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State of the Buffalo Bills’ roster: Running backs

To add talent or promote from within?

Wild Card Round - Indianapolis Colts v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills had the NFL’s second-best offense by the most important measures in 2020. They were second in the league in both points scored and total yards, trailing only the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs, respectively. They were third overall in passing yards, third in passing touchdowns, and fourth in net yards per passing attempt.

Where they lagged behind, however, was in the running game. Buffalo ranked just 20th in both rushing yards and yards per rush on the season. Given that they were middle-of-the-pack in total rushing attempts (17th), it’s not terribly surprising that they were in the lower portion of the middle in total rushing yards. What is tough to swallow, though, is the team’s lower rank in average yards per carry.

Is that indicative of problems with the offensive line, problems with the running backs themselves, problems with the play design, or all of the above? We won’t answer that question directly here, but in our latest look at the State of the Buffalo Bills’ roster, we will take a look at the running back room, a group full of young players competing for touches in a pass-heavy attack.

Devin Singletary

Contract status for 2021: Signed; third year of rookie contract ($1,108,956 cap hit; $517,192 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 23 (24 on 9/3/2021)
Playing time: 16 games (16 starts), 591 offensive snaps (54.32 percent)
Key statistics: 156 carries, 687 rushing yards (4.4 YPC), two rushing touchdowns, 50 targets, 38 receptions, 269 receiving yards, one fumble

If Singletary’s rookie season was a pleasant surprise, his second year was a serious let down perhaps boosted by fantasy football-driven expectations. Singletary was expected to slide into a larger role with the departure of veteran Frank Gore, but he instead found himself in a similar situation as he was in 2019. Singletary combined for 180 touches in 12 games as a rookie; he had 194 touches in 16 games during the 2020 campaign. Most alarmingly, his yards-per-touch average dropped by half a yard, from 5.4 yards per touch in 2019 to 4.9 yards per touch in 2020. Making bold declarations without direct quotes is always a risky business, but given the coaching staff’s usage of Singletary over the last two seasons, it seems that they don’t trust him to be much more than a change-of-pace player out of the backfield. Sure, he still led the backfield in offensive snaps, but he was actually out-snapped by teammate Zack Moss in five of the rookie’s 13 games. Singletary showed improvement as a receiver, too, although his big drop in the AFC Championship Game is still fresh on everyone’s mind even though it was nearly a month ago. This third season is going to be a big one for Singletary. Is he someone who can consistently keep the offense ahead of the sticks?

Zack Moss

Contract status for 2021: Signed; second year of rookie contract ($1,048,255 cap hit; $685,812 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 23 (24 on 12/15/2021)
Playing time: 13 games, 359 offensive snaps (33 percent)
Key statistics: 112 carries, 481 yards (4.3 YPC), four rushing touchdowns, 18 targets, 14 receptions, 95 receiving yards, one receiving touchdown

Moss was drafted in the third round, and most felt he would fill the Frank Gore battering-ram role. Instead, there were points where it appeared the coaching staff actually preferred Moss to Singletary as the top back in the offense. Like Singletary, he isn’t a burner, but unlike Singletary, Moss is more of a straight-ahead runner who can do damage if the play’s designed hole opens quickly. With some struggles in run blocking, Moss and Singletary each had their effectiveness limited this year. While Moss led the Bills in broken tackles with 13, he actually rushed for far fewer yards after contact than Singletary did. Moss averaged 2.4 yards after contact while Singletary averaged 2.9 yards after contact. Moss ended the season on injured reserve after suffering a lower leg injury in the Wild Card game against the Indianapolis Colts. He had surgery and should be ready to go by the time training camp opens. One last note: Moss was benched against the San Francisco 49ers after muffing a handoff inside the ten-yard line. Since that play was a botched handoff, the fumble is charged to Josh Allen, not Moss. If you were looking for his fumble, that’s where it was.

T.J. Yeldon

Contract status for 2021: Unsigned; unrestricted free agent
Age: 27 (28 on 10/2/2021)
Playing time: Three games, 42 offensive snaps (3.86 percent)
Key statistics: 10 carries, 70 rushing yards (seven yards per carry), four targets, one reception, 22 receiving yards, one receiving touchdown, one fumble

The veteran once again made the Bills’ roster only to be a healthy scratch on game days for most of the season. Yeldon played well when called upon, though his issues with ball security cropped up yet again as a reminder of why he might not see more touches. The veteran saw only seven snaps in the playoffs against the Baltimore Ravens, but then appeared on 37 snaps in the AFC Championship Game the following weekend. Yeldon caught four passes for 41 yards against Kansas City, rushing three times for 15 yards as well. There’s a good chance that he isn’t re-signed, as he’ll probably want to go to a team where he’ll have more chances to play, but he’s the kind of lower-tier veteran whose market should be limited given the current financial environment. A reunion on a veteran’s-minimum contract isn’t out of the question.

Taiwan Jones

Contract status for 2021: Unsigned; unrestricted free agent
Age: 32 (33 on 7/26/2021)
Playing time: 13 games, 188 ST snaps (41.87 percent), four offensive snaps (.37 percent)
Key statistics: Six tackles, two targets

Buffalo used Jones exclusively on special teams for much of the season. The only snap of his four offensive snaps that I can remember is the one against the Denver Broncos, where it was quite clear that offensive coordinator Brian Daboll was trying quite hard to throw the ball to someone who hadn’t caught a touchdown pass so that the Bills could set an NFL record. Given Buffalo’s emphasis on special teams units, I’d wager that Jones is more likely to be re-signed than Yeldon is, though it wouldn’t be terribly surprising for both of them to walk this spring.

Antonio Williams

Contract status for 2021: Signed reserve/future contract on 1/26/2021 ($780,000 cap hit; $0 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 23 (24 on 10/22/2021)
Playing time: One game, 28 offensive snaps (2.57 percent)
Key statistics: 12 carries, 63 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns, one target, one reception, 20 receiving yards

The second of two practice-squad darlings at running back, Williams burst on to the scene in Buffalo’s blowout Week 17 victory over the Miami Dolphins. The entirety of Williams’s stat line came in the second half of that 54-24 blowout, so some have discussed that the game situation (“meaningless game”) might discount the effort. While the game may have had next to no impact on Buffalo, it meant everything to the Dolphins, as they knew that they could be eliminated with a loss. Williams was running behind a backup offensive line with a backup quarterback, and he still averaged over five yards per carry against a defense that did not allow a single 100-yard rusher on the season. Williams’s total in one half was actually the ninth-highest total the Dolphins allowed in a single game last year. For a guy who had zero expectations, he certainly came out and showed that he belonged in his first taste of professional action.

Christian Wade

Contract status for 2021: Signed reserve/future contract on 1/26/2021 ($850,000 cap hit; $0 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 29 (30 on 5/15/2021)
Playing time: N/A
Key statistics: N/A

Everyone’s favorite practice squad player is no longer protected as an “extra” member of the practice squad, so if he sticks with the team this year, it will be to contribute and not for developmental purposes. Wade has breakaway speed and tremendous athleticism, but he’d have to show a true understanding of the nuances of the position (protections, running routes, etc.) to earn a spot on the 53-man roster. Anything is possible, and I love an underdog, but to expect more than a feel-good story from Wade is asking for a let down.

Devonta Freeman

Contract status for 2021: Unsigned; unrestricted free agent
Age: 28 (29 on 3/15/2021)
Playing time: Five games (four starts), 136 offensive snaps (all with the New York Giants)
Key statistics: 54 carries, 172 rushing yards (3.2 YPC), one rushing touchdown, ten targets, seven receptions, 58 receiving yards

Freeman signed with Buffalo’s practice squad in January as a veteran emergency option if the team were to experience major injuries and/or a COVID-19 outbreak. While they did lose Moss to injury, they did not have COVID issues, so Freeman did not appear in a game with the Bills. He did not sign a reserve/futures deal, which is unsurprising, as most of the players who do sign that kind of contract are ones without significant NFL playing experience. Freeman will be looking for work this spring, and it probably won’t come in Buffalo.

The Bills have options here. Do you try to add a dynamic burner type (Travis Etienne at No. 30 in the 2021 NFL Draft)? Do you try to sign a free agent? Do you retain someone like Yeldon and allow him to compete with Williams and Wade? Speaking of Wade, has the rugby star-turned-American footballer learned enough of the game to make the 53-man roster? Did Williams do enough in one half of one football game to position himself as a front-runner for the third running back gig? History suggests that the Bills will keep two running backs on the roster in addition to Moss and Singletary, and the coaching staff would prefer that one of those backs can contribute on special teams.

Another question the team needs to answer involves assigning some blame for the running game’s overall lack of success in 2020. Was it the running backs and their lack of vision? Or was it something more. For what it’s worth, general manager Brandon Beane said during press conferences that it wasn’t all the backs’ fault, so he is at least publicly showing faith in the top two backs on the current depth chart. The Bills will add players here. The kind of resources they invest in the position will tell us more than any sound bites ever could.