Making Sense of a Crowded St. Louis Backfield
Poor Steven Jackson; doomed to waste the prime of his career playing for the terrible Rams. He’s big and he runs hard, so even though the Rams offense as a whole generally feels like it brought a knife to a gunfight, Jackson managed to accumulate respectable rushing totals that usually put him in the range of a high-end fantasy football RB2 each year.
Of course, this past offseason Steven Jackson decided to take his helmet to Portlandia where they improved it by putting a bird on it, leaving behind a stable of young backs eager to inherit his workload. With the promise of a new-look and much more uptempo offense this year, the Rams might just be on the verge of turning things around, making the starting running back job much more desirable than it has been in recent years.
As a complementary role seems to be in store for rookie Zac Stacy, the real battle for primary running back duties seems to be between Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead. So, with that in mind, let's try to untangle this backfield web and figure out which St. Louis back is the one to own this year.
Before we even try to figure out who is likely to win out in the battle to be Steven Jackson’s replacement, it’s important to see just how much the victor stands to inherit. The numbers over the last 8 years would suggest that it is quite an inheritance indeed. Since he took over from Marshall Faulk as the lead back in 2005, Jackson has collected 2,261 carries, averaging over 282 carries per year over the last 8 years and making him perhaps the oldest 30 year old in the world.
Make no mistake, Steven Jackson may not be 40, but he is a man. At 6’2” and 240 pounds, there are few backs better suited to carry a team on their shoulders. A ground and pound style offense certainly makes sense for him, but seems an unlikely fit for any of his possible replacements.
Richardson and Pead are similar to one another physically, at 5’10” and a shade under 200 pounds. Neither player is likely to drop in and be the physically punishing back that Jackson has been for the last 8 years, but both are elusive and very dangerous in space, presenting the opportunity to imagine LeSean McCoy-type upside if given the starting job.
Both Richardson and Pead seem a bit undersized to serve as a bell cow, but even they tower over rookie Zac Stacy, who comes in at Ray Rice proportions of 5’8” and 216 pounds. Early reports have suggested Stacy has excelled in close spaces and will likely take on some form of a short yardage and goal line role.
While this may not be great news in introducing the possibility of a touchdown vulture, it at least provides some indication that he’s not really in the running for the main running back gig.
For some reason, nothing in the NFL is as simple as just determining which player is the most talented and handing them the job. The Rams drafted Isaiah Pead last year in the second round with the full intention of having him serve as the heir apparent to Steven Jackson. Unfortunately for Pead, they also drafted Daryl Richardson, albeit five rounds later, and to everyone's surprise, Richardson outshined Pead all of last season. By all accounts, Richardson is still outperforming Pead this offseason and has a clear inside track to be the main man, especially considering the fact that Pead is suspended for the first game of the season for violation of the substance abuse policy.
If the draft picks were swapped and Pead were the seventh round pick last year, we might instead be talking about whether or not the Rams have a roster spot for him. As it stands, just being a second round pick can take you pretty far in not being cut since nobody in the Rams organization wants to admit to a second round mistake that might cost them their job. In this regard, expect Pead to get every opportunity to show his talent and prove his worth once he’s back from suspension.
Last Year’s Numbers
We all know you don’t draft for last year’s stats, however in this case, it is interesting to see that Pead’s numbers were actually quite good in limited work a year ago. It’s always dangerous to prorate a very limited set of data, but the numbers from last year suggest Pead may indeed have what it takes to shine, if given the opportunity. Take a look at how the two backs did in terms of Rush NEP/Play, a metric that analyzes how many real points a player helped add to his team's score on a per attempt basis:
|Player||Carries||Rush NEP/Play||Success Rate|
Although rushing totals are not likely to equal Steven Jackson’s for any one Rams player this year, one area of the offense that is likely to expand for the running backs is the receiving game. This was especially clear in the case of Richardson last year in serving as the number two back behind Jackson. While Jackson totaled 257 rushes to Richardson’s 98, the number of receptions was much closer at 38 for Jackson and 24 for Richardson. So while less than 13% of Jackson’s touches were receptions, the reception percentage goes all the way up to 20% for Richardson.
For what it’s worth in looking at only 13 touches last year, Pead’s numbers also show an increased reliance on the passing game with 23% of his touches being receptions. To put all of these percentages into perspective, running backs known for their pass catching abilities like Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy had reception percentages of 19% and 21% last year, respectively. Keep in mind, of course, that Pead's role was very limited in 2012.
The Rams weren’t exactly great at getting the ball close enough to the end zone for Jackson to get a lot of easy goal line scores last year. His four rushing touchdowns are a pretty good reflection of this poor field position. All indications seem to be that this will be a faster and much improved offense, but considering the low rushing touchdown number and the possible emergence of a goal-line back in Zac Stacy, that dream of RB1-type production seems to fade pretty quickly.
What’s the Verdict?
If I were a betting man I would say the question isn’t who will be the starting running back for St. Louis this year, but rather how long will Richardson hold onto the job. Pead is a talented back and will be given a chance to take the job away this year, so it’s up to Richardson to fend him off as best he can.
Rumors of Zac Stacy coming in to play the role of goal line back are worrisome for Richardson’s upside, so although Richardson’s play style might resemble something along the lines of LeSean McCoy, I definitely wouldn’t bet on McCoy-type production.
It just might turn out to be something along the lines of a three-headed monster in St. Louis, but instead of the confusing backfield mess in Carolina, I would expect a backfield with much more clearly defined roles (a lead back, a complementary back, and a short-yardage back). So while there are too many mouths to feed for Richardson to be this year’s Alfred Morris or Doug Martin, he definitely could be a nice flex play with RB2 upside.
The rankings at numberFire are in agreement with this idea of a defined running back hierarchy, with Richardson coming in at 38th among running backs, Isaiah Pead at 61st among running backs, and Zac Stacy at 63rd among running backs. Among backs with ADPs currently in the same area as Richardson - Mark Ingram, DeAngelo Williams and Vick Ballard - Richardson should be the better value given his upside and opportunity.