Over the next few days, we’ll be taking a look at the talent in the NFC West and seeing how the Rams match up. Today we look at the running backs.
With star running backs like Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch in the division, the NFC West arguably has the best talent on the ground of any division in the NFL. The St. Louis Rams will look to challenge the production of those two in 2014 with the young duo of Zac Stacy and Tre Mason.
As a fifth-round pick a year ago, Stacy seriously exceeded expectations, rushing for 973 yards and seven touchdowns on 250 attempts after being given the starting job in Week 5. The expectation is that with the opportunity to make an impact over a full season this year, Stacy will be able to become one of the kingpins of the Rams’ offensive attack and exceed the 1,000-yard mark, which was not met by a Rams back last year for the first time since 2004.
To provide insurance for Stacy, increase competition, and boost the overall prestige of their running game, the Rams selected Mason in the third round. Last year at Auburn, Mason ran for 1816 yards and 23 touchdowns on 317 attempts on the way to becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist and participating in the BCS Championship Game. All indications are that Mason’s going to get substantial playing time as a rookie, and he may end up cutting into Stacy’s carries by the end of the season if the second-year back doesn’t replicate his 2013 production.
As successful as the Rams may be with their running attack in 2014, it will still be tough to compete with the dominant attacks of the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. And though the Rams’ running game looks more potent than the Arizona Cardinals’ at the moment, Arizona could see improvement from an attack led by second-year back Andre Ellington and complimented by former Pittsburgh Steeler Jonathan Dwyer in 2014.
Even with as dominant as Lynch was in helping the Seahawks to a Super Bowl victory in 2013, San Francisco still has the most imposing running attack heading into the season. Beyond Gore, who is third among active NFL backs in rushing yardage and ran for 1,128 yards with nine touchdowns on 276 attempts in 2013, the Niners have four other legitimate backs in Carlos Hyde, Marcus Lattimore, Kendall Hunter, and LaMichael James.
Lattimore, a quick but powerful back who sat out last season while recovering from a gruesome knee injury suffered at South Carolina, could be the wild card in the whole equation. Despite playing in only 16 games over his final two college years, he managed to pick up 1,480 total rushing yards and 21 touchdowns over those two seasons. And as a freshman with the Gamecocks, he ran for 1,197 yards and 17 TDs. It’s difficult to tell what type of impact the injuries will have on Lattimore going forward, but many thought he would have been the first running back selected last year if he had been healthy. If he can display that form this year, he may start stealing carries from Gore.
Hyde, meanwhile, could also play an important role after a spectacular senior season at Ohio State which saw him run for 1521 and 15 touchdowns. If the 49ers can get Gore, Lattimore and Hyde all going in 2014, they may have the most fearsome trio of running backs since the New York Giants ran with their “Earth, Wind, & Fire” trio of Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward, and Ahmad Bradshaw in the late 2000s. The extreme physicality of each of these backs could really wear down opposing defenses, and having an elite running quarterback like Colin Kaepernick will only add to the trouble.
The 28-year-old Lynch, who ran for 1,257 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, is probably the NFC West’s best overall back. His combination of speed and physicality constantly gives defenses fits. But his contract status has become an issue, and there have been rumors that he could hold out or even retire if the situation isn’t resolved. While that doesn’t really seem to be a likely possibility, it’s basically a foregone conclusion that Lynch won’t have as much of a presence in the Seahawks’ offense as he had in 2013. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell is very intrigued by the potential of second-year back Christine Michael, and he said during OTAs that the team would be going to a running back-by-committee approach this season in order to take advantage of Michael’s breakaway speed and power. We’ll have to see just how evenly the carries get split this year.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals had a situation similar to the Rams’ in 2013, as Ellington, their rookie sixth-rounder, proved himself reliable during the course of the season. While working behind players like Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Williams early in the season, Ellington’s carries were limited, but he worked his way into a prominent role by Week 8 and ended up 652 yards on 118 attempts. Because of that success, Arizona will rely more heavily on Ellington this season, and they’ve signed Dwyer, who head coach Bruce Arians coached as the offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, to serve as his backup. Dwyer, who had a very good season in 2012 as Pittsburgh’s primary back, struggled in 2013 and at one point was released before eventually being brought back into the fold. Arizona will hope that he can recover his form this year.
So as we head into the season, San Francisco is narrowly ahead of Seattle as the top running team in the NFC West. With that said, both the Rams and the Cardinals could close the gap with another solid season from their young backs, and St. Louis in particular could make their way to the top if they get good production out of Mason, a repeat performance from Stacy, and quality blocking from their vastly improved offensive line.