NFL Cornerstones: Running Back

Cornerstone players will be a recurring theme on Second Look Sports where I look at each position in a certain sport and I choose a cornerstone player to build my franchise around. I have a couple of parameters for this selection though. I will factor in age, potential, injury history, experience, reputation and production. I think this should be a fun and interesting topic to discuss on here. I hope you all agree.

The selection: LeVeon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Honorable Mentions: Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, Eddie Lacy, Jeremy Hill, Matt Forte

Adrian Peterson made some headlines yesterday by finally returning to the Minnesota Vikings and acting like he wants to play football. It got me around to thinking who the best running back to build a team around could be. Peterson is now 30 and likely will start to see some of his wear and tear really bring him down. His off the field issues are definitely not too appealing either. Needless to say, Peterson is not the selection. A couple of other injury prone runners in DeMarco Murray and Arian Foster also find themselves missing from this list.

LeVeon_BellInstead, the selection is the one and only LeVeon Bell from Pittsburgh. He is not perfect but in terms of what he is capable of, this is a no brainer. He only has two seasons under his belt and at 23 years old, Bell looks like he is going to be a bell cow running back in the NFL for quite some time.

He might not always be racking up 100 yards, but when he gets the ball, he consistently produces. Bell ranked in yards per carry this season with 4.7 per attempt. The Steelers’ superstar put up incredible totals as well ranking second in the league with 1,361 rushing yards. Bell is one of the NFL’s best backs when it comes to picking up yards on the ground.

But this is a passing league now, so rushing is no longer as heavily valued. That doesn’t matter for Bell because he is incredible as a receiver. The Michigan State product hauled in 83 receptions last season, second to only Matt Forte among running backs. His 854 yards receiving also ranked first among all backs. These weren’t dink and dunk plays either as his average per reception was 10.3 yards, good for second in the league for running backs. He continue to move after the grab as well, finishing second in the league in yards after catch.

Bell is a dual threat back. He had the second most yards from scrimmage this past season and had an unreal 5.94 yards per touch, which, excluding kick and punt returns, was tops in the NFL. For some reference, DeMarco Murry, who led the league in yard from scrimmage, averaged only 5.03 yards per touch. Bell was the most effective offensive player in the league this season when he had the ball, and I expect that to continue.

On top of all of his success, Bell also continues to show his sure hands. In two seasons, Bell has only one career fumble, including none this past year. On 662 career touches, Bell has lost the ball just once.

There are a couple of downsides with Bell though. He has a poor track record with drugs and has been suspended for three games because of marijuana use. Not having your best player on the field is not something you want to occur regularly. Additionally, he has no playoff experience, having missed Pittsburgh’s only game this season due to injury. Bell is also not much of a scorer, tallying only 19 total touchdowns in his first two years. Only LeSean McCoy has scored fewer touchdowns in that timespan among the players I considered.

Despite that, Bell is likely the best all-around offensive weapon in the NFL right now. He will continue to grow in the coming years and hopefully mature to the point where he is not getting suspended for drug use. There is no doubt in my mind though that Bell is the premier running back going forward and will be for years to come.

Shocking trade changes the landscape of the NFL

It might have only been a swap of two players but the impact is immense. A trade that no one saw coming was agreed upon today between the Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles swapping to big name players. The Eagles sent star running back LeSean McCoy to the Bills in exchange for the promising Kiko Alonso. The trade will not be finalized until Tuesday because that is the official start of the new league year but it seems pretty safe to assume that this deal is going to go through. The deal is a shocking one that will impact much of both team’s offseasons.

If I am an Eagles fan, I am not happy right now. Sure, Alonso is one of the most talented young players in the league but he is still relatively unproven. He has played one season in the NFL in 2013 and then missed all of 2014 with a knee injury. So even with how productive he was as a rookie, Alonso is not a guarantee, particularly coming off the major injury. This also comes off as Head Coach Chip Kelly showing he will not be bullied in Philly. He landed yet another ex-Oregon player for his squad and while I think Alonso will be a boost to a battered linebacking corps, the team definitely had other needs.

On top of all of that, McCoy is now a Bill. Philadelphia just sent the best running back in franchise history packing because Kelly “did not like his contract.” With how much the landscape of the league has shifted to a pass-happy one, McCoy certainly does carry a hefty price tag at tail back but his impact on the game expanded well beyond the ground game. The man known as Shady did it all in an Eagles uniform. He racked up 1300-plus yards rushing in three of the past four years. He also caught at least 40 balls every year of his career but this last one. McCoy is a multifaceted player with the big play ability to break a game open. He will be sorely missed in Philly next year.

For the Bills, this shores up their injury riddled backfield. The addition of McCoy also ensures that C.J. Spiller will be on his way out, as he has already announced to the media. It also lessens the Bills’ concerns at quarterback. This takes a lot of the pressure off E.J. Manuel to lead this offense and gives him a new weapon in the passing game. Concerns have been raised about McCoy’s ability to hold up under the stress of another season of 300 plus carries but the likelihood is that Fred Jackson will spell him and keep his carry count down closer to 250 on the season. Rex Ryan has always been a fan of having multiple backs to shoulder the load. The Bills managed to do a lot to help their offense with this acquisition and avoided hurting their defense. Buffalo’s defense ranked in the top five last season even without Alonso and will be ready for the challenge again with few starters likely to be leaving.

What this means for both teams going forward is that their offseason plans have now altered. The Bills, who sit without a first round draft pick this season, will likely focus on adding depth to its front seven and offensive line with their draft picks. It also leaves them with plenty of money to resign a couple of defensive studs as well. There is no doubt that this team will be in play for a big name corner as well as Ryan loves cornerback depth. For the Eagles, they now jump into the top five of teams with money to spend this offseason. That could mean that they can lock up Jeremy Maclin to a long-term deal as well as take a stab at a big name free agent to solidify that defense. Byron Maxwell is already rumored to be headed to the City of Brotherly Love. Could Ndamokung Suh join him to solidify this defense? That is now a possibility with the $48 million the Eagles now have to spend. With no clear starting running back on the roster, the Eagles now become players to draft one of the talented rushers in this year’s draft.

Both teams ensured that they will look different heading into next year. It seems like the Bills will be buying into Rex Ryan’s ground and pound mentality with the two-headed dragon in McCoy and Jackson. Meanwhile, the Eagles are showing commitment to rebuilding a defense that let down the team in big games last season. Kelly also officially put his stamp on the team in his new role as head of personnel. Lots of work is still left to be done on both sides but this is clearly a big jump-start into the reshaping both teams are doing to make a run at the playoffs in 2015 after narrowly missing out on the action last season.