Ranking the NFL's Top 10 RB Corps Heading into 2016 Season
Which clubs boast the most talent at running back in the league?
In today's NFL, the perception is that the position is something of an afterthought. In terms of importance to an offense, however, nothing could be further from the truth.
The backfields of the Tennessee Titans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cincinnati Bengals fell just outside these rankings. Taking into consideration not only versatility and overall production (most notably in 2015) but depth as well, here's a look at the teams that are most stacked at this vital area.
10. Arizona Cardinals
Starter: David Johnson
Key Reserves: Chris Johnson, Stepfan Taylor, Andre Ellington, Kerwynn Williams
In 2015, the Arizona Cardinals ground attack was brought to you by Johnson and Johnson.
Early in the season, free-agent pickup Chris Johnson (who turns 31 in September) surprised many with his play and wound up leading the club with 814 yards rushing. But he missed the final five weeks and the playoffs with a broken tibia. The Cards brought back the three-time Pro Bowler via a one-year contract this offseason.
Rookie David Johnson would become the main man in the backfield and finished second on the club with 581 yards rushing along with eight scores. The versatile performer caught 36 passes for 457 yards and four touchdowns and racked up an additional 598 yards and one score on 22 kickoff returns.
Thanks primarily to this duo, the Cardinals finished eighth in the NFL in rushing, one year after ranking next-to-last in the league in the same category. Reserves Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor have starting experience, and Kerwynn Williams has shown his ability when called upon. This group gives head coach Bruce Arians numerous options.
9. Green Bay Packers
Starter: Eddie Lacy
Key Reserve: James Starks
Going forward, this could be one of the most productive running back tandems in the league. That's because while Eddie Lacy had his ups and downs this past season, his top backup was enjoying a career year.
After Lacy totaled a combined 3,001 yards from scrimmage and 24 touchdowns in his first two seasons, the 25-year-old workhorse battled himself when it came to conditioning in 2015. His play on the field reflected those issues as he managed only 946 total yards and scored just five touchdowns in 15 outings.
Last month, Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com reported the one-time Pro Bowl runner had dropped 15 to 18 pounds and had impressed teammates with his new look.
"I think Eddie looks good, man," said teammate Mike Daniels. "We'll see when the pads come on and everything, but I do think he's a guy who rises to the occasion. He comes from a great program where they do things the right way. He came under a lot of fire, so I think he's a guy that he got put on the spot and he responded."
While Lacy struggled, James Starks responded in a big way. The 30-year-old pro ran for a personal-best 601 yards, finished fifth on the team with 43 receptions and led the Packers with 993 yards from scrimmage.
Green Bay finished 12th in the NFL with 115.6 rushing yards per game. With a sleeker Lacy and Starks to spell him, that number will rise this upcoming season courtesy of this experienced pair.
8. Denver Broncos
Starter: C.J. Anderson
Key Reserves: Ronnie Hillman, Juwan Thompson, Devontae Booker
There's nothing like a little healthy competition between teammates.
That is if all the players are indeed healthy.
According to Mike Klis of KUSA, Denver Broncos rookie running back Devontae Booker is still on the mend from offseason knee surgeries. It kept him out of the team's recent OTAs, but it didn't prevent him from making some bold statements about his goals for the season.
Incumbent C.J. Anderson took the "there to take someone's job" comment in stride, per Klis:
What do people want him to say? It doesn't matter what he says. I know what I can do. I know what I can do in this league. He's coming in with confidence and he’s supposed to. I don’t have a problem with what he said. I said the same thing when I came in undrafted. ...
If that's what motivating him, then that's what's motivating him. I wasn't going to make him carry pads, anyway. I don't care about all that rookie stuff, I just want to play ball.
Anderson and Ronnie Hillman combined for 1,583 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground during the Broncos' Super Bowl 50 championship season. In two seasons at Utah, Booker totaled 3,395 yards from scrimmage and added 23 scores. He joins a backfield that also includes Juwan Thompson, who has proved his worth in two seasons with the club.
The Denver running game should have some new looks to it this season, especially in terms of production. With a revamped offensive line and quarterback Mark Sanchez at the helm for now, head coach Gary Kubiak will take advantage of his depth at the position.
7. Minnesota Vikings
Starter: Adrian Peterson
Key Reserves: Jerick McKinnon, Matt Asiata
It appears we are getting ready this year to see something new from running back Adrian Peterson in five years:
Touching the football in a meaningless game.
Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reminds us that last season's NFL rushing champion hasn't toted a carry in a preseason contest since 2011. The 31-year-old pro told Tomasson he wants to get on the playing field this summer:
I feel like getting out there and playing a little bit. It's something that once that time comes around, I'll have a better feel for, like, "Hey, I need to get out there just to kind of get the legs moving and get the pads (on) a little bit." I can tell you, though, I'm definitely more itching towards playing a little more in the preseason than I have the past seven, eight years.
That can mean only good news for a Minnesota team that ranked fourth in the league with 138.2 yards per game on the ground. Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata are proven entities who both took up the slack for the absence of Peterson for nearly all of 2014. The duo combined for 383 yards rushing on 81 carries this past season, making for a pair of nice insurance policies.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers
Starter: Le'Veon Bell
Key Reserves: DeAngelo Williams, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Daryl Richardson
Nearly every time head coach Mike Tomlin needed a running back to step this past season, someone came to the forefront.
In 2014, Le'Veon Bell earned All-Pro honors thanks to 2,215 yards from scrimmage (11 touchdowns)—the second-highest total in the league. The versatile performer was limited to only six games this past year due to suspension and a knee injury, gaining 692 total yards with three scores in his brief time on the field. He's still trying to bounce back from a severe knee injury, but ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler believes Bell will be ready when the club takes on the Washington Redskins in Week 1.
If he's not, 33-year-old DeAngelo Williams appears ready to once again not look his age. In 2015, he led Pittsburgh with 907 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns, plus totaled 40 catches for 367 yards. When he went down before the playoffs, Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman (now with the Indianapolis Colts) stepped in and did a fine job of filling the void. The Steelers also added one-time Rams running back Daryl Richardson this offseason.
It would be a great plus for Bell to recover his Pro Bowl form. This franchise is prepared to deal with his return. It may or may not be slowly, but rest assured it will be surely.
5. Kansas City Chiefs
Starter: Jamaal Charles
Key Reserves: Charcandrick West, Spencer Ware, Knile Davis
Jamaal Charles is one of the league's best running backs. The four-time Pro Bowler missed 11 games in 2015 with a torn ACL but looks to bounce back this season.
According to Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, per B.J. Kissel of Chiefs.com, the 29-year-old performer will be a limited participant in the team's upcoming OTAs scheduled for May 24-26. In five games this past year, Charles totaled 541 yards from scrimmage and scored five touchdowns.
In his place in 2015 was the duo of Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, who teamed for 1,037 yards and 10 scores on the ground. Kansas City finished sixth in the league in rushing, but a large part of that was due to the legs of quarterback Alex Smith, the team's second-leading ground gainer with 498 yards.
Add in Knile Davis, who was busy returning kickoffs but has proved his worth in the backfield in the past, and this is a talented quartet capable of bigger things—especially if Charles returns to standout form this fall.
4. Carolina Panthers
Starter: Jonathan Stewart
Key Reserves: Cameron Artis-Payne, Fozzy Whittaker, Mike Tolbert (FB)
No team totaled more running plays this past season than the Carolina Panthers. While a big chunk of those carries (132) came courtesy of quarterback Cam Newton, the backfield remains well stocked.
Jonathan Stewart picked up where he left off late in 2014 when he helped carry the team to the NFC South title. The 29-year-old pro fell 11 yards short of 1,000 yards on the ground but scored six touchdowns and averaged 4.1 yards per carry. His 989 rushing yards this past season were the second-highest total of his eight-year career.
Pro Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert does a lot more than just block, finishing third on the team with 256 yards rushing and a score. He added 18 receptions, and three went for touchdowns.
Cameron Artis-Payne, a fifth-round choice in 2015, and 27-year-old Fozzy Whittaker give the Panthers some young blood in the backfield. They teamed for 291 yards rushing on 70 carries this past year.
When you add in Newton, this team gained the second-most yards on the ground last season. Even minus the 2015 league MVP, this is a club with a lot of capable bodies and a relentless attitude when it comes to running the football.
3. Buffalo Bills
Starter: LeSean McCoy
Key Reserves: Karlos Williams, Mike Gillislee, Jonathan Williams
No team in the league gained more yards rushing than the Buffalo Bills this past year. Part of that came via the play of on-the-move quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who finished second on the club with 568 yards on the ground.
But the trio of LeSean McCoy (895), rookie Karlos Williams (517) and Mike Gillislee (267) combined for 1,679 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns—accounting for 69 percent of the team's production.
Williams also tied for the team lead with nine total touchdowns. He and McCoy each scored twice on receptions, with the latter finishing fifth on the Bills with 32 catches. Head coach Rex Ryan and general manager Doug Whaley added another piece to the backfield puzzle by taking Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams in the fifth round.
Buffalo figures to be determined when it comes to running the ball once again this season. The Bills have the horses to get the job done.
2. Dallas Cowboys
Starter: Ezekiel Elliott
Not everyone was excited about the Dallas Cowboys' decision to take Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick in April's draft.
To quote Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus (via ESPN.com), "This has less to do with Elliott's ability and more to do with the other players on the board. Although Elliott was the draft's best running back, and he is primed to perform well behind a stacked Dallas offensive line, [Jalen] Ramsey's versatile coverage ability would have been the better play with the No. 4 pick."
The key here is that while the writer feels Ramsey was the better pick, he acknowledges Elliott was the best player at his position in the draft, and it's hard to argue that fact. He will jump-start a Dallas ground attack that was sensational in 2014 with DeMarco Murray, ranking second in the NFL.
Last season, the Cowboys ranked ninth in the league in rushing thanks to a good year from Darren McFadden. But the team ran for 1,890 yards, just 45 more than Murray managed on his own the previous year. Elliott will give the club a home run threat out of the backfield, while McFadden provides proven depth.
Don't forget Alfred Morris, who started all 64 games with the Washington Redskins the past four years and can be an effective straight-line runner late in games. And once versatile Lance Dunbar is up and about, this is a scary group for any defense to deal with.
1. New York Jets
Starter: Matt Forte
Key Reserves: Bilal Powell, Khiry Robinson, Zac Stacy
In essence, the New York Jets have replaced the conference's leading rusher in 2015 with one of the most versatile running backs in the league.
The abilities that two-time Pro Bowler Matt Forte brings to the table shouldn't be underestimated. He missed three games with the Chicago Bears this past season but still led the club with 898 yards rushing and ranked third on the Bears with 44 catches. His seven total touchdowns tied for the team lead with Jeremy Langford, Forte's successor in the Windy City. All told, the former Bears runner totaled 12,718 yards from scrimmage and 64 touchdowns in eight seasons in Chicago.
Forte becomes the main man in the backfield now that Chris Ivory is a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars. But you will still see plenty of Bilal Powell, the Jets' best running back down the stretch last year. He was not only the team's second-leading rusher but New York's third-best receiver with 47 catches (388 yards, two touchdowns).
General manager Mike Maccagnan also brought in former New Orleans Saints running back Khiry Robinson for additional depth. One-time Rams performer Zac Stacy, obtained via trade prior to last season, totaled 31 carries for 89 yards and a score in 2015 with the Jets.
This team has a lot of talent with numerous options when it comes to the position. The Bears didn't re-sign the 30-year-old Forte, but he still has something left in the tank. Combined with the underrated Powell and the aforementioned depth, the Jets will improve on their 10th-ranked running game of 2015.
Unless otherwise noted, all player and team statistics come from Pro-Football-Reference.com and ESPN.com. All player ratings courtesy of Pro Football Focus. All 2016 free-agent and salary-cap information, contract terms and 2016 transactions are courtesy of Spotrac. Depth charts via Ourlads.