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State of the Buffalo Bills roster, running backs: Frank Gore, LeSean McCoy lead diverse group

A diverse and loaded group will have some surprises this summer

The Buffalo Bills entered the 2018 NFL offseason facing a big question at the running back position. The team’s top rusher is about to enter their age-31 season, which is the time where running backs typically begin to show extreme signs of decline. When that same rusher struggled during his age-30 season, it leads to many wondering aloud about whether or not the decline has already begun.

Is there historical precedent to watching a 31-year old running back have a great season? In fact, there is. While the majority of age-31 seasons for running backs range from bad to mediocre, there are exactly eleven instances where a running back topped the 1,000-yard mark at that age.

Running backs to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards at age 31

Player Season Rush Yards@31 Rush Yards@30
Player Season Rush Yards@31 Rush Yards@30
Curtis Martin 2004 1697 1308
Tiki Barber 2006 1662 1860
Walter Payton 1985 1551 1684
Thomas Jones 2009 1402 1312
Tony Dorsett 1985 1307 1189
Ricky Watters 2000 1242 1210
James Brooks 1989 1239 931
Emmitt Smith 2000 1203 1397
Fred Taylor 2007 1202 1146
Warrick Dunn 2006 1140 1416
James Stewart 2002 1021 685

Seven of those 11 running backs actually improved upon their age-30 seasons, and all of them averaged at least four yards per carry. (Warrick Dunn’s 2006 campaign saw the worst yards-per-carry number, which was 3.99 yards per tote. I’ll round up and give him 4 yards per carry for his troubles.)

Not only did Buffalo keep their aging running back, they doubled down by adding one even older. If the Bills are looking for a bounce-back from their star runner or a big year from his aging counterpart, they’re going to have to hedge against history, but it’s not as impossible as initially thought.

Our state of the Bills roster series continues with a look at the offensive backfield.

LeSean McCoy

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed; $9.05 million cap hit ($2.625 million dead cap if cut)
  • Age: 30 (31 on 7/12/19)
  • 2018 Playing time: 14 games (13 starts), 490 snaps (46.27% of offensive total)
  • Key 2018 statistics: 161 carries, 514 yards (3.2 YPC), 3 TDs, 46 targets, 34 catches, 238 yards (7 YPR), 195 touches, 3.9 YPT, 752 yards from scrimmage

No matter how you slice it, Shady had a rough year in 2018. Coming into the season, he was the only bona fide weapon on the Bills’ offense, one that was expected to be run-heavy and ball-control oriented with either Nathan Peterman or A.J. McCarron keeping the seat warm at quarterback for rookie Josh Allen. We all know how that turned out, and as opposing defenses stacked the box and dared the Bills to throw, they were able to neutralize McCoy throughout the year.

When the Bills’ offense did improve in the final six weeks of the year, McCoy was still mostly a non-factor. Aside from a 26-carry, 113-yard day against the New York Jets, McCoy was virtually a non-factor for the entire season. Given that Shady also scored twice in that game against the Jets, it represented nearly his entire season’s output running the ball.

For their part, the Bills have spoken about bringing McCoy back almost as if it is a forgone conclusion, with both Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott stating publicly that McCoy is part of the plan for the 2019 season. If the team sticks to that plan, they’ll be banking on last season being less of a fade and more of a blip caused by poor offensive line and quarterback play.

Frank Gore

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed a one-year contract this offseason. $500k guaranteed, $250k in workout bonuses, $1.25 million in salary
  • Age: Turned 36 on 5/14/19
  • 2018 playing time: 14 games (14 starts), 330 snaps (35.87% of offensive total) for Miami Dolphins
  • Key 2018 statistics: 156 carries, 722 yards (4.6 YPC), 0 TDs, 16 targets, 12 catches, 124 yards (10.3 YPR), 1 fumble for Miami Dolphins

In a move that was joked about at the time by the head coach, the Bills surprisingly went older at running back during free agency when they signed the dependable Gore. Always wanting a leader in each position group, Gore was added to provide some leadership and experience to the offense in addition to his playing acumen.

So far, it looks like Gore has the inside track to being one of the top two running backs in what could be a heavy rotation to start the year. With four players capable of handling substantial carries in 2019, Gore could just as easily see himself on the outside looking in.

Devin Singletary

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed a four-year rookie deal; $753,956 cap hit
  • Age: 21 (22 on 9/3/2019)
  • 2018 playing time: 12 games for Florida Atlantic University
  • Key 2018 statistics: 261 carries, 1348 yards (5.2 YPC), 22 TDs, 6 catches, 36 yards (6.0 YPR) for Florida Atlantic University

Singletary, selected in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, adds youth and intrigue to the running back room. You don’t select a player that high just to have him sit on the bench, so he’s going to get touches. But with Gore and McCoy likely ahead of him, there won’t be a ton of those to go around. Where will the rookie fit into the rotation? In terms of playing style, he’s been compared to McCoy but looks like Gore. He’s got potential.

T.J. Yeldon

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed a two-year, $3.2 million deal this offseason with $500k guaranteed. $1.3 million cap hit ($300,000 if released)
  • Age: 25 (26 on 10/2/2019)
  • 2018 playing time: 14 games (5 starts), 507 snaps (48.75% of offensive total) for Jacksonville Jaguars
  • Key 2018 statistics: 104 carries, 414 yards (4.0 YPC), 1 TD, 78 targets, 55 receptions, 487 yards (8.9 YPR), 4 TDs

A member of a bad Jaguars offense, Yeldon saw the most playing time of any Jacksonville running back but his stats don’t really reflect that. He was signed as an afterthought, late in free agency and just before the draft, but didn’t stop Buffalo from taking a running back in the selection meeting. Yeldon played zero special teams snaps a year ago, and if Buffalo keeps Gore and McCoy who similarly did not play on special teams, it’s hard to see them keeping a third RB who doesn’t play on any other units. There’s a logjam at this position, and Yeldon is squarely on the roster bubble.

Marcus Murphy

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed; $720,000 cap hit (0 dead cap if cut)
  • Age: 27 (28 on 10/3/19)
  • 2018 playing time: 11 games (1 start), 196 snaps (18.51% of offensive total); 79 ST snaps (18%)
  • Key 2018 statistics: 52 carries, 250 yards (4.81 YPC), 19 targets, 11 catches, 26 yards, 1 fumble, 63 touches, 4.4 YPT, 276 yards from scrimmage

The most efficient RB on the roster in 2018, Murphy took a limited number of carries and turned them into a solid season overall. While he was phased out of the return game in favor of late-season acquisitions Isaiah McKenzie and Victor Bolden Jr., he did a nice job in an extended showing at running back for the first time in his pro career. That showing wasn’t enough for Buffalo to bring in three players who appear to be ahead of him on the roster.

Senorise Perry

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed a one-year, $810k contract this offseason
  • Age: 27 (28 on 9/19/19)
  • 2018 playing time: 16 games (0 starts), 0 offensive snaps, 303 ST snaps (67.63%) for Miami Dolphins
  • Key 2018 statistics: 8 KR, 164 yards, 1 FR, 12 tackles for Miami Dolphins

With McCoy, Gore, Yeldon, and possibly Singletary all not playing special teams, Perry might make the roster as a core special teamer and never see the field on offense, as was the case in Miami a year ago. If he does end up making the roster, the more interesting conversation might be who he replaces.

Christian Wade

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed a three-year, $1.55 million contract ($495,000 cap hit)
  • Age: Turned 28 on 5/15/2019
  • 2018 playing time: 400 minutes in 5 starts for Wasps RFC
  • Key 2018 statistics: 0 tries for Wasps RFC

A member of the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program, Wade doesn’t count against the Bills roster currently. If he doesn’t make the 53-man roster, he has a free spot on the practice squad, as well. That’s where we expect him to land after making the transition from rugby to American football this offseason. He is supremely talented with excellent vision, but we don’t expect him to make Buffalo’s roster out of the gate.

Patrick DiMarco

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed; $2.15 million cap hit ($1 million dead cap if cut)
  • Age: Turned 30 on 4/30/19
  • 2018 playing time: 16 games (5 starts), 168 snaps (15.86% of offensive total); 233 ST snaps (53.08%)
  • Key 2018 statistics: 1 carry, 9 yards, 4 targets, 3 catches, 62 yards (20.7 YPR), 4 touches, 17,8 YPT, 71 yards from scrimmage

Buffalo’s fullback is also a special-teams stalwart, as that’s where he spent most of his time this past season. He was involved in the offense on a few passing plays, leaking out of the backfield on some wheel routes and connecting with Allen for two big gainers. His nine-yard rush was a career-high, and it brought his career total up to seven rushing yards. (Yes, he had negative-two yards rushing coming in to the 2018 season.)

Positional Outlook

Buffalo could head into the 2019 season with any three- or four-man combo of McCoy, Gore, Yeldon, Singletary, and Perry at running back and it wouldn’t surprise me. It is truly a wide open position based on age and salary. The only guaranteed roster lock of the bunch is Singletary, which adds so much speculation into the training camp battles. McCoy and Gore need to prove they haven’t lost a step. Yeldon has to earn his spot. Perry needs to show he’s valuable enough to earn one of the last couple spots.

Would it shock anyone if Buffalo went without a fullback in 2019?