NFL Running Backs: 10 Best Running Backs Entering the 2012 Season

Christopher Connors@twitter.com/Chris_Connors42Correspondent IJuly 25, 2012

NFL Running Backs: 10 Best Running Backs Entering the 2012 Season

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    The 2012 NFL season is now less than two months away and big-time deals are getting finalized for some of the league’s elite ball carriers. It’s time for many fans to stock up on extra propane tanks for their gas grills and to ensure that their local eating establishment carries NFL Sunday Ticket.

    It’s almost football season.

    The running back position is the most transient of all the NFL skill positions. This is due to the pounding halfbacks take and the tremendous stress running and juking puts on their joints and muscles.

    NFL running backs are modern day gladiators, the best of whom, like Adrian Peterson or Arian Foster, can dramatically change an NFL team’s fortunes from one season to the next.  

    This article marks the second installment in my series reviewing the NFL’s top players at each of the offensive skill positions. I will also include the tight end position, which has become a skill position in its own right.

    For now, here are your top 10 running backs in the NFL entering the 2012 season.

1) Arian Foster, Houston Texans

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    Undrafted out of the University of Tennessee, Foster has shown from his first NFL carry that he is an elite back. The Houston Texan led the NFL in rushing yards in 2010 and followed that up with the second highest yards per game (ypg) average—of any back in the league—in 2011.

    Foster enters his fourth NFL season hoping to vault the Texans into the playoffs for the second consecutive season. In two playoff games in January, Foster combined for 285 yards rushing on 51 carries and three touchdowns.

    He is the ultimate workhorse, in the prime of his career and currently the league’s best running back.

2) Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    NFL backs come in all sizes and, in Maurice Jones-Drew’s case, quite the vertically-challenged one. Yet there is no prerequisite for height to shoulder the load and become one of the league’s top ball carriers.

    Jones-Drew has proven so in his six stellar seasons in the league. The diminutive back is fast enough to get around the edge and physical enough to bang through the tackles for the extra yard. He led the NFL in rushing yards, yards per game and total rushes in 2011 and has reached three straight Pro Bowls. 

3) Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens

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    Rice was rewarded earlier this week with a five-year, $40 million contract, befitting of a premier NFL running back. Sure feels good to be paid. Like Jones-Drew, Rice is small but a monster in between the tackles and one of the top all-purpose backs in the league.

    Rice rushed for 1,364 yards in 2011 and scored 12 touchdowns. He also had 76 receptions for 704 yards and three receiving TD’s. Rice was somewhat neutralized in the AFC Championship game by the Patriots defense, which focused on taking him out of the game.

    Yet, there’s no denying Rice’s on-the-field production and nose for the end zone.

4) Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings

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    It seems crazy to not have this otherworldly talent at the top of any list. Peterson was one of the best college running backs of the last 20 years, when healthy, and was chosen with the seventh pick in the 2007 NFL Draft by the Minnesota Vikings.

    He has amassed nearly 7,000 yards and 64 touchdowns as a pro and has demonstrated the talent and athleticism that make fans drool and opposing defenses sweat. The key for Peterson moving forward will be staying healthy.

    He suffered a gruesome ACL/MCL injury in December in Washington and is expected to be ready for the start of the 2012 season, though may be eased back into a normal workload. There is still plenty of time left in Peterson’s career for him to fulfill his incredible potential.

5) LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles

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    McCoy led the NFL in rushing touchdowns in 2011 and finished the season with 1,309 yards rushing. McCoy was the brightest star in the Eagles universe, in a season that carried sky-high expectations but ended up face-planted into the field turf.

    McCoy has three full seasons under his belt and has blossomed into one of the best all-purpose NFL running backs. He’ll continue to get plenty of opportunities to hit pay dirt again this season, as the Eagles' running game will be relied upon to lead them back to the NFL playoffs. 

6) Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders

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    Darren McFadden is ready to go entering the 2012 season, following a foot injury that forced him to miss nine games. McFadden got off to a powerful start, averaging 5.4 yards per carry, leading the Raiders to a 4-2 record in their first six games.

    His dream season came crashing down in mid-October, exiting Kansas City early in the first quarter. He’s set a very high bar for 2012 and the former Arkansas star looks primed to return to the form that made him the No. 4 pick in the 2008 draft.

    The Raiders run-happy offense, combined with McFadden’s game-breaking speed, should bode well for this stud who is just hitting his stride.

7) Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers

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    The San Diego Chargers lead tailback is set for a breakout season. Drafted with the 12th pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Ryan Mathews was not a well-known quantity coming out of Fresno State—despite a brilliant college career.

    Mathews averaged 4.9 yards per carry in 2011 and helped propel the Chargers to the fifth-highest points per game total in the NFL. Mathews perfectly complements Chargers quarterback, Philip Rivers, with his quick-burst ability, great recognition of blitzing schemes and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.

    Expect Mathews to become the biggest weapon in the dynamic San Diego offense this season and a greater target of Rivers out of the backfield.

8) Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans

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    Chris Johnson’s NFL stock sure is plummeting. Or is it?

    Johnson will be out to prove in 2012 that his 2011 season was more an aberration than the start of a decline. In 2009, Johnson ran for 2006 yards and had everyone clamoring for his right to be called the “best running back in the NFL.”

    After an excellent 2010 season, though one that admittedly did not come close to the hype of 2009, Johnson’s yards per rush total dipped to an even 4.0 yards last season. His durability is unquestioned, but his work ethic has been.

    It’s incredible to think that this is only his fifth NFL season, yet he’s worked to regain the trust and respect of his teammates and coaches by showing up at OTA’s and training hard. Johnson is a bit undervalued heading into 2012 and will be out to prove the doubters wrong.

9) Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills

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    Don’t let Jackson’s name on this list surprise you. The former Division III All-American has literally worked his way up nearly every imaginable level of professional football.

    After stints in the National Indoor Football League, United Indoor Football and NFL Europa, Jackson finally received his first NFL carries with the Buffalo Bills in 2007. This gritty runner has never looked back, becoming the top tailback in Buffalo, even with the emergence of top-10 pick C.J. Spiller.

    Jackson is one of the smarter runners in the league, able to find holes and produce behind what’s been—up until recently—a weak Bills offensive line during his tenure. Jackson’s success is an example to anyone, no matter their talent level, never to give up.

10) Trent Richardson, Cleveland Browns

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    Last on our list is the player with perhaps the highest potential of any other running back in the National Football League. The National Champion from Alabama and third place finisher in the 2011 Heisman voting is an absolute beast around the corners and bursting through the line.

    Each NFL season brings the rapid rise of a new, gifted NFL rookie back. Given the success of rookies Ben Tate and DeMarco Murray last season, as well as LeGarrette Blount in 2010, it’s reasonable to expect a back of Richardson’s pedigree to make an immediate impact in his freshman campaign.

    NFL defenses, you’re forewarned.  

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