Daily Focus: Who will win Chicago’s starting RB job?
Neil Hornsby breaks down key position battles for the Bears, Giants, Lions and Chiefs.
Daily Focus: Who will win Chicago’s starting RB job?
Editor’s note: Every weekday in “Daily Focus,” PFF analysts take the latest NFL news and translate what it really means for each team involved.
On a somewhat slow weekend for NFL news, let’s focus on a few of the position battles being talked about recently:
Who will win the Bears’ starting RB job? Few teams have upgraded more on defense than Chicago this offseason, but the offense has been a different matter. From the mysterious release of guard Matt Slauson and the parting of ways with tight end Martellus Bennett and running back Matt Forte, only the return of injured 2015 first-round WR Kevin White can be seen as anything of an upgrade.
Running back is a particularly interesting position for the Bears, who have relied on Forte in their lead role for many seasons. Who is the team’s best option? Consider this chart:
Jeremy Langford did a reasonable job running the football in relief of Forte last year, but there are concerns. His 1.8 yards after contact per carry average ranks 64th of 68 eligible running backs, and his seven forced missed tackles is a troublingly low number. Throw in issues as a receiver and pass protector, and Langford is not a slam-dunk replacement.
Jordan Howard had some excellent moments at Indiana, and as a runner he is everything Langford is not. He finished runs as well as anyone in the draft and was powerful through contact, but he has durability issues, having missed four full games in 2015 and half of three other games over the last two years.
Ka’Deem Carey has a whole 178 snaps to his name since being drafted in 2014, and did little to impress during those.
The best of the bunch may actually be Jacquizz Rodgers. He broke his arm after just 41 snaps last year, and in the past when he has been given the opportunity, he has produced. He does a decent job as a runner, but excels most on third down, as his skills as both a receiver and pass protector are top-notch.
Who will be the Giants’ starting MLB, Keenan Robinson or Jasper Brinkley? Since the Giants won the Super Bowl in 2012 without a single linebacker grading positively over the season (of those with 500-plus snaps, Mathias Kiwanuka’s minus-6.5 grade was the best), the front office has shown a significant disregard for the position. When your highlight pick-up in either the draft or free agency is J.T. Thomas (who only played 45 percent of the snaps he was available for last season, and graded out 29th of 35 4-3 OLBs), you know the position is not a big deal for the Giants.
Therefore, it probably came as little surprise to Giants fans when an afterthought in their free-agency splurge was Keenan Robinson, a guy the Redskins had effectively benched and given up on after three years. Immediately Robinson was touted as the heir apparent at middle linebacker, ahead of incumbent Jasper Brinkley.
Brinkley is the epitome of a two-down linebacker, as he is very good in run defense but struggles in coverage. Robinson, on the other hand, is a slightly below-average coverage linebacker with severe limitations in the running game.
Which one would coaches rather have? It may end up being a combination of the two.
Who will start at center for the Lions, Travis Swanson or rookie Graham Glasgow? Detroit drafted Travis Swanson in the third round in 2014 with the clear plan to let him sit one year behind Dominic Raiola before replacing the 14-year veteran.
However, not everything goes to schedule, and despite rave reviews at OTAs last year, Swanson’s 2015 season was one to forget. He ranked 34th out of 40 eligible centers in PFF grades, which was poor on its own, but he also displayed significant issues with his line calls. Detroit’s game against Minnesota was a debacle, as the team made the wrong protection call play after play — that indicates he has significant work to do in that area, as well.
Based on this, it was not a shock when Detroit went to the well again and selected Michigan center Graham Glasgow in the third round of the 2016 draft.
While Glasgow’s grades (above) look more impressive, they were obviously against far weaker competition, and the best of them came while playing at guard in 2014. But in order to keep his starting position, Swanson must make huge strides.
Who will start at cornerback for the Chiefs other than Marcus Peters? With Sean Smith moving on to the Raiders in free agency, the Chiefs have to find a starter at outside corner opposite second-year pro Marcus Peters. Kansas City drafted three new corners this year, and those players will join Phillip Gaines (who was injured for most of 2015), Steven Nelson (a third-rounder in 2015) and Marcus Cooper as possible replacement options. Gaines is the snaps leader of that group with 169.
Of the rookies, KeiVarae Russell was taken in the third round, Eric Murray in the fourth and D.J. White in the sixth.
A few points of interest from the above numbers:
- If Gaines recovers well from his injury, he seems set (as a minimum) for the slot position. However, given his awful run-defense grade, expect a lot of teams to try running to his side.
- The run-defense grades of almost all of these players are poor. In particular, if the rookies were that bad in college, don’t expect it to get any better in the pros.
- If you assume that Gaines also plays the outside cornerback role in base defense, the question then becomes who will play outside in nickel defense? Based on draft position alone, Russell and Nelson will probably have the inside track, but White had the best production at the college level.
Neil Hornsby | PFF Founder
Neil founded PFF in 2006 and is currently responsible for the service to the company's 22 NFL team customers. He is constantly developing new insights into the game and player performance.