Blame poor run blocking. Blame injuries. Blame inexperience. Blame whatever or whoever you want, New York Giants running backs simply were not productive enough in 2014.
The Giants were 28th in the NFL in yards per carry (3.6), with only two teams being worse. The Giants were last in the league in runs of 20 yards or more, with only four. They had only one run of 40 yards or more. The Giants were 26th in the league with only 27.29 percent of their yardage coming via the running game. Five Giants running backs combined to catch only 62 passes, none for touchdowns. Three running backs had more catches than that by themselves, and five caught more than 50 passes.
2014 Depth Chart
|First team||Second team||Third team||Other|
|Rashad Jennings||Andre Williams||Peyton Hillis||Chris Ogbannaya|
2015 Depth Chart
Projected entering start of training camp
|First team||Second team||Third team||Other|
|Rashad Jennings||Shane Vereen||Orleans Darkwa||Akeem Hunt|
|Andre Williams||Kenneth Harper|
Can the running back position be more productive for the Giants in 2015? The answer should be yes. A big part of that, of course, is the presence of the versatile Vereen, the former New England Patriots running back signed as a free agent. Another factor -- the Giants hope - will be improved blocking. The offensive line is revamped, and the Giants have worked to improve the blocking work from the tight end position.
The Giants have not had a true three-headed rushing attack since the 'Earth, Wind & Fire' days of Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw and Derrick Ward. With Rashad Jennings, Shane Vereen and Andre Williams the potential for that type of triple threat backfield is there. Let's briefly look at all three players.
We start here because Vereen is the new guy, and because his presence is what could bring about the biggest change in the effectiveness of the running backs.
Vereen was one of those backs with 50+ catches last season, snagging 52 for 447 yards. Twenty-four of Vereen's 52 catches resulted in first downs, and he caught three touchdown passes. Five Giants' backs, Jennings (30), Williams (18), Hillis (10), Orleans Darkwa (2) and Michael Cox (2) combined for 62 catches. Only 16 of those went for first downs, and none for touchdowns. Thus, it's clear that the 26-year-old four-year veteran brings an element to the passing game that the Giants did not have a season ago.
"You can see why Shane has had some of the success he has had. He can be a quarterback's best friend in a way in the passing game. Similar to the way tight ends can be," offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo said. "He has great body language coming out of the backfield. He usually does not fool the quarterback and they seem to be on the same page and it happened pretty early."
Vereen has never been used heavily as a runner, with last season's 96 carries for 391 yards (4.1 yards per carry) both being career highs. The possibility exists, though, that the Giants could rely on him more in the running game.
The Giants brought Jennings in last season in the hope that he would be their featured back, their "bell cow," if you will, despite the fact that in five previous NFL seasons and at the age of 29 he had never been in that role. Jennings had a career-best season with the Oakland Raiders in 2013, setting career highs in carries (163), yards (733) and receptions (36).
Jennings was good for the Giants both on the field and in the locker room. He simply wasn't as durable, or dynamic, as they hoped he would be. He did set a new career high with 167 carries, but gained only 639 yards (3.8 yards per carry). He played in only 11 games. He missed four games in the middle of the season with a knee injury. He was also limited at the end of the season with an ankle injury. He carried the ball just 13 times over the Giants' final four games, missing the Week 16 game against the St. Louis Rams entirely.
Jennings is a solid leader and a stand-up guy in the locker room. He is a good player who can do run, catch and pass protect, even if he isn't a dynamic speedy guy or a 'make tacklers miss' home run threat. Perhaps he also is not a true workhorse running back.
With the addition of Vereen and an added year of experience and development for Williams, maybe he doesn't have to be.
It seems weird to say this about the player who led the Giants in carries (217) and yards rushing (721) last season, but Williams is really the wild card of the Giants' backfield. After averaging a disappointing 3.3 yards per carry as a rookie, will he step forward? Will he become the bruising, play-making back Tom Coughlin loves to build a running game around -- sort of like Brandon Jacobs? Will he be pigeon-holed into a role as a short-yardage back? Will he simply recede into the background as Jennings and Vereen dominate the playing time?
Follow social media and you know that Williams has worked hard to get his body ready, and to improve as a pass catcher.
Williams, 5-foot-11, 230 pounds can bring a power element to the Giants' ground game that neither Jennings nor Vereen can match. At 22, he still has upside that the Giants hope he can tap into. If he can, the Giants could end up with a special trio of running backs.