Where the Green Bay Packers have run the NFC North with their quarterback play since the NFL realigned in 2002, the Minnesota Vikings have kept things competitive with their play in the backfield.
With the electric talent of Adrian Peterson followed by the game-breaking skill of Dalvin Cook, the Vikings have been able to run the ball with the rest of the NFL leading to an old-school approach to a game that’s now dominated through the air.
As the Vikings enter the 2020 season, they have some challengers for title of best backs in the NFC North. Packers wide receiver Davante Adams laid out one interesting accusation in his case for Jonathan Williams and Aaron Jones, and the Bears built a decent stable in last year’s draft pairing David Montgomery with Tarik Cohen. Even the Lions have been in on the act, drafting D’Andre Swift to team with Kerryon Johnson.
As much as the quarterbacks get the press, the road to the NFC North title may be won on the ground, which makes the list of division running backs that much more interesting.
4. Detroit Lions
The Lions have had a never-ending search for a running back that rivals what the Bears have done at quarterback. Since Barry Sanders retired, the Lions have had just one rusher go over 1,000 yards (Reggie Bush – 2013) and with their selection of Johnson in the 2018 NFL Draft, they figured to have a solution at the position.
Johnson’s rookie season went well as he averaged 5.4 yards a carry before a knee injury sent him to IR with six games remaining. But he didn’t pick up where he left off last season, slumping to 3.6 yards per carry and ranking 34th in PFF’s overall rushing grades.
Perhaps the most troubling part of Johnson’s decline was his inability to separate from defenses. Johnson recorded just a 5% breakaway rating (designed runs of 15-plus yards), and he didn’t make up for that in the passing game with 10 catches on 15 targets.
After missing the second half of last season with another knee injury, the Lions had to do something to address their backfield. Their answer was another second-round pick invested in Swift.
Some believe that Swift is there to complement Johnson as his skill set is similar to New Orleans Saints star Alvin Kamara. But his overall package suggests the Lions are hoping he’ll be a complete upgrade thanks to his receiving ability.
In his junior season at Georgia, Swift recorded a 37.5% breakaway rating, which was 98th in the nation, but showed he’s good enough to lose a defense when given the chance. His 4.48 second time in the 40-yard dash was in the 85th percentile of this year’s running back class and with three drops on 90 targets, he’s a reliable option for Matthew Stafford in the passing game.
Swift wasn’t a true workhorse at Georgia, but neither was Kamara coming out of Tennessee. Swift wasn’t knocked as hard as Kamara was for that transgression, but Kamara turned out OK and exploded onto the scene even when Mark Ingram was still in the fold.
That is what the Lions will be expecting from their backs, but Johnson needs to stay on the field and get healthy in order for that to happen.
3. Chicago Bears
The Bears are ahead of the Lions in this article solely on the fact we’ve seen both of their top backs at the NFL level. While the duo of Montgomery and Cohen have seen the field, the results haven’t been something that Bears fans should be comfortable with.
The addition of Montgomery was supposed to be an upgrade of Jordan Howard, and with an electrifying preseason run, expectations were sky-high for the Iowa State product in his rookie year. The results didn’t come that easily once the games counted as Montgomery’s elusiveness didn’t translate to the professional level.
Montgomery was 36th among qualifiers in PFF’s elusiveness rating during his rookie year, and his 0.21 missed tackles per attempt were not inspiring. These were a far cry from his days with the Cyclones where he led the nation with 0.39 missed tackles per attempt and is the only running back in the PFF era to record 100 combined missed tackles in a season — which he did twice.
This emphasized his lack of athleticism, which saw him run a 4.63-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. Without home run speed, Montgomery was average with a 51% breakaway rating, which in turn put more pressure on the Bears passing attack.
That slack was supposed to be picked up by Cohen, who is presumed to be a weapon in the passing game, but he ranked 33rd in receiving grade last season.
Outside of the grade, his traditional numbers were also uninspiring. His 5.8 yards per catch were 44th in the NFL, and his 5.6 yards after the catch were 45th out of 46 qualifiers. A 7.1% drop rate (23rd in NFL) didn’t help and his 1.26 yards per route run could have been due to the ineffectiveness of Mitchell Trubisky, but still, did nothing to help the Bears offense.
As the Bears head into 2020, they’ll need to see a big leap from Montgomery to save their backfield. With the starting quarterback currently unknown in Chicago, this could look completely different by the time 2021 rolls around.
2. Green Bay Packers
There are many questions that we can ask in terms of what the Packers were doing during the 2020 NFL Draft, but the one thing we can take away is that the Packers want to run the football. But that being said, why did they add A.J. Dillon to a duo that was one of the best in the league last season?
The answer doesn’t lie on Jones’ performance as he was one of the best running backs in the NFL last season. He tied with Derrick Henry for the NFL lead with 16 rushing touchdowns and ranked sixth in PFF’s rushing grades. Along with ranking ninth with 43 missed tackles forced and a 9.2 yards after catch clip (sixth in the NFL) Jones was the dynamic threat who Aaron Rodgers has been missing throughout his career in the Packers’ backfield.
On the other hand, Williams may have been boosted by the opinion of those at Lambeau Field. Although he posted his highest yards per carry with 4.3, Williams was an average running back. He ranked 42nd in rushing grade per PFF and only logged 11 missed tackles on 107 attempts. His 16.5% breakaway rating was also abysmal, placing 49th of 59 qualifiers.
In the end, it may be Williams that may be the man sacrificed for Dillon. At 6’0″, 247 pounds some see him as a Henry clone thanks to his bruising style that led him to 1,685 yards during his junior year at Boston College. What many don’t see however, is his elusiveness. Dillon created 81 missed tackles with the Eagles last season, fifth in the nation and even had the speed to get away from defenders with a 31.7% breakaway percentage.
While those are nice numbers, the added bonus might be in the red zone where Dillon collected 38 touchdowns during his three years with Boston College. It would be a boost for a team that saw Jones tie for second in the league with eight touchdowns inside the five, but did so on 13 attempts for a 61.3% clip. With Williams seeing just two carries inside the five, Dillon could be the battering ram… but are there too many cooks in the kitchen?
1. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings’ running back situation may be fluid as Cook looks to get a long-term deal and stay on the field for all 16 games, but his partnership with Alexander Mattison should be enough to keep the Vikings running all season long.
After the first two seasons of Cook’s career were destroyed by injury, Cook turned it on last year, posting career-highs across the board with 14 games played. Although some of those games resulted in an early exit due to injury, Cook was an explosive player any time he was on the field, ranking 12th with 42 missed tackles and tied for eighth with 13 attempts of 15 yards or more.
While Cook wasn’t the receiver that Jones was, he was great once he got the ball in his hands, leading the league with 11.3 yards after the catch. Even though Zimmer would prefer to run the ball into submission, Cook was a big play waiting to happen, which is why the Vikings have opted to make him the backbone of their offense.
But it’s what’s behind Cook that’s even more intriguing even if he holds out. Some believed that Mattison shouldn’t have been drafted coming out of Boise State, but the former Bronco got off to a great start in his career despite toting just 100 carries.
One of the most impressive aspects of Mattison’s game was his ability to churn out long runs. His sample size didn’t allow him to reach the heights that Cook did in terms of big plays, but his nine attempts of 15 yards or more compiled a 41.3% breakaway rating, a number that was good for third in the NFL.
To put this in simple terms, if Cook goes down, the Vikings would still be in good hands if they had to rely on Mattison. This is something that no other team in the NFC North can say, and if Mattison takes another step forward in 2020, it could solidify the Vikings standing as the best backfield in the division.