Mike Davis, Wayne Gallman, and Giovani Bernard were backup running backs in September that had big impacts during the 2020 season. Additionally, James Robinson, Myles Gaskin, and Antonio Gibson looked buried on their depth charts this time last year. Who are the candidates for difference-making backup running backs this year?
There is plenty of evidence the NFL thinks Malcolm Brown is good. To start his career, Brown had a committee role with the Rams before the Lions offered him a two-year contract as a restricted free agent, which the Rams chose to match. Brown then entered free agency in 2021 and signed with the Dolphins. The 2020 Myles Gaskin storyline, where he became a starting running back with little forewarning, seems entirely possible for Brown. If not, Brown is a cheap, three-down capable running back in a backup role behind a low pedigree Gaskin who has not seen a leading role in an NFL offense. That is a great formula for an injury-away backup running back entering the season.
Jordan Wilkins can be the one injury away back in the Indianapolis Colts backfield behind Jonathan Taylor. This is a situation to watch because Marlon Mack, returning from an Achilles injury, re-signed to a one-year deal, but there is no guarantee he returns to his pre-injury form. Nyheim Hines is also on the roster but projects as more of a receiving-centric role player than a three-down running back in waiting. That leaves Wilkins as the best candidate behind Taylor to capitalize in the event of an injury.
Darrel Williams is the backup to Clyde Edwards-Helaire in Kansas City. In Week 16 and the three playoff games in 2020 (in Week 17, Williams had one reception when the starters sat), Williams saw 12.25 touches per game. Edwards-Helaire missed Week 15 through 17 and the first playoff game because of an injury but returned for the final two playoff games. During those games, Edwards-Helaire and Williams each saw 18 total touches. This timeshare was likely due to Edwards-Helaire’s return from an injury but warrants watching as Williams could have standalone value. At worst, Williams can be a difference-maker in a high-powered offense if Edwards-Helaire misses time in 2021.
At the minimum, Kenyan Drake should shore up the backup running back position for the Raiders in the event of an injury to starter Josh Jacobs. Drake has been billed as an addition aimed at improving the passing game but performed more in the traditional running back role in the Arizona backfield in 2020 than a true receiving threat. The size of Drake’s role complicates the projection of Jacobs while providing a difference-making option if Jacobs misses time with an injury.
Tony Pollard operated in the backup role for the Dallas Cowboys in 2020 and should repeat the role in 2021. In 2020, Pollard outproduced Ezekiel Elliott in rushing yards over expectation (0.13 to 0.07), and some have advocated for a bigger role for Pollard at the expense of Elliott. Still, Dallas has kept Pollard in a secondary role through two seasons. Pollard has seen a small expansion in role with a growth of 5.7 rushing attempts per game in 2019 to 6.3 rushing attempts in 2020. This coincided with an increase of 1 reception per game in 2019 to 1.8 receptions per game in 2020. This corresponded with a drop in Ezekiel Elliott's rushes per game of 18.8 in 2019 to 16.3 in 2020, while he remained consistent in receptions, with 3.4 in 2019 and 3.5 in 2020. With Elliott locked in contractually, he projects as the starter in 2021, with Pollard as a major beneficiary if Elliott misses time.
Alexander Mattison has operated in the backup role to Dalvin Cook since he was drafted in 2019. Mattison managed 7.4 attempts per game behind Cook, who ran 22.3 times per game in 2020. While Mattison (0.51) lagged behind Cook (0.84) in yards over expectation per rush, Mattison ranked a solid 16th in the NFL out of 55 qualifiers in the statistic. The Minnesota offense ranked 8th in rushing attempts and 5th in rushing yards in 2020, which could provide Mattison a good opportunity for quality volume in the event of a Cook injury. If Dalvin Cook is injured, Mattison projects as a top-12 running back any week Cook misses.
With the departure of Jamaal Williams from Green Bay in free agency, Dillon stands as the backup to Aaron Jones in 2021. Dillon had the opportunity to potentially lead the backfield if Jones signed elsewhere in free agency but stands to benefit from a high-powered offense if Jones misses time.
Latavius Murray should return to the backup role in the Saints' offense. This could be a new-look offense in the post Drew Brees era, particularly if Taysom Hill starts. While Murray has transitioned from early-career starter to late-career backup, he had a two-week span of RB1 performance in 2019. In the events of an injury to Kamara, Murray is perfectly situated to capitalize.
Much of the buzz about the Rams backfield is centered on second-year player Cam Akers. While Akers should lead the backfield, Henderson represents a cheap poker chip on what could be an elite offense in 2021.
Darrynton Evans was a surprise day two pick in the 2020 class before losing much of the season with injuries. Given a full offseason, Evans can potentially solidify a Derrick Henry injury away role in what could be a new-look offense without former offensive coordinator Arthur Smith.