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As part of our Chargers season preview, we’re breaking down each position unit from LA’s 2022 opponents, ranked from least to most threatening.
Today, we’ll turn our attention to the running backs, a group that includes some of the best players in the league.
14. Texans: Dameon Pierce/Marlon Mack
It’s been a while since Mack performed at a high level, as a torn Achilles in 2020 and the emergence of other players in 2021 has limited him to just seven games over the past two seasons. In 2018 and 2019, while in Indianapolis, however, Mack ran for under 2,000 yards at a 4.5 yards per carry clip. Those are no numbers to scoff at, and Texans coaches have been giving Mack rave reviews this offseason.
Pierce enters the league from Florida, where he was inexplicably underutilized for his entire career. The 218-pounder is a one-cut back with rare contact balance and surprising twitch given his size. I’d expect him to be the starter in a room full of career journeymen by the end of the season. With the Texans matchup coming in Week 4, however, Chargers fans should expect a heavier dose of a healthy Mack, with ample reps from Rex Burkhead, who dropped 149 yards and 2 TDs against the Bolts defense a season ago.
13. Chiefs: Clyde Edwards-Helaire/Ronald Jones
Leading rusher Darrel Williams is now in Arizona, leaving Edwards-Helaire and free agent acquisition Jones as the most likely candidates to take carries from Patrick Mahomes. The former LSU star has never really found a footing as a pro, and hip, ankle, and knee injuries haven’t helped him find any semblance of consistency. When healthy, Edwards-Helaire is a dual-threat back who will cause headaches for linebackers in coverage.
Jones comes to Kansas City after four seasons with the Buccaneers, where his role was diminished in 2021 due to a standout season from Leonard Fournette. He’s always been a favorite of preseason breakout lists and underrated player rankings because of his pure rushing talent, as well as recruiting and draft capital pedigree. With seven career fumbles, however, Jones will need to prove he can hold on to the rock if he wants to get most of the carries in KC.
12. Falcons: Cordarrelle Patterson/Tyler Allgeier
Atlanta is home to one of the strangest running back rooms in the league, as they’re led by return specialist Patterson, who more than doubled his previous career high with 153 carries last season. Now 31 years old, the question becomes when Father Time will come for Patterson, whose game has always relied on explosiveness.
After Mike Davis underperformed to the tune of 3.6 yards per carry in 2021, the Falcons cut bait and replaced him with BYU’s Allgeier in the fifth round. He fell that far because of a questionable pass game profile, as neither receiving nor pass protection are his strong suits. However, he’s an excellent zone runner with the build to bruise between the tackles and the vision to squeeze every yard out of his blocking. With a receiver as prolific as Patterson sharing the backfield with him, he doesn’t have to be a world-beater in that area. Expect him to take the early-down carries while Patterson comes in for passing and third-down situations.
11. Cardinals: James Conner/Eno Benjamin
Conner tied for second in rushing touchdowns last season despite only starting in six games, so you may be surprised to see the Cardinals unit ranked this low. However, Conner ranked third in the league in goal-line opportunities last season with 18, behind only Jonathan Taylor and Antonio Gibson. This offseason, Arizona brought in the aforementioned Darrel Williams, whose skill set suggests he’ll eat into those opportunities in 2022. Conner also only averaged 3.7 yards per carry, a career low. All this to say – Conner had a very good raw statistical season last year, but there’s reason to believe regression is coming, especially if he can’t complete a full slate of games, which he’s never done in his five-year career.
Behind Conner will be Williams and Benjamin, who will likely spend most of training camp in a heated battle for RB2. Benjamin hasn’t gotten many opportunities since being drafted in the 7th round in 2020. Still, guard Justin Pugh said that the third-year pro is the best outside zone runner on their roster this offseason and has improved his pass blocking skills tremendously. Kliff Kingsbury also told the team website that Benjamin’s running talent “has always been there” and that “he’s taken huge strides”.
10. Dolphins: Chase Edmonds/Raheem Mostert
From the Cardinals to a former Cardinal. Edmonds was Arizona’s most effective back on a per carry basis last season, averaging 5.1 a tote on 116 attempts. Still, Arizona elected to let him walk in favor of re-signing Conner. The 26-year-old took his talents to South Beach, where his fit in new coach Mike McDaniel’s offense is picture perfect. McDaniel comes from San Francisco, who ran the sixth-most zone runs last season. Your league leader in yards per attempt on zone runs in 2021? You guessed it, Chase Edmonds, with 5.8 per carry in 68 tries.
By the time the Chargers take on Miami in Week 14, Edmonds will likely be splitting early-down work with Mostert, who follows McDaniel from the 49ers but is coming off back-to-back injury-plagued seasons. In his last fully healthy season, the 30-year-old did take 137 carries for 772 yards and 8 TDs, nothing to sneeze at. Miami also has Sony Michel and Myles Gaskin under contract. Michel could rotate in on early downs, while Gaskin (if he makes the team) would eat into Edmonds’ pass-catching role.
9. Rams: Cam Akers/Darrell Henderson
After a stellar rookie campaign in 2020, many people had Akers circled as the next breakout star at RB. A torn Achilles has deferred those dreams, even with a ridiculous six-month recovery time that had Akers cleared to play by the playoffs. Reportedly 100% healthy with training camp on the horizon, Akers now seems poised to remind fans why he was considered highly entering 2021. He has star-level tools as both a runner and receiver and could pose a huge threat to the Chargers’ defense by the time Week 17 rolls around.
Beyond Akers, most carries will likely go to Henderson, who is also coming off an injury in 2021. The 2019 third-rounder has the added pressure of a contract year on a team that seems to have drafted his heir apparent in 5th rounder Kyren Williams, who will be limited for most of the fall due to offseason foot surgery. Henderson also has a nice blend of running and receiving ability, but I wonder if he’ll be used as more of a thumper for a Rams team that lacks a traditional one after trading Michel to the Dolphins. The other LA team also has a new running backs coach this season, so usage is subject to change and will likely heavily depend on training camp results.
8. 49ers: Elijah Mitchell/Jeff Wilson Jr.
If Mitchell was on any other team, I’d list him on his own, but the 49ers have become notorious for using five, six, even seven running backs in a season. Of those, Wilson seems the most likely to get a significant load of touches, but Trey Sermon, JaMycal Hasty, and rookie Tyrion Davis-Price will also be in the mix. It wouldn’t shock me if Davis-Price in particular has a big role by the Chargers game in Week 10, considering he has the speed and agility profile that Kyle Shanahan has historically preferred.
Back to Mitchell, the sixth round pick who cruised to 963 yards and 5 TDs on 4.7 yards per carry. Many people wrote the Louisiana product off because of the presence of Sermon, who was drafted three rounds earlier and had ample fans on Twitter after a stellar season at Ohio State. After averaging 5.3 yards per carry on first downs in 2021 and essentially powering the 49ers run game by himself because of injuries to every other major player, that’s not likely to happen again. Now, Mitchell did deal with durability issues as a rookie – his yards per carry dropped significantly between the first and second halves of games and he had injuries of his own that limited him to 11 games. He has reportedly been trying to get to a playing weight of 215, up from 201, to combat these issues, but there’s a chance the injury bug bites him again and he misses the Chargers contest. If that were to happen, don’t write off the other backs on this roster.
7. Jaguars: James Robinson/Travis Etienne
The tandem of Robinson and Etienne will have their fair share of injuries to overcome, but a healthy and productive season from both of them could end up making this ranking look foolish. For Robinson, he’ll have to bounce back from an Achilles tear suffered in Week 16 last season. Reports indicate he plans to be ready by Week 1, but it’s eminently possible that he’s limited for the Chargers game in Week 3, if not inactive entirely. When healthy, Robinson is among the most underrated backs in the league, even by his own coaching staff. You may remember that among the chaos of the Urban Meyer regime a season ago, Trevor Lawrence had to beg Meyer to put Robinson in the game to give them a better chance of competing.
Etienne will return from the dreaded Lisfranc injury, but it’s important to quantify the severity before throwing him in the graveyard of talented players whose careers have been stolen by the ailment. Etienne had surgery on a Lisfranc sprain, which indicates he didn’t fully tear the ligament, nor did he break any of the bones in the area from what I could find. This is the best-case scenario, as the players whose speed and explosiveness never recovered after a Lisfranc injury almost overwhelmingly suffered full tears or broken bones. For his part, Etienne says the injury is fully behind him. If that’s the case, and he shows the same burst he did at Clemson, he and Robinson could form quite the dynamic duo.
6. Raiders: Josh Jacobs/Kenyan Drake
Jacobs recently fell out of the top 10 running backs on Jeremy Fowler’s annual poll of NFL personnel, but don’t let that fool you. His absence from the rankings is primarily because of his lack of ability as a pass catcher, which has increasingly become an important skill for NFL backs. As a runner, however, the former first rounder is the real deal. He’s also coming off an 132 yard performance in the Week 18 game that knocked the Chargers out of the playoffs.
Drake will be the pass catcher for the Raiders and should be ready for the regular season after sustaining a broken ankle in December. He’ll first have to stave off rookie Zamir White, who also has the pass-catching chops to earn a role in a new-look Raiders offense under Josh McDaniels.
5. Seahawks: Rashaad Penny/Kenneth Walker III
Penny had arguably the best last five weeks of anyone in 2021, going over 130 yards in four out of five games and scoring 6 TDs. It was a long-awaited coming out party for the former first rounder, who has spent large swathes of his three seasons on the shelf due to injury. Seattle gave him a one-year deal to show his second-half emergence was the real deal, and he should take the majority of carries in 2022.
The selection of Walker in the second round raised some eyebrows, but I’m of the belief that it likely means that Chris Carson won’t be returning in a meaningful capacity following a neck injury that ended his 2021 campaign. The Doak Walker Award winner is best on counters, a play that offensive coordinator Shane Waldron can get creative with thanks to DK Metcalf’s blocking abilities and potential misdirection with Tyler Lockett and Dee Eskridge on end arounds. He also broke the most tackles of any college runner last season with 89, so smashing him between the tackles is always an option.
4. Broncos: Melvin Gordon/Javonte Williams
Williams seems to be the next “chosen one” at running back, but Denver brought back Gordon on a reduced contract to continue to ease the second-year pro into a feature role. To his credit, the former Charger has been plenty effective in orange, posting over 900 yards in both of his seasons as a Bronco. However, he did lose three fumbles last season. Denver seems to have primarily brought him back because of his skills as a pass protector while expecting him to take more of a backseat to Williams.
A fan favorite as a rookie, Williams led the NFL in broken tackles with 31 and had plenty of highlight-reel bulldozes through opposing defenses. The pass protection wasn’t terrible, but it also wasn’t at the level of Gordon, who has years of experience to draw off of. Williams also doesn’t yet possess elite vision on outside zone, a staple of the Broncos offense in 2021 and a favorite of new coach Nathaniel Hackett. Denver’s first-year head coach went as far as to say he was “enamored” with the concept in June. Despite this, Williams simply has the power to run defenders over even if he doesn’t yet have the vision to avoid them entirely. It’s a formidable duo.
3. Titans: Derrick Henry
It’s indicative of the direction the league is going in that this is the first non-committee entry on the list, but there’s really not anyone behind Henry worth talking about. Despite breaking a bone in his foot and missing nine games in 2021, reports suggest that not only is he fully healthy, but the injury represents a very low chance of reaggravation. That’s a big deal for a 28 year old back with a downright absurd amount of tread on his tires as an NFL player. If the foot injury was truly a fluke and not a sign that his body is breaking down, I’m hesitant to suggest that Henry is on the decline. Combine that with the fact that the Titans-Chargers game is in Week 15 and it’s a scary proposition. Henry has always punished teams later in the season, when defenses are more banged up and less willing to engage with his runaway semi truck running style. Expect Week 15 to be no different.
2. Browns: Nick Chubb/Kareem Hunt
For my money, Chubb is the best running back in the league, although the player clocking in at #1 on this list is right on his heels. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry on his way to 1,259 yards last season, good for second in the league. While he’s not a prolific receiver, he does tend to get better as the year goes on. Good news for LA, who will catch him in Week 4 as he ramps up. He’ll still be a force to be reckoned with, however, as he put up 161 yards and 2 TDs against the Chargers last October.
Hunt is the ideal complement to Chubb as a receiving-first back with shifty rushing abilities, although he’s been the subject of trade rumors this offseason. That’s primarily because D’Ernest Johnson has also shown plenty of skill, especially during the five-game Hunt missed due to a calf strain last season. Personally, I think the Browns will ride it out – it’s a contract year for Hunt, and they can just as easily get a compensatory pick for him by letting him walk in free agency next year. In the meantime, breaking up one of the best tandems in the league doesn’t make much sense.
1. Colts: Jonathan Taylor
Taylor led the league in attempts (332), yards (1,811), and TDs (18) last season on his way to first team All-Pro honors. NFL personnel ranked him the second-best back in the league in Fowler’s annual survey, behind only Derrick Henry, although the two players actually tied in first place votes. Described as the “total package” by one AFC scout, the scariest part about Taylor is that he’s likely only going to get better. Just 23 years old, the sky appears to be the limit for the former Wisconsin star, and he’ll undoubtedly be the main focus of the defensive gameplan when the Chargers travel to Indianapolis for Monday Night Football in Week 16.