Low-pro­file RBs are gain­ing ground on NFL’s stars

Kuwait Times - - SPORTS -

MI­AMI:

Hark the un­her­alded run­ning backs. Fifth-round picks, an un­drafted rookie and a player who was out of the NFL for three sea­sons are among those burst­ing into the clear this year, leav­ing de­fenses and fans won­der­ing the same thing: Where did they come from?

The sur­pris­ing suc­cess by such low-pro­file rush­ers as Jay Ajayi, Jor­dan Howard, Robert Kel­ley and Tim Hightower speaks to the chal­lenge of eval­u­at­ing run­ning backs.

“It’s not like it used to be,” said Mi­ami Dol­phins of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Clyde Chris­tensen, an NFL as­sis­tant since 1996. “When I first came in the league, you’d watch a tail­back in col­lege, and they all had a full­back in front of them, and they all got their 25 car­ries a game, and you com­pared them to each other. Now they’re com­ing out of spread of­fenses, and there are a lot of good run­ning backs out there who play for teams that don’t run the ball as much. It’s a lot harder com­par­ing them now.”

Some of the most fran­tic scram­bling this sea­son has been by teams seek­ing some­one to carry the ball, with the high in­jury rate at the po­si­tion cre­at­ing open­ings for un­der-the-radar run­ners.

Ezekiel El­liott, DeMarco Mur­ray and Le’Veon Bell are hav­ing big sea­sons, as ex­pected. But other Pro Bowl backs - Todd Gur­ley, Doug Martin, Adrian Peter­son , Chris Ivory - have strug­gled or been hurt this year. Four-time Pro Bowl rusher Arian Fos­ter re­tired from Mi­ami in Oc­to­ber, the day af­ter Ajayi’s sec­ond con­sec­u­tive 200-yard game for the Dol­phins. Even coach Adam Gase was sur­prised by the way the job was seized by Ajayi, a fifth-round pick in 2015.

“When we were go­ing into the sea­son, we felt like we were go­ing to get four guys in­volved in what we were do­ing,” Gase said. “So we didn’t know if we’d re­ally have enough touches to say a guy was go­ing to have a 1,000-yard sea­son.”

Ajayi is 44 yards from the 1,000 mark, and one of 11 play­ers on pace to reach the mile­stone. Six did it last year. Cow­boys rookie El­liott leads the league with 1,392 yards. “We’ve all seen how the league has gone as far as trends with the run­ning backs,” Gase said. “It seems like rush­ing is com­ing back a lit­tle bit. You’re see­ing teams like Dal­las, and ob­vi­ously we’re feel­ing pretty good about what we’ve got go­ing on. There are other teams that are lean­ing on the run­ning back a lit­tle more now.”

As a re­sult, play­ers like Kel­ley are ob­scure no more. Nick­named “Fat Rob,” he has rushed for 587 yards while mak­ing six starts for the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins, and is av­er­ag­ing 4.6 yards per carry.

In his best sea­son at Tu­lane, he rushed for 420 yards - one rea­son he went un­drafted. “As a free agent, we didn’t see a whole lot,” coach Jay Gru­den said. “He didn’t get many car­ries at Tu­lane.” Kel­ley, listed at 6foot and 220 pounds, has a rugged run­ning style and rarely goes down on the first hit. “I’m happy with how far I came,” he said. Ditto Howard, a rookie fifth-round pick from In­di­ana. He’s one of the few bright spots this sea­son for the Chicago Bears, rush­ing for 969 yards with a 5.0 av­er­age that ranks third in the league. NFL teams of­ten find their best run­ning back in un­likely places, and tend not to de­vote high draft picks to the po­si­tion. El­liott was the lone rusher taken in the first 44 se­lec­tions of this year’s draft. In 2015 the Ari­zona Car­di­nals found a gem from North­ern Iowa in the third round, and now David John­son leads the league with 15 touch­downs and 1,830 yards from scrim­mage.—AP

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