The Top 20 Running Backs

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The Top 20 Running Backs

When most people rate their top 20 running backs, they base too much of their rankings on stats. However, by doing so, players like Larry Johnson and Steven Jackson get the short end of the stick.

Looking at stats is misleading. It’s not Johnson’s or Jackson’s fault that they play on two of the worst offensive lines in the league.

My rankings are based on the three categories that separate running backs from each other:

Breaking tackles/making players miss

Big play ability (receiving or running)

Plays made out of nothing

(players must have at least 250 carries in their careers)

1. Adrian Peterson/Vikings-

He has the potential to be one of the best running backs ever. He has great vision and his acceleration is unmatched. I don’t know if anyone is better at making defenders miss once they get to the second level of defense.

Breaking tackles/making players miss- A

Big play ability- A+

Plays made out of nothing- A-

2. Brian Westbrook/Eagles-

 If you combine his receiving skills with his elusive running ability, he is easily the second best running back. He is one of the quickest players in the NFL and is very strong for his size. He always makes the big play and is a threat on every passing or running play to take it to the house.

Breaking tackles/making players miss- A-

Big play ability- A

Plays made out of nothing- A-

3. Marion Barber/Cowboys-

He is an absolute beast who punishes defenders more than other back. He’s hard to bring down and he always fights for that extra yard.

Breaking tackles/making players miss- A +

Big play ability- B

Plays made out of nothing-A

4. LaDainian Tomlinson/Chargers-

Although many people would still put LT as the number 1 back based on his reputation; he hasn’t looked very good this year. In all three games this year, I can’t remember too many broken tackles or big time plays. I’m not going to take LT out of the top 5 yet because there have only been three games played. But there is a good chance LT could drop on this list by the end of the year.

Breaking tackles/making players miss- A-

Big play ability- A-

Plays made out of nothing– B+

5. Fred Taylor/Jaguars-

One of the most underrated players ever to play in the NFL. He averaged 5.4 yards per carry last year making the pro bowl for his first time. That is more than everyone on this list except Peterson. He’s hard to bring down and always keeps his legs churning for those extra yards.

Breaking tackles/making players miss- A-

Big play ability- B+

Plays made out of nothing- A-

 

The Circumstantial players

 

6. Steven Jackson/Rams-

He is incredibly fast for his size. He can run by or run over defenders. He is also a great receiver out of the backfield as well.

Breaking tackles/making players miss- B+

Big play ability- B+

Plays made out of nothing- B+

7. Larry Johnson/Chiefs-

He is a very hard player to rank because he doesn’t get much of a chance to show his talent playing with arguably the worst offensive line in the league. But there is a reason he ran for 1750 yards in only 9 starts in 2005. He is extremely strong, hard to take down, and faster than most people think.

Breaking tackles/making players miss- A

Big play ability- B+

Plays made out of nothing- B-

8. Ronnie Brown/Dolphins-

When he is healthy he is one of best running backs in the league. He is a great downhill runner who is very hard to bring down.

Breaking tackles/making players miss- A-

Big play ability- B+

Plays made out of nothing- B  

9. Frank Gore/49ers-

He is fast, strong, good in the open field and he is just a great all around back.

Breaking tackles/making players miss- B +

Big play ability- B +

Plays made out of nothing- B +

 

The Young Risers

 

10. Michael Turner/Falcons-

He is a very hard runner who has the ability to break tackles and take it the distance. By the end of the year, there is a good chance he’ll move up this list.

Breaking tackles/making players miss- B+

Big play ability– A-

Plays made out of nothing- B

 

11. Marshawn Lynch/Bills-

He has great speed and strength and I expect a pro bowl caliber season from him this year.

Breaking tackles/making players miss- B+

Big play ability– B+

Plays made out of nothing- B+

12.  Maurice Jones Drew/Jaguars-

He is an extremely quick player who cosntantly bounces off defenders. He is also very good receiver out of the back field and once Taylor retires, he has the chance to take over the reigns as a top 5 back.

Breaking tackles/making players miss– B+

Big play ability– A-

Plays made out of nothing- B

13. Willie Parker/Steelers-

He is very fast and quick and surprisingly hard to take down. He is a very underrated and underappreciated player. There was no reason for Pittsburgh to draft a running back in the first round this past year. I expect Parker to have a great season and prove all his doubters wrong.

Breaking tackles/making players miss- B +

Big play ability– A-

Plays made out of nothing– B-

14. Brandon Jacobs/Giants-

He hardly ever gets tackled backwards, and seems to always get at least an extra yard just because of his size. He is a freak of nature. With his size, he shouldn’t be able to do some of the things he does.

Breaking tackles/making players miss– A-

Big play ability– B

Plays made out of nothing- B

15. Ryan Grant/Packers-

He still has a lot to prove, but he has great vision and cut back ability. Every time I watch this guy, he seems to find the hole and take it the distance.

Breaking tackles/making players miss- B

Big play ability– A-

Plays made out of nothing- B

16. Earnest Graham/Buccaneers-

He is an underrated player who is very powerful but also fast enough to take it the distance.

Breaking tackles/making players miss- B +

Big play ability– B+

Plays made out of nothing- B

17. Joseph Addai/Colts-

He is a very solid player who is fast, elusive, and a good receiver out of the back field.

Breaking tackles/making players miss- B

Big play ability– B+

Plays made out of nothing- B

 

The Solid Veterans

 

18. Clinton Portis/Redskins-

He is a very solid player who seemingly does everything well. However I do think he generally gets overrated. He hasn’t wowed me since his days in Denver and I just don’t think he is a top 10 back.

Breaking tackles/making players miss– B

Big play ability- B+

Plays made out of nothing- B

19. Jamal Lewis/Brown-

He just doesn’t seem to be as powerful or fast as he once was. He still can play at high level but he hasn’t been that top 5 player he once was in years.

Breaking tackles/making players miss– B+

Big play ability- B

Plays made out of nothing- B

20a. Willis McGahee/Ravens-

Another solid player who seemingly does everything well. However I think he generally gets overrated as well. He is very good, but I feel as though his arrogance and great college career make him seem as though he is better than he really is.

Breaking tackles/making players miss– B

Big play ability-B

Plays made out of nothing-B

20b.  Ricky Williams/Dolphins-

Although he also isn’t the same player he once was, he still is a very capable running back who still demands attention

Breaking tackles/making players miss– B

Big play ability-B-

Plays made out of nothing- B

 

Players who have not had enough carries to be on the list.

Darren Sproles/Chargers-

Every time I’ve seen him play he has wowed me. He might be the quickest player and best open field player in the NFL. He is also extremely strong for his size and is a great receiver and blocker as well. But becuase he is 5’6, people doubt that he can be a feature back in the NFL. However, every time I've seen him run through the tackles he has done very well. Keep in mind his yards-per-touch average through three games is 11.4 while LaDainian Tomlinson's is 3.7. LT better watch out because it could be Sproles in the top 5 by the end of the year.

Breaking tackles/making players miss- A

Big play ability- A

Plays made out of nothing- B+

Chris Johnson/Titans-

He might be the fastest player in the NFL. If he keeps up his current pace he could jump higher on these rankings by the end of the year.

Breaking tackles/making players miss- B

Big play ability- A

Plays made out of nothing- B-

Darren McFadden/Raiders-

He is a very fast downhill runner who can take it the distance.

Breaking tackles/making players miss- B +

Big play ability- A-

Plays made out of nothing- B-

Felix Jones/Cowboys

He is a very quick and elusive back who also can take it the distance.

Breaking tackles/making players miss- B

Big play ability- A-

Plays made out of nothing- B

 

By looking at my rankings carefully, you can see that there are certain trends in my rankings.

1. All of my top 5 players have very good offensive lines.

2. 3 out of the 4 players from the circumstantial players (6-9) were all once top 5 backs at one point in their career and all of them play on average or below offenses.

3. The young risers (10-17) all are young players on good offenses who have the potential to have great careers.

4. The solid veterans (17-20b) are all veteran players who have had success in the league.

It’s not surprising that the top 5 players all have very good offensive lines. All of these players have very good blocking and thus have open holes to run through to create havoc and show their talents.

Players from 6-9 are all great players, but because of the teams they play on, their statistics aren’t worthy of the top 5 and it just doesn’t seem right to put them any higher.

Players 10-17 might have the talent to be higher but they aren’t experienced enough to be put ahead of players like Brown and Gore. Also the fact that these players play on good offenses, not only gives these players more exposure, but gives these running backs open holes to run through and show their talents.

Players 17-20b are good backs but they have already maxed out their potential and have shown that they are now only solid backs and nothing more.

None of this is a coincidence. The truth is that it is very hard to make a top 10 list of running backs. Reputation, experience, and statistical performance can all make it difficult for someone not to be biased.


Many of the players in the top 10 could easily be switched around with each other. Two years ago Larry Johnson and Steven Jackson would probably have been in most people’s top 3, but because they play on poor offenses now, they have dropped.

It might not be fair, but it’s hard to rank running backs solely on their abilities when they have to rely on their teams to give them the opportunities.

A great example of how people can be biased is that many people this year have LT as their number 1 running back based on his reputation. However, if you watched Peterson, Westbrook, Barber, and LT play this year and last year, I don’t know how you could say LT is better.

I know my rankings aren’t perfect, but the idea of ranking players is imperfect to begin with. Every year the Top 20 is different. But right now based on talent these are my top 20 players.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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