The NFL's Top 10 Running Backs Heading into the 2011 Season

Marlowe Alter@@MarloweAlterContributor IAugust 2, 2011

The NFL's Top 10 Running Backs Heading into the 2011 Season

0 of 10

    Football is back! Training camps are open for all 32 teams and the preseason is just 10 days away. Teams have been frantically adding free agents, trading, and cutting players during this condensed offseason. 

    I want to be clear. This is my personal ranking, I'm obviously not saying this the best list or the only list. I expect and want people to disagree and give their opinion, because that's what makes this process fun. I'm just trying to stir up conversation on the issue. 

    Also, my ranking technique WAS NOT purely based on stats (if I wanted to do that, I would have just listed the top fantasy running backs). I looked at each RB as a whole, not just their ability to run the football, but also their pass catching ability and overall contributions.

    So, with the regular season just 5 weeks away, let's take a look at my top 10 running backs going into the 2011 campaign.

    *age at the end of the 2011 calender year*

10. Rashard Mendenhall, 24

1 of 10

    Rashard Mendenhall is #10 on my list. I was very tempted to slide him out of the top 10 and plug in Peyton Hillis or Darren McFadden but Mendenhall carried the load on a Super Bowl team so I gave him the nod. He's been in the league for 3 seasons but is still young and growing as a player. He only averaged 3.9 yards per rush attempt (down from 4.6 in 2009) but was tied for second in the league in rushing touchdowns with BenJarvis Green-Ellis (surprising I know) with 13 touchdowns.

    Mendenhall is durable and dependable, having played in all 16 games the last two seasons. He was fourth in the NFL in carries and fumbled only twice during the regular season, although his fumble in the Super Bowl cost the Steelers dearly.

    He is not much of a receiving threat, catching just 23 passes in 2010. Listed at 5'10", 225 lbs, Mendenhall is a hard-nosed, between the tackles runner, who has the speed and agility to bounce it outside and take it to the house (as seen in his week 1 game winning touchdown below). 

    Look for Mendenhall to continue his success as Mike Tomlin's lead back in 2011, as the Steelers look to make it back to the Super Bowl for the third time in four seasons.

9. Ray Rice, 24

2 of 10

    Another player from the 2008 draft (get used to it, there are four of them on this list and a boatload of other good RBs from that draft class), Rice burst onto the scene in 2009 and continued that success in 2010.

    Last season, the Rutgers product rushed for 1220 yards and caught 63 passes for 556 yards, while scoring 6 total touchdowns. Rice saw his yards per rush decline significantly from 5.3 in '09 to 4.0 last season. 

    At 5'8", 212 lbs, Rice is one of the many small, yet powerful running backs in the league today, and I think his size helps him stay low to the ground, which allows him to get leverage on a would-be tackler. According to Football Outsiders, Rice was second in the league in broken tackles two seasons ago with 57 (watch him truck Troy Polamalu).

    The Ravens recently signed Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach, who was a big reason why Adrian Foster led the league in rushing last year. Look for Leach to help open holes for Rice, as he looks to have a career year for Baltimore in 2011. 

8. Michael Turner, 29

3 of 10

    He was stuck behind LaDainian Tomlinson for four seasons but was always an explosive and dangerous runner when subbing in for the future Hall of Famer. The league took notice when Turner filled in for an injured Tomlinson during a 2008 Divisional playoff game against the heavily favored Colts, rushing for 71 yards including several key runs at the end of the game. 

    He signed with Atlanta as a free agent in the offseason and quickly became one of the league's top rushers. Yet another small, powerful back, Turner was second in the league in yards and touchdowns in 2008 in his first season as a starter. He bounced back nicely last season after missing 5 games in '09, finishing third in rushing yards and leading the Falcons to 13 wins and the number one seed in the playoffs (watch Turner barrel over Packer defenders in the playoffs).

    Turner had offseason groin surgery but says he feels fine. With Matt Ryan starring at QB, Roddy White at WR and Turner running the ball, the Falcons are one of the most balanced teams in the league and will again be one of the favorites in the NFC. 

7. Steven Jackson, 28

4 of 10

    Throughout the turmoil, turnover, and coaching changes, Steven Jackson has remained the one constant in St. Louis besides losing (sorry that was cold). The seven year veteran has topped 1,000 yards in every season since his rookie year and 2011 should be no different.

    Jackson is a workhorse and was a big part of the Rams six win turnaround in 2010 under second year Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo. With a rookie quarterback in Sam Bradford, the Rams relied heavily on Jackson in the running game. Consequently, he was second in rushing attempts and although teams loaded up to stop the run against St. Louis, he still managed to rush for 1,241 yards. 

    Jackson is a rare combination of size (6'2", 236 lbs) and speed, which allows him to be a terrific receiver in the passing game. He caught 90 passes for 806 yards in 2006. 

    With Bradford still getting comfortable in the NFL, the Rams will surely continue to pound the ball with Jackson. And with the Rams adding Mike Sims-Walker to the receiving corps last week, hopefully teams will have to pay more attention to the passing game, allowing Jackson to navigate with more room this season. 

    He was voted as the NFL's 38th best player heading into the 2011 season, and the 6th best RB.

6. LeSean McCoy, 23

5 of 10

    The youngest player on this list, McCoy figures to take another step forward in just his third season. Many people talk about Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson, and Jeremy Maclin as the reasons why the Eagles offense is widely considered the most explosive in the NFL. McCoy gets lost in all the talk but he shouldn't.  

    Coming out of college, many considered McCoy's blocking a weakness. But under the tutelage of All-Pro Brian Westbrook, McCoy quickly grew into a very good blocker, picking up blitzes and earning Andy Reid's trust as a rookie. 

    In 2010, he became one of the most elusive runners in the game, consistently shaking tacklers and winning in the open field. He led all players on this list, breaking a tackle 13.3% of every touch (check out this 62 yard run vs. the Colts). 

    McCoy ran for 1,080 yards on just 207 carries (5.2 Avg) in Andy Reid's pass happy offense, while leading all Running Backs with 78 receptions. He is becoming a complete player and at just 23, should only get better. In this offense, he may never put up the numbers that Adrian Peterson or Chris Johnson recently posted, but he is an all-purpose back who is impossible to stop in the open field (he's on his way to being a Brian Westbrook type player, only bigger). I expect McCoy to steadily climb this list over the next few seasons. 

5. Arian Foster, 25

6 of 10

    Foster burst onto the scene in 2010, rushing for a franchise record 231 yards and 3 touchdowns in Week 1 against Indianapolis. The New Mexico product lead the league in rushing (1,616), broken tackles (45), and total touchdowns (18) as he single handedly turned the Texans into a balanced team. 

    Foster was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2009 and after being released before the start of the season, was signed to the active roster on November 17th. Foster made his first start in the last game of the year rushing for 119 yards and 2 touchdowns. 

    Before the 2010 season, there were whispers of people targeting Foster as a breakout player. He sure proved those people right. In addition to winning the rushing title, Foster caught 66 passes for 604 yards (tops for RBs) as the Texans became one of the most feared offenses in the league (watch him slice through the Raider defense for a 74 yard TD).

    Some people wonder whether Foster was a one year wonder, but his production suggests he is here to stay. Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach left for the Ravens in free agency so we'll see what effect that has this season, when opponents game plan to stop Foster and force the offense to be one-dimensional. 

4. Maurice Jones-Drew, 26

7 of 10

    MJD is coming off his second consecutive 1,000 yard rushing season and is an elite back for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Another one of those small, power runners, Jones-Drew (5'7", 208 lbs) is a bruising runner who uses his low center of gravity to bounce off tackles (I like to think of him as a pinball). 

    He is coming off minor knee surgery, but has stated that he does not expect a reduction in touches this season. Mo-Jo scored 16 total touchdowns in 2009 and last year showed his toughness and unquestioned leadership when he carried the Jags to an 8-5 start despite playing the entire season with a torn meniscus in his left knee. 

    Some of these runs are downright nasty:

    It will be interesting to see how MJD holds up in 2011 but it's no secret that he is one of the best backs in the game.

3. Jamaal Charles, 25

8 of 10

    I would love to see Jamaal Charles vs. Chris Johnson in a footrace. Charles is a threat to go the distance on every touch and his 6.38 yards per carry average for the 2010 season was second all-time to Hall of Famer Jim Brown (6.4).

    Watch Charles blaze through the Ravens defense in the playoffs:

    Charles was the ninth running back selected (73rd overall) in the 2008 NFL Draft and the third from that class to make this list. Charles' productivity since he came in the league has grown each year and he has a ridiculous 6.0 yard per carry for his career. Last year, he was second in the league in rushing with 1,467 yards despite receiving 97 less carries than Arian Foster. If Charles had had as many carries as Foster, he would have rushed for over 2,000 yards (just sayin').

    Another dual threat back, Charles gained 468 yards on 45 receptions (10.4 Avg) and 3 touchdowns.

    With Dwayne Bowe and the newly acquired Steve Breaston at receiver, teams won't be able to focus solely on Charles, who has rushed for 5.3, 5.9, and 6.38 per carry in his career. You can see Charles' 2010 season was not an aberration and he has the talent to repeat last season's performance. With more touches, he will be a candidate to lead the league in rushing for years to come.

2. Chris Johnson, 26

9 of 10

    Chris Johnson has rushed for over 1,200 yards and made the Pro-Bowl in each of his first three seasons and this year should be no exception. CJ2K had a "down year" last season, after rushing for 2,006 yards in 2009, the fifth best single-season rushing mark in NFL history.

    He ran a record 4.24, in the 40 yard dash at the combine, improving his stock. He is the fourth running back from the 2008 draft class to make this top ten list, even though he was the fifth back taken (at 24 overall). 

    His 2009 season was historically good, when he had an NFL record 2,509 yards from scrimmage while rushing for 125.4 yards per game and 14 touchdowns. He had 22 runs of 20 yards or more; to put that into perspective, Adrian Peterson was second with 12! For his efforts, Johnson was named the AP NFL Offensive Player of the year.

    With teams geared up to contain Johnson in 2010, he was "held" to 1,364 rushing yards, still good enough for fourth in the league.

    Johnson is not just a speed guy, evidence by his 41 broken tackles last season, second only to Foster according to Football Outsiders

    CJ2K remains arguably the league's most explosive running back and is one of the league's top two backs. I don't see that changing anytime soon and this run is why:

1. Adrian Peterson, 26

10 of 10

    I flip-flopped a lot between Johnson and Adrian Peterson but AP's blend of power and speed is unmatched. We all remember how dominant he was at Oklahoma, breaking several records along the way, yet he fell to the Minnesota Vikings at No. 7 in the 2007 NFL Draft due to injury concerns.

    Nicknamed A.D. (for "All Day"), Peterson has been an absolute beast in his four seasons in the NFL. He has a laundry list of accomplishments including winning the Rookie of the Year award and being named to the All-Pro team in every season. 

    As a rookie, he set an NFL record when he rushed for 296 yards in a game against San Diego. 

    His second year in the league was just as exceptional. Peterson won the league rushing title, rushing for 1,760 and 10 touchdowns.

    In 2009, Peterson led the league in touchdowns with 18 and had career highs in in receptions and receiving yards. Watch him destroy William Gay.

    He finished fifth in rushing yards last year.

    Peterson has calmed questions about his durability, missing only three games in four seasons. He's been criticized for his well-documented fumble issues tallying 19 fumbles in his first three seasons. However, he seems to have corrected those issues when he had just one fumble last year.

    Peterson was voted the No. 1 running back and No. 3 player overall on the NFL Network's list of the Top 100 Players of 2011, as selected exclusively by NFL players, which tells you all you need to know about how they view Peterson.

    If the guys on the field think Peterson is the best, I'm not going to argue.

    Thanks for reading! What do you guys think?