The magic number for running backs: 1,000.
A successful year for a running back is gaining over 100 yards. While this may not be necessary for today's NFL (half of the playoff teams didn't have a 1,000-yard rusher), it still is the measure most analysts use to separate the top backs in the league.
In 2010, 17 backs reached the mark, two of them by less than ten yards. So, let's take a look at who has the best chance of making the grade in 2011, as well as possible sleepers.
The 2010 rushing leader had monster numbers last season, surprising everyone as he compiled 1,616 yards in 327 touches, netting a very high 4.9 Y/A.
Starting right out in Week One versus Indianapolis, Foster's performance looked like a fluke game against a weak defense, as he only had 54 touches prior to this season. However, Foster never looked back, stretching his dominance out all season.
While the third year player out of Tennessee likely will not see numbers quite so high this year (due to a higher awareness of his talent this year), he still has the talent to be an elite back. Expect Foster to be on these lists for years to come.
While the 24 year old from Texas had most of his touchdown opportunities taken from Thomas Jones in 2010, he racked up the yards at an insane rate of 6.4 yards per attempt, highest of any running back with at least 20 carries.
Charles ended with over 1,400 yards on just 230 attempts, and Kansas City head coach Todd Haley has expressed his desire to get him the ball more in 2011.
I expect Charles to have even better total numbers in 2011, albeit with a slightly lower Y/A.
Johnson has put up over 4,500 yards since being drafted in 2008, and one can hardly expect that to slow down any time soon.
While Johnson is sure to see 8 man fronts with Jake Locker heading up the Titans' shaky air attack, he faced that this year and still put up nearly 1,400 yards!
The Titans will rely on Johnson even more next season, and his volume numbers (yards) will likely increase, although his efficiency numbers (Y/A) may not increase, and may even decrease. Even still, Johnson will have over 1,000 yards if he stays healthy, and he has so far in his career.
Jones-Drew has excelled since fully taking over the starting job in 2009, raking up over 2,700 yards in the past two years. That includes 2010, where a knee injury limited him to 14 games, but he still put up 1,324 yards on the season, good enough for fifth in the league.
While the knee injury may hinder him in 2011, MJD has been very consistent in his five-year career, and will likely continue that for a couple years yet, especially as the Jaguars develop Blaine Gabbert.
As good as Jones-Drew has been, nobody has been close to Peterson, who has rushed for almost 6,000 yards in four years, never rushing for less than 1,200 yards. This was without a legitimate thread at quarterback back for half of his career (in which he actually did better).
He's done it before, and I expect him to do it again. I expect to see numbers close to 2009 levels (1,400 yards, 4.4 Y/A), as opposed to 2010 (1,300 yards, 4.6 Y/A) simply due to a higher workload.
While his career is in decline, I believe Jackson has at least one more good season left in him. Jackson turns 28 on July 22, leaving him with about two more years of good production.
Yes, Jackson is on the backside of his productive career, with 2010 being his lowest Y/A in his career, with the 3.8 Y/A being the only year he's dipped below four. Still, Jackson has been very consistent in his seven-year career, gaining over 1,000 yards every year since his rookie stint in 2004.
St. Louis didn't make any moves to find him a successor yet in this off-season, and Sam Bradford still needs a workhorse RB to lighten the load.
Bradshaw had an extremely efficient year in 2010, averaging 4.5 yards per carry, totaling 1,235 yards on the season.
This was Bradshaw's first year as the true starter, and he used it very effectively. It's to be expected that he could do the same in 2011.
While he'll still split carries with Brandon Jacobs, Bradshaw separated himself as the main man in New York this season, and the Giants' always strong running game will be powered by another 1,000-yard campaign from Bradshaw.
Rice emerged as one of the top all around backs in the league in 2010. A volume runner in 2010, Rice had a middling Y/A of 4, but ran over 300 times for 1,220 yards.
Rice will likely only get more touches in 2011, as Willis McGahee is likely gone from the Ravens next year. Hopefully Joe Flacco improves his chemistry with his young receivers, helping the running game as well.
It's hard to see Hillis repeating his surprise year in 2010, where he burst onto the scene with nearly 1,200 yards on 270 attempts. Although Hillis may need to share the load in 2011, he still will get a lot of work as Colt McCoy develops.
When you're running behind Joe Thomas, being the lead back should mean a 1,000 yard season. Hillis has the talent, as he showed last season. Now we'll just have to see if he has the ability to keep it up over time.
As long as McFadden is healthy, he is one of the best backs in the league. Last year he averaged 5.2 yards per attempt, gaining 1,157 yards in only 13 games.
If McFadden can stay on the field, he'll be a lock for a 1,000-yard season. Unfortunately, the most games he's ever played was 13 this past year.
I like his chances to have another solid season in 2011.
McCoy exploded in his sophomore season for 1,080 yards on 5.2 Y/A, more than a yard higher than his rookie campaign. Starting only 13 games, McCoy should improve his stats has he takes over the job in 2011.
Getting more carries should put him into the top 10 backs in the league, his average was second only to Jamaal Charles (for starters) in 2010.
The Tulane graduate is looking for a major improvement in 2011. Running behind first round draft pick Gabe Carimi should boost his numbers, and Forte will be looking for a big year in the last year of his contract.
Forte had a good average of 4.5 Y/A last season, but a limited amount of carries. If the Bears look to emphasize the run more in 2010, Forte could end up with well over 1,000 yards.
As a rookie, Blount powered forward for 1,007 yards, but in only 201 carries for very healthy Y/A of 5.
Running backs generally show great improvement in their second and third years, as they gain more touches, so to have the production he has had already is incredible. I wouldn't be surprised to see Blount having a shot at the rushing crown next year as an up and coming Tampa Bay team improves.
Gore has been a workhorse back since entering the league in 2005, totaling over 6,000 yards in six years. This past year was the first year since his rookie campaign that Gore didn't reach 1,000 yards.
While Gore is clearly in decline, I believe that he'll bounce back this year. Whoever the quarterback is will continue to need strong run support for at least one more year. Add to the fact that this is a contract year for Gore, and you have a strong 2011 season.
Stewart should return to the 1,000-yard club in 2011 after a one year hiatus, earning just 770 yards in 2010. Stewart will likely inherit the starting job completely from DeAngelo Williams, who is rumored to not resign with the Panthers.
Look to see Stewart to really pick up his workload, getting much more than the 178 carries he got in 2010. With first draft pick overall Cam Newton infusing some energy into the offense, Stewart will be relied on to eget tough yards to support the rookie QB.
Rashard Mendenhall: I think the workload he got in 2010 was just too much for him. The production of running backs who reach the Super Bowl generally declines in the following year, just due to the extra amount of wear and tear in the playoff run.He had the second lowest Y/A of the top 12 backs with 3.9, and I don't think he'll get the volume carries in 2011.
Cedric Benson: Benson has had over 1,000 yards in the last two years, but never had before that in his six-year career. He turns 29 in December, and Cincinnati's offense is in turmoil.
BenJarvus Green Ellis: He barely reached the mark in 2010, and will share even more carries if the Patriots retain him in 2011. The Patriots picked up two more backs in the draft, and that will add to an already crowded backfield.
Knowshon Moreno: There have been questions about his ability to carry a full workload, but Moreno had a solid Y/A in 2010 of 4.3 gaining him 770 yards. New coach John Fox is rumored to bring a more run-heavy offense to Denver, and if they don't pick up a back in free agency, Moreno is the guy.
Shonn Greene: He'll pick up more carries as Tomlinson starts to fade more. While he didn't live up to expectations late in the year last year, LT thinks he's ready for more work.
Ryan Torain: He surprised a lot of people last season, gaining over 700 yards in just 10 games. He may have to fight for the starting spot though, as the 'Skins backfield adds Roy Helu to the backfield.