Compared to even 10 years ago, NFL teams have schematically shifted away from heavy formations and under-center dominated playbooks to more spread and Air Raid concepts. These more diverse offenses often divide the running back’s tasks between early downs and passing downs, meaning a feature back must now be an excellent receiver and pass protector to stay on the field on third down. Running backs are also still exposed to serious injury every time they touch the ball, not being blessed with the same protections the league has bestowed upon quarterbacks or receivers.
Life for an NFL running back is, for the most part, akin to Thomas Hobbes’ description of the state of nature: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, emphasis on the last of those. However, recently, a few top-shelf running backs have successfully extracted substantial second contracts from their teams before their perceived shelf lives expire - Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara come to mind - and another forced an exit from a team that had already acquired his replacement.
Former Badger Melvin Gordon III parlayed his 4,915 collegiate rushing yards into a first round selection by the Chargers in 2015. His early pro career featured a string of nagging injuries that held him out frequently, and by the end of his rookie deal, the Chargers were already moving on to Austin Ekeler. Gordon’s volume in the pros peaked in 2017, when he had a combined 342 touches, and then declined to 225 in 2018 and 204 in 2019.
Despite totaling 1,852 total touches over the last seven seasons in the college and pros, Gordon had a stroke of good fortune over the offseason in a baffling decision by the Denver Broncos to give him a decent-sized free agent contract, $16 million over 2 years with $13.5 million fully guaranteed. This, despite the Broncos already having a capable, dirt-cheap tailback in 2018 undrafted free agent-turned-Pro Bowler Phillip Lindsay.
The clock is probably ticking on Gordon’s time as a feature back, or even lead back, but with the Broncos playing their third-string QB in his first career start on Thursday, Gordon led the way for his new team with a 23/107/2 rushing line and 2 carries for 11 yards in a 37-28 victory.
Josey Jewell (Iowa) Broncos LB: Jewell appears to be in the midst of a breakout season, and facing a teetering Jets offense, the Broncos coaching staff were merciless in blitzing their linebackers - Jewell got hime for 2 sacks on 8 blitzes, and totaled 10 tackles.
Tom Brady (Michigan) Buccaneers QB: Although there are clearly moments where you can tell he isn’t fully his old self, today’s final stat line certainly wasn’t one of them. Brady amassed a 30/46-369-5-1 line. Most promisingly for the Bucs, it looks as though he and stud WR Mike Evans are getting on the same page, as they connected on 7 of 8 targets for 122 yards and a TD.
Lavonte David: Breaking my own maxim of trying not to list the same names too often, David introduced yet another exhibit in his ongoing case as the most underrated defensive player in the league. Of his 11 total tackles, 10 were solo, and the Bucs held the Chargers to 46 rushing yards on 23 attempts.
Whitney Mercilus (Illinois) Texans DE/LB: One of many former Ron Zook-era Illini products that ended up in the league on the defensive side of the ball, Mercilus has been the largely-anonymous and much more durable bookend to the more visible J.J. Watt. Since coming into the league in 2012, Mercilus has played at least 15 games in every season but one, an injury-shortened 2017 campaign, and racked a total of 52 sacks so far, peaking with 12 in 2015. He got in that particular scoring column with two sacks of Kirk Cousins this week.
Monday Night (yes we know there are two games, we already talked Chiefs in this series though)
In the preseason, the schedule makers probably thought this was going to be a marquee matchup, and on one side, it still is: the Packers seem to have moved beyond the initial friction between QB Aaron Rodgers and HC Matt Lafleur and sit at 3-0 with two divisional wins in their pockets already.
It’s stretches like Atlanta is mired in right now that really make me wonder about the advisability of dedicated sports fandom.
So, who ought we as a conference throw our collective weight behind? On paper, perhaps the most emblematic Midwestern sports franchise versus a representative of the Southern capital ought to be an easy call, but let’s take a look.
Green Bay’s offensive line pivots around underrated but reliable C Corey Linsley (Ohio State), free agent addition OT Rick Wagner (Wisconsin), and they added reserve OL Jon Runyan Jr. (Michigan) in this year’s draft. Defensively, they rely on front-line play from Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster, products of undisputed D-Line U: Northwestern. DL Rashan Gary (Michigan), CB Josh Jackson (Iowa), S Adrian Amos (Penn State), and S Darnell Savage (Maryland) round out the Big Ten contingent.
Atlanta’s Big Ten products are way more one-sided, as they don’t have a single former Big Ten player on offense. Defensively, they do feature S Ricardo Allen (Purdue), CB Darqueze Dennard (Michigan State), and CB Kendall Sheffield (Ohio State), but Allen and Dennard are both out for this game with injuries. Sheffield will get the start, however.
We gave the Falcons a chance here, but beyond the geographic locations of the two teams, Green Bay’s paying a lot more of our former rooting interests. Easy call on this one. Skol Cheese Down amirite?