A few decades ago, an average football team often played with a “ground-and-pound” offensive mentality. This strategy was simple: run the ball down your opponents throats and dominate them on the defensive side of the football.
While the game of football has transformed itself into more of a pass-happy sport, having a balanced offensive that includes a strong running and passing game is essential to success on the offensive side of the football.
The San Diego Fleet appear to be strong from a passing perspective, as quarterback Josh Johnson is ready to solidify himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the league. The team, however, will look to pair Johnson with a solid running back that can take pressure off the 32-year-old’s back.
The Fleet currently have seven running backs on their roster. None of them, however, has more NFL experience than 26-year-old Bishop Sankey. Drafted by the Tennessee Titans with the 54th pick in the 2014 NFL draft, Sankey started nine games in his rookie season. On 152 carries, Sankey ran for 569 yards and two touchdowns while adding 133 receiving yards on 18 catches. Following a fairly successful rookie campaign, the former Washington Husky saw a significant decrease in playing time during his sophomore season. On 47 carries, Sankey ran for 193 yards and one touchdown while adding 139 receiving yards and one touchdown on 14 catches.
After being released by the Titans as part of final roster cuts in 2016, Sankey has failed to appear in an NFL game and has been a part of the Chiefs, Patriots, and Vikings’ practice squads. Coming out of college, Sankey was viewed by most draft experts as a phenomenal athlete and as a capable NFL running back. He was the top performer at the combine in four different events and was the first running back taken in the 2014 draft. Sankey is the most talented running back on this roster and should find himself at the top of the team’s depth chart. If he performs well with the Fleet, the 26-year-old may be able to find himself back on an NFL roster to start the 2019 season.
Other than Sankey, Terrell Watson is the only other running back on the Fleet with actual NFL game experience. A standout at Azusa Pacific College, Watson signed with the Cincinnati Bengals after going undrafted in the 2015 NFL draft. Watson found himself on seven different NFL rosters, but only saw playing time with the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers. In his short-lived NFL career, the 25-year-old ran the ball 14 times for 36 yards and a touchdown while catching his lone target for five yards.
Watson is your prototypical power back, standing at 6’2″ and 240 pounds. With presumed starter Bishop Sankey primarily known for being a shifty runner, Watson can come in on short-yard or goal line situations and add another dimension to the team’s running game. While it is unlikely, strong production in the AAF may allow him to garner some sort of attention from an NFL team.
Behind Sankey and Watson on the theoretical depth chart is Ja’Quan Gardner. A three-year starter at Humboldt State University, Gardner signed with the San Fransisco 49ers after going undrafted in the 2017 NFL draft. After spending the entire 2017 season on Injured Reserve, the 49ers signed Gardner to a three-year deal on August 28th of 2018. Unfortunately for him, the team decided to release him just three days later and he was not picked up by another team.
Gardner was a standout in college, running for 5,495 yards and 72 touchdowns on 880 careers throughout his collegiate career. As a sophomore, Gardner ran for 2,266 yards and 25 touchdowns as he absolutely dominated opponents. Similarly to Terrell Watson, Gardner’s dominance at a small school did not grab the attention of many NFL teams at all.
Standing at 5’7″ and 205 pounds, Gardner is a very interesting player for the Fleet. Gardner’s size is traditionally seen in agile running backs, but his frame is that of a power back. While he is nowhere near as talented as Tarik Cohen, his size and frame are easily comparable. The 24-year-old could see some sort of playing time with the Fleet, but expect him to operate primarily as a special teamer in this first season.
Former Rutgers running back Paul James rounds out the four “true” running backs on the Fleet’s roster. Although he has no professional experience, James was a solid contributor during his time at Rutgers. Starting his football career out as a walk-on, James ran for 1,810 yards and 19 touchdowns on 323 careers while adding 267 receiving yards and two touchdowns on 21 catches. Even though he was a decent player in college, I do not see James surpassing either of the three running backs mentioned above on the team’s depth chart.
The other three running backs on the team’s roster have to come with an asterisk next to their name. Daniel Marx and Jahleel Pinner are listed as running backs, but actually play the fullback position. If head coach Mike Martz does elect to use a fullback in his offense, Daniel Marx may be the first one in line for playing time. Marx was the lead blocker for Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love at Stanford during their Heisman campaigns. He could turn out to be a pivotal piece for the Fleet’s running game.
The final running back listed on the Fleet’s roster is former Washington Husky Greg Ducre. Ducre is an interesting player because he has never actually played running back before. For his entire collegiate career, and brief NFL stint, Ducre played the cornerback position. His incredible athleticism, however, is what made him make the transition to running back.
At the 2014 NFL combine, Ducre ran a 4.33 40-yard dash and only stands at 5’10”, giving him the prototypical build of an agile running back. While this may be a longshot, Ducre’s sheer athleticism could surprise the coaching staff and they may elect to use him in certain situations.
As of now, I would have to guess that Bishop Sankey will be the starting running back come opening day. He should be backed up by Terrell Watson, but do not be surprised if Ja’Quan Gardner takes over as the team’s second back. If these three players are the ones getting most of the carriers, the Fleet have themselves a balanced running attack that should pair well with their passing offense.