Get the Athlon Sports Newsletter
Darren McFadden needs to show he can stay healthy and produce this season
While the term "hot seat" is typically associated with head coaches and their job security, they are not the only ones who feel the heat during an NFL season. Along those lines, the official "start" to the 2013 season is less than a month away, as training camps will open and the battle for roster spots begins anew among the players.
How NFL teams use and value running backs is changing. On the one hand, there’s the increasing trend of using backs more in the passing game, especially on screens and other short throws, to give defenses something else to worry about and have to prepare for. On the other, there’s the shift in philosophy as it applies to the decline of the workhorse back and the rise of the committee approach, as well as how teams approach the position through the draft, free agency and contract negotiations.
The shelf life of an NFL running back seems to be decreasing with each passing season. Teams still need them to succeed (six of the league’s top 10 rushing teams made the playoffs last season), but the backs themselves need to show that they can get the job done when given the opportunity. Here are 12 running backs we feel are squarely on the “hot seat,” whether it’s because of team expectations or job security, this season.
1. Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders
Believe it or not, but McFadden will only turn 26 in August even though he’s entering his sixth NFL season. The talent is clearly there for the former first-round pick (No. 4 overall in 2008), but he’s yet to put it all together for a complete season. He has yet to play in all 16 games in a season and has started more than 12 just twice.
After rushing for 1,157 yards in 2010, McFadden has posted a total of 1,321 yards on the ground in the last two seasons combined. Injuries have been largely to blame, including a Lisfranc foot injury that caused him to miss the final nine games in 2011. Last season, he missed four due to a high ankle sprain, but he also posted a career-worst 3.3 yards per carry in the 12 he played in.
McFadden is entering the final year of his contract, so this is clearly a critical season for him. The Raiders have ditched last season’s zone-blocking scheme in favor of a power running system implemented by new offensive coordinator Greg Olson, which should be a much better fit for McFadden. This should provide him with the perfect opportunity to showcase his talents, provided he can stay on the field.
2. Maurice Jones Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars
Jones-Drew is entering the final year of his contract and at just 28 years old, he should be one of the top available free agents after this season provided he doesn’t re-sign with the Jaguars. However, a big payday for MJD is anything but a guarantee considering he played in just six games last season and had foot surgery in late December.
The 2011 NFL rushing champion needs to not only show that he’s healthy, but also that he can be the productive workhorse who averaged nearly 1,800 yards from scrimmage from 2009-11. The latter could be easier said than done considering the questions surrounding the Jaguars’ offense, but Jones-Drew needs to take full advantage of his opportunities and prove he’s still one of the league’s top offensive players, especially if he wants to get paid like one.
3. Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers
Expectations were high for Mathews, who the Chargers traded up 16 spots to grab with the 12th overall pick of the 2010 draft. Anointed as the heir apparent to LaDainian Tomlinson, Mathews was named to the Pro Bowl in 2011 after rushing for 1,091 yards, but otherwise his career in San Diego has been marked by injuries. He has yet to play a full season, as his list of injuries includes two broken collarbones, both of which he sustained last season.
Last August, Mathews broke his right clavicle on his first carry in the first preseason game, which caused him to miss the first two games. He returned in Week 3, but was ineffective, as he averaged less than four yards a carry and didn’t have a single 100-yard game. He then broke his left collarbone in Week 15, finishing his 2012 campaign with only 707 yards rushing and a single touchdown in 12 games.
Not only is Mathews’ durability a concern, but the jury is still out on whether he can be a franchise running back. San Diego would like nothing more than for Mathews, who has two years left on his contract, to establish himself as the lead back. But with a new head coach (Mike McCoy) and offensive coordinator (Ken Whisenhunt) in place and free agent acquisition Danny Woodhead joining the backfield, it’s clear that the team is running out of patience with its former first-round pick.
4. DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys
Murray burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2011 when the third-round pick rushed for a Cowboys’ single-game record 253 yards against the Rams. Even more was expected of him entering last season, and he got off to a great start, gashing the defending Super Bowl champion Giants for 131 on the ground in a huge Week 1 win.
Things went downhill after that, however, as Murray didn't crack the century mark in any of his remaining games, and was limited to just 10 total because of a foot injury. The pressure is on in Dallas to not only win, but also get to the playoffs and make some sort of run. While most of the heat will be felt by head coach Jason Garrett and quarterback Tony Romo, this is an important season for Murray too.
The 25-year-old needs to show the team he’s the long-term answer in the backfield by staying on the field and getting back to the form he showed as a rookie when he averaged 5.5 yards per carry. Felix Jones is no longer on the roster, but the Cowboys did take Joseph Randle, who like Murray was one of the most productive running backs in the Big 12 during his collegiate career, in the fifth round of April's draft.
5. Steven Jackson, Atlanta Falcons
There’s no disputing Jackson’s reliability, as he’s put together an impressive eight straight 1,000-yard seasons. The question is, does he have another one in him? Even though he won’t turn 30 until later this month, the workhorse has amassed more than 2,000 carries over the last eight seasons.
The Falcons seem to think Jackson has plenty of tread left on his tires, since the team released Michael Turner and signed the former Ram as a free agent. The Falcons finished 29th in the league in rushing last season yet still made it to the NFC championship game. The team is hoping that Jackson has enough left in the tank to help carry them all the way to the Super Bowl this season.
6. Ryan Williams, Arizona Cardinals
Williams was the second running back taken in the 2011 draft, behind only Mark Ingram (see below), but he’s yet to have any sort of impact on the field. The former Virginia Tech star has played in a total of five games so far, rushing for a meager 164 yards on 58 carries (2.8 ypc). A ruptured patella tendon wrecked his rookie season, while a shoulder injury ended his 2012 campaign in early October.
The Cardinals were so high on Williams coming out of college because of his quickness and ability to make would-be tacklers miss. The opportunity is still there for Williams in Arizona, but the sooner he can get back to his pre-injury form the better, especially with free agent signee Rashard Mendenhall expected to get the first crack at the starting job. The Cardinals also drafted running backs Stepfan Taylor (fifth round) and Andre Ellington (sixth) in April, adding even more competition for touches during training camp and the preseason.
7. Montee Ball, Denver Broncos
How can a rookie be on the hot seat? When the team that drafted you has Super Bowl or bust expectations and is looking to you to lead the way on the ground, that’s how. The former Wisconsin touchdown machine wasn’t drafted until late in the second round, but Denver clearly has high expectations of him in his rookie season.
The team has already released Willis McGahee, last year’s starter, with Ball expected to fill that role this fall. His competition for the job figures to primarily be Ronnie Hillman, a third-round pick in 2012 who averaged less than four yards per carry as a rookie, and Knowshon Moreno, who is recovering from another significant knee injury, this one sustained in the Broncos’ playoff loss to the Ravens in January.
With Peyton Manning at quarterback and wide receiver Wes Welker added in the offseason, it’s not like Denver needs Ball to produce like Adrian Peterson. The running game, however, is a critical part to the Broncos’ offensive game plan and will need to be productive if the team wants to do what it was unable to last season – make it to the Super Bowl.
8. DeAngelo Williams, Carolina Panthers
Williams would have been higher on this list if not for the fact in May he agreed to restructure the five-year, $43 million deal he signed with Carolina in 2011. This decision alone increases the chances Williams remains with the team for the duration of his deal. That said, the 30-year-old is the oldest member of a crowded Panthers backfield that also includes Jonathan Stewart (see below) and Mike Tolbert, as wall as quarterback Cam Newton, who led the team in rushing last season. While his roster spot appears secure, Williams’ role is anything but, as he’s averaged 644 yards rushing over his last three seasons compared to 1,136 in 2008-09.
9. Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers
Similar to his teammate DeAngelo Williams (see above), Stewart is a former first-round pick (No. 13 overall in 2008) who inked a lucrative, five-year contract with Carolina (August 2012) that has since been restructured (January 2013). The main differences between the two are that Stewart is younger (26) than Williams and has been more productive than him over the last three seasons, albeit not by much.
Stewart has his own durability issues, as he missed seven games last season with ankle and toe injuries, and he has yet to fully capitalize in games when he’s gotten the lion’s share of carries. The Panthers don’t lack for options in the backfield with Mike Tolbert and Kenjon Barner, the team's sixth-round pick in April's draft, also on the roster, so this season is as good as any for Stewart to establish himself as the lead dog in Carolina.
10. Isaiah Pead, St. Louis Rams
To say Pead’s rookie season was a disaster would be an understatement. The former Cincinnati Bearcat was taken in the second round (50th overall) of the 2012 draft by St. Louis with the hope that, at worst, he would be a productive backup for Steven Jackson. Pead finished his rookie season with a total of 10 carries and 54 yards rushing, as he struggled to pick up the playbook and saw limited playing time.
Jackson is now in Atlanta, which gives Pead a golden opportunity to seize the starting job. The No. 1 gig won’t be simply handed to Pead, however, as his struggles last season allowed fellow rookie Daryl Richardson the chance to emerge and the Rams drafted Vanderbilt running back Zac Stacy in the fifth round in April. Pead also will miss the season opener against Arizona due to an NFL suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. So much for a totally clean slate.
11. Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints
Ingram was the only running back taken in the first round of the 2011 draft, but he has yet to show the power and explosiveness that made him a Heisman Trophy winner at Alabama. Injuries derailed his rookie season and he rushed for just 602 yards in 2012, as his yard-per-carry average in the NFL currently stands at an unimpressive 3.9.
New Orleans head coach Sean Payton has said he wants to re-establish the running game this fall, which is where Ingram comes in. Fellow backfield mate Darren Sproles is more of a weapon out of the backfield and in space, while Pierre Thomas is versatile, but best suited for a supporting role. With Chris Ivory now with the Jets, the Saints really need Ingram to establish himself as the between-the-tackles force he was with the Crimson Tide.
12. Lamar Miller, Miami Dolphins
Miller was selected by the Dolphins in the fourth round of the 2012 draft and rushed for a respectable 4.9 yards per carry in limited action (51 carries) as a rookie. He is in line for considerably more touches this season with Reggie Bush now in Detroit and Miller atop Miami's backfield depth chart. It's now up to Miller to take advantage of this opportunity as the Dolphins also have 2011 second-round pick Daniel Thomas and 2013 fifth-round selection Mike Gillislee on their roster.