Best QB-RB Backfield Combinations in Today's NFL

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterJuly 19, 2015

Best QB-RB Backfield Combinations in Today's NFL

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    There are 11 offensive players on the field at any given time, and nine of them are important. But the other two, the quarterback and running back, are a little more important—maybe a lot more important.

    Yes, it all starts with the offensive line, and a great receiver can single-handedly reshape a defense just by where he lines up. A versatile tight end can cause matchup nightmares, and sometimes an H-back or fullback can be the X-factor that decides the game.

    But the passing game runs through the quarterback, and the running game runs through the running back. The signal-caller touches the ball on every single play, and according to Pro Football Focus, 21 different running backs had more carries than any wide receiver had targets.

    A truly great quarterback can avoid pressure let through by a leaky line and throw mediocre receivers open. A superlative running back can make defenders miss, run through tackles and wear a defense down in the second half. In the age of spread-out, multiple-receiver sets, quarterbacks and running backs who can produce without extra blockers are worth their weight in gold—or even more.

    Coming into the 2015 season, Bleacher Report has ranked the top quarterback/running back combinations in the NFL. As they go, their offenses will surely follow.

Honorable Mention

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
    • Tom Brady and LeGarrette Blount, New England Patriots
    • Philip Rivers and Melvin Gordon, San Diego Chargers
    • Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers
    • Tony Romo and Joseph Randle, Dallas Cowboys
    • Drew Brees and Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints

    Super Bowl or no, Brady's physical decline is undeniable. The months of hullabaloo surrounding his suspension aren't going to help him keep pace with the likes of Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck in 2015. Blount had a nice little midseason welcome back to the fold, but the Steelers released him for a reason.

    Rivers continues to defy Father Time, and Gordon has the physical ability to enter the league as a top-10 back—but until he does, it's hard to justify slotting them above any of the other pairs on this list.

    Newton continues to be held back by his supporting cast and underrated by pundits, but he's not good enough to drag an aging Stewart (28) into this group.

    Romo finally put it all together in 2014, having by far the best year of his long career, but the catalyst for that season—DeMarco Murray—is gone. It's an act of extreme faith to assert that Romo, having at long last had one magical season, will just go right ahead and have another, and a committee of three running backs led by Joseph Randle is tough to put on this list.

    Brees puts up yards like nobody else, but there were real cracks in the Saints' offensive foundation last year—and now Jimmy Graham is gone. There's reason to believe Ingram will pick up some slack (like new All-Pro center Max Unger), but it sure seems like Brees is finally losing his edge.

No. 10: Andy Dalton and Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Andy Dalton was better and faster in his first two seasons than most drafted quarterbacks ever get. A better-than-serviceable signal-caller from the moment he stepped on the field in 2011, Dalton's tendency to wilt in the spotlight sinks his reputation. 

    If Dalton were significantly better in playoff and prime-time games than regular-season contests, like the New York Giants' Eli Manning, he'd more regularly come up in discussions of the game's best quarterbacks. Instead, his high-profile failures (his career playoff passer rating is 57.8) lead most to underrate how rare and valuable better-than-serviceable quarterbacking is.

    Dragging Dalton into the top 10, though, is Hill, an emergent sophomore who ran past Giovani Bernard in the second half of 2014. Hill led the NFL in second-half rushing yardage, per Pro Football Reference.

    Hill's size, speed and power—not to mention an excellent offensive line and quality passing game—put him in position to be one of the NFL's most productive backs in 2015.

No. 9: Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings

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    Teddy Bridgewater emphatically answered his doubters last season when he took over the Vikings in Week 3 and went on to significantly outplay the rookie quarterbacks drafted ahead of him. Best of all, he got better as he went along, 

    For all his pro-ready savvy and well-rounded skill set, though, Bridgewater's overall stats weren't amazing—and whether new receiver Mike Wallace can help Bridgewater put up much better ones is an open question. Even if he takes a step forward in 2015, it's difficult to claim Bridgewater will play at a Pro Bowl level.

    The other half of this quarterback/running back equation is one of the best in the business: Peterson, a three-time first team All-Pro who is coming off a year of rest. 

    Were Peterson unquestionably at his best, this pair would be even higher. Bridgewater's numbers were similar to Dalton's in 2014, and All Day is as good a runner as there has ever been. But the uncertainty around Peterson's situation and too much projection involved in Bridgewater's improvement, cap them at No. 9.

No. 8: Ryan Tannehill and Lamar Miller, Miami Dolphins

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    If we start with the living legends at the top of the NFL's quarterback heap and work down, we have to go through quite a few before we get to Ryan Tannehill.

    Yet, the 2012 No. 8 overall pick made huge year-over-year strides for the second straight season. He finished with a 66.4 percent completion rate, 4.2 percent touchdown rate and 2.0 percent interception rate—all, by far, career bests. He flashed moments of true brilliance, giving Dolphins fans hope he has more potential yet to be reached.

    You'd think a 1,000-plus-yard rusher who averaged 5.1 yards per carry and scored eight touchdowns would be a household name. Yet in a year full of superlative individual seasons, the phrase "Lamar Miller" wasn't often on the lips of fans and media.

    Still only 24 years old, the four-year vet will finally have a stabilized offensive line to run behind. Both of these young players have the potential to be even better than they've been, but massive turnover at the wideout spot and stiff AFC East competition will likely prevent them from putting up the gonzo numbers needed to crack the top five pairings.

No. 7: Peyton Manning and C.J. Anderson, Denver Broncos

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    Our last collective memory of Peyton Manning is an ugly one: a dejected, past-it legend straggling off the field after limping to the finish. He looked like a shadow of his former self, a washed-up veteran whose brain could no longer make up for how badly his body had diminished.

    His coach would soon be fired, and he would be asked to take a pay cut.

    However, per Pro Football Reference, Manning finished 2014 ranked no lower than fifth in the NFL in any of the following categories: passing yards, touchdowns, touchdown rate, sack rate, average yards per attempt, adjusted net yards per attempt, passer efficiency rating and total QBR. Any way you slice it, he was one of the best quarterbacks in the league.

    Still, Manning's physical decline has been too obvious, and his running mate too unproven, to slot them any higher.

    Anderson was a revelation in the second half of the season, emerging as the head of the Broncos running back committee and racking up more rushing yards than all but three other tailbacks. His surprising effort got him into the Pro Bowl just one year after going undrafted.

    If last season's trends continue, it'll be Anderson carrying Manning onto the postseason edition of this list, not the other way around.

No. 6: Joe Flacco and Justin Forsett, Baltimore Ravens

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    Patric Schneider/Associated Press

    The argument over whether Joe Flacco is an elite quarterback is so far past cliched, even having it ironically is cliched.

    Those looking for incontrovertible proof Flacco is in the top five, or even top 10, of today's NFL quarterbacks didn't get any in 2014. Only stats that add weight to high-leverage situations, like total QBR and Advanced Football Analytics' WPA consider Flacco anything better than a middle-third quarterback.

    Of course, that's because he always seems to come up biggest when the moment counts most.

    A streaky passer who gets offensive coordinators fired more frequently than any franchise quarterback in NFL history, Flacco is certainly better than most—and in 2014, his top back ran more effectively than almost anyone else.

    Justin Forsett, a 2008 seventh-round pick who found himself thrust into a starting role, nearly gained more yards in 2014 than in his six previous NFL seasons combined. He racked up those 1,266 yards and eight touchdowns at a mind-warping 5.4 yards-per-carry clip.

    That Forsett re-signed in Baltimore for just $9 million over three years may reflect a perception in NFL circles that his 2014 season was (A) a fluke or (B) a product of the Ravens offense. Either way, he will be back in the same situation; it's more likely than not he's again one of the most productive backs in the league.

No. 5: Alex Smith and Jamaal Charles

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    Alex Smith gets a bad rap.

    Over the last four seasons, he's completed 63.4 percent of his passes, thrown 71 touchdowns against just 23 interceptions and boasts a passer efficiency rating of 92.8. No, he doesn't go downfield often—but he's also had one of the league's least scary sets of downfield targets.

    Thanks to Jamaal Charles, he also doesn't need to go downfield to move the chains. The four-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro has been one of the NFL's very best since he took over as a starter in 2009.

    Still just 28 years old, Charles isn't yet at the age where we start to bet on tailbacks declining. Moreover, his mind-boggling, career-long streak of averaging at least five yards per carry remains intact.

    Should signee Jeremy Maclin and draftee Chris Conley finally provide wide-open downfield targets for Smith, the entire Chiefs offense should open up—and maybe Smith and Charles will get the recognition they deserve as one of the league's best passer/runner combos.

No. 4: Andrew Luck and Frank Gore, Indianapolis Colts

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Andrew Luck's blazing talent and high-quality play finally translated into boffo numbers in 2014; he led the NFL in passing touchdowns (40) and finished third in passing yards (4,761). With a talented receiving corps and slowly improving defense, Luck's own growth as a passer helped convert his obvious potential into reality.

    He's no longer one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL. He's one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, period. By the end of this season, we may just be calling him the best quarterback in the NFL.

    The one thing holding Luck and the Colts offense back has been the total, utter lack of any kind of running game.

    Enter Frank Gore, the stalwart San Francisco 49ers running back whose yeoman's work has yielded five Pro Bowl nods in 10 seasons. Gore is almost supernaturally consistent, averaging about 4.5 yards per carry and gaining around 1,200 nearly every full season he's played.

    At 32, he's absolutely in the season of life where running backs wither like leaves and drop to the ground. Yet agelessness and durability have been his calling card—and with Luck, plus receivers T.Y. Hilton, Andre Johnson and Donte Moncrief, Gore won't have to carry the load by himself anymore.

No. 3: Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    There's a story to be written—indeed, many have been—about the symbolism of the Seahawks trusting Super Bowl XLIX to Wilson's arm rather than Lynch's legs and falling short.

    Lynch, with four straight Pro Bowl nods and a first team All-Pro nomination, has by several measures been the best in the business since he came to Seattle. Per Pro Football Reference, he leads the league in rushing attempts, yards and touchdowns from 2011 to 2014.

    At 29, he's not yet shown any signs of slowing down, though the Seahawks trading away center Max Unger for pass-catching tight end Jimmy Graham may impact his numbers.

    Wilson? Well, like Flacco, he's good in a way that doesn't translate to eye-popping stats. Like Flacco, he's angling to be the highest-paid player in the league after leading his team to the mountaintop.

    Wilson's rate stats were slightly better than Flacco's in 2014, despite a far worse receiving corps. However, his play was more conservative than in either of his first two seasons, and that showed on the scoreboard. Perhaps Graham's arrival will push Wilson's numbers, and standing, higher—but until that actually happens, Bleacher Report can't slot this pair above No. 3 overall.

No. 2: Ben Roethlisberger and Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    There's a good argument to be made that Roethlisberger and Bell were the best quarterback/tailback combo in the NFL last year, at least from a statistical perspective.

    Roethlisberger tied Drew Brees for the most passing yards in the NFL. Bell finished just 46 yards behind Offensive Player of the Year DeMarco Murray in yards from scrimmage, per Pro Football Reference. The 32-year-old signal-caller took a dipper from the fountain of youth, beating or matching career highs in completion percentage, yards, touchdowns, sack rate and total QBR.

    Bell...well, football English lacks words for his transformation. Visibly dropping significant weight between his rookie and second seasons, he metamorphosed from a capable, forgettable workhorse into an incendiary weapon, a scintillating yellow phosphor blazing through defenses again and again.

    Bell was eventually busted for drugs—but not the performance-enhancing kind. A marijuana arrest resulted in a three-game suspension to be served at the beginning of this season. That doesn't directly affect his rankings here; these are not fantasy ratings. However, it does point to the reality that Bell could be a shooting star, a Chris Johnson type who'll never run at an All-Pro level ever again.

    There are questions about Roethlisberger's 2014 season too. Two mind-bending points explosions in Week 8 and Week 9 accounted for 37.5 percent of his touchdowns and 17.4 percent of his yards. Subtract those two games and extrapolate the rest of his season out to 16 games, and Roethlisberger would have scored just 22 touchdowns and 4,674 yards—14th and sixth-best, respectively.

    Again, you can't take away what either of these two players did in 2014—but there are just enough questions about whether they can replicate it in 2015 to knock them from the top spot.

No. 1: Aaron Rodgers and Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL.

    Nobody makes as many plays or fewer mistakes. Very few quarterbacks do any one thing as well as he does, and no quarterbacks are as flawlessly well-rounded. In 2014, he threw touchdowns on 7.3 percent of his pass attempts (No. 2 in the NFL) and interceptions on just 1 percent (No. 1 in the NFL).

    He did that while averaging 8.4 yards per attempt (No. 2) and posting a 112.2 passer rating (No. 2). Tony Romo only barely bested him in those categories, and Romo threw interceptions twice as often as Rodgers did.

    This combination of aggression and precision is unprecedented in NFL history, and Rodgers has been rocking it for years on end.

    Eddie Lacy is not the best running back in the NFL. In 2014 he finished seventh in yards and tied for third in touchdowns. It's hard to quibble with 4.7 average yards per carry, except that 11 backs averaged more last season.

    He improved from year one to year two, but in the way good players get better—not in the Le'Veon Bell way that makes you wonder if Marshall Faulk was sneaking onto the field in his jersey. Not only is it easy to imagine Lacy continuing to put up 1,100-1,200 yards and eight to 10 touchdowns every year for the foreseeable future, but it's hard to imagine that not happening.

    With the No. 1 quarterback and a consistent top-five/top-10 running back, the Packers have the best one-two offensive punch in football.