This is one of the most intriguing eras in NFL history when it comes to measuring running backs.
First, this is a period of running back conservation, when getting 300 carries is considered too much – a huge shift from the thinking that a great back should touch the ball at least 350 times. Instead, most teams use some version of a two-back attack, if not more. As a substitute of the bell-cow running back who gets 20 to 25 carries a game, teams alternate backs, often playing to situations based on the different talents of the rushers.
"You're still looking for that 230-pound guy who can pound it out for you, they're just hard to find," Houston general manager Rick Smith, whose team will try to highlight depth this season with Arian Foster(notes) and Steve Slaton(notes) leading the way.
Second, in the era of the salary cap, some teams just want to make sure they get their money's worth.
"Back in the day, a running back lasted three or four years and teams were good with that," Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew(notes) said. "Now, you give a guy $15 [million] or $20 million on a long-term contract, you want to get that long-term out of him."
Third, the shift to greater use of wide-open, three-, four- and five-receiver sets has changed the function of running backs. Instead of grinding yards, the league has become more of a slash-and-dash affair with the running game. Open sets have replaced the I-formation. The fullback has disappeared almost completely.
What that means is this is much more of a period for ranking teams and their running games rather than simply lining up the running backs themselves and putting them in order. There's still some of that, but the need for depth may explain the rankings, particularly at the top:
1. Minnesota Vikings: Tennessee's Chris Johnson was the best running back in the NFL last season and the Vikings' Adrian Peterson had serious fumbling issues. That said, the difference here is Peterson's ability to be a power runner around the goal line, and the depth the Vikings have with rookie reserve Toby Gerhart(notes). Gerhart isn't as accomplished as former Vikings backup Chester Taylor(notes), but he's plenty talented and a perfect fit as the secondary threat behind Peterson.
2. Tennessee Titans: The most impressive quality Johnson has is that, for his size, he's amazing at running between the tackles. Most backs his size tiptoe through the middle of the line. Johnson attacks the line with stunning aggressiveness. Johnson's speed and game-breaking ability are reminiscent of Barry Sanders. If the Titans had a more proven backup, they probably would be ranked No. 1.
3. Carolina Panthers: In 2008, the Panthers used the combination of DeAngelo Williams(notes) and Jonathan Stewart(notes) as the foundation of a playoff team and kept former quarterback Jake Delhomme(notes) from getting exposed. Last season, Williams missed three games with injuries and Stewart was slowed early in the season. Not surprisingly, Delhomme and the team were awful. The total numbers produced by Williams and Stewart weren't that much different from the year before, but they clearly weren't as effective. One thing they could use is more production as receivers.
4. Baltimore Ravens: Ray Rice(notes) is the truth. Last season, he took huge leaps forward as both a between-the-tackles runner (he finished with 1,339 yards) and as a receiver (78 receptions, 702 yards) out of the backfield. Rice is the next best big-play threat in the league after Peterson and Chris Johnson. Throw in the power running of Willis McGahee(notes) (12 TDs rushing and 14 overall) and you have great depth. If the Ravens receiving corps improves as expected, this pair could easily break into the top three.
5. Cincinnati Bengals: Cedric Benson(notes) was one of the uplifting stories of the NFL last season as he went through a renaissance after three dismal years in Chicago. Benson not only performed on the field, but he kept himself out of the news off it. Here's to that trend continuing. He suffered a hip injury that helped lessen his production in the second half of the season, but the Bengals appear to have a promising backup in Bernard Scott(notes). Scott is extremely explosive for a 220-pounder. Now, if one of them had receiving skills, this would be more interesting.
6. Jacksonville Jaguars: If this was just Maurice Jones-Drew vs. Benson, the Jaguars would be at least one spot higher. But this is where depth starts to weigh into the equation. Jones-Drew is one of the best all-purpose runners in the league, both running inside and outside and as a receiver. He runs with great power for a man his size (5-7, 208). The problem is that the Jags depend strongly on the running game and will even more this year. They need to get more production from backup Rashad Jennings(notes). He's promising, he just has to deliver.
7. Atlanta Falcons: No team was impacted more by injuries in the backfield than Atlanta, which had both starter Michael Turner(notes) and main backup Jerious Norwood(notes) deal with injuries all season. Turner was never close to the guy he was in 2008, when the Falcons used him to protect rookie quarterback Matt Ryan(notes). Losing Norwood sapped the Falcons of any explosiveness to boot. Turner must return to health if the Falcons are going to be competitive
8. New York Jets: If you're a Shonn Greene(notes) believer, you'll look at this ranking and say it's idiotic. The Jets had the No. 1 running game in the league last season and simply pounded other teams into submission late last season on the way to the playoffs. Yeah, but a lot of that was based on the early-season work of Thomas Jones(notes), who has since been dispatched to Kansas City and replaced in the lineup by Greene and on the roster by LaDainian Tomlinson(notes). Greene looked great at the end of last season, but he has to prove it over a couple hundred carries before I'm sold. As for L.T., he hasn't looked good for two years. It's sad to say, but Jones was a better player than Tomlinson last season and probably will be again this year.
9. Dallas Cowboys: Of all the great running backs to wear a star upon thars (sorry, "The Sneetches" was one of my favorite stories to read to my sons when they were little), Marion Barber(notes) may be second only to Duane Thomas as an unrealized talent and complete enigma. Barber was on a path to greatness before a toe injury in 2008. Now, he's still a solid player, but hardly the pounding presence he was before. It may not matter because the Cowboys probably have the best tailback depth in the NFL right now with Felix Jones(notes) and Tashard Choice(notes) behind Barber.
10. Denver Broncos: If you're looking for a really good candidate to do what Ray Rice did last year in improving from his rookie season to his second year, Knowshon Moreno(notes) is the guy. While Moreno's stats last year don't show it (he rushed for 947 yards and averaged only 3.8 yards per carry), there were moments when he really looked explosive and appeared to be holding himself back more than anything. He's still figuring out how to run in the NFL and he's already a pretty good receiver. When he gets it together, watch out. Beyond Moreno, the depth is decent with Correll Buckhalter(notes).
11. San Francisco 49ers: OK, I can already sense the emails coming from the 49ers faithful telling me what an idiot I am for ranking Denver and Dallas ahead of San Francisco with Frank Gore(notes). All Gore has done is put together four straight 1,000-yard seasons, including an impressive 4.9 yards per carry last season and 52 receptions. True, but the concern about Gore has always been that his knees won't last because of his bruising style and he has missed two games in each of the past two seasons. Considering that and the fact that the 49ers depth is nowhere as good as Dallas or Denver, this is where the 49ers end up.
12. Chicago Bears: The signing of backup Chester Taylor was one of the best moves of free agency, particularly when you throw in that it forced the Vikings to use a second-round pick on Gerhart. Taylor hasn't topped 400 yards rushing in either of the past two seasons, but he has surpassed 40 receptions and is one of the best all-round threats as a third-down back. Frankly, it's sort of a toss up about who is better between him and starter Matt Forte(notes). Hopefully, they'll push each other to new heights.
13. New Orleans Saints: Only a late-season run of big plays by Reggie Bush(notes) keeps the Saints from being ranked much lower. Yeah, yeah, the Saints manage to put together some decent rushing stats, but they're not a running team by any stretch of the imagination. They produce numbers based on two things: The tendency of the offense to produce big leads for the running game to milk and the wide-open spaces created by New Orleans' throw-first offense. Pierre Thomas(notes) is a nice player, but hardly a bell cow and they're going to have to fill Mike Bell's(notes) shoes now that he's gone.
14. Miami Dolphins: If Ronnie Brown(notes) was healthy and/or Ricky Williams(notes) was younger, you might rank this duo higher, certainly higher than the Saints and the Bears. But Brown is trying to come back from a difficult foot injury (he had a significant knee injury earlier in his career) and Williams turned 33 earlier this month. That said, Brown is going into the final year of his contract, so he could be motivated, and Williams has been amazing in his ability to play like a guy who is still in his mid-20s.
15. Green Bay Packers: Ryan Grant(notes) has been a solid-yet-unspectacular player over the past two seasons. That's not a bad thing, but he hasn't exactly been what he flashed in the second half of the 2007 season, when he helped get the Packers to the NFC championship game. Then again, that's why he was an undrafted guy long ago. The Packers are content with what they have for now, but Grant is never going to be a huge star and the depth is just so-so.
16. New York Giants: How the mighty have fallen. If you want to point to one reason why the Giants regressed so much last season, it was the decline of their overall running game, both the backs and the blocking ahead of them. For now, we'll just talk about the running backs. After losing Derrick Ward(notes) last season, the plan was to put more weight on Brandon Jacobs'(notes) shoulders. It didn't work as Jacobs regressed because of injury (his knee was bothering him all year). Backup Ahmad Bradshaw(notes) was also banged up all year. Now, this group could easily return to greatness with a return to health, but that's a big if.
17. Kansas City Chiefs: Aside from the Bears signing Chester Taylor, the next best signing this offseason was the Chiefs bringing in Thomas Jones after the Jets dumped him. Jones gives the Chiefs a legitimate grinder at running back which means Jamaal Charles(notes), who barely hits 200 pounds after a full meal at the Cheescake Factory, won't get overused. Charles had a great second half last season, but he did most of his damage against bad teams. Add in interesting rookie Dexter McCluster(notes) and the Chiefs are on to something.
18. Buffalo Bills: Frankly, this is almost embarrassing. The Bills should be ranked a lot higher based on the physical skills of Marshawn Lynch(notes), Fred Jackson(notes) and first-round pick C.J. Spiller(notes). But Lynch has gone backward over his three-year career, Jackson has the look of a souped-up backup and Spiller has star ability, but it may not be as a pure runner. The most important decision new coach Chan Gailey has to make is who will be the guy to make the running game really go because he doesn't have a clear choice.
19. St. Louis Rams: Steve Jackson put up surprisingly good numbers (1,416 yards and 51 receptions) last season for an awful Rams team. However, you got the feeling watching the Rams play that teams were often conceding yards to Jackson because they ultimately knew the Rams were not a threat and/or the opponents usually had a lead. This is a sad end to a nice career. Hopefully, the Rams get a clue and trade Jackson to a contender this season before his back really does finally give out. Sadly, the Rams have no legitimate second threat.
20. Houston Texans: The Texans are trying to sell the public that Arian Foster will be the starter, but that just sounds like a way of attaching a camping stove to Steve Slaton's rump. Slaton regressed in every way last season, from the way he attacked defenses to the way he held the ball (seven fumbles in 175 combined carries and catches last season compared to three in 318 as a rookie). Truth is, Slaton had no good excuse for being that bad when the Texans passing game progressed so much last season. He better pick it up this year.
21. Oakland Raiders: Darren McFadden(notes) was lucky to be surrounded by the pathetic presence of quarterback JaMarcus Russell(notes) in his first two years. If not for the stench of Russell's play, fans might be talking about McFadden as one of the all-time busts in draft history. In two years, Run DMC has made less noise in his career than his rap namesake has over the same period of time … and Jam-Master Jay has been gone from us for nearly a decade. Yeah, that's harsh, but let's be real about this. McFadden still has a great chance for success. There have been plenty of running backs who struggled for a couple of years and then hit it big, but the clock is ticking and the Raiders have other options, such as Michael Bush(notes).
22. Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers finally put Rashard Mendenhall(notes) in the lineup and got away from the delusional thought that Willie Parker(notes) was still a good player. Not that Mendenhall was great last season. He had some moments but was generally just above average. But at least Mendenhall has some upside. If he can learn to be consistently aggressive when reading his blocks, he has a chance to be very good, if not great. Mendenhall also has a little bit of receiving ability, which Parker had none. Throw in backup Mewelde Moore(notes) and you have something decent, but hardly great.
23. Arizona Cardinals: There's a lot of talk coming out of Arizona that this is going to become a run-first team behind Beanie Wells(notes) now that quarterback Kurt Warner(notes) has retired. While Wells had a generally successful rookie season (793 yards rushing and a 4.5-yard average per carry), this is the same guy that coaches and teammates were privately trashing in training camp last year for being soft. Considering that, let's wait a little while before throwing a parade for Wells, who didn't look particularly great at any one phase of the game last season.
24. Indianapolis Colts: This is purely a hunch, but don't be surprised if Donald Brown(notes) is starting or at least getting the lion's share of the playing time next season as the Colts tire of Joseph Addai's(notes) declining play. Addai still fits what the Colts are trying to do with their running game, but he just doesn't appear to have the explosiveness of his first two seasons. Brown showed better quickness and decisiveness as a rookie, although hardly enough to draw a conclusion at this point. If the Colts running game is going to improve, it definitely needs more quickness and decisiveness from whoever plays running back.
25. San Diego Chargers: This is probably putting more faith in Ryan Mathews(notes) than any first-round pick deserves, but many scouts considered him the best prototype running back available in the draft this year. The Chargers definitely need that after letting LaDainian Tomlinson go this offseason. Darren Sproles(notes) is still a terrific third-down back, but that's really all he is, a third-down guy. Sproles doesn't have the strength to break tackles at the line and has to operate primarily in open space. Mathews is a between-the-tackles runner with great passion and toughness.
26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: A tip of the cap to Bucs leading rusher Cadillac Williams, who came back last season after suffering through injuries for two years. Still, it's not like Williams was all that electric, averaging only 3.9 yards per carry. Likewise, backups Derrick Ward and Earnest Graham(notes) were just roster flotsam. The Bucs have a bunch of guys who are nice backups at this point. They need somebody who can be a starter.
27. Detroit Lions: As with the San Diego and Mathews, the Lions are pinning a lot of hope on first-round pick Jahvid Best(notes). Best is a former California high school sprint champion who improved dramatically as a running back during his time at Cal. Best typifies the approach many NFL teams are taking at running back and on offense as a whole. He's a slashing runner who can create big plays in a hurry but may not be great at grinding out yards. With the Lions expected to play a lot of spread formations, Best could be terrific, right there with the likes of Chris Johnson if all goes well.
28. New England Patriots: It was a tad surprising when the Patriots didn't spend a high pick in the draft on a running back. The Patriots have a collection of guys you might want on your team, such as Kevin Faulk(notes), Sammy Morris(notes) and Fred Taylor(notes). But even when you throw in leading rusher Laurence Maroney(notes), none of them stand out as a player you want to lean on. Maroney has been a huge disappointment and doesn't even fit into the New England's spread-offense philosophy anymore.
29. Seattle Seahawks: The running back depth chart in Seattle is either a dream or a nightmare for fantasy football players. Someone is going to get lucky and draft the leading rusher from among Julius Jones(notes), Justin Forsett(notes) and Leon Washington(notes) and feel like he's brilliant. Other people are going to get stuck with one of the other guys and be frustrated. Fact is, picking the best of this lot – which took a hit with the release of LenDale White(notes) on Friday – is like trying to distinguish among a basket of bruised fruit.
30. Washington Redskins: Clinton Portis(notes), Larry Johnson(notes) and Willie Parker: The names sound so impressive until you realize it's not 2006 or 2007 anymore. That's the last time any of these guys were really good for an entire season. They're all at the end of their careers. Perhaps coach Mike Shanahan will get enough out of them as a combination to be respectable and he still could add Brian Westbrook(notes). But that's a big "perhaps."
31. Philadelphia Eagles: After cutting Westbrook, the Eagles are clearly banking on LeSean McCoy(notes) becoming the all-around running and receiving threat to trigger the offense. Based on how McCoy played last season, that may be a bit of a stretch. McCoy looked tentative as a runner and out of place as a receiver. He's a talented guy, so there's still a chance, but the first impression was questionable. Bullish Leonard Weaver(notes) is around to pick up some change-of-pace yards, but he's not a true backup.
32. Cleveland Browns: After flashing a little talent for a couple of years, Jerome Harrison(notes) had a monster three-game run at the end of last season. He rushed for 561 yards and five TDs over that stretch, including 286 yards in one game. However, that run came against Kansas City, Oakland and Jacksonville in meaningless games, so we'll reserve final judgment for awhile. Hopefully, it's real. More likely, it's not and the Browns are stuck with a roster full of JAGs (that's scout lingo for Just A Guy).