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Running Back Report Week One -- Miami, San Francisco and Detroit

Miami Dolphins:

As noted here during the preseason, Myles Gaskin was still clearly the best back on the field for the Dolphins week one. He added an excellent 2.7 yards to his runs on average as Miami’s offensive line looked disjointed and out of sync – at one point both guards pulled and collided chest-to-chest on a trap play. Gaskin is efficient and slippery with ridiculous balance and flexibility that overcome his lack of power through collisions. He also is an excellent pass catcher operating with a young pocket passer who will throw a good number of checkdowns.

In contrast to Gaskin’s 25 yards added, Malcolm Brown and Salvon Ahmed posted ho hum performances, netting out at zero yards added on a combined eight carries. Both backs saw time at wildcat QB, and Brown notched the team’s only carry inside the ten from this alignment. These guys are backup-level NFL runners, and the Dolphins’ offense would benefit to feature Gaskin a bit more going forward. However, Gaskin is small, dealt with injuries last year, lacks draft capital, and head coach Brian Flores hails from the Belichick three-back tree. Myles is a viable RB2-3 in PPR, with hope for more if his role grows based on merit.

San Francisco 49ers:

Trey Sermon was a surprise scratch after spending preseason running as the 1B to Raheem Mostert – and looking pretty good doing it. In his stead Elijah Mitchell and Ja’Mychal Hasty were active in support of Mostert. After two carries for a quick and easy twenty yards against an overmatched Lions’ front, Mostert was sidelined with a knee injury later discovered to be a season-ending cartilage tear.

Mitchell assumed the primary duties and quickly ripped off a 38 yard touchdown run, flashing plus speed while running through a giant hole created by George Kittle’s double-pancake block.

Mitchell finished the day with 104 yards on 19 carries, taking all but one RB attempt after Mostert’s injury.

Is Elijah Mitchell the real deal? I’m not yet convinced. Most of his production was the result of a San Francisco offensive line overpowering Detroit’s sub-par defensive front. On the day, Mitchell added 25 yards to his carries. All 25 of those yards came on his long touchdown run, where he was able to use his speed to outrun a poor angle and attempted arm tackle by a defensive back. He struggled to consistently execute Kyle Shanahan’s zone schemes or pick up extra yards through contact. While Mitchell has good burst, he struggles to plant his foot and change direction – a major problem running the 49ers’ vertical cut wide zone system. He missed straightforward cutback opportunities on three zone carries, which I charted as costing him 10 yards.

Mitchell’s straight-line style is reflective of below average leg strength that also translates to limited power through contact. He was often stopped in his tracks between the tackles, unable to fall forward. All in all, his performance was consistent with a backup NFL running back with enough burst to add value on long runs through wide lanes.

While I can only speculate as to why Trey Sermon was inactive, Sermon’s strengths are Mitchell’s weaknesses. He is smooth and controlled while changing of direction, reads defenses quickly, and is excellent through contact between the tackles. He does, however, lack the burst and top end speed of Mitchell, a trait Kyle Shanahan truly seems to covet. If given the opportunity, I expect Sermon to add value when the 49ers are struggling a bit more to push around the opposition.

Detroit Lions:

Jamaal Williams outplayed D’Andre Swift. The picture of running back reliability, I charted zero negative grades on Williams’ nine carries as he executed the Lions’ diverse inside zone-heavy run attack efficiently and smoothly. His 1.4 yards added per attempt was nearly two yards better than his backfield counterpart Swift, who subtracted half a yard from his runs on average. Williams’ game is all about efficient decisions, footwork and effective pad placement through tackles. He’s going to continue to play a lot in this offense.

Swift put a real stinker on film. 31 of his 39 rushing yards came on back-to-back plays where he had a free run to a 1-on-1 with a safety – and was promptly tackled. He did not break a single tackle on his 11 attempts, and made risky, inefficient decisions that cost the Lions yards. The saving grace for his fantasy day was the slew of garbage time checkdown receptions from Jared Goff, and a well-executed screen pass that sprung him into the open field where he finally did make a safety miss. But even his receiving game was sloppy with two drops, a couple bobbled catches and sluggish and lazy routes.

Detroit flashed a creative run attack and a very good offensive line as both players averaged over four offensive line yards per carry on the day. I expect the run attack to be effective, with negative game scripts limiting rushing volume. In the pass game, Williams is the better and more reliable pass blocker and route runner, trailing Swift only in burst and top end speed. Based on week one, if any back is going to cede work to the other, it should be Swift giving way to Williams.


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