The AFC East champion New England Patriots’ rushing attack was ranked ninth in the league last year, a performance from a team that has run for more yards and touchdowns than anyone else in the NFL in the past two seasons, seemingly under the radar. Unlike 2012, when Stevan Ridley led the team with 1263 yards and 12 touchdowns, 2013 saw Ridley and LaGarrett Blount split the team lead with 773 and 772 yards and seven touchdowns apiece. Backups Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen ran for under 300 yards, with Vareen the top pass catcher among running backs.
This year, the team’s fourth-round draft pick and former Wisconsin Badger James White is making his presence known quickly. White has had a standout camp so far, as he has run 11-on-11 drills with the first team, both in and out of pads, and has been noted for his strong running, catching, and blocking abilities.
On the other side of the fence, third year veteran Brandon Bolden has struggled, with reports Bolden has had fumbling issues as well as dropped passes. He had already been considered on the bubble before camp started, and, unless he picks up his game, he might find himself on the street.
With the Miami Dolphins’ pick-up of Knowshon Moreno, the projected depth chart before spring OTA’s and summer training camp was Moreno, Lamar Smith, and fourth year veteran Daniel Thomas. Moreno was brought in to upgrade a below-average group that ranked 26th in rushing last year, as Smith and Thomas barely combined for 1100 yards and the team’s third leading rusher was quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Despite an only 3.8 yards per carry average last year with the Denver Broncos, Moreno showed enough pass-catching and protection abilities to warrant a one-year, $3 million dollar contract with the Fins.
However, Moreno showed up to OTA’s slow and overweight. He has since had arthroscopic knee surgery and has been placed on the team PUP list to start training camp, possibly giving him time to get into shape for the regular season.
Meanwhile, Lamar Smith has been a camp standout. The Miami Herald’s Adam H. Beasley notes Smith worked in the offseason with new Offensive Coordinator Bill Lazor, who helped the Philadelphia Eagles to the NFL’s best running attack in 2013. Smith has come into camp with added muscle and has consistently run with the first team offense.
Battling for the third running back spot against Daniel Thomas, second year man Mike Gillislee has been getting noticed, but unfortunately had to leave weekend practice early with an undisclosed injury.
The New York Jets running attack was acceptable in 2013, if one factors in Geno Smith’s 366 yards and six touchdowns. Of course, Smith’s six touchdowns were two more than Chris Ivory and Bilal Powel scored all season combined, yet the team’s top two rushers helped the Jets to the sixth best ranking in the NFL, at least in terms of yards. Like most NFL teams with a running quarterback, the Jets hope Geno will give them more throwing and less running and let the guys who get paid to move the chains on the ground help the team catch up to the Patriots in the AFC East.
Former Tennessee Titan Chris Johnson is coming into Jets training camp with something to prove, although at 29 years old and only 191 pounds, it remains to be seen if he can still be good for 1000 yards. Johnson is coming off knee surgery and the team has given him full clearance to practice, but are holding him back a bit during drills to stay on the safe side. Early evaluations of Johnson’s performance has been very positive.
Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell are competing for important backup rolls in what promises to be a strong running-back-by-committee system. Ivory was considered to have the edge coming into training camp but tweaked a hamstring in an offseason workout and has been held back a bit, possibly opening the door to Billal, who has so far impressed coaches with his versatility. Notable behind them is former St. Louis Ram Daryl Richardson, who impressed as a rookie for the Rams and is showing flashes in Jets camp, although it remains to seen if it is enough to crack the roster.
The Buffalo Bills have one of the NFL’s most intriguing offenses and certainly the AFC East’s best potential running attack, which will be helpful, as the team still has to break in E.J. Manuel and an inexperienced group of wide receivers. Last year, the Bills were second only to the Philadelphia Eagles in rushing yards and were third in the league in rushing attempts. This year, they have brought in Bryce Brown from the Eagles and Anthony Dixon from the 49ers to potentially backup C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson.
However, the Bills may have bigger plans than just building one of the league’s deepest running back corps. With so much talent, the Bills are in a good position to trade Spiller, either before the season starts or during the season, to a team looking to replace an injured starter. Spiller’s value is high, although not as much to a team like the Bills, and there is much speculation he will be traded long before the season is over.
With Spiller potentially gone, trustworthy Fred Jackson becomes the go-to man, although for how long remains to be seen. Jackson is a 33-year-old running back in a league with only seven other runners over 30. Already it has been noted by Mike Rodak of ESPN that Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon have been getting more and more reps, while Jackson was forced off the field on Day 6 of training camp with a minor lower leg injury.
So Brown and Dixon are possibly battling it out for the Bill’s future number one. Pre-camp speculation gave Brown the edge, as he is an explosive runner who had proven himself valuable backing up DeSean Jackson in Philadelphia. However, when the team’s first official depth chart was released, Dixon was listed number three and Brown fourth. Still, both have been impressive in camp, and with preseason games to come, the order of running backs is likely far from settled.
Commentary by Andrew Elfenbein