Column: Running backs starting to realize less is more
While watching ‘The Herd’ on Tuesday, host Colin Cowherd had an interesting take on Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliot, who has stated privately, according to multiple reports, that he’s planning a training camp holdout without a new contract. Elliot currently has two years left on his deal.
Cowherd suggested that the Cowboys trade Elliot as soon as possible, stating that his value will never be higher and that the decline of a running back can be rapid, given how many carries they accrue in high school and college in addition to the NFL.
This got me thinking about a larger issue, one I think you could see more and more of. Because running backs are devalued for the very reasons he states, why not reduce the amount of wear and tear your body takes?
Take for instance the example of Class of 2019 running back Noah Cain. The talented rusher will suit up for Penn State as a true freshman this season, likely splitting carries between sophomore Ricky Slade, a talented former 5-star recruit, former Meadville standout Journey Brown and 2019 freshman classmate Devyn Ford, who, like Cain, is a high four-star recruit.
Penn State is far from the only program adopting this strategy, and Cain is not the only elite back coming out of high school that’s perfectly comfortable going to a program where he will split carries. An elite high school back in Texas, Cain took this strategy a step further, transferring to prestigious IMG Academy in Bradenton, where he shouldered the load with fellow elite backs Trey Sanders (Alabama) and T.J. Pledger (Oklahoma) his junior and senior seasons.
Georgia and its recent crop of running backs have also implemented this strategy to perfection.
In 2017, Nick Chubb led the team with 223 carries, followed by Sony Michel (156) and D’Andre Swift (81).
Both Chubb and Michel graduated to the NFL where they had stellar rookie seasons. Chubb led the Browns in rushing yards (996) as did Michel with the Super Bowl champion Patriots (931). Both are in line to be starters this season and potentially in line for a big payday in a few years.
Swift, just a freshman that year, increased his workload to a still modest 163 last season, which was basically a 50-50 split with Elijah Holyfield, the son of Evander Holyfield, who is now with the Carolina Panthers.
Swift will be the feature back this year and is currently projected by The Athletic as the top back at a loaded position group for the 2020 NFL Draft.
But don’t expect him to suddenly carry the ball 300 times this season. Zamir White, the top recruit at the position in the country in 2018, will be back after redshirting with a knee injury last year, as will James Cook, who saw 42 carries a season ago and ranked as a high four-star recruit with plenty of pedigree in the 2018 class.
They will take a route similar to what Swift has done, and he will likely depart to be a first or second-round pick.
Even at a young age, these guys are getting smart.
There’s a good chance the path they have chosen will lead to a longer career in the NFL, which will, in turn, lead to more money and less wear and tear on their bodies. And when it does, others will follow. They already have.
And for as many poor decisions as Elliot has made off the field, this one is shrewd, calculated and smart.