I recently sat down to do a bit of a study on backup running backs in the NFL. I was specifically looking for players that would fit the criteria of a “RB2,” or the main backup behind a team’s starting running back. Over the past decade there’s been a strong movement to a ‘backfield by committee’ approach and fewer workhorse backs around the NFL. While Devin Singletary had a nice season for the Bills and showed plenty of promise with his next-level agility, fans don’t seem to believe that he’s a workhorse back.
With running back going unaddressed in free agency — albeit with the exception of Taiwan Jones, a core special teamer — the position is one to watch in the draft. I launched this study with the goal of finding trends among RB2s and their impact on their teams and the league. It’s hard to strictly define RB2, so I simply used a team’s second leading running back in total touches — catches and rushes combined. For a few teams, the third running back was very close in touches, and in those scenarios I used both running backs for the study. There were a total of 37 running backs taken into account.
The first thing the study did was certify that RB2 is in fact a position that should be in demand to fill with a quality player. Of the top five RB2s in terms of total yardage, each of their respective teams made the playoffs. Eight of the top nine RB2s in terms of total yardage had their team go on to make the playoffs. Raheem Mostert, James White, Latavius Murray, Duke Johnson, and Gus Edwards all added 750+ yards of total offense for their teams. All five of these players’ teams were top-15 in both total yardage and points scored. The Ravens (Edwards), 49ers (Mostert), and Saints (Murray) were first, second and third respectively in points scored per game. No matter how you put it, a legitimate second option at running back has the ability to bring an offense to another level of production. You can never have too many play-makers on the field.
Next, this list proved the short shelf life of a running back in today’s NFL. Of the 37 running backs that were used for this study, 24 of them were still within their first four years in the NFL. This is a number that’s significant because this is the length of a rookie contract. It is not often that a running back lives on past their rookie deal with the bargain prices that can be had through the draft. This gives a hint as to why backs like Carlos Hyde are still on the free agent market and unsigned. If the running back isn’t a workhorse, the value just doesn’t appear to be there.
This shows just how much running backs are a “dime a dozen,” as only four of the 37 RB2s were drafted in the first or second rounds of the NFL Draft. Starting running backs differed quite a bit, as 18 teams’ leading rushers were drafted in the first or second rounds. Between leading running backs and RB2s, there were a combined 11 that were undrafted free agents, four of whom were the RB1s and seven RB2s. The sweet spot where RB2 and leading rusher starts to connect is in the third and fourth rounds of the draft, where 14 RB2s were selected and nine leading rushers were selected. This goes to show that running back talent can be found at any level of the draft, but there is still a strong correlation between draft position and the likelihood that a running back will be a starter in the NFL.
From here, to draft or not to draft a running back, and when, becomes a prevailing question. Beane and McDermott have been quoted intimating that they hold faith in Yeldon as a second running back for their team. McDermott has said specifically that “we have a lot of confidence in TJ.” However, Beane and McDermott are both known to have their fair share of ‘coach speak’ since they’ve been in Buffalo.
The average RB2 contributed about 107 touches, 531 yards and 3 touchdowns to their team in 2019. Yeldon hasn’t had a true year as a RB2 in his time in the NFL. In 2015 and 2016, he led the Jaguars in running back touches. In 2017, he was third in touches behind Chris Ivory and Leonard Fournette. In 2018, he was second on the Jaguars in touches but had spent five games that year serving as a starter thanks to an eight-game injury to Fournette. Between 2017 and 2018, Yeldon had averaged 119 touches and 689 yards with 3.5 touchdowns. These numbers would have made Yeldon the ninth-most productive RB2 in 2019, right below Buffalo’s own Frank Gore. However, it’s important to take these numbers with a grain of salt because Yeldon was a part-time starter in 2018, as well as a third option in 2017.
Yeldon has shown potential earlier in his career to be an above-average RB2 and fits the bill as a second round pick. However, going into his sixth season as a running back, he may be teetering on the edge of geriatric. Only eight RB2s last year were in their sixth season or later. Even among the more talented leading rushers last year, only six of the 32 were in their sixth season or later. Even if the Bills were to move forward with Yeldon as the RB2 this year, the trends among running backs in the league aren’t in his favor in the long run.
If the Bills are looking to move on from Yeldon, they could try to hit on a running back in the second round for a higher chance at attaining a highly productive RB2. The best shot here would be hoping that one of Jonathon Taylor, J.K. Dobbins, De’Andre Swift, or Clyde Edwards-Helaire fall to pick 54. Waiting for the perceived “sweet spot” would give Brandon Beane his choice of the litter in the third and fourth rounds. Among the names that may be available here are players like Cam Akers, Eno Benjamin, and Zack Moss, any of whom would be exciting additions to the Buffalo Bills’ backfield.