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Lots Of Faces Battle At Running Back
Many Backs With Similar Talents Clutter Deep Position.
by Steve Saslow
Wednesday May 17, 2000
The running back position may be the deepest on the staff despite the losses of Sam Gash and Thurman Thomas this off season. The problem may be the fact that most of the players have similar skills and the position may lack some identity this year. In the second of our series on position battles we will look at who will play this very talented position for the Bills this year.
Before figuring out whom will play where, we need to explore what type of offensive sets the club will play. With the release of Gash the club doesn't have a pure fullback on the roster which may lead to more one back sets. The club played in the I formation about 30% of the time last year and may play it less this year. Feature back Antowain Smith is outspoken in his preference for the single back set. Offensive coordinator Joe Pendry does like the flexibility a fullback gives you with the play action passing game. The only flaw in that logic is the fact that the club ran with the ball almost exclusively out of that set last year with the exception of a few passes to Gash. In mini camp Sheldon Jackson worked with the running backs and may fill Gash's fullback role as well as the role of an H-back and tight end. The other choices at fullback include fifth round draft pick Sammy Morris and undrafted free agents Josh Roth and Phillip Crosby. Crosby is more in the Gash-mold and Roth and Morris are both tweeners that can play halfback or fullback but don't have the ideal size for either position. This is a problem that most of the Bills backs have.
Morris and Roth aren't alone in being able to play both backfield positions. Last year's third down back and leading rusher Jonathan Linton was originally drafted as a fullback before moving to running back. Last year's third round pick Shawn Bryson was also drafted as a fullback but showed great running skills before his injury during training camp. The Bills find themselves in the enviable position of having many different options to be the third down back and possible fifth receiver in the spread offense. If Bryson can make it back all the way from his torn ACL, he will challenge Linton for that position and either may challenge Smith for the feature back role.
This is put up or shut up time for Smith. He has shown flashes of brilliance since being the Bills top draft choice in 1997 but hasn't done it on a consistent basis yet. Smith struggled most of last year with nagging injuries, first a groin muscle and then the turf toe. The few times Smith seemed healthy last year, he ran with authority which gives the Bills hope he can return to the 1,000 yard rusher he was two years ago.
If Smith does falter, or continues to be injury prone, Linton has proven he can step up and be a durable contributor. His running however seemed to drop off toward the end of last season, which may open the door for Bryson. Many feel if he can make it back to his pre-injury skills, he will eventually be the featured tailback. The feeling here is, Smith will be given everything he needs to succeed as the main back, while Bryson and Linton will share time as the third down back. In mini camp Bryson played ahead of Linton in the spread offense which may indicate he will be ahead of Linton on the depth chart. More likely it means they wanted to get an extended look at Bryson's recovery. Morris also has great receiving skills but he will be buried on the depth chart behind the other three backs. If he proves he can block like a true fullback and the Jackson experiment fails he may see some time in the two back set. The other holdover from last year is Lennox Gordon, he showed some talent as a runner in limited duty last year and Coach Phillips seems to like him. He is mainly just a runner and will have to fight to make the squad against more talented individuals.
The bottom line is the Bills have a good quantity of talent in the backfield unfortunately most of the players share the same strengths. Smith and Gordon are the only one-dimensional backs but Smith is the best runner of the group. That is why he will remain the go to back. The most interesting battle will be between Linton and Bryson. If Bryson can come all the way back, and it may take until about midseason for it to happen, then he may eventually overtake Linton on the depth chart. Morris will make the team for special teams duties, and Gordon may make it if they carry five backs (six if you count Jackson as a back). With a solid offensive line in front of them, this talented group can have a big year; it may not matter who plays which role.
Other Articles In This Series:
Third Wide Receiver Battle
Outside Linebackers Battle
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