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Ranking the running back groups in the NFC East

Which team in the division has the best backfield?

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Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

As part of Big Blue View’s offseason coverage, we are ranking each position group in the NFC East. The rankings began on the offensive side of the ball, starting with quarterback and then transitioning to wide receiver. Here are the updated rankings:

Quarterback:

  1. Dallas Cowboys
  2. Washington Football Team
  3. New York Giants
  4. Philadelphia Eagles

Wide receiver:

  1. Dallas Cowboys
  2. Washington Football Team
  3. New York Giants
  4. Philadelphia Eagles

As you can see, the rankings on the offensive side of the ball so far favor the Cowboys and reigning division-champion Football Team. But what about another major offensive position? Running back. Let’s take a closer look at the running back rooms around the NFC East.

Dallas Cowboys

2020 statistics:

Ezekiel Elliott: 15 games, 244 attempts, 979 yards, 4.0 ypc, 6 TDs

Tony Pollard: 16 games, 101 attempts, 435 yards, 4.3 ypc, 4 TDs

After Elliott and Pollard, the Cowboys’ top rushers from last season were not at the running back position as quarterbacks and receiver stepped up. But it’s important to keep in mind the deterioration of the Cowboys’ offensive line in recent years and how that has impacted the team’s rushing performance.

Elliott’s performance last season was one of the worst in his five-year career, but Elliott has had a pretty accomplished career up until this point so that’s not saying too much. The three-time Pro Bowler recorded a 65.3 PFF grade in 2020, which was the lowest of his career. But Dallas’ o-line was dealing with injuries to three key players. There remains reason to be excited about Elliott and he should only be stronger next season.

We also should not forget about Elliott’s backup, Tony Pollard. According to PFF, Pollard has been one of the more efficient runners in the league on a per-carry basis, averaging over four yards after contact per rushing attempt and forcing 46 missed tackles on fewer than 200 carries in his NFL career.

Together, Elliott and Pollard have the potential to combine to create an explosive backfield for the Cowboys in 2021.

New York Giants

Meanwhile in New York, star running back Saquon Barkley with make his return. His season ended after just two games last year when Barkley tore his ACL against the Chicago Bears.

In his rookie season, Barkley recorded 261 rushing attempts for 1,307 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also racked up 791 receiving yards and four receiving touchdowns for a total of 2028 yards from scrimmage to earn 2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year Honors. Barkley became the only running back in the league with rushing and receiving yards grades higher than 80.0, per PFF.

Barkley missed three games in the 2019 season due to injury, but still managed to surpass the 1000-yard rushing mark and record six touchdowns. In his two games last season though, Barkley averaged just 1.8 yards per carry. Two games is not a large enough sample size to draw a conclusion, but the Giants certainly hope that Barkley is back in 2018 form, or better, next season.

The other concern for New York is the lack of depth behind Barkley. You’ll notice that I did not list the statistics of the Giants running back room at the top of this segment. That is because the Giants’ top rushing leaders from last season are no longer on the team or are free agents. Barkley did not play, Wayne Gallman is in San Francisco and Alfred Morris, Devonta Freeman and Dion Lewis are all free agents.

The Giants did sign former Las Vegas Raiders running back Devontae Booker this offseason. Booker recorded 93 rushing attempts for 423 yards and three touchdowns last season. Before his stint in Las Vegas, Booker spent the first four years of his career in Denver. He missed most of the 2019 season with a wrist injury and his best season by far was his rookie campaign back in 2016 when he recorded 612 rushing yards.

The Giants hope Barkley stays healthy and performs well because there are a lot of question marks behind him.

Washington Football Team

2020 statistics:

Antonio Gibson: 14 games, 170 attempts, 795 yards, 4.7 ypc, 11 TDs

J.D. McKissic: 16 games, 85 attempts, 365 yards, 4.3 ypc, 1 TD

Peyton Barber: 16 games, 94 attempts, 258 yards, 2.7 ypc, 4 TDs

None of the running backs on the Washington Football Team were with the team 15 months ago - and only one was drafted by the team. The running back room in Washington is predominantly young and largely still developing. Washington has focused its efforts on improving many facets of the team (WR, offensive line, CB) this offseason but the running back room has remained largely untouched.

Antonio Gibson is the only back on the team that was drafted by Washington (a third-rounder in 2020). In his rookie campaign last year, Gibson finished with an 83.4 rushing grade, per PFF - seventh among qualifiers at the position. Gibson suffered a turf toe injury late in the season last year, but may have been in line for Pro Bowl consideration without it. He ended the 2020 season tied with the Colts’ Jonathan Taylor for most rushing touchdowns by a rookie with eleven. Gibson ran the ball just 33 times in college so he has the potential to only get better with more experience.

Though Gibson was advertised as a dual-threat back when the Football Team drafted him, it was actually fellow running back J.D. McKissic who received many targets. He led all running backs in routes run (399) and targets (106) during the regular season.

Behind Gibson and McKissic, the Football Team has Peyton Barber, Lamar Miller and undrafted rookie Jaret Patterson. It is not a head-turning group at first sight but together, they might be enough for Washington.

Philadelphia Eagles

2020 statistics:

Miles Sanders: 12 games, 164 attempts, 867 yards, 5.3 ypc, 6 TDs

Boston Scott: 16 games, 80 attempts, 374 yards, 4.7 ypc, 1 TD

Jordan Howard: 2 games, 7 attempts, 27 yards, 3.9 ypc

While Washington might not have the strongest running back room in the division, the Eagles are farther behind. Their running back group is led by Miles Sanders who remains inconsistent. In his rookie season, Sanders earned a 59.1 rushing grade per PFF despite running behind one of the best run-blocking offensive lines in football. Then, this past season, Sanders improved his rushing grade to 75.3 but he disintegrated in the passing game, recording eight drops, which was tied for the most at the position.

Sanders does not have much competition to challenge him as Boston Scott, Jordan Howard and newly-acquired Kerryon Johnson have not yet proven to be explosive in the backfield.

It is important to note though that while the Eagles likely have the weakest running back room in the division, they also have one of the most mobile quarterbacks. Jalen Hurts played in 15 games last season, but started only four, and still finished third on the team in rushing yards with 354. The Eagles will certainly get help in the rushing game from Hurts, but they still lack a true weapon in the backfield.