The Top 50 NFL Running Backs of 2011
It appears the days of the featured back are nearing an end.
Goal-line backs are decreasing in number, and most teams now have two backs who split time relatively evenly. Third-down receiving backs have become prevalent and serve to extend the careers of the team's No. 1 back.
Only 17 running backs eclipsed 1,000 yards in 2010, while a mere eight ran for 10 or more touchdowns—the leader was Arian Foster of Houston with 16.
In as recently as 2006, 23 running backs ran for over 1,000 yards, and LaDainian Tomlinson rushed for 28 touchdowns.
Teams are looking for backs specific to their offense. In other words, bowling balls like Michael Turner and Jonathan Stewart will be worth more to some teams than Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy, who are quicker and better receivers.
I looked at a number of traits to determine who belongs where on this list. Explosiveness, power, vision, versatility and, above all, production, were huge factors in placing the talented backs of the NFL.
Continue on to view the most comprehensive list of running backs available, and of course, I won't please everyone, so feel free to share your personal rankings in the comments.
50. Darren Sproles, San Diego Chargers
Sproles is very small, standing at 5'6". He doesn't let that limit him, though.
Since being drafted by San Diego in 2005, he has been one of the most explosive players in the league. I am ignoring his value as a returner for the purpose of this list, but he is just as explosive in the receiving game. He has soft hands and is great on screens.
His speed allows him to get to the sideline and into the open field, where he is fantastic.
49. Mike Goodson, Carolina Panthers
Goodson is another fourth round pick who has exceeded expectations thus far.
In his second year in the league, he has already put up good numbers in one of the most crowded backfields in the NFL. While Panthers star Deangelo Williams battled injury the entire season, Goodson shined as the compliment back to Jonathan Stewart.
He is very elusive and displays an excellent burst through the hole. He also adds great value as a receiver. However, he needs to solve his fumbling issues before the Panthers increase his workload.
48. Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints
Ingram has yet to play a down in the NFL, but he is talented enough to make a big splash in his first season as a pro.
He was a star his entire career at Alabama. In his sophomore season, he won the Heisman and led 'Bama to a national championship. On the season, he scored 20 touchdowns and rushed for 1,658 yards.
Ingram can truck you, run around you and catch a ball over you. He is an ideal featured back, and I can't wait to see how he does if the season ever begins.
47. Tim Hightower, Arizona Cardinals
Hightower, a fifth round draft pick, was a goal-line specialist.
In his first NFL season, he tallied 10 touchdowns, but only 2.8 yards per carry. But he has changed his image. In the past two seasons, his yards per carry has bumped up to 4.5, and he has become a threat in the receiving game as well.
He runs very aggressively, and although he does not have elite top-end speed, he makes up for it with great vision and burst through the hole.
46. Danny Woodhead, New England Patriots
The second sub-5'8" player on the list, Woodhead exceeded expectations after being cut by the Jets earlier in 2010.
He was the perfect compliment to BenJarvus Green-Ellis in New England. He is a very quick player who makes the right cuts at the right time, maneuvering his way into the second level. He is also an excellent receiver in the flats, but his height limits his attractiveness on down-field routes.
He isn't great between the tackles, but he will continue to shine in a backup role with the Patriots.
45. Ricky Williams, Miami Dolphins
Williams isn't the player he was in the early 2000s, but he has done his job in Miami.
Miami fans have gotten a lot more than expected from Williams since he re-entered the league. He defined work-horse early in his career, so it cannot be taken as a surprise that he is quickly fading, now in his 11th NFL season. He was great in 2009, but I think his fall in 2010 is a trend we can expect to continue.
He is still a strong, tough runner, but he lacks the explosiveness that teams covet. He could very well be without a team when the season begins.
44. Clinton Portis, Washington Redskins
For Portis, injury has been the story over the past few seasons. The talented back is finding it harder and harder to stay on the field each passing year.
Portis was once one of the fastest backs in the league. He would stop on a dime and make defenders look like fools. His first two seasons in the NFL were successful beyond anyone's beliefs.
He no longer has that second gear to split defenders and break off big runs. His career is trending down, but he may have a good season left in him.
43. C.J. Spiller, Buffalo Bills
Spiller has all the attributes you want in your star back, but has yet to adjust to the NFL speed.
In his rookie season, he didn't even come close to reaching expectations. He was stuck in a backup role and was relegated to a role as a returner, where he was very good, I might add. He is an extremely explosive runner who has elite speed and also breaks a lot of tackles.
However, Spiller has yet to put these skills together to produce in the NFL, and until he does, his skills will look less and less impressive.
42. Tashard Choice, Dallas Cowboys
Choice has been the third wheel in Dallas, but he could shine if another team picks him up.
He has the mix of strength and agility that I like in running backs. He does a good job of getting upfield and doesn't dance around too much. He also makes clean cuts and has the ability to run in between the tackles and also get to the edge to pick up big yardage.
He doesn't have blazing speed, but he is a good all-around back who is a solid option for any team in need of consistency at the position.
41. Ryan Torain, Washington Redskins
Torain is a big boy who has far exceeded expectations to this point in his young career.
He is one cut-and-run type of runner who keeps a good pad level. He does show good burst typically, but uses his strength and ability to break tackles in order to be effective.
Although he is always running downhill, thinks are looking up for Torain's future in the league. Let me know if that seemed forced in the comments.
40. Thomas Jones, Kansas City Chiefs
Jones is getting up their in age, but has remained productive through his 11th season in the NFL.
He eclipsed 10,000 yards last season, and it's a good thing he did now. It was arguably his worst season since his days in Tampa Bay and Arizona. Nonetheless, he does have some juice left in the tank as a backup to Jamaal Charles.
He runs on instincts now and does not break tackles like he used to, but his vision and awareness still make him an attractive option as a backup.
39. Justin Forsett, Seattle Seahawks
Here lies the first real shocker for most reading this list. Forsett is one of the most unappreciated backs in the league, and here's why.
After being drafted in the seventh round of the 2008 draft, he has already rushed for over 1,100 yards and reeled in over 600 receiving yards in two seasons of action. Increase his workload, and he might have been one of the most productive backs in the league over that span. I am not kidding. He may seem small, but he can run in between the tackles as well as teammate Marshawn Lynch.
Forsett is very quick and brilliant in the open field. The ceiling is quite high for him.
38. Beanie Wells, Arizona Cardinals
Wells took a step back in his sophomore season as he battled injury for a good portion of the schedule.
The first round pick is a pure power runner. He gains lots of momentum once he gets going and is tough to bring down. He has a great stiff arm in his arsenal and displays good patience.
He won't put up huge numbers until the Cardinals' line improves, but with a healthy season, he could really show off his talent.
37. Mike Tolbert, San Diego Chargers
Despite his size, Tolbert is a quick guy who jumped onto the scene in 2010.
He isn't overly elusive, but he always falls forward and is a high energy guy who will get the most out of every play. He is also a solid receiver and is good in short-yardage situations.
He will likely take a back seat to Ryan Mathews in 2011, but Tolbert has solidified himself as a very good backup option for the Chargers.
36. Reggie Bush, New Orleans Saints
After being burdened by incredibly high expectations, Reggie Bush has done exactly what I expected him to do in the league.
He is an explosive playmaker as a receiver and returner, first and foremost. He has struggled to become a three-down back likely because he lacks the physicality and toughness necessary to handle such duties.
However, Bush remains a constant threat as one of the most elusive and quickest backs out there. I think he just needs to accept his role as a slot receiver.
35. Jahvid Best, Detroit Lions
Best is a very quick back who gives the Lions a dual threat at running back.
He is a better receiver than a runner and would probably be most effective as a third down or second and long type of back. He is very good on draws and clearly an excellent receiver.
His vision and speed will make him the perfect compliment to Mikel Leshoure, who will likely handle the duties of the featured back.
34. Michael Bush, Oakland Raiders
Bush reminds me of Beanie Wells, except he is a little more polished at this point.
He runs with good power and balance, but is also deceivingly agile in traffic. He moves around very well for his size, and although he does not have great top-end speed, he is able to maneuver very well using his quickness.
Although he is limited by his inability to get to the edge and burst upfield, Bush is a very good complimentary back to teammate Darren McFadden.
33. Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks
Everyone remembers when he went into "beast mode" versus the Saints in the Wild Card round, but do you know what he did versus Chicago in the Divisional? How about during the entire 2009 season?
Lynch is a talented runner, undoubtedly, but he is not a professional in terms of work ethic or commitment. It seems that he only gives full effort when he wants, and until he changes that, he will never reach his potential.
32. Marion Barber, Dallas Cowboys
Barber is one of the most aggressive runners in the league—sometimes to a fault.
He makes good cuts and is very powerful and elusive when healthy. However, he sometimes overestimates his ability and dances too much in the backfield. Due to his physical style, his skills are declining rather rapidly.
He lacks the explosiveness he once had, and I wouldn't be all that shocked if Tashard Choice began digging further into Barber's workload in 2011.
31. Shonn Greene, New York Jets
Greene is a power runner, but he is also quick and has above-average speed.
He consistently keeps his pad level low in traffic and moves around very well, displaying great instincts and a feel for his surroundings.
As his teammate Ladainian Tomlinson continues to age, his workload will continue to grow—and he has the strength and toughness to handle it.
30. Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers
The stats really don't do Mathews justice. You really have no clue how good he is until you watch how well he progressed through 2010.
At times, I felt like I was watching LT again. I know that is very high praise and sets the bar pretty high for this guy, but I have a lot of confidence in his future as a Charger. He has explosive speed and does an exceptional job of turning the corner and getting upfield.
Look for him to really break out this upcoming season as a future star in the NFL.
29. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, New England Patriots
After a quiet start to his NFL career, Green-Ellis broke out in a big way in 2010.
He surpassed the century mark on the ground and also picked up 13 touchdowns. He shows great acceleration and compliments it with good physicality and patience.
On occasion, he will use his stiff arm and discards smaller defenders. He is a very good all around back who the Pats love in a duo with Danny Woodhead.
28. Pierre Thomas, New Orleans Saints
Thomas is another back who has been unappreciated for his contributions to a great organization.
In a shared backfield, Thomas has been very consistent. In 2009, he was one of the most invaluable players on the offense. In fact, I would rank his importance to their offense that year third, behind only Drew Brees and Marques Colston.
He is a very good receiver and has good balance. His flashes of greatness make me excited for his future in sharing time with Mark Ingram. However, he may pursue an opportunity with another team.
27. LeGerrate Blount, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Blount's success in his rookie season erased terrible memories of his disappointing final season at Oregon.
The quick transition that the undrafted free agent made to the NFL was amazing, and he made it look easy. At 247 pounds, he is a monster on the field, but he has the vision and athleticism to make good use of his size.
Blount has a very bright future ahead of him, and with a full season to put up big numbers, watch out for him in your fantasy leagues.
26. Ronnie Brown, Miami Dolphins
Brown has not lived up to the hype that has surrounded the second overall pick.
He has eclipsed 1,000 yards only once during the six years he has been in the NFL. His skills do not appear to be that of a top pick at this phase. He no longer shows great burst or speed to break into the second level.
Brown is descending into a backup / fringe starter. He may only have another two or three more effective seasons in the league.
25. Joseph Addai, Indianapolis Colts
Addai is a tough guy to evaluate. His performance from season to season has changed, but the reason he is this high is due to how well he play before and after his injury last season.
He fits well into the Colts' scheme, where he utilizes his patience and vision on their oft-used stretch runs. He is also a skilled receiver, where he is an option on screens but can also run down-field routes.
He is an agile runner who is at his best once he gets to the edge. Give him a full season, and he may repeat the success that he had early on in his career.
24. Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills
Jackson came out of college already 25 and has finally peaked at the age 30, which makes it very tough to determine how quickly he may age as a player.
Jackson does not make many cuts, but he can get away with it due to very good speed and vision. He shows good burst and accelerates through contact, a trait I believe is essential in running backs.
Despite his age, Jackson is improving every season and is one of the more balanced backs in the league.
23. Felix Jones, Dallas Cowboys
Jones is possibly the fastest back in the NFL. He is explosive and has been very productive when healthy in Dallas.
Jones is elusive and also a fine receiver. The strain he puts on defenses to contain him has a huge impact on every game, and that will only increase as he becomes more patient and runs smarter.
As it stands, Jones is not a three-down back, but if he bulks up, he may change that.
22. Ryan Grant, Green Bay Packers
Grant was very productive in his first three seasons out of Notre Dame, but injury claimed his shot at contributing to the Super Bowl winning Packers team.
Grant is a very good back in that he succeeds in all facets of the positions, but this also means he exceeds at no particular skill. He does not have breakaway speed and is a tough runner who relies on instincts rather than pure talent.
Grant will be around awhile because of his consistency, but his ability doesn't scare defenses, something that decreases his value in my mind.
21. Knowshon Moreno, Denver Broncos
Moreno has done nothing to make me believe he is not one of the most talented young backs in the league.
I would love to see the Broncos entrust him with more of a workload, because I believe it will only accelerate his growth as a player. He has the talent; it's just a matter of utilizing him and coaching him to maximize that potential.
He has fantastic vision, but can be too anxious at times. Once he adjusts to the speed of the game, he will learn how to better utilize his blockers and consistently play like he did versus the Chiefs in 201, with 267 rushing yards and 112 receiving yards in two games.
20. LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego Chargers
The 2011 season revived Tomlinson, who was fading away in San Diego the previous seasons.
He looked healthier and made the great cuts that we expect from him. He displays some of the best body control in the league and remains a threat as a receiver.
While he may not break off huge runs like in the past, Tomlinson is a very smart veteran who understands the game as well as any back in the league.
19. Brandon Jacobs, New York Giants
The former short-yardage specialist has become much more for the Giants as of late.
After regressing in 2009, Jacobs bounced back in a big way in 2010. He looked faster and did not seem cautious like he was the previous season. He has become a great starter because of his toughness and newfound explosiveness as a runner.
While Jacobs saw a reduction in workload, I believe that 2010 was his best season. Depending on what direction the Giants go with the running back situation in 2011, he could flourish and carry the Giants into the playoffs.
18. Cedric Benson, Cincinnati Bengals
Benson's numbers were not as impressive as his first in Cincinnati, but don't let that ruin your opinion of him.
He is a much improved player. He looks faster and stronger than in Chicago, and he does a great job of squaring his shoulders and running downhill.
Benson is a guy who finishes every play and runs angry. As long as he remains healthy, he will be a good NFL starter.
17. Peyton Hillis, Cleveland Browns
Hillis, who will grace the cover of Madden 12, had his breakout season in 2010.
He rushed for over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season. He runs with a physicality that is matched by few. He has a great stiff arm, but ball security is a concern—he fumbled eight times last season.
Hillis isn't very quick or fast, but his ability to consistently truck would-be tacklers makes him one of the better running backs in the NFL.
16. Matt Forte, Chicago Bears
This is where we get to the cream of the crop. Forte is a back that any team would be fortunate to have.
He isn't extremely talented and won't make many defenders miss, but he has very good vision and typically makes the right cut in the backfield. He is also an excellent receiver. He is especially effective in the flats, where he is able to consistently pick up first downs.
Forte has limited talent, but he more than makes up for it with determination and solid instincts.
15. Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers
Although only recently turning 24, Stewart is one of the most talented backs in the league. Many believe he will become a star when given the opportunity to shine.
Stewart is only a backup, but he is by far the best in the league. He has one of the best stiff arms in the NFL and if you haven't watched the video of him planting James Farrior, watch it now.
He is not only a power back though. He shows great burst through the hole and is one of the hardest backs to tackle in the entire league.
14. Ahmad Bradshaw, New York Giants
Bradshaw took some great leaps in 2010, elevating his status as a starter in the NFL.
He is extremely agile and makes very good cuts, but is also a tough, physical runner when he needs to be. This balance makes him very tough to bring down because he has various ways to elude you.
Bradshaw is also a very good receiver. He has soft hands and his vision allows him to find open space.
13. Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers
Gore has been very consistent through his career, but took a step back in 2010.
I believe Gore's skills are beginning to regress, despite him rushing for less than 1,500 carries on his career. I attribute this mostly to injury—he has not played a full season since 2006. He doesn't have the same agility that made him one of the top backs in the NFL over the previous few seasons.
He remains a great option as a receiver out of the backfield and is still explosive with the ball in his hands.
12. LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles
McCoy was not always in the limelight for the Eagles, but he was incredibly important to their success last season.
He is very fast and a great receiver. He does a good job of getting to the edge, but is also effective on inside runs. He shows the ability to manipulate defenders and get into the open field, where he is at his best.
Mccoy is very young and talented. He has a bright future ahead of him in Philadelphia.
11. Arian Foster, Houston Texans
No one could have projected what Foster would go on to accomplish last season. Coming out of nowhere to have a season like that is unheard of.
Foster is a great all-around player. He is a fantastic receiver, on deep and short routes and excels once he reaches the open field. He is quite fast and plays with solid instincts.
I don't expect that same success out of Foster in 2011, but he should have a nice season as the Texans hope to finally get a playoff berth.
10. DeAngelo Williams, Carolina Panthers
Williams has managed to put up great numbers in a two-back system, but his 2010 season was mired by nagging injuries.
Williams does a great job running between the tackles and always bounces it outside when he needs to. He has outstanding vision and is typically a patient runner. He accelerates extremely fast, making him one of the most explosive backs in the league when healthy.
Wherever Williams ends up in 2011, he will put up big numbers. The Panthers would love to have him back, but with Jonathan Stewart waiting in the wings, you have to wonder if they will offer him the big contract he deserves.
9. Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens
After a fantastic 2009 season, Rice was not nearly as efficient in 2010. His yard per carry dropped by over a yard, and he had 15 less receptions than the previous season.
Rice has a very low center of gravity, making it hard for defenders to find him behind the line of scrimmage and then tackle him when he hits the hole with great speed. He is one of the best receivers out of the backfield. He has soft hands and does a very good job on screens, although defenders do easily trip him up when chasing from behind.
Rice has done a very good job thus far in his career, but with the aging Willis McGahee falling out of the picture, Rice will have to pick up even more of a workload next season.
8. Rashard Mendenhall, Pittsburgh Steelers
Luckily for the Steelers, Mendenhall has been healthy following his rookie season and has been very consistent for them.
He lacks great lateral agility, but makes up for it with great speed and balance. He runs with good power and is tough to bring down one on one. He does a very good job of getting to the edge, squaring his shoulders and getting upfield.
Mendenhall runs very well in between the tackles, but is a threat to beat the defense to the outside as well, making him one of the most well-rounded backs in the league.
7. Michael Turner, Atlanta Falcons
Turner has bulked up over the past few years, turning himself into one of the best power backs in the game.
It looks like he slowed down over the past few seasons, but he also runs with a new physicality that is tough to defend. He is a very patient runner, but when he hits the hole and gets into the open field, he breaks off some big runs.
Turner has been very productive over the past few seasons on the ground, but a lack of receiving ability drops his value in my mind.
6. Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders
This one will ruffle some feathers, but this list isn't about pleasing every reader. My true belief is that McFadden is one of the most talented backs in the league, and he showed that the entire 2010 season, despite battling injuries.
He shows a great second gear, and once he has a crease, he typically bursts through it with elite speed. He typically makes a great first cut, but if he gets himself into trouble, he is very elusive and does a good job of escaping when trapped by defenders. On occasion, he does lower his shoulder and deliver nasty hits to defenders.
His only weakness is driving his legs on contact, and that can be fixed with more coaching. Regardless, McFadden is incredibly skilled and one of the most versatile backs in the league. He is great on screens and is a threat to take it all the way one any play, which elevates him to stand with the greatest backs currently in the league.
5. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars
Jones-Drew has been a model of consistency since entering the league five years ago. Over that span, he has piled up over 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns on the ground.
He is very tough to bring down due to very strong legs and a low center of gravity. He also has very quick feet and shows great burst to split defenders, although his top-end speed is not elite.
While Jones-Drew was not in the end-zone as often last season, he looked just as good as ever. I believe he is just reaching the peak of his career and will have a fantastic season if he remains healthy in 2011.
4. Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams
Jackson was finally able to remain healthy last season, and it may seem like he has been around forever, but he will only be 28 years old by the start of the season.
Jackson doesn't have elite speed, but he is one of the hardest backs to bring down. His legs are always churning, and he has a great stiff arm in his arsenal. He also has one of the best spin moves in the league and is able to quickly accelerate after contact.
Jackson is also a very patient runner and has been extremely productive over his seven years in the league. He has soft hands and has been consistent on the ground and through the air.
3. Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans
Behind one the best offensive lines in the NFL over the past few season, Johnson has put up incredible numbers thus far.
Although he slightly undersized at 191 pounds, he has only missed one game through three NFL seasons. He is incredibly fast and quick. Once you think you have him trapped, he has escaped to the other sideline and is trotting into the end zone for another touchdown.
Johnson is very elusive and shows great burst to get to the second level of the defense. He has been one of the most explosive runners in the league and also adds value as a receiver out of the backfield. He has good hands and is great once he gets to open space.
He is one of the elite backs in the league, and some will even argue he is best, but until he shows the ability to stick his nose in their and finish runs—whether he is between the tackles trying to pick up that extra yard or on the edges—he will not be number one in my mind.
2. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs
I found Charles an interesting prospect coming out of college, and he has risen to football's elite far sooner than I believed possible.
He is a dynamic player as a receiver and running back and has improved his ability to run between the tackles. He is one of the most explosive players in the game right now, and no team was able to contain him all season. He is a nightmare for defenses because he causes defenses to gameplan for him, even though he doesn't get the brunt of the team's carries. In fact, I would attribute much of Matt Cassel's success last season to Charles.
He shows fantastic burst through the first level of the defense and has fantastic vision, making it nearly impossible for defenders to predict where he is cutting next. Adding to that unpredictability is his agility, which is the class of the league. He makes great moves in traffic and in the open field—where he is a huge challenge to take down.
At 24 years old, Charles has yet to hit his prime. If the Chiefs are smart, they will up his carries and let the young star carry them—pun not intended—to the playoffs. His 6.42 yards per carry average ranks first all time among qualifying rushers—over 200 rushes. On this list, he leads Barry Sanders, Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson and Adrian Peterson. Any time you are mentioned with those rushers, you are doing something right.
1. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
Peterson is the obvious choice at this slot. His game is almost flawless, making him not only the most enjoyable player to watch film on, but the most impressive.
The first thing you will notice when watching Peterson is the aggressiveness with which he runs. He is never afraid to mix it up with a defender and will run over the best tacklers in the league. He also makes great cuts in the open field and between the tackles. He has great vision and he escapes to open space with linebackers breathing down his neck.
Peterson has shown the ability to improve on his already immense talent each season in the NFL. In his rookie season, there were worries about his ability to stay healthy over the long haul, and he has only missed one game since.
During his second NFL season, his ability to contribute as a receiver was questioned. What did he do the following season? He reeled in 436 receiving yards, ranking himself fifth among running backs.
There were still worries about his fumbling issues, though. Peterson then shut down these doubters by cutting down to one fumble on the entire season.
Peterson has little else to improve on, so expect a huge output from him next season.
These players just missed the cut. They are all talented and will either surface on this list in the near future, or they have already had their time and are on their way out.
Willis McGahee, Baltimore Ravens: Stock Falling
Donald Brown, Indianapolis Colts: Stock Rising
Carnell Williams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Stock Falling
Brandon Jackson, Green Bay Packers: Stock Rising
Mikel Leshoure, Detroit Lions: Rookie