The Titans made a home run addition to the backfield when they signed former New England Patriot Dion Lewis to a four-year, $20 million contract. Lewis’ quick, nimble style of running and receiving helps provide a change of pace back from the more traditional, powerful Derrick Henry. The hope is that this new backfield will take a big step forward under new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur.
The only question is, how many running back duos are better than the combination of Henry and Lewis?
In today’s NFL, more teams are stocking up in the backfield to get a multiple set of backs that bring explosiveness to the offense in different ways. The success of the Falcons and Saints backfields in recent years perhaps contributed to the change in philosophy.
Here’s my rules for anyone considered a high quality duo: 1) No rookies. This counts anyone who’s at least played one year in the NFL. 2) The duo can’t be top heavy. Just because you have one stud player (Steelers) does not mean you can automatically add anyone else. Both players must contribute heavily to the offense.
With that said, let’s get this started.
First, let’s take a look at running back duos that are, without the slightest bit of hesitation, better than Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis.
Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram (New Orleans Saints)
This goes without saying. While Mark Ingram will miss the first four games of the season due to a PED suspension, he’s still a powerful, speedy back in the open field, and is a quality all-around back. Alvin Kamara was sensational in his rookie season, showing fantastic elusiveness and constantly broke tackles while showing off his versatility by moving everywhere on the field and playing at a high level.
Together, these two provide a two-headed monster that have become the new focal point of the Saints offense.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman (Atlanta Falcons)
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman didn’t have as good of seasons in 2017 as they did in 2016, but they’re still a deadly duo primed to put up more big numbers in 2018. Devonta Freeman offers some of the absolute best cutback ability in football, has excellent vision between the tackles, and is a terrific receiving back. Complementing him is Coleman, who offers outrageous speed and equally aggressive running and receiving ability.
Freeman and Coleman are both starting caliber running backs that have combined for 2,000 yards from scrimmage in the last two seasons.
So, with this in mind, there are two running back duos that I can 100% consider better than Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis.
Next, let’s look at running back duos that are not necessarily better than Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis, but would be reasonable debates.
Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen (Chicago Bears)
Under new head coach Matt Nagy, the Bears could have a top five backfield in 2018. Jordan Howard is the team’s power back, and his consistency and vision have made him one of the Bears offense’s most prized players. Tarik Cohen compliments him, and his lightning fast quickness offer a perfect change of pace back. This is especially true at receiving back, where Cohen is far more versatile and reliable with his hands.
Part of me is itching to put Howard and Cohen above Henry and Lewis. (Sorry, guys...)
LeGarrette Blount and Theo Riddick (Detroit Lions)
After a disappointing season from Ameer Abdullah, the Lions invested heavily in the backfield in the offseason, signing three time Super Bowl champion LeGarrette Blount and drafting Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Since Johnson is a rookie, we’re going to go with Blount and Theo Riddick.
Blount gives the Lions a Beast Mode at running back they haven’t had in a long time. Behind an improved offensive line, his powerful running and good level of balance should continue to age well into his early 30s. This leaves Theo Riddick as the heavy contributor in the passing game, and he is one of the best receiving backs in football; Riddick’s route running is dangerous and slippery, and his ability to create yards out of nothing have also helped make him a fan favorite in Detroit.
Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray (Minnesota Vikings)
Before a heartbreaking end to his season via a torn ACL, Dalvin Cook was leading the NFL in rushing yards, and he was doing it in a Pat Shurmur led offense that understood how to cater to his strengths. He made the Vikings’ decision to start him at the beginning of the season pay off, as his vision and cutback ability in space made the Vikings run game one of the league’s deadliest up until his injury.
From that point forward, Latavius Murray held the fort strong. While not a spectacular back, Murray has a solid skill set, providing nice cuts and decent vision, making him a solid backup to Cook.
Christian McCaffrey and C.J. Anderson (Carolina Panthers)
The Panthers’ run game is getting seriously overlooked. Not only is Cam Newton arguably the best running quarterback in the league, but the Panthers also have an incredibly underrated duo in Christian McCaffrey and C.J. Anderson.
McCaffrey has gotten a bad rap from many fans as a runner, and while he struggled with his vision early on, he was also a victim of poor run blocking and an inconsistent scheme. As a receiver, however McCaffrey is a game changer, with excellent route running ability as a slot receiver, great pass catching skills for a back, and is also very agile.
In the offseason, the Panthers managed to sign C.J. Anderson for a massive bargain. Despite playing behind a poor offensive line for much of his career in Denver, Anderson made a living out of breaking tackles, running with great balance, polished footwork, and runs at a nice pad level. He’s still a high quality back that along with McCaffrey should provide a dangerous combination given a competent scheme.
Honorable Mentions: Guys that I can 100% say are lower than Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis, but are in the ballpark.
Ty Montgomery and Aaron Jones (Green Bay Packers): Montgomery dealt with injuries throughout 2017, but is an extremely versatile player and should bounce back in 2018. Fan favorite Aaron Jones is the superior back to Jamaal Williams, but either way, the Packers have a crazy amount of depth in their backfield this season.
Frank Gore and Kenyan Drake (Miami Dolphins): Frank Gore is essentially the Tom Brady/Larry Fitzgerald of the running back position, in that he is still in the league and is still doing damage despite being ancient. It’s unknown if he’ll completely fall apart at age 35, but even if he does, Kenyan Drake had a sensational second half of 2017. Drake’s elusiveness and cuts between the tackles make him a favorable breakout candidate in a full 2018 to many.
Kareem Hunt and Spencer Ware (Kansas City Chiefs): It goes without saying Kareem Hunt is special. He can wear defenses down with his balance and ability to break tackles, and he possesses some of the smoothest ball skills I’ve seen from a receiving back, rarely breaking stride even on inaccurate throws. The guy he took the starting job from, Spencer Ware, is a decent back himself, though whether or not he’ll be as good as he was before his torn PCL in the 2017 preseason.
Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida (San Francisco 49ers): Kyle Shanahan’s ability to get his players in the open field is precisely why big things are expected for the 49ers run game. Jerick McKinnon is a quick, nimble back that is expected to be the do-it-all player in that backfield. Matt Breida offers a more patient style of running, and he did more than enough in his rookie season to establish himself as a valuable piece for the offense moving forward.
Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement (Philadelphia Eagles): After a breakout sophomore campaign in Miami, Jay Ajayi looked lost in 2017 until he was traded to the Eagles. There, the power back felt much more at home, constantly getting open space while being an extremely consistent alternative to LeGarrette Blount. Corey Clement did his part in the regular season, but it was his Super Bowl performance against the Patriots (4 receptions for 100 yards and a touchdown) that caught people’s attention. He looks to be a very promising receiving back behind the best coaching staff in the NFC.
Ultimately, I would probably have Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis as the 4th best running back duo behind Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. I think Henry can still do more to polish up his vision, but for where he is now, he is a quality back. Dion Lewis is one of the best receiving backs in the game, and does plenty of damage as a runner as well.
Ultimately, the potential of the Titans backfield will be blueprinted by Matt LaFleur, as we await to see if he can unleash said potential.