The 31 Best NFL Running Back Performances From 2008

Matthew GilmartinSenior Analyst IMarch 2, 2009

I’d like to thank Bryn Swartz for allowing me to write this article after I got the idea from his article The 32 Best Quarterbacks in the NFL.



In order to be ranked in this list the running backs had to survive two cuts.  The first was a minimum requirement of 100 carries in the 2008 regular season.  The second was made based on my discretion of a short-coming in one or more of 10 major statistical categories. 


Once I had my list down to 31 (31 players made the final field instead of 32—as per the number of teams in the NFL—because I misread the spreadsheet where I kept all my research on the players, so I thought I had 32, but really only had 31), I assigned each statistical category a numerical value based on importance relevant to a running back’s performance (i.e. each rushing yard a player had earned him five points). 


Then I created an equation in an attempt to best measure a running back’s overall performance in terms of a final score.  The scores that the rankings are based off of are rounded to the nearest whole number.


The equation is: X carries x 3 + X rushing yards x 5 + X rushing average x 2 + X rushing yards x 7 + percent of runs for first downs + receptions x 2 + receiving yards x 3 + receiving average + points – X fumbles x 3 – X games played.  Long, and a bit complicated, I know, but you’re not the one who had to calculate 32 different players’ scores using this equation.


Now, without further adieu, the 31 running backs who delivered the best season-long, regular season performances in 2008…


31. Joseph Addai, Indianapolis Colts, Final Score: 2839


With only 155 carries in a minimal 12 games, Addai didn’t have a chance to do much.  But he still accumulated 544 yards, and averaged an acceptable 3.5 yards per carry.  He was in the middle of the pack of the final field in terms of percentage of runs for a first down.


He posed a decent receiving threat, with 25 receptions for 206 yards.  He scored 42 points, which averages out to a touchdown every two games.  Not horrible, but by no means especially good, either.


30. Edgerrin James, Arizona Cardinals, Final Score: 3288


How James ended up with a better score than Addai, I don’t know.  But he did, with 514 rushing yards on 133 carries, which comes out as 3.9 yards per carry—not bad.  But the only other halfway impressive thing about James is that he fumbled only once.  On the other hand, he didn’t have many carries.


Still, even I’m wondering how James ended up with a better score than Addai, considering Addai beat him in every one of the included statistical categories except average yards per carry…But James did have the better score, so he’s No. 31.


29. Tim Hightower, Arizona Cardinals, Final Score: 3326


Hightower scored ten touchdowns, and converted for a first down on 23.8 percent of his runs, one of the better figures in the NFL.  But his real strength was receiving, as he caught 34 passes for 237 yards, and scoring, with 60 points overall.


28. Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills, Final Score: 4301


He averaged a healthy 4.4 yards per carry (if he had gotten more carries, he might have had 800-900 yards), and moved the chains on an astounding 26.2 percent of his runs (I believe that’s the second-best, maybe the best, percentage for first-down conversion in the league). 


He also had 37 catches for 317 yards.  But he fumbled three times, not exactly good for someone who only carries 130 times.


27. Pierre Thomas, New Orleans Saints, Final Score: 4562


One of the most underrated running backs of 2008, Thomas averaged 4.8 yards per carry, scored nine touchdowns, and got a first down on 33 percent of his carries.  Add in 31 catches for 284 yards as well as 72 points and only one fumble, and you’ve got an awfully good running back for a player so far down on this list.


26. Willis McGahee, Baltimore Ravens, Final Score: 4692


McGahee, with 671 yards, an average of 3.9 yards per carry, seven touchdowns, 24 receptions for 173 yards, and 42 points (as well as two fumbles in 170 carries) is a true middle-of-the-pack running back.


25. LenDale White, Tennessee Titans, Final Score: 4710


I bet you expected White to be ranked higher, especially if you’re a Titans fan.  But his lack of rushing yards (773) compared to the elite backs did him in despite his 15 touchdowns and 90 points. 


24. Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers, Final Score: 5012


It’s a bit surprising that Stewart wasn’t ranked higher, considering his average of 4.5 yards per carry and 10 touchdowns.  He also gained 836 yards, not bad for a guy who got only 184 carries in a run-first scheme.  But he only had eight grabs for 47 yards.  In addition, he only had 60 points, which is in the middle of the pack.


23. Larry Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs, Final Score: 5248


Johnson was one of the few strengths of the Chiefs in ’08, compiling 874 rushing yards on only 193 carries (which averages out to 4.5 yards per carry) in a minimal 12 games.  But he scored minimally (five touchdowns and 30 points overall), and didn’t catch passes out of the backfield much (12 catches for 74 yards).  He also fumbled five times, one of the highest figures in the league in that category.


22. Warrick Dunn, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Final Score: 5598


Dunn had a decent season, carrying 186 times at 4.2 yards per pop for 786 rushing yards.  But his mere two touchdowns and 12 points overall really negated his 47 catches for 330 yards.  But he didn’t have any fumbles, which is something only one other guy in the NFL—the Panthers’ DeAngelo Williams—matched.


21. Le’Ron McClain, Baltimore Ravens, Final Score: 5738


232 carries for 902 yards is good, if not great.  He also scored ten touchdowns, and earned a first down on 22 percent of his runs, one of the better figures in the league.  19 receptions for 123 yards is a nice extra tool.

66 points isn’t awesome, but it’s better than some.  The three fumbles could be either bad, or acceptable, depending on your point-of-view. 


20. Ronnie Browns, Miami Dolphins, Final Score: 6177


Brown ran for more than 900 yards (916, to be exact), with 214 carries to work with.  Not bad at all. He also tallied ten touchdowns, and converted for a first down on 22.4 percent of his runs.  33 catches for 254 yards makes Brown a respectable receiving threat, too.  Only one fumble in 200+ carries—commendable.


19. Brandon Jacobs, New York Giants, Final Score: 6411


Yes, I know, you think Jacobs should be ranked higher.  But he isn’t because of his lack of receiving numbers (six receptions/36 yards).  But he did accumulate 1089 yards, ran for an average of five yards per carry, and totaled 15 rushing scores. 

His 26 percent of total runs for first downs, I believe, was one of the top three figures in the NFL.  Jacobs scored contributed 90 points overall, but fumbled three times.  However, again that could go either way depending on your perception of the context.


18. Jamal Lewis, Cleveland Browns, Final Score: 6475


How Lewis ended up with a score in the middle third of the pack, I don’t know.


He gained 1002 yards and averaged 3.6 yards per carry.  But he only scored four touchdowns, converted for a first down on only 15 percent of his runs, caught 23 passes for 178 yards, and scored only 23 points.  Yet he still ended up with a 6000+ score….


17. Marion Barber, Dallas Cowboys, Final Score: 6588


Barber ran decently, for 885 yards on 238 carries and seven touchdowns.  He also had a 23 percent first down conversion rate compared to total rushes.  But his main contribution was in the passing game, where he had 52 catches for 417 yards. 

Barber’s 54 points make him a nice scoring threat.  And three fumbles in nearly 240 carries isn’t the end of the world.


16. Kevin Smith, Detroit Lions, Final Score: 6630


Smith fell 24 yards short of the millennium mark.  He averaged 4.1 yards per carry, which isn’t half bad when you’re running behind the Lions’ horrid offensive line.  Smith also scored eight touchdowns, and served as a dual threat RB with 39 catches for 286 yards.  48 points is a welcome contribution.  Not to mention that he fumbled only once in 238 carries.


15. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars, Final Score: 6687


Jones-Drew was invisible last year because of the fact that he played on an underachieving team, but he surpassed 800 yards with fewer than 200 carries.  His 12 touchdowns, 23.9 first down runs to total runs percent, 62 receptions for 565 yards, and 84 points make a great case for him. 

The downside?  In exactly 197 carries he fumbled four times.


14. Brian Westbrook, Philadelphia Eagles, Final Score: 6838


Westbrook had another solid season for the Eagles, rushing 233 times for 936 yards (four yards per carry).  He also scored nine touchdowns, and caught 54 passes for 402 yards.  Westbrook scored 84 points, and fumbled only once.  Oh yeah—and he only played in 14 games.


13. Derrick Ward, New York Giants, Final Score: 6929


Ward had the highest yards per carry average (5.6) of any running back who had 100+ carries.  In addition, he eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark and had 41 catches amassing 384 yards.  But his 12 points and two fumbles in a minimal number of carries kept him out of the top ten.


12. Marshawn Lynch, Buffalo Bills, Final Score: 7026


Lynch accumulated 1036 yards on only 250 carries, which averages out to 4.1 yards per carry.  He also scored eight touchdowns and caught 47 passes for 300 yards in addition to tallying 54 points.  But he’s not in the top ten because of his six fumbles and lack of true elite-back yardage.


11. Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers, Final Score: 7182


Gore ran for 1036 yards on 240 carries (4.3 yards per carry), despite running behind one of the worst offensive lines of last season. 

His six touchdowns aren’t much to write home about, but the fact that a bulky running back could catch 43 throws covering 373 yards is impressive, particularly with the 49ers’ shaky quarterback situation.  But his minimal 48 points and five fumbles are troublesome.


10. Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams, Final Score: 7273


Jackson was the definition of a dual-threat back last year.  1042 rushing yards and 4.1 yards per carry were good.  His first-down conversion rate—22.9 percent—was in the upper echelon of this field. 

With 40 catches for 379 yards, Jackson was not only the Rams’ rushing attack; he was also half of St. Louis’ passing game.  But Jackson fumbled too much—five times, in fact.


9. LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego Chargers, Final Score: 7773


Even in a “down year”, LT still had over 1,110 yards and 11 touchdowns.  His 52 receptions for 426 yards, in addition to his 72 points and single fumble make LT worthy of the top ten.


8. Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans, Final Score: 7880


Johnson had a spectacular 2008, rushing for 1228 yards and nine touchdowns.  He averaged 4.9 yards per carry, one the best figures in the league.  43 catches for 260 yards (and 60 points) put him over the top.


7. Thomas Jones, New York Jets, Final Score: 8291


Jones started the season as a relatively unknown back, but developed into one of the best runners in the NFL.  290 carries for 1312 yards is exemplary as are his 13 touchdowns, 36 catches amassing 207 yards, and 90 points.  The only downside to Thomas was his four fumbles. 


6. Steve Slaton, Houston Texans, Final Score: 8563


In a season where he easily could have won Rookie of the Year, Slaton accumulated 1282 yards on 268 carries (4.8 yards per).  Nine touchdowns and 50 receptions for 377 yards makes him a good fit for the top ten.


5. Matt Forte, Chicago Bears, Final Score: 8819


Forte, another exceptional rookie, represented a good part of the Bears’ offense for much of the season with 1238 yards, eight touchdowns, 63 grabs covering 477 yards, and 72 points.


4. DeAngelo Williams, Carolina Panthers, Final Score: 9042


Williams had the third-highest rushing yardage total in the NFL, as well as the second-highest yards per carry in the league.  His 17 rushing touchdowns were tied for the league best with Michael Turner. 

Williams’ 24.2 first-down conversions to total runs rate was one of the better numbers in the league.  His 122 points were easily the most in the NFL among running backs.


3. Clinton Portis, Washington Redskins, Final Score: 9279


Portis compiled nearly 1500 yards and scored a decent nine touchdowns.  His 54 points were passable, but for a supposedly elite player that’s nothing to write home about.  Three fumbles in 342 carries isn’t bad at all, though.


2. Michael Turner, Atlanta Falcons, Final Score: 9970


Turner had the second-highest yardage total in the league (1699 yards), and one of the better average yardage per carry figures (4.5).  17 touchdowns and 102 points is outstanding.


1. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings, Final Score: 10408


With the league’s most rushing yardage (1760), an average of 4.8 yards per carry, and 10 touchdowns, Peterson was the league’s best running back in 2008, despite fumbling nine times—the highest figure in the league for a running back.


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