Ranking the NFC East: Running Backs

jamessantore

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To say my QB rankings yesterday caused a bit of a stir in NFC East fan Facebook groups were an understatement. Rankings, like basically all sports fandom, is subjective and really is just a fun exercise. NONE of us know what the heck is going to actually happen. So we make predictions that we then root for, thus enhancing the fan experience.

So, in yesterday’s case where I projected Dak to have better stats than Fitzpatrick, people didn’t understand why Fitz was ranked higher than Dak. My response is that stats are not always indicative of team success. And a quarterback’s success is dictated on team success.

Take Matthew Stafford for example: For years the guy put up numbers. He was one of the most prolific passers of the last decade and only made the playoffs once in 2014. So, while Dak may be the most talented on paper, a suspect offensive line, injury worries, and coaching worries make his supreme talent less effective. Thus, Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is much less talented, is placed in a better position to have success given his experience, team, coaching, etc.

End of rant. This is all for fun and I enjoy both positive/negative feedback. So no matter what your opinion is, I do want to hear it.

Now, on to today’s rankings:

Ranking the NFC East: Quarterbacks

Today, 9/8: RB

Thursday, 9/9: WR

Friday, 9/10: DEF

Saturday, 9/11: 2021 Overall Team Rankings

Sunday, 9/12: Future Outlooks

2021 NFC EAST RANKINGS

Running Backs (Final Rankings at Bottom)


EZEKIEL ELLIOTT AND TONY POLLARD, Dallas Cowboys

Ezekiel Elliott is an ultra-talented running back who received six MVP votes as a rookie. Tony Pollard could be a lead back on multiple NFL teams. Why are the Cowboys not first in my rankings? The same reason Dak wasn’t first on my QB list.

The entire offense as a whole is very talented – but very top-heavy. A line that is oft-injured with a few new, unproven faces, a coach who hasn’t had a chance to implement what his offense looks like due to Dak’s injury in Week 5 of last year (and imo – an inability to create a cohorent offense without an Aaron Rodgers-esque talent), and a concern that there is the possibility that Zeke has already seen his best days in the NFL.

While never being able to reach the peaks of his rookie year, Zeke has proved to be an effective rusher who has improved greatly as a receiver. Then last year happened – and a guy who many expected to be an MVP candidate floundered and long-term RB1 viability was questioned.

In the modern NFL, running backs seem to have an “expiration date” of sorts. Todd Gurley, Devonta Freeman, Kerryon Johnson, Jordan Howard, etc. have all played at a level similar (or below) that of Zeke and are all now free agents. I personally think Zeke is better than all of those players and his failures last season are more indicative of organizational failure within the Cowboys front office for not providing better depth both before and after Dak going down.

Tony Pollard, who I mentioned above as a potential RB1 for some teams, provides the necessary 1-2 punch the Cowboys need to command the running game. Pollard’s presence almost pushed the Cowboys to number one in my rankings, but I am still wary on the Cowboys (specifically Mike McCarthy’s) ability to leverage their talent correctly.

My prediction? Zeke rushes for over 1,000 yards and Pollard goes over 500. Zeke’s receiving numbers drop while Pollard’s go up. Still, the talent of another team’s RB1 pushes the Cowboys to number 2 in the NFC East.

ANTONIO GIBSON & JD McKISSIC, Washington Football Team

Antonio Gibson is everything that I could hope and dream that Kenneth Gainwell can become for the Eagles.

A third round pick out of Memphis last season, Gibson shined for a WFT offense with very little star power and no clear leader at QB.

Gibson amassed almost 800 yards on the ground and added in 240 reception yards during his rookie year. Unfortunately for Gibson, he suffered an injury in Week 13 which caused him to miss two two games and miss out on the chance to become the first 1,000 yard rusher for the Team since Adrian Peterson in 2018.

This season? Add in a better quarterback (Ryan Fitzpatrick), a healthier line, new weapons on the outside (Curtis Samuel and Dyami Brown), and Gibson could have a monster year. J.D. McKissic is a very solid backup and is a guy who opens up the offense in a big way with his pass-catching abilities (80 catches/589 yards/2 TD).

Why is WFT not ranked higher for their combo of Gibson/McKissic? WFT is going to be a team that looks to dominate through the air this year. Last season, Washington Football Team ranked 7th in the NFL in Pass percentage (62.23%) with a combination of Alex Smith, Dwayne Haskins, and Kyle Allen at the helm.

I expect Washington Football Team to be one of the TOP 5 PASSING OFFENSES in the league this year. Although both guys in their running back room are extremely talented, I expect most of their damage to come as pass-catchers and their rushing numbers to remain similar to last year. That still makes for a high-ceiling running back room, but the pure rushing ability of Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley put their teams in better positions in success from a positional group perspective. I’ll talk more about the other players I expect to thrive from the receiving corps tomorrow.

 

SAQUON BARKLEY & DEVONTAE BOOKER, New York Giants

Saquon Barkley (when healthy) is the best pure running back in the NFL.

Saquon Barkley has also:

  1. Never played on halfway decent NFL team (2018: 5-11, 2019: 4-12, 2020: 6-10)
  2. Has never had any ounce of talent around him

Even with those two factors above being the case, Saquon Barkley compiled over 2,000 all-purpose yards as a rookie and could’ve done it again in 2019 if he had not gotten injured.

So why is a guy who is coming off a major injury on another awful team the majority of the reason the Giants come in at number one in my rankings? Saquon Barkley means everything to the Giants. Saquon Barkley single-handedly keeps the Giants in games and makes them competitive even when they shouldn’t be. Saquon Barkley is the definition of game changer and if the Giants ever do get some help around him, they could immediately become contendors in the NFC.

Add in Devontae Booker, the former Broncos 4th round pick who has shown the ability to be moderately successful in the NFL and could be more than capable stepping in especially in the early portion of the season if the Giants look to ease Saquon back into his old game reps.

The Giants are going to be very bad this year. But, any games they do win will be because of Saquon Barkley and their rushing game, and I expect him to have an unbelievable season. Because without Saquon Barkley, the Giants (on paper) look like possibly the worst team in the league.

MILES SANDERS & KENNETH GAINWELL/BOSTON SCOTT, Philadelphia Eagles

This one stings for me. Putting the Eagles last is something that I don’t want to do, but for the integrity of my rankings, I need to be fair and honest. This is less about talent and more about the fact that:

  1. Miles Sanders usage in Doug Pederson’s offense made literally zero sense
  2. Kenneth Gainwell is an unproven rookie with loads of potential but zero game experience
  3. Boston Scott is currently slated as the #2 but I expect him to be the #3 by Week 4

Could Kenneth Gainwell Be The Eagles RB1 Of The Future?

As I wrote in the blog above a few weeks back, I think Miles Sanders is extremely, extremely talented and Kenneth Gainwell is a perfect fit for the modern NFL running back. That being said, we have not seen what Miles Sanders is truly capable of because of play calling in the past.

In Doug Pederson’s offense, Sanders was never utilized as a true bell-cow back. When comparing Sanders stats to someone like Saquon Barkley (above), you’ll immediately notice there is a massive gap in rushing attempts (179 vs 261 in 2019/2018 respectively). He does have success when given the opportunity, which he should hopefully be given this year. But, his struggles as a pass-catcher limit his ability to truly become a top running back in the league.

He was half-decent his rookie season, but took a massive step back in 2020. In a similar fashion to Ben Simmons free throw percentage, Sanders only caught 54% of targets thrown to him. For an offense that struggled to find playmakers on the offensive front in 2020, having one of your best playmakers only catch about half of balls thrown to him is devastating.

Enter Kenneth Gainwell and Boston Scott. These guys are both talented rushers but are and will be used mostly for their receiving-savvy. This means that Sanders will either be off the field on passing down or serve in a two-man backfield, limiting his personal ceiling and the offenses’ ceiling.

Jalen Hurts also plays the role of running back (too often, some would say) and provides another backfield threat for the Birds.

Why are the Eagles last in running back positional rankings? Young, inexperienced offensive personnel combined with solid, but flawed talent and a brand new offensive gameplan could cause issues especially in Year 1.

No one wants to see these guys outperform expectations than myself. But, due to a combination of better talent and more experience elsewhere, the Birds fall to last place.

RANKINGS

1) New York Giants

2) Dallas Cowboys

3) Washington Football Team

4) Philadelphia Eagles

I’m sure people will be upset with these rankings. I don’t care. Let’s have fun with this and circle back after the season and if I am dead wrong, please absolutely roast me. That’s the fun part.

Stay tuned for tomorrow when I go over the Wide Receivers in the division and make sure to share your RB rankings!

Click here or above for a FREE trial of fuboTV and stream ALL of this weekend’s NFL action!

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