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Buffalo Bills training camp roster preview: Running backs

What does the running back room look like heading into 2021?

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 in this article. But in our latest look at the State of the Buffalo Bills’ roster heading into training camp, 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)
2020 Playing time: 16 games (16 starts), 591 offensive snaps (54.32 percent)
Key 2020 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 months 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)
2020 Playing time: 13 games, 359 offensive snaps (33 percent)
Key 2020 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 in 2020, 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.

Taiwan Jones

Contract status for 2021: Signed a one-year, $1.75 million contract this offseason with $700,000 in dead cap
Age: 32 (33 on 7/26/2021)
2020 Playing time: 13 games, 188 ST snaps (41.87 percent), four offensive snaps (0.37 percent)
Key 2020 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. He’s a core special teamer and is likely to make the roster for that reason.

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)
2020 Playing time: One game, 28 offensive snaps (2.57 percent)
Key 2020 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: Turned 30 on 5/15/2021
2020 Playing time: N/A
Key 2020 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 was granted an extra year of protection under the International Pathway Program due to COVID-19. 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. He’s likely to maintain his spot as the extra member of the practice squad in 2021.

Matt Breida

Contract status for 2021: Signed a one-year, $1.05 million contract this offseason with $140,000 dead cap to cut
Age: Turned 26 on 2/28/2021
2020 Playing time: 12 games (1 start) for Miami Dolphins; 151 offensive snaps (14.15 percent) and 80 special teams snaps (17.66 percent)
Key 2020 statistics: 59 rushes, 254 yards, 9 receptions, 96 yards, 2 fumbles for Miami

The only addition at the position this offseason, Breida has a really good chance to make the roster this fall as the third running back, replacing T.J. Yeldon. If he does make the roster, it’s likely he is inactive on game days like Yeldon was. He’s had starting experience in the league but is on his third team in three years.

Players who left this offseason

  • T.J. Yeldon (Free agent)
  • Devonta Freeman (Free agent)

A lot, and I mean a lot, of Bills fans wanted to add RB Travis Etienne in the 2021 NFL Draft but it wasn’t meant to be. The speeder was picked before Buffalo was on the clock. The reason I bring it up is so many people think the missing piece to the Bills’ offense is the running back position. With consistency from Moss, Singletary, or both, the Bills could be unstoppable.

With two third-round picks spent at the position, they are clearly invested in talent at running back. History suggests that the Bills will keep two 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.

Despite saying the team needed to be more consistent running the ball, general manager Brandon Beane did little to address that sentiment with personnel. The same top two running backs are expected to receive the lion’s share of carries and the same top six offensive linemen are returning.