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- Running Back Rankings: Is Depth Key?

Chris Pokorny June 29, 2005
Chris Pokorny
PFC Owner & Writer

Tell Chris your opinion.

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Now that the quarterback rankings are resolved, it's time to take a look at the guys who grind it out on the ground. For some teams, the ground game is what a team relies on to set up playaction fakes in the passing game. For others, a committee may do the work, as you will see with teams like the Philadelphia Eagles. To be a good running back, you also need to take into consideration how often someone fumbles and how good of a receiver they are in the flat. Just like the quarterback rankings, this will be done by division. There won't be only four backs per division though, because the backups will often see plenty of time.

First, let's take a look at some of the running backs who shined out of no where last year.

Once the Bills saw how well Willis McGahee did on the ground, they knew that they found their guy for the future. McGahee, playing in his first true NFL season, dominated defenses and nearly helped the Bills in making a late run at the playoffs.

Reuben Droughns took advantage of an excellent offensive line in Denver, rushing for over 1,200 yards. In his two seasons with Denver before last year, he rushed for a combined 25 yards.

Larry Johnson came through when Priest Holmes went down. Everyone originally thought Johnson would be traded, especially since Derrick Blaylock was playing at first when Holmes was injured. Johnson shined in his time though, and the Chiefs are clutching to him now.

It's very hard to predict which running backs will have a surprise season. If you take a look at the three backs above, only McGahee would have seemed like a logical choice at the start of last season. I'll take some guesses though, and here are three running backs that I believe will come out of no where:

With Moss gone and Onterrio Smith done for the year, the Vikings may need to rely on the ground game some more. Michael Bennett had a lot of potential it seemed before last season, but he seemed to drop off of people's minds then. I think Bennett will rebound with a stellar season.

LaMont Jordan, the new starting running back for the Raiders, should do very well. When he backed up Curtis Martin in New York the past few years, teams had trouble stopping him. With the Raiders dangerous two wideouts, Jordan can be a sleeper on the ground.

Does anyone think Tatum Bell will stay the running back the whole season? He could, but I wouldn't be surprised if Maurice Clarett has a chance to attempt something like Droughns did last season.

Now that the sleeper picks are settled, it's time for the rankings by division. Remember that these are based on how well they will do with their team this year, not necessarily who is the most talented.

AFC East - Two Proven, Two Potentials
Two proven must mean Dillon and Martin. Two potentials must mean McGahee and Brown. Let's see what order they rank amongst each other:

1. Corey Dillon - New England Patriots - Hardly anyone could stop Dillon from getting just about 100 yards day in and day out last year. He did a great job in his first year away from the Bengals, and should only get more comfortable with the Patriots.

2. Willis McGahee - Buffalo Bills - With J.P. Losman at quarterback, I think they'd like to give McGahee the ball more than they would pass. This will be McGahee's first full season as the teams starting running back, since Travis Henry was the starter at the beginning of last season.

3. Curtis Martin - New York Jets - It's so tough to rank Curtis Martin in the number three spot, because he is still definitely one of the best running backs in the NFL. With that said, I believe Dillon and McGahee will slightly edge out Martin, since I think Pennington will use the passing game more effectively this season.

4. Ronnie Brown - Miami Dolphins - Brown has a long ways to go before he'll pass these three men up. None of the Miami running back performed well last season, so Brown could be in for a long season. Unless of course, Ricky Williams does indeed return.

5. Kevin Faulk - New England Patriots - When Dillon needs a breather, Faulk always steps in and is able to fill his role. Faulk has been established with the Patriots for a few years now.

6. Derrick Blaylock - New York Jets - The Chiefs had a lot of success with Blaylock. The Jets had a lot of success with LaMont Jordan. Now than Jordan is gone, Blaylock will be able to fill his shoes.

The Rest(in order): Lamar Gordon, Shaud Williams, Chad Morton, Travis Minor, Sammy Morris


AFC North - Powerhouses
When you have guys the size of Jerome Bettis and Jamal Lewis, you think of power right away.

1. Rudi Johnson - Cincinnati Bengals - Johnson is ready to take over the division. Two years ago, he came through when Dillon went down. Last year, he proved that he can be an every-week starter for the Bengals, and has shown that he can have those games where he piles up nearly 200 yards.

2. Jamal Lewis - Baltimore Ravens - Before last season started, I predicted that Lewis wouldn't even come close to what he did the year before, and I was right. I think he'll do better than he did last season, but with the Ravens trying to work in a passing attack now, Lewis may lose some opportunities.

3. Duce Staley - Pittsburgh Steelers - Even with an injury last season, Duce was a pleasant surprise for the Steelers. He and Bettis reminded everyone of the good days when the Steelers were a smash mouth, pound the football team. Duce should have over 1,000 yards this season if he's healthy, but Bettis will take away some of his touchdowns once again.

4. Lee Suggs - Cleveland Browns - Although it's not confirmed if Suggs will be the starter, he should be. He finished last season with three straight 100-yard rushing games behind a depleted Browns line. Even though he's had injury troubles in the past, he needs the chance to be named the official starter Also, the Browns may be trying a committee with the position.

5. Reuben Droughns - Cleveland Browns - Even if Droughns was the starter, he wouldn't have as good of a year that he did in Denver in all likelihood. Everyone saw what happened to Clinton Portis his first year away from Denver. Droughns should see plenty of opportunities when Suggs needs a rest though, and could even be in the game at the same time as Suggs.

6. Chester Taylor - Baltimore Ravens - The Browns wanted Taylor in the offseason, but the Ravens kept him for a reason. They know that Lewis' body needs breaks, and Taylor has proven to be the perfect guy to make sure defenses recognize he's there.

7. Jerome Bettis - Pittsburgh Steelers - Granted, Bettis had a fantastic season last year. I don't see him getting nearly the same amount of opportunities this year if Staley remains healthy. I think he'll go back to the "3rd or 4th and inches" guy, or the man to find near the goal line.

8. William Green - Cleveland Browns - He went from a starter, to almost being cut this offseason, and now to the third man on the Browns. It's not certain how the team will use Green, but they could try and bring him in when they want to pound the ball. It's always good to have depth if someone else goes down.

The rest(in order): Chris Perry, Musa Smith, Verron Haynes, Kenny Watson


AFC South - All About James
Without a doubt, you should know who is number one in this division.

1. Edgerrin James - Indianapolis Colts - When you consider the unbelievable season Peyton Manning had last year, it may be even more impressive that he still gained about 1,600 yards and ten touchdowns last year. The Colts need to make sure they lock up James long term.

2. Fred Taylor - Jacksonville Jaguars - I hesitant making Taylor second, but hopefully the Jaguars offense gets it going this year. Taylor only had two touchdowns last year, which needs to pick up big time this season.

3. Dominick Davis - Houston Texans - I expected Davis to have a much better season last year, but he didn't. If he remains healthy, he shouldn't have a whole lot of competition, so we'll see how he does in his third season with significant playing time.

4. Chris Brown - Tennessee Titans - "When you look at the stat sheet, you'll see '2, 2, 3, 1, and then 50! And then you'll see 3, 2, 2, and 30!" I remember John Madden saying something like that on Monday Night Football last year, and it has stuck in my head about Brown. He has some nice big runs, but needs work on his regular runs. It won't help that the Titans offensive line didn't get any better this season though.

5. Dominic Rhodes - Indianapolis Colts - Everyone knows that Peyton Manning will use any weapon that he has. That means that any time Rhodes steps on that field, Manning could easily hand it off to him, throw to him for a touchdown, or just plain out ignore him. I'd take my chances and say Manning find him a good amount of times as a backup.

6. Jonathan Wells - Houston Texans - Wells may see expanded playing time this season, not as a running back, but as a fullback. Wells may become more involved in the offense if the plan is a success. If not, he'll still be an ok backup to Dominick Davis.

7. LaBrandon Toefield - Jacksonville Jaguars - If Taylor is injury free, there's no reason why he needs to leave the game often. When he does though, Toefield will be waiting for his chance.

The Rest(in order): James Mungro, Damien Nash


AFC West - Two of the Best
Priest Holmes and LaDanien Tomlinson have dominated this division the past few years. Both men are very important to their teams and can be considered two of the leagues top running backs. Who is more important?

1. Priest Holmes - Kansas City Chiefs - He still has my vote for the best running back in the NFL. He missed a lot of games last season and still had 14 touchdowns to show for it. Holmes is an excellent receiver coming out of the backfield as well, something Trent Green missed having near the end of last season.

2. LaDanian Tomlinson - San Diego Chargers - If Tomlinson was in any other division in the NFL, he would be the number one guy. He is young, runs like a mad man, catches everything thrown to him, and makes defenses pay. If the Chargers didn't have Tomlinson last year, I think Phillip Rivers would be the starting quarterback this season, because Brees would not have had the same type of season without him.

3. LaMont Jordan - Oakland Raiders - It's time to finally see what Jordan can bring to the table as a starter. With the Raiders deep threats in the passing game, Jordan should have a lot of big runs and opportunities on screen passes. Jordan should be one of the best running backs the Raiders have had lately.

4. Larry Johnson - Kansas City Chiefs - I loved what I saw from Johnson last year, and I don't see the Chiefs letting him sit on the bench. With Derrick Blaylock gone, it provides more opportunities for Johnson as a backup. When the time comes that Kansas City is blowing out a team by thirty points, Johnson will come on to make sure Holmes is injury free.

5. Tatum Bell/Mike Anderson/Maurice Clarett/Quentin Griffin/Ron Dayne/Garrison Hearst - Denver Broncos - Just about anybody has success behind Denver's line, and Tatum Bell gets the chance at the moment. I have a feeling just about any one of these guys could take over at any time though, so I'll just list them all at the number five spot. Take note that this doesn't mean that every one of these backs will produce better than the guys below.

6. Justin Fargus - Oakland Raiders - Jordan isn't used to being an every day back, so he may need some breaks here and there. Fargus can gain some decent yardage.

7. Jesse Chatman - Chatman didn't do too bad when Tomlinson wasn't in the game last season. He proved to be a good backup, but nothing more on the Chargers at least.

The Rest(in order): Zack Crockett, Tony Hollins, Michael Turner

That's it for the AFC. There were some tough moves to make, like ranking Curtis Martin third in his division and Tomlinson second in his. Denver's whole group ranked at five may get some complaints, but it's simply too hard to tell who will do what out of that group. My guess is that Clarett and Bell shine the most. Now it's on to the NFC, where there are plenty of good running backs to choose from.


NFC East - A Very Different Division
On what team you've got a guy who's versatile, on another team you've got a great back who fumbles, on another team you've got a star who struggled, and on another team you've got a young guy with potential.

1. Tiki Barber - New York Giants - OK, Barber actually did do well handling the football last season, only losing two. I don't think he'll ever be able to get rid of that stereotype towards him though. Barber can be used in any situation, he's a great runner and receiver. He had 1,500+ yards rushing and 500+ yards receiving for a combined 15 touchdowns. Eli will love having him for years to come.

2. Clinton Portis - Washington Redskins - Yes, Portis did "struggle" in Washington last year compared to when he was with the Broncos. With that said, he still gained over 1,300 yards with over 200 receiving. His amount of touchdowns is what bothered people, with him only having five. I think he'll have more success in his second year as a Redskin.

3. Brian Westbrook - Philadelphia Eagles - With the return of Correll Buckhalter, Westbrook will get some more off plays. The Eagles will still use him as a waterbug who goes in motion to create mismatches for defenses. I wouldn't be surprised if he had more yards receiving than he does rushing this year.

4. Julius Jones - Dallas Cowboys - Jones showed a lot of potential as a rookie last year, but there's no way you can rank him above Portis or Barber at this point. He's close to Westbrook, but Westbrook's versatility gives him the edge. Jones will have a better quarterback to guide him this year, and hopefully he doesn't sustain another injury.

5. Anthony Thomas - Dallas Cowboys - The A-Train has stopped in Dallas after seeing action in Chicago the past four years. With Jones being young, the Cowboys shouldn't be afraid to let the more experienced Thomas get some playing time. He didn't do too bad as a Bear after all, but he needs to get his yards per carry up.

6. Correll Buckhalter - Philadelphia Eagles - After missing nearly the whole season last year, the Eagles will be able to get back to a version of their old "three-headed monster" attack.

7. Ladell Betts - Washington Redskins - Betts got a chance to start the last game of the season last year and rushed for over 100 yards. Not too bad for Betts, even if they don't give him a ton of time behind Portis.

7. Michael Cloud - New York Giants - Did you know Cloud has a combined ten touchdowns over the past three seasons? He hasn't had a lot of opportunities, but he's now the backup to Tiki Barber after the departure of Ron Dayne.

The Rest(in order): Reno Mahe, Marion Barber, Rock Cartwright


NFC North - Inconsistency Central + Depth
Last year, none of the running backs in this division really stood out, but several of the teams have an enormous amount of depth. They'll be looking to change that this season, starting with...

1. Ahman Green - Green Bay Packers - Green had a dramatic decline in production last year. He went from having 1,883 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns in 2003, to only 1,163 yards and five touchdowns in 2004. That doesn't even include his decline in receiving. Green has the potential, but he needs to step his game up if the Packers want to contend.

2. Michael Bennett - Minnesota Vikings - With Randy Moss gone and Onterrio Smith done for the year, the Vikings need more help on the ground. Bennett should be healthy finally, and will have the chance to shine. Mewelde Moore could still pose a threat to his playing time however.

3. Kevin Jones - Detroit Lions - Even though Jones had a good season last year, I think the Lions are more prone to pass to one of their three number one draft picks. That is, if Harrington can get the ball to them.

4. Cedric Benson - Chicago Bears - On a team that struggles offensively, I think it'll be a very tough season for Benson. He'll have to grind it out and hope for the best.

5. Thomas Jones - Chicago Bears - Jones didn't do too bad last year, but he will definitly lose playing time with Benson as the likely future. Still, Jones will get more time than any of the other backups since the Bears know he's capable of being a starter.

6. Najeh Davenport - Green Bay Packers - Davenport will always see his fair share of carries per game, whether Ahman Green is injured or not. He has averaged about 400 yards rushing per year over the past two years, and will probably have the same type of season.

7. Tony Fisher - Green Bay Packers - The Packers use their running backs in their suited roles. Fisher is the man who catches the football when he's in the game.

8. Moe Williams - Minnesota Vikings - The Vikings have tended to give Williams the ball when they are about to score a touchdown, so he could get some goal line carries.

9. Mewelde Moore - Minnesota Vikings - You never know if Michael Bennett will actually come through, so Moore would likely take Bennett's place if something happens.

10. Shawn Bryson - Detroit Lions - While I expect Kevin Jones to see more playing time, Bryson was always a threat in receiving the ball out of the backfield.

The Rest(in order): Artose Pinner, Jamel White, Adrian Peterson


NFC South - Deuce's Wild
Maybe the real question is, should we consider Michael Vick a running back instead of a quarterback? In this case, we'll assume he's a runner.

1. Deuce McAllister - New Orleans Saints - Although he missed two games to injury, I was disappointed in Deuce's performance last year. He's yards per carry dropped from 4.7 to 4.0, but I will forgive him due to his sore ankle. He really kicked it up a notch at the end of last season, so hopefully he'll go back to his old form where he seems to rush for 100 yards per game.

2. Warrick Dunn - Atlanta Falcons - Despite the fact that he splits time at the position, he will still put up over 1,000 yards and lead a vicious running attack.

3. Michael Vick - Atlanta Falcons - Two years removed from injury, I think Vick will be more willing to run than he did last year(even though he had his best rushing stats last year yardage-wise). And yes, sadly, he'll probably put up better stats than the rest of the running backs below in the division.

4. T.J Duckett - Atlanta Falcons - Three straight Atlanta Falcons? That's a first in these rankings. More impressively for Atlanta, I didn't even pick a Carolina or Tampa Bay running back yet. We all know what Duckett does well, pound the football on teams. He's hard to stop near the goal line as well.

5. Carnell Williams - Tampa Bay Buccaneers - There's a very good chance that Williams will break the 1,000 yard mark, but the Buccaneers have yet to have anyone do that for the past three seasons. I'll need to get a better look at how the rookie does once the season starts.

6. Stephan Davis - Carolina Panthers - While I think Davis has a heck of a lot of talent, his injury battles last year plus the fact that several other people will be competing for playing time may make it difficult for Davis to reach the 1,000 yard mark. He's not even confirmed to be the starter yet, but I'd take him over everyone else on the Panthers.

7. DeShaun Foster - Carolina Panthers - I could almost repeat the same thing that I said about Davis, but instead I'd keep Foster as the backup. I'd like to see the same formula as two years ago, where Foster came in and got a lot of carries on certain drives.

8. Nick Goings - Carolina Panthers - When the Panthers needed someone last year, Goings stepped up. He didn't run for a high average, but he was pretty impressive for a converted fullback.

9. Michael Pittman - Tampa Bay Buccaneers - He has experience with the Buccaneers and will get some carries if the young Williams needs a break.

10. Aaron Stecker - New Orleans Saints - He will have Antowain Smith breathing down his neck pretty close to him this year.

11. Charlie Garner - Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Garner, like Pittman, will be fighting for playing time. He wasn't too bad when he was with Oakland.

12. Antowain Smith - New Orleans Saints - Just two years ago, he was the feature back for the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots.

12. Rod Smart - Carolina Panthers - He really belongs in "The Rest" section below, but he's only here because of his cool XFL nickname. He Hate Me.

The Rest(in order): Eric Shelton, Jason Wright


NFC West - Give Him The Damn Ball?
One thing I remember last season regarding running backs is the NFC West is when Shaun Alexander was quote "screwed" by his coach for not getting to run the ball in from the one yard line, preventing him from gaining the rushing title.

1. Shaun Alexander - Seattle Seahawks - He's one of the best backs in the NFC, very close to Tiki Barber. Alexander has been a consistent runner for the Seahawks the past few years. I'm sure Hasselbeck just wishes his receivers were more consistent in catching the football.

2. Steven Jackson - St. Louis Rams I hesitate making this move since Mike Martz tends to go pass crazy one second, and then leaves Marshall Faulk in for a couple of series. Jackson needs the opportunity to get more touches in a game, which I believe may happen this year.

3. J.J. Arrington - Arizona Cardinals - The rookie may not be known as well since he was taken in the second round, but I've heard some good things about him. He has a good quarterback in front of him to start off, and the competition behind him is nothing too special.

4. Kevin Barlow - San Francisco 49'ers - Barlow played on the worst team in football last year, but I expected better things from him without Hearst getting the carries. I think he'll have a better season than last year, but not by much.

5. Marshall Faulk - St. Louis Rams - Any time he enters the game, I am expecting him to return to his prime when he was an amazing person to watch. Unfortunately, it's just not been happening for Faulk anymore. Maybe he'll breakout again, who knows.

6. Marcel Shipp - Arizona Cardinals - I was excited about Shipp coming into last season after what he did two years ago, but he didn't impress too many people last year. That would be why they went out and got Arrington.

7. Mike Alstott - Tampa Bay Buccaneers - I know he's a fullback, but he runs good enough(and often enough) to basically be considered the teams backup.

8. Troy Hambrick - Arizona Cardinals - He won't be seeing a lot of playing time unless someone gets injured. He's a good veteran back to have for insurance.

9. Maurice Morris - Seattle Seahawks - I doubt Alexander's holdout will continue. If he does, Morris is the only other guy they have to step in and produce.

10. Maurice Hicks - San Francisco 49'ers - He has some experience from last season when Barlow went down. He wasn't the greatest, but he served his purpose.

The Rest(in order): Frank Gore, Arlen Harris, Terry Jackson, Kerry Carter


AFC East - Did I Miss Something? Could it be?
Note that these two men aren't in an order based on performance, they are merely listed here because they may compete somewhere in the NFL, possibly the AFC East.

1. Travis Henry - Buffalo Bills? - Henry really doesn't want to be back with the Bills. Are there any takers for him yet? I don't think Arizona wants him anymore.

2. Ricky Williams - Miami Dolphins - There's a very good chance that he'll return to the Dolphins, but it will bring up a lot of questions if he does. How will his teammates or fans accept him? More importantly, how well would he produce? No one wants to see him struggle, just to take carries away from the rookie Ronnie Brown.

That's it for the NFL running backs. Quarterbacks and running backs are done, with wide receiver and tight end rankings yet to come. With all of the backups competing for spots, I'm sure I missed someone deserving of a higher rank. What's important though is the primary starters. Until next time...

-Chris Pokorny
pokorny@pfcritics.com


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