– Jim Bearor
The New York Giants are bringing back the four running backs that made up a disappointing backfield in 2015. They ranked 18th in terms of rushing yards and were the team’s worst positional group according to Pro Football Focus. Andre Williams continued to frustrate everyone who had a rooting interest in him, but the other three had decent seasons. Jennings the starter, Vereen the third down back, and Darkwa the fill-in, all ran for a little over four yards per carry.
There was quite a bit going on at the position last year, but you can’t have too many running backs, right? Apparently that’s how the Giants saw it, seeing as they signed free agent Bobby Rainey and drafted Paul Perkins out of UCLA in the 5th round. Oh, and they recently added Marshaun Coprich, an undrafted rookie from Illinois St. That makes seven. It’s only training camp, so the roster will be trimmed down before it’s all said and done, but there’s no denying the backfield feels crowded right now.
This topic has already been addressed by running backs coach Craig Johnson, and while he didn’t clarify what adding more bodies to the mix does to remedy the situation, he said the plan is for Jennings to see more action than he did in the first three quarters of last season. Johnson also acknowledged the lack of rhythm that ended up defining this unit in 2015, and mentioned that playing fewer backs in 2016 may help the flow of things.
Jennings was atop the totem pole throughout last season as well, but barely. Vereen came in on third downs, passing situations, and in crunch time. Williams would also spell Jennings, probably more often than he should have. Darkwa stuck his nose in too, snagging 36 carries.
The whole thing was like a bad story that goes out of its way to build subplots and supporting characters, then glosses over or abandons them at the end. Jennings getting more touches – and more production – in the final stretch of the season was more frustrating than satisfying, half because the Giants’ season was over by then, and half because many of us thought Rashad Jennings should have been the hero of this story all along.
That being said, there’s no guarantee the running game will be more effective with Jennings as a true feature back. In his six years in the league, he has never rushed for 1,000 yards, and his 195 carries in 2015 was the largest workload of his career. He’s on the wrong side of thirty.
He’s also currently his team’s best option at RB1. Last year didn’t do much to prove or disprove his ability to be the number one guy; his cumulative stats were pretty good, but he wasn’t consistent enough to really put his stamp on the position and the awkward pattern of substitutions wasn’t helping his cause. Now the coaching staff has decided to run it back with the same squad and an increased emphasis on Jennings, in hopes that they’ll be able to create a rhythm this time around.
“What I’ve learned is you can have a couple of guys that are playing a lot and then maybe a spare, I think that’s the best way to go,” Coach Johnson said. I agree.
Then how does this depth chart shake out?
Jennings starts the season as top dog, that’s a given. Vereen was Eli’s second favorite target last year (his 59 receptions only second to OBJ’s 96), and he was a viable change of pace as the RB2. It’s his spot to lose. Alright, let’s say the top two spots are filled, because it seems that way right now. That leaves the role of the “spare” for Williams, Darkwa, and Perkins to compete for, because it will probably take a historic, Victor Cruz-esque preseason for Rainey or Coprich to make the roster.
The competition to be the third-string running back is the one I’m most interested in this preseason. All three candidates are young and unheralded, with unknown potential (except maybe Andre Williams, whose stock as an NFL running back is at an all time low). However, the main reason I’m so intrigued is because whichever player secures that third spot has an easy-enough-to-envision path to the top of the chart.
Assuming Jennings can remain healthy and effective throughout 2016 (a big presumption), all it would take is a handful of great runs for the third-stringer to change the dynamic of the running back committee. This can be a slippery slope to disorganization à la 2015, but it could also be the opportunity that Perkins, Darkwa, or Williams need to prove themselves worthy of more responsibility.
Upholding the current order and stressing stability above all else might mean giving up on players like Perkins or Darkwa, who could conceivably compete on another roster. It’s a difficult choice to make, setting the pecking order and cutting players, and I won’t pretend I have the answers, but the way I see it, Perkins and Darkwa should get their chances to shine before Williams, who has done nothing to make that next step.
Williams as the RB3 could make a pretty clear-cut depth chart where all three have well-defined roles: Jennings the starter, Vereen the pass catcher, and Williams the guy who runs into the line for no gain. However, if they leave the door open for Perkins or Darkwa, one of them might flip this halfback hierarchy on its head, and the team could end up better for it.
– Jim Bearor (@JimBearor)