Quick Trivia: Which player with at least 35 carries — small sample size, yes, but just humor me — owned the highest YPC average in the NFL over 2013? Rushing title winner LeSean McCoy? Not quite. Scrambling QB-extraordinaire Colin Kaepernick? Wrong again. Believe it or not, it was Minnesota Vikings‘ career backup Toby Gerhart, averaging 7.9 yards every time he touched the rock.
Wait, this can’t be right. The same Toby Gerhart who’s started six career games and never eclipsed 110 carries in a single season? The Gerhart analysts said wouldn’t succeed in the NFL because his “burst through the hole is just adequate” and he “doesn’t possess the speed scouts like to see for the next level”? Yes, one and the same.
With his season-long run coming on a 41-yard touchdown rumble in Week 14 against the Baltimore Ravens, Gerhart’s stats weren’t skewed by any uncharacteristically long runs that caused his final numbers to be misleading. No, Gerhart produced on a consistent basis throughout 2013.
With his name being thrown around as one of the top ten backs available in this year’s free agency pool, Gerhart’s chance to become more than simply Adrian Peterson‘s insurance plan is now or never. He’s compiled a fairly impressive resume during his tenure in Minnesota and would be an upgrade for several teams in the league.
Glancing at Gerhart’s season, it’s quite clear that he benefited from his status as Peterson’s change-of-pace back. Defenses routinely stacked the box with eight men when Peterson was on the field, but this was rarely the case for the former Stanford Cardinal back. Most played for the pass which provided him with more-than-desirable running room.
But, though his efficiency spiked in 2013, Gerhart has been an effective back since entering the league in 2010. He averages 4.7 YPC — Peterson averages 5.0 — with his best year coming in 2011. He started five game in lieu of the injured Peterson, finishing the year with over 500 rushing yards while gaining 4.9 yards per touch. It remains the sole look we’ve gotten at Gerhart as a potential starter thus far, and he appeared ready for the challenge.
Gerhart doesn’t possess any certain tool that separates him from the rest of the pack; he’s a hard-nosed, downhill runner with unremarkable speed. He’s simply a football player through and through. The former Heisman finalist is a difficult tackle, isn’t afraid of contact and has an outstanding nose for the first-down marker. So where does Gerhart have the best chance to succeed in 2014?
Likely with his former college teammate Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts, actually. With Donald Brown entering free agency and Trent Richardson clearly not the back we thought, Gerhart’s services could certainly be used for an Indy squad that’s on the verge of becoming elite. Finding himself on the better end of a timeshare with Richardson isn’t an unfathomable situation for Gerhart next season.
Indy is just a few pieces away from legitimate Super Bowl contenders now; they don’t have the luxury to groom a young back for the future. In the Colts’ pass-first offense, Gerhart will continue to find space between tackles and maintain the efficiency that he provided in Minnesota. Indianapolis desires a tough, vertical runner to complement Luck and the team’s pass attack while Gerhart is looking to play for a serious contender with a capable offensive line. It’s a match made in heaven.
Gerhart should be an inexpensive acquisition for whoever ends up with him — likely in the $1 million per year range. At the very least, he should fall into the backfield of a team that plans on utilizing him as more than just a reserve, possibly as part of the aforementioned timeshare. But if Gerhart does wind up with a job all to himself, expect him to become a borderline top-15 back for 2014.