The Expanding Role of Tandem Backs in the NFL
By: Justin Onslow
December 21, 2010
Rashad Jennings
If you owned Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, Ahmad Bradshaw or any other handful of NFL backs in your fantasy football league this year, you probably had weeks during which you cursed the fantasy gods with fervor. Like me, you probably had a few choice words for some play callers as well. Sure, the Jags needed 40 yards from MJD to get into the red zone. Why not give the ball to Rashad Jennings at the one-yard line?

However detrimental the tandem back is to your fantasy team, it serves a purpose in the NFL. No one needs reminded of the changing landscape of NFL physicality. Even before the recent rash of serious injuries in the league, feature backs never made it much past the golden age of 30. Look no further than Shaun Alexander, whose prolific 2005 season was followed by an injury-plagued 2006 campaign and subsequent decline, only to be an afterthought by the age of 31.

NFL runners simply can't carry the ball 370 times per season anymore without enduring too much wear and tear to be serviceable for extended periods of time. Take Larry Johnson, for instance. Johnson toted the rock an astounding 416 times in 2006, only to experience injury after injury in the following years. Johnson never eclipsed 200 carries or 900 yards since that 2006 season, despite turning 31 just last month.

Thomas Jones
So there is a legitimate rationale for NFL teams to limit the abuse their star backs take, especially in the case of Chris Johnson and Jamaal Charles, whose running styles are very similar. Both are long striders with slight frames, who will struggle to stay healthy in the future without limiting the contact they endure. Thomas Jones may have added two years to Charles' career by amassing 212 carries this season and soaking up a lot of physical contact in the process. Interestingly enough, Jones has averaged 227 carries per year in his NFL career, but has never had more than 314 in a season, and is still playing at 32.

Perhaps there is a golden number NFL backs shouldn't surpass in order to stay healthy the next season. Perhaps not. The fact is, more teams are now employing dual-back strategies, and the 2011 NFL Draft will be a prime example of teams attempting to keep up with changing times. The following three teams would be smart to draft a complementary running back this offseason:

Kendall Hunter
Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- The Bucs seem to have fallen in love with once-troubled Oregon back LeGarrette Blount. The bruising 247-pounder has averaged 4.7 yards per carry in 11 games this season, finding pay dirt on six occasions. Cadillac Williams appears to be obsolete at this point, and Tampa will need to find a good second option to complement Blount's bruising style and provide some relief for him, especially on third down. This draft class is littered with solid change-of-pace third-down running backs. Look for Tampa to perhaps take a flyer on a mid-round runner like Oklahoma State's Kendall Hunter on draft day.

DeMarco Murray
Houston Texans -- Arian Foster has had a fantastic season, and seems like the perfect fit in Houston's one-cut-and-go running game. That said, Foster has carried the rock 277 times so far this season. Derrick Ward only provided 45 carries for the Texans, and they will need to address this issue in the draft. Although the Texans love to pick defense in the early rounds, they will need to find a way to perpetuate their very good rushing attack for the 2011 season. Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray would make sense for Houston if he is available in the fourth-round range.

Jacquizz Rodgers
Green Bay Packers -- The Pack may be the best example of a team that needs to address its running back situation this offseason. Ryan Grant went down with a serious ankle injury early in 2010, and the offense never managed to recover. The Packers were one-dimensional all season long, as Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn failed to take any heat off Aaron Rodgers. Look for Green Bay to shock some people on draft day and select and explosive pass-catching back like Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers to complement Ryan Grant next season.

Mikel Leshoure
Spotlight Back: Mikel Leshoure -- Illinois product Rashard Mendenhall has been a valuable asset for the Pittsburgh Steelers during the last couple seasons. Like Mendenhall, Illinois' current feature back Mikel Leshoure is an imposing presence coming through the line, and has the potential to be a very effective runner at the next level. Despite his big frame, Leshoure is an all-around back who can catch out of the backfield and get tough yards after. At 230 pounds, he has the frame to take and give punishment, and could be a workhorse in the NFL. Look for Leshoure to creep into discussions as an early-second sleeper with a ton of upside.

(January 25, 2011) -- The Sideline Scouting crew has wrapped up a long day in Mobile. The North practice report from Tuesday morning and South practice reports from the afternoon are both posted under the Senior Bowl tab, along with full transcripts of the press conference interviews from earlier this evening. We will be attending all of tomorrow�s activities as well, so make sure to keep coming back for updates on all the action here at the 2011 Under Armour Senior Bowl!

*A.J. Green
WR, Georgia
*Patrick Peterson
*Nick Fairley
DT, Auburn
*Da'Quan Bowers
DE, Clemson
*Blaine Gabbert
QB, Missouri
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