Running back is my least favorite position in professional sports. It’s ironic I say that as a Philadelphia Eagles fan because Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy have been two of the most exciting players to watch over the last decade. Despite those two players, I don’t like running backs.
It’s not that I am a pass-happy guru or that I picked Chris Johnson or Jamaal Charles in fantasy football and got screwed over. I say that about running backs because I think for the majority of teams, a great running back is unnecessary, overrated, inconsistent and too injury-prone. Is there another job in all of sports that ends a career as quickly as being an NFL running back?
Ronnie Brown was the second overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft, and he’s completely and totally washed up. That was just six years ago. Joseph Addai was picked five years ago, and he’s working his way out of Indianapolis. Rashard Mendenhall was picked just three years ago and at the rate Mike Tomlin uses his backs, he will be done by 2013.
Look at the Pro Bowl running backs from the 2008 season: Thomas Jones, Chris Johnson, Ronnie Brown, Marshawn Lynch, Adrian Peterson, Michael Turner and Clinton Portis. Portis is out of football. Jones and Brown are on their NFL deathbeds. Johnson is washed up or maybe just weighed down from that $53 million wallet.
AP’s injury may permanently cripple his NFL career. Lynch has revitalized his career in Seattle, although the Seahawks would be absolutely downright foolish to extend him. Turner is the only guy who is still a great back, and that’s probably because he was essentially a first-year starter in 2008.
The way football is designed these days, you really just need a great quarterback. The running game is overrated. The three hottest teams in the NFL (Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints) have just one player in the top 30 of my rankings. The Packers have no one else in the top 50. They didn’t have a great running game last year when they won the Super Bowl, and they still don’t have a great running game.
Even when you have a great running back, he can be rendered ineffective in the blink of an eye. The Houston Texans thought they had a steal with Steve Slaton, and then he was done, just like that, so enter Arian Foster. The Steelers ran Willie Parker until the wheels came off, they’re doing it again with Mendenhall and they’ll do it with the next guy.
The Kansas City Chiefs went right from Priest Holmes to Larry Johnson without missing a beat. Same with the Eagles from Westbrook to McCoy or the Bills with Willis McGahee to Lynch to Fred Jackson and then likely to C.J. Spiller.
Anyway, my top-50 list factors in all the essential components: running, receiving skills, the ability to block, staying injury-free, but most importantly, being consistently effective. I don’t want someone who averages 5.4 yards per carry one year, then 3.2, then back up to 5.8. I have no idea what I’m going to get from him. I like a guy who can be counted on year after year to produce (well, as much as that really works for running backs).
Enough ranting—here is my list. Feel free to disagree.
50. Kendall Hunter, San Francisco 49ers
He had a pretty good season as Frank Gore’s backup and will likely be the starter in the future for the San Francisco 49ers.
49. Stevan Ridley, New England Patriots
He’s one of five backs who saw time on the New England Patriots. Stevan Ridley saw limited action but he averaged 5.1 yards per carry on 87 rushes.
48. Tim Hightower, Washington Redskins
He had a strong season with Arizona in 2010 but hasn’t seen the same success with Washington in 2011. Tim Hightower’s yards per carry were down a full yard (4.8 to 3.8), and he ended the season on injured reserve.
47. Lance Ball, Denver Broncos
He combined with Tim Tebow and Willis McGahee to give the Denver Broncos arguably the best running game in the NFL. Lance Ball averaged 4.2 yards per carry. He struggled in his only game as the feature back (30 carries for 96 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs) but has done well when used sparingly.
46. Cadillac Williams, St. Louis Rams
Cadillac Williams has never been the same player he was as a rookie back in 2005 (1,178 yards), but he has been a serviceable backup for the last five seasons. His yards per carry were at an all-time high (4.1) with the St. Louis Rams.
45. Roy Helu, Washington Redskins
With Tim Hightower’s injury and Ryan Torain’s ineffectiveness, Roy Helu became the feature back in Washington. Helu rushed for 100 yards three straight weeks late in the season, and he averaged four catches and nearly 30 receiving yards out of the backfield.
44. Daniel Thomas, Miami Dolphins
Daniel Thomas broke into the league with a 107-yard game in Week 1 and 95-yard game the following week, although he didn’t come close to matching that production since. Thomas is still looking for his first NFL score on the ground.
43. Toby Gerhart, Minnesota Vikings
He may get his chance to start full-time next year, considering the awful injury Adrian Peterson just suffered. Toby Gerhart has been AP’s backup for two years, and he’s done well, with a career 4.5-yards-per-carry average.
42. Danny Woodhead, New England Patriots
He broke onto the national scene with the New England Patriots in 2010, rushing for 547 yards and five touchdowns on 5.6 yards per carry while also serving as a receiver out of the backfield. His role was much more limited this year, but Bill Belichick still uses Woodhead to squeeze every last yard out of him.
41. Donald Brown, Indianapolis Colts
This is the year Donald Brown is finally starting to prove his value as a first-round draft pick. Brown followed up two miserable seasons with the Indianapolis Colts (207 carries, 778 yards, five TDs) by becoming the featured back. If he can maintain his 4.8 yards per carry, he can be a key part of this running game in the future.
40. C.J. Spiller, Buffalo Bills
Buffalo fans have to be ecstatic at the year C.J. Spiller had, especially after the miserable rookie season he had in 2010 after being the 10th overall draft pick. Spiller was thrust into the starting role when Fred Jackson broke his leg, and Spiller averaged 5.2 yards per carry and scored four touchdowns in the last six games.
39. Isaac Redman, Pittsburgh Steelers
He’s a power back and a good fit for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Isaac Redman averaged 4.4 yards per carry on 110 rushes. With Rashard Mendenhall’s injury, the Steelers will likely have to rely on Redman in the playoffs, and he’s a good enough backup that they should be OK.
38. Jahvid Best, Detroit Lions
Concussions may be the NFL death of Jahvid Best, as he finished 2011 on IR. Best is a good back when healthy, but that’s the big question.
37. Jackie Battle, Kansas City Chiefs
He took over as the starter in Kansas City when Jamaal Charles went down with an injury and Thomas Jones was ineffective. Jackie Battle broke out with a 119-yard output against the Indianapolis Colts and rushed for 597 yards and a pair of scores for the season.
36. Knowshon Moreno, Denver Broncos
He better quickly prove that he’s worth the first-round pick the Denver Broncos used on him in the 2009 NFL draft or he’s on his way out. Knowshon Moreno rushed for just 179 yards in seven games before a torn ACL put him on IR.
35. Felix Jones, Dallas Cowboys
Same with Knowshon Moreno, Felix Jones—a former first-round pick himself—had better quickly prove his value to the Dallas Cowboys, especially with rookie DeMarco Murray looming. Jones has breakaway speed but lacks the ability to be an every-down back.
34. Michael Bush, Oakland Raiders
He’s spent four years as a serviceable backup in Oakland, and injuries to Darren McFadden this year enabled Michael Bush to rush for 977 yards and seven touchdowns in 2011, although Bush did fade down the stretch.
33. Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints had to be hoping for more than what they got from Mark Ingram when they made him their first-round selection this past year, but fortunately for Ingram, one year doesn’t make a career. Ingram’s numbers: 474 rushing yards, 3.9 yards per carry and five TDs.
He ran for his first-ever 1,000-yard season, finishing with 1,054. Shonn Greene broke out in the 2009 AFC playoffs, rushing for 263 yards and two touchdowns in a two-game span. He has since taken over the starting job from LaDainian Tomlinson and did well in a career-high 253 carries in 2011.
Greene probably won’t ever be a Pro Bowl back, but he’s a solid enough option for the New York Jets. He wasn't the reason the team missed the playoffs this year.
The New England Patriots haven’t had a Pro Bowl running back since the days of Corey Dillon, and that was just for a few seasons. BenJarvus Green-Ellis gives them the most complete back they’ve had in a while though.
His numbers this year (667 rushing yards, 3.7 YPC, 11 TDs) aren’t as good as last season (1,008, 4.4, 13), but his best trait may be that he finds the end zone. He’s been a good blocker and maybe his most impressive accomplishment is that in four seasons and 528 career touches, he’s never fumbled the football.
He’s the answer to a trivia question: Name the only running back to have rushed for 1,000 yards each of the last three seasons without making the Pro Bowl.
Cedric Benson was a colossal bust with Chicago after going fourth overall in the 2005 NFL draft, but he has been solid with the Cincinnati Bengals. Benson has rushed for the seventh-most yards in the league since ’09, although his 3.83 yards per carry and 19 touchdowns rank last and second-to-last among the group.
Benson certainly isn’t good enough for the Bengals to expect too many more years out of him; he could easily get hurt in 2012 given his recent workload, and at the age of 29, he probably doesn’t have too many years left. But 1,000 yards are 1,000 yards, and the Bengals have to be pleased with that after his miserable stretch with the Bears.
At this point in his career, Brandon Jacobs is best when paired with a younger, more explosive back. He is built like a fullback at 6'4", 260 pounds, and his 56 rushing touchdowns since 2005 are more than all but three players in the game.
Jacobs is 29 years old, which definitely means the writing is on the wall, but he should be good enough to give the New York Giants several more seasons of being a power back.
When used correctly—as the New Orleans Saints are doing this year—Darren Sproles is one of the most electrifying players in the NFL.
His numbers this year make him a legitimate top-10 MVP candidate: 609 rushing yards and two TDs on 6.9 yards per carry, 86 receptions for 710 yards and seven touchdowns, and a new NFL-record 2,695 all-purpose yards.
Teammate Drew Brees has gotten much of the publicity for breaking Dan Marino’s record for passing yards, but Sproles had an incredible season as well.
It took a little longer for Beanie Wells to break out than the Arizona Cardinals would have liked, especially considering he was a first-round pick. But the Cardinals have to be thrilled with Wells’ breakout 2011 campaign after a miserable season in 2010.
He topped the 1,000-yard plateau for the first time in his career, and he had 10 rushing touchdowns to go with it. He’s still an awful receiver out of the backfield, but at just 23 years old, he should have a pile more of 1,000-yard seasons left in him.
Maybe it took Reggie Bush until his sixth NFL season to finally learn how to be a good running back or maybe he just needed a change of pace. Whatever it was, Bush enjoyed a career year in Miami, as he became a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time since his junior year at USC.
Bush’s five yards per carry were made all the more impressive considering he’s been the feature back with the Dolphins. Bush put up 100 yards on the ground in each of his final four games and when asked to carry the ball 25 times against Buffalo, he responded with a career-high 203 rushing yards.
Next year will prove whether he was essentially a one-year wonder as a full-time back or if he’s turned the corner and become a great runner in the NFL.
This guy seemingly came out of nowhere. When DeMarco Murray was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, he was buried on the depth chart behind Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice.
Now he’s surpassed all of them and looks to be the future of the Cowboys’ running game. Murray exploded onto the scene against the St. Louis Rams with a 253-yard game, the ninth-highest single-game total in NFL history. He rushed for 466 yards in a three-game span and 611 yards in four games, before breaking his ankle late in the season.
Murray finishes his rookie campaign with 897 rushing yards and a 5.5-yards-per-carry average. He looks to be the type of player who can contend for a rushing title in the near future.
Whether you credit Tim Tebow, John Fox or the Denver Broncos defense, Willis McGahee’s NFL career has been revived. The nine-year veteran has his fourth 1,000-yard season and first since 2007, doing so with seven 100-yard rushing games.
McGahee’s performance was more impressive given that Knowshon Moreno has been hurt or largely ineffective. At 30 years old, McGahee may be on his last breath in the league, but he has been used sparingly enough that he may have a few more seasons left in him.
Screw the Madden Curse. You want to know the real reason Peyton Hillis suffered a major dropoff in 2011? Because he was never that good.
I’m not saying he’s a bad player by any means, but he absolutely did not deserve to be on the cover of Madden. Hillis ranked 11th in the NFL with 1,177 rushing yards in 2010, and his eight fumbles were more than any other back in the league.
He was hurt often in 2011—a poor time to be hurt since Hillis is in a contract year—and rushed for just 587 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games.
Like many players on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, LeGarrette Blount’s production dropped off in 2011. He went from 1,007 yards and five yards per carry as a rookie to 781 yards and 4.2 yards per carry in his second NFL season.
Blount could stand to improve his pass-catching, but he is young and talented enough to serve as the starter for the Buccaneers for several more seasons.
Find a team with a better running trio than Cam Newton, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Stewart splits time with Williams in the backfield and Newton takes all the goal-line carries, but Stewart averaged 5.4 yards per carry and had by far his best year as a receiver out of the backfield.
If he could get a chance to be the feature back, I predict he would rush for top-10-caliber numbers.
Save for a breakout game against the Buffalo Bills, Ahmad Bradshaw wasn’t able to duplicate his success from the 2010 season with the New York Giants.
His yards per carry dropped over half a yard and he missed a handful of games due to injury, although he scored a career-high nine total touchdowns. Bradshaw is also arguably the best blocking running back in the NFL though, a trait that often goes overlooked.
This is another underrated guy. I can’t see too many lists having Pierre Thomas this high, but I think he’s a terrific all-around back.
Thomas averaged over five yards per carry and he found the end zone six times. He’s a great blocker and a good pass-catcher. Pro Football Focus sees Thomas as the fifth -best running back in the NFL in 2011; he’s rated in the top six three times since 2008.
It’s surprising the Carolina Panthers rewarded DeAngelo Williams with a five-year, $42 million deal before the season, especially considering Williams really only splits time with teammate Jonathan Stewart. Now that Cam Newton has emerged as a bona fide stud at quarterback and a true goal-line runner, there might not be a need for Williams, considering the limitations of the salary cap.
His potential is definitely there. Remember when he rushed for 1,515 yards and scored 20 total touchdowns without a fumble in 2008? He’s still the same player; he just has to share his carries now. Williams averaged 5.4 yards per rush in 2011—the second-best total of his six-year career—and he scored seven touchdowns.
Mike Tomlin ran Willie Parker until he broke down, and he’s already said he’s intent on doing the same with Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall is a workhorse; he’s averaged 262 carries and 1,090 rushing yards since becoming a full-time back in 2009.
It’s unfortunate that he suffered such an injury in Week 17, as early reports say Mendenhall has torn his ACL.
I would love to see what Ben Tate could do as a feature back, but with he and Arian Foster on the same team, the Houston Texans have a tremendous running duo for the future.
Tate missed all of his rookie season with a severe ankle injury, but broke out in 2011 with 100-yard rushing days in what were technically his first two NFL games. Tate finished with 942 rushing yards and 5.4 yards per carry, the seventh-best rate in the league among qualifying backs.
I still remember San Diego Chargers head coach Norv Turner telling The Union Tribune that Ryan Mathews was going to get 250 to 300 carries and about 40 to 50 receptions as a rookie in 2010. That didn’t quite work out as Turner hoped, but Mathews played like a future Pro Bowler in 2011.
He topped the 1,000-yard mark while averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Mathews also caught 50 passes out of the backfield for another 455 yards, although his ball control still leaves something to be desired.
Before the season, I told anyone who would listen that Chris Johnson was on his way to leading the NFL in rushing yards in 2011, a total around 1,500 or 1,600 yards.
That prediction won’t go on my resume; Johnson was arguably the worst running back in the league for much of the season. It’s been almost frightening what has happened to a guy who rushed for 2,000 yards just two years ago. CJ2K failed to top 25 yards in five different games this season, bottoming out with 13 yards on 12 carries against the Atlanta Falcons.
Johnson had a few very strong games, and as a result, his season numbers weren’t awful: 1,047 rushing yards on a four-yards-per-carry average. He’s still the NFL’s leading rusher over the past three seasons (4,417 yards), and his 29 rushing touchdowns rank tied for third among backs.
I rank him as high as No. 14 because of his pure explosive speed and breakaway potential, although that hasn’t been on display nearly as much in ’11.
I’m a huge fan of the way Marshawn Lynch plays the game of football. He’s a scrappy veteran who has fought and churned for every single yard behind one of the worst run-blocking offensive lines in the NFL.
Lynch set career highs in rushing yards (1,204), yards per carry (4.2) and rushing touchdowns (12), as well as total yards and total touchdowns. He also scored a touchdown in 11 straight games, putting the Seattle Seahawks back in the playoff hunt (although they have since been eliminated).
The Seahawks would be smart not to extend Lynch for several reasons though: The offensive line doesn’t protect Lynch well enough to expect him to be able to avoid injury; history shows recent contracts to running backs (Chris Johnson, Jamaal Charles and Adrian Peterson) have backfired; and Lynch is having his best-ever season in a career year.
Before Fred Jackson broke his leg and all but ended the Buffalo Bills’ chances at the playoffs, Jackson was a league MVP candidate. He rushed for 934 yards on 5.5 yards per carry, scored six rushing touchdowns and totaled 442 more receiving yards. In all, Jackson accounted for 1,376 scrimmage yards in just 10 games, elevating the Bills to a 5-2 start to the season.
Jackson is under contract through 2012, and at age 30 already, he probably doesn’t have a ton of time left, but he and C.J. Spiller should make a nice combination of running backs for the Bills in 2012. Perhaps the most underrated aspect of Jackson’s game is that he’s quietly turned himself into arguably the NFL’s best blocking back after struggling mightily in that area early in his career.
Darren McFadden looked like a huge bust for his first two NFL seasons, but broke out in 2010 with 1,157 rushing yards and seven touchdowns for the Oakland Raiders.
Run DMC hasn’t played since Week 7 due to a foot injury, but he averaged close to 90 ground yards per contest on 5.4 yards per carry in the games for which he suited up, and he was leading the league in rushing when he got hurt. McFadden has the potential to be a Pro Bowl back from the AFC in 2012 and beyond.
Arian Foster is an immensely talented running back who went from an undrafted rookie free agent in 2009 to the NFL’s rushing champ in 2010 to a two-time Pro Bowler by 2011.
Foster leads the league with 2,840 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns over the last two seasons, and he’s good at all aspects of the game: running, receiving and blocking. The only reason Foster isn’t higher on the list is that he’s surrounded by loads of talent and in a fabulous offensive system.
Foster isn’t like Steven Jackson or Maurice Jones-Drew—players who are the focal point of their offense—and he’s also helped an incredible amount by quarterback Matt Schaub.
Frank Gore’s hip injury that ended his season prematurely in 2010 hasn’t carried over to 2011; he rushed for 1,211 yards—his best total since 2006—and he ranked third to just LeSean McCoy and Michael Turner among NFC running backs in rushing yards this season.
Gore has been extremely consistent for the San Francisco 49ers over the last six years, totaling five 1,000-yard seasons with a career 4.6-yards-per-carry average. His receiving numbers were down drastically in 2011—after averaging 51 receptions per year since ’06, he had just 17 this year—but that is likely just a fluke or due to the presence of rookie back Kendall Hunter.
Michael Turner is one of the NFL’s toughest and most bruising backs, a workhorse who carried the ball 376 times in his first full season as the starter back in 2008. Turner has now topped 1,000 yards in three of the past four seasons; this year, a 172-yard performance in Week 17 propelled him to 1,340 yards and the conference rushing crown.
Turner’s 56 broken tackles in 2011 were the best of any running back, and he’s a workhorse who can handle a big load. His 50 rushing touchdowns since ’08 are more than anyone in the league except Adrian Peterson. The only thing keeping Turner from ranking higher on the list is his poor receiving skills out of the backfield.
It’s almost unfathomable that Steven Jackson has rushed for 1,000 yards in seven straight seasons, especially since the St. Louis Rams are just 29-92 during that span. Jackson is a three-time Pro Bowler who is a similar player to Marshall Faulk (although not as explosive).
His average season since ’05: 284 carries, 1,192 rushing yards, 4.2 YPC, seven TDs, plus 50 receptions for 400 more yards and one TD. That’s production that is hard to find in this league. Even in 2011 at the age of 29, Jackson was ninth in the league in rushing yards and he did most of his work for an awful offensive line.
He’s probably not going to break 1,500 rushing yards anymore, but when you have a guy who is straight-up money for 1,000 yards on that atrocious offense, he’s a keeper.
Jamaal Charles almost seems too good to be true; he averaged 5.3 yards per carry in a limited role in 2008, 5.9 as he split time with Thomas Jones in 2009 and an incredible 6.4 on a career-high 230 carries in 2010 before suffering a devastating knee injury in Week 1 of 2011.
In ’09, Charles was the first player ever to rush for over 1,100 yards on fewer than 200 carries; he followed that up in ’10 by averaging the second-highest yards-per-carry rate in NFL history. Charles is also a great receiver out of the backfield.
The only reason Charles didn’t make the top five was because I didn’t want to put Charles ahead of five guys who have played and had tremendous seasons in 2011.
If he didn’t get hurt, the Chicago Bears would almost certainly have been in the playoff hunt all year; they would have had a good chance at topping either the Detroit Lions or Atlanta Falcons for a wild-card spot. Matt Forte has been playing for a much-publicized contract all of 2011, and for the first 11 games, he certainly proved his worth.
Forte was on pace for over 1,500 rushing yards at five yards per carry, and he had an outside chance to break Chris Johnson’s record for total yards from scrimmage in one season. Forte plays behind an atrocious offensive line, and has had to fend for himself all year. He still rates as the second-best back in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
This guy might be the NFL’s most exciting running back since Barry Sanders. LeSean McCoy put together a monster season, with 1,309 rushing yards, 48 receptions and 20 total touchdowns.
He still struggles to pick up the blitz and sometimes his runs look more like punt returns as he races 50 yards across the field in an attempt to gain two more yards, but he’s durable, consistent and one of the more dangerous weapons in the league.
McCoy doesn’t fumble the football and he leads all NFC backs in receptions (166) out of the backfield since he broke into the league in 2009.
Maurice Jones-Drew had an extremely underrated season for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Because of the poor play of rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert, the Jaguars were forced to rely on MJD and his surgically repaired knee more than ever, and he responded with possibly his best year as a pro.
His 343 carries and 1,606 rushing yards led the league, and a 169-yard performance in Week 17 locked up the rushing title. Jones-Drew has made three consecutive Pro Bowls, and he’s the only man in the NFL who has rushed for at least 1,300 yards each of the last three years.
Perhaps Jones-Drew’s best attribute this season has been his consistency; he rushed for at least 80 yards in 15 of 16 games, topped 100 six times and averaged at least four yards per carry 13 times in 2011.
I really don’t think there is a clear No. 2 best running back in the NFL. Jamaal Charles may have held this spot, but he got injured. Frank Gore, Steven Jackson and Maurice Jones-Drew have been incredibly consistent for many years, but I think Ray Rice is more valuable for a single game.
Since 2009, Rice is third among running backs in rushing yards (3,923) and his 4.60 yards per carry is higher than all but two of the other players in the top 10. Rice’s 217 receptions out of the backfield are an incredible 27 more than any other back in the game
His offensive line was actually subpar in 2011; outside of right guard Marshal Yanda, the line has been flat-out poor. Rice is small enough (5'9") to find holes that normal backs wouldn’t, and he turned in a Pro Bowl season that consisted of 1,364 rushing yards, a career-best 12 touchdowns on the ground and 15 total scores, and a league-high 2,068 yards from scrimmage.
The injury Adrian Peterson suffered a few weeks ago is about the worst possible news for Minnesota Vikings fans, especially since AP has put together a five-year stretch that ranks among the greatest running backs in NFL history.
Peterson’s five-year average: 281 carries, 1,350 rushing yards, 4.8 YPC and 13 touchdowns, plus 27 receptions for 262 more yards. Comparing that to the first five seasons of other historically great backs, and you’ll see how AP stacks up; he’s the fourth player ever to rush for over 6,000 yards and 60 touchdowns in his first five seasons, and he’s the only one to do it with a yards-per-carry average of at least 4.8.
Maybe his most impressive achievement is his fumbling, as he’s all but eliminated his tendency to fumble the football, coughing it up just twice in the last 27 games after fumbling 20 times in his first 46 games.
How AP fares in 2012 remains to be seen. His injury was absolutely debilitating, as he tore both his ACL and MCL in his left knee. He underwent successful surgery, but he likely won’t be the same player next season, and there’s a chance Peterson never regains the form that has made him the league’s best running back since his rookie season. It’s a shame, because he was well on his way to a Hall of Fame career.