Which NFL Running Back Returning from IR Will Be Most Productive?
The 2011 season turned into the year of IR for the elite running back. On Friday, Total Access on NFL Network took a poll asking fans to vote for which running back returning from the IR they expected to have the best season. The options to choose from were Jamaal Charles, Darren McFadden, Adrian Peterson and Matt Forte.
I'm not sure how many people were thinking what I was thinking when I saw that poll, but where was Fred Jackson in those choices? Apparently, the fact that he was leading the league in rushing before he went down with a broken fibula wasn't enough of a reason to consider him capable of being as productive as any of those other four running backs.
Since I didn't agree with the options given, or results of the poll, I decided that I would write my own article on this topic. I hope you enjoy my thoughts as much as I do.
5. Darren McFadden
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Warren Sapp's pick for the running back that would have the most productive 2012 season was Darren McFadden. His rationale that McFadden would have the best season was based on the fact that any time Darren touches the ball, he's a threat to take it to the house. He used the extremely eloquent argument of "BOOM, he's gone!" several times as a rebuttal when Jamie Dukes attempted to argue with him.
Although I usually agree with Warren Sapp's opinion, I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with this prediction.
I agree that Darren McFadden is one of the most dangerous runners in the NFL. He can hurt opposing defenses by running the ball or by catching the ball out of the backfield. When healthy, he's been one of the most productive running backs in the NFL for the past two seasons. When healthy.
Unfortunately, health and durability has been an ongoing issue throughout Run DMC's career. After four seasons in the NFL, he's still yet to play more than 13 games in any one season.
A big part of having a productive season is playing in every game for a whole season. I need to see McFadden do that at least once in his career before I'm willing to believe that he's capable of doing that.
4. Jamaal Charles
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With Jamaal Charles, recurring injuries are less of a concern. In his first three seasons in the NFL, he only missed one game. His best season was in 2010 when he went from a relatively unknown player to being the second-leading NFL rusher with 1,467 yards and leading all running backs with 6.4 yards per carry.
Jamie Dukes picked Jamaal Charles to be the most productive runner this year, using the rationale that since his injury occurred in Week 2, he had the most time to recover.
The reason I don't expect Charles to be higher up this list is because even though he's likely to be healthy and play in all 16 games, he's not likely to get as many carries as other rushers.
Jamaal Charles weighs less than 200 pounds. Kansas City likes to keep him healthy by having him split carries with a larger, more durable running back. In 2010, even though he finished with the second-most rushing yards in the NFL, he didn't even have the most carries on his own team.
Charles finished that season with 230 carries, compared to 245 for Thomas Jones.
Charles also isn't a bruiser that's going to get tons of carries in the red zone to pound the ball across the goal line. Expect those carries to go to Peyton Hillis, the 250-pound power runner the Chiefs picked up from Cleveland in the offseason.
Now that Hillis can stop worrying about trying to get a new contract and whether or not the Madden curse exists (via Yahoo! Sports), he should be able to focus on running the football and scoring touchdowns.
Jamaal Charles has never scored more than eight touchdowns in a season, and with Hillis now in the same backfield, I don't expect that trend to end any time soon.
3. Matt Forte
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Forte is another running back that has managed to stay healthy throughout most of his career, never missing a game in his first three seasons.
He has been a consistent, reliable producer since entering the league in 2008. He's never registered less than 900 rushing yards or 470 receiving yards.
At 6'2" and 218 lbs, he's big enough to pound the ball in the red zone. For some reason, though, the Bears don't seem to utilize him as well as they could. He's been one of the most under-appreciated running backs in the NFL the past few seasons.
Despite Forte's consistent durability and production, the Bears doubt whether his knees can hold up and have been reluctant to award him with a new contract (via Rotoworld).
Forte's discontent with the status of his current contract is the first major threat to his potential production this season. We've all seen players that fail to produce to their potential because they're more focused on their bank account than they are on their stat sheet.
The second major threat to Forte's production is new teammate Michael Bush. The Bears know that this 245-pound running back is more than capable of carrying the load after he ran for 977 yards and seven touchdowns on 256 carries as a member of the Oakland Raiders last year.
I wouldn't be surprised if the Bears limit Forte's carries this year, knowing that if he's ultra productive it will become more expensive to keep him on their roster. If he gets the number of carries he deserves, though, expect big things from this guy.
2. Fred Jackson
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Full disclosure, I'm a diehard Buffalo Bills fan. I'm sure fans of other teams may feel like putting Fred Jackson this high on the list is being biased, but I think Fred Jackson's production has warranted it.
Despite only playing in 10 games in 2011, Freddy ran for 934 yards and six touchdowns, along with 442 receiving yards. Stretch those numbers out to a 16-game season and he was on pace for 1,494 yards rushing, 10 touchdowns and 707 yards receiving. That is extremely impressive production.
He also led all NFL running backs in yards per carry, averaging 5.5 yards every time he carried the ball.
The knock on Fred Jackson, which is probably the reason that NFL Network left him off their list, is his age. He will be 31 during the upcoming season, which basically makes him a senior citizen for an NFL running back.
Working in Freddy's favor is the fact that his body hasn't gone through the same type of punishment that most 30-plus NFL running backs have suffered through.
He has only been in the NFL for five seasons. Although I've never been hit by a Division I NCAA or an NFL Linebacker, I'm pretty sure it hurts. I'm guessing those guys hit significantly harder than the football players that were tackling Fred when he was a member of Division III Coe College or the Sioux City Bandits of the Indoor Football League.
Even during Fred's time in the NFL, he's endured limited abuse. The 2011 season was the first year that he's played for the Buffalo Bills and didn't have to split carries with Marshawn Lynch. He's only carried the ball more than 200 times in two seasons, 2009 and 2010.
Like a fine wine, Fred has gotten better with age. Fred had never averaged more than 4.5 yards per carry (in a season with 100 or more carries) in the NFL until he reached 5.5 yards per carry in 2011. Also, despite playing in only 10 games in 2011, his 442 yards receiving was the most he's ever recorded.
The greatest threat to Mr. Jackson's production is the emergence of former No. 9 overall pick, C.J. Spiller. After Fred fractured his fibula, Spiller proved that he could be just as productive carrying the football, averaging 5.5 yards per carry.
However, Chan Gailey seems reluctant to give Spiller a full workload. Even with Fred Jackson out of the lineup, Spiller only received more than 13 carries once, Week 16 against Denver when he carried the ball 16 times. I think that Gailey will use Spiller more in 2012 than he has used him in the past, but I still expect Freddy to be the workhorse.
Also, now that the Bills are switching to a 4-3 defense under Dave Wannstedt, their defense is likely to be vastly improved. With Mario Williams up front playing alongside players like Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, Shawne Merriman and Mark Anderson, their defense is likely to give up less than the 27.1 points per game that caused them to be the 30th-ranked defense in the NFL.
If the Bills defense stops giving up so many points, the Bills offense is more likely to run the ball, hoping to grind out a win late in the game rather than having to air the ball out in an attempt to play catch up.
There should be plenty of carries to go around in the Buffalo backfield, and I expect Fred Jackson to have one or two more years of elite production before Father Time catches up with him.
1. Adrian Peterson
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The winner of the NFL Network poll, as voted on by the fans, was Adrian Peterson.
Adrian Peterson has been the most consistent, productive and impressive running back in the NFL since he entered the league. Before going to the IR after 12 games in 2011, he has played in at least 14 games every season. His least-productive season occurred in 2010, when he carried the ball for 1,298 yards. He's also recorded at least 10 rushing touchdowns every year since he's been in the NFL.
He's one of the few running backs with the elite speed to take it to the house every time he touches the ball, combined with the power to pound the ball in goal-line situations.
Although there are a few running backs in the NFL that have shown the ability to overtake AP as the best running back in the NFL, namely Chris Johnson and Arian Foster, the title still belongs to Adrian Peterson for now.
Adrian Peterson's one of the few running backs in the NFL without a productive backup breathing down his neck to steal the top spot, and second-year QB Christian Ponder will be looking for a productive running game to carry the offensive load for the Vikings in 2012.
Although it's hard to predict any athlete's ability to recover from a torn ACL, Peterson said a few weeks ago, via Josina Anderson of ESPN, that he's "50-50" to at least take part in training camp activities.
What do you think? Do you agree with my predictions, or do you feel like I was way off base? Let me know in the comments section. I look forward to a spirited debate.