We might be 14 weeks into the season, but NFL backfields never stop evolving. New featured backs have been popping up throughout the league, particularly on teams with an eye toward the future.
Here’s some insight on the latest crop of leading men from ESPN’s NFL Nation:
Kenyan Drake: The Miami Dolphins' second-year pro busted loose for 120 rushing yards, 21 receiving yards and a touchdown Sunday when backfield-mate Damien Williams was out with a shoulder injury (which might also keep Williams sidelined Monday night versus New England).
ESPN Dolphins reporter James Walker cautioned that Miami could return to a time-share whenever Williams comes back. Walker said Dolphins coach Adam Gase told him Drake's heavy Week 13 workload wasn’t planned. And Walker said the Dolphins trust Williams so much with his assignments that he should have a role waiting for him when he returns.
However, Walker also wrote about how this month will be a golden opportunity for Drake to prove he can be the Dolphins’ leading man heading into 2018 after they traded away Jay Ajayi earlier this season. Drake already has showed he can be a “home run hitter” with his big-play ability. What the 2016 third-round pick from Alabama needs to do next is show more consistency, ball security and patience to accept shorter gains instead of losing yardage while looking for the big ones.
Peyton Barber: ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter Jenna Laine wrote about how the undrafted second-year pro could become Tampa’s long-term answer at running back after he ran 23 times for 102 yards and caught four passes for 41 yards in starter Doug Martin's absence Sunday. Before that, Barber scored two TDs in Week 12 after Martin was sidelined by a concussion.
Laine warned that Martin’s return should cut into Barber’s playing time a bit in Week 14, but she still believes Barber has earned a bigger role after becoming the team’s first 100-yard rusher of the season.
“Sometimes you can't fix what's broken until you can get under the hood and tinker with some things,” Laine wrote of the way Martin’s injury led the Bucs to consider a new approach.
Mike Davis: The Seattle Seahawks, meanwhile, seem to have tried a new approach at running back every week because of injuries and inefficient performances. But Davis looks poised to hang on to the gig for a little while after he ran 16 times for 64 yards and caught four passes for 37 yards Sunday in his return from a groin injury.
“I have to imagine that they'll stick with Davis, at least for the next few weeks,” ESPN Seahawks reporter Brady Henderson said of the third-year pro, who began his career in San Francisco and was activated from Seattle’s practice squad just a few weeks ago. “[Rookie running back] Chris Carson could come off injured reserve soon, and that would create an interesting decision given that he was their starter for the first four games. But he's at least two weeks out.”
Samaje Perine: It’s no breaking news that the Washington Redskins have been taking a long look at their rookie fourth-round draft pick for both this season and the future since, well, they don’t have anybody else who “realistically factors into their future,” as ESPN Redskins reporter John Keim put it.
“He’ll be in the primary role as they try to decide if he can handle the load in 2018 and beyond,” Keim said of Perine, who has 66 touches and 325 yards from scrimmage over the past three games.
Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones: This one is awfully tricky, since the Green Bay Packers are now evaluating two rookies who have both showed the ability to be leading men. ESPN Packers reporter Rob Demovsky said he previously believed Jones’ snaps would be waiting for him when he returned from a knee injury since he had done such a great job in the featured-back role (including two games with 125-plus rushing yards). But then Williams ran for a career-high 113 yards himself in Sunday’s overtime victory against Tampa Bay (before Jones scored the winning 20-yard touchdown on his only carry of the game).
So now Demovsky expects the Packers to ride the hot hand, which is great for them, but not so predictable for fantasy owners.
Marlon Mack: The Indianapolis Colts' rookie had 30 snaps in Week 13 to only 22 for veteran Frank Gore. ESPN Colts reporter Mike Wells said that was mostly because Indianapolis fell so far behind the Jacksonville Jaguars and that it won’t necessarily be the norm going forward. But Wells said Mack “definitely fits” on this list, since Gore is 34 and heading into free agency.
Gore, by the way, just passed Hall of Famers LaDainian Tomlinson and Jerome Bettis for fifth place on the NFL’s all-time rushing yardage list.
Worth a click
There is no doubt about whom the Jaguars see as their running back of the present and future: rookie Leonard Fournette. But they’re focused on getting him back on track as defenses have been selling out to stop him.
Josh Gordon had a solid return with four catches for 85 yards Sunday. But as ESPN Cleveland Browns reporter Pat McManamon pointed out, it could have been a spectacular game -- possibly more than 200 yards -- if the 13 passes thrown his way had been more accurate.
For some reason, Packers QB Brett Hundley hasn’t been running much out of the zone-read. But that could change after he had two big runs of 14 and 18 yards late in Green Bay's overtime victory Sunday.