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NFL Top 10 Series – Running Backs

 Our Top 10 series starts at the running back position. Over the past decade or so, running backs have become considerably less valuable for NFL teams, and less vital for elite status. If you don’t believe me, look at the … Continue reading →

Editor's Pick 07 Jul 2011, 16:14 IST

Which one of these workhorses will rank number one?

Our NFL Top 10 series starts at the running back position. Over the past decade or so, running backs have become considerably less valuable for NFL teams, and less vital for elite status. If you don’t believe me, look at the last 8 teams to play in the Super Bowl. Their feature backs include: Brandon Jackson, Rashard Mendenhall, Pierre Thomas, Joseph Addai, Willie Parker, Tim Hightower, Laurence Maroney, and Brandon Jackson. Except for Mendenhall (Roethlisberger and the passing game was the strength of the offense anyways), you won’t find any of those RBs on my top 10.

Elite running backs and a punishing ground game aren’t as necessary today as they were when Franco, Sweetness, and Emmitt were playing. Offenses around the league have evolved from yesteryear’s methodical, balanced approach featuring one workhorse running back, to a spread-out pass-first approach that capitalizes on receivers’ athleticism, utilizes the entire field, and requires the quarterback to take what the defense gives him with accurate passes.

Teams today can get away with a mediocre running game as long as they have an elite passing game and a quarterback named Brady, Manning, Brees, etc. On the other hand, having an elite running back doesn’t guarantee success like it might have in the past. In fact, the teams with my top 4 running backs didn’t even make the playoffs last season.

Another factor is defensive players are substantially bigger, faster, and stronger than in the days of the aforementioned HOF running backs. Today’s defensive players’ athleticism often negates running backs’ big play ability. However, despite the natural evolution of offensive schemes and defensive players, elite running backs still exist in the league today, and they are as impressive athletically as they have ever been.

Most of you will recognize the names on this list because they either made or broke your fantasy football team’s season. (Personally speaking, Adrian Peterson fumbling in week 16 against the Eagles meant that after going to bed thinking that I had won my league’s championship by one point that night, I woke up the next morning to find that ESPN had adjusted the score because of the fumble and I subsequently lost the championship by one point. Why do I waste my time?)

Factors influencing my list include the reality that the NFL has become a predominately pass-first league, meaning that running backs have to be able to catch the ball out of the backfield and pass protect when needed. I considered those specific attributes along with season to season consistency, and durability. Also, I didn’t kill guys who haven’t played on great teams throughout their career because that isn’t a reflection of their talent, but rather the players around them.

So without further ado, here is the list:

What he lacks in social media skills, he makes up for on the field.

10. Rashard Mendenhall Despite his breakthrough 2010 season, and the way he carried the load during Roethlisberger’ suspension, the lasting memory I have of Mendenhall is the Clay Mathews-caused fumbled that sealed the Steelers fate in the Super Bowl. This costly mishap has hopefully inspired Mendenhall to rectify his ball security during the off-season. On the bright side, his elite break-away speed and signature spin move make him a big play threat whenever he has the ball. The most encouraging improvement he made last season was his ability to convert in short yardage and red zone situations.

9. Frank Gore A workhorse running back when he is healthy, but has only stayed healthy through a full season once in his career. His most underappreciated attribute is his passing catching ability.  Important to note: in the 6 seasons that Gore has been in San Francisco he has had 6 different offensive coordinators. That means 6 different offenses to learn and 6 different play-calling philosophies to adjust to. All that and their best quarterback in six years has been Alex Smith. Other than turnover at coordinator and poor quarterback play, the only thing has been a constant in the San Francisco is Gore’s production and work ethic

8. Ray Rice The other Ray in Baltimore excels at catching the football ( having ranked in the top three in catches amongst running backs the last two seasons) and in pass protection. He is a shorter running back and posses lower body power and shiftiness to elude tacklers. His touchdown totals dipped last year not because of inability to score, but because of the numerous other options the Ravens have in the red zone.

7. Michael Turner In a league where even elite running backs often do not exceed 300 caries in one season, Turner led the league in the category two out of the last three seasons with 334 and 376 carries in 2010 and 2008 respectively. He is as big and compact as they come at running back (5’10, 244), and he uses his size to wear down the defense over the course of the game. The concern for Turner is will he be able to continue to carry such a workload, particularly with his physical style of play, and stay healthy?

6. Steven Jackson Physically, the ideal prototype who can do it all on the field. He is 6’2, 236 lb., can run over and around people, and caught 46 passes last season. Unfortunately, throughout his career, Jackson has had to deal with being the only player that the opposing defensive and their coordinator knows that they have to stop due to a lack of talent around him. With a quality team around him, he could rank at the top of this list. Hopefully, for Jackson’s sake, Sam Bradford will prove to be the real deal and offer a prolific passing game to compliment his ground work.

5. Jamaal Charles Once thought to be a track guy playing football,” Charles has proven that it doesn’t matter what you are if the defense cant catch you. He averaged an eye-popping 6.4 yards per carry last season, and gave offensive coordinator Charlie Weis no choice but to increase his workload as the season went on. He adds a dimension of speed to an otherwise lethargic Kansas City Offense, and sets up play action play calls for Dwayne Bowe.

Just a track guy no more.

4. Arian Foster He is probably the hardest player that I will have to assess and rank. He had the most productive season last year of any running back, but unlike otherhigh-ranking running backs, he doesn’t have more than just last season to solidify his resume. In five years, I would not be surprised if I looked at this list, and thought, “Wow, Arian Foster; how the heck did I have him as the fourth best running back in the league,” because he didn’t follow up last season with any seasons nearly as productive. Conversely, given how his cut-back style of running fits perfectly into Houston’s zone blocking scheme, I wouldn’t be surprised if I looked at this list and thought 4th overall too low.

3. Maurice Jones Drew The epitome of how a low center of gravity gives a running back an advantage. At 5’7, Pocket Hercules used his inherit advantage to finish 5th in the league in rushing despite only playing 14 games. MJD has a versatile game, being able to run inside or outside, and is one of the better pass blocker among running backs. He will be called upon to alleviate some of the pressure of rookie quarterback, Blaine Gabbert, this upcoming season.

Colgate spokesman?

2. Chris Johnson You already know about the record-setting 40 time, and on-field elusiveness. Like many of the other running backs on this list, CJ doesn’t have a lot of help to take the defense’s bull’s eye off of him. Despite defenses often stacking eight and nine guys in the box, Johnson averaged 4.3 yards per carry. Johnson will have to improve the pass protection aspect of his game, as well as continue to rack up yardage, as he will have to share the backfield with a project at quarterback, Jake Locker.

Some of you would have probably put Chris Johnson at number one, instead of Adrian Peterson, and I wouldn’t blame you. Like I said before, choices like these are a matter of personal preference. I prefer a bigger back that can run inside as well as outside, like Peterson, and if you prefer a smaller, quicker back, you aren’t wrong.

1. Adrian Peterson The best running back in the league still wears number 28 in purple. Rather than discussing his combination of speed, size, and athleticism, I want to talk about his lofty ranking of 3rd overall on the NFL Network’s list. Look, I like Adrian Peterson and his violent running style. (I really like it when he isn’t fumbling the ball.) But 3rd best player in the league is too high. I know he has greatly improved on it, but remember the NFC championship game against the Saints? Along with his three touchdowns in that game, Peterson put on the ball on the ground and cost his team dearly three times. The third best player in the league doesn’t literally and figuratively drop the ball in the biggest game of the season like that. Top 10? Sure. Third overall? Too high. However, regardless of where he ranks amongst every other player in the league, A.P.’s immense talent and statistical track record speak for themselves, and make him the top running back in the league.

Biggest Snubs: Darren McFadden and LeSean McCoy.

McFadden looked like he was about to become just another Raider first round draft pick bust after two lackluster seasons, but after breakout season 2010 season, McFadden is now one of the most promising backs in the league. He is a dual threat as a runner and pass catcher and displayed big play ability, having averaged 6.2 yards on rushes and catches combined.

McCoy, like McFadden, is a dual-threat running back with a promising future. He adds speed and big-play ability to an already dynamic Eagles offense. If you want to pick out flaws in his game,  he needs improve as a  pass blocker, and until the Eagles acquire a bigger back to do so, he needs to improve in short-yardage situations.

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