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Ranking the NFC East, 2019: Running Backs

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Hogs Haven looks at all four teams in the division in an effort to identify the best and the weakest of the NFC East

The draft is done, the free agents have been signed, the coaches have met their players. Now there’s not much to do but wait for training camp. While we wait, it seemed like it might be fun to evaluate and rank the NFC East position-by-position.

Last off-season, Hogs Haven published articles that focused on ranking position groups and head coaches in an effort to identify what the division would look like in 2018. This year, we’re going to look at the division again, but we’re gonna try to ramp things up a bit by adding some film review to some of the position group reviews.

This article has 4 sections:

  1. A very brief positional overview of where each of the 4 teams is at with the running back position, but with a little extra focus on the Redskins.
  2. A fairly detailed film review of 5 of the top running backs in the NFC East this season: Jordan Howard, Derrius Guice, Adrian Peterson, Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott.
  3. A list of the top of the depth chart (4-6 players) for each of the 4 teams in the division.
  4. Some poll questions focused on identifying the best running back in the division, as well as the teams strongest and weakest RB position group in the division.

Let’s start with the brief review.

Positional overview

The NFC East has become a division of great running backs. Ezekiel Elliott was drafted out of Ohio State in the 2016 draft. In 2018, the Giants drafted Saquon Barkley out of Penn State, while the Redskins drafted Derrrius Guice from LSU. A pre-season ACL injury to Guice led the Redskins to sign future first-ballot Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson.

Here’s a look at the stats put up by the 3 healthy NFC East lead backs in 2018:

Earlier this off season, the Eagles traded a 6th round pick to acquire Jordan Howard from the Bears. In 2018, Howard accumulated 935 rushing yards, 145 receiving yards, and 11 total touchdowns.

For his 3-year career, Howard is averaging over 1,100 rushing yards per season, and he has scored 25 touchdowns. He should represent a strong addition to the division, replacing last year’s lead back for the Eagles, Jay Ajayi, who is currently a free agent after tearing his ACL in Week 5 of the 2018 season.

While the Giants and Cowboys rely almost exclusively on a single ‘bell cow’ running back, Jay Gruden’s Redskins, and the Bengals in his stint as offensive coordinator before that, have typically relied on a 3rd down back. For the Redskins, that is Chris Thompson.

Here are CTs stats for the past three years:

Thompson was having a great year in 2017 before Kirk Cousins rolled up on Thompson’s leg and broke it. His 2018 season saw significant regression.

It’s hard to know what to expect from Thompson in a 2019 season where he will be in a position battle with a healthy Adrian Peterson, and two players returning from ACL injuries in 2018 draft pick Derrius Guice and 2019 draft pick Bryce Love.

Thompson will likely still have a role with the team, as both Guice and Love are reputed to need a lot of work in pass protection before they can be trusted on an NFL field as a quarterback-protector - a role at which Chris Thompson typically excels.


The film room: Andrew’s analysis

In this section, we’ll offer a look at a few of the top players in the division, with an analysis of their styles, skills and limitations written by Andrew York (long known in the comments section as Eboracum), who has volunteered to help me with this series.

Andrew is a self-taught film analyst with a pretty impressive resume. He has a PhD in Experimental Particle Physics and has spent several years doing research with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, and now does R&D work as a US government contractor. He will put that analytical brain to work this off-season helping to analyze some of the top players in the NFC East.

Let’s see what Andrew thinks about some of the NFC East’s top running backs. He will look at 5 players, in order:

  • Jordan Howard
  • Derrius Guice
  • Adrian Peterson
  • Saquon Barkley
  • Ezekiel Elliott

Jordan Howard, Philadelphia Eagles

Jordan Howard, traded from the Bears to the Eagles earlier this off season, was a bit of an enigma to me. He exploded onto the NFL scene as a rookie in 2016 with 1,313 yards rushing and 298 yards receiving, but has been statistically worse in each successive season before being traded to the Eagles for a 2020 conditional 6th round pick (amidst rumors the Bears were preparing to cut him outright).

I’ve watched film from several of his games in 2016, 2017, and 2018 to try to get a handle on why such a promising rookie’s career took such a nosedive, and I think it boils down to three main issues: lack of ability in the pass game, lack of elite playmaking traits, and simply being beaten out by his former teammate and fellow Bears running back, Tarik Cohen, who has both of those abilities.

Howard appears to be a very solid pure runner with few weaknesses who is capable in most of the traditional (old school) duties of a RB, but he does not flash elite speed or change-of-direction ability, and can’t run routes or catch passes well enough to consistently provide the passing game versatility many modern offenses demand.

I’ve included video from two of his games (one in 2016 and one in 2018) with some timestamp notations on specific plays that highlight his ability.

2016 - Vikings @ Bears, Week 8


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[2:06] Howard shows great vision to read the defense, identify a glaring weakness, and hit it to break off a big play. But ultimately he gets tackled from behind by a much faster player (Xavier Rhodes) before he can score the long TD. This is his ceiling in a nutshell.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[8:26] Howard shows good awareness and improvisational ability when he takes a shovel pass for a big gain. His vision and ability to subtly adjust his angles allow him to avoid several defenders despite not making any sharp cuts or big evasions. Again, he is tackled from behind.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[9:08] Howard actually catches a pass. I point this out because of the lack of passing game involvement in 2017 and 2018 games. It’s a body-catch not a hands-catch, which shows lack of trust in his hands, but he reels this one in. Note that he displays no route-running ability, he just runs in a straight line until he is open and looks back to the QB for the ball. He also catches a screen at 11:03.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[16:25] This play really highlights Howard’s ability to exploit small creases (and most NFL creases are small) and get skinny to pop through for a nice gain.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[16:58] This provides a look at Jordan Howard’s recognition in pass protection on an obvious pass play (a Hail Mary at the end of the 1st half). He correctly reads the defense, recognizes that Everson Griffin (Vikings #97) will be the only rusher single-blocked, and so goes to help stop him. He also has enough awareness to switch to Eric Kendricks (Vikings #54) when he rushes up late.


2018 - Jets vs. Bears, Week 8


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[0:20] This play seems to be what new HC Matt Nagy wanted to do with Howard most often: fake a handoff to set up a pass or a QB run. Unfortunately, Howard doesn’t really sell the fake, and indeed seems to be going through the motions on most fakes. Almost the exact same play is run at 0:43 with the exact same outcome.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[0:52] I think this play really encapsulates Howard’s decline in Chicago, and he’s not even in it! Taking his place is Tarik Cohen, who runs a quick out route, gets open, and uses his elite speed and change-of-direction ability to take a short pass to the house for a TD. He simply out-played Howard in the Bears’ offense. Cohen’s presence on the Bears roster has a lot to do with why Howard is now in the NFC East instead of the NFC North.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[2:02] Here, we see another handoff to Howard where he finds a seam, runs hard enough to break through arm tackles, and fights hard at the end to gain a few yards and the first down. He still displays the same combination of vision, elusiveness, and hard running that he did in 2016 to my eye. There’s a similar play at 3:31.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[4:17] This play is interesting because Howard becomes a lead blocker on a QB run. Watch him lead the QB and absolutely truck a defender to the ground to buy his QB a few more yards. This play shows great physicality and aggression, and demonstrates how strong Howard is.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[5:40] Here, we have another play showing Howard’s ability to find a crease and hit it for a long gain. He again demonstrates vision, patience (uses a stutter step to let his blocks develop), and hits the opening hard for a big play. I don’t think he’s really lost anything since 2016 except playing time - again, because Cohen is simply a more explosive back with greater flexibility that provides a better fit for Matt Nagy’s offense.


Derrius Guice, Washington Redskins

Derrius Guice has elite traits as a RB, but is very raw in some of the skill sets that will be crucial in the NFL; specifically, pass protection. I think that his pass pro limitions will keep him on the bench for a while until the coaches feel like they can trust his skills. Redskins fans know from last year how much damage can be done when a RB fails to pick up a free rusher.

However, the potential is sky high for Guice. He compares himself to Marshawn Lynch in terms of playing style, and the tape reveals that to be an apt comparison. He is a powerful runner who can push a pile of defenders all by himself, but he also possesses the breakaway speed to turn any play into a scoring opportunity.

It was difficult to judge Guice’s elusiveness and vision at LSU because he usually had very small holes to run through and stacked boxes to run against, but in the few games where the offensive line was able to open up holes (like the Ole Miss game below), he showed a pretty good nose for finding the soft spot in defenses and exploiting it — though he is as likely to run through defenders as around them.

He also has very little experience as a pass catcher because LSU didn’t feature many “razzle dazzle” plays like passes to RBs and TEs, but I think he showed, in his limited opportunities, enough route running and hands-catching ability to think he will actually be a plus factor in the passing game at the NFL level, and that he has the capacity to become a true 3-down back.

The following two games for Guice come from the 2017 season, after it was reported that he had been dealing with some lingering knee problems for most of the season.

The game against Ole Miss was probably his best game of the season; he got big holes to run through, and this tape really shows what he should be able to do in the NFL behind a good run-blocking line, and in an offense that wasn’t designed in the Stone Age.

Unfortunately for Guice, LSU did not have a good blocking OL and the offense was schematically designed in the Stone Age, as is apparent in the tape against Alabama. As you watch the tape, note how many times LSU employs 7 blockers or more, completely telegraphing their intention to run, and leaving Guice with stacked boxes to run against.

Note also how many times he is hit in the backfield, yet still, somehow, manages to power forward for a 4 yard gain or more.

2017 - LSU @ Mississippi


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[0:01] This play shows how deadly Guice can be in space as he takes a jet sweep for a big gain and a 1st down. He shows good vision picking a path through his blockers, and good burst hitting openings as they form.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[0:24] Despite getting hit deep in the backfield, Guice keeps his balance and momentum and powers through for another big gain, displaying rare contact balance (ability to maintain balance after contact). After getting tackled at the end of the play, he spins and falls forward for an additional 2 yard gain, something you’ll see him do often. He does the same thing at 1:01 to get the yards necessary to drive in a TD.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[0:31] Guice again shows good vision and, once he turns the corner to get around blocks, hits an extra gear to break away from the line and get 59 yards into the defensive backfield, almost scoring a TD. No drafted Redskins RB in recent memory (aside from, perhaps, Bryce Love) has had this extra gear. Guice shows, not just elite acceleration (which Chris Thompson has), but also elite top-end speed. There is a similar play at 3:28.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[2:08] Guice lines up in the slot (gasp!) and runs a pretty decent out route, catching the ball with his hands and picking up the first down. There’s a lot to like in what he does in this play. First, he ensures his breakpoint (the point where he breaks towards the sideline) is deep enough that he will pick up the first down if he makes the catch, and he also ensures that he has outside leverage (his back is to the DB and his hands are away from the DB and towards the sideline), which makes the passing window for his QB as safe as possible.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[2:55] This play shows a lateral agility and ability to bounce plays outside that reminds me of how Adrian Peterson looked in the Redskins offense last year. Here, Guice sees that there are no openings ahead, so he bounces once around his OL and a second time to get around some poorly blocked DBs, then plants his foot to reverse his momentum and power forward for the first down. The running back shows great agility, stop-start power, and ability to make something out of nothing.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[4:40] Guice shows good vision, following his blocks on the inside, and, again, hits that extra gear to break away from the line and get a 33 yard gain.


2017 - LSU @ Alabama


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[0:01] This is not an especially interesting play, but I highlight it because it is actually the most common play I saw from Guice in 2017 film. His line opens up zero holes, and he gets contacted about 1 yard from the line of scrimmage, but he manages to power forward for a gain of 5 yards.

I’ve heard that the biggest difficulty for RBs transitioning to the NFL is their ability to “grind out tough yards” because they’re not used to running through as much contact in college, but I don’t expect that to be a problem for Guice. See also 1:58, 2:37, 3:33, 3:43, 6:01, etc


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[0:10] Guice actually does a pretty good job in pass protection on this play, picking up an edge rusher that gets around the LT. Unfortunately, he is not consistent enough for this to be considered routine for him. Other plays show that he has much to improve in terms of awareness and technique in pass protection, but he has more than enough strength to get it done, as shown here. He provides good protection in another play at 2:44.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[6:43] Here, Guice does a poor job in pass protection. This was something I saw in other games, and it is very frustrating.

On this passing play Guice will act as a blocker, but instead of hanging back with the QB to be available if a rusher gets free, Guice pre-judges who to block and rushes forward to take him on (with very poor form).

This would have left his QB completely exposed if he had guessed wrong. In addition, his form is so poor (doesn’t even use his hands) that the defender he went to block gets past him, and, in fact, pressures the QB.

The very same thing happens on the next play (6:53), except this time the rusher (Daron Payne) comes from the opposite direction and gets to the QB, along with the guy Guice was trying to block.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[7:38] Guice runs to the flat to act as a quick read in case the QB faces pressure and nobody is open (ie, the Chris Thompson special). The pass goes to Guice, who powers 3 yards past contact and through 3 defenders to almost get the first down (which he does get the very next play).


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[8:00] However, this play illustrates that Guice has a lot of learning to do still; it is another poor pass-protection effort. Guice wanders forward aimlessly after the snap, seemingly unsure who to block or if he should run free to act as a quick read. As soon as it seems like he’s decided to run free, he turns around to see his QB sacked.

Adrian Peterson, Washington Redskins

Adrian Peterson is a first ballot Hall of Fame player who is defying conventional wisdom about RBs and age.

He is a “foundation back” — the kind of RB that teams used to build their entire offense around. However, he’s a bit out of place in many modern NFL offenses and fits the mold of an “old school” NFL rusher, requiring modern offenses to adapt to his strengths and weaknesses, or at least meet him halfway.

He operates best out of a single back formation, where he starts several yards behind the QB (who is under center) so he can accept the handoff after building up some speed. After watching some of his tape, I think this is partly due to the fact that although he has elite top-end speed and vision, he only has only good (not elite) acceleration, so having some time to get his momentum going really helps him out.

I think it’s also due to his lack of patience. Peterson was reportedly nicknamed “All Day” by his parents because of his hyperactivity as a child (the nickname persisted with coaches because of his energy on the field). A downside of hyperactivity is impatience, and previous reports have suggested that Peterson struggles in the shotgun formation at least partly because he lacks the patience to wait until blocks develop before deciding where he’s going to go.

Shotgun, of course, is a staple of many modern NFL offenses (including the Redskins), which may also help to explain why Peterson has recently had a poor market in free agency.

Peterson has also traditionally been considered a liability in the passing game, with poor grades in pass protection (not as big a RB responsibility in single back formation) and limited pass-catching ability.

However, after watching tape on him in 2018, I think he has had a late-career renaissance. He looks improved in many areas that were traditionally considered his liabilities. He was effective in shotgun, was competent in pass protection, and improved as a pass catcher (from a 57.9% catch rate in 2017 to a 76.9% catch rate in 2018).

By no means is he a Le’Veon Bell or David Johnson-type of running back who can line up in the slot and provide equal versatility in the pass game and run game, but he’s not such a detriment in the pass game that he has to be taken out on passing plays.

In addition, he still seems to have many of the elite pure running traits that made him a perennial All Pro. He has the vision to quickly read defenses, follows blocks to hit holes, has the elusiveness to break tackles and the power to run through them, and he still has the top-end speed to take any play to the house.

2018 - Redskins vs. Giants, Week 8


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[0:16] Peterson gets a running start from a single back formation and does a good job identifying the hole as it opens, and hitting it hard. Even though he’s first contacted about 2 yards past the line of scrimmage, he manages to gain about 5 more yards through a combination of great contact balance and relentless, powerful legs that never stop churning.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[1:06] Peterson again gets a running start, sees that the OL has opened no holes in front of him, and bounces the run outside for a first down. He shows good change-of-direction ability, avoiding a rusher who broke through the line, without losing his momentum.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[1:22] Peterson lines up in shotgun in a more traditional Jay Gruden formation. He scans the defense to ensure there are no free rushers he needs to block, then runs to the flat to make himself available as a quick read. He does a decent job catching the pass from Smith and shows good field awareness sensing the pressure inside and running outside (breaking a tackle) for the TD.

My biggest takeaway here (other than the fact that he is capable of catching passes) is that it’s evident he’s a savvy vet. One look at the field before preparing himself for the pass is all it takes to know where the defenders are positioned and where they will go. He breaks outside without needing to re-scan the field, instead sensing where pressure will come from.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[3:10] Peterson in shotgun does an excellent job selling the fake while Alex Smith keeps it (he appears even to fool the cameraman, who follows AP initially). I think attention to detail is a very important trait in a player, and selling a fake is all about attention to detail.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[6:09] Peterson in shotgun, gets the handoff, and does an excellent job jump-cutting and spinning, but then makes a terrible mistake by losing the ball when Landon Collins spears it with his helmet. I think this is worth highlighting because, although he had good ball security for most of last season, Peterson has had a problem with fumbles previously in his career.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[9:06] Peterson, in single back formation, gets a good running start and gets behind the pulling center and guard, following his blockers to break loose for a 64 yard TD. Although it doesn’t look like he just turns on the jets the way Guice can, he was able to slowly build up to reach a high enough top-end speed that no defenders could stop him from reaching the end zone.


2018 - Redskins @ Titans, Week 16


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[5:18] Peterson lines up in single back formation, takes a handoff, but runs into a wall of defenders and goes down with little gain. I think he followed the design of the play, as the offensive line breaks to the right (the same direction as he did), but I think if he had been a bit more patient, seen how the blocks were developing, and cut left instead, he would have found a bigger hole.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[5:35] This run out of shotgun makes up for the last play. Peterson, in shotgun, displays excellent patience, pausing after the initial handoff, he scans the defense and sees a LB running towards him, then cuts hard to the left (using Morgan Moses as cover) and surges forward despite being hit several times, eventually falling forward for an 8 yard gain. Peterson displayed vision, lateral agility, and contact balance on this play, staying upright despite contact, running hard and falling forward for a big gain.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[8:16] Peterson runs to the flat to catch a pass and manages to get the first down. It’s a bit of a body catch, and looks very similar to several plays by Jordan Howard — more like a guy who has spent time with a Jugs machine rather than an experienced receiver, but it’s enough to get the job done in a limited pass-catching role. Notice how, once he gets the ball in his hand, AP gets north-south quickly and just bowls over the tackler - vintage Adrian Peterson!


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[8:41] Peterson does a good job reading the defense and seeing where the pressure will come from, but does a terrible job blocking, letting his defender through to sack the QB. He showed very little desire for contact on this play.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[9:11] Peterson in single back formation does a great job slowing down after he gets the handoff to let blocks develop, and then exploding forward once a hole opens in the middle. He even drags a defender several yards after contact before going down.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[9:54] Peterson shows great subtle change-of-direction ability as he cuts right, then stops on a dime to explode forward past defenders who are jumping at his previous location. Then he jump-cuts and spins to get around another would-be tackler. I counted 5 broken tackles on this play. With his lack of explosive acceleration, this great vision and movement in the hole is what separates AP from most other backs.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[30:36] Peterson does a good job in pass protection, reading where the free rusher would come from and moving to intercept, showing good form all around.

Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

I had a lot of preconceived notions about Saquon Barkley coming into this film analysis.

Because he plays for a division rival, I didn’t want to like him.

Because the Giants were bad last year and took him at #2 overall, I thought he was overrated.

Because he was known as a boom-or-bust player in college, I thought he lacked vision between the tackles.

But I tried to approach the film analysis with as much objectivity as possible. After studying several of Saquon’s games, I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s a truly rare talent who may very well be worthy of his draft position.

He is probably the best all-around athlete in our division, and may be the best all-around athlete in the NFL. Tyreek Hill is faster, JJ Watt is stronger, Aaron Donald whoops more ass, but I can’t think of another player who combines all three as much as Barkley.

He doesn’t really have “weaknesses”, just some things he’s not as good at as others. Unless “being surrounded by inferior players” is a weakness, in which case he has that. So I’ll just list his traits from “elite” to “good”:

  • Elite: acceleration, top-end speed, change of direction ability, body control, toughness, motor
  • Very good: pass catching, pass protection, elusiveness, contact balance
  • Good: route running, vision, power

Note that most of his elite traits can’t be coached, and most of his non-elite traits can. The one area where I’m surprised he’s not a little better is his power. For such a big, strong, athletic RB, he’s not that hard to bring down once he’s wrapped up. He relies on elusiveness more than power to break big runs. Still, if he ever gets a good OL blocking for him, I think he has the potential to be the RB equivalent of Lawrence Taylor, tormenting division rivals for years to come and forcing them to gameplan against him.

2018 - Giants vs 49ers, Week 10


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[0:52] Barkley sees that there are no real openings (note the 2 unblocked LBs waiting for him in the middle), so he bounces the run outside for a big gain. Even when the defense gave him nothing, he got a big play.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[3:12] Very nice pass protection by Barkley. He quickly sees the hole in the OL, sees the blitzers, and runs up to plug the hole and stop one of the blitzers. He has good technique in holding the blitzer off as well.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[9:53] Barkley runs a short crossing route and the 49ers have two players trying to defend him. Despite that, he makes the catch and immediately breaks away from the players guarding him for a huge gain before eventually being forced out of bounds across the field. Just forcing double coverage is a win for the offense, but beating double coverage to make a big play is what the truly great players do.


2018 - Giants @ Buccaneers, Week 11


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[0:28] Barkley gets the handoff, runs it up the middle, following his blocks and exploiting a big hole, and gets the 1st down, though it only takes 1 defender to bring him down after contact. On the one hand, this play shows he has good vision between the tackles since he followed his blocks well. On the other hand, I think some other RBs would not have gone down so quickly on contact, especially when that contact was so high on the body.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[3:58] Barkley does a much better job here of powering through contact, staying on his feet (good contact balance), and getting quite a few yards after initial contact. Maybe it’s because the defenders couldn’t wrap him up at first?


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[5:32] This play kind of summarizes my feelings about Barkley’s elite athletic traits and elusiveness, but less-than-impressive power given his build and athleticism. Barkley does an amazing job of avoiding a tackle despite immediate penetration in his backfield. He shows great agility and speed breaking a big gain to the side, but then goes down to the first player able to wrap him up. Maybe I’m just being too hard on him given how amazing he is in every other aspect of the game.


Ezekiel Elliott

Ezekiel Elliott is one of the most consistently productive RBs currently playing in the NFL. Not only is he a rare talent at RB, he plays behind an elite offensive line in an offensive scheme designed around the run; in short, a perfect combination of talent, supporting cast, and usage. He’s been a thorn in the side of division rivals for years now, and although I didn’t find any big surprises watching tape of him, I did gain a more nuanced appreciation of his skillset.

Zeke is another RB I would describe as having no major “weaknesses”, just some things he’s better at than others. He is an all-around complete RB who can run with power and vision up the middle, cut outside and accelerate up the sideline for a big gain, stay back to protect the QB on a blitz, or line up in the slot to catch passes. He runs with a bit more power, vision, and decisiveness than Barkley, though he’s not the same level of elite athlete as Barkley; I think Derrius Guice and Ezekiel Elliott have a similar levels of athleticism.

However, it was clear watching the film that another important difference between the Elliott and Barkley is the teams that they play for.

Barkley’s offensive line was often a liability, allowing him to get hit in the backfield and creating few openings up the middle for him to run through. In addition, Barkley was often running against a stacked box of defenders even on 1st down.

In contrast, Zeke’s offensive line often blocked several yards for him, kept him clean in the backfield, and defenses respected the Cowboys passing game enough that the box was usually a balanced 7-man front on 1st down situations. Note that both of the Cowboys games I watched were after the Amari Cooper trade, meaning that defenses had more to worry about than they had in the first half of the season, which helped Elliott and the Cowboys’ offense immensely.

2018 - Cowboys vs Seahawks, NFC Wild Card


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[0:47] This play is a good introduction to Elliott’s abilities as a rusher. No big holes are blocked for him up front, but he manages to gain 5 yards. He has the vision to cut back and avoid a defender who penetrated the line, then follows his blocks and powers forward through contact for a nice gain. This is the kind of play Zeke makes all the time that, while not sexy, allows the Cowboys offense to rely on safe 4 or 5 yard gains on early downs, making later downs much more manageable. It’s also worth pointing out that the Cowboys OL pushed back the Seahawks DL by about 3 yards on this play, so 3 of those yards were blocked for him (also typical of many plays I saw).


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[17:37] It’s 3rd & 1 and the defense expects a run up the middle, leaving nothing there. So Zeke bounces the run outside, quickly accelerating up the sideline for a big gain. This play really showcases Zeke’s acceleration and speed as he blows past defenders who simply can’t keep up with him.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[35:56] This play really highlights Zeke’s strength, power, and body control. The Seahawks block up the middle, so Elliott bounces the run outside. Although CB Shaquill Griffin is guarding the edge and gets to him in the backfield, Zeke easily grabs him with one hand and forces him to the ground without breaking stride. Then races up the sideline for a big gain.


2018 - Cowboys @ Rams, NFC Divisional


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[5:17] This play shows Zeke’s pass protection abilities pretty well (especially if you check out the replay at 5:32 from the QB point of view). Zeke sees the opening in the OL and sees blitzing LB Mark Barron rushing up the center and moves to undercut him. If not for Zeke’s blocking, Dak would have likely been sacked and the Cowboys would not have made a crucial long TD.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[26:25] Even though this ends up being an incomplete pass, I think this play shows Zeke’s ability as a pass catcher. He runs with good hustle down the sideline, shows good sense of timing by turning around as the ball is approaching him, does a good job tracking the ball in the air, and shows good hands as he goes up and gets the ball. Rams LB Cory Littleton does an excellent job forcing Zeke out of bounds to make the pass incomplete, but Zeke could easily have caught it for a big gain in other circumstances.


Posted by Bill Chula on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

[37:02] This is, perhaps, a bit of a nitpick, but I think this play shows a bit of a weakness in Zeke’s game, and I saw it on more than one occasion. He lines up in the slot and runs a short crossing route. He does a good job ensuring the breakpoint is past the first down marker and does his RB best to try to fake out the DB before breaking (I’d expect more from a WR, but it’s fine for a RB). However, he doesn’t seem to be able to accelerate nearly fast enough from a stop to break away from the LB (Littleton again), and the pass gets broken up. It’s still better than many RBs would do, but I think Saquon Barkley or Le’Veon Bell would be able to break loose on this play and make the catch, meaning that there’s room to improve.


A look at the top of the depth chart for each team

Of course, no position group consists of just one star player. In a sport that is as physically demanding as football, one in which player injuries are common, the unit depth is as important a factor as the skill of the star players.

Here, we’ll take a look at the top of the depth chart for each team — the pool of players from which the final 53 seems likely to be chosen. Not all the players listed will make the team, and I might easily miss — especially for the Redskins’ division rivals — players who will make the Week 1 roster, but this list should give some idea of the relative depth of the four teams’ positional groups.

Redskins:

  • Adrian Peterson
  • Derrius Guice
  • Chris Thompson
  • Bryce Love
  • Samaje Perine
  • Byron Marshall

Giants

  • Saquon Barkley
  • Wayne Gallman
  • Paul Perkins
  • Rod Smith

Cowboys:

  • Ezekiel Elliott
  • Darius Jackson
  • Tony Pollard
  • Mike Weber

Eagles:

  • Jordan Howard
  • Miles Sanders
  • Corey Clement
  • Wendell Smallwood
  • Donnell Pumphrey

Poll

Who is the best running back in the NFC East?

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    Jordan Howard
    (12 votes)
  • 20%
    Zeke Elliott
    (226 votes)
  • 68%
    Saquon Barkley
    (766 votes)
  • 6%
    Adrian Peterson
    (67 votes)
  • 3%
    Derrius Guice
    (41 votes)
1112 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Which NFC East team has the BEST running back group in the division?

This poll is closed

  • 12%
    Eagles
    (135 votes)
  • 60%
    Redskins
    (643 votes)
  • 17%
    Giants
    (186 votes)
  • 8%
    Cowboys
    (91 votes)
1055 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Which NFC East team has the WEAKEST running back group in the divisions?

This poll is closed

  • 58%
    Eagles
    (602 votes)
  • 10%
    Redskins
    (109 votes)
  • 12%
    Giants
    (134 votes)
  • 18%
    Cowboys
    (189 votes)
1034 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Which Redskins back will have the most yards from scrimmage in 2019?

This poll is closed

  • 27%
    Adrian Peterson
    (263 votes)
  • 65%
    Derrius Guice
    (616 votes)
  • 3%
    Chris Thompson
    (37 votes)
  • 2%
    Bryce Love
    (26 votes)
942 votes total Vote Now