NFL

Today's Best Running Backs and Their Throwback Comparisons

Russell S. BaxterContributor IJanuary 14, 2014

Today's Best Running Backs and Their Throwback Comparisons

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    Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy led the NFL in rushing in 2013.
    Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy led the NFL in rushing in 2013.Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

    They say good things come in threes.

    There are some great things when it comes to today’s crop of running backs and the glorious players of the past.

    Here’s the third part of our 12-part series where we look at the better performers at their respective positions in the NFL and who they may compare to from the past.

    We began with quarterbacks and wide receivers and this time, we were born to focus on the run.

    In no particular order, and not necessarily the statistical leaders, we will look at 10 current running backs and who they may draw comparisons to in terms of some of the all-time greats.

    The criteria are multi-faceted and one legend doesn’t fit all. We are talking style as much as anything because after all, the eye test is still the best pop quiz ever.

    Factors when it comes to comparisons will include style, speed, size and durability. We’ll even sprinkle a little history and philosophy in here as well.

    So take your time and enjoy our third installment of this series. There’s no rush when it comes to looking at these runners.

Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images - Elaine Thompson/AP

    Similar To: William Andrews

    Who says timing isn’t everything?

    For the second time in four seasons, the Seattle Seahawks hosted the New Orleans Saints in a playoff game.

    Three years ago, Pete Carroll’s club survived a 41-36 barnburner thanks to one of the greatest runs (or worst tackling efforts) in NFL postseason history.

    Cue the video.

    But Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch has done what he did to the Saints to a lot of opposing defenses the last few seasons.

    He may be the best power runner in the game these days. The four-time Pro Bowler has totaled an impressive 4,051 yards rushing while running for 35 scores the last three seasons.

    Power and relentlessness were also a forte of one-time Atlanta Falcons running back William Andrews, who appeared on his way to an amazing career before a devastating knee injury put those dreams to an end. Still, he made his mark in his first five seasons in the league.

    Meanwhile, Lynch has made his mark, as well as left a few bruises, over the last few seasons.                           

Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers

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    David F. Smith/AP - Ross D. Franklin/AP

    Similar To: Jim Taylor

    San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore has the perfect name for a player at his position. That’s because he’s been gouging opposing defenses for nine seasons.

    The five-time Pro Bowler is the franchise’s all-time leading rusher with 9,967 yards. He’s run for at least 1,000 yards in seven of his nine campaigns. Gore is the perfect fit for Jim Harbaugh’s hard-nosed football team, which has now made three straight trips to the playoffs.

    While he’s not a fullback, he certainly performs like one of those power runners 40 and 50 years ago. And he benefits from arguably the best offensive line in the league, one that executes well on a consistent basis.

    Speaking of execution, what team can compete with the Green Bay Packers, their fabled power sweep and Hall of Fame running back Jim Taylor? He finished with 8,207 yards rushing and 81 touchdowns on the ground in his nine seasons in “Titletown.”

    It wasn’t until 2009 that Taylor was unseated as the Packers’ all-time leading rusher (Ahman Green now owns that honor). Meanwhile, it won’t be long before Gore reaches that fabled 10,000-yard career rushing mark. Quite an accomplishment for the former third-round draft choice.

Arian Foster, Houston Texans

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    John Gaps III/AP - Dave Einsel/AP

    Similar To: Roger Craig

    We didn’t get to see a lot of Houston Texans running back Arian Foster this season.

    In the previous three seasons, opponents saw more than enough of the powerful and versatile runner.

    In 59 regular-season games with the Texans, the former undrafted free agent has scored 52 touchdowns. Foster has run for 5,063 yards and 45 scores and led the NFL with 1,616 yards rushing in 2010. He has also added 189 receptions, seven for scores, in six seasons.

    In 1985, San Francisco 49ers running back Roger Craig became the first player in NFL history to total 1,000 or more yards both rushing and receiving. His combination of power and versatility made him a vital cog for three Super Bowl title teams.

    Will Foster return healthy and in Pro Bowl form in 2014?

    He ran for 542 yards in eight games this season before being sidelined. Don’t bet against the Texans’ all-time rushing leader returning better than ever.

    Although it’s highly doubtful that the other teams in the league are looking forward to that.

Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens

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    Rusty Kennedy/AP - Jeff Roberson/AP

    Similar To: Thurman Thomas

    We’ll avoid the culinary puns when it comes to Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.

    Others can chew on those if they choose.

    Since arriving in the NFL in 2008, the former second-round pick has been a vital part of his team’s offense and more than complimentary to quarterback Joe Flacco, who arrived in Baltimore the same season.

    Truth be told, it proved to be a very disappointing season for both Rice and the defending Super Bowl champions. Only two teams in the league ran for fewer yards than the Ravens in 2013. Rice totaled just 981 yards from scrimmage just two seasons after leading the NFL in that category (2,068) in 2011.

    As the same when discussing runners like LeSean McCoy, former Buffalo Bills running back Thurman Thomas somewhat ushered in the era of versatile running backs. The 5’10”, 200-pound performer ranks ninth in NFL history in total yards from scrimmage (16,532) and 14th in rushing (12,074). The Pro Football Hall of Famer also helped the Bills reach a record four consecutive Super Bowls in the 1990s.

    If John Harbaugh’s club is to bounce back from the club’s first non-playoff appearance since 2007, they’ll need Rice to return to Pro Bowl form sooner than later.

Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings

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    Fred Jewell/AP - Tom Olmscheid/AP

    Similar To: Walter Payton

    Walter Payton? That’s high praise indeed for Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.

    The seven-year veteran has certainly earned his share of accolades. He’s totaled 10,115 rushing yards and ran for 86 scores so far in his NFL career. Those touchdowns on the ground are tied for 14th in NFL history.

    Of course, Peterson was the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2012, when he ran for 2,097 yards and propelled the Vikings to a 10-6 record and a playoff berth.

    Why Walter Payton? The late and great Pro Football Hall of Famer still ranks second in league annals with 16,726 yards on the ground.

    It’s Peterson’s drive and relentlessness that draws comparison to the legendary Bears running back. And that stiff arm in the photo above brings back some great memories as well.

LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Uncredited/AP - Jeff Roberson/AP

    Similar To: Chuck Foreman

    We just saw Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy lead the NFL in rushing (1,607) and total yards from scrimmage (2,146). The Eagles would lead the league in rushing yards in 2013 and it helped lead Chip Kelly’s team to an NFC East title. Just two years ago, McCoy led the NFL with 20 total touchdowns.

    Still, these days there are a bevy of NFL statistics. But a player’s total yards from scrimmage is one number that really came to light in the late 1980s when versatile Buffalo Bills running back and Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas burst onto the scene.

    Before Thomas there was Chuck Foreman, who was a part of those great Minnesota Vikings’ teams that made three Super Bowl appearances during his first four seasons in the league. In 1975, he scored 22 touchdowns and also caught 73 passes. In his seven seasons with the Purple Gang, Foreman amassed 8,944 yards from scrimmage and 75 touchdowns.

    And like Foreman, McCoy’s receiving skills combined with his elusive running abilities make him one of the league’s most dangerous offensive performers.

     

Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Uncredited/AP - Charlie Riedel/AP

    Similar To: Lenny Moore

    This may be a bit of a reach due to the fact that Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles has only one big season catching the ball.

    But please, here me out.

    It’s not like the Pro Bowl performer has been known his entire career for his receiving skills. In 2013, however, he led the Chiefs in receptions (70), receiving yards (693) and touchdown grabs (seven). Of course, he also finished third in the league in rushing yards (1,287) and led the NFL with 19 total touchdowns.

    Still, Charles has totaled 222 receptions, 14 for scores, in just 80 games. He’s totaled 35 or more catches in four of his last five seasons.

    Hall of Fame running back Lenny Moore was a vital part of the Baltimore Colts offenses. The sometimes under-appreciated performer scored 113 touchdowns, ranking 13th in NFL history. Moore ran for 63 scores, caught 48 touchdown passes and also scored on a pair of returns.

    With Andy Reid running the show in Kansas City these days, Charles may be on the verge of becoming one of the league’s most productive dual-threats.

Matt Forte, Chicago Bears

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    Julie Jacobson/AP - Nam Y. Huh/AP

    Similar To: Curtis Martin

    He’s one of the league’s most reliable players at his position and he’s been named to a pair of Pro Bowls in his six seasons in the league.

    Somehow, Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte always seems like an afterthought when it comes to the league’s best running backs. And that’s unfortunate.

    The former second-round pick has rushed for at least 900 yards each year in the NFL, running for a career-high 1,339 yards in 2013, and has caught at least 50 passes in five of his six campaigns. In 91 regular-season contests, Forte has totaled an impressive 9,585 yards from scrimmage.

    Fans will remember that Curtis Martin was a third-round draft choice by the New England Patriots in 1995. He was signed by the New York Jets, who gave up draft choices to secure the services of the restricted free agent.

    Martin, who many felt slipped in the draft due to durability issues in school, ran for 1,000 or more yards in each of his first 10 seasons in the NFL. Who knew?

    When you think of consistency, it’s hard not to think of Martin, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

    And perhaps it is time you thought a little more about Forte.

Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images - Keith Sracocic/AP

    Similar To: James Brooks

    It’s safe to say that for the majority of his career with the Jacksonville Jaguars, MJD has been A-OK.

    Running back Maurice Jones-Drew had a very respectable 2013 considering he missed the final 10 games the previous season. The eight-year veteran rushed for 803 yards and five scores and finished third on the team with 43 receptions. The previous season, he ran for a club-high 414 yards despite playing in only six games.

    Flash back to 2011, when MJD amassed a league-high 1,606 yards on the ground. From 2009-11, Jones-Drew totaled at least 1,300 yards rushing after spending the early part of his career sharing time with Fred Taylor.

    When it comes to versatility and quick-strike potential, James Brooks was tough to top. Like Jones-Drew, he was a focal point on returns early in his career. But in 12 NFL seasons, predominantly with the San Diego Chargers and Cincinnati Bengals, Brooks ran for 7,962 yards and 49 scores, plus caught 383 passes, 30 of those for touchdowns.

    Meanwhile, Jones-Drew is the Jaguars’ all-time leader in total touchdowns (81) and like Brooks scored 79 touchdowns from scrimmage. In 2014, he’ll be more than a year removed from that knee injury and who’s to say he won’t recapture his former Pro Bowl form. Whether he does it in a Jacksonville Jaguars’ uniform may be another matter.

Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans

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    Focus on Sport/Getty Images - Elaine Thompson/AP

    Similar To: O.J. Simpson

    We are talking football here so it seems odd we are about to discuss home-run threats.

    In an era where we see fewer big plays and production from the running back position, Tennessee’s Chris Johnson remains one of those performers who can go the distance any time he touches the football.

    Yes, while Johnson’s longest run in 2013 was just 30 yards, his biggest play of the season was a 66-yard touchdown reception.

    In six NFL campaigns, he’s missed just one game and ran for 7,965 yards and 50 scores—topping 1,000 or more yards rushing each year.

    Johnson has also totaled 272 receptions for 2,003 yards (eight touchdowns) in his brief career.

    Of course, when you think of the number 2,003, you think O.J. Simpson. When “The Juice” was loose in the 1970s, he was almost impossible to catch up with. His feat of running for 2,003 yards in 1973 in a 14-game season remains one of the game’s greatest single-season performances.

    It was certainly a different game four decades ago, but Simpson was a different kind of game-changer.

    Like Simpson, Johnson also reached 2,000-plus yards rushing in a single season. And while the yards have come a little harder the last few years, the Titans’ running back remains a dangerous commodity out of the backfield.

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