Which team in the NFL has the best backfield as we look ahead to the 2011 season?
That is not an easy question to answer, especially with an offseason in flux. Which teams will add quarterbacks, running backs and fullbacks between now and Week 1? That would be impossible to predict, so we didn't even try.
Here is a breakdown of the best backfields in the NFL as it stands today. We can assume that guys like Alex Smith will re-sign with the 49ers, but little else.
This is a picture of how the NFL's best backfields would be if the season started next week.
Key Players: Chad Henne, Daniel Thomas (rookie), Lex Hilliard, Charles Clay (rookie)
The Miami Dolphins have the privilege of holding the NFL's worst backfield. It's not quite their 17-0 season, but it's something to be proud of nonetheless.
Until the Dolphins can sign a running back to replace the collective yards lost in free agents Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, things look bleak for the future of the Miami franchise.
The team would by relying on rookie Daniel Thomas and unproven third-down back Lex Hilliard for yards in this very green backfield.
Key Players: John Beck, Ryan Torain, James Davis, Roy Helu (rookie)
Read those names again.
That's who the Redskins are planning to field in 2011.
No Donovan McNabb. No rookie quarterback brought in to learn Mike Shanahan's offense. Nada.
At least that is the line the Redskins and Co. are trying to sell. Secretly, we expect them to try and acquire a veteran quarterback like Vince Young. They may even place a bid for Terrelle Pryor if he is able to enter the supplemental draft.
Key Players: John Skelton, Beanie Wells, Ryan Williams (rookie), Anthony Sherman (rookie)
It is hard to imagine the Arizona Cardinals entering the 2011 season without an upgrade at quarterback, but it is possible Ken Whisenhunt will find the asking price for Kevin Kolb and Kyle Orton too high for his young football team.
In that case, the fate of the franchise in the upcoming season rests solely on second-year player John Skelton.
Skelton does not have the benefit of a strong running game to back him up, either.
Beanie Wells has been a disappointment since being drafted in the second round. The team used a 2011 second-round pick on Ryan Williams to complement and perhaps supplant Wells as the starting running back.
Key Players: Ryan Fitzpatrick, C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson
The Buffalo Bills have two very exciting running backs and one quarterback who has been less than spectacular, but good enough to warrant a second season as the starting quarterback.
Fitzpatrick is smart and has the mobility and arm strength to win football games, but he has not shown the ability to be a winner late in the year. He is not the type of quarterback you build a playoff football team around. In his defense, the talent on the offensive line has been weak, particularly at offensive tackle.
The running backs are very good. Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller could both be featured backs in many offenses.
The team must find a way to balance the two, and get Spiller touches on special teams and as a receiver.
Key Players: Cam Newton, Jimmy Clausen, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Goodson
The backfield in Carolina has the potential to be very, very good...they just are not there yet.
Rookie quarterback and first overall pick Cam Newton has a high ceiling. So much so that the Panthers are hedging their bets that he will be the franchise quarterback the team needs.
They made a similar, if less expensive bet last year when they selected Jimmy Clausen in the second round. One year later, Clausen was barely given a chance as a rookie and looks to be the odd man out in Carolina.
The team is not only breaking in a new quarterback, they are likely losing their top runner in DeAngelo Williams. The free agent is not expected back next fall. His replacement proved his worth in 2010.
Jonathan Stewart is capable of carrying the load for Carolina, which is a good thing because the franchise will lean heavily on him while Newton learns the ropes.
Key Players: Charlie Whitehurst, Marshawn Lynch, Justin Forsett, Leon Washington
The Seahawks are still living off the breathtaking run Marshawn Lynch broke to seal the team's win over the New Orleans Saints in the opening round of the 2010 playoffs.
It was one hell of a run.
The team is hoping Lynch's first full season in Seattle is a good one. The 'Hawks will rely heavily on Lynch to be the focal point of an offense taking the field without veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck under center.
In his place will be Charlie Whitehurst and his two career starts. Whitehurst was solid in spot duty during 2010, but can he step in and lead the Seahawks to a repeat playoff performance in 2011?
Key Players: Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow, Knowshon Moreno
The Denver Broncos are facing a multitude of question marks as the opening week of the 2011 season gets closer.
Who will start at quarterback?
There will be an open competition at quarterback, according to head coach John Fox. In that competition will be Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow and Brady Quinn. And it is anyone's guess who will win out.
Should Tebow become the starter it is likely that either Quinn or Orton will be traded to the highest bidder.
At running back the Broncos are becoming resigned to the fact that Knowshon Moreno is not a top running back. While he's sufficient for one more season, Denver will be looking for upgrades in the future.
Key Players: Carson Palmer, Andy Dalton (rookie), Cedric Benson
Carson Palmer has told the front office to trade him or he will retire. The Bengals responded by drafting Andy Dalton in the second round.
The running back situation is not much better.
Cedric Benson is the team's only proven running back, and even he is a free agent. While it's almost certain that Benson will return in 2011, there is almost no depth behind him. For a running back coming off two straight seasons of heavy pounding, this is short-sighted of the Bengals front office.
Key Players: Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick (rookie), Frank Gore, Anthony Dixon, Kendall Hunter (rookie)
The 49ers backfield may not seem terrible on paper, but when compared to the other NFL franchises that have an established quarterback and running back, things here are pretty bad.
Frank Gore is great if healthy, but that is not very often. Kendall Hunter was drafted to be his complement at running back but is unproven as a rookie. Anthony Dixon is purely a No. 3 back.
The problem at quarterback is that Alex Smith has never lived up to expectations placed on him as a No. 1 overall pick. In fact, Smith has not even lived up to the expectations of a third-round pick. The 49ers drafted Colin Kaepernick to directly compete with Smith now and in the future.
Key Players: Sam Bradford, Steven Jackson, Kenneth Darby
The backfields start to get really good right about now.
The St. Louis Rams have one of the NFL's most talented running backs in Steven Jackson and perhaps the best young quarterback in Sam Bradford.
What's missing is a No. 2 running back to complement Smith and allow him breaks throughout the season. Without this the Rams will never be able to make a run to the playoffs.
St. Louis should sign a secondary back in free agency, but until then we cannot move them up in our rankings.
Key Players: Matthew Stafford, Jahvid Best, Mikel Leshoure (rookie), Maurice Morris, Jerome Felton
The five players featured here are all very talented, with the talent to become one of the best units in the NFL.
But, it all hinges on Matthew Stafford's ability to stay healthy. So far, he has not been able to do so and that seriously limits this team's ability to win. Which in turn keeps them pretty far down on our rankings despite a load of talent here.
Jahvid Best has game-breaking speed, and Mikel Leshoure has the power to control the game between the tackles. Those two could become the NFL's next great one-two punch.
Key Players: Jason Campbell, Darren McFadden, Michael Bush
Surprised to see the Oakland Raiders so far back on our list?
The Raiders have a great young running back in Darren McFadden and one of the best unknown runners in Michael Bush. The two make a nice one-two punch as a speed-power combination. Combined, they could easily top 2,000 rushing yards in 2011.
So, what's keeping the Oakland Raiders down?
That would be quarterback Jason Campbell.
Campbell is good enough to be a starter, but not good enough to push the Raiders to the playoffs on his own. On a talented roster he is good enough to manage the team and get wins, but he will not put this team on his back and carry them.
Eli Manning won a Super Bowl for the New York Giants...at least that's what fans will tell you. The New York Giants really won a Super Bowl based on an outstanding defense, a lucky play and an overconfident New England Patriots team.
Manning, on his own, is very average.
The running game in New York is reliant upon Ahmad Bradshaw, a likely restricted free agent, re-signing with the ball club. Without Bradshaw, things are very bleak.
Key Players: Jake Locker (rookie), Chris Johnson, Javon Ringer
This one is all Chris Johnson.
Jake Locker may become a Hall of Fame quarterback some day, but as of today we have no idea what he brings to the NFL.
Until the Titans know what they have in Locker they will continue to rely heavily on running back Chris Johnson.
Johnson is backed up by the dependable Javon Ringer, a good inside runner who is a viable complement to the All-Pro Johnson.
Until things get cleared up at quarterback, the Titans will not move up our rankings.
Key Players: Colt McCoy, Peyton Hillis, Montario Hardesty, Owen Marecic (rookie)
When I grow up, I want to be one of the Cleveland Browns' backfield players.
Look at that picture of Peyton Hillis and tell me you don't get the urge to run over a linebacker, stiff-arm a cornerback and bulldoze a safety to score a touchdown?
The Browns are building something great in Cleveland with Hillis, Colt McCoy, 2010 draftee Montario Hardesty and 2011's Owen Marecic.
In that group the Browns have four hard-nosed, tough football players who have a passion for the game and a drive to win.
Key Players: David Garrard, Blaine Gabbert (rookie), Maurice Jones-Drew, Greg Jones, Montell Owens
The Jaguars offense might be good enough to win a playoff game if you look at the backfield and the offensive line.
It is when you look at the wide receivers and defense that you see why the Jaguars missed the playoffs again in 2010.
David Garrard is a steady veteran quarterback who does enough to keep his team competitive. The Jaguars drafted Blaine Gabbert No. 10 overall to compete with Garrard in the interim and to replace him in the future.
At running back the Jaguars are set. Maurice Jones-Drew is a top-10 running back and as dependable as they come. He's backed up by the talented and versatile Greg Jones. The fullback, Montell Owens, is pretty good in his own right.
Key Players: Philip Rivers, Ryan Mathews, Jordan Todman (rookie), Mike Tolbert
The Chargers have one of the NFL's best quarterbacks in Philip Rivers. Behind him, they have an inexperienced group of running backs who are all competing for carries.
Rivers is among the league's greatest at his position, but he has never won a Super Bowl or even played in one. Not even when he had Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson behind him.
Rivers' backfield mates in 2011 will be a contingent of unknowns and young players hoping to prove themselves.
We are firmly in the top half of the NFL's best backfields.
Do Jay Cutler and his Bears qualify in the top half of the league's best backfields? You bet they do.
Say what you want about Jay Cutler, but he led the Bears to the NFC Championship Game last year and is good enough to win it all in Chicago. Cutler just needs to be more consistent and also continue to mature in Mike Martz' offense before he enters the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks.
He also has a running back behind him on the verge of something amazing. Matt Forte has the talent to become the NFL's next great do-it-all running back. Chester Taylor is a smart veteran.
The team could stand to add another option as a third-down back, something they will likely do in free agency.
Key Players: Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Willis McGahee
The Baltimore Ravens have a very good backfield, but it is dominated by two players: Joe Flacco and Ray Rice.
Flacco has made the playoffs three straight seasons, but he has not been good enough to take the Ravens to a Super Bowl. The pressure will be on Flacco to take his loaded roster to the big game in 2011.
The running back spot is anchored by Ray Rice, who is very good in his role as the team's No. 1 running back. Willis McGahee is a solid veteran, but he's also likely to be released once the NFL lockout ends as a salary-cap casualty. He may re-sign with the club at a lower rate.
The Ravens must find a fullback, though. Le'Ron McClain is being allowed to leave via free agency and must be replaced.
Mark Sanchez was anointed as a franchise quarterback early in his rookie season. Now is the time to prove he belongs on the elite level of quarterbacks over the course of an entire season.
Sanchez has been hot and cold throughout his career, something the Jets cannot afford if they plan to make the Super Bowl in 2011.
There is enough talent around Sanchez for him to shine, particularly at running back.
The Jets have a four-headed running back crew for this coming season with veteran LaDainian Tomlinson surrounded by youngsters Shonn Greene, Joe McKnight and rookie sleeper Bilal Powell. There is enough talent here to go around and keep Tomlinson fresh for the playoff run.
Key Players: Peyton Manning, Donald Brown, Mike Hart
If the Colts had any quarterback other than Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, they would not be ranked this high.
Thankfully, they do have Manning. And he is the entire offense.
Losing running back Joseph Addai would be devastating, but it is a reality in 2011 if the Colts cannot re-sign the steady running back. Addai is not spectacular or exciting, but he is dependable and a much better option than draft-bust-in-the-making Donald Brown or third-down back Mike Hart.
Without Addai there is no running back on the roster worthy of a starting job. That is what is keeping Indianapolis from the top 10.
Key Players: Christian Ponder, Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart
This is quite a testament to the power of the two running backs that the Minnesota Vikings could be so close to our top 10.
Adrian Peterson is among the top two running backs in the entire NFL. His backup, Toby Gerhart, is good enough to start on a good number of teams in 2011.
If rookie quarterback Christian Ponder is as good as advertised, the Vikings will make a serious push for the playoffs in 2011. While that in itself would be impressive, it would largely be on the legs of Peterson and Gerhart, and not the arm of Ponder.
If Minnesota can sign a veteran quarterback to mentor Ponder, this ranking will become even more solid.
Key Players: Tony Romo, Marion Barber, Felix Jones, Tashard Choice, DeMarco Murray
Look at all of those running backs.
The Dallas Cowboys are blessed with a stable of runners good enough to see major playing time for almost every team in the NFL. Each is blessed with a unique ability, and therefore will see plenty of carries as the Cowboys hope to move from paper champions to Lombardi Trophy winners.
Romo himself is capable of video-game style numbers with a rock-solid offensive line and a talented group of pass-catchers assembled around him. If Romo fails to produce amazing numbers in 2011 it will be both shocking and disappointing.
Key Players: Josh Freeman, LeGarrette Blount, Earnest Graham
To make our top 10 list of the best backfields in the NFL the team must feature a star at both quarterback and running back. This is more rare than you would think.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are blessed with a young star at both positions.
Josh Freeman has become a favorite on the list of best quarterbacks under the age of 25 in the league, and he's backing up that belief on the field every week. In his third season Freeman will be good enough to lead the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl win...if the rest of the team can step up around him.
There is no shortage of talent at running back, where sophomore back LeGarrette Blount will carry the rock for the Bucs after an amazing rookie season. Blount has the talent to become an elite running back in this league. In fact, he may already be there.
Freeman, Blount and fullback Earnest Graham make up the NFL's most underrated backfield.
Key Players: Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Jason Snelling, Ovie Mughelli
Matt Ryan is the best young quarterback in the NFL. No ifs, ands or buts about it. He's just the best.
Now that we have all agreed on this, let's talk about how freaking good the Atlanta Falcons will be in 2011 if they can manage to keep their offensive line together.
Running back Michael Turner is a perennial Pro Bowler since coming to Atlanta. He is a lock to finish in the NFL's top 10 rushers every season as long as he remains healthy.
Further good news in Atlanta is that fullback/running back Jason Snelling is a great change-of-pace runner when Turner needs a breather.
Oh, and they have one of the best all-around fullbacks in the game with Ovie Mughelli.
It's almost not fair.
Key Players: Ben Roethlisberger, Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer
There is just one thing keeping the Pittsburgh Steelers backfield from making our top five list: depth at running back.
At quarterback the Steelers have a two-time Super Bowl winner in Ben Roethlisberger, a player who should be entering the equation as a top-three quarterback in the entire NFL.
At running back, the Steelers have an unheralded star with Rashard Mendenhall, but he needs help and a partner in crime at the position. That may be Jonathan Dwyer, but he has not shown the goods to prove he is a reliable No. 2 back.
Key players: Tom Brady, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen (rookie), Stevan Ridley (rookie)
A few slides back I said this:
"To make our top 10 list of the best backfields in the NFL the team must feature a star at both quarterback and running back."
That does not count when your quarterback is the best to ever play the game.
Tom Brady is good enough to propel the Patriots to our top six teams, even if the talent behind him at running back is very unproven at this time.
Had BenJarvus Green-Ellis been re-signed before the lockout we may have been able to put his name up here, but he remains an unrestricted free agent.
That leaves rookies Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, who was a favorite of mine in the draft, along with veteran utility man Danny Woodhead.
A motley crue for sure, but a productive group that only has to work in support of the game's best player.
Key Players: Michael Vick, Kevin Kolb, LeSean McCoy, Leonard Weaver
The Philadelphia Eagles are blessed, or cursed, with two quarterbacks good enough to start and lead the team to the playoffs.
The good news is that they should be able to trade Kevin Kolb for a high draft pick at some point, leaving superstar Michael Vick as the unquestioned and undisputed leader of the offense.
Vick had an amazing 2010 season, his first as a starter since 2006. In his comeback year Vick emerged as a top passer and runner from the quarterback position.
Helping him pave the way through the playoffs is the young and dynamic LeSean McCoy. Too few people are talking about McCoy, but more will be after a 2011 campaign that will see him dominate the NFC.
Key Players: Matt Cassel, Jamaal Charles, Thomas Jones, Mike Cox
The Kansas City Chiefs have built what may be the perfect backfield.
They have a smart quarterback who can push the ball upfield as well as deliver well-timed passes across the middle of the field. They have the speedy running back capable of busting long runs and breaking a defense down with just one move. And they have the heady veteran runner who wears down a defense over the course of a game.
The Chiefs are blessed with talented stars Matt Cassel and Jamaal Charles, but the play of veterans Thomas Jones and Mike Cox should not go unnoticed.
It is what this collective does in Kansas City that makes the Chiefs oh-so good.
Here we have a former NFL Most Valuable Player, two first-round picks and two players who worked from nothing to become 100-yard rushers in the NFL.
Pretty impressive when you see it all come together.
Drew Brees is still mentioned as one of the best quarterbacks in the game, even after a bad 2010 that saw his interception number soar. The talent around him will be much better in 2011.
There is a chance Reggie Bush may not be back, depending on his salary-cap number, but even without him the Saints are set.
Bush, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory have all proven capable of being a featured back when called upon. First-round pick Mark Ingram just might be the best of them all.
Key Players: Aaron Rodgers, Matt Flynn, Ryan Grant, James Starks, Alex Green (rookie)
The Packers have a top-five quarterback and two running backs who have proven they can be the team's featured running back in big spots.
They also have backups who could command a lot of attention on the open market or contribute in a big way in 2011.
Aaron Rodgers is moving into the category of the NFL's best passers, and deservedly so. He has been nothing but phenomenal in replacing future Hall of Famer Brett Favre.
His backup, Matt Flynn, played well in relief and could be a hot target if the Packers decide to trade him before his contract runs out after the season.
At running back the Packers must decide between 2009 hero Ryan Grant and the workhorse of their 2010 playoff run, James Starks. It is also possible they will use both in conjunction with a sleeper from the 2011 draft, Alex Green.
Key Players: Matt Schaub, Arian Foster, Ben Tate, Steve Slaton, Vonta Leach
The Houston Texans have a top-10 quarterback, a top-10 running back and a player many call the best fullback in the NFL.
That's good enough for our top spot among the NFL's best backfields.
Matt Schaub has lost the "injury-prone" label and proven that he is good enough to do more than excite fantasy football owners. Schaub is a serious winner in the NFL and has put the rest of the AFC on notice that the Texans are only getting better.
Part of that improvement falls on the back of Arian Foster. The 2010 rushing leader went from unwanted in the NFL to a potential MVP candidate.
What's more, the Texans planned to feature Ben Tate at running back before injury cost him his rookie season. Tate is expected to see a major role in 2011 as a complementary back to Foster. There is also former 1,000-yard rusher Steve Slaton to consider, although it is likely he will be traded in the preseason.
And let's not forget the NFL's highest-ranked fullback, Vonta Leach. Leach was the lone fullback to make the NFL Network's Top 100 Players list.