As the NFL continues to evolve, offenses are developing more and more personnel groupings that can attack defenses in multiple ways, and one example of that is at the running back position.
One of the league's most versatile offenses is that of the New England Patriots, who have been able to put together a plethora of different packages that can cause confusion for defenders and heartache for defensive coordinators for several years now.
They've recently done this with their tight end packages, but they're also developing their running backs, putting together complementary pieces such as Danny Woodhead, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. All three of these players are able to bring a different style of play to the offense, which is the goal.
However, they don't feature one of the best running back stables in the league because of the inexperience of Ridley and Vereen. It could be argued that the league's best can be narrowed down to the San Francisco 49ers (based off of potential), Houston Texans, New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers.
San Francisco 49ers
Starting with the 49ers, they added several talented players this offseason to a group that featured the always-underrated Frank Gore and dynamic Kendall Hunter.
Gore is a versatile back that can run the rock, catch it and block as well. Hunter is a similar type of player but with more quickness and big-play potential.
The additions that came to the team include Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James. Jacobs isn't coming off a strong 2011 season, but he's long been known as a fierce runner that can punish defensive backs and get the extra yard to move the chains.
Despite not always having a high yards per carry average (which isn't entirely his fault), he is constantly one of the league's top ball-carriers in broken tackles.
James is a different kind of player than Jacobs because he's not great in-between the tackles, which Jacobs specializes in, but he's very quick around the edge and is tough to keep in check because of his ability to bounce from gap to gap and find an alley for a big gain—making him a constant threat.
These four players are going to be problematic in defending an already complex San Francisco offense, because they present various skill sets to do damage in all areas of the field.
Gore can wear down a defense, Hunter brings a blend of strength and quickness, Jacobs gets the extra yard and James has home run potential with the ball in his hand.
While the 49ers have quantity, it could be argued the Houston Texans have the most quality.
Houston brings back two very good running backs in Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Foster is able to do everything that's asked of him and has great vision. He does an exceptional job of finding the cutback lane in the Texans zone-running game while also being able to find real estate when in the open field.
Meanwhile, his backup, Ben Tate, is also very dangerous as a total package. He had injuries to deal with coming out of college, but since coming into the league, he's only bruised defenders with his strength whilst running with the ball. He also is very quick and can find the crease to free himself up into the open field where he often scores long.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints may be the weakest of the bunch, but they feature multiple running talents, all of which can break tackles and pick up extra yardage. The backs include Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory.
Thomas has had issues with injuries, but he's a very physical runner and can pick up the tough yards while Darren Sproles is a mismatch for any linebacker because of his elite quickness and straight-line speed. He is able to play in various alignments, making him a versatile back that can get to the perimeter quickly.
The final two backs of the Saints are Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory. Ingram was a first-rounder only a year ago and struggled in his rookie season, but he displayed potential and has rare balance.
He's built low to the ground, which gives him a natural leverage advantage, and runs with high knees, which makes it tough to bring him down. Ivory was not drafted but outplayed his draft status. Like Ingram, he runs with power, displaying the ability to break tackles, and he is tough to bring down.
Last but not least is the Carolina Panthers, who have the most impressive trio of ball-carriers. With already two of the league's best in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, the franchise added Mike Tolbert to the backfield, who adds versatility with the ability to play both running back and fullback.
Tolbert is a heavier back than typically seen at his stature, but it plays to his advantage because he's still light on his feet, plays with good pad level and is a determined runner. He is able to catch the ball well and can pick up yards after contact, which is always a plus.
He will be splitting snaps with Williams and Stewart, both of which are also dynamic.
Stewart is a better overall back than Williams because of his rare blend of size and speed to go along with quality strength, which plays a role as a pass-blocker. Williams is a smooth runner that has good vision.
Which is the best?
All four teams possess some of the league's best talent at the running back position, which makes them very scary for defenses and a great asset to their quarterbacks.
They serve as a very good last resort for the quarterback when all other options fail, which is comforting as a passer. However, there can only be one here that's the league's best and that is the Carolina Panthers.
It came down to the Texans and Panthers. As impressive as the Houston Texans backfield is—they nearly had two 1,000-yard rushers—the Carolina Panthers have more versatility in their offensive backfield with the arrival of Mike Tolbert.
When the Panthers backs have had decent play from their quarterbacks, which hasn't been often in the last few years, they've been very good. That includes both running backs going for 1,000 yards in 2009 at over five yards a carry—which they also had last season.
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