The Impact of New Head Coaches on Running Backs

As is the case every offseason, a number of teams will replace their head coaches heading into the 2021 season. This year, seven teams will have new coaches at the helm next season which is about the average number of openings dating back to 2015. We know many times these new coaches bring their own schemes to the new team. However, how does a new coach impact the running back on that team? Does he usually stick with what he has, or immediately look to replenish the position with one of ‘his guys’ either via the draft or free agency?

Since 2015, we have seen 39 head coaching changes across the league. Somewhat surprisingly, there were 25 instances in which a different running back led the backfield in yards in year one under the new head coach, as compared to the previous season. Over 64% of coaches immediately address the running back position? Well, not quite.

Diving Into Details

Of those 25 coaches that had a new lead running back in their first year, nearly half were for reasons other than directly demoting the incumbent from the lead role. A closer look gives some helpful insight:

  • Five incumbents left in free agency in the new coach’s first season
  • Four incumbents missed significant time due to injury
  • Two incumbents were replaced by the original starter, who returned from injury (C.J. Anderson was injured in 2016, but returned in 2017 to supplant Devontae Booker; David Johnson led the Cardinals in 2017, was injured in 2018, and returned to the lead in 2019)
  • One incumbent remained in a timeshare, but was slightly outperformed (Jordan Howard was outgained by 89 yards, but still had 1080 total yards. While subjective, I do not believe Cohen ‘replaced’ Howard that year. They supplemented one another and Howard remained effective).

The full list is below:

YearTeamPrevious Season Lead Running BackReason for New Lead Back
2015San Francisco 49ersFrank GoreGore left in Free Agency
2015Oakland RaidersDarren McFaddenMcFadden left in Free Agency
2015 Buffalo BillsFred JacksonJackson left in Free Agency
2016Tampa Bay BuccaneersDoug MartinInjured (Martin missed 8 games)
2016Miami DolphinsLamar MillerMiller left in Free Agency
2017Denver BroncosDevontae BookerC.J. Anderson returned from injury
2018Oakland RaidersMarshawn LynchInjured (Lynch missed 10 games)
2018Indianapolis ColtsFrank GoreGore left in Free Agency
2018Arizona CardinalsKerwynn WilliamsDavid Johnson returned from injury
2018Chicago BearsJordan HowardTarik Cohen outgained Howard by 89 yards
2020New York GiantsSaquon BarkleyInjured (Barkley missed 14 games)
2020Carolina PanthersChristian McCaffreyInjured (McCaffrey missed 13 games)

So Which Backs Were Directly Replaced? 

While we saw 12 coaches leverage a ‘new’ lead running back due to unusual circumstances, there were also 13 coaches that came in and directly replaced the lead back in their first season. What can we learn from these instances?

The Replaced Running Backs Were… Replaceable

The 13 backs that new head coaches attempted to immediately supplant averaged 922 total yards in the season prior to the new coach arriving. While that number doesn’t seem too terrible, there are a couple of yardage outliers inflating that number. 

One outlier: the 2016 Philadelphia Eagles. After Demarco Murray accounted for 1024 total yards in 2015, new head coach Doug Pederson and company shipped him to Tennessee in a March trade.

Second outlier: the 2019 Arizona Cardinals. David Johnson was coming off of a 1386 yard campaign in 2018 when new head coach Kliff Kingsbury traded for Kenyan Drake in October. Was Drake intended to be an immediate replacement for Johnson? Probably not… However, for the sake of argument I included him in this exercise.

Without those two players in the equation, the average total yards of the incumbent lead running back drops to just 865 yards. Net, most of the running backs being replaced were rather… replaceable

Highly Drafted Talent Poses a Problem

4 of the 12 backs that lost their jobs under the new coach succumbed to a rookie running back. Those four players were all good prospects that the team sunk high draft capital in to:

YearTeamIncumbent Lead RB (Prev Season Total Yards)New Rookie Lead RBRookie Lead RB Draft Capital
2017Jacksonville JaguarsT.J. Yeldon (777)Leonard FournetteRound 1
2018Detroit Lions Theo Riddick (730)Kerryon JohnsonRound 2
2018New York GiantsOrleans Darkwa (867)Saquon BarkleyRound 1
2020Washington Football TeamAdrian Peterson (1040)Antonio GibsonRound 3

Three of these four had rather unproductive incumbents, while the 2019 version of Adrian Peterson was 34 years old and an immediate replacement was logical.

The Backs That Kept Their Jobs

Now let’s turn our attention to the 14 lead backs who maintained their role even under a new Head Coach. Why were these players able to keep their jobs?  Some considerations:

Draft Capital

Early NFL draft capital certainly can help an incumbent keep their job. 71% of the 14 players were first or second round draft picks. While it may seem like a worn narrative that early-round draft picks have a longer leash, pin this case the draft capital does appear to be rather helpful.

Previous Production

We have already seen above that the backs being replaced in year one of a new head coach usually didn’t ‘earn’ the lead role going forward. The opposite proves trues here as well. If the existing running back has been productive, there is less incentive to immediately replace them either. The 14 backs that kept their jobs under new leadership averaged over 1300 total yards in the previous season. Only three failed to top 1,000 total yards the previous year.

Added Competition

Interestingly, 6 of the 14 that kept their jobs saw their teams select running backs in the first draft for the new coach. However, the competition added was always in the middle/late rounds and were intended to add depth more so than to draft the immediate replacement. Two teams drafted another back in the fourth round, one drafted a back in the fifth, and three drafted sixth round running backs. None of those draft picks ever came close to threatening to take over the lead role.

But Does the Usage Change?

There are a million different factors which could impact a player’s usage year to year. A new scheme is just one, however, we would assume that the talented players that have proven to be productive would remain to be a key cog of the offense even with a new coach running the show. The data more or less confirms that, at least over the past six seasons.

As you can see, there were only four backs that saw a decrease in touches per game in Year 1 of new coaching. Looking closer at those four, they STILL averaged 19.5 touches per game, hardly a cause for alarm.

Who Are We Concerned About this Offseason?

With seven teams hiring new head coaches this offseason, let’s see which running backs will be impacted, and how.

Frank Gore, New York Jets: a free agent, he may not be resigned by New York. If he is, he almost assuredly will lose his role as ‘lead’ back. 

Concern level: 10/10

Todd Gurley, Atlanta Falcons: another free agent that may not return to Atlanta. Even should Gurley return, I would expect another running back to be brought in via draft to begin preparing for the future. Gurley’s days are numbered and there is not currently a bell-cow back in waiting. 

Concern level: 9/10

David Johnson, Houston Texans: technically, Johnson could be cut this offseason and save the cap-strapped Texans around $7 million. However, the team lacks ample draft capital or cap space to immediately bring in his replacement. Instead, his job is probably safe for 2021, but not thereafter.

Concern level: 5/10

James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars: Robinson may be the running back that has most fantasy owners anxious. While he lacks the draft capital to make me feel absolutely secure in his lead role for 2021, his production last season speaks volumes. Coming off a 1400 yard season, there is no reason for Jacksonville to sink early draft capital or free agent money on an immediate replacement. More likely, competition/depth is added in round three or later, but Robinson’s job is safe next year. 

Concern level: 2/10

Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles: a 2nd round pick that has been productive and flashed the high potential a team would desire out of the running back position. 

Concern level: 0/10

D’Andre Swift, Detroit Lions: Swift is a 2nd round pick that showed plenty of promise as a rookie. 

Concern level: 0/10

Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers: even while battling injury last year, Ekeler turned in his second consecutive season averaging over 90 yards per game. With a round4th round, 23- year- old back already in the fold for depth (Joshua Kelley), the team is unlikely to add anyone that would steal this job from Ekeler. 

Concern level: 0/10

How To Use This Information to Your Advantage

Most likely, this information can help you identify prime ‘buy’ candidates. Some fantasy owners might wonder if recently-hired head coach Urban Meyer will want a speedier, more high-profile back in Jacksonville. Will a new coach still use Austin Ekeler as a dual threat? Is Miles Sanders going to cede much of his work to an added backfield mate? This is where you can feel confident; these players are unlikely to see much change in their role. Don’t become a slave to the unproven narratives. Educate yourself, locate worried league mates, and make some trades.

Thanks for reading! Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @_TaylorCornell and our site’s page at @JoinOurCircle_. Subscribe to our YouTube page and meet your Fantasy Intervention Support Group.

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