NFL's 8 Most Well-Rounded Running Backs

Clay DefayetteCorrespondent IIISeptember 26, 2011

NFL's 8 Most Well-Rounded Running Backs

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    Versatility is key in today's NFL, whether it's Matt Forte leading his team in receiving or Danny Woodhead playing with the kickoff team (Belichick, it's only preseason!). With the workhorse running back nearly extinct, ball carriers currently coming into the league from college must bring a niche that a potential suitor will highly value.

    Shutting down the opponent's rushing attack is still priority No. 1 for opposing defenses and it's getting more difficult to hand the ball off and attempt to pound it in the middle. For the most part, teams are unwilling to pay top cash for running backs when the career span for the position is much less than any other.

    Players still need to have the threat of running in between the tackles (sorry, Reggie) but more characteristics are being demanded by organizations when the position is considered easily replaceable.

    This list isn't to say that Adrian Peterson isn't the best running back in the league. It's just recognizing whom a quarterback like Tom Brady or Philip Rivers would rather have on a 3rd-and-5.

    With that said, here are the top eight most versatile backs in the league right now.

8. Adrian Peterson

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    Vikings running back Adrian Peterson makes this list due to his explosiveness from the time he gets the ball until defenders have to use all their force to bring him down. A career rushing average of 4.8 is a legitimate number, seeing how Peterson has most likely fought through injuries to play in all of his team's games but three in his five-year career.

    Peterson will never be the receiving threat of any other player listed, as his career-high in receptions is 43, but no one else here will ever be the pure runner. The fumble issue appears to be fixed, seeing how Peterson lost the ball just once in 2010.

    It can be argued that Chris Johnson is better than Peterson, but Johnson has more no-gains or loss of yards carries than Peterson. Bring a friend when attempting to get Peterson on the turf.

7. Steven Jackson

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    Good luck finding a running back of Steven Jackson's size and acceleration.

    On top of that, a man of Jackson's size should not have as good of hands or route-running ability. Jackson had a 90-catch season in his second year as a pro and he has four seasons of more than 40 catches in his career.

    Jackson has experienced trouble with injuries, as he's missed 10 games over the past five seasons. It hurts him in his ranking, but his ability overshadows missing two games on average per season in five seasons.

    Jackson remains a rare breed—a power back that hits the hole hard and with good vision.

6. Darren McFadden

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    Being well rounded means staying healthy the majority of the time, something Darren McFadden needs to do more of. McFadden is missing less and less time as his career progresses while keeping the killer speed the Raiders drafted him for when coming out of Arkansas.

    There is no running back in the NFL today that has the same threat of running over a defender or running by a competitor, and that is including Adrian Peterson. Averaging more than five yards last season and for three games this year, McFadden is the best running back on a top-five rushing team.

    When defenders know the run is coming with a sub-par quarterback like Jason Campbell, it's very impressive that McFadden still can get yards in any situation without being extremely agile.

5. Darren Sproles

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    Darren Sproles is not even close to being the best pure runner the game has, but he has shown he can carry a team in a crucial situation like he did in the 2008 AFC divisional playoff game against Indianapolis.

    He provides more versatility than Reggie Bush did in his time with Sean Payton and Drew Bree, which is saying something. Sproles is one of the more dangerous return men in the NFL and he runs routes like a wide receiver.

    While he'll never be a lead back, Sproles' role is more important to the Saints so far this season than other first-string ball carriers.

4. Maurice Jones-Drew

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    This guy (in John Gruden's voice) is something else.

    Maurice Jones-Drew fights through bad offense lines, bad knees and bad quarterbacks to be a top-five back in the league. If anyone needs to be reminded of Jones-Drew's heart when it comes to blocking, watch him blow up a steroid-enhanced Shawne Merriman.

    Jacksonville's lead back has shown he can return kicks and punts when need be, but the Jaguars most likely took Jones-Drew off that duty because the injury risk is too great.

    In a better offensive scheme, Jones-Drew's catching ability would be utilized more. With that said, he still has had no fewer than 40 catches in a season where he's played 15 games.

    Most importantly, Jones-Drew has flashed burner speed and great power in his six-year career. No other back has the same one-two punch, other than Adrian Peterson.

3. LeSean McCoy

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    LeSean McCoy's versatility is mainly in his ability to catch passes, leading the Eagles in 2010 with 78 catches.

    Philadelphia's running back has added muscle since his rookie year, while keeping the same elusiveness that made the Eagles draft him in the second round in 2009. McCoy dances in the backfield too often, but the entire offense stresses speed and agility above all else. It appears McCoy will be on the same level of the last versatile running back the Eagles had in Brian Westbrook.

    McCoy has improved on his yards per carry average every single season, going from 4.1 to 5.2 and now 6.6 in the short 2011 season. When it's basically boom or bust for Michael Vick, McCoy gives a good checkdown option when Jeremy Maclin or DeSean Jackson aren't running free.

2. Ray Rice

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    Ray Rice is small and has a similar build to Maurice Jones-Drew while providing the Ravens with more agility from sideline to sideline. He has rushing totals of 1,339 and 1,220 in his second and third seasons, while grabbing 78 and 63 receptions.

    Rice hasn't missed a game since his rookie year, giving his team a reliable runner when Baltimore had often-injured Willis McGahee. The only players more physical than Rice on the list are Maurice Jones-Drew and Steven Jackson—two guys who are hurt more often.

    A nice mixture of elusiveness and no-nonsense running is what Rice gives to the Ravens and their currently inconsistent offense.

1. Matt Forte

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    Matt Forte is the life support for Jay Cutler. The short dump-down passes are the only thing keeping the Bears quarterback on the oxygen tank.

    In the first two games, Forte is ninth among all players in receiving yards and first among running backs. Despite getting mostly short passes thrown his way, Forte is still averaging 13.8 yards per catch.

    Forte only having 26 rushing attempts thus far can be explained by Chicago's poor offensive line. He's still averaging 4.5 yards per rush.

    In crucial situations, Forte is willing to pound the ball in the middle despite dancing and stutter-stepping on some occasions. Marion Barber was brought in primarily for pass blocking, something Forte can improve on. However, he's much more valuable being Cutler's safety valve with the offense line being as poor as it is.

    It's extremely hard to find someone as shifty as Forte at his height of 6'2". That and the characteristics above make him No. 1 on the list.