In the time between OTAs and the start of training camp, it’s a good opportunity to assess where teams sit for the upcoming season. But teams aren’t just built for the upcoming season, especially ones like the New York Giants, who are looking to the future as much if not more than 2019.
With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at how the teams in the NFC East stack up at each position, not only for 2019 but over the next three seasons. For these rankings, we’ll consider the starters, overall depth, and salary cap implications to get a full view of how each of these position groups is set up for the next few years.
Today we’ll get to the strangest position to rank so far — running back. There is a clear order of talent, but also a clear order of investment. If there’s a position in the league where investment can quickly turn more negative than positive, this is it.
1. New York Giants
Saquon Barkley’s presence puts the Giants at the top. Even if you believe he might be equal in talent to Ezekiel Elliott — debatable — his age gives him the advantage here. Despite being in just his second season, Barkley will have the eighth-highest cap hit for a running back in 2019 per Over the Cap. Barkley is under contract through at least 2022 with his fifth-year option. The Giants also have a fairly deep lineup behind Barkley, though if all goes to plan, those backs won’t have a lot of playing time. But if Barkley should need some relief, teams could do much worse than the group of Wayne Gallman, Rod Smith, and Paul Perkins, the oldest of which just turned 27 in January. They all have the ability to run the ball and catch,
The Giants are also one of the few teams in the league who employ a traditional fullback. Elijhaa Penny played 13.9 percent of the offensive snaps last season but only carried the ball seven times. Penny could potentially be replaced by the 235-pound Smith who has served as a fullback earlier in his career to go along with skills of a more traditional running back.
If the Giants are getting credit for just having Saquon Barkley despite the heightened cost, the Cowboys should get the same consideration with Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott is entering his fourth season, but won’t turn 24 years old until the start of training camp. But because he is heading into his fourth season, the true future outlook at the position for Dallas falls on when — or if — the team will sign Elliott to an extension and for how much.
Per a report from Dan Graziano of ESPN, Elliott could be fourth in line for a new contract behind Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, and Byron Jones. That could be the best case scenario for Dallas given the current situation. That would still potentially have Elliott under contract for the next three seasons with his fifth-year option in 2020 and a possible franchise tag in 2021. Waiting to commit to Elliott would make sense given the volatility of the position, previous off-field issues, and a number of minor injuries, though the latter has yet to truly have an impact.
Despite Elliott playing 15 games last season, the Cowboys ranked just 18th in rushing DVOA per Football Outsiders while the offensive line in front of him experienced a number of injuries. If the offensive line is going to have more of an impact to the running game than the back who was mostly healthy for 15 games, why rush to extend that player?
Behind Elliott, the Cowboys are going the rookie route. Tony Pollard was drafted in the fourth-round and split his time at Memphis playing running back and slot receiver. A running back who plays receiver is the best kind of running back. Dallas then drafted Ohio State’s Mike Weber in the seventh round. That’s a plenty capable backup rotation with limited resources invested — the opposite of the top of that depth chart.
Just looking at the 2019 season, Washington might have the most complete rotation of backs. Of course, it is a rotation and Washington needs three to four backs to fill the roles of what the Giants or Cowboys accomplish with one. But Washington is spending slightly less money on the position than those teams — they’re 13th in positional spending for 2019 but that will drop over the next two seasons.
Adrian Peterson was surpsingly effective early in the season but tailed off as the season went on. He turned 34 years old in March and has just under 3,000 carries to his name between the regular season and playoffs entering his 13th NFL season. Chris Thompson (29) is one of the league’s best receiving backs and is an underrated runner but he’ll be a free agent after the 2019 season.
Washington’s future at the position depends on the health of two recent draft picks — 2018 second-round pick Derrius Guice and 2019 fourth-round pick Bryce Love. Guice was one of the best runners in his draft class, but a torn ACL during the offseason caused him to miss his entire rookie season. He’ll be back and is expected to be healthy for 2019. Love, once considered one of the best college running backs, is currently recovering from a torn ACL suffered in his final college game. His 2018 season had already been a step down before the injury.
If Washington can get those two backs healthy — or maybe even just Guice — they could be set up well at running back without a tremendous amount of resources used at the position.
If there is a baseline of talent or production needed at running back, the 2018 season hovered right around it. Josh Adams led the team with 140 carries and the unit as a whole ranked 27th in rushing DVOA. Still, Philadelphia was 16th in offensive DVOA, thanks to a 11th-ranked passing offense, and still made the playoffs.
Philly made sure the depth chart wouldn’t be as weak at running back this season but only made small investments at the position. The Eagles traded a conditional 2020 sixth-round pick for Jordan Howard, who will turn 25 years old in November and is on the final year of his rookie contract. Howard had a stellar rookie season in 2016, but his play and efficiency declined in each of the past two years. His pass catching ability has also been a question. He’s still likely to be the lead back for 2019.
Surprisingly the Eagles used a second-round pick on Miles Sanders, who is more likely to be the key to future success at the position. Sanders was behind Barkley on the depth chart at Penn State, but enjoyed a productive season when Barkley left for the NFL. Even as a second-round pick, Sanders will count for less than $1 million on the 2019 cap and the Eagles are 22nd in positional spending overall this season, a rank that will decrease in future seasons if Sanders breaks out and Howard comes off the books.
The Eagles will also have a group of capable rotation backs — some combination of Adams, Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood, Boston Scott, and Donnel Pumphrey — to fill in as needed. Philadelphia isn’t as strong as the other teams at the position but the knowledge they don’t have to be makes up for the overall lack of talent and will continue to be to their advantage going forward.