While the workhorse running back has become more of a scarcity in the NFL, the importance of a solid ground game has not changed much in the modern era.
Teams with a sound running game still find quite a bit of success, and leading the charge in that is the RBBC; the bane of fantasy football, but a boon for NFL teams as a whole.
In today’s NFL, you have to have at least two good starting caliber RBs to compete; so who are the haves and have nots? Let’s take a look.
1. Houston Texans
a. Arian Foster
b. Ben Tate
Outside of the fluky option offense run by the Broncos last year to take advantage of Tim Tebow’s unique skill set, the Texans had the #1 rushing attack in the NFL, bar none. Arian Foster and Ben Tate each had over 1,000 total yards and combined for 16 TDs. If Foster went down, the Texans wouldn’t miss much of a step going to Tate full time.
2. Chicago Bears
a. Matt Forte
b. Michael Bush
Matt Forte had over 1,400 total yards and 4 TDs before missing the last couple of games of the season with a knee injury. Michael Bush had almost 1,400 yards and 8 TDs subbing for the injured Darren McFadden for the Oakland Raiders. These two together should continue their prolific rushing ways, especially with Mad Mike Martz not calling the shots anymore.
3. Dallas Cowboys
a. DeMarco Murray
b. Felix Jones
This one is bound to cause a stir. Murray is an electric up-and-coming RB with the ability to be an every-down back, but still has to shake the reputation of being injury prone. Jones is known for being mercurial and also highly injury prone… if these two can stay healthy, they will form arguably one of the most formidable RB duos in the league. Admittedly, a big “if”; but their talent is undeniable.
4. Philadelphia Eagles
a. Lesean McCoy
b. Dion Lewis
The Eagles are ranked this high primarily because of the ridiculousness that is Lesean McCoy; all 1,600 combined yards and 20 TDs of him. McCoy is arguably the all-around best young RB in the league with his blend of speed, vision, and receiving ability. He is one of the few one-man committees out there; Lewis is a decent backup, but the Eagles would have a huge fall off if McCoy were to get hurt.
5. Jacksonville Jaguars
a. Maurice Jones-Drew
b. Rashad Jennings
Another one-man committee, Jones-Drew was literally an army of one for the Jaguars last season, amassing nearly 2,000 yards of total offense for what was one of the worst attacks in the league. Jennings is back from injury this year and has proven to be a capable backup, as long as he stays healthy.
6. Buffalo Bills
a. Fred Jackson
b. C.J. Spiller
This one counts on a lot to maintain this high ranking; the return of a healthy Fred Jackson to the incredible pace (130 total yards per game) he set early in the season before succumbing to a leg injury after 10 games. C.J. Spiller picked up almost where Jackson left off, proving capable as an every-down back. If this tandem is in full effect, they’ll be one of the best in the AFC.
7. Minnesota Vikings
a. Adrian Peterson
b. Toby Gerhart
Even while recovering from an ACL tear, All Day is still one of the best running backs in the league. No doubt he’ll be ready either by the start of the regular season or very close to it; I certainly would not bet against AP being all the way back. Even if he’s not, Gerhart proved to be a capable fill-in, and will likely have a bigger role in a tandem to preserve AP’s health.
8. Tennessee Titans
a. Chris Johnson
b. Javon Ringer
Johnson had a down year in 2011 after his holdout and subsequent payday; this season, he is apparently more focused and ready to get back to his 2,000 total yard ways. No RB in the league is as much of a threat to take it to the house on any given play as CJ2K. Ringer has proven to be a reliable backup, even if he doesn’t carry near the same amount of electricity.
9. Baltimore Ravens
a. Ray Rice
b. Anthony Allen
If the Ravens had any kind of a reliable backup on the roster, they would have been ranked higher just on the strength of Ray Rice. #27 is one of the few bellcows left in the league (over 2,000 total yards, 15 TDs), and he can do it all; run, receive, and block. Whoever wins the competition as the No. 2 behind Rice will ultimately be a huge step down in terms of ability, which could serve to hamstring the Ravens’ offense should Rice get hurt.
10. Kansas City Chiefs
a. Jamaal Charles
b. Peyton Hillis
Another RB tandem that had its lead horse go down with an ACL tear, the Chiefs will be counting on a big bounce back from Charles in order to compete this season. If Charles can return to his speedy ways, Hillis should provide the perfect complement as the power back. It wasn’t long ago that Hillis was a force of his own, and both have the capability of being 1,000-yard backs.
11. San Francisco 49ers
a. Frank Gore
b. Kendall Hunter
Gore might be approaching the backside of his career, but he can still get the job done (1,300 total yards, 8 TDs). Kendall Hunter has the look of a capable runner, albeit a bit uninspiring. Apparently this year Gore will be sharing even more with Hunter and newcomer LaMichael James; if this team continues to hold true to their running game roots, they collectively have a chance to be one of the best rushing attacks in the league once again.
12. Carolina Panthers
a. DeAngelo Williams
b. Jonathan Stewart
This tandem is arguably one of the top 3 most talented RB pairs in the league; too bad their stats didn’t show it last season with Cam Newton around calling his own running shots around the goal line (2,000 total yards, 12 TDs combined for both). The Panthers promise more balance this year and more of a return to the type of offense that made Williams and Stewart 1,000-yard rushers in 2009; if that happens, this tandem will vault into the top 10.
13. Atlanta Falcons
a. Michael Turner
b. Jacquizz Rodgers
Turner had a bit of a renaissance year in 2011, going for over 1,500 total yards and 11 TDs for his arguably 2nd
best season in a Falcons uniform. Part of the reason for his resurgence: ceding some of his carries to the lightning rod that is the Quizz. Rodgers will likely take an even bigger piece of the pie this season, as the Falcons try to keep the now 30-year-old Turner fresh for their late-season push.
14. New Orleans Saints
a. Darren Sproles
b. Mark Ingram
Sproles had his best career season by far as both a runner and receiver threat out of the backfield, amassing over 1,300 total yards and 9 TDs to go along with a ridiculous 6.9 yard per carry average. Ingram had a rookie season marred by injury, but if he can stay healthy in 2012, he and Sproles should form the NFCs South’s best version of Lightning and Thunder.
15. San Diego Chargers
a. Ryan Mathews
b. Ronnie Brown
No Mike Tolbert, no problems for Ryan Mathews and new backfield mate, Ronnie Brown. Mathews had a career year last season (1,500 total yards, 6 TDs), finally making good on the promise that made him a first-round pick in 2010. Brown comes in having lost a couple of steps from his heyday in Miami, but he is still a serviceable backup that should be able to spell Mathews for stretches at a time.
16. Oakland Raiders
a. Darren McFadden
b. Mike Goodson
If the supremely talented McFadden could just stay healthy, the Raiders would be much higher on this list just based on his talent alone (almost 800 total yards and 5 TDs in just 7 games). As it is, they lost the ever reliable Michael Bush to free agency, leaving a lot of uncertainty in the Raiders backfield in his wake.
At this time, it appears Goodson has the inside track on being McFadden’s backup, and with Run DMCs propensity for getting hurt, Goodson better be on the top of his game and show more than he did in Carolina.
17. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
a. Doug Martin
b. LeGarrette Blount
While it’s no given that Martin will win the starting RB gig over incumbent Blount, Martin’s all-around skills and Blount’s lack of those same skills lends me to believe it’s only a matter of time before Martin becomes the NFC South’s version of Matt Forte.
That said, he’ll still cede quite a few carries to Blount, who has proven he is capable of being a 1,000-yard back.
18. Seattle Seahawks
a. Marshawn Lynch
b. Robert Turbin
Lynch very well could be a surprise top 5 RB in the NFL this year; he ended up ranked 7th
in 2011 with over 1,400 total yards and 13 TDs to his name. This after the first few games of the year was a disaster for the Seahawks' offensive line. With an entire offseason this time around, look for Lynch to pick up where he left off; red hot in 2012. Without a solid veteran backup, however, the ‘Hawks could be in trouble should Lynch get hurt.
Rookie Robert Turbin will be the backup, and the Seahawks have to hope his promise ends up trumping his extensive collegiate injury history.
19. Miami Dolphins
a. Reggie Bush
b. Daniel Thomas
Reggie Bush ended up staying mostly healthy in his first season in South Beach, posting his first 1,000-yard rushing season of his career. Thomas came in as a highly-touted rookie that many thought would end up taking the lion’s share of carries; but that never materialized due to Thomas having injury issues of his own. Thomas is back and reportedly healthy; if he stays that way, look for this to be more an even 50-50 split in carries.
20. Cleveland Browns
a. Trent Richardson
b. Montario Hardesty
This is one of the few situations where a rookie will be expected to shoulder the load right from the start of his first season. Richardson is far and away the best back of the 2012 class; that said he’s still a rookie, still plays against some of the finest defenses in the league, and is on a team with a moribund passing attack. Richardson might get ground down into the turf this year, so the oft-injured Hardesty will probably be important to the Browns at some point during the season.
21. Detroit Lions
a. Jahvid Best
b. Mikel Leshoure
Based on talent alone, this tandem should be a top 10 pairing; I don’t think anyone would argue against that. However, talent isn’t everything; Best has had some scary concussion issues in his short career, while Leshoure has had his own injury issues and run-ins with the law.
If these two can stay healthy and out of trouble, they should be able to post 2,000 combined yards in this offense; if not, the Lions could be in for a long season of Stafford trying to sling his way to victory.
22. St. Louis Rams
a. Steven Jackson
b. Isaiah Pead
Because of Jackson’s immense talent, the Rams' running game was still viable in 2011 (almost 1,500 total yards, 6 TDs), even when the Rams' season crumbled around him (2-14 record).
Jackson will be 29 before the 2012 season starts, and he already has a ton of mileage on him (no less than 275 touches since 2005), so a breakdown is a worry. More of a worry is that the Rams don’t have a reliable backup, as rookie Isaiah Pead will be expected to be the primary backup and complementary back. If Jackson gets hurt, the Rams’ rebuilding effort will likely be derailed.
23. Washington Redskins
a. Roy Helu
b. Evan Royster
Once Tim Hightower went down with an ACL tear early in the year and Ryan Torain proved to not be reliable, Helu finally got his shot as the starter and never looked back. Helu rolled up four games of over 130 total yards in the last seven full games he played, showing off a talent both for being the one-cut runner that excels in Mike Shanahan’s offense, but also as a reliable receiver out of the backfield.
Helu should get first crack at remaining the starter, and backup Evan Royster also showed to be capable in the last game of the season when Helu went down with an injury.
24. Arizona Cardinals
a. Beanie Wells
b. Ryan Williams
Wells finally made good on the first-round investment the Cardinals made on him in 2009, collecting his first 1,000-yard season (1,047 rushing yards) in 2011. So why isn’t this tandem ranked higher? Injuries, of course.
Wells hasn’t been healthy for seemingly his entire NFL career, and last year he dealt with another nagging knee injury. Williams spent the entire season on IR after a torn patella tendon ended his season during the truncated training camp. If these two can somehow stay healthy, they could be formidable; but that’s a huge uncertainty.
25. New York Giants
a. Ahmad Bradshaw
b. David Wilson
Bradshaw finally proved detractors right last season who said he couldn’t stay healthy enough to be the feature back, as he ended up breaking down during the second half of the 2011 season (12 games, almost 1,000 total yards, 11 TDs). Once again, the issue was with his feet, which have seemingly been an issue since early on in his career.
Former Virginia Tech sparkplug David Wilson will provide good insurance in the event that Bradshaw breaks down again.
26. New York Jets
a. Shonn Greene
b. Joe McKnight
With as good of an offensive line as the Jets have, you would think they would have to rate at least a little higher. The problem is, Shonn Greene just plain isn’t very good. Greene did end up with his first 1,000-yard season (1,054 rush yards, 6 TDs), but he plodded his way there with only two 100-yard rushing games in 16 starts.
Behind this line, Greene should have been able to garner a lot more. With LaDainian Tomlinson gone, the Jets will rely on Joe McKnight as the primary backup; McKnight is talented, but doesn’t have the build to be the every-down back the Jets would need should they lose Greene for an extended period of time.
27. Denver Broncos
a. Willis McGahee
b. Knowshon Moreno
Willis McGahee went through a renaissance of sorts during 2011, rolling up his best statistical season since 2007 with Baltimore (over 1,200 total yards, 5 TDs). This was mostly a result of the Broncos going super run-heavy to shield Tim Tebow from actually playing an NFL quarterback.
McGahee will be 31 early in the 2012 season, and will presumably be in an offense more suited to new QB Peyton Manning’s skill sets; which means more passing and less running. This will probably suit backup Knowshon Moreno just fine, as he’s recovering from a torn ACL and hasn’t proven to be a very good NFL runner anyhow.
28. Pittsburgh Steelers
a. Isaac Redman
b. Rashard Mendenhall
I have to admit that it is almost blasphemy to see the Steelers down this far on a rushing tandem list, but with regular starter Rashard Mendenhall’s (1,000 total yards, 9 TDs) late season ACL tear in 2011, and the fact that the Steelers haven’t done anything to shore up the position for the upcoming season does set off some alarm bells.
Redman has been a capable backup, but will he really be a great answer while Mendenhall possibly sits on the PUP list for the first six weeks of the 2012 season? Either way, Redman or a hobbled Mendenhall don’t inspire a lot of confidence in the Steelers ground game.
29. New England Patriots
a. Stevan Ridley
b. Shane Vereen
Presumably the Patriots feel comfortable enough with second-year backs Vereen and Ridley to have let BenJarvus Green-Ellis walk in free agency. While neither back was given a real chance to put up big stats in 2011, one of the two will likely emerge over the other to grab the lion’s share of carries in the Patriots' backfield.
The problem is, with the pie split so many ways (and not really an impressive pie to boot, with the Patriots only ranking 20th
in rush offense in 2011), neither is likely to be a 1,000-yard RB.
30. Cincinnati Bengals
a. BenJarvus Green-Ellis
b. Bernard Scott
So it looks like the Bengals found their Cedric Benson replacement in Green-Ellis (over 800 total yards, 11 TDs), who is actually very Benson-esque in running style. Green-Ellis will likely get a real shot at only his second 1,000-yard rushing season, as the Bengals will use him to hammer away at the stout defenses in their own division.
The problem here is the lack of another RB that even matches Green-Ellis’ limited upside, as the Bengals will once again rely on the ever disappointing Bernard Scott to be the backup and complementary back.
31. Indianapolis Colts
a. Donald Brown
b. Delone Carter
Brown will finally have a real shot at being the feature back for the Colts with Joseph Addai finally sent packing. The problem is Brown was never able to wrestle the starting gig from Addai, who never appeared to have the talent Brown has.
Fortunately, Brown showed signs of life last year, rolling up a career best 161 rushing yards against the Titans in Week 15. Delone Carter will likely serve as the backup, but he doesn’t inspire a lot of excitement at the position with his plodding running style.
32. Green Bay Packers
a. James Starks
b. Alex Green
While the Packers are explosively exciting on offense every year with the Aaron Rodgers aerial circus going off every week, the running game does not inspire much excitement at all. Ryan Grant was not re-signed by the team, and they seem content to move forward with James Starks getting the opportunity to be the every-down back.
The problem is, they wanted Starks to take the job in 2011, and he wasn’t able to beat Grant; not to mention he ended up getting hurt and dealing with nagging injuries all year. To make matters worse, the Packers will be going with Alex Green as the primary backup, who didn’t show a whole lot during the season and ended up on IR with a torn ACL.