As all good Steelers fans know, the situation at running back is different this season. Rashard Mendenhall sustained an ACL tear in the last regular-season game of 2011 and is extremely unlikely to start the season. There is currently no timetable for his return, so the Steelers will turn to their depth at RB to staff at least the early season games.
Isaac Redman, a UDFA who has been a fan favorite since Mike Tomlin nicknamed him "Redzone Redman" in his first training camp, will be the starter. Undoubtedly his stellar performance in the Wild Card game vs. the Denver Broncos was part of the reason there was no apparent attempt to sign anyone to replace Mendenhall. On a day in which little went well for the Steelers, Redman gained 121 yards on 17 carries for a sparkling 7.1 yard average, and also pulled in two receptions for 21 yards. Although Mendenhall got the lion’s share of the carries last season, Redman always seemed to be good for some tough yards when called upon.
Behind Redman is a lot of excitement, although not, at the moment, much substance. The excitement is being generated by a couple of late-round picks. The first is Chris Rainey, 2012 fifth round pick, whose blazing speed reminds some of Fast Willie Parker. The second is Baron Batch, a 2011 seventh round pick who was well on his way to being the 2011 camp phenom before blowing out his knee in practice. Besides these two, the Steelers have Jonathan Dwyer, a 2010 sixth round pick many felt was the steal of the draft until conditioning problems reared their ugly head. This season may be different, as he is apparently determined to arrive at camp in top shape. Also in the mix is John Clay, a practice squad player who was signed for a late-season game and ran in a TD on his first NFL touch. It looks as though there will be some serious competition for the No. 2 slot. It will also be quite interesting to see what happens if, and when, Mendenhall is healthy. If it is during the season, and if the running game is in good shape, he may find it a challenge to get back on the field.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the fullback, a quaint old-timey position which some teams still utilize properly. (See Ravens, Baltimore.) The Steelers now have an official fullback on the roster, a converted tight end who has been moonlighting in a fullback-type capacity from time to time. Since the Steelers have a brand new offensive coordinator in Todd Haley, and since it is hard to predict what Todd Haley is going to do based upon his previous berths, how meaningful the concept is in Pittsburgh remains to be seen. Assuming David Johnson, said converted tight end, does actually play as a fullback, he’s probably not going to set the world on fire. (Mind you, I wrote those words before I looked up the stats, and a few surprises await, including a few in re David Johnson.
So let’s go next to the fabled land of the fullback—the land of milk, honey, and rice. As in Ray Rice. (I’m not just pudding you on.) I haven’t looked at the numbers yet, because I don’t like facts to get in the way of my lovingly crafted opinions, but I’m guessing they are going to show Ray Rice as the créme de la créme of the AFC North running backs. He does it all. He runs with power, speed, and shiftiness, shedding tackles as he goes, as the Steelers know to their cost. He is durable, and other than missing the final three games of his rookie season (2008) with a calf injury, has never missed a game. He is a true three-down back, being a reliable receiver out of the backfield or lined up in the slot.
The only hope for the rest of us is this—Rice had the franchise tag slapped on him, and he’s not happy about it. He held out of mini-camps, but is expected to show up at some point during the pre-season, long-term deal or not. And I can’t imagine a long-term deal won’t get done. The only knock on Rice is the odometer reading. (I was getting too hungry with all the food metaphors.) He has rushed for 4377 yards in the past four seasons. Add to that his record-breaking college yards (4926 in three years) and 2235 receiving yards in the NFL and thats a lot of mileage.
Like the Steelers, the depth behind Ray Rice is unproven, as Ricky Williams unexpectedly retired during the off-season. Only one of the three backs looking to sew up the No. 2 spot actually has an NFL touch (Anthony Allen.) The other backs are the Ravens’ 2012 third round pick, Bernard Pierce, and Damien Berry, a 2011 UDFA who spent the season on the Ravens’ practice squad.
Finally, Vonta Leach rounds out the backs. Undrafted in 2004, Leach spent time with the Packers, the Saints, and the Texans before signing with Baltimore in 2011. He soon made the Steelers sorry he was in Baltimore.
The Browns are the proud new owners of a fully loaded, 2012 top five model running back in Trent Richardson. The Browns pulled the trigger on Richardson at pick No. 3 in the first round. Richardson is obviously unproven in the NFL, but by all reports is a three-down back who will give Ray Rice a run for his money. This is perhaps a good time to compare his college stats for their final year with the other No. 1 backs. (I put Rashard Mendenhall's stats on the chart just for interest.) I've used the usual abbreviations: GP = Games Played, YDs/ATT = Yards per Attempt, Rec = Receptions, Rcv. = Receiving.
Brandon Jackson and Montario Hardesty will presumably be the No. 2 and No. 3 backs. Hardesty has seniority, but Jackson is by far the more accomplished back. However, he is unproven in Cleveland. Jackson was drafted by Green Bay in the second round of the 2007 draft and played out his rookie contract. He was signed by Cleveland in 2010, and promptly sustained a season-ending case of turf toe before ever playing a game. But he is supposedly good as new and poised to make some noise in Cleveland.
The Bengals have exited the Cedric Benson era and picked up former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis, aka The Law Firm. Green-Ellis never puts the ball on the ground. Never. He also gets a surprising number of yards, considering his career thus far has been with the New England Patriots. Whether he will still be able to do so without the threat of Tom Brady behind him remains to be seen. He was a UDFA in 2008, despite putting up back-to-back 1000+ yard seasons at Ole Miss in his junior and senior years.
The other backs are Bernard Scott and Brian Leonard. They and Green-Ellis, according to Offensive Coordinator Jay Gruden, will alternate carries for a "running back by committee" approach. Gruden has been coy about declaring Green-Ellis the #1 back, but he's by far the best of the three, barring unexpected regression on his part, or unexpected progress by one of the others.
So let’s look at the numbers for these gentlemen. First, the putative No. 1 backs. (Trent Richardson will not appear, due to his regrettable lack of NFL stats.) I've separated rushing and receiving stats for easier viewing. (Green-Ellis' stats were with NE, naturally. Isaac Redman's were as the No. 2 back.)
The only real surprise, at least to me, is the number of rushing first downs Redman managed in substantially less touches than the other two backs. Ray Rice had by far the most carries, and the lowest percentage of first downs per carry (52 first downs in 291 carries, for a 17,8% rate.) Green-Ellis had 41 first downs on 181 carries for a 22.6% rate, and Redman had 29 first downs on 110 carries for a 26% rate. This could, of course, just be an artifact of the different ways they were used.
Now for the No. 2 backs. Brandon Jackson's stats are from his 2010 season with Green Bay, since he didn't manage any in 2011:
Dwyer looks pretty impressive on the rushing chart, but his stats are unduly skewed by his 78 yard run. Now for our No. 3 backs and FBs:
David Johnson doesn't have any rushing stats to speak of. His catch percentage (catches divided by targets) is very good. In fact, he only dropped two balls all year. Unfortunately for him, they were noticeable catches. How fine is the line between goat and hero...
Finally, I've put together the rankings from Pro Football Focus, Pro Football Reference, and Football Outsiders. First, PFF. In their overall rating a zero is considered average, and that's the rating Jonathan Dwyer got. Everyone else was either over or under:
Vonta Leach and David Johnson were rated as fullbacks. They rated 29 fullbacks, and not surprisingly Leach came in at No. 1. Rather surprising to me, though, was Johnson's No. 4 ranking. (He fared much less well at the hands of the PFF guys as a TE, coming in No. 66 out of 109 TEs rated. This might explain why he's been moved to fullback.) Rashard Mendenhall was given a rating of 14.2, a bit higher than Green-Ellis' 13.5, but well under Ray Rice's 16.4. (Rice was No. 6 overall; Mendenhall was No. 9, Green-Ellis No. 12, and Isaac Redman No. 14. Fred Jackson was No. 1.)
Next up, PFR's so-called Average Value. They assign a number (or a zero) to each player for each season. A player who gets a zero (as did Anthony Allen) is presumably considered to have brought nothing to the table. (Rashard Mendenhall received a 7, the same score as Green-Ellis.)
Ray Rice is dominating, as I rather expected. Let's see how he fares at the hands of the Football Outsiders. (Many of the players didn't make the 100-rush minimum for ranking, which is why they don't appear. There were 51 players, league-wide, who qualified.) This is a ranking, and therefore lower is better. (The No. 1 RB for 2011 was LeSean McCoy.)
Once again Ray Rice is the man, coming in at No. 13. The next closest was Green-Ellis at No. 18. (Mendenhall received the same score as Green-Ellis, and was ranked No. 19.)
Now, on to my (undoubtedly subjective) ranking for the four teams. I was going to try and make the rankings cumulative, but I'm realizing it is way too difficult to do this. So this ranking is just for the RB situation for each team.
The clear No. 1 in this case is Baltimore. They have Ray Rice, and Vonta Leach to clear a path for him. The only concern I see is the lack of proven depth behind Ray Rice. But they have at least two other backs to push Allen for the No. 2 spot. If Rice gets injured, though, it appears at the moment they would be in trouble.
The situation gets a lot murkier after the Ravens. The Browns have a rookie for their No. 1 back, but based on his college performance he should be very good indeed. Brandon Jackson is a question mark because of the prior injury, but if it is indeed completely healed he should perform well in 2012. The main problem the Browns have is the lack of a credible receiving corps, which makes it harder to disguise your intentions. But if your backs are good enough, disguise is unnecessary. The question is, are they that good?
The Bengals have a couple of experienced backups for Green-Ellis. Or a committee of running backs, if you prefer. They, unlike the Browns, have an extremely credible receiving corps.
The Steelers are the dark horse in this race, as far as I can see. Although as a Steelers homer I firmly believe Isaac Redman is going to surprise a lot of people, only time will tell whether the Wild Card game was an anomaly or the first of many stellar performances. Based upon past performance, I have to stab myself through the heart as I rank the Steelers last. Here is the final tally:
Of course, the performance of the RBs is highly dependent upon the offensive line, so it is possible this could change when we have considered the starting line for each team. To be continued...