relief of Doug Martin (shoulder), Rainey enjoyed his finest season that year, rushing 150 times for 566 yards and five touchdowns.

Rainey has caught 51 of 60 passes out of the backfield for 377 yards and two touchdowns with just three dropped balls. He can also contribute on special teams.

 

Paul Perkins

Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

The Giants’ fifth-round draft pick, Perkins was the second-highest graded running back (behind Ezekiel Elliott) in the draft class among those who took at least 60 percent of their team’s snaps and finished second behind Derrick Henry for most missed tackles caused (73 to Henry’s 76).  He averaged 10.6 yards after the catch over the last two seasons.

 

Patricia Traina covers the Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and Sports Xchange. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise sourced. Advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus.

Follow me on Twitter @Patricia_Traina.

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