Battle Stations: Running Backs

Adam Levitan
With training camps underway, Adam Levitan identifies seven crucial running back battles and picks winners

Battle Stations: Running Backs

With training camps underway, Adam Levitan identifies seven crucial running back battles and picks winners

NFL training camps are unique because actual jobs are won and lost. And nowhere is the “may the best man win” mantra more evident than at the crucial running back position.

Since most running backs are treated as disposable diapers by organizations (ride them until they’re completely unusable, then discard), we get a ton of turnover. That leads to new faces getting a chance to show what they have in August.

Here are seven running back battles we’ll be watching closely on our News Page and in the Draft Guide over the next month:

1. Montee Ball vs. Ronnie Hillman
Ronnie Hillman wasn’t ready to play as 21-year-old rookie. He couldn’t protect Peyton Manning, had some ball-security issues and saw his weight dip to 175 pounds. As Evan Silva noted in his second-year RBs series, 30 of Hillman’s 107 carries went for no gain or negative yardage. It’s a sign that he didn’t have the power to run between the tackles.

Since then, the Broncos have completely altered the look of their backfield. Willis McGahee is gone, Montee Ball was drafted in the second round and Knowshon Moreno is coming off knee surgery. Hillman ran as the starter throughout spring practices and opened camp with the first team.

If Hillman is going to hold off Ball and be the Week 1 starter, he has a lot to prove. While Hillman is a big play waiting to happen as an outside jump-cutter, Ball has underrated athletic ability at 217 pounds and is a downhill, one-cut runner. It’s a better fit for the Broncos’ scheme.

Prediction: Ball’s superior inside running ability wins him most of the early-down work and all the carries out of two-wide formations. Hillman shows enough to have a major role as a change-of-pace back and passing-down player. It’s a committee that’s headed by Ball, who will get the goal-line work.

Current Average Draft Position: Ball = 46.6; Hillman = 110.8

2. David Wilson vs. Andre Brown
There’s no question that Wilson is the superior athlete and better pure runner here. In fact, there’s evidence in his rookie year game tape that suggests truly elite, All-Pro level talent. However, Wilson was extremely prone to both physical and mental mistakes as a rookie, while Brown was a picture of reliability before a Week 12 broken leg.

Wilson is likely to run as the starter early in camp, but the leash won’t be long under the demanding Tom Coughlin. We know he’s going to make the big eye-opening plays – he also needs to earn the trust of the staff and Eli Manning.

Prediction: When the Giants’ “thunder and lightning” backfield of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs was really clicking back in 2010, the split was 276 carries for the former and 147 for the latter. Expect a similar version to shake out between the current duo, with Brown getting the goal-line work.

Current Average Draft Position: Wilson = 32.1; Brown = 77.6

3. Eddie Lacy vs. Johnathan Franklin vs. DuJuan Harris vs. Alex Green
Harris and Green will get some run during camp, but if the Packers were happy with their running back situation they wouldn’t have used second- and fourth-round picks at the position. By mid-August, expect a two-man battle between Lacy and Franklin.

It’s interesting because we obviously have no NFL tape on either of these players. Lacy was the more decorated college player, overpowering opponents with his 231-pound frame while running behind a dominant offensive line. The 205-pound Franklin piled up 1,735 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns in the wide-open Pac-12. It can certainly be argued that the UCLA product is a better pure runner on a pound-for-pound basis, although Lacy’s elusiveness is underrated.

The wild card here is Lacy’s oft-discussed health. His toe might not be built for the long haul, but the Packers believe he’ll be 100 percent for at least a few years. All fantasy owners need is one.

Prediction: Franklin shows well in camp, but Lacy looks special. He wins the every-down job, leaving Franklin to sprinkle in as a change-of-pace guy and return man. Lacy has some serious TD-scoring potential in the Packers’ high-octane offense.

Average Draft Position: Lacy = 61.3; Franklin = 126.3

4. Jonathan Stewart vs. DeAngelo Williams
The Panthers are going back to more of a base scheme under Mike Shula, which is good news for the running backs. Less Cam Newton option runs should mean more chances. The question is who will be getting those runs.

The first clue will be health. Williams hasn’t missed a game since 2010 and has relatively little tread on his tires for a 30-year-old former first-round pick. Thanks in large part to the presence of Stewart, he’s averaged just 167.0 carries per season.

Meanwhile, Stewart is coming off dual ankle surgeries, barely participated in offseason practices and is a major question mark for camp. He had to withdraw from a recent charity golf tournament due to his ankles. Golf?!?!

Prediction: Stewart returns midway through camp, but doesn’t put in full practices and lacks some explosion. That means Williams wins the Week 1 starting job and gets on the good side of a 60/40 split early in the season.  

Average Draft Position: Stewart = 93.0; Williams = 116.6

5. Isaiah Pead vs. Daryl Richardson vs. Zac Stacy
We’ve talked a ton about this three-way battle, so I’ll keep this brief. I hit on it here and here, while Evan Silva has commented here and here.

Try to follow this math: There’s a 60 percent chance that one back will emerge from this camp battle projecting to receive 75 percent of the carries.

Note that Pead is suspended for Week 1 and Richardson was listed as the starter on the team’s first depth chart.  Stacy is a fifth-round rookie that the Rams traded up for. Add it all up and we have a real mess on our hands.

I keep going back to this June quote from OC Brian Schottenheimer:

"We're going to try to play to their strengths. With (Steven Jackson) last year, it was a little different. It was harder to do the committee because every time you took him out, you knew you were missing his leadership and his toughness. This year I think we've got nice pieces to try and blend in and differently attack people."

Prediction: The battle ends up too close to call as Week 1 approaches, leaving a true three-headed monster to play situational roles.

Average Draft Position: Pead = 126.6; Richardson = 84.7; Stacy = 129.3

6. Mark Ingram vs. Pierre Thomas
For the third straight year, there’s a lot of buzz in fantasy circles about Mark Ingram. I’m not buying it.

Perhaps the most misguided argument propping up Ingram is that he’ll have more chances now that Chris Ivory is gone. Ivory was only active for six games last year and totaled 40 carries. The year before that, Ivory was active for six games and totaled 79 carries.

You don’t have to be Greg Cosell or Jon Gruden to see that Ivory is a freakish, special talent. So why wasn’t he used more in New Orleans? Injuries played a part, but the Saints could never find a consistent role for him in their scheme.

Ingram has a similar inside, pounding style – except he’s not as explosive and doesn’t break tackles at the same rate Ivory did. He’s averaged 3.87 YPC over the last two seasons vs. 4.81 for Thomas over that span. So why would the Saints carve out a role for Ingram if they didn’t do so for Ivory? He is a liability in the passing game on a team that throws to win.

Prediction: Ingram ran behind Thomas throughout the offseason. Expect that to continue right through September. Thomas wins the starting job handily and shares the majority of backfield work with Darren Sproles. Ingram is brought in to run on predictable running downs, further limiting any breakout appeal.

Average Draft Position: Thomas = 123.2; Ingram = 94.8

7. Rashard Mendenhall vs. Ryan Williams vs. Stepfan Taylor vs. Andre Ellington
I discussed why I don’t like Mendenhall in last week’s ADP overvalued column. He enters camp as the clear-cut starter thanks to his Steelers relationship with head coach Bruce Arians, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be productive. Coming off that ACL tear and subsequent lower-leg issues, Mendenhall lacked burst en route to 3.6 YPC in six games last year.

If Williams is healthy, he’ll provide stiff competition. Of course, that’s a big if. Since becoming the No. 38 overall pick in the 2011 draft, Williams has played in just two games thanks to a torn patella tendon sustained during his rookie preseason. Last year, he was relieved when a shoulder injury ended his year early because he wasn’t confident in his knee holding up.

Taylor is merely a workmanlike runner that missed OTAs and minicamp due to the NFL’s graduation rules. Ellington is someone to watch because he’s explosive, but is more of a perimeter runner.

Prediction: Mendenhall wins the starting job for Week 1, but struggles behind a subpar offensive line and ends up in a committee.

Current Average Draft Position: Mendenhall = 60.5; Williams = 148.5

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