Last season was a year full of injuries for NFC North running backs. Adrian Peterson was lost with a torn ACL on Christmas Eve, while Matt Forte, along with the Bears playoff hopes, went down due to a grade II MCL sprain in Week 13.
Heading into 2012, the running game will play an integral part in determining the division winner. A single injury can turn a team's season around, and a breakout star can vault a team up to the top.
Here are the top eight running backs in the division going into next season.
Adrian Peterson played in just 12 games last season, but still had a great 2011 campaign. He ran for 970 yards and 12 touchdowns and remains one of the most explosive players at the position when healthy. The Vikings upcoming season looks bleak after a 3-13 mark last year, but they can go as far as AP takes them.
If he can stay healthy for the entire 2012 season, Peterson should be one of the top offensive performers in the NFL and wreak havoc on NFC North defenses.
Matt Forte is the biggest wild card in the division coming into 2012. Not only is he coming off an injury-shortened season, but contract disputes are still raging on as Forte sits out of team activities.
In order to contend for a playoff spot with or without Forte, the Bears signed former Raider Michael Bush, which, according to The Washington Post, angered Forte even more.
If the two sides come to an agreement, the Bears add a huge weapon to their already-improved offense. In just 12 games in 2011, Forte gained 997 yards on the ground and 490 through the air. Forte's contract discussions will have an enormous impact on the NFC North race this season.
Playing in just six games last season, Jahvid Best began to show great potential in his second year with the Lions. Unfortunately, concussions derailed his 2011 campaign, though not before he put up nearly 700 yards of total offense.
If the 23-year-old can avoid concussion issues (he's had three during his football career), he is a good candidate for a breakout year. The Lions already have one of the most dangerous passing tandems in the NFL with Stafford and Calvin Johnson.
If Best can rush for 1,000 yards and provide a solid receiving option out of the backfield, the Lions could be one of the top teams in the NFC.
James Starks ran for 578 yards on just 133 carries in 2011. He never ran the ball more than 13 times in a game, but he looks to be the featured back in the vaunted Packers offense coming into this season.
Brandon Saine will get some carries and John Kuhn will take goal-line touches, but Starks is the best of the bunch and will take a step forward with the departure of Ryan Grant.
Like Jahvid Best with the Lions, if Starks can add another dimension to the Packers offense (which ranked 27th in rushing last year), opposing defenses will have their hands full in 2012.
The player with the most potential to move up this list is Michael Bush, though that has just as much to do with Forte's contract as it does with his own running ability. He ran for 977 yards last year but averaged an unimpressive 3.8 yards per carry.
If he does get the start in Week 1, he has the tools to be an exceptional back. He scored eight total touchdowns last season and had 418 receiving yards on 37 catches. Though the Bears will obviously be better off with Forte and Bush both ready to start the season, Bush is more than capable of carrying the load and can be just as valuable as Forte was last year.
Toby Gerhart was exceptional alongside Adrian Peterson last year, compiling 531 rushing yards with a great 4.9 yards per carry. He is a great complimentary back and a solid insurance policy should Peterson go down.
In fact, the game that Peterson went down was Gerhart's best of the season. He rushed 11 times for 109 yards to help the Vikings win just their third game of the year. Peterson and Gerhart give Minnesota a great one-two punch for 2012 and beyond.
The Lions' injury problems gave Kevin Smith a chance to play during the second half of last season. In just his second game, he rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns on the ground and added 61 yards and a touchdown receiving in a win over the Panthers.
Despite that stellar performance, Smith struggled the rest of the year, never reaching 50 yards rushing in any of his remaining games. With Mikel Leshoure returning from injury, it will be interesting to see who plays a bigger role in the offense, but Smith gets the nod until Leshoure proves himself.
In the absence of Matt Forte, Kahlil Bell stepped up and had a handful of good games to close out the year. His best came on Christmas Day when he ran for 121 yards against the Packers.He does have an issue with ball security, fumbling three times in 79 carries in 2011, but he may be a vital part of the Bears offense with Forte holding out.
He will compliment Michael Bush well, and Bell can provide Chicago with a reliable second option if Forte's talks go unresolved.