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NFL: Ranking the 35 Best Running Backs

Tim StoeckleContributor IIIDecember 28, 2016

NFL: Ranking the 35 Best Running Backs

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    In the NFL, you need a running game in order to succeed.  

    You don't need to have a dominant running game (i.e. Patriots), but you need to have the threat of the run and the ability to eat up yards on the ground.

    The NFL is filled with freakish athletes at the running back position. Some guys have proven how good they are; others have shown flashes of brilliance, but still have something to prove.  

    Here are the 35 best running backs in the NFL.

    Note: In order to qualify for this list, a player must have at least one NFL carry (in other words, no rookies)

    Follow @TimStoeckle on Twitter 

35. Daniel Thomas

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    The Miami Dolphins selected Daniel Thomas out of Kansas State in the 2011 NFL draft to come in and share the backfield with Reggie Bush.

    Last season, Thomas ran for 581 yards and averaged 3.5 yards per carry. He did not have any touchdown runs, but he did catch one touchdown.

    Thomas is a relatively big back, at 6'1" and 233 lbs., and he needs to use his size more to his advantage and break tackles up the middle.

    Thomas will be sharing the backfield once again, but the young Dolphin has a promising future. 

34. Ben Tate

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    It wasn't all about Arian Foster in Houston last year.

    Ben Tate quietly had a huge year for the Texans, running for 942 yards and four touchdowns. While Foster got the attention, Tate did his job and helped lead the Texans to their first ever playoff appearance.

    Tate is quick and strong, and between him and Foster, the Texans may have the best one-two punch in the league.

33. Roy Helu

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    It wasn't until Washington's 11th game last year that Roy Helu took over as the starter.

    Helu rushed for over 100 yards in his first three games as starter and finished the season with 640 yards and two touchdowns.

    Tim Hightower is healthy now, so Helu will be sharing the backfield, but the second-year player out of Nebraska has enough talent to get into the top 35.

32. LeGarrette Blount

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    Tampa Bay clearly doesn't think as highly of LeGarrette Blount as I do, or it wouldn't have used its first-round pick on running back Doug Martin.

    Blount had a breakout year in 2010, rushing for 1,007 yards in only 13 games, averaging 5.0 yards per carry.

    Last season, Blount played in 14 games and ran for 781 yards.  

    Although he won't be the No. 1 guy for the Buccaneers, Blount will still be a threat out of the backfield. In fact, he'll benefit from carrying less of the load.

31. Peyton Hillis

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    The football world went crazy over 250 lb. running back Peyton Hillis, in 2010.

    During that season, Hillis ran for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also fumbled the ball eight times, which is way too many times for a starting running back.

    This year, Hillis will not be the starting back now that he has signed with Kansas City.  

    Expect Hillis to find the end zone around 10 times this year, but he won't be putting up anywhere near 1,000 yards.

30. Brandon Jacobs

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    Brandon Jacobs is a touchdown machine.

    Jacobs has 56 touchdowns in seven seasons and will surpass 5,000 yards for his career this year, which is quite a feat for a 6'4", 264 lb. back who doesn't have tremendous speed.

    Jacobs will not be playing for the Giants for the first time in his career, as he joins Frank Gore in San Francisco.

    Like always, Jacobs will find himself in the end zone quite a bit this year, and he will help lead the phenomenal 49ers rushing attack.

29. Michael Bush

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    Michael Bush was a player who I hoped would land somewhere that he could be a starter, but instead, he signed with the Chicago Bears.

    Bush was a backup for four seasons in Oakland, but he still managed to rush for over 2,600 yards and score 21 touchdowns.

    With Darren McFadden injured for a large part of last season, Bush took over and showed that he can be a starter in this league.

    The Bush-Matt Forte combo in the Chicago backfield will be tough to defend.

28. Pierre Thomas

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    The New Orleans Saints utilize multiple backs, so Pierre Thomas' stats aren't great. However, he is still one of the best backs in the league.

    Thomas averaged 5.1 yards per carry last season and found the end zone five times on the ground.

    Not only can Thomas run, but he also caught 50 passes for 425 yards and a touchdown in 2011.

    Thomas, Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory all get carries, so expect similar numbers for Thomas this year.

27. BenJarvus Green-Ellis

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    The Law Firm has left the Patriots and is now the feature back in Cincinnati.

    In two years as the starter in New England, Green-Ellis ran for 1,675 yards and a very impressive 24 touchdowns.

    Green-Ellis is a tough back to tackle and finds the end zone frequently from the goal line.

    Cincinnati found itself a solid replacement for Cedric Benson, and as a result, it shouldn't see much of a decline in its rushing attack.

26. Shonn Greene

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    Shonn Greene carried the ball 253 times last year and totaled 1,054 yards and six touchdowns.

    It was by far the most work that Greene has gotten in his short career, and his 4.2 yards per carry average was just that: average.

    The Jets need Greene to improve his average yards, as he only passed the 100-yard mark twice last year and only ran for over 80 yards four times.  

    But Greene has the ability to put up frequent 100 yard games, so expect him to have more than two in 2012.

25. Jahvid Best

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    One of these years, Jahvid Best is going to stay healthy.  And when he does, he is going to have a huge year.

    In his rookie year, Best ran for 555 yards and had 487 receiving yards.  These stats are impressive on their own, but when you consider that there were six games where Best got under 10 carries, you realize what he's capable of.

    Best played in only six games last year, but he averaged 4.6 yards per carry and 10.6 yards per reception.

    If Best stays healthy this year, he will make the Pro Bowl. Write it down.

24. Beanie Wells

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    After Tim Hightower went to Washington and rookie Ryan Williams got injured, it was clear the Beanie Wells would have to carry the Cardinals ground game.

    In 14 games, Wells carried the ball 245 time for 1,047 yards and 10 touchdowns.  

    In 2012, Ryan Williams will be back, so Wells won't have as many carries, but make no mistake about it; he is the best running back on the team.

23. Jonathan Stewart

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    For a guy who splits carries, Jonathan Stewart sure puts up some impressive numbers.

    Stewart ran for over 700 yards in each of his first four seasons in the league, including 1,133 yards in 2009.

    Last year, Stewart ran for 761 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry.  He also found the end zone four times.

    Stewart improved as a receiver in 2011, catching 47 passes for 413 yards.

22. Reggie Bush

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    Finally, Reggie Bush ran the ball like a true No. 1 back.

    2011 was the first time that Bush ran for over 1,000 yards in the season. He totaled 1,086 yards on the ground, 505 yards better than his previous high in 2007.

    Bush also found the end zone a total of seven times and averaged 6.9 yards per reception.

    Bush will need to match his 2011 success in order to remain this high in the rankings because quite frankly, before last year, he wasn't all that good.

21. Ahmad Bradshaw

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    Brandon Jacobs is gone, so it is up to Ahmad Bradshaw to carry the load for this running game.

    Bradshaw played in 12 games last year due to injury, but he ran for 659 yards and nine touchdowns.

    In 16 games in 2010, Bradshaw ran for 1,235 yards and eight touchdowns; expect another year like that.

    Bradshaw is a quick, powerful back who can run as well as catch the ball out of the backfield.

20. DeMarco Murray

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    DeMarco Murray exploded onto the NFL scene in the Cowboys sixth game last year against St. Louis when the rookie ran for 253 yards and a touchdown in his first game as the starter.

    Murray finished the season with 897 yards and averaged a very impressive 5.5 yards per carry.

    Murray is the No. 1 guy for the Cowboys this year, so it will be interesting to see how he handles the pressure in Big D in his sophomore year in the NFL.

19. Ryan Mathews

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    Ryan Mathews is a guy who is quickly climbing up this list.

    In his second year in the league, Mathews ran for 1,091 yards in 14 games and also rushed for six touchdowns.

    Mathews also proved he can be used as a weapon in the passing game, catching 50 passes for 455 yards.

    Mathews should rush for over 1,000 yards once again and could end up finding himself in the Pro Bowl.

18. Darren Sproles

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    Darren Sproles isn't your typical back, but his numbers speak for themselves.

    Sproles averaged 6.9 yards per carry last year, totaling 603 yards on the ground and two touchdowns.

    But in New Orleans, Sproles became one of the biggest weapon in an explosive passing game. Sproles caught 86 passes for 710 yards and seven touchdowns.

    Sproles is a do-it-all back and will have another great, balanced season in 2012.

17. DeAngelo Williams

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    The second part of the Panthers one-two punch, DeAngelo Williams is an explosive playmaker who could put up over 1,000 yards this season.

    Williams rushed for 836 yards and seven touchdowns last year, which are respectable numbers, but look at his stats from 2008 and 2009.

    In 2008, Williams ran for over 1,500 yards and scored 18 touchdowns.

    In 2009, he ran for 1,117 yards and seven touchdowns in 13 games.

    Carolina needs to get Williams the ball about 200 times this year. If it does that, he'll have no trouble surpassing 1,000 yards again.

16. Rashard Mendenhall

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    Rashard Mendenhall is one of the most underrated backs in the NFL.

    If not for a season-ending injury in the Steelers final game of the season, Mendenhall could have rushed for over 1,000 yards for the third straight year; he finished the season with 928 yards and nine touchdowns.

    The previous two seasons, Mendenhall ran for a total of 2,381 yards and 20 touchdowns.

    It is uncertain if Mendenhall will be ready to start the season in Pittsburgh, but whenever he does get back, you can bet that he'll be a force to be reckoned with.

15. Willis McGahee

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    Willis McGahee was a forgotten man up until last year where he emerged as the lead back in Denver.

    McGahee has rushed for over 1,000 yards four times in his eight years, including last year, when he ran for 1,199 yards.

    Now that Peyton Manning is in Denver, McGahee will likely receive less carries, but he'll get his share and has the ability to rush for over 1,000 yards for the fifth time in his career.

14. Fred Jackson

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    Fred Jackson was on an absolute tear before getting injured in Buffalo's 10th game of the year.

    Jackson was averaging 5.5 yards per carry and had a total of 934 yards and six touchdowns on the ground, as well as 442 receiving yards.

    Jackson's 2011 season wasn't a fluke, as he ran for 927 yards in 2010 and 1,062 yards in 2009.

    If he can stay healthy, Jackson could very well lead the Bills to the playoffs in 2012. 

13. Darren McFadden

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    When healthy, Darren McFadden can be one of the best running backs in the league.

    McFadden only played six full games a year ago, but he ran for 610 yards and four touchdowns in those games.

    In 2010, McFadden played in 13 games, rushing for 1,157 yards and seven touchdowns.

    If he can stay healthy, McFadden can be a top five back. We'll see if this is the year where he plays 16 games.

12. Marshawn Lynch

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    Marshawn Lynch had his best season since 2008 a year ago, rushing for 1,204 yards and 12 touchdowns in his second year in Seattle.

    In 2010, Lynch played in 12 games, rushing for 573 yards and six touchdowns.

    Lynch is starting to prove that he is one of the top backs in the league, and he has the talent to repeat his success from last year.  

11. Jamaal Charles

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    Jamaal Charles had only 12 carries last season due to an injury, but when he is healthy, there are very few defenses who can contain him.

    In 2010, Charles ran for 1,467 yards and five touchdowns and also had 468 receiving yards and three touchdowns.

    He's back in 2012 and has Peyton Hillis in the backfield with him to take some pressure away, so expect another 1,000-yard season for the speedy back.

10. Matt Forte

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    Matt Forte was on pace for a career-best season in 2011 when he injured himself in Chicago's 12th game of the season.

    Through 11 games, Forte ran for 985 yards and also had 490 receiving yards.  

    In 2010, Forte showed what he can do if he's healthy, rushing for 1,069 yards and six touchdowns.  

    If he can stay healthy in 2012, Forte could very well run for 1,300 yards.

9. Michael Turner

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    Since leaving San Diego to become the Falcons starter, Turner has been one of the best backs in football.

    In four years in Atlanta, Turner has rushed for 5,281 yards and 50 touchdowns while helping to lead the Falcons to the playoffs three times. It's not a coincidence that the one year that the Falcons didn't make the playoffs with Turner was when he only played in 11 games in 2009.

    Turner is a tough back to tackle, at 5'10" and 247 lbs., so it's no wonder that he has so many goal line touchdowns.

    In 2012, Turner will once again be a dominant back and could lead Atlanta back to the postseason. 

8. Chris Johnson

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    2011 was a down year for Chris Johnson, but he still ran for 1,047 yards.

    In his four years in the league, Johnson has run for over 1,000 yards every year, including 2,006 yards in 2009.  

    His 4.0 yards per carry average was a huge disappointment, but expect a bounce-back year for Johnson, who is too good not to have a better season.

7. Frank Gore

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    Frank Gore is an underrated superstar in the NFL.

    In his seven NFL seasons, Gore has run for over 1,000 yards five times and has a total of 43 touchdowns.

    Last season, Gore ran for 1,211 yards on 282 carries.

    Brandon Jacobs may take away some goal line touchdowns from Gore, and LaMichael James along with Jacobs will take away some carries, but Gore could rush for over 1,000 yards once again in 2012.

6. Steven Jackson

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    Imagine how good Steven Jackson would be if he had a better line in front of him.

    Jackson ran for over 1,000 yards in every year from 2005-2011. He has a total of 9,093 yards and 52 touchdowns in eight seasons with St. Louis and is a perennial Pro Bowler.

    Jackson has speed and perhaps the best stiff arm in the league and will once again surpass 1,000 yards and go under the radar.

5. Arian Foster

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    Arian Foster joined the Texans as an undrafted free agent in 2009, but it was in 2010 when he showed every team why they should have selected him.

    Foster ran for 1,616 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2010 and proved it wasn't a fluke when he ran for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns in 13 games in 2012.

    Foster is fifth on this list right now, but in a few more years, he could be even higher.

4. Ray Rice

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    In three years as the starter in Baltimore, Ray Rice has run for a total of 3,923 yards and 24 touchdowns.

    Rice is a great rusher, but he can also catch the ball, grabbing 76 passes for 704 yards and three touchdowns last season.

    Rice is a short, quick, strong back who will continue to put up 1,000-yard seasons and may win an MVP award soon.

3. LeSean McCoy

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    LeSean McCoy had a breakout season in 2011, carrying the ball 273 times and rushing for 1,309 yards and 17 touchdowns as well as three touchdown catches.

    The man known as Shady is an up-and-coming superstar who will soon be in discussions for the best back in the league, if he isn't already.

    The Eagles need to find a solid second back to take some pressure off of McCoy, because if he isn't healthy, Philadelphia is in trouble.

2. Maurice Jones-Drew

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    Maurice Jones-Drew may be the most underrated player in the NFL.

    MJD won the rushing title in 2011, totaling 1,606 yards, averaging 4.7 yards per carry.

    Jones-Drew has run for over 1,000 yards in three straight seasons and has a total of 28 touchdowns in those three years.

    If the Jaguars end up moving to Los Angeles, Jones-Drew will begin being discussed as one of the best players in football, but for now, he's flying under the radar in Jacksonville.

1. Adrian Peterson

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    A knee injury prevented Adrian Peterson for rushing for 1,000 yards last year, but he still had 970 yards and 12 touchdowns in only 12 games.

    Peterson has a total of 6,752 rushing yards in five seasons and has also found the end zone 64 times on the ground.

    It is uncertain whether or not Peterson will be ready to start the season, but whether or not he's ready doesn't matter for this list. Adrian Peterson is the best running back in the NFL. Period.

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