Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson ran away with the NFL rushing title last year. However, if recent history is any indication, the seventh-year pro is going to face some challengers to his throne this season.
Peterson had one of the best seasons by a running back in NFL history in 2012, coming within nine yards of breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record.
He has his sights set even higher in 2013, telling the Star Tribune that his goal is to gain 2,500 yards on the ground this year.
Not only is that lofty goal somewhat unrealistic, there's a good chance that Peterson's production will dip significantly in 2013—at least if history is any indicator.
Of the six running backs before Peterson who topped 2,000 rushing yards in a season, none have gained 1,500 yards rushing the following year and only two reached 1,250 yards.
Also, it's been several years since a running back led the NFL in rushing in successive seasons, although Peterson was the last player to accomplish the feat in 2007 and 2008.
Granted, given Peterson's amazing recovery from a torn ACL in 2012, it's unwise to count the 28-year-old out. Nevertheless, the door would certainly seem to be open for another ball-carrier to claim the rushing title in 2013.
Here's a look at some of the leading candidates to supplant Peterson as the NFL's leading rusher this season.
Alfred Morris, Washington Redskins
Washington Redskins running back Alfred Morris may not have been the first running back selected in the 2012 NFL Draft. By the time the dust had cleared on the 2012 season, however, no first-year back had gained more yardage than the Florida Atlantic star.
In fact, only Adrian Peterson topped Morris' 1,613 yards for the season.
Morris may not be the most explosive player at his position, but he has two things working in his favor as he attempts to claim the 2013 rushing crown.
First, Morris is rarely thrown for a loss, as evidenced by his robust 4.8 yards a carry and 1,001 yards after contact, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Then there's the matter of the workload Morris will receive. Morris' 335 carries in 2012 ranked third in the NFL and there's no reason to think that workload will decrease significantly this year.
Assuming he stays healthy and produces at a level similar to 2012, Morris will be in the thick of the hunt for the rushing crown this season.
Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks
There are two main types of running backs in the National Football League.
There are backs like Jamaal Charles of the Kansas City Chiefs and Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans, who use their speed and quickness to pick up yardage.
Then there are backs like Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks, who feel that the quickest way around a problem is to run right through it.
The 27-year-old had a career year of his own in 2012, setting personal bests in carries (315), yardage (1,590) and yards per carry (5.0).
The selection of running backs Christine Michael of Texas A&M and Spencer Ware of LSU casts some doubt as to whether Lynch will receive that many touches again in 2013, and there's always a risk that Lynch's balky back will act up.
However, Lynch plays behind a sturdy offensive line on an offense that's potent enough to prevent opponents from stacking the box. A healthy Lynch, with a full complement of touches, should once again flirt with 1,500 rushing yards and be among the NFL leaders in that category.
Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' decision to trade back into the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft and select Boise State running back Doug Martin began looking pretty good right about the time that Martin gashed the Minnesota Vikings for over 200 total yards in Week 8.
The following week, Martin exploded for 251 yards on the ground against the Oakland Raiders. By season's end, the 5'9", 215-pound "Muscle Hamster" racked up 1,454 rushing yards, good for fifth in the NFL.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), only Adrian Peterson picked up more yards after contact than Martin's 1,005 in 2012, demonstrating that Martin is a running back who isn't going down without a fight.
Add that toughness to Martin's other skills, combine that with nearly 20 carries per game and you have the recipe for a back that has everything it takes to challenge Peterson and these other backs for the NFL's rushing title.
Arian Foster, Houston Texans
It would be remiss not to include one running back from the AFC among the contenders to dethrone Peterson. The best bet on that side of the bracket is likely Arian Foster of the Houston Texans.
The 26-year-old finished second in the AFC with 1,424 rushing yards last year, led the conference in carries with 351 in 2012 and led the NFL in rushing as recently as 2010.
This isn't to say that there aren't some obstacles standing in Foster's way. Foster's yards per carry have dipped in each of the past two seasons and the fifth-year pro is going to have to do better than 4.1 yards per touch to bring home the title of the NFL's top rusher.
However, Foster is the unquestioned lead back on a team that loves to pound the ball and those opportunities for production at least afford Foster a puncher's chance of making a run at the title of top dog among running backs.
There are some other candidates—including C.J. Spiller of the Buffalo Bills, Johnson of the Tennessee Titans and Charles of the Kansas City Chiefs—who could challenge for the rushing title if they receive enough carries.
However, that's a big if. The quartet featured in this article possesses the blend of talent and opportunity that gives them the best chance of unseating Peterson as the NFL's top running back in 2013.
Good luck with that.