Under Pressure 2021 – Running Back Edition

Under Pressure – RB Edition

In the third edition of Under Pressure, we examine the Running Backs. Which of our ball carriers could blow their chances of a starting role this year? 

David Johnson – Houston Texans

Top of this list is David Johnson, who already looks to be under pressure after one year in Houston. The Running Back likely breathed a sigh of relief after his namesake Duke was released at the end of 2020.

But since then, the situation seems to have become more uncomfortable. More and more Running Backs have joined the backfield. And, more importantly, these are backs that are more likely to impact Johnson’s role. Which, when you’re already seeing a performance decline from previous years…isn’t so good. 


Not as though there was much of a role to impact last season. The Texans’ Running Backs ran the ball the least out of all NFL teams – 252 times. This signified the lowest carry amount for the Texans in the last five years.

And, even when including DeShaun Watson’s 28 carries (and 62 scrambles), the Texans still ended up last in the table. 

On its own, 252 carries is a promising load for a Running Back. And, if the Texans can raise that number close to the output from the previous four years, then that’s even better.

However, Johnson will have to fight over these carries with at least three other Running Backs. Philip Lindsay, Rex Burkhead, and Mark Ingram have all joined the club in an effort to revitalize the Texans running game. 


On his own, Rex Burkhead has the ability to ruin everything in a fantasy backfield. Many drafters have found their New England Running Backs losing carries – and touchdowns – to the former Cornhusker. As such, it has been very difficult for anyone to rely on a Patriots back as long as Rex was there. Now he’s joined the Texans and looks to be offering the same dilemma in the AFC South. 

And this is without taking Philip Lindsay and Mark Ingram into consideration. Ingram is certainly entering the dusk of his career, while Lindsay has really only just begun. But both can offer some stability in both a lead and supporting role. These additions are going to prove useful, particularly if the situation surrounding Watson’s court case doesn’t resolve itself. If Watson is indeed out, then having a variety of backs to use will be key. 

However, this doesn’t just muddy the backfield to start – it may lead to problems during the season. Any back who proves themselves could be the one to take the carries. But they will with pressure from the other three weighing on them. Any small mistake or under-performance could see someone else enter the frame. 

Of course, a round of roster cuts may make this easier. And Johnson has the benefit of being guaranteed money in 2021. But training camp can throw up some surprises. And, with the Texans virtually volunteering to pay Randall Cobb to play at Green Bay, you can’t put anything past them. It could be Johnson that gets the boot!

Melvin Gordon – Denver Broncos

After his Chargers hold out ended without a deal, Melvin Gordon looked elsewhere. And he found a home with the Broncos at Mile High. His performances were enough to displace competition in Philip Lindsay atop the depth chart. Lindsay left the team and left Gordon with the keys to the Running Back room.

At least, that was the case until Javonte Williams was drafted. The second-rounder  comes fresh from a dominant North Carolina season. The Tar Heels showed supremacy on the ground, picking up 2,853 yards. And Williams was an integral part of that, with 1140 yards in 157 carries. That equates to 7.3 yards per carry. 

Yes, there is a clear step up from college to NFL. And Gordon has been on teams long enough to know how the process works. But Javonte Williams could be a legitimate threat to Gordon’s grip on the lead role.  And one of his particular strengths matches with Gordon’s – goal line carries.

Gordon scored 7 rushing touchdowns (7) from the 10 yard line or closer. But this is also Williams’ area of expertise – 14 of his 19 rushing touchdowns came from the same zone. 

So who could be left with the work? At BEST, its a tandem approach. And who gets the goal line carries? It’s a headache to any drafter who must decide between them on a week-to-week basis. 


There is also the pressure of any fallout from Gordon’s DUI ordeal. At present, the criminal charges have been dismissed in court. But nothing could stop the NFL from handing down a punishment, which could come as a suspension.

If this comes, it likely affects the opening weeks of the season. Which is bad news on many fronts. Anyone who takes Gordon at his current ADP could be without him for a significant chunk of the season.  

Not only that, but Gordon is already at risk of losing some of the lead role to the rookie. Adding on that suspension could be a significant set back to prospects. Especially if things go very well for Williams! 

James Conner – Arizona Cardinals

After featuring on the least-effective rushing team in 2020, none of the Steelers backs came away looking good. No more so than James Conner, who came out at the lead back with the least effectiveness in my Find The Gap data. Pittsburgh responded to this by drafting Najee Harris. And Conner was left to find another team. 

Thankfully, he didn’t have to wait long, as Arizona brought him in for a one-year, $1.75 million deal. With the Cardinals’ former lead back Kenyan Drake heading for the Raiders, it seemed the perfect choice on the surface. 

But the situation isn’t as comfortable as it seems. 


There will be pressure exerted from various others in the Cardinals team. Kyler Murray offers the most threat – after all, the QB is an elite-level rusher. Murray actually had a comparable amount of carries with Conner in 2020. Not only that, but he is higher in some stats against those of the Running Back. Murray finished with 133 carries for 822 yards and 11 touchdowns. Conner had 169 carries for 721 yards and 6 touchdowns. 

Quite a large amount of Murray’s attempts were described as scrambles (51). But the fact remains – K1 showed that he could be considered a rushing threat. 

So, Murray applies pressure on one aspect of his game. But can Conner find success with the pass-catching? Well, that’s where the other Running Back options come forward. 

Chase Edmonds was Arizona’s change-of-pace and pass-catching back last season. 53 receptions off 67 targets produces 402 yards and 4 touchdowns. With an average of 7.58 Yards Per Completion, those stats certainly set a high bar for Conner. Especially as the former Pittsburgh back didn’t convert any of his 35 receptions into touchdowns, and had a lower YPC. 

Edmonds is also looking to move forwards in place of Drake, which means there could also be another threatening for carries in that backfield. With Murray, Edmonds (and now Ito Smith in the mix), it could be a pressure cooker situation for Conner. And this one-year deal doesn’t give him much time! 

Join me for the last installment of Under Pressure, when we look at the Quarterbacks! 

Until then, Keep Rushing!

Rob @5YardRob


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