By Lawrence Vos, 26 May 2019
No I’m not taking about underrated Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, but for a bonus point can you give me the connection between this movie and NFL rushing folklore?
For those of you who didn’t have to Google that one of Arnie’s victims (Fireball) was former Cleveland Browns legendary running back Jim Brown I congratulate you, and for those of you who did I hope you enjoyed adding this to your NFL trivia arsenal.
That was 1987, when a survival-based reality gameshow was a forerunner for the likes of The Hunger Games. Fast forward to 2019 and arguably the best survival-based reality show on our screens now is the NFL.
The Running Man focussed on a very fit human-being, wearing a bright costume, relying on team-mates to help him navigate pitfalls and escape from tough adversaries on-foot (with the exception of Dynamo who was arguably the worst villain in cinematic history. He was 340lb, sang opera, drove a dune buggy and wore an armour plate covered in LEDs.)
Avoiding trouble and helping to lead a team to victory is a very similar set of pursuits to that of a running quarterback in the NFL.
In 2019 we have a top tier of five starting quarterbacks who can be categorised as rushing quarterbacks and then a second tier of five who can be described as mobile but not rushing quarterbacks. Note I am only putting starters in these tiers. The likes of L.A. Rams backup Blake Bortles (a respectable and surprising 365 rushing yards, 6.3 yards a carry and a first down on almost half his runs in 2018) do not count.
Josh Allen, Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson, Cam Newton, Deshaun Watson.
Patrick Mahomes, Marcus Mariota, Dak Prescott, Mitch Trubisky, Jameis Winston.
So let’s look at Tier-1 and see how they rank for 2019 fantasy draft purposes.
5 – Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals
Murray, the number one overall pick in this year’s draft is a phenom before he even steps onto an NFL field. The Cards pushed all their chips into the middle of the table for the former Oklahoma signal-caller, they even traded away Josh Rosen, their first round pick from 2018, to the Dolphins, to avoid any talk of competition. Murray won the 2019 Heisman Trophy for a remarkable 2018 season which included breaking the 1,000-yard barrier on the ground. The problem with projecting Murray’s impact in the NFL in 2019 is not due to the height issue (standing at 5f 10 inches) it’s more his track record. Murray originally began his college career in 2015 at Texas A&M. In his freshman year Murray served at the backup to Kyle Allen (now backup to Cam Newton in Carolina) before getting playing time when Allen performed poorly. Murray ran for 335 yards and a single score, but was again relegated to the bench by the time the Aggies reached the Music City Bowl. Keeping it all very incestuous Texas A&M lost that Bowl game to Louisville 27-21, going down to game MVP Cardinal quarterback Lamar Jackson (more later) who had 226 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns, including a 61-yard effort in the second quarter. Another quirk from that game was that two scorers for Texas A&M are now Murray’s target team-mates – WR Christian Kirk and converted TE Ricky Seals-Jones. Murray didn’t see action in 2016 as it was criteria of his transfer to Oklahoma, and in 2017 he had one start as back-up to none other than 2018 first overall draft pick Baker ‘wake up dangerous’ Mayfield.
Already anointed as the Cardinals starting quarterback Murray will be looking to use his feet to keep drives alive and find his former college colleagues, as well as feeding future Canton enshrine Larry Fitzgerald. There will be a significantly increased workload for running back David Johnson in terms of dump-offs and screens, who will look to get 2,000 all-purpose scrimmage yards himself.
2019 projection – 431 rushing yards, 6 touchdowns.
4 – Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
Cam is not mortal, he is built like a Greek god, and is close to indestructible. 4,808 rushing yards and 58 touchdowns in his first eight seasons is nothing short of Hall of Fame numbers for a quarterback. Newton has missed just five games in his career, and his ground total is 150th in NFL history, for ALL players, and 14th amongst ALL active players. After arthroscopic surgery earlier in the year, to fix a lingering throwing arm injury, Newton is being eased back into action at OTA’s (organised team activities) in May, but will be fighting fit for September.
He missed two games in 2018, but using his average rushing yards per-game this would have equated to 558 ground yards, which would have put him above 2018’s #3 rushing quarterback Deshaun Watson. Newton is now joined by one of the top three overall running backs in the NFL in the form of Christian McCaffrey, who will take away carries and scoring opportunities from the former number one draft pick. Newton has averaged 110 rushing attempts over the past three seasons and whilst his attempts in 2018, under new offensive co-ordinator Norv Turner, was the second lowest in his career, it’s no cause for concern as he nearly reached his statutory half-century.
Cam has rushing the football in his DNA and no coach will be able to remove that. Defences, especially those in his division, are used to this form of torture, but any average linebacker is going to lose the war of attrition. Newton is consistent and although his rushing touchdowns hit an all-time low in 2018 (4) he can still provide that fantasy scoring boost that Brady, Brees and even Mahomes are unable to.
2019 projection – 525 rushing yards, 5 touchdowns
3 – Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans
Entering his third season, Deshaun Watson has learnt a lot, but unfortunately for him he has been sacked a lot. In 2018, his first season playing all 16 regular season games Watson was sacked a rib-crushing 62 times (the Texans were the only team to allow over 60 sacks). This can be attributed to two main factors – Watson holds onto the ball too long, but he is doing so in-part as he is contemplating scrambling out of the pocket and finding a crease or a rushing lane. Watson managed a very respectable 551 yards on the ground and 5 scores in 2018, but part of this output was generated as he was trying to make the most of a collapsed pocket or a blown block by a running back. Despite taking snaps in front of five colanders with legs Watson made the 2018 Pro-Bowl and proved that he can command a team and stay injury free. In fact, he was the first player in NFL history to have 4,000+ passing yards, 25+ passing touchdowns, 500+ rushing yards, and 5 rushing touchdowns in a single season. The former College National Championship winner (2016) had one 1,000-yard rushing season at Clemson (2015) losing to powerhouse Alabama in the Championship game (where he ran for 43 yards and a score).
Watson needs to remain upright for longer, but he also needs to be smarter with his feet. The Texans wisely drafted two offensive linemen in the first two rounds of the 2019 Draft (Tytus Howard #23 overall and Max Scharping #55) to relive some pressure but like Cam Newton Watson is a smooth natural runner with excellent instincts to find space. Houston’s new offensive coordinator Tim Kelly is a quiet in-house appointment. This is Kelly’s sixth year in the Texans offense, having served as tight-ends coach the last two years (fun fact Kelly’s brother Dennis is an offensive lineman for the Tennessee Titans). Coach Kelly will be asked to further develop Watson, so expect much of the same and a small increase in Watson’s ground scores.
2019 Projection – 580 yards rushing and 8 touchdowns
2 – Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills
Perhaps the biggest fantasy surprise from the 2018 Rookie quarterback crop was Josh Allen. Despite the Bills deluded decision to start Week 1 with Nathan Peterman as their starter, in a 3-47, yes 3-47 loss to the Ravens, that experiment was shorty canned and Allen became the #1 in Week 2. Where Allen excelled was his fast feet. In his three years at Wyoming Allen ran for a solid but unspectacular 767 yards and 12 scores, averaging a pedestrian 3.2yards a carry. As a result, not many people were prepared for Allen’s 631 yards rushing, 8 touchdowns and two NFL records between Weeks 12-14 (first quarterback to rush for at least 95 yards in three consecutive games and most rushing yards by a quarterback in a 3 game span – 335). Allen only started 11 games (and played in 12) as a rookie, so by the magic of averages he would have gained 841 yards, the sixth greatest rushing output by a quarterback in NFL history. Allen was let down by a very average skill group in 2018, which has since been boosted by wide-receiver free-agent signings Cole Beasley and John Brown and rookie running back Devin Singletary. As the unquestioned starter Allen can become a fantasy monster, not only by rushing but by having better targets across the field. Watch out for fellow second-year player wide-receiver Robert Foster who can surpass 1,000 yards and eight scores himself.
Allen is one of those rare breed of players that has transitioned from a smaller college team to become a starting NFL signal-caller. He joins current starting quarterbacks like Joe Flacco (Delaware) Derek Carr (Fresno State) and perhaps the best example – ‘Big Ben’ Roethlisberger who hailed from Miami of Ohio. Allen is in a position to get the Bills into a Wild Card position in the next two seasons, something mobile passer Tyrod Taylor managed with Buffalo in 2017. With a 16 game slate Allen can shine, and that includes over 700 yards on the ground.
2019 projection – 757 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns
1 – Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
We have been here before back in 2012 when slight-framed but much-hyped first round draft pick Robert Griffin III rushed for 815 yards in 15 games. The 2012 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year sustained a second injury of the season against the Seahawks in the playoffs that season, and since then he has rushed for 855 yards and three touchdowns over the next five seasons. Now Jackson’s backup in Baltimore RG3 is a cautionary tale of taking a young but slim-built quarterback and letting him run a lot early. L-Jax who did not run a 40 yard-dash at the 2018 Scouting Combine is arguably faster than RG3 and up there with the fastest NFL starting quarterback ever, Michael Vick. Vick, despite his jail time, managed an incredible rushing total in 13 playing seasons, gaining 6,109 yards including a mind-bending NFL quarterback rushing record of 1,039 yards in 2005. L-Jax has the skills to actually break this record, and with 16 games and no Joe Flacco on the sidelines watching his every move, it is possible this happens in 2019. L-Jax gained 695 rushing yards in 7 starts as a rookie, and extrapolating that to a full season would equate to 1,270 yards, which would obliterate Vick’s record.
It’s not sustainable to expect Jackson to run for almost 1,300 rushing yards, but if we look at his 7 starts (546 rushing yards) and extend that out to 16 games, at 78 yards a game, that 1,248 in a season. The Ravens will be hell-bent on developing L-Jax as a passer, but they will no doubt allow him to display his ghost-like rushing ability. His His 4,132 rushing yards in college (including Bowl games) ranks 109 all-time for ALL players, including running-backs, so we are talking about a special talent. Providing he can stay injury free, which he has managed for the past three-years, L-Jax can deliver the greatest rushing season by a quarterback ever.
2019 projection – 1,115 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns.