Power Ranking Every NFL Backfield Through OTAs

Wes StueveContributor IIIMay 30, 2013

Power Ranking Every NFL Backfield Through OTAs

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    It is one thing to rank the NFL's best running backs, but it is another thing entirely to power rank all 32 backfields. When looking at starters, backups and role players, which team comes out on top?

    In making this list, a single criteria was followed: Which backfield is the best right now?

    Future ability isn't a concern. This list is about the present, and it takes every back on the roster into account.

    There will be some teams that are dramatically pushed up the list by their backup running backs. Other teams will slide down due to a lack of depth. Generally, though, the starter is the most important factor for each team.

    Which teams have the best running back situations? 

    Only one way to find out.

32. New York Jets

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    Key Players: Chris Ivory, Mike Goodson

    When the Jets traded for Ivory, it seemed that he would be the team's starter. Ivory has shown flashes in limited playing time, but he is 25 years old and has rushed for just 591 yards the past two seasons.

    Goodson is Ivory's primary backup, and his future is in doubt. He was recently arrested on gun and drug charges, and he has never been anything more than a marginal backup.

    This is a group lacking strong talent at the top, and its depth is suspect at best.

31. Arizona Cardinals

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    Key Players: Rashard Mendenhall, Ryan Williams, Stepfan Taylor, Andre Ellington

    Despite being a pretty big name, Mendenhall isn't even an average starting running back. The 25-year-old was benched in 2012 and rushed for under 200 yards.

    Williams is a talented player, but he has played in just five games due to injury, and he wasn't overly successful then. Taylor and Ellington are late-round draft picks with no experience in the NFL.

    The saving grace of this unit is potential. It is young across the board, and both Mendenhall and Williams are talented enough to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards.

30. Oakland Raiders

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    Key Players: Darren McFadden, Rashad Jennings, Marcel Reece

    An incredible talent, McFadden isn't on the field often enough to add much value. Over the past two seasons, he has played in just 19 games and run for 1,321 yards. He has never played more than 13 games in a season.

    Jennings, meanwhile, has limited experience and failed to impress in Jacksonville when Maurice Jones-Drew went down. Reece is a talented fullback, but he isn't good enough to do much for this lackluster unit. 

29. St. Louis Rams

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    Key Players: Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead, Zac Stacy

    In 2012, Richardson rushed for 475 yards while backing up Steven Jackson. The 23-year-old will be joined in the backfield by Pead, a fellow second-year player. Pead struggled as a rookie, but he is quick and explosive. A year of experience could prove crucial for him, and with any luck, his talent will begin to show.

    Stacy is just a fifth-round pick, but he had some fans in the draft community and could end up seeing some playing time.

    This is a young group, and though unproven, it has some ability and potential.

28. Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Key Players: Jonathan Dwyer, Le'Veon Bell, Isaac Redman

    This is one of the NFL's biggest running back units. All three weigh around 230 pounds and are capable of running through defenders. Athleticism is an issue, however.

    Dwyer ran for 623 yards in 2012, but he isn't particularly explosive or quick and shouldn't be a starter. Redman is best off as a third-string running back.

    Bell is the wild card here. The second-round pick is a decent athlete, but he doesn't play as physically as his size suggests, and he also lacks the athleticism of a top-level runner. 

27. San Diego Chargers

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    Key Players: Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead, Le'Ron McClain

    If he could stay healthy, Mathews would be one of the game's top runners. Unfortunately, he has always been fragile, and it is impossible to rely on him. 

    McClain is a superb athlete at 260 pounds, and he once ran for 902 yards for the Ravens. But he carried the ball just 14 times in 2012. Meanwhile, Woodhead is nothing more than a change-of-pace back, and he isn't even great at that.

    With a healthy Mathews, there are no problems with this unit. The issue is that he is rarely in good health, even when he is on the field. 

26. Detroit Lions

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    Key Players: Reggie Bush, Mikel Leshoure, Joique Bell

    Over the past two years, Bush has proven that he is capable of being an every-down running back, and he has always been a huge threat as a receiver. Few players are more dynamic in space, and Bush provides the Lions with yet another playmaker on offense.

    Leshoure is talented, but hasn't yet proven himself as a productive runner in the NFL. He ran for 798 yards in 2012, but he averaged just 3.7 yards per carry. 

    Bell proved an adequate option off the bench, averaging 5.0 yards per carry last year. 

    With improvement from Leshoure, this unit has the ability to be both explosive and productive. That is far from certain to happen, however, and it's possible Bush could regress as a runner, driving the unit down even further. 

25. New Orleans Saints

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    Key Players: Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram

    This unit has great depth, but it lacks starter talent. Thomas is the team's best runner, but even he gained just 473 yards in 2012. 

    Sproles is what he is. He is dynamic in open space and he's a terrific receiver, but he isn't an every-down player. He needs to be used sparingly, but he will make plays when on the field.

    Ingram, meanwhile, looks like a failure of a first-round pick. He hasn't developed into anything special as a runner—he averaged 3.9 yards per carry in 2012—and is almost useless as a receiver.

    On the whole, the Saints will be fine at running back due to the team's lethal passing attack, but these guys won't be a factor in many games. 

24. New York Giants

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    Key Players: David Wilson, Andre Brown

    In 2012, Wilson carried the ball just 71 times, averaging 5.0 yards per carry. He will be New York's primary ball-carrier this year. As a rookie, he showed explosive ability, but he hasn't proven he can carry the load yet.

    Brown was similarly productive in limited action. He is more of a power back than Wilson is, though. He should be fine, if somewhat underwhelming, as a second back.

    Wilson gives this unit plenty of potential—he was a first-round pick in 2012—and it could be great in 2013. It's impossible to say that with any certainty, though, and the team's run game could fail to produce much of anything.

23. Indianapolis Colts

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    Key Players: Vick Ballard, Donald Brown

    As a rookie, Ballard rushed for 814 yards last year. He scored just two touchdowns and averaged 3.9 yards per carry, however. In his defense, the Indianapolis offensive line was horrific, and he should improve with more experience.

    Ballard's lack of burst and agility are legitimate concerns, though. He doesn't look like a good starting running back.

    Likewise, Brown is nothing special, and he isn't anything more than average as a backup. His inability to make defenders miss has proven detrimental.

    Both the lack of talent and depth are detrimental. The one reason for hope is upside. Ballard could still prove himself as a solid 1,000-yard rusher.

22. Cincinnati Bengals

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    Key Players: Giovani Bernard, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Bernard Scott

    The key here is Bernard. Green-Ellis is a solidly unspectacular running back capable of rushing for 1,000 yards with enough carries and the right offense. He won't win any games. 

    Bernard, on the other hand, is an explosive running back with quickness. The No. 37 overall pick could end up starting this year, and he has significant upside as an all-purpose player. 

    If Bernard easily adjusts to the NFL, this could be a solid unit. Currently, the unit sits slightly below-average due to its lack of proven game-changers. 

21. Dallas Cowboys

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    Key Players: DeMarco Murray, Joseph Randle, Lawrence Vickers

    When healthy, Murray is an explosive running back with big-play ability. The 6'0", 213-pounder is more than capable of carrying an offense, but unfortunately, he played in just 23 games the past two seasons.

    A fifth-round pick, Randle is obviously unproven. He is also quite undersized and nothing more than a change-of-pace back, though he could prove effective in that capacity.

    Vickers is one of the NFL's most powerful blocking fullbacks. He won't do much as a runner or pass-catcher, but he will prove effective at clearing a running lane.

    Like many other units, this one depends on the health of its top back. As of now, there isn't too much reason for optimism. 

20. Green Bay Packers

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    Key Players: Eddie Lacy, Johnathan Franklin, DuJuan Harris, John Kuhn

    In the 2013 NFL draft, Green Bay finally invested in running backs, drafting Lacy and Franklin in the second and fourth rounds, respectively. Franklin may be more talented, but Lacy is more powerful and displays better vision.

    As a rookie, Lacy likely won't be anything amazing, but he should be consistent and solid. Franklin is capable of spelling him off, and Harris also showed upside in 2012.

    Kuhn has been overrated. However, he is still capable of helping out the Packers on offense, though the backfield is certainly more crowded now.

    Green Bay is banking on unproven players. This could turn out extremely well, with several young backs proving capable of picking up yards. Of course, it could also be disastrous, and the team could be lacking a single decent runner.

19. Denver Broncos

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    Key Players: Willis McGahee, Montee Ball, Knowshon Moreno, Ronnie Hillman

    What Denver lacks in top quality, it makes up for in sheer number. McGahee was a solid player in 2012, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. However, he is now 31 years old and is on the downside of his career.

    Enter Ball. The former Wisconsin running back is a workhorse without breakaway speed or many special traits, but he is powerful and finds holes. He won't amaze anyone, but he should be able to pick up yards.

    At this point, Moreno is probably insignificant, as he hasn't been productive since his rookie season.

    Hillman disappointed as a rookie in 2012, but he is a quick back with change-of-pace potential moving forward.

    There is little upside for this group, but it should be able to gain yards and run down the clock. With Peyton Manning at quarterback, that is more than enough.

18. Atlanta Falcons

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    Key Players: Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers, Jason Snelling

    One of the NFL's most consistent players, Jackson has run for over 1,000 yards the past eight seasons. However, the 230-pounder is starting to get old and will be 30 by the start of training camp. He should still be reasonably productive in 2013, though he probably won't be capable of carrying the Atlanta offense.

    Behind Jackson, Rodgers has yet to produce much, but he is an extremely talented change-of-pace back.

    With the opportunity, Rodgers could prove to be a dynamic game-changer, and Snelling is a fairly one-dimensional fullback hybrid who won't scare any defenses.

    There have been signs of decline in recent seasons, and this could be the year Jackson finally takes the big step backwards. For the Falcons' sake, it better not be. 

17. Miami Dolphins

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    Key Players: Lamar Miller, Daniel Thomas, Mike Gillislee

    This is the most upside-based pick on the list. 

    As a rookie, Miller didn't prove much. He ran for 250 yards on 51 carries, which is impressive, sure, but a small sample size. And Miami doesn't have many other options—the team is relying on Miller as its top guy.

    He has the ability to be a great running back, but the lack of proven play and experience is concerning.

    Thomas has shown he isn't even a good backup, and Gillislee is going to be a rookie.

    It is distinctly possible that the Dolphins could have great production at running back in 2013, as Miller proves to be legitimate. However, it is also possible that the team's running backs are atrocious and provide little production.

16. Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Key Players: Maurice Jones-Drew, Justin Forsett, Denard Robinson

    The concern here is Jones-Drew's health. He missed nearly the entire 2012 season with injury and still isn't fully recovered. There is also the potential issue of his recent legal trouble.

    If he is ready to go by the start of the season, he will push the Jaguars back up this list. The 5'8", 205-pounder ran for over 1,600 yards in 2011 and is still just 28 years old.

    If MJD can't come back yet, though, the Jaguars are in trouble.

    Forsett is undersized and has never been anything close to a primary running back, though he has produced when given limited carries. And while he has potential, Robinson certainly isn't ready to be a traditional running back. The converted quarterback will be used on specially designed plays, if he's used at all, as a rookie.

15. Tennessee Titans

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    Key Players: Chris Johnson, Shonn Greene

    It's easy to remember Johnson's legendary 2,000-yard season in 2009. Though he has still been productive, he hasn't been quite the same player since and isn't an elite running back anymore. 

    He is still well above-average, of course, and is a threat to score at any time. A revamped Tennessee offensive line should help his productivity.

    The talent behind Johnson is a concern. He was fairly productive in New York, but Greene simply isn't a good running back. He is slow and lacks burst. He isn't a threat to bust a long run, and he leaves many yards on the field.

    Johnson's talent and hope for increased production make the Titans rushing attack a viable threat. It probably can't carry an offense like it once did, though.

14. Washington Redskins

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    Key Players: Alfred Morris, Evan Royster, Roy Helu, Chris Thompson, Jawan Jamison

    It's difficult to believe, but Morris may have been better than Robert Griffin III was in 2012. The rookie running back rushed for a shocking 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns.

    As always with a Mike Shanahan running back, it is tough to say how much of that production was Morris and how much was the offensive scheme. Regardless, the Redskins have a productive backfield returning.

    After Morris, it is impossible to say how the depth chart will shake up. Both Royster and Helu have a history with the team, but neither contributed much in 2012. Both Thompson and Jamison are recent draft picks, which gives them a good chance of making the team.

    The guys behind Morris may not sound impressive, but they will be productive if given the chance. That's what Shanahan does. 

13. Chicago Bears

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    Key Players: Matt Forte, Michael Bush

    Year to year, Forte is consistent. He rushes for 1,000 yards or more and catches 40 passes. He adds value on all three downs and is quick enough to break out a long run. 

    Forte may not be a superstar, but he is still a good player. Similarly, Bush is a solid backup running back. Though he doesn't make many incredible plays, he can replace Forte on the field without killing Chicago's offense.

    If he needed to, Bush could start and gain yards. Of course, the Bears are better off with Forte, but Bush is no scrub.

    Chicago could use some more options at running back. The two guys it does have, however, are rock solid.

12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Key Players: Doug Martin, Brian Leonard, Jeff Demps

    Martin is one of the NFL's best young running backs. As a rookie in 2012, he rushed for 1,454 yards while gaining another 472 through the air. At 24 years old, he has years of productivity ahead of him and is just getting started.

    If this were a list of starters, he would be ranked higher. However, it is not, and Martin's backup situation is an issue.

    Leonard is the team's second running back, and he has rushed for over 100 yards in just two of his six seasons. 

    Demps is a wild card. No one has seen what he can do in the NFL, but the former track star has blazing speed and could prove valuable as a change-of-pace back.

11. Cleveland Browns

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    Key Players: Trent Richardson, Montario Hardesty, Dion Lewis

    The only running back in the NFL more talented than Richardson is Adrian Peterson

    In 2012, Richardson battled injuries, but he still ran for 950 yards while catching 51 passes for 367 yards. He is an extremely physical runner with shocking burst and quickness. He needs to hit the hole harder, but he can be a star.

    Both Hardesty and Lewis have seen limited chances in their NFL careers. Hardesty is a bigger back with solid burst and quickness, while Lewis is undersized with great burst and agility. They could both provide value behind Richardson. 

    Cleveland's hope is that Richardson gets and stays healthy and continues to develop as a runner. If this all happens, he could be incredible. 

10. Carolina Panthers

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    Key Players: Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert

    A couple years ago, the Panthers would have been even higher on this list. However, Williams is now 30 years old and is coming off three consecutive lackluster seasons.

    Stewart has never been given a full season to carry the load, and injuries are an issue. When he is playing and healthy, he is a terrific runner. The 210-pounder is big, fast and powerful, and few running backs are more talented. He needs to stay on the field, though, or this unit is in trouble.

    Tolbert worked as a fullback last year after being a running back in San Diego. He rushed for just 183 yards in 2012, but he is capable of stepping up and gaining more.

    On paper, this is an extremely talented unit. It needs to stay healthy, though, and Williams needs to produce like he is capable of.

9. New England Patriots

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    Key Players: Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, LeGarrette Blount, Leon Washington

    New England doesn't have a running back who can be considered elite, but the unit is extremely deep and productive.

    In 2012, Ridley averaged 4.4 yards per carry, gaining 1,263 yards on the season. Vereen wasn't nearly as productive, but he is a talented receiver who can easily spell off Ridley without too much of a drop in play. Both backs are 24 years old.

    Blount might be the single most powerful back in football. He isn't an every-down player—he lacks the burst and speed—but he can still add value. Just a few years ago, he averaged 5.0 yards per carry.

    New England's superb offensive line and quarterback play both help the statistics, but make no mistake, this is a talented group.

8. Kansas City Chiefs

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    Key Players: Jamaal Charles, Knile Davis

    Charles is one of the most exciting players in the NFL. Despite returning from a torn ACL, he rushed for 1,509 yards on just 285 carries in 2012. He is a true game-changer.

    Unfortunately, the Chiefs don't have a single proven back behind him. Davis seems like the team's second running back, and even he is an unproven third-round rookie. It doesn't help that Davis wasn't overly productive in 2012, rushing for just 377 yards at Arkansas.

    While there is potential for this to be an elite unit, the uncertainty behind Charles is holding it back. 

7. Buffalo Bills

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    Key Players: C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson, Tashard Choice

    It took a few years, but Spiller finally looks like the player Buffalo used the No. 9 overall selection on in 2010. Last season, he rushed for 1,244 yards, averaging 6.0 yards per carry. He also caught 43 passes for 459 yards.

    Behind Spiller is Jackson. He has played in just 10 games the past two seasons, but is a good player. His decline may have already begun, however, as he is now 32 years old. Hopefully, Jackson's lack of workload throughout his career keeps him at a high level for an additional year or two.

    As a starter, Choice isn't a good option. As a team's third back, however, he is perfectly fine. He is capable of the occasional spot start and can certainly pick up a few carries from game to game.

    Right now, Spiller is one of the game's most dynamic players, and the Bills have a solid duo behind him. 

6. San Francisco 49ers

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    Key Players: Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, Anthony Dixon, Marcus Lattimore

    This unit is incredibly deep. 

    Gore may start to decline soon, but the 30-year-old has rushed for over 1,200 yards the past two seasons and hasn't shown signs of slowing down. Behind him, Hunter is an explosive talent who averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 2012.

    A second-round pick in 2012, James is an undersized back like Hunter, but is more explosive. The former Oregon star already has great ability on kick returns and could soon be a weapon out of the backfield.

    Dixon is a power back who hasn't had many chances, but can run through defenders. 

    Then there is Lattimore. A prolific player at South Carolina, Lattimore blew out his knee in each of the last two years. He may not contribute anything in 2013, but there is always the chance that he could, and he is a tremendous talent. 

5. Seattle Seahawks

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    Key Players: Marshawn Lynch, Robert Turbin, Christine Michael, Spencer Ware

    Lynch's 2012 season was simply incredible. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry while running for 1,590 yards and 11 touchdowns. The 27-year-old's "Beast Mode" nickname is certainly apt.

    Behind Lynch are a few fellow large running backs. Turbin was a rookie in 2012, but the 222-pounder averaged 4.4 yards per carry as he rushed for 354 yards on the year. 

    Then there are Michael and Ware, two 2013 draft picks. Michael was probably the draft's most talented runner, and he fell to the end of the second round only because of character concerns. He has huge upside.

    Meanwhile, Ware was just a sixth-round pick, but he is incredibly physical. He will likely see time at fullback. 

    There isn't a more physical running back unit in the NFL, and these guys could produce some huge numbers in 2012 and beyond. 

4. Philadelphia Eagles

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    Key Players: LeSean McCoy, Bryce Brown, Felix Jones

    McCoy's numbers were down in 2012—partially due to injury—but he is still a terrific runner and overall complete player. In a given year, McCoy has run for over 1,300 yards and caught 78 passes. He is a unique player. 

    Still just 24 years old, he isn't done growing as a player and should improve away from Andy Reid. He could be in line for his best year yet under Chip Kelly.

    Brown is an intriguing second-year player. At 6'0", 223 pounds, the 22-year-old is a great athlete with serious potential. In 2012, he averaged 4.9 yards per carry, gaining a total of 564 rushing yards.

    Jones certainly wasn't worth a first-round selection, but he isn't a bad player. He's just hurt too often. As a third-string running back, he is more than sufficient and could make some plays for the Eagles.

    Philadelphia's running backs are all multi-dimensional and capable of breaking long runs at any time. That is a special group. 

3. Baltimore Ravens

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    Key Players: Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce, Vonta Leach

    For years now, Rice has been an outstanding running back. He has rushed for at least 1,100 yards the past four seasons while also catching at least 60 passes. Few players consistently provide that type of value.

    In fact, the entire Baltimore offense revolves around Rice. He is always capable of making a play or carrying the team. Joe Flacco wouldn't be who he was without Ray Rice.

    Though he certainly isn't Rice, Pierce is also quite talented. The 23-year-old averaged 4.9 yards per carry in 2012, working as Rice's backup. The 218-pounder is powerful but athletic.

    At fullback, the Ravens have the best blocker in the NFL. Leach is a big, nasty run-blocker who easily clears holes for Rice and Pierce. His value is often overlooked, but those two certainly appreciate him.

    Rice is a terrific all-around running back, and Pierce has starter ability. Between those two and a terrific fullback, it is tough to beat Baltimore's backfield. 

2. Houston Texans

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    Key Players: Arian Foster, Ben Tate

    Foster is the epitome of the complete running back. In his three years as a starter, he has always rushed for over 1,200 yards, twice for over 1,400. He has scored 10 rushing touchdowns each year. And only in 2012 did he fail to gain 600 receiving yards. 

    The former undrafted free agent is powerful, quick and has terrific vision. He can also block and catch passes. He is capable of excelling in any situation.

    Foster's dominance alone is enough to push the Texans up this list, but they also have a great backup in Tate. The 24-year-old wasn't as productive in 2012, but in 2011, he averaged 5.4 yards per carry as he ran for 942 yards.

    As soon as Tate hits free agency, he will likely sign with another team as a starter. For now, though, he is one of the NFL's best backups.

    With these two running the football, Houston doesn't need a great passing attack. Of course, it has one anyway. 

1. Minnesota Vikings

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    Key Players: Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart, Jerome Felton

    Peterson is really the only player here worth mentioning. He's that good.

    His 2012 season was possibly the best ever for a running back, and it earned him the MVP award. His 2,097 rushing yards, 6.0 yards per carry and 12 touchdowns were all impeccable. 

    Though this was obviously Peterson's best season ever, he has consistently been the NFL's most productive running back. There is no one else in the league who compares to him, and he is nearly unstoppable. 

    In fact, he is so dominant that the lack of talent behind him doesn't keep the Vikings from the top spot here. In 2012, working as Peterson's primary backup as the star returned from a torn ACL, Gerhart averaged just 3.4 yards per carry while rushing for only 169 yards.

    However, it does help Minnesota to have one of the game's top fullbacks in Felton. He doesn't add much as a runner or receiver, but man can he block.

    This ranking is all about Peterson's presence. There is no other explanation for putting the Vikings at No. 1. Every other team in the top five had depth.

    But ask yourself this: Would you trade A.D. for any of those teams' entire backfields?