Rams vs Raiders Live: the start of the 2019 season. Do you know where your best running back is?If you are a Chargers, Rams or Cowboys fan, he may be holding out for a new contract, battling a lingering knee injury and “bad energy” or…maybe in Mexico?
An all-new season of Gridiron Digest kicks off with Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott and some other running backs whose health or contract issues could have massive implications for their teams—not to mention your fantasy team.
The Cowboys assigned Ezekiel Elliott a seat on their team flight to training camp, perhaps hoping he would get it mixed up with his rumored trip out of the country (maybe another Mexican holiday?) and show up at the terminal by mistake. But it didn’t work: Elliott is a no-show at Cowboys camp.
Elliott has two years left on his rookie contract and wants a couple of Jerry Jones’ big sacks o’ money. But Jerrah already paid defensive end Demarcus Lawrence some sacks o’ money this offseason and has other sacks earmarked for Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper.
Even Jerrah only has so many sacks to go around, and Elliott’s status as both a high-mileage running back and a constant blip on the NFL’s disciplinary radar leaves him at the back of the lunch line.
Rookies Tony Pollard and Mike Weber give the Cowboys some alternatives to Elliott. And frankly, a box turtle should be able to gain about 1,000 yards behind the Cowboys offensive line. But suggesting that a two-time rushing leader can be replaced by a pair of later-round draft picks would be taking the “running backs don’t matter” debate to illogical extremes.
Elliott is irreplaceable for the Cowboys because they made it that way. The team whose solution to its tight end problem was “let’s bring Jason Witten out of retirement” isn’t about to suddenly adhere to analytics’ best practices.
Head coach Jason Garrett wants to run early and often and use Elliott as a screen and checkdown threat in the passing game, and Garrett isn’t exactly renowned for his ability to adjust tactically.
Elliott is likely to get a Todd Gurley plus-sized contract from the Cowboys, but he may have to wait until Jerrah’s check-writing pen cools off after the Prescott deal is worked out.
Elliott can safely lay low at the start of camp, but he cannot fall too far off the grid. Last year’s abrupt Dez Bryant dismissal revealed that Jerrah’s eagerness to spend, spend, spend on his stars—and his patience—is more limited than i
Melvin Gordon is in the fifth and final year of his rookie contract and wants an extension. The Chargers, whose team motto should be “Penny Wise, Dollar Foolish,” have been playing contract hardball with running backs since LaDainian Tomlinson’s day and are unlikely to be the first ones to blink in a holdout stare-down.
Yahoo’s Charles Robinson reports the two sides are $2-3 million apart on annual salary. But the Chargers appear to want to lock Gordon into a longer deal (probably with backloaded money he’s unlikely to see), while Gordon wants something shorter but meatier.
Philip Rivers said it best late in the week, per Matt Szabo of the Los Angeles Times: “We love Marvin, but we’re going to go with what we’ve got. It’s a pretty dang good group.”
Backup Austin Ekeler has been more productive on a per-touch basis than Gordon for two seasons, and Justin Jackson also had a few impressive games last year. The Chargers added training camp depth by signing Derrick Gore* last week, too.
So, Gordon doesn’t have a great deal of bargaining leverage. Then again, the Chargers offense is most dangerous when mixing and matching Gordon and Ekeler, often with one in the backfield and one in the slot.
Also, the Chargers are the NFL’s hardest-luck team: They’re tempting fate that they will miss the playoffs because Ekeler gets tripped up at the 1-yard line in a game or something.
The Chargers aren’t bluffing. They don’t even play poker. That Chargers offer won’t get any better, so Gordon must either buckle up for a Le’Veon Bell-level holdout or report to camp. Despite reports that contend this might last into the season, look for him to show up after the dog days of camp have ended, whether with a new deal or without.
The NFL’s rushing touchdown leader in 2017 and 2018 has dealt with a persistent, possibly arthritic knee issue since late last year. Rams coach Sean McVay told Jimmy Kimmel (yes, Jimmy Kimmel) that Gurley was “feeling great” in a mid-July interview. McVay has said similar things since last year’s postseason, when Gurley rushed a combined 14 times for 45 yards in the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl.
Gurley has participated in most training camp drills so far, and per Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times, he joked that reporters need to “stop putting bad energy in my knee.” Gosh, is there anything that cannot be blamed on the media these days?
C.J. Anderson arrived in Los Angeles with a dad bod after getting released by two other teams—and then outperformed Gurley in the postseason. That’s a testament to the relative replaceability of running backs, especially behind a strong line in a well-designed offense.
Anderson is now in Detroit, but Gurley’s longtime backup, Malcolm Brown, and rookie big-play threat Darrell Henderson can shoulder some of Gurley’s load this season. Still, a healthy Gurley allows McVay to create severe matchup binds for opponents using his base personnel, and the Rams are operating with such a razor-thin margin in their bid to repeat as conference champions that they need everyone at full strength.
The Gurley situation sheds light on the Elliott and Gordon situations. Running backs peak briefly and early, and quality replacements are relatively affordable and plentiful. No matter how much a young workhorse running back deserves that big contract, he’s unlikely to pay dividends on it.
Look for Gurley to become the chairman of a committee backfield this year. The $57.5 million chairman of a committee backfield.
Yeah, you’re gonna have some tough decisions to make about these guys in the first few rounds of your fantasy draft:
Bell took a year off to escape the Steelers franchise tag, posted videos to debunk rumors that he ballooned to 260 pounds in the offseason and is playing for a coach who was lukewarm about his arrival and could have a personality conflict with St. Francis of Assisi. Bell also said that he wants 500 touches this season. Sorry, Le’Veon. Even if you do two years’ worth of work, the Jets are only going to pay you for one.
John Reid of Jacksonville.com reports that Fournette is working so hard to bounce back from his miserable 2018 season (439 yards, 3.3 yards per carry) that he even took part in some footwork drills with the offensive line.
Fournette said that last year “humbled a lot of us in some ways,” but he stopped short of suggesting he’s feeling any pressure to turn things around. “It’s not pressure at all,” he said. “I’ve been playing this game for 23 or 24 years.” Hmm, maybe Fournette was just a little worn out last year? He has been playing football since moments after his birth, after all.
Freeman told Kelsey Conway of the Falcons’ official website that back-to-back injury-plagued seasons have made him stronger. “I got closer to God. I learned how to be patient more. … I have a greater appreciation for life.” It will be great to see Freeman back on the field, and spiritual and emotional growth are fabulous for him and the people around him. But remember that they don’t count for anything in your fantasy league.