Last season, we saw a number of running backs break out and put up tremendous numbers. Guys like Jay Ajayi, Jordan Howard and Melvin Gordon burst onto the scene with at least 1,000 yards rushing, solidifying the running back position for their respective teams.
It happens for a few players every year, and 2017 will be no different. This season, these seven players are primed to break through. Whether it’s because of the lack of depth at the position or their versatile skill set, these guys are ready to step up.
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Kenneth Dixon, Ravens
Dixon isn’t the biggest or fastest running back, but he simply gets the job done. At Louisiana Tech, he was a highly productive player, which led him to be drafted in the fourth round last year. He didn’t start a single game, but he did average 4.3 yards per carry and catch 30 passes for 162 yards.
The Ravens are deep at running back with Lorenzo Taliaferro, Terrance West, Danny Woodhead and Buck Allen, but none of them offers the skill set Dixon has. He’s a shifty runner who makes defenders miss in the open field with ease, doing so at a shockingly impressive rate last season. He led the NFL in missed tackles forced per attempt.
It’s that sort of potential that should have the Ravens somewhat excited about the running game after struggling in that department last season. Dixon can be a do-it-all back, making guys like Taliaferro and West expendable this offseason.
Derrick Henry, Titans
DeMarco Murray has a history of injuries, and he’s never certain to play all 16 games. The guy backing him up just happens to be a very suitable replacement and was drafted in the second round last year. Henry is a serious candidate to have a breakout 2017 season, especially if Murray struggles or gets injured – two legitimate concerns at age 29.
Henry is a much better athlete than he gets credit for. He ran a 4.54 40-yard dash at 6-foot-3, 247 pounds. Scouts and pundits alike were enamored of Leonard Fournette running 4.51 at 240 pounds, which just goes to show how fast Henry really is for his size.
Granted, Henry is not the shiftiest or quickest back in the NFL, but he does have good feet and can run through arm tackles with the best of them. Expect Henry to see an increase in carries this season with the Titans likely trying to keep Murray healthy and fresh for the long haul. We could see a pair of teammates rush for 1,000 yards each, which has only happened six times since the merger. Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams were the last duo to do it in 2009.
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C.J. Prosise, Seahawks
The Seahawks’ backfield is crowded. There’s Eddie Lacy, who has had weight and injury problems in the past. Thomas Rawls is looking to get back to his form as a rookie in 2015, when he rushed for 830 yards on just 147 carries. But of the bunch, Prosise has the best chance to put up big numbers because he offers the Seahawks great versatility.
He played only six games last season before getting injured, but Prosise was extremely productive in limited action. He rushed for 172 yards (5.7 yards per carry) and had 208 receiving yards on 17 catches. He can do everything at running back, from hitting holes between the tackles to running wheel and seam routes like a wide receiver.
Look for Prosise to make big plays this season now that he’s fully healthy, which will make him difficult to take off the field. Rawls and Lacy are one-dimensional players, whereas Prosise can do a number of things – especially on all-important third downs.
Mike Gillislee, Patriots
With the Patriots, you never really know who’s going to get the ball consistently on any given Sunday. With LeGarrette Blount out of the picture, though, it’s likely to be Gillislee. The fourth-year running back out of Florida was blocked by LeSean McCoy in Buffalo, but in spot duty, he put up big numbers and had some huge runs.
He’s averaged 5.7 yards per carry (844 yards) in each of the past two seasons, scoring 11 touchdowns on just 148 attempts. He had eight rushes of at least 20 yards last season, one of which went for a 44-yard touchdown.
His playmaking ability will stand out among New England’s other running backs, who are more cut out for third-down roles. Gillislee can still run between the tackles – though he’s not the biggest guy – which will set him apart from James White and Dion Lewis.
Ameer Abdullah, Lions
The Lions were one of the league's worst running teams last season, finishing 30th in rushing ahead of only the Rams and Vikings. Part of that was due to the injury Abdullah suffered early in the season, sidelining him for the entire year. It also had to do with the overall lack of talent Detroit had behind him.
Surprisingly, the Lions are once again playing with fire at running back after remaining idle in free agency and during the draft. That leaves Abdullah as the team’s top running back once again. Fortunately, he’s in for a big season and is a prime breakout candidate.
He’s a shifty runner who can make even the best defenders miss without so much as getting a finger on him, which we saw last preseason. He’s also a terrific receiver, which is something the Lions covet in running backs (see: Theo Riddick).
Expect Abdullah to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing and approach 400 yards receiving if he can stay healthy.
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Isaiah Crowell, Browns
Crowell got overlooked by fans last season for a couple of reasons. First, he plays for the Browns, and Cleveland players never get much credit because of the team’s overall lack of success. Second, he didn’t rush for more than 1,000 yards, which was partly due to a baffling lack of carries.
He had just 198 rushing attempts in 16 games, which wasn’t nearly enough. In comparison, Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell carried it 261 times, and he missed four games. Crowell was one of seven players to average 4.8 yards per carry on at least 190 attempts, joining the likes of Bell, Ezekiel Elliott and LeSean McCoy – three of the best backs in the NFL.
Crowell should establish himself as the team’s very best running back this season, easily surpassing Duke Johnson. If he gets 250 or more carries – there’s no reason he shouldn’t – he’ll easily eclipse 1,000 yards on the ground.
Paul Perkins, Giants
The Giants shockingly passed on just about every running back who came their way this offseason, opting not to sign guys like Adrian Peterson and Latavius Murray or select a back early in the draft. It was surprising, but it was also a testament to how great they think Perkins can be.
Entering his second season, Perkins is expected to be the team’s No. 1 running back to open camp. He can do everything the Giants need in a tailback, from protecting the quarterback to carrying the ball 20 times a game. He may not have to handle that sort of workload with Shane Vereen likely being the third-down back, but Perkins can certainly hold his own in obvious passing situations.
Last season, he averaged 4.1 yards on just 112 carries, posting a respectable 456 yards. He’ll continue to develop and improve this offseason and should be an even better player than he was last year. His elusiveness and quickness are two things the Giants didn’t have in Rashad Jennings, and that will make a world of difference offensively.