Before NFL General Managers spend a lot of money on a free agent running back in 2021, or spend a high pick on a running back, they may want to consider how the 2020 season has gone for teams that are giving the ball to bargain-basement running backs.
Several NFL teams are having success on the ground despite going from highly paid and/or highly drafted running backs to whatever running back they happened to grab to fill out the roster.
Yesterday the Browns’ starting running back, Nick Chubb, was lost with an injury after six carries. The Browns proceeded to rush for 307 yards, most in any NFL game in two years, in their win over the Cowboys. The Browns’ leading rusher in their 307-yard onslaught was D’Ernest Johnson, who was undrafted in 2018 and had to prove himself with the Orlando Apollos of the Alliance of American Football in 2019 before the Browns gave him a shot.
When former No. 2 overall pick Saquon Barkley was lost for the season with a knee injury, he had 34 yards on 19 carries. The two running backs who have replaced him, career backup Wayne Gallman and recent arrival Devonta Freeman, both have more yards on fewer carries.
The Lions have used two recent second-round picks on running backs, Kerryon Johnson and D’Andre Swift. Their leading rusher is 35-year-old Adrian Peterson, who arrived less than a week before the first game and has more yards from scrimmage than Johnson and Swift combined.
The Jaguars cut former No. 4 overall pick Leonard Fournette and replaced him with undrafted rookie James Robinson, who is on pace to finish this season with 1,140 yards rushing and 644 yards receiving, more yards from scrimmage than Fournette had in any season in Jacksonville.
The Dolphins traded for Matt Breida and signed Jordan Howard to a two-year, $9.75 million contract in free agency this offseason. Their leading rusher is Myles Gaskin, a 2019 seventh-round pick. Gaskin has both more rushing yards and more yards from scrimmage than Breida and Howard combined.
Carolina made Christian McCaffrey the highest-paid running back in the NFL this year. He got hurt after two games and was replaced by career backup Mike Davis, who has more yards from scrimmage than McCaffrey. The Panthers won both games Davis started after they lost both games McCaffrey started.
Across the league, the picture is clear: You don’t need a highly paid, highly drafted running back to get production out of the running back position. Better to use that cap space, and those high draft picks, elsewhere.