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Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy under most pressure to perform

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He’s been given a huge workload at an advanced age for an NFL running back, and there isn’t a fallback plan.

NFL: Buffalo Bills-Training Camp Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

While the Buffalo Bills worked to secure the long-term viability of their offense this offseason, the short-term viability of it continues to rest squarely and predominantly on the shoulders of running back LeSean McCoy.

Acquired from the Philadelphia Eagles via trade prior to the 2015 regular season, McCoy is now entering his fourth year with the Bills. He has made the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons with the club, with 3,330 rushing yards, 1,096 receiving yards, and 27 total touchdowns in 43 regular season games. By and large, McCoy has been everything the Bills expected him to (continue to) be when they acquired him.

McCoy also turned 30 this past month. Despite his continued run of stellar statistical output, the likely future Hall of Fame back is entering the stage of his career where expectations for his level of production won’t change, but a decline after a decade-plus of heavy usage is also expected. It’s a funny, unfair little gray area that ramps up the pressure on McCoy to perform well.

The Bills, in how they have structured their offense around McCoy these past few seasons, have not done much to alleviate the pressure on their star back.

As McCoy enters his fourth season with the Bills, he’s currently working with his fourth offensive coordinator. The Bills haven’t had a 1,000-yard skill player on offense other than McCoy since Sammy Watkins had 1,047 receiving yards in 2015. Two of their starting interior offensive linemen retired this offseason, and their long-time starting left tackle was traded. And they’re going to have a different starting quarterback for the first time since McCoy’s arrival in Buffalo, as well.

McCoy is already used to being the only consistent source of offensive production in Buffalo, and it hasn’t really slowed him down so far. In 2017, McCoy ranked seventh among NFL running backs in yards from scrimmage per game (99.1). Among the top ten backs in that stat category, only one - Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams - accounted for a higher percentage of his team’s total offensive output. (That may have been different if Ezekiel Elliott and Dalvin Cook had played full seasons, but you get the point.)

2017 average yards from scrimmage leaders (RB)

Player Team 2017 YFS avg. Total yards % of team yards Off. rank Career touches Age
Player Team 2017 YFS avg. Total yards % of team yards Off. rank Career touches Age
Todd Gurley Los Angeles Rams 139.5 2,093 36.20% 10 914 24
Le'Veon Bell Pittsburgh Steelers 129.7 1,946 32.20% 3 1,541 26
Ezekiel Elliott Dallas Cowboys 125.2 1,252 23.60% 14 622 23
Kareem Hunt Kansas City Chiefs 111.4 1,782 29.70% 5 325 23
Dalvin Cook Minnesota Vikings 111 444 7.80% 11 85 23
Leonard Fournette Jacksonville Jaguars 103.2 1,342 22.90% 6 304 23
LeSean McCoy Buffalo Bills 99.1 1,586 32.80% 29 2,626 30
Melvin Gordon Los Angeles Chargers 98.8 1,581 26.20% 4 854 25
Alvin Kamara New Orleans Saints 97.1 1,554 24.80% 2 201 23
Mark Ingram New Orleans Saints 96.2 1,540 24.60% 2 1,390 29

Every running back on that list played in an offense that ultimately finished in the top half of the league in total offensive yardage last season - except for McCoy, as the Bills finished a dismal 29th in that category.

McCoy is the only running back in his thirties on that list, and his total career touch count is considerably higher than those of his much younger contemporaries, as well. It’s impressive that McCoy continues to produce alongside the game’s elite despite having played in the league for so long, but one does question the wisdom of a team so heavily counting on McCoy to continue to defy those odds.

We haven’t even mentioned his current off-the-field concern yet, mostly because it doesn’t have much to do with how the Bills have structured their offensive plans around McCoy. If that investigation yields anything that keeps McCoy off the field for any amount of time, McCoy will be facing a much different form of pressure, and it’ll be difficult to pinpoint what the team’s Plan B might be.

So, to recap: the Bills have changed an awful lot of their offense this offseason, and are utterly dependent on McCoy’s continued success at this stage in his career if they’re going to stay in the black and scrape together enough on that side of the ball to contend. Considering this, one would be hard-pressed to argue that there is another offensive skill player in the NFL under more pressure to continue to be great in 2018 than LeSean McCoy.