Ranking the best running backs the league has to offer (there are about 39 “starter” quality running backs).
1. Adrian Peterson (MIN)
He has elevated his game to an MVP status in his third year. He is one of the best down-field runners and has an underrated receiving skills as well. He reads the holes well and even if it closes, he has the ability to create a positive play.
I only see two weaknesses for Peterson: He needs to limit his fumbles and accumulate more playing time. Nothing against Chester Taylor, but Peterson is a threat to score every time he touches the ball.
He has to prove he can consistently hold onto the football through an entire NFL season. Peterson had nine fumbles last year and if he wants to carry this offense and contend for an MVP award, he has to cut down on turnovers.
2. LaDainian Tomlinson (SD)
If he is not your No. 1, then there is no reason to rank him below the top three. I understand LT didn’t have a hot ’08 season, but that doesn’t mean you can just write him off. He already has Hall of Fame written all over him, and hasn’t even won a Super Bowl. He is a back that can run, catch, block and sometimes throw.
I believe a large reason why he struggled last year was because of his prior offseason. He seemed out of sync with working out and didn’t take a preseason snap.
Last year, I believe, was a gut check for LT. He has proven he can carry an offense into the playoffs, and the players around him can only enhance his confidence and play.
He is working very hard this offseason and is going to be playing with a chip on his shoulders. Norv can take playing time away from him early in the season; but ultimately, LT is the reliable playmaker for this offense.
If he struggles this year, then I would buy a lower ranking; but he is a proven superstar who seems angry, hungry and determined heading into this season rather than last.
3. Brian Westbrook (PHI)
This is probably the most electrifying player in the league, but needs to stay healthy. Westbrook needs to be a consistently healthy player to be considered a MVP talent on a serious level.
He has some of the best quickness, speed and playmaking abilities in the league. His receiving game is just as dangerous as his rushing, and having McNabb takes pressure off his shoulders. LeSean McCoy should be a nice backup for him, and possibly help keep Westbrook healthy for an entire season.
His knee surgery shouldn’t be a problem (according to Andy Reid), but it is something to consider.
In summary, the only thing keeping Westbrook from an MVP vote is his lack of playing consistently healthy. Adding Peters and McCoy should help (in someway) solve that problem.
4. Steven Jackson (STL)
This is the most athletic, man-beast of a running back you’ll find in the league. He is explosive, tough, fast, smart and a threat for big plays. Health has been the issue in recent years, but he seems to have overcome them pretty well. The Rams offensive line got better, so that should enhance Jackson’s rushing and receiving game.
He is a threat to score whenever he is on the field, but to become a top rusher, he needs to prove he can take leadership of the offense.
5. Clinton Portis (WAS)
His talent as one of the best is unquestioned. He proved his dominance in Denver, and has had a pretty solid career with Washington. He hits holes hard and can make guys miss with his power and speed. He has playmaking ability, but it comes and goes often. This is a streaky player that hasn’t proven his consistency since leaving Denver.
When Portis is on his hot streak, he can carry an offense on his shoulders. However, when Portis hits his cold streak, he struggles, which results in Jason Campbell having to run the offense (which a majority of the time fails).
Westbrook, Jackson, and Portis have MVP talent (which has been proven at some point in their careers), but have lacked consistency in recent years.
6. Chris Johnson (TEN)
A lot of attention is on Adrian Peterson as the best young running back (which may be true), but you have to consider Chris Johnson. This is one of the fastest players in the league and has unbelievable vision.
The holes he ran through last year were pretty big, but what he did to defenders in open space is just too scary to think about. I would like to see what his numbers would be like if he didn't share carries with LenDale White, but Johnson has BIG playmaking ability written all over him. Unless Johnson gets hurt, I don’t see why he couldn’t finish with great rushing stats.
7. Michael Turner (ATL)
It is hard to sell Turner out of the top five (he did get an MVP vote last year). Turner is a bulky runner who has the power to run over a lot of defenders. His burst of speed to hit a hole and change of direction surprise most people; plus, Norwood compliments him nicely. The offensive line only got better in the offseason.
He is a threat for big play capability and is a reliable weapon in the red zone. With that said, both teams Turner has run for have had a great offensive line. I’m not saying is he not talented or he can’t put up solid numbers; but if the offensive line goes down, how effective can he be?
Something to think about, but Tuner should have a pretty consistent year.
8. Marion Barber (DAL)
I’m going to be honest; I get crunk every time I watch Marion run. This guy runs with determination and fire every time he touches the ball. He can straight plow through defenders and has a tough stiff arm. He can catch the ball as well as block.
There really isn’t anything negative to say about Marion, but he seems to lack maturity. However, his talent is good enough to succeed regardless of his maturity (especially with the weapons around him). Felix Jones may take some attempts away as well, but he should produce nicely for a majority of the season.
9. Brandon Jacobs (NYG)
Jacobs could be the most underrated back in the league. He is the biggest back with the nastiest attitude. If you don’t think so, ask LaRon Landry. The offensive line can open holes against most defenses, and Jacobs is going to be a huge piece to that offense. Jacobs can put up triple-digit rushing yards each week with multiple touchdowns.
Derrick Ward leaving might boost his carries and all-around stats at the end of the year, but he has proven he can take over the running game for this club. He tends to hit holes weak at some points during a game, so Ward’s departure might hurt his stamina (even though Ahmad Bradshaw is still there).
Jacobs is one of the best backs at keeping his feet moving at all times. Overall, Jacobs’ power and size make him a threat to opposing players every time he touches the ball.
10. Willie Parker (PIT)
Parker has been consistent for the most part of his career. He is running behind a below-average offensive line and still producing decently. His speed and ability to burst through any hole makes him a constant threat to defenses. His playmaking ability is one of the most under-rated and he fills his role nicely with that club.
Parker’s biggest weapon is his ability to turn the corner and hit break-away speed. That might be limited this year (due to the offensive line), because his big burst days seemed to be before Alan Faneca left. He is still a productive back with big-play ability, but that offensive line needs to improve if Parker wants to makes big plays on a consistent level.
11. DeAngelo Williams (CAR)
If Williams proved anything last year, he proved he can carry an offense on his shoulders. Granted the offensive line was solid and Stewart took pressure off of him; but when Williams was in, he was arguably the second best player on that offense.
He can break tackles and keep his uptempo pace at the same time. His quickness is overlooked, but his inside rushing ability comes and goes. Each year he has gotten better and I don’t believe we have seen the best this guy has to offer.
He can score multiple times in multiple different ways. He reminds me of a young LT; but he needs to prove he is one of the best this year, which I think he will.
12. Steve Slaton (HOU)
Slaton was a straight baller when he entered midseason as the starting running back. Slaton showed consistency and composure as the No. 1 back. He seemed very in sync with the offense; which is impressive, because it was his rookie year. He should only get better as time moves on and seems to play well with his surrounding cast.
Slaton can put up big numbers in both the rushing and receiving game. His ability to stay healthy for the time he was playing also impressed me. He finished last season like a Pro Bowl player; and if he continues to play where he left off last season, Slaton could be a top rusher in this league.
13. Frank Gore (SF)
This is another player who can change a game with one play. He is tough in between the tackles and has a nice burst of speed when changing directions. He is underrated in the receiving game and can block for Shaun Hill. Gore has proven he has superstar ability, and under Mike Singletary, his chances at succeeding are very high.
Gore is a tough, hard-nosed runner with a nice boost of speed. His leadership role on the offense needs to develop and his reads could improve. I am not sure if he is able to carry an offense for an entire NFL season, but his rushing attack is one of the best in the league.
14. Matt Forte (CHI)
He had a very productive rookie year behind an offensive line that only got better. Jay Cutler will take a ton of weight off of his back which should improve his consistency as a reliable back.
He has a big build with deceiving speed and pretty solid hands. He still has a lot to learn about the running game, but players on both sides of the ball will back him up nicely.
He is a tough runner and can break those mid-range runs for touchdowns. If his knowledge of the position can improve (which I think it will), then Forte could be a big piece to an offense with tons of potential.
15. Maurice Jones-Drew (JAC)
The only question I have for MJD is if he can carry an NFL team’s rushing attack by himself throughout the entire season. He is another tough, hard-nosed runner with a determination every time he touches the ball. His receiving game is good for the most part, and he can block with the best of the backs.
He is very small and reminds me of a cannonball or hedgehog when running. He bounces nicely off of tackles and keeps his momentum going forward. His veteran mentor Fred Taylor is long gone, so this is the year Jones-Drew needs to step it up. His performance on offense might ultimately determine how everyone else around him plays.
16. Ronnie Brown (MIA)
Ronnie Brown has the talent and attitude to be great, he is just way too risky. Brown is a hard runner with solid speed. The Wildcat formation might not be so successful this year, but that doesn’t mean Brown can’t produce. He is the best skill player on that offense and Ricky Williams gives him a nice backup to fall on.
His receiving game comes and goes, but for a large part he is a reliable target out of the backfield. Consistency seems to be Brown’s weakness (health-wise); but with the team around him and the talent he has, Brown needs to stay healthy to produce nicely for the fins this season.
17. Pierre Thomas (NO)
This is the most underrated back in the league. Thomas’ style reminds me of Kevin Faulk. He is a low-key runner with a great sense of finding holes and displays on-the-field knowledge. Thomas hits the holes quickly and efficiently.
Depending on what happens with Reggie Bush, Thomas may see limited rushing attempts; but that shouldn’t keep you from realizing how much talent this guy actually has.
His vision for holes and football awareness are hard to find in most NFL running backs today. He is a smart, hard-working player with a lot of skill. I would trust him to be a full-time starter for most NFL teams, including New Orleans.
18. Joseph Addai (IND)
Injuries were Addai’s setback last season. He still has a ton of skill with a winning mindset. He obviously has the talent to lead an offense on the ground, but can he do it himself? Rhodes was Addai’s fall back when he had his best season. He is young though, so his best season may have yet to come.
Will it be this year? It could be, since Indianapolis drafted the rookie back out of UConn (Donald Brown) to compliment him. Addai might not finish with top yards or touchdowns this year, but he will still be a productive back for a productive offense.
19. Willis McGahee (BAL)
McGahee’s work ethic sets him apart from most backs today. He went from a speed runner in college to a pretty powerful back in the league. It works for him though, because he has the tools of a quick but strong back. McGahee is going to split more time with Mc’Lain though, so his PT may not be so hot.
His productive value is still high and ultimately is the best all-around player on that offense. Joe Flacco’s play may also affect McGahee’s success (for the better). He is a talented and unique player that can carry an offense’s rushing attack for the most part.
20. Marshawn Lynch (BUF)
This is one of the most determined backs in the league. Every time he touches the ball, he puts his head down and hits the hole hard. He has the ability to hit the long run after breaking tackles, which makes him so dangerous. His speed is underrated and he can block as well.
His maturity is lacking, and I am worried that it won’t progress. This is a make or break year for Marshawn, at least in my eyes and long-term. I believe this year will answer a lot of questions for Buffalo’s offense, including the running game.
I think Marshawn easily has the talent and mindset to be Buffalo’s starter (long-term), but his lack of maturity will never elevate him to top rushing status on a serious level.
21. Darren McFadden (OAK)
For the few carries McFadden received last year, he was impressive. He is a great open-field runner with a ‘gym rat’ mindset to only do better. He has a nice compliment with Fargas and athletic talent all around him. Oakland’s offensive line is still pretty awful, so that could be a setback to McFadden’s game.
He is a hard-working kid with a ton of talent and a love for the game. His attitude and talent are rare to come by, but he needs a consistent offensive line to become more productive.
22. LenDale White (TEN)
He is the No. 2 running back for one of the league’s best rushing attacks. His power and agility combined make it tough for opponents to bring him down. The Tennessee offensive line is very good, which should attribute to White’s success this season. He is reliable red-zone target, but struggles with his receiving game.
When he is in open-field he is one of the toughest backs to catch and wrap up. I don’t expect the Titans rushing attack to struggle, so White should be a reliable and productive player for a majority of the season.
23. Jonathan Stewart (CAR)
Stewart is another hard-nosed runner with a lot of attitude to his game. He has a great feel for where he is on the field and what he needs to do in a given situation. All that said, that is pretty impressive for a rookie.
I don’t see any reason why Stewart and Williams should slow down this year; and, if anything, Stewart should see more red-zone carries and ultimately end up with more rushing touchdowns than he did last year. The Panthers’ rushing game does a good job of tiring out opponents, which Stewart plays a huge role in.
24. Ryan Grant (GB)
This is a player with a lot of talent, but no maturity. He is great at reading holes and does a good job running with power and speed. The problem for Grant last season was he always got wrapped up when he actually got to the hole. He needs to enhance his tackle-breaking skills and develop a bigger burst to hitting the holes.
Another problem he had last year was similar to LT’s. He sat out of training camp and preseason for a contract renewal. His mind was so focused on the contract it swayed away from the game itself. If he can get his mindset back on track, Grant could produce the numbers he is capable of. He needs more toughness mentally more than anything.
25. Thomas Jones (NYJ)
Jones is a hard-working, solid, reliable running back that can manage an offenses rushing attack. I think Jones has proven his capability of a solid No. 1. Leon Washington is just breathing down his neck for the starting role at this point.
Jones is a tough back with immense football knowledge; he can stay in and block which always helps young quarterbacks. The Jets might try to rely on Jones and Washington too much this year, but it's not like they can’t handle the workload.
Jones is a hard runner with a great work ethic, but you can’t put too much on his plate at once (that’s where Washington fits in, I believe).
26. Leon Washington (NYJ)
Washington has turned into one of the league’s biggest playmakers. His speed, quickness, vision and ability to make guys miss separate his style from many others. If you don’t think he can start because of his size, I understand, but he has the potential of reaching that status in the future.
Jones rushing in front of him helps, but I would like to see how effective Washington can be with more carries this season. This is a great character player with a love and desire for the game. He takes nothing for granted and goes all out every play.
His open-field game is one of the best and has the ability to take any ball he touches a long distance. There are a lot more things Washington needs to improve if he wants to be back who can carry an offense, but his mindset and talent gives him a bright light for his future.
27. Larry Johnson (KC)
I believe Johnson is on the road to redemption. He has stated numerous times that he takes responsibilities for his actions and wants to get back to a top rusher in the league. Will he do it? Well the offensive line is not too shabby and having Cassel might bring confidence to this offense, but Larry can’t do it all by himself.
He was once a very talented runner and a huge playmaker. He can move the ball down the field and put up nice numbers. With a new mindset and approach to the game, Larry Johnson might have a successful year. He will need to maintain his new approach and play at a high level of consistency to re-gain his elite status.
28. Kevin Smith (DET)
He was a 1,000-yard rusher on a 0-16 team in his rookie year. He always kept an up-beat attitude and stayed focused and composed throughout the year. He hits holes quickly and efficiently, and can wiggle away from a lot of defenders. His field vision is solid and could be a huge asset for Detroit in the long run.
As of right now, Smith is just not as talented as the premier backs in the league. His future as the Lions go-to back is very realistic, but he will need to prove he can do what he did last year on a consistent basis.
29. Felix Jones (DAL)
Felix the cat should have an outstanding season. He looked very impressive before injuring himself. He is a sharp and precise runner with amazing speed and change in direction.
Running with Barber should only bring confidence to his game and he is probably even hungrier after sitting out a majority of last year. Felix is a change-of-pace back who can spark a big play if the offense is struggling. If Felix can stay healthy this year, he should pick up right where he left off.
30. Derrick Ward (TB)
Ward is one of the most explosive backs in the league. He has a great sense of where defenders are on the field and has great technique to his game. I wonder if Ward can run behind the Tampa offensive line as effectively as he did in New York.
This is a mysterious player with the ability to move an offensive rushing attack in the right direction. He has never been a featured back; so he will probably be splitting time, but his role as the starter is definitely possible.
31. Le'Ron McClain (BAL)
This guy can straight-up bulldoze people. He is a hard hitting back with the perfect ‘Baltimore’ attitude. He can play both halfback and fullback and is a reliable utility player for the Raven offense.
McClain’s speed lacks as well as his burst from the backfield. He takes a while to hit the hole; but if there aren’t any defenders when he gets to the hole, he is a tough runner to bring down in the open-field. You can not bring this guy down with only one defender, so if teams want to stop McClain, they better be able to pursuit.
32. Darren Sproles (SD)
Sproles is a deceiving player with big play capability. He has already proven himself as a reliable back in clutch situations.
I’m not sure if he is able to be an every down back in San Diego (or any other team), but he has enough football skill to be a dangerous player for any club. His burst of speed and change in direction is some of the best and he can vanish behind a big ole offensive line.
For a small body, he runs big. Sproles is not afraid to put his head down and take the big hit for the better of his team. Ultimately, Sproles’ quick attributes and surprising toughness makes him a threat to a majority of the NFL defenses.
33. Reggie Bush (NO)
I’m still not sold on Reggie being a reliable full-time back. I’m not saying he isn’t talented, but he needs to get a better grip on the NFL game. He is obviously not an inside rusher, which is something he can work on. His ability to make guys miss in open space is impressive, and his receiving game enhances his chance at success.
He needs a tougher attitude in order to survive the NFL season as an elite back, but his talent can carry him far into his career. He is one of the most athletic players in the NFL, and has playoff experience under his belt.
He has the ability to help an offense go far into the season, but I’m not sure is he has the toughness to take a serious leadership role for an organization.
34. Chester Taylor (MIN)
Taylor has been under-valued his entire career. He was obviously the best back in Baltimore (at the time) and got moved to Minnesota. Once in Minnesota, he established himself as an average starter.
Then the Vikings grab Adrian Peterson (I don’t blame them) and he becomes the second back again. The situation he is in might benefit his career if anything. Taylor doesn’t have enough talent or leadership to carry an offense’s rushing game deep into an NFL season.
He compliments Peterson very well, but Peterson deserves more than half of the carries in Minnesota. He is a reliable backup and has the ability to move an offense down the field when Peterson needs a break. A solid and reliable player to take pressure off of your star is hard to come by and that is what Taylor brings.
35. Sammy Morris (NE)
Morris is a very reliable runner who knows what to do in any given situation. He is a great role player, which is Belicheck’s ‘backbone’ to a Super Bowl team. Morris is a strong-willed runner with a motor that keeps on moving.
He understands his role on the team and executes it to perfection (like most New England players). Morris is a clutch third down back when it comes to awareness, focus, determination and the attitude to just get the job done.
36. Justin Fargas (OAK)
He has proven he can consistently produce numbers each week, but his talent and overall ability limits Oakland’s offense. He puts up good numbers each game, but in a game-time situation, Fargas is not a reliable player to handle the ball.
He is a strong runner who is not afraid to run into defenders. His desire is immeasurable; but again, his overall abilities can not compete with players like Peterson, Tomlinson or Portis.
37. Lawrence Maroney (NE)
Maroney was a back on the fence before he got hurt last year. He had success when New England went 18-1, but a lot of that had to do with opposing defenses dealing with Brady and Moss. Maroney’s ability as a reliable back comes and goes, but he is definitely the most athletic back in New England’s rotation.
Is he the best option to start for the Pats? With the addition of Fred Taylor and the proven ability of Faulk and Morris, I say no; he is not the best option as the starting back.
He has yet to break a big time play (in my mind) in his career, but that could be in large part due to Belicheck’s ‘humble pie’ (Patriot players do a good job of filling their role and nothing else).
38. Jamal Lewis (CLE)
He has proven he can lead an offensive rushing attack deep into an NFL season and has a Super Bowl ring to show for it. He has lost tons of speed and quickness since those days, but demonstrates good leadership ability and never gives up on a play.
He always keeps his feet moving when hit and can take on almost any player after he gets past the backers. His career is coming to a close (sadly), but he can still produce solidly for two or three more seasons.
39. Cedric Benson (CIN)
I think Benson will play better this year, but not consistently. Palmer and the passing game might take some pressure off of Benson, but he has to prove he can carry the rushing game for an NFL club.
He said he never wanted to compare to Ricky, so after his rookie miscues, I expect a determined and hard-working runner in the upcoming season. Don’t let his numbers take away how good Benson can be in the future. He was given a second opportunity, now it is up to him to make it work.
40. Chris Wells (ARI)
Wells might surprise people this year. The Arizona rushing game was ranked bottom-to-last in ‘08, so it’s hard to get much worse. The passing attack will remain as productive as it was last year, so there shouldn’t be too much attention on Beanie.
He is a big back with a great burst of speed. He can make defenders miss just by running at a different angle. Hightower might get the start over Beanie, but overall, I think Wells will become the future starter for this Cardinal club.
41. Tim Hightower (ARI)
He is a red zone threat with a hard-charging attitude. He brings confidence and ability to the rushing game, but his consistency needs to be proven.
42. Jerious Norwood (ATL)
His speed surprises many defenders, but also has the power to break tackles. He is reliable in the receiving game as well.
43. Donald Brown (IND)
Brown should compliment Addai nicely. If both Addai and Brown can stay healthy for the season, they could both benefit each other and help lead the Indy offense in the right direction.
44. Ricky Williams (MIA)
Williams has the ability to be a top-10 rusher in this league. Maybe the cannabis slowed down his overall desire for the game, but he is still one of the most talented backs I have ever witnessed.
45. Ahmad Bradshaw (NYG)
This is another explosive back in the Giants’ locker room. He brings the speed that Jacobs lacks, but keeps that tough mindset that the Giants organization likes.
46. Ray Rice (BAL)
His carries may be limited since McClain solidified his number two spot. McGahee and McClain haven’t played a whole season, so Rice will get his carries. He can fit into tight holes and make the little plays that keep a drive alive.
47. Ernest Graham (TB)
He has proven he can put points onto the board, but he struggled to find a consistent rhythm last year. Ward should help take pressure off of Graham.
48. Knowshon Moreno (DEN)
Moreno should start for Denver and see plenty of carries. He should be a reliable receiving target and could break a few big plays. He still has a lot to learn, but his talent could elevate him when the year is over. I think his stability should be questioned and his knowledge of the offense will develop throught the season.
49. Fred Taylor (NE)
Taylor is just another reliable veteran for Bill Belichick’s system. He is a proven player who is hungry for a Super Bowl ring. He has leadership qualities and could be the starter for New England at some points in the season.
50. Mwelde Moore (PIT)
This will be an interesting year for Mwelde. He had an impressive year, but a returning Mendenhall might take some opportunities away. Apparently Mendenhall is shaping to be Pittburgh’s future (Parker entering his last season in contract), so Moore might not have such a productive year.
However, he proved he can fit nicely with Pittsburgh and can play when given the chance.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!