Around The NFC North: Running Backs Edition
Ryan Sjoberg | @Ryan_Sjoberg
Running backs represent part II for our series ‘Around the NFC North’ which takes every positional group within the division and ranks them one through four. Our last installment featured the quarterbacks, and now it only feels logical to move on to the ball carriers. The QB’s were a lot easier to rank while the running backs around the North are mostly young, often hurt yet productive players which made this group a lot harder to put in order. Remember, this list is made looking to the 2020 season.
#4: Chicago Bears – David Montgomery/Tarik Cohen
Most divisions this could be the third, maybe second best running back group of the four. Instead, in a stacked division of talented ball carriers, second year pro David Montgomery and fourth year pro Tarik Cohen bring up the rear.
With the departure of Mike Davis, a big chunk of the workload on the ground will fall to Montgomery. Entering his second season, the Iowa State product had an up and down rookie year. While Montgomery did amass over 1,000 total yards, it took him a lot of touches to get there as he only averaged 3.7 yards per carry. The former Cyclone is a violent runner who makes defenders miss with ease in the open field. While in college, Montgomery led the nation in forced missed tackles three times according to Pro Football Focus-College; something Bears fans hope translates to the next level. He has yet to show elite explosiveness, but maybe with more carries that will come.
Tarik Cohen is an interesting player. He’s a gadget that Coach Nagy loves to use all over the field, but entering year four looks more like a receiver that can run the ball. During the 2018 season, Cohen ran the ball 99 times for 444 yards while catching the ball 71 times for 725 yards and scoring the ball eight total times. This past season his productivity went down and his efficiency went down which ultimately led to less playing time. In fact, Cohen rushed the ball fewer times than he caught the ball (64 rushes compared to 79 catches). Even more concerning however, is yards per catch. In 2019, Cohen had eight more receptions than in 2018, but 370 less yards. Defenses have learned to contain and converge on the ball when the 5’7 running back tries to squeeze between guys.
#3: Detroit Lions – Kerryon Johnson/D’Andre Swift/Bo Scarbrough/Ty Johnson
This group of ball carriers depends a lot on health. The injury histories of both Kerryon Johnson and rookie D’Andre Swift aren’t pretty. Johnson suffered multiple injuries at Auburn and has played in just over half of his career of his career games (18 of 32). Second round pick D’Andre Swift on the other hand is the shiny new toy and was very good at Georgia… when on the field. Swift seemed to always be plagued by small, nagging injuries. If he can avoid that in the pros, he could and should have a productive NFL career.
Kerryon Johnson is a violent runner who seeks out contact instead of trying to avoid it. His biggest strength may be his most vital flaw however as it seems to often end up with Johnson nursing an injury sometime over the course of the season. His rookie year was limited to ten games. If he finishes the last six, he more than likely eclipses 1,000 rushing yards. Instead, he finished with 641 yards and three touchdowns. A lot of hype was made last offseason for Johnson. After a promising start, injuries once again slowed the back, limiting 33 to just eight games. In half the year, he finished with just over 400 yards and three scores.
D’Andre Swift could really elevate this room from an above average running back group to a very good group. Swift has home run ability and his last name describes his running style perfectly: He’s swift. Johnson is light on his feet and can juke a defender out of his jock strap. The 5’8 rookie has the ability to be a three down back in the league as his ability to catch the ball was one of the best of this draft class while showing power in between the tackles. As long as he stays healthy, this could be the guy getting a lot of the usage down the stretch of the season as the game slows down for him.
The three spot depends on who makes the roster. Bo Scarbrough would compliment this backfield nicely. Standing at 6’1 235 pounds, the Alabama Crimson Tide product is huge and tough for defenders to bring down. Injuries forced Scarbrough to step up a couple times last season and he responded with 300 yards in weeks 11-14. Ty Johnson is another candidate to make the roster as the former UDFA is built like Kerryon Johnson but does things
a little more similar to D’Andre Swift. Ty Johnson comes in a lot on passing situations as his catching ability is good and he is trusted in pass protection. With Swift being a roster lock however, I think Scarbrough is the better keep of the two here.
#2: Green Bay Packers — Aaron Jones/Jamaal Williams/AJ Dillon/Tyler Ervin
Number two and number one are really hard to decipher here as they are very similar and comparable groups. Coming in at number two are the Aaron Jones led Packer running backs. This room is stacked and Green Bay only added to it in the NFL Draft, selecting AJ Dillon in the second round. Aaron Jones is an emerging star, Jamaal Williams is a really good complimentary back, AJ Dillon is a big bruiser who also has some wheels and Tyler Ervin is super productive in select packages as he is this offense’s gadget player as well as returning punts and kicks. Let’s dive in and get to know this special group a little better.
Aaron Jones has always shown flashes of greatness, dating back to his rookie season where he averaged 5.5 yards per carry. The trouble has been either small injuries here and there or his head coach not getting him the ball as much as what the team needs. Either way you slice it, Jones emerged in 2019 under new head coach Matt LaFleur. LaFleur’s scheme put 33 in a position to succeed whether that’s in the backfield running the ball or in the slot catching passes. Last year, Jones had 1,084 yards and 16 touchdowns. He added another 49 receptions for 474 yards and 3 touchdowns through the air and was showcased in a few games as a receiver and flourished. In his best receiving game (see graphic below) against Kansas City, Jones put up seven catches for 159 yards and two touchdowns. He did that twice from the backfield, once sweeping through the backfield and four times from the slot proving he can go toe-to-toe with cornerbacks from the opposite team.
Jamaal Williams is the ideal complement to Aaron Jones. 30 is a bruiser who seeks out contact and loves putting a defender on their ass. Jones will run defenders over if needed, but is more of a finesse back and can work that to his advantage. While primarily being the number two back, Williams has amassed over 450 yards each of his three seasons in the NFL while chipping in over 250 receiving yards every year as well. Even better, this duo thrives playing with one another on the field and it allows LaFleur to get really creative with play calling. He can line both up in the backfield or put Jones out wide. Either way, both are among the best pass protectors in the league at the running back position.
Now this is where it gets fun… let us look to the future a little bit, eh? AJ Dillon is a specimen. There is really no other way to put it. Dillon is built like a truck and can run through you, around you or away from you on a football field. Best part about picking him? He provides leverage and protection to the position moving forward for Green Bay, as CheeseheadTV co-founder Aaron Nagler explains here . Dillon’s pick allows the Packers to feel as though they don’t NEED to pay Aaron Jones. If they can work out a deal both think is fair, that’s fine. If they can’t, I don’t think Green Bay is too worried if Jones signs with another team.
#1: Minnesota Vikings — Dalvin Cook/Alexander Mattison/Mike Boone/Ameer Abdullah
Here we go… as hard as this was to type, I believe the Minnesota Vikings have the best group of runners in the North. I guess it’s a good thing it’s at the position that means the least (outside of a kicker or punter) on an NFL roster! I mean come on, a few jabs are warranted if I’m going to put our rivals to the West ahead of us. Anyways, this group is very dependent on Dalvin Cook.
Cook, when healthy, is probably a top 3-5 back in the league. That’s the key… when he’s healthy. Dalvin Cook has played in 28 of 48 career football games. This includes a complete tear of his ACL where he missed 12 games in his rookie season. When on the field however, no one can deny his productivity. Cook is elite running the ball and catching the ball out of the backfield, leading the NFL in receiving yards from a screen pass in 2019 by a wide margin. This is a testament to how dynamic he is with the ball in his hands. In 2019, the former Florida State Seminole finished with 1,135 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns and 514 receiving yards. There is a big ol’ elephant in the room however. Dalvin Cook is holding out. Will he get a deal to stay in Minnesota? Will he get traded because the team doesn’t match his demands? Will he play another down in the Twin Cities? Only time will tell, but if he is no longer a Viking come season’s start, Minnesota may be number four on this list.
Second year pro out of Boise State is Alexander Mattison. Mattison turned some heads last year when given the chance and thrived in Gary Kubiak’s zone system. Mattison is a one cut and go type of player. Once he finds the hole, he bursts through and is actually pretty difficult to take down when he has a full head of steam. In 2019 as a rookie, Mattison finished with 462 yards, one touchdown and 82 yards receiving. Maybe even more impressive was his yards per carry, boasting a mark of 4.62. If Cook does in fact continue his holdout into the season, Mattison should be more than capable to shoulder the load for this group.
The last two backs should have a spot on the roster as they both provide different strengths to the roster. Mike Boone shows big play capability in limited action. Last season, when asked to start against the Packers, it didn’t go so well. He may not be a featured back at any point in his career, but he is a valuable RB3 and special teams player.
Ameer Abdullah had big hopes in Detroit as a second round pick. After being cut after a couple seasons with the Lions, special teams in Minnesota have prolonged Abdullah’s NFL career as he is proving to be a valuable kick returner, punt returner and coverage guy on special teams. He should have a roster spot locked up based on the value he brings to the special teams unit alone.
This whole list could be different just depending on who you ask. But in this scenario, elite top-end talent outweighs a very good player with good depth. Injuries (and hold-outs) will prove big.