When debating who is the best running back in the NFL, many are inclined to say Adrian Peterson. If there was a league-wide vote, Arian Foster would accumulate an abundance of votes. After three straight years of over 1,200 rushing yards along with the yards from scrimmage title last season, many would give Ray Rice the distinction.
LeSean McCoy entered himself into the conversation after a masterful 1,309-yard, 17-touchdown performance in 2011. Matt Forte, Frank Gore, Michael Turner, Steven Jackson and Chris Johnson are noteworthy candidates, as well.
In the eyes of some, veteran of the group Maurice Jones-Drew deserves the honor as NFL's best running back.
Clearly, the debate rages on today—so with the 2012 season around the bend, now's the appropriate time to settle the score, if possible.
Pure Rushing Statistics
Last season, Jones-Drew led the NFL with 1,606 yards on the ground. His total was 242 yards more than second-place finisher Ray Rice. Both backs pieced together their fine seasons at 4.7 yards per carry, a rather dynamic number for players who were given more than 290 carries.
Despite what many envision as a downturn in production, Michael Turner had his second straight season with over 1,300 rushing yards, and did so at a 4.5 yards per carry clip with 11 touchdowns. No, he's not an explosive outside runner like the other candidates, but his workman-like approach has been rather successful in Atlanta.
The rest of the top ten shook out in this order: McCoy, Foster, Gore, Lynch, McGahee, Jackson and Ryan Mathews.
After holding out from the Titans until September, Chris Johnson finished the year with only 1,047 yards on the ground, his third straight season with declining rushing numbers.
Adrian Peterson was held under 1,000 yards for the first time in his career, but his season was injury-plagued. A leg injury limited Forte's season to only 12 games, and the Bears runner averaged 4.9 yards per carry.
Over the last two years, Jones-Drew's 2,930 rushing yards are the most in the NFL, and he's done so at a solid 4.56 yards per carry average.
During that same span, injuries have curtailed Darren McFadden's numbers and carries, but he's totaled 1,771 rushing yards at a ridiculous 5.27 yards per attempt.
So, based purely on what we've seen since the start of the 2010 campaign in terms of ground production, Jones-Drew is the NFL's preeminent running back.
Unfortunately for him, that's not the sole determining factor.
Nowadays, backs are undoubtedly a vital aspect of their respective team's passing game. While "catching the football" isn't at the top of a running back's job description, every organization searches for a runner with good hands.
On average, 17.6 running backs have finished the year with over 40 catches since 2009.
Of the qualifying candidates, Rice undoubtedly "wins" this category, with 139 grabs for 1,260 receiving yards and four scores over the last two years (Darren Sproles' 145 grabs for 1,230 yards and nine touchdowns mustn't be forgotten, however).
Arian Foster has slightly been edged out by Rice in the receiving department, having caught 119 passes for 1,221 yards with four scores of his own during the same time frame.
MJD has reeled in 77 passes for 691 yards (8.9 yards per catch average) with five touchdowns since 2010.
Foster's 4,061 total yards from scrimmage since 2010 leads the NFL, and Rices trails in second with 3,844 yards.
LeSean McCoy, someone perceived as explosive and extremely versatile, has only 3,296 total yards during that span, but at 24 years old, his best football may actually be in front of him.
I've purposely left out statistics from the 2009 season, which to me, is too long ago. But interestingly enough, even with his record-breaking 2,509 all-purpose yard tour de force, CJ2K's three-year total of 5,583 is exceeded by Rice's 5,885.
So, based on all the ways NFL running backs can gain yardage and depending on how far back you're willing to go, either Rice or Foster should rightfully be considered the league's best.
Any football coach will tell you that pass protection is an underrated but crucial aspect of being an all-around running back. There's obviously no definitive pass-blocking statistic that measures the efficiency of running backs protecting their quarterbacks. While some backs are certainly better, more effective and more willing pass-blockers than others, it's nearly impossible to designate a clear-cut winner.
Sadly, injuries to players like Peterson, McFadden, Forte, Steven Jackson and even Fred Jackson have kept this debate from getting exceptionally interesting, but each player's respective offensive scheme is the ultimate deciding factor that leads to my final awarding.
All of, say, the 10 most prolific running backs in the league play in, though visibly similar, slightly differing offenses. Some operate zone blocking schemes. Some lean heavily on the screen game. Some love to push the ball downfield to speedy wideouts. Some utilize the tight end on check downs more frequently than others. Some share more carries between the starter and backup running back than others, which leads to my next point.
The Texans love what they get out of Arian Foster, and rightfully so. Would they trade him for Ray Rice? No way. Would the Ravens trade Rice for Foster? Forget about it. The Eagles may be enamored with the overall skill set of Adrian Peterson, but love Shady McCoy's youth and upside even more. All of the league's top backs have seen offenses molded around them and have become fantastic fits on their respective team.
You get the picture.
Sure, there's a cut off somewhere—when a club would trade their "feature back" for one of the more productive runners in the league.
But the top 10-12 guys are essentially interchangeable. Statistics and complementary personnel fluctuate from year to year. Injuries are the perpetual wild card.
Right now, at this very moment, I'll take Ray Rice as the league's "best" running back. However, I'm not naive to think he'll definitely maintain that distinction following the 2012 season, and I certainly wouldn't bash nine or ten other teams for liking their running back more than the Ravens' runner.