Over the last few seasons, breakout running backs have typically been what has put teams over the top in the NFL. It was Ezekiel Elliott in 2016, carrying the Cowboys to a 13-3 record, and Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara in 2017, helping their teams return to the playoffs.
Though the running back position is considered to be at the lowest value it has ever been, a team’s running game can usually make or break their season. Certain teams need it bad as well. These are five running backs that are about to establish themselves as household names in 2018.
I chose to leave Saquon Barkley off this list as no one expects anything less than a stellar season from the second-overall draft pick of 2018.
5 Potential 2018 Breakout Running Backs
Royce Freeman – Denver Broncos
C.J. Anderson was the picture of average during his time in Denver so the Broncos decided to move on from him and pick up a back that can have some longevity as a workhorse RB. Freeman played all four years at Oregon and racked up an insane 947 carries during his college career. He is a straightforward downhill runner and gives the Broncos a running back that can eat carries and find gaps where there are none. Even if he doesn’t end up playing near to as many snaps as he got at Oregon, Freeman will almost always be used in goalline situations.
Freeman might not have blazing speed or incredible lateral movement but he does something that a lot of backs can’t do, and that’s where down a defence. For a 6’0″ running back, he ways a sizable 229lbs. That large frame is going to help him gain the Broncos starting running back job and could come in handy if opposing defences try to game plan by only stopping Denver’s impressive deep threat receivers. Freeman needs to have a successful start to the season and take some of the pressure off new QB Case Keenum. If not, Denver’s offence will struggle for the second year in a row.
Joe Mixon – Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals have had a running back carousel going on for a few seasons now and drafted Mixon in 2017 hoping he could put an end to it. He is also the third running back the Bengals have drafted in the second round in the last six seasons. However, the other two backs, Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, both specialized in one of either the run game or the passing game. Off-field issues forced the former Oklahoma standout to fall into the second round of last year’s draft but the Bengals selected Mixon believing he could become a lead back in the NFL. He piled up 1,274 yards on the ground and 538 yards through the air during his last season at OU.
Now coming into his second year in the NFL, Mixon is playing in a far less crowded backfield in comparison to the one he was part of in 2017. Hill has moved on to New England and judging by the way Cincinnati never committed to Bernard for more than a couple games at a time in 2017, Mixon should be the favourite back on early downs and work his way into later down situations as the season progresses. The Bengals face a lot of teams with good defences in 2018 so Mixon must find a way to produce if his team is to have success. If Mixon can fix his 3.5 yards per carry average from last year, he will be given the ball enough do a lot of damage on the ground.
Kerryon Johnson – Detroit Lines
The Lions running back situation has been even worse than the Bengals. Granted, the Lions have found a couple one season wonders since James Stewart‘s retirement but nothing that they can fully commit to. Johnson may be slightly buried on Detroit’s depth chart but his time will come this season to take over the lead back role. He was selected with the 43rd-overall pick by the Lions and brings an electric style of running that Detroit hasn’t had in a long time. At Auburn, Johnson piled up 2,286 yards in his last two seasons in college and took home SEC Offensive Player of the Year honours in his last year.
Johnson is already impressing in practices and had a solid showing in his first preseason game against the Raiders. The highlight of the game was a play that never happened but saw Johnson scamper for a 57-yard run. Johnson’s run was called back due to a holding penalty but he still accumulated 34 yards on seven carries. He also caught four balls for 33 yards — an interesting development considering he only had 55 catches in his entire three-year college career. Detroit’s offence is one that prioritizes the passing game and if Johnson can show he can be effective through the air as well as on the ground, Detroit may have found their running back of the future.
Kenyan Drake – Miami Dolphins
Drake took the reigns for the Dolphins after they shipped Jay Ajayi to the Eagles last season and absolutely dominated during the time he was in charge. In the six games Drake started after the loss of Ajayi, the second-year RB averaged 4.64 yards per carry, including three games with over 100 yards from scrimmage, and was always given the ball when the Dolphins were leading games. Now in 2018, Drake seems like the clear choice for the lead back role in Miami. Frank Gore provides depth at the position but no back on the roster has the ability to catch and run like Drake.
It’s hard to believe that after trading Ajayi last year that Adam Gase isn’t going to feed his young runner every chance he gets. A 35-year-old Gore will simply be used to provide guidance to Drake while occasionally vulturing his touchdowns (for all you fantasy players). The Dolphins offensive line should be improved again in 2018 and if they can improve upon their NFL worst 0.59 yards before contact in the running game, Drake should bust out a 1000+ yard season with ease. He passes the eye test for what a good lead back in the NFL looks like and should show his doubters his best side this coming season.
Derrick Henry – Tennessee Titans
Henry may not have had many starts in 2017 but he was able to leave a bit of a mark with the chances he was given. A second-round pick in 2016, Henry was stuck behind DeMarco Murray in the Tennessee backfield and was still able to rush for a respectable 744 yards in 2017. His most memorable moments were his two 70+ yard walk-off touchdowns — week six against Indianapolis and week 13 against Houston. Henry is the kind of runner that could only run for 25 yards on 10 carries and then bust out a 60-yard run and take it to the house. He is finally a lead back and should break off more than his fair share of giant runs.
Couple this with the fact that Marcus Mariota can’t play much worse than he did last year and Henry should almost certainly succeed in his third year as a pro. Even with Dion Lewis breathing down his neck in the backfield, Henry is poised to have his best season yet. During Murray’s best season in Tennessee, he was given the ball 293 times, good for third most in the NFL. Henry should see a similar workload in 2018. He will also get significantly more goalline work than the other backs on the Titans roster. Besides to the fact he will not factor into the passing game much, there isn’t a lot not to be excited about with the former Heisman winner.
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