Although the NFL has become increasingly pass-happy in recent seasons, there are still plenty of advantages to a strong running game. Even elite teams such as the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots have struggled when it matters most due to the lack of a credible ground attack.
With three running backs taken in the first round of the 2012 draft, it's clear NFL teams still value the presence of a prolific workhorse.
Jacksonville Jaguars' powerhouse Maurice Jones-Drew topped the rushing charts in 2011. However, he could find his superiority challenged by the usual suspects like Adrian Peterson and Michael Turner, as well as first-year pros such as Trent Richardson and Doug Martin. The following runners will lead their teams in rushing in 2012.
Beanie Wells responded to an increased workload in 2011 and recorded the first 1,000-yard season of his career. The 23-year-old gained 1,047 yards, and averaged 4.3 yards per carry.
Wells also showed a knack for finding the end zone, scoring 10 rushing touchdowns. The 6'2", 229-pounder has deceptive power and breakaway speed.
The three-year veteran will face strong competition from LaRod Stephens-Howling and Ryan Williams this season. However, if he makes a quick recovery from late-season knee surgery, Wells should again be the Cards' leader on the ground.
Veteran Michael Turner will continue to pound out the tough yards on the ground for the Atlanta Falcons this season. A powerful, bulldozing runner, Turner has topped 1,300 yards in each of the last two seasons and has always been above 4.0 yards per carry in his eight years in the league.
Turner's relentless smash-mouth style still has a place in the modern game. In their quest to end their playoff problems, the Falcons would be wise to lean on Turner.
Ray Rice is one of the league's best players, and he simply has to be the focal point of the Baltimore Ravens' offense. The multi-talented playmaker tallied 1,364 yards in 2011 and scored 12 touchdowns.
Excellent between the tackles and always a threat to go the distance, Rice is a complete runner. Natural acceleration and superb vision mean Rice continues to get better.
Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron should put the ball in Rice's hands as often as possible to ease the pressure off Joe Flacco's shoulders.
Late-bloomer Fred Jackson has been one of the NFL's best kept secrets for the past three seasons. All the 31-year-old has done is top 900 rushing yards in each of those seasons and become the most consistent and dangerous player on the Buffalo Bills' offense.
At 6'1" and 215 pounds, Jackson possesses great strength and rarely goes down after first contact. A slashing, decisive runner, Jackson shows no signs of slowing down, as he posted a career-best 5.5 yards per carry average in 2011.
According to this NFL.com report, Chan Gailey indicated that Jackson and C.J. Spiller will share the load this season. However, the smart money would still be on the tough veteran leading Buffalo in rushing yards by the end of the campaign.
Playing in a contract year should give Jonathan Stewart all the motivation he needs to usurp fellow running back DeAngelo Williams at the top of the Carolina Panthers' depth chart.
Despite starting only three games in 2011, Stewart still averaged 5.4 yards per carry. A rare combination of elite quickness and raw power, Stewart runs with a low center of gravity and is tough to tackle once he gets into the secondary.
Stewart is keen on a new deal with the Panthers, according to NBCSports.com. So there is no reason to break up the triple run threat provided by Stewart, Williams and quarterback Cam Newton.
He may be embroiled in a lengthy contract dispute with the Chicago Bears, but Matt Forte will still lead the NFC North club in rushing this season.
The presence of newly-acquired Michael Bush and the desire for an improved contract will push Forte to produce his finest year yet. The Bears need Forte and must encourage him to sign his tender.
ESPN Chicago recently reported that Forte may not hold out and will reluctantly report to camp. The four-year pro deserves a lucrative new deal, but his best way to secure it will be to produce elite numbers this season.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis will finally benefit from an offense prepared to feature the ground game.
A capable back, Green-Ellis was underused during four seasons with the New England Patriots. Durable, efficient and tough between the tackles, Green-Ellis will quickly become the dependable workhorse young quarterback Andy Dalton needs to succeed in his second season.
If the Cleveland Browns hope to add some offensive firepower to the play of their improving defense, they must lean on top draft pick Trent Richardson.
The third overall pick in the draft, Richardson can be the 20-plus carry back head coach Pat Shurmur needs to build his offense around. Strong, elusive and possessing genuine game-changing speed, Richardson has all the attributes to be an instant success in Cleveland and finally make the Browns relevant again.
It's difficult to work out how the Dallas Cowboys manage to underachieve so consistently. They have talent at every position, including at running back with second-year speedster DeMarco Murray.
Head coach Jason Garrett needs to feature Murray this season. Blessed with excellent initial quickness, great footwork and punishing upper body strength, Murray can move the chains and also break a big gain at any time.
He finished his rookie campaign with 897 yards and should be even better this season. Garrett has to avoid taking the ball out of Murray's hands in the red zone and must give him enough carries to establish a rhythm early in games.
Willis McGahee won't enjoy the same number of carries he got when Tim Tebow was directing the Denver Broncos' offense in 2011. However, the veteran runner will still benefit from the respect defenses are likely to show Peyton Manning.
Given Manning's year on the sidelines, head coach John Fox would be wise to ensure the veteran quarterback has more balance around him than he often had with the Indianapolis Colts.
That means a decent dose of McGahee and rookie Ronnie Hillman. McGahee's ability to soften the middle of a defense could prove useful, as opponents are more likely to leave safeties deep to try counter Manning.
The Detroit Lions always seem to be trying to replace Kevin Smith. However, the four-year veteran remains the best candidate to give the Lions a credible ground game and provide some real balance for their Matthew Stafford-led offense.
Smith led all Lions running backs in yards per carry average in 2011, registering at 4.9 yards per rush. He is no breakaway threat, but Smith is a reliable back who can move the chains.
After keying the Green Bay Packers' Super Bowl run during the 2010-11 playoffs, James Starks managed only 578 yards and a single rushing touchdown last season.
Granted, the 26-year-old's opportunities were limited, thanks to the superb play of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. However, Rodgers needs more from Starks this campaign, particularly in the biggest games.
The balance he provided en route to the Super Bowl was missing from the Packers' title defense. Without a deep rotation, the pressure is on Starks to improve 2011's 27th-ranked running game.
The Houston Texans boast perhaps the NFL's finest one-two punch in the running game, thanks to the duo of Ben Tate and Arian Foster.
Deceptively quick and powerful, Foster is decisive in his decision making and is an excellent cutback runner.
He is the perfect fit for head coach Gary Kubiak's zone-based rushing attack. Outstanding in the Texans' AFC divisional playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Foster fears no opposition.
The return of quarterback Matt Schaub and star wide receiver Andre Johnson will boost Foster's production. With defenses unable to focus solely on stopping him, Foster is a strong candidate to lead not only the Texans, but the entire NFL in rushing.
With new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians calling the plays, expect the Indianapolis Colts to lean more on the running game than they did during the Peyton Manning era.
Donald Brown should lead the way for the ground attack and help ease the burden on quarterback Andrew Luck.
Brown finally started to show some promise in an otherwise dismal 2011 season for the Colts. He notched five touchdowns and showcased his big-play capability with an 80-yard scamper against the Tennessee Titans in Week 15.
The former 2009 first-round pick tallied 645 rushing yards and averaged 4.8 yards per carry.
It says it all about the Jacksonville Jaguars struggles that the franchise is willing to start Blaine Gabbert at quarterback but won't give Maurice Jones-Drew a better contract.
The diminutive running back is easily the team's best player. Jones-Drew led the league in rushing yards last season, but that is still not enough to convince the Jaguars to appropriately reward their most prolific weapon, according to ESPN.
New head coach Mike Mularkey needs Jones-Drew in the fold if he hopes to quickly produce a winner in Jacksonville. The 27-year-old is perhaps the best north-south runner in the league and can be relied upon to consistently post big numbers.
Mularkey will feature Jones-Drew's considerable talents much in the same way he did with Michael Turner for the Atlanta Falcons. That will mean another stellar campaign for Jones-Drew; then the Jaguars will find it even harder to deny him a big raise.
After a self-induced, stop-start 2011 campaign with Cleveland Browns, Peyton Hillis has a great chance to rebound with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Head coach Romeo Crennel will likely favor the run and Hillis' bruising brand of power rushing is the perfect weapon. The 6'2", 250-pounder can recapture the form that landed him on the Madden cover not too long ago.
Jamaal Charles is more explosive, but after the serious knee injury that robbed him of 14 games last season, the Chiefs would be wise to slowly build up his workload. Hillis can be the remorseless hammer Crennel needs to control the clock and keep his talented defense fresh.
In 2011, Reggie Bush finally proved that he can handle the load as an every-down back and pile up the yards as the featured runner. Bush broke 1,000 rushing yards for the first time in his career and can repeat the feat this season.
New head coach Joe Philbin might be moving the Miami Dolphins toward a different offense than the one ran under his predecessor, Tony Sparano. However, Philbin still needs to feature Bush if he hopes to make his first year in charge a success.
The Dolphins are thin at wide receiver and have big questions to answer at quarterback. Letting Bush again lead the offense is the best way for the Dolphins to complement their stout defense.
Mired in controversy involving the incidents surrounding his recent arrest and coming off a serious knee injury, Adrian Peterson is facing more than a few challenges as he prepares for the season.
If he is healthy enough to play Week 1, Peterson will have no trouble leading the Minnesota Vikings in rushing yards. Arguably the league's most dynamic runner, Peterson still has the skill and versatility to torment defenders in a variety of ways.
His speed and power remain undiminished, and the Vikings will continue to give him the ball, hoping his immense talent can drag them out of the NFC North basement.
Joseph Addai will prove to be a very smart acquisition for the New England Patriots. The resourceful veteran can fend off competition from youngsters Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen.
Addai has the skills the Patriots need a running back to possess to be a useful outlet for Tom Brady. His solid receiving and pass-blocking skills will allow him to stay on the field in any situation.
The 29-year-old has had his injury issues, missing 12 games in the last two years. However, if he stays healthy, Addai will give the Patriots a more than competent running game.
Mark Ingram's first pro season was a bit of a disappointment. The ex-Alabama standout struggled to distinguish himself among the New Orleans Saints' crowded backfield rotation.
Ingram can be a lot better in his second year. The solidly-built power back can grind out the tough yards and move the chains against undermanned fronts concentrating on the threat posed by Drew Brees.
An intelligent and efficient inside runner, Ingram can provide the Saints with consistent productivity on the ground and give opposing defenses one more thing to try and stop.
David Wilson can revive the New York Giants' running game. The defending Super Bowl champions used a first-round draft choice to snare the former Virginia Tech star.
An explosive runner, with excellent change of direction speed and natural elusiveness, Wilson can be New York's featured back. Ahmad Bradshaw will stake a claim to the starting job, but Wilson will waste no time overtaking the veteran and ensuring the Big Blue ground attack isn't propping up the league's rankings again this season.
Shonn Greene will enter the season as the undisputed feature back for the New York Jets. New offensive coordinator Tony Sparano should have no trouble designing game plans demanding a heavy dose of the bruising power back.
Greene broke 1,000 yards in 2011 and letting him be the focal point of the offense is the best way for the Jets to return to the postseason. Rex Ryan's team has a simple formula for winning: a clock-eating running game and a big-play defense. Greene is a crucial part of this dynamic and could exceed his production from a year ago.
Darren McFadden managed only seven starts in 2011. The Oakland Raiders need the talented but brittle runner to be back to his best this season.
There's every reason to believe he will be, as few backs in the league can match McFadden's knack for the big play. New head coach Dennis Allen has pledged to use McFadden cautiously to keep him fresh, according to Sporting News.
The addition of free agent Mike Goodson will help ease the burden on McFadden. As careful as they need to be, the Raiders also need McFadden to lead their running game.
The 24-year-old has elite acceleration and if new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp can scheme ways to get him in the open field, McFadden will likely top 1,000 yards.
LeSean McCoy is quickly overtaking DeSean Jackson and Michael Vick as the most dangerous weapon for the Philadelphia Eagles' offense. The 24-year-old is one of the league's most exciting runners.
McCoy's ability to make moves at top speed makes him a challenge to corral for any defense. Elusive and deceptively strong, McCoy should be able to at least match the 1,309 yards he managed in 2011.
Isaac Redman could be primed for a breakout year with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He should see his workload increase as Rashard Mendenhall continues to rehab from a torn ACL.
Redman is an underrated runner who possesses good initial quickness and rarely goes down after first contact. His willingness to stay on his feet and drag would-be tacklers along for a few extra yards has led to some ball security issues.
However, the third-year pro could surprise many as the featured back in coordinator Todd Haley's new offense.
Ryan Mathews lived up to his billing as a a first-round draft pick by rushing for 1,091 yards and six touchdowns in 2011. Expect Matthews to have another big year and flourish in his third season under head coach Norv Turner.
The 6'0", 218-pounder has the quick footwork and direct power to be the kind of north-south runner Turner loves. Mathews, who averaged 4.9 yards per carry last season, should play an even bigger role this season and give the Chargers' offense true balance.
Despite the addition of Brandon Jacobs and a host of new options for the passing game, Frank Gore will still carry the San Francisco 49ers' offense. Gore is the workhorse the Niners need to lead the attack and alleviate the pressure on quarterback Alex Smith.
Bringing in Jacobs and drafting LaMichael James will help reduce Gore's heavy workload and keep the eight-year veteran fresh over the course of the season. Being surrounded by plenty of competition, including Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon, will also push Gore to get back to his 2006 form when he rushed for 1,695 yards.
Even with the potential for better quarterback play, the Seattle Seahawks still need running back Marshawn Lynch to carry the offense. The 26-year-old enjoyed his best pro season in 2011, finishing with 1,204 yards on the ground and 12 rushing touchdowns.
At 5'11" and 215 pounds, Lynch is a true power back with the size and strength to batter the middle of any defense. A relentless and determined runner, Lynch is the ideal weapon for a ball-control offense and the Seahawks would be smart to increase his workload this season.
Contrary to popular opinion, the NFL's best running back does not reside in Baltimore, Jacksonville or Minnesota. The league's best running back is in fact the prized asset of the St. Louis Rams.
Steven Jackson's consistent production as the sole offensive weapon for a struggling franchise has been simply remarkable. A true every-down back, Jackson has been forced to master his craft behind shaky offensive lines.
With Jeff Fisher now in charge in St. Louis and Brian Schottenheimer installed as the offensive coordinator, Jackson should see plenty of action this season. Expect to see him approach his career-best numbers from 2009.
Rookie Doug Martin will supplant LeGarrette Blount as the chief weapon for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' running game. The ex-Boise State star is a versatile runner, able to stretch defenses for long gains and stout enough to consistently get yards up the middle.
Martin has three-down skills, and new head coach Greg Schiano should make Martin the focal point of Tampa's new-look offense. Behind a powerful and talented offensive line, featuring recently signed Carl Nicks, Martin has a good chance to break 1,000 rushing yards in his first pro campaign.
Aside from LeSean McCoy, Chris Johnson is the most exciting runner to watch in the NFL. Dynamic and graceful, the fleet-footed Tennessee Titans star is a threat to break a big run at any tim
After contract squabbles with the Titans before the beginning of the last season, Johnson's production took a hit. However, NFL.com recently reported that the 26-year-old is working hard to get back to his best. That's great news for any fan of the game.
Tim Hightower can fend off competition from promising second-year duo Roy Helu and Evan Royster and lead the Washington Redskins' ground game this season. The Redskins have a crowded backfield rotation, with sixth-round draft pick Alfred Morris also in the mix.
However, the more experienced Hightower may have the edge over his youthful rivals. ProFootballWeekly.com recently reported that Hightower could be the coaches' preferred choice.
He performed well in Washington's zone running game last season before having his season cut short by an ACL injury. The injury may have diminished Hightower's initial quickness, but the 6'0", 220-pounder still has the frame and power to run over defenders.
Hightower is an intelligent runner, and he has the vision and instincts to excel in Mike Shanahan's zone schemes. The veteran will support rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III and be surprisingly productive this season.