It’s somewhat interesting that we now find ourselves in an era of the game in which 900 rushing yards is a significant number for a running back, but it is. it’s true that even last season saw nine players reach 1000 rushing yards, and in fact a total of 16 gained at least 900, a slight improvement over 2017 when only 13 did, but the general trend is apparent.
And I think that’s reflected in the fact that Pro Football Focus recently produced a list of the players that they project to hit 900 rushing yards in 2019, and that list contained only nine names. Among the names on the list was 2018 Pro Bowl Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner. Writes Austin Gayle:
Stepping into Bell’s shoes in Pittsburgh last season, Conner exploded onto the NFL scene. He finished the year with an impressive 75.7 rushing grade and ranked tied for 14th in forced missed tackles per attempt (0.17) among qualifying backs. Injuries prevented him from finishing his breakout season on a high note, but all signs point to him taking advantage of a lead role in what should continue to be a high-scoring Pittsburgh offense. He is currently projected to rush for 955.3 yards and 6.6 touchdowns in 2019.
Conner averaged about 75 rushing yards per game last season, but of course he only played in 13 games. Had he maintained that average and played the entire season, he would have been able to produce around 1200 yards on the ground. He also averaged nearly a touchdown on the ground per game.
And, as Gayle notes, his ability to create missed tackles had a lot to do with that production. Some of his longer runs of the season were facilitated by his ability to produce his own yardage, not simply gaining that which was provided for him by his blockers, though he actually had better success forcing missed tackles off of receptions.
With that said, it’s still the case that he has work to do in improving his overall success rate per rush. He may have averaged 4.5 yards per carry, but there were still too many unsuccessful runs, and of course that falls on the blocking as well. But in contrast to times past, the passing game has been there the make up the difference on second or third down.
If you go back to the year 2000, there were 23 running backs you rushed for 1000 or more yards. There will always be some ebb and flow in the numbers based on whatever might happen during a season, including injuries and retirements—only 10 players reached 900 yards in 1980, for example—but suffice it to say that it was once the norm for over half the league’s teams to be represented in this group on average.