NFL: 8 Running Backs on the Verge of Stardom
Whether or not there's a season, there are several running backs looking to either have a breakout season or add on to his breakout performance from 2010. The 2011 rookie running back class was rather shallow, with just one first rounder (Mark Ingram selected 28th by New Orleans), so Rookie of the Year likely won't be awarded to a running back.
But that doesn't take away from the position itself. Here are six guys poised for a monster season for his respective team in 2011 and are on the verge of taking his game to the next level.
Arian Foster, Houston Texans
Bob Levey/Getty Images
Foster caught the eye of fans from the moment he stepped on to the field against the Colts in Week One's matchup, a game in which he ran for a franchise-record 231 yards and three touchdowns in just his second career start.
It actually all started with the preseason injury to rookie Ben Tate. His season-ending injury opened the door for the undrafted free agent out of Tennessee, who went on to lead the league with 1,616 yards and 16 touchdowns.
I know it's only one season, but Foster is already seen—in the eyes of a majority of fantasy owners, at least—as one of the league's top running back, right next to superstars Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson.
Foster, 24, is set to become the franchise's feature running back in 2011, and he will receive a little aid from second-year back Ben Tate when he is finally able to hit the field. He may take a few carries away from Foster, but that will only help his effectiveness on the field.
Ahmad Bradshaw, New York Giants
Al Bello/Getty Images
It took him four seasons, but it looks as though the 25-year-old Bradshaw has finally hit starter status in New York. With the decline of now-short yardage back Brandon Jacobs, Bradshaw started 11 games in 2010 (played in all 16 regular season games) and set career-highs in attempts, yards and touchdowns.
The speedy Bradshaw jumped from 163 carries in 2009 to 276 this past season (10th-most in league) and ran for his first 1,000 yard season—1,235 to be exact. His eight touchdown runs trumped his 2009 total by one.
The only downside of Bradshaw's 2010 campaign was his yards per carry average was the lowest in his four seasons with the Giants, but it remains at 4.8 for his career. Eli Manning threw a career and league-high 25 interceptions, so I would expect the Giants to come in to the season with a heavy dosage of Bradshaw.
More career-highs coming your way, Ahmad.
LeGarrette Blount, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
We already learned that Blount is a freak of nature after seeing him hurdle a would-be tackler on two different occasions in his 2010 rookie campaign.
At 6'0", 247 pounds, Blount is an unusual size for a running back, but his speed is what baffles most defenders. I never really knew it was possible for a man of his size to move so fast; he's by far one of the most bruising backs in the league. And he's only 24.
If it wasn't for Sam Bradford's playoff push in St. Louis, Blount would have easily taken home the NFL Rookie of the Year award thanks to his 1,006 yards and six touchdowns on 201 attempts (5.0 YPC).
With an emerging star at the quarterback position in addition to Blount, I think we could be seeing a new era down in Tampa Bay starting in 2011.
Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs
Tim Umphrey/Getty Images
Charles has now recorded two consecutive 1,000 yard seasons in his three years with Kansas City. After a 1,467 yard season in 2010 (second-most in NFL), you would think Charles, 24, has already broken out as a star.
Not so fast.
Despite his obvious talent, highlighted by lightning-fast speed and agility, Charles has yet to be compared to the likes of Peterson, Johnson and a Ladainian Tomlinson-in-his-prime type of guy, although I really think he should be.
The one thing holding Charles back from the newspaper headlines and making ESPN daily because of his long runs is his red zone capability. The top running backs in the league are hitting double digits in touchdowns each year. But Charles? He has just 12 in his three career seasons in this league. He wasn't even close to hitting the top 10 in TD runs this past season.
Jamaal has the speed and the long runs for me to consider him a premier back, but I don't think other fans and so-called experts would totally agree with me because of his lack of touchdown production. With 2010 being his first full season as an every-down back, I think he will be able to come out in 2011 a lot more comfortable and hit the double digit range in touchdowns.
Peyton Hillis, Cleveland Browns
Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
Madden curse? What Madden curse?
Yes, Hillis, after his 1,177 yard, 11-touchdown breakout performance this past season, will grace the coveted Madden cover this coming season. And yes, I know there is supposedly a so-called "Madden curse" in which the cover athlete either gets hurt and misses a chunk of the season or has an off-year.
But personally, I don't believe in it, and I just think the already highly-motivated Hillis now has something else to fuel the beast in him.
The result? Peyton Hillis will come out of the gate and make another huge impact on the game in 2011. I'm think closer to the tune of 1,200 yards and 13 TDs, an improvement on his remarkable 2010 performance with the lowly Cleveland Browns. Hillis and quarterback Colt McCoy (then a rookie) gave Browns' fans hope last season, and it will carry over to this season.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, New England Patriots
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Green-Ellis, leading the way for New England's ninth-ranked rushing offense, showed Belichick's Pats his potential with his first 1,000 yard season (1,008 on 229 carries), but what I think impressed everyone most was his 13 touchdowns.
Green-Ellis was a touchdown machine in 2010, making countless fantasy owners very happy campers, at least. But over the next couple of seasons I believe that we will see more and more of Green-Ellis as Tom Brady ages. Now, obviously I think we are still several years away from seeing a consistent decline in Brady's game; in fact, he is still the best quarterback in the league in my eyes.
But I would expect the Pats to make Green-Ellis their go-to guy in certain circumstances, particularly on third downs and goal-to-go situations. BenJarvus has seemingly looked like the type of player who is more effective in lower dosages, so I believe he will continue to be the Kevin Faulk-type player for the Pats and rack up double digits touchdowns in 2011.
Jahvid Best, Detroit Lions
Nick Laham/Getty Images
Best has the disadvantage of being on a team in rebuilding mode for the time being, but as a rookie in 2010, he showed flashes of brilliance at the running back position, almost reminding me of a Reggie Bush in a way.
I know that sounds like a negative comparison, because Bush has been somewhat of a disappointment to the NFL early in his career. But I actually mean in a sense that Best is a threat in several different ways. He can breakout for a long run in between the tackles, catching a pass out of the backfield and even in the return game (though he hasn't returned kicks as a professional yet).
Adding his yards from scrimmage together, Best has 1,042 and six touchdowns as a rookie, but he battled injury for a little while and only started nine games. Ineffective at times, Best wasn't a consistent producer for the Detroit offense, but I expect that to change with a healthy 2011 campaign. Luckily for the Detroit offense, Matthew Stafford should be 100 percent ready for the start of the season, giving the Lions an everyday franchise quarterback again.
Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Also a rookie in 2010, Mathews was a guy who was supposed to be in the running for the Rookie of the Year award as he stepped in to the locker room with an already great offense led by Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers.
Instead, Mathews was an inconsistent producer for a team that was pass-heavy, as he struggled the first half of the season. In his first eight games, Mathews had just two rushing touchdowns and no 100-yard games.
Mathews missed nearly a month of play, and when he returned, he lit up defenses for 296 yards and five touchdowns in the last four games he played in that season.
Mike Tolbert, primarily San Diego's third-down back, helped Mathews out quite a bit in 2010, rushing for a career-high 735 yards and 11 touchdowns. So Tolbert will likely take some of the pressure off Mathews in 2011, allowing Mathews to at least come close to breaking 1,000 yards in his sophomore season with the Chargers.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
These four guys could also see a rise in either playing time or production, or both, in some players' cases:
*Darren McFadden, OAK: 223 ATT, 1,157 yards, seven TDs in 2010 (all career-highs)
*Felix Jones, DAL: 185 ATT, 800 yards, one TD in 2010 (Att and yds both career-highs)
*Knowshon Moreno, DEN: 182 ATT, 779 yards, five TD in 2010 (second season in league)
*Shonn Greene, NYJ: 185 ATT, 766 yards, two TD in 2010 (YPC avg dropped from 5.0 in 2009 to 4.1 last year)