Running back changes happen every year. However, this coming season could see a number of different starters. There are a number of variables driving this change; namely, an incoming influx of young, cheap talent that will cause teams to evaluate their current contracts. The AFC West and the NFC West have already been examined. Now it’s time to focus on the AFC East.
NFL Running Back Changes for 2018 – AFC East Edition
After making it to the playoffs for the first time in 17 years, it would be quite the surprise if the Bills suddenly decided to remove one of the key reasons they made it there. In other words, LeSean McCoy isn’t going anywhere. Yes, he will cost $8.95 million against the cap this year. And yes, that is the highest total at the position as of right now. Even when McCoy’s age is factored into the equation (30 next year) a change still seems unlikely.
Change that is likely, however, is the Bills focusing on their depth. Mike Tolbert and Travaris Cadet are set to be free agents. The Bills could decide to get the band back together for another run. They could also decide to find McCoy’s heir apparent in the upcoming draft. Whatever they decide to do, their decision is likely going to be a cap friendly one.
In a world of starting running back changes, count the Dolphins as maybe. When Jay Ajayi was first dealt, the Dolphins were a prime spot for a new starting running back in 2018. And then Kenyan Drake happened. Drake impressed after Damien Williams‘s injury, finishing the year with 4.8 yards per carry (seventh best in the league). Combine his finish to the year with this cap number (under one million), and the Dolphins have a cheap, startable option for next season.
Williams, on other hand, enters into next season as an unrestricted free agent. Prior to his injury, he found in himself in a time share with Drake, so it is certainly feasible that the Dolphins bring him back.
Even if the Dolphins elect not to resign Williams, they will be active in finding a running back to pair with Drake. There are likely a number of fantasy football fanatics that cringe at the word “pair,” but last season suggests that just might happen. In the four games where both Drake and Williams were the main backs, Drake averaged 11 touches. While he averaged over 20 touches in the subsequent five games without Williams, the previous four are significant enough to cast some doubt about Drake being a bell cow. Well, that and Drake’s low BMI could also play a factor.
The starting job should belong to Dion Lewis going forward. There are some obstacles in the way of that happening though. Namely, Lewis is an unrestricted free agent after this season. Although, his production this season (five yards per carry, third in juke rate, and second in created yards) is reason enough to bring him back.
Another candidate to be brought back to the team is Rex Burkhead. This past season, Burkhead proved to be one of the more productive players when on the field. And call it hunch, but the Patriots might like productive players on their roster.
Currently, the only two running backs of note on their roster for 2018 are James White and Mike Gillislee. Gillislee would obviously stand to gain if the team decides to move on from both Lewis and Burkhead; however, given his inactive status for weeks, it’s more likely that the Patriots choose to move on from him. If the Patriots do cut Gillislee, it would result in zero dollars of dead money while freeing up $2.4 million.
Obviously, there are a number of ways the Patriots could go to deal with their impending opening at starting running. The most likely is that Lewis and Burkhead are invited back to split the job.
The starting job may be up for grabs here. Technically, Matt Forte is still on the roster, but that’s hardly a guarantee for future employment. As of right now, Forte will count $4 million against the cap. While Forte has had a great career, $4 million is quite a bit to pay for a declining back. If the Jets choose to cut Forte (before June 1st), the team would free up $3 million towards the cap, which gives them even more reason to move on.
Assuming the Jets do choose to move on, there is a chance they could be looking at a true, starting running back instead of the timeshare that existed last year. The main way for this to happen for the Jets is that they choose to use a higher pick on the position in this year’s draft. They could, in theory, choose to find a starter in free agency as well. Running backs like Carlos Hyde will draw some attention. Although, addressing the position through the draft would be cheaper and more team friendly.
One way the timeshare survives is if the Jets choose to anoint Bilal Powell as the starter. He and Elijah McGuire would combine forces to create a situation as appealing as the cross town New York Giants Paul Perkins and Orleans Darkwa. But it’s not as if Powell couldn’t carry the load on his own; it’s that the Jets seem intent on capping his touches short of the 200 mark. It also doesn’t help that Powell would be turning 30 next year on a rebuilding team who is getting younger at a number of key positions.
One thing worth mentioning about this youth movement is that it could push aside more than just Forte. With a cap number around $4.8 million, Powell is hardly guaranteed a spot either. If the team chose to cut Powell (before June 1st), they would save $4 million towards the cap. At the moment the Jets are hardly cash strapped, but that’s hardly the point. Freeing up the money would allow the front office to spend it more efficiently, especially if they found great talent in the draft.
Out of the entire AFC East, the Jets are the best candidate to have a new starting running back next year. Sure the Patriots could do the whole wild card thing, and shake things up by letting Lewis chase a bigger contract. The Dolphins also have the potential to be a wild card as well. However, the Jets have about seven million reasons to make some changes.
The Bills, on the other hand, are the least likely to change. Yes, McCoy will cost a decent amount this upcoming season. And yes, there’s a lot of wear on those tires of his. However, the Bills recent success (with McCoy being a huge factor in that success) probably makes McCoy bulletproof this upcoming season.