Between his disappointing 2014 season and bitter divorce from Philadelphia, it can be hard to remember that LeSean McCoy was the rushing champ just two seasons ago.
Now with the Buffalo Bills, McCoy remains an unquestioned feature back, but in the realm of public perception, it seems as though he’s taken a backseat to the likes of Marshawn Lynch and Le’Veon Bell.
At 5Dimes, McCoy is currently +1200 to win the rushing title, placing him firmly in the second tier of contenders. Six running backs hold shorter odds, led by Lynch and Adrian Peterson at +600. And yet, while labeling McCoy a rushing title favorite would be a stretch, a few indicators suggest that he might be an undervalued commodity in this particular prop bet.
While the Philadelphia Eagles employ arguably the most running back friendly system in the league, moving to Buffalo allows McCoy to remain in one of the few remaining run-oriented systems. Rex Ryan’s Jets were always insistent on a ground-and-pound identity—during Ryan’s six seasons at the helm, the Jets ran the ball on 48.8 percent of offensive plays, the highest mark in the league over that span. The second-highest rushing play percentage? That belongs to the San Francisco 49ers (46.3 pecent), who employed Greg Roman as their offensive coordinator for four of those seasons. Conveniently, Ryan hired Roman to oversee the Bills offense. Coupled with Buffalo’s miserable quarterback situation, the Bills figure to rely heavily on their running backs.
And while Buffalo has employed a back-by-committee approach in recent years, McCoy should stand to earn a larger slice of the pie than Fred Jackson or C.J. Spiller did in previous seasons. Roman in particular leaned heavily on top back Frank Gore, giving his lead back a workload resembling what McCoy had under Chip Kelly the past two seasons.
Gore’s percentage of overall carries is lower than what McCoy had in Philly, but much of that difference stems from the Niners having Colin Kaepernick, who accounted for a much larger percentage of San Francisco’s carries than Nick Foles or Mark Sanchez did for the Eagles. We can confirm that by seeing that reserve running backs for both teams generated roughly the same percentage of carries. If Matt Cassel or EJ Manuel wins the starting quarterback job in Buffalo, McCoy figures to see his carry percentage remain right around the 60 percent range, based on Roman’s history.
So we know that McCoy should enjoy roughly the same quantity as other rushing title contenders like Lynch and Peterson. And at 27 years old, McCoy shouldn’t be facing the same questions about a long-term decline as the 30-year-old Peterson or 29-year-old Lynch. Indeed, while last year’s 4.2 yards per carry average matched McCoy’s lowest total since his rookie season, much of his woes stemmed from an injury-ravaged offensive line. Left tackle Jason Peters was the only player to survive the early carnage—Evan Mathis (seven games), Jason Kelce (four), Todd Herremans (nine) and Lane Johnson (four) all missed substantial time in the first half of the season, with the right guard Herremans ending up on injured reserve. In that time frame, McCoy was ineffective behind an O-line held together by spackle. Over the Eagles’ first eight games, McCoy averaged a paltry 3.9 yards per carry, 19th among 29 running backs with at least 80 attempts in that time. Conversely, when Philly’s offensive line returned to health over the final eight games, McCoy averaged 4.6 yards per attempt, a top-10 mark in that span.
The latter number happens to coincide with his 4.6 yards per carry career average, so it seems safe to assert that the “real” Shady McCoy was the elusive back who showed up in the latter half of the year, rather than the one who plodded through September and October. In Orchard Park, McCoy should have sufficient blocking compared to what he ran behind early in 2014. Buffalo’s offensive line doesn’t match up to what the Eagles were at their 2013 peak, but the Bills did make meaningful changes to a subpar unit. Last season’s offensive line ranked 26th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards metric, which uses regression analysis to assign credit or blame to offensive lines for running plays. Buffalo was particularly poor at springing its running backs past the line of scrimmage—the Bills ranked 30th in second-level yards, which measures how often a ball carrier gains five to 10 yards on a rushing play.
Since then, the Bills have jettisoned three starters. Left guard Chris Williams and right guard Erik Pears are off the team entirely, while right tackle Seantrel Henderson appears headed to the bunch following an underwhelming rookie season. In his place will go Cyrus Kouandjio, a 2014 second-round pick who excelled at Alabama and has apparently made huge strides after losing out to the seventh-round pick Henderson last year. There will also be a new guard tandem in Richie Incognito, who returns from a season in exile, and John Miller, a powerful rookie who the Bills took in the third round. In addition, expect the Bills to use much more of the fullback than they have recently, as Ryan and Roman both championed the position at their previous stops. Jerome Felton, who paved the way for Peterson’s 2,097-yard 2012 season, will now be McCoy’s lead blocker after signing in the offseason.
All this makes for circumstances much closer to what McCoy enjoyed in 2013. It’s curious that the public has decided to treat McCoy like a second-tier running back whose best days are in the rearview mirror. In a situation where he should receive a huge number of carries behind above-average blocking personnel, McCoy represents the strongest value on the rushing title board.