Which NFL Running Backs Will Top the 1,000-Yard Mark in 2014?

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Which NFL Running Backs Will Top the 1,000-Yard Mark in 2014?
AP Photo/Tim Sharp

Despite the NFL's contemporary shift toward the passing game, the number of 1,000-yard rushers has stayed mostly consistent over the last 20 seasons. 

Since 1993, the NFL has averaged roughly 17 1,000-yard rushers per season. The number has dipped ever so slightly in recent years—only 76 backs hit the milestone over a five-year stretch from 2009 to 2013, or just over 15 per year—but the dip isn't as significant as you might expect in a league so heavily dominated by the pass. 

In a given year in the modern age, 15 1,000-yard rushers seems to be a safe projection. In 2012, 16 backs went over 1,000 yards. Only 13 qualified last season, but two others were within 70 yards of the 1,000-yard club. In 2011, exactly 15 runners hit the mark. 

Who will be the lucky 15 in 2014? We examine which backs are the most likely below. 

 

1,500-Plus Rushers

Projected 1,500-Yard Rushers in 2014
2013 Att 2013 Yards 2013 Avg
LeSean McCoy* PHI 314 1,607 5.1
Adrian Peterson MIN 279 1,266 4.5

*Won rushing title in 2013

Only eight running backs have eclipsed 1,500 yards over the last five seasons, which equates to fewer than two per year. Four backs accomplished the feat in 2012, but the other four years only produced one.

It was McCoy leading the way last season, and he's the most likely of the 2014 backs to once again crack the 1,500-yard mark. He plays in a creative but run-heavy offense that provides quality touches week in and week out.

He averaged over five yards per carry in 2014 and over 100 yards per game. The only worries are injury (but McCoy has played at least 15 games in four of his five seasons) or defenses starting to figure out Chip Kelly's offense, but McCoy is as individually talented as any back in the game. 

Believe it or not, Peterson has only two 1,500-yard seasons during his first seven years in the NFL. But it's still difficult to ignore the fact that he averages 98.2 rushing yards every time he steps on the field, which extrapolates out to 1,571 yards over a 16-game schedule.

He's also now playing for offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who has historically coaxed big numbers out of elite running back talents. If Peterson plays 16 games, he'll be a strong candidate for the rushing title. 

 

1,200-1,499 Rushers

Projected 1,200 to 1,499-Yard Rushers in 2014
2013 Att 2013 Yards 2013 Avg
Matt Forte* CHI 289 1,339 4.6
Jamaal Charles KC 259 1,287 5.0
Eddie Lacy GB 284 1,178 4.1
Ryan Mathews SD 285 1,255 4.4
DeMarco Murray DAL 217 1,121 5.2
Arian Foster HOU 121 542 4.5

*Second-leading rusher in 2013

Roughly seven backs per season have rushed for at least 1,200 yards but no more than 1,499 since 2009. Six accomplished the feat in 2013, and we see three of those names (Forte, Charles, Mathews) here again for 2014.

Forte and Charles feel like the safest bets, with each possessing the potential to jump up a group into the 1,500-yard club.

Forte has played at least 15 games in all but one of his six seasons, and he's cracked 1,200 yards each year he's received at least 275 carries. He plays in an offense that feels pass-heavy on the surface, but Marc Trestman's system still relies heavily on Forte, who averaged a career-high 83.7 yards per game in 2013.

Charles is the electric centerpiece of a run-based offense in Kansas City. While he missed almost all of 2011 to injury, his healthy 2010 and 2012-13 seasons produced elite results. His averages over those three years: 1,421 rushing yards, 5.5 yards per carry and 90.7 yards per game. Without injury, he's a near-lock for over 1,200 yards. 

Lacy represented the only rookie in 2013 to crack 1,000 yards. He played in 15 games (actually, it was more like 14 games; he suffered a concussion on his first carry in Week 2) and rushed for 1,178 yards, just 22 yards shy of 1,200.

The Packers are finally balanced on offense, and the health of Aaron Rodgers should improve Lacy's efficiency (only 4.1 yards per carry in 2013). Getting 4.4 yards per carry on 275 carries—which equates to 1,210 yards—seems reasonable for Lacy's second season. 

Who will win the rushing title in 2014?

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The final three names on the 1,200-yard list are injury risks. But if healthy, Mathews, Murray and Foster are strong bets to produce impressive seasons. 

Mathews finally played 16 games in 2013, his first injury-free season since joining the NFL in 2010. He rushed for 1,255 yards and averaged 4.4 yards per carry.

The Chargers added Donald Brown, but Mathews will still be the rushing focal point. Unless Brown takes a bigger-than-expected bite out of his attempts or the injury bug makes a return, Mathews should remain productive for an offense that relies on the running back position. 

Murray, who has missed 11 games over just three NFL seasons, is a bigger wild card. The Cowboys are unpredictable in terms of rushing volume, and the arrival of pass-heavy coordinator Scott Linehan is unlikely to steady the balance.

Still, Murray averaged 5.2 yards per carry and played in 14 games last season. He's a legitimate running talent when on the field (4.9-yard career average), and more opportunities should be coming. 

Foster has concerning injury issues, but few are better when healthy. He averaged 1,421 yards over a three-year stretch from 2010-12, and he was on pace for almost 1,100 yards before injury struck last season.

The Texans are going to run the football plenty in 2014, making it likely Foster—if healthy— bounces back in a big way next season.

 

1,000-1,199 Rushers

Projected 1,000-1,199-Yard Rushers in 2014
Team 2013 Att 2013 Yards 2013 Avg
Alfred Morris WAS 276 1,275 4.6
Marshawn Lynch SEA 301 1,257 4.2
Le'Veon Bell PIT 244 860 3.5
Andre Ellington ARI 118 652 5.5
Montee Ball DEN 120 559 4.7
Toby Gerhart JAX 36 283 7.9
Bishop Sankey* TEN N/A N/A N/A

*2014 rookie

Over the last five seasons, running backs have produced individual outputs of between 1,000 and 1,199 yards 34 times, or roughly seven a season (odd fact: Since 2009, there have been the exact same number of 1,200-1,499 rushers as 1,000-1,199 rushers).

We stuck with the averages and selected seven runners for this slot, but they might not be who you expect.

Morris leads the group. The third-year back has over 2,800 yards and a rock-solid 4.7-yard average over his first two seasons, which makes him a strong candidate to outproduce this prediction.

However, Washington's offense is now in the hands of Jay Gruden, which may limit some of his touches in the running game. Will he continue to be the bell cow? Gruden rarely leaned on just one back in Cincinnati. 

Lynch may be another surprise name in this group. Beast Mode has three straight seasons with at least 1,200 yards. But he's now 28 years old, and his body has endured almost 1,000 total touches over the last three seasons.

The Seahawks also have a ridiculously talented No. 2 back in Christine Michael waiting in the wings, which should allow Seattle to limit Lynch's usage. He'll still the top guy, but it seems unlikely that he'll get 300 or more carries in 2014. 

Bell, Ellington and Ball are second-year backs with obvious 1,000-yard potential. 

Bell averaged just 3.5 yards a carry in his rookie season, but his 860 yards in 13 games extrapolates out to 1,058 over a 16-game season. Expect his touches (18.8 carries per game in 2013) to remain near the same in 2014 but his efficiency to rise. 

In Arizona, Ellington's usage (just 7.9 carries per game as a rookie) is almost certain to explode. He still managed 652 yards over 118 carries in 2013, good for a dynamic per-carry average of 5.5.

If he jumps into the 225-carry range, his efficiency will likely decrease. However, 225 carries at even 4.8 yards per tote still equates to 1,080 yards. 

JACK DEMPSEY/Associated Press
Ball is the new top dog in Denver.

Ball is inheriting a golden opportunity as the top back for the Broncos' high-powered offense. Knowshon Moreno, who had never produced a 1,000-yard season before 2013, rushed for 1,038 as Denver's go-to back last year.

He's now in Miami. In his place, Ball figures to consistently see some of the most running-friendly fronts in all of football. The 2013 second-round pick is talented enough to take advantage. 

Surprised to see Gerhart on this list? Don't be. The former Vikings backup has a career average of 4.7 yards, and he's now in a situation in Jacksonville that figures to place him among the league's attempt leaders.

If Gerhart gets to 300 carries, he'll need to average just 3.3 yards per attempt to get to 1,000 yards. Volume gets him in the 1,000-yard group for the first time in his career. 

At least one rookie has cracked 1,000 yards in three of the last four seasons, so Sankey—the back with the best first-year situation in 2014—makes the list.

He might not be ridiculously talented, but he will be running behind one of the better offensive lines for a run-heavy offense. If the Titans give him at least 225 carries, mark him down for 1,000 yards. Sankey could easily see more. 

 

Who Else to Watch

Who to Watch: Other Potential 1,000-Yard Rushers in 2014
Team 2013 Att 2013 Yards 2013 Avg
C.J. Spiller BUF 202 933 4.6
Frank Gore SF 276 1,128 4.1
Lamar Miller MIA 177 709 4.0
Bernard Pierce BAL 152 436 2.9
Rashad Jennings NYG 163 733 4.5
Zac Stacy STL 250 973 3.9
Doug Martin* TB 127 456 3.6
Ben Tate CLE 181 771 4.3
Giovani Bernard CIN 170 695 4.1

*Played just six games

Our self-imposed 15-player limit forced some big names off the list. But any of the players listed above could easily find themselves in the 1,000-yard club next season. 

Spiller missed out, thanks to just one career 1,000-yard season and zero years with more than 225 carries. However, he's ridiculously talented and playing for a run-based offense, so he'll be a strong candidate to crack 1,000 yards.

Which of the following RBs has the best chance to crack 1,000 yards in 2014?

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Gore has three straight 1,000-yard seasons, but he's also 31 years old and fighting off a number of intriguing talents behind him. He can't go forever, can he? The 49ers would be wise to limit his touches in 2014. It might cost him 1,000 yards, but it'll keep him fresh late. 

Miller, Pierce and Jennings are all positioning themselves for a run at 1,000 yards. But is the Dolphins offensive line good enough to create a top runner? Will Pierce get enough touches in the place of Ray Rice to make a run at 1,000 yards? Is Jennings talented enough to put together his first career 1,000-yard season?

The three have question marks. 

Stacy and Martin were two of the most difficult omissions. Stacy was one of the most productive backs late last season, and Martin is just one year removed from a 1,454-yard season.

It wouldn't be at all surprising if one or both hit 1,000 yards in 2014. However, Stacy averaged just 3.9 yards per carry as a rookie, and Martin wasn't any good early last year (3.6 yards per carry) before his injury.

Tate should be a natural fit in Kyle Shanahan's zone run scheme, but who can trust him given his injury history? He'll need a lot of touches and close to 16 games to get to 1,000 yards.  

Finally, Bernard would have been a better bet had the Bengals not selected Jeremy Hill in the second round of May's draft. As part of a committee last season, Bernard received just 170 attempts. He might not get a true chance to increase his total in 2014. 

 

Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report. 

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