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While many of you have already been expending time and energy planning your 2018 rosters, NFL front office personnel have also been operating behind the scenes, before the proverbial floodgates open in the form of their own roster-altering decisions.

But for now, there is sufficient information to provide an initial forecast on which running backs should be the beneficiaries of rising snap counts this season, along with other rushers whose opportunities will be reduced. Using Football Outsiders snap count data, the discussion will not involve backs like David Johnson, Dalvin Cook, and Chris Carson, who are obvious candidates for a massive increase in usage after they missed a combined 39 games due to injury.

Instead, these snap count risers and fallers will be projected based upon performance, and impending changes in the composition of their teams’ backfields. Without further ado, let's look at running back snap count risers and fallers to watch in 2018.

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Snap Count Risers

Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

Those of you who have wondered how many yards and touchdowns Henry could stockpile if he was extricated from the ceiling suppressing time share with DeMarco Murray, should soon receive your answer. Henry only reached 40 snaps twice in 2017, while being allotted an overall total of 411 (40%). However, he still outgained Murray during the year (744/659), despite having fewer attempts (176/184). In fact, only eight backs accumulated more snaps than Murray's 647  last season. But the 29-year old finished with his lowest output since 2012, while averaging just 3.6 YPC.

The Titans can save $6.5 million by releasing Murray, whose departure would clear a cavernous path for Henry to flourish under new OC Matt LaFleur. The caveat to this projection, is that Henry’s sizable workload is based upon the premise that Tennessee will secure a complementary back in the draft. Rather than obtaining a formidable competitor who could impede Henry from approaching 600 snaps.

 

Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

Mixon began last season as an undisputed member of the highly anticipated class of rookie running backs. But as Kareem Hunt, Alvin Kamara, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey delivered favorably on the investment that was undertaken by their owners, anyone who drafted Mixon experienced lingering frustration due to his seven game time share with Jeremy Hill. That contributed mightily to Mixon’s discouraging season long counts (385/40%), as 32 backs accumulated more snaps. However, he was allotted a larger workload from Weeks 8-12 (35 snaps per game/67%) before concussion and ankle issues negatively impacted him for Cincinnati’s next four games. This provides legitimate reason for optimism that Mixon’s count will sustain the desirable level that he finally attained prior to his injuries.

While Giovani Bernard will confiscate some snaps, his 2017 total (486) was built largely with his elevated workload before Mixon finally secured the trust of his coaching staff, combined with the sequence in which Mixon was injured. Plus, the unwanted snaps that Hill pilfered should also be earmarked for Mixon.

 

Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers

After a rib injury forced Ty Montgomery from the lineup in Week 4, Jones proceeded to rush for 297 yards (99 YPG) in Weeks 5-7, while averaging 78% percent of Green Bay's snaps. However, despite averaging at least 6.6 YPC in two of those contests, Jones was relegated to a diminished role in Week 9, jettisoned to the sidelines in Weeks 10-12 (sprained MCL), and only surpassed 11% of the snaps once during the final eight games. Jamaal Williams functioned as the lead runner from Weeks 10-17, and ultimately led the team in rushing for the season (556). However, that was just 108 more yards than Jones manufactured, despite Williams being allotted 72 more carries. The explosive Jones easily assembled the more impressive YPC average (5.5/3.6). Plus, Williams and Montgomery combined for a grand total of two runs of 20+ yards, while Jones accomplished it six times.

Jones appears capable of thriving with a larger workload on a sustained basis, even though Williams will commandeer touches. But Williams’ snap count will be diminished significantly from the 76.5% that he averaged in Weeks 10-17, while Montgomery appears destined to operate primarily as a wide receiver.

 

Snap Count Fallers

Lamar Miller, Houston Texans

Only three backs accumulated more snaps than Miller last season (757), but there was a dearth of positive news regarding his production. He only finished 16th overall with 888 rushing yards, his career low 3.7 YPC was concerning, and he could only manage 3.4 or less in six different contests. Miller also manufactured just three touchdowns, which was his lowest total since 2013. Plus, after Miller played on 74% of Houston's offensive snaps during the team’s first 13 games, the team's reliance upon him appeared to wane last December. As that number plummeted to 39% from Weeks 15-17.

Miller will only be 27 when the season begins. But after averaging 253 carries in 2016-2017 (268/238), it is highly unlikely that the Texans will entrust him with that level of usage again. Nor will any other team should Houston release him. This should result in D'Onta Foreman's 21% snap count elevating substantially, whenever he fully recovers from the torn Achilles that he suffered last November. Otherwise, the Texans could easily add another back to function in tandem with Miller, if Foreman cannot contribute when the season begins.

 

Alex Collins, Baltimore Ravens

To be clear, the concern regarding Collins is that the Ravens have not exhibited an unwavering commitment toward utilizing him as the unquestioned early down back this season. Not only are Javorius Allen and Danny Woodhead still under contract, but the possible reemergence of Kenneth Dixon supplies yet another potential component within the stable of Baltimore runners.

Collins did finish 11th among all rushers last season (973 yards), while averaging just under 16 attempts per game from Weeks 5-17. Still, the coaching staff was not comfortable allowing him to register a snap count beyond 30% during Baltimore's first seven games, and he did not secure the starting role until Week 6. Even though Collins ultimately played 48% of the snaps during the last nine games, Allen also remained involved in 43% of the snaps throughout the year. Collins has displayed his talent as a runner, but the extent to which the Ravens will allow him to unleash it remains unclear.

 

Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers

While Stewart has never replicated his career-best numbers from 2009 (1,133 yards/10 touchdowns/5.1 YPC), he has remained an integral component with Carolina’s offense for 10 seasons. But he has become expendable entering the final year of his contract, due to his uninspiring output in 2017, and the unwavering emergence of Christian McCaffrey. Stewart performed during 38% of Carolina’s snaps last season, and only manufactured 680 yards. He also averaged just 3.4 YPC, while failing to surpass that season-long average in nine of his 16 games. Also, his six touchdowns were generated in just four games, with three scores occurring in Week 14 alone.

Meanwhile, the multidimensional McCaffrey led the team with 80 receptions, and his 113 targets paced all running backs. His three most productive outings as a rusher (all 62+) occurred during the Panthers final eight contests. Plus, McCaffrey’s usage as a runner should expand under Norv Turner, which will only hasten Stewart’s declining importance. Even if Carolina releases him, it is difficult to envision Stewart procuring the 407 snaps that he attained last season with a new team.

 

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