Last week, I wrote an article about the TE position's continued evolution and how I think it could soon overtake WR in the Eagles' offense under Chip Kelly. I felt the natural followup was a discussion of what the future holds for the RB position. We already know there will be a ton of snaps, with more carries to go around. LeSean McCoy has already said as much, though he'll still be the lead back. With Kelly, I wonder: Just like we're seeing the growth of TE/WR hybrids, could we see a similar revolution take place in the backfield?
First, the reality of the situation. LeSean McCoy will be on the roster through the 2014 season due to the "dead money if cut" structuring of his contract. Whether he remains with the team beyond then (he has an $11.95M cap number in 2015 but "only" $3.4M in dead money) will hinge upon his on- and off-field exploits. While Shady hasn't been arrested for high-profile crimes, some of his off-field behavior has been, let's say, less than savory, and who knows how the organization views him as a result. McCoy is my favorite player to watch, but I figure 2015 will be his last season in an Eagles uniform. He'll be 27, with seven seasons of NFL wear-and-tear, and likely exiting his prime (with just $1.7M of dead money remaining total). After McCoy, there's Bryce Brown. While we're all enticed by Bo Jackson Redux's raw talent and have high hopes for him, we still have to wait and see if that potential is realized and whether he can be an integral piece of the future. He needs to mature as a runner and learn to trust blocking schemes, instead of trying to use his speed to bounce outside all the time. That holding onto the ball thing needs to improve, too. Lastly, I've been a Chris Polk fan since his college days at Washington and hope he gets a chance in this offense, but he's hardly someone the team can bank on right now.
Chip Kelly values versatility above all else. He wants malleable players who can play multiple positions and shift around from snap to snap. LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown, even though they have pass-catching ability, are backfield-specific RBs. Very rarely, if ever, will either be initially lined up split wide in the formation pre-snap. Brian Westbrook, on the other hand, now there is the quintessential Chip Kelly player. I know what most of you might be thinking: I'm writing this article with De'Anthony Thomas in mind. True, I'm a fan of "Black Momba," but he's not the only college football player who possesses that skill set. There's also, for example, Kent State's Dri Archer. The issue with players like Thomas and Archer, however, is that they don't possess the body type necessary to be feature RBs who can withstand NFL-level punishment on a consistent basis. Both are lightning fast home-run threats, but neither is a 20-touch-per-game bell cow. The NFL already boasts similar players who fill that niche. At one point, people -- including me -- thought Dexter McCluster would set the league on fire as a RB-WR hybrid. It hasn't happened, not with him (... yet?). But I don't think that means it can't happen more regularly with other players at some point.
To expand my thinking further, I bring up the example of, who else, Colt Lyerla, Oregon TE-WR-RB extraordinaire. He was even dubbed "Mr. Versatility" by Sports Illustrated during his senior year at Hillsboro (Ore.) High School, where he played RB and rushed for 1,519 yards (plus 352 yards receiving) with 25 touchdowns. Lyerla is a TE now, but he did have 14 carries last season and flashed legit skills as a ball carrier (vision, burst, power) in Oregon's 49-0 drubbing of Arizona. The first handoff (well, sort of) comes at the 6:10 mark of the video below, while Lyerla's most impressive runs come at 6:27 and 6:40.
Colt Lyerla vs Cal and Arizona 2012 (via JmpasqDraftjedi)
Of course, Lyerla is a total freak; the exception, not the rule. Unlike De'Anthony Thomas and Dri Archer, he does have the build to withstand NFL punishment on a consistent basis. Lyerla is a unique breed, and there aren't many (any?) players out there who can fulfill such a multi-faceted role. I don't see the TE-WR-RB trend becoming prevalent, but I still think it's a cool concept that could -- and should -- continue to emerge as these types of athletes do. Lyerla won't be a full-time RB in college or the pros, but mixing him into the backfield and handing him the ball three (or more) times per game should happen. Hop in my fantasy time machine and fast forward to a few years from now: The Eagles have drafted Lyerla and Kelly calls three consecutive snaps where his old-new toy lines up at TE, WR, then RB, ripping off chunks of yardage each time.
I don't want to go off the deep end entirely, but I am trying to envision what Chip Kelly's NFL offense will look like. We know there will be harmony of pro and college concepts, but to what extent? Going through Oregon's box scores during Kelly's time as head coach, he did typically adhere to a more traditional rationing of carries -- a classic feature back got the bulk of the work and was complemented by a host of other ball carriers. Even so, I'm intrigued by the thought of a rotation of all-around RBs in place of a single, steady starter who gets a majority of the carries. Perhaps it's an idea that appeals to Chip, as well.