It is easy to tell who the elite players are in this league. From a running back's perspective, it is all about the yards-per-carry average, the touchdown total, and the amount of catches he reels in each year. Some of it though, goes deeper than just numbers. The value of Joseph Addai in Indianapolis is far greater as a pass blocker, than a guy running for 100 yards per game.
Just as the elite backs like Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, and Maurice Jones-Drew get so much attention, there are a select few that hardly get any attention. They don't go unnoticed, but their overall work is sometimes overlooked. When you look at the numbers they put up, it can catch you off guard. There are five guys that I think fit in this category, who all had fantastic seasons last year, and should do the same in 2011.
Just missing the cut for this list was Cedric Benson. While he did rush for over 1,100 yards last year, he did it with far more carries than anyone else. His 3.5 yards per carry average tells the story there. He did supply the Bengals' offense with seven rushing touchdowns, and did plenty in the passing game as well, which is why Cincinnati was excited to bring him back this off season.
Fred Jackson is a guy that has never been talked about as one of the great backs in this league, but he keeps producing at a high level. To be a solid runner in Buffalo, you have to be able to find your own holes, and not let the weather affect you. He didn't quite reach the 1,000 yards rushing mark last year, but 927 yards and a YPC average of 4.2 is very respectable. He only had five rushing touchdowns, because he isn't their go-to-guy on the goal line.
Darren McFadden was being labeled a bust after his second year in the league. So much for that. Last year he exploded onto the scene and finished the season with 1,157 yards rushing, good enough for eighth most in the NFL. His seven touchdowns were nice, but his 5.2 YPC average was second best in the league. Add to that, the fact that he really was the offense in Oakland, as he was always involved in the passing game. It looks like McFadden is finally looking like the monster everyone saw at Arkansas.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis might not be the most popular name in the game, but this guy can light it up. For a team like New England that is so pass heavy, BenJarvus really balanced them out when he got the ball. His 4.4 YPC average was nice, but the Patriots secret weapon also ran for over 1,000 yards on the year, and racking up 13 rushing touchdowns. They still have a crowded group of running backs, but Green-Ellis is clearly the best of them.
Obviously Thomas Jones' better days are behind him, but this guy has produced everywhere he has been. This includes last year as the backup in Kansas City. The Chiefs have an outstanding young star in Jamaal Charles, but it was Thomas that impressed me more last season. Splitting carries, he was still able to manage 896 yards rushing and six touchdowns on the ground.
Mike Tolbert was the leading rusher in San Diego last year, after rookie Ryan Mathews struggled to get over injuries. His average of four yards per carry was decent, but the fact that he was able to run for 735 yards and 11 touchdowns was very impressive. The Chargers went through a ton of injuries at seemingly every position at some point last year. Tolbert was able to fill in nicely, and should again be a big time threat in goal line situations this year.