5 NFL Teams That Need Running Back Help Entering the Draft

These five teams struggled rushing the ball in 2015 and have yet to improve their backfield this offseason.

Have you ever spent hours or even days trying to put together a puzzle, only to realize that you don’t have all of the pieces?

Well putting together a puzzle is similar to constructing a winning football team. No one can simply pick up the pieces to the puzzle and put them together without first analyzing the situation and coming up with a strategy.

It’s a complicated process that involves all of the right pieces going in the right places, but there is one simple fact: it’s impossible to achieve success without first having all of the pieces to the puzzle.

For a successful NFL team, one of those pieces is a successful running back -- or a tandem of backs.

One of our signature metrics here at numberFire -- Net Expected Points (NEP) -- measures how successful a running back or any other player is each time they touch the ball. Every play in a game has an expected point value that determines how many points an average team is expected to score in that situation, and the actual outcome of that play determines whether a player performed above or below expectation.

Using NEP and other statistics, I evaluated which teams struggled last year, in part because of their weak rushing attack, and which of them have yet to improve before the coming season.

Which five teams need to add another running back piece in order to complete their puzzle to becoming a successful NFL team?

San Diego Chargers

Adjusted Rushing NEP: -40.41 (32nd)
Adjusted Rushing NEP/Play: -0.10 (31st)

It's crazy to think that a team that spent the 15th overall pick in the draft just a year ago already needs a running back. But here's something else crazy: after finishing the 2014 season ranked 28th in the NFL in Adjusted Rushing NEP, the Chargers' rushing attack actually got worse in 2015.

That 15th pick in the first round was Melvin Gordon who, among the 34 running backs with at least 100 carries and 25 targets, finished near the bottom of the list in terms of both rushing and receiving efficiency.

Player Rushing NEP Per Rush Rank Reception NEP Per Target Rank
Melvin Gordon -0.19 33rd 0.13 31st

I know it was only one year for him, but it's not like he was just mildly bad. Playing behind the NFL's worst offensive line certainly did not help, but Philip Rivers managed the 10th best Passing NEP in the league behind that same line. The only offensive line to receive a worse run-blocking grade from Pro Football Focus than San Diego was Miami, and Lamar Miller managed a -0.01 Rushing NEP per rush behind that blocking. Among the running backs with 100 or more carries, Miller ranked 16 spots higher than Gordon.

On the bright side, Gordon's mate in the backfield, Danny Woodhead, led all NFL running backs with 81 receptions in 2015. Unfortunately, Woodhead cannot carry the load as an early down rusher, and the Chargers will need to add someone to give them the production they hoped to see from their 2015 first round draft pick.

Washington Redskins

Adjusted Rushing NEP: -32.92 (30th) 
Adjusted Rushing NEP/Play: -0.08 (28th)

In 2015, Alfred Morris saw his Rushing NEP per rush decline for the fourth straight year, which led to the Redskins opting not to resign him this offseason.

The Redskins prepared for Morris’ departure by selecting Matt Jones in the third round of last year’s draft. However, Jones’ 3.4 yards per carry average, to go along with his four lost fumbles in 2015, did not prove that he is ready to be the lead back moving forward.

Remember the chart above that shows only one running back with 100 or more carries last season had a worse Rushing NEP per rush than Gordon? That one running back was Jones.

There was a bright spot among the struggles for Jones -- his 0.85 Reception NEP per target was easily the best among all running backs with 25 or more targets – but the loss of Morris leaves a 200-plus carry void that needs to be filled in Washington.

Indianapolis Colts

Adjusted Rushing NEP: -30.78 (28th) 
Adjusted Rushing NEP/Play: -0.08 (29th)

Coming off of their worst season in terms of Adjusted Rushing NEP since 2000, the Colts brought in 32-year-old Frank Gore to lead their rushing attack in 2015. Apparently it wasn't obvious to them that adding an aging running back and giving him the keys to the backfield would not be successful. Gore showed that he is no longer the back he once was, and the Colts performed even worse on the ground. He averaged less than four yards per carry for the first season in his career and had his least efficient rushing season.

Among the 34 running backs with 100 or more carries and 25 or more targets, Gore was near the bottom of the pack in both Rushing NEP per rush and Reception NEP per target.

Player Rushing NEP/P Rank Reception NEP/T Rank
Frank Gore -0.11 30th 0.27 25th

The Colts did recognize that their rushing attack needed help, but so far, that has only resulted in bringing in Robert Turbin and Jordan Todman, both of whom have been in the NFL for five seasons playing backup roles.

Turbin has not seen more than 80 carries in any season and has never finished a season with a positive Rushing NEP per rush. 

Todman has only seen greater than 32 carries once in his career. He has shown flashes of great ability but has not been consistent enough to prove he can be a lead back. With DeAngelo Williams out during the playoffs last year, Todman showed his up-and-down play. He turned 11 carries into 65 yards during the wild card round but followed that up with a 5-carry, 6-yard performance the following week.

With Gore aging and his performance declining, the Colts need someone who can carry the load and rejuvenate this rushing attack.

Miami Dolphins

Adjusted Rushing NEP: -10.52 (18th)
Adjusted Rushing NEP/Play: -0.03 (21st)

Based on their NEP rankings, there surely must be five teams that need a running back more than the Dolphins. But that Dolphins’ rushing attack was led by Lamar Miller, who has moved on to the Texans.

That leaves 2015 fifth-round pick Jay Ajayi as the primary rusher in Miami. Ajayi fell in the draft due to a knee injury suffered in college and missed the first seven games of last season due to a preseason rib injury.

The short season, and the Dolphins' reluctance to rely on the running game, resulted in Ajayi only seeing 49 rushing attempts during this rookie season. His -0.01 Rushing NEP per rush ranked 13th among the 25 running backs who carried the ball between 45 to 75 times last season.

Ajayi has yet to prove that he can be successful as a lead running back in the NFL, and the rest of the Dolphins’ running back stable does not leave much reason for confidence. The primary backup is currently Damien Williams, who has only 52 career attempts for an average of 3.5 yards per carry.

The Dolphins have already shown that they want to add another running back, when they signed C.J. Anderson to an offer sheet before Denver matched the offer to retain him.

Whether it will be a primary rusher or Ajayi’s backup, the Dolphins need to add another player to their backfield.

Oakland Raiders

Adjusted Rushing NEP: -13.33 (22nd)
Adjusted Rushing NEP/Play: -0.04 (22nd)

In Latavius Murray's first full year as the lead running back in Oakland, he was one of the few true workhorse running backs in the NFL, finishing third in the league in total carries. Unfortunately for Oakland, the increased role did not translate into improved results compared to Murray’s 2014 output.

Latavius Murray 2014 2015
Rushes 82 267
Yards Per Rush 5.2 4
Rushing NEP Per Rush 0.05 -0.07
Rushing Success Rate 40.24% 34.46%
Receptions 17 41
Reception NEP Per Target 0.27 0.14

Among the 34 running backs with at least 100 carries and 25 targets, Murray ranked toward the bottom of the pack in both rushing and receiving efficiency.

Even through Murray’s struggles, the Raiders continued to lean on him as the workhorse, and no other Oakland running back received more than 40 touches last season.

Oakland’s passing offense and overall defense both improved last season compared to 2014, and a new running back could be the last piece that ends their 13-year playoff drought.