NFL 2012: Running Back Power Rankings

By Jason Stolberg
June 13, 2012 12:24 pm
1,827 Views 23 Comments
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.


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Previous Comments (23)

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3 years ago
Rashad Jennings could be the Ben Tate of 2012 - a running back poised to break out the year earlier only to be prematurely injured for the season, but the upcoming under-the-radar production will match those previous expectations.

Also, expect Greene and McKnight to climb this list if/when Tebow takes over. Nice work.
3 years ago

Thanks Mike! I was big on the Jennings bandwagon last year, so it was a disappointment how it turned out. But I do think he's talented, and he'll be a guy I will be looking to take a flyer on in my league in case Jones-Drew finally breaks down from use.

And yes, if Tebow takes over, Greene will be a better version of 2011 McGahee in terms of production.
3 years ago
I see what you are saying with Wells and Williams in AZ, but would have them a little bit higher. KC also one or two spots higher as well. Other than that, great article.
3 years ago

Thanks Cooper! I struggled with AZ, actually... I like their talent level, but Williams is an unknown due to the effects of his patella injury last year, and Wells is constantly playing hurt. If I felt good about their health, I would have put them in the top 20 for sure. I also thought about KC higher, but need to wait and see what Charles is like... I'm a big Charles fan, so I'm crossing my fingers he's all the way back.
3 years ago

No problem. Not a KC fan, but I would love to see Charles bounce back. Took him late first-round last year in fantasy football and it didn't turn out so well.
3 years ago

I'm with you there... I had Charles in two keeper leagues last year, so yeah, really hoping to see the guy return to form.
3 years ago
I would bump KC up a few spots but thats just me. Charles did get hurt but how many teams can say they have two pro bowl RB's.
3 years ago

Thanks for the comment, Keith! KC was one that I flip-flopped on a few times before putting them in at 10. Because of the injuries I wasn't confident in putting them in above CJ2K or Ray Rice, even though neither has a great backup RB. I can see them moving up though, as we get to be sure Charles is all the way back and Hillis proves that last year won't be norm in terms of on and off the field issues.
3 years ago
Nice article, Jason. I agree with most of your rankings. The only big difference I'd have is that I'd put DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart easily into the top 10. Either of those guys are solid starters. In fact, I'd probably swap them with Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart (at #7)-- I've never been high on Gerhart and who knows what'll happen there with the AP injury situation. Fun read!
3 years ago

Thanks Jeff! I'm a fan of Williams and Stewart, just not a fan of their production with Newton calling his own number so much. However, talent-wise I agree... they could even be close to the top 5. Not long ago they were considered the best tandem around, after all.
3 years ago
I hate the 49ers but I think you gotta move them up, and isnt Brandon Jacobs the backup?
3 years ago

I'm not even sure Jacobs will end up making the final roster, to be honest... unless they're planning on carring 4 RBs. Both Hunter and James are younger with better upside. At this point, Hunter should remain as the primary backup (similar skill set to Gore), while James will act as the 3rd down back/CoP. I'm not sure exactly where Jacobs will fit in, other than to provide depth and maybe as the short yardage specialist. We'll have to see how the preseason shakes out, but it wouldn't surprise me if Jacobs gets cut.
3 years ago

Kendall Hunter is listed as 5'7, 199 lbs. Jacobs comes in at 6'4, 264...
And I'd take Hunter over Jacobs any day.
3 years ago
The Saints have FOUR (4) quality RBs: Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, Darren Sproles & Mark Ingram and you rank them 16th?

3 years ago

Correction: 14th!!
3 years ago

Thanks for the comment, John! I do love the Saints RBs, specifically Sproles (had Sproles on my main local fantasy team). The reason I ranked them lower is that Sproles is the main threat, but there probably won't ever be a 1000 yard back amongst them, and any two of them (since this is a tandem article) aren't necessarily any better than the 13 tandems listed above them. Looking at it, I might switch them with the Atlanta tandem (ranked #13) since I had them very close, but that's probably it.

Where would you rank them?
3 years ago

Yes, I think I would rank the Saints ahead of the Falcons but it's a toss up. Otherwise, the only tandem I think might be ranked too high is San Fransisco. I would be tempted to move them down a few slots, certainly below the Panthers.
3 years ago

I could definitely see making both those moves, Justin! I do like Williams and Stewart, just not liking how much Newton eats into their production. But on the other hand, the Panthers have said they'll have more balance this year... but I'm taking the wait and see approach to that. The 49ers also might end up watered down with 3 backs (maybe 4) taking up carries, which end up reducing their tandem rank.
3 years ago

I think that's the case, the Panthers will spread the carries out. The question is, as has been for a few years, which back will get the goal line carries?
3 years ago
I do not like how high the Cowboys are ranked. They are a little iffy right now but I do see the potential.

Otherwise, kudos.
3 years ago

Thanks Erik! I figured the Cowboys ranking would be controversial to say the least... Neither Murray nor Jones have proven that they can remain healthy at this point. Their potential and talent are undeniable though; Murray has what it takes to be a regular 1200-1400 yard back, while Jones could be a great change of pace that rolls up around 800-1000 total yards if used correctly. We'll see though, I wasn't entirely comfortable with this ranking, but felt they really could get up there if both stay healthy.
David Wilson may substantially move the G-Men to a lofty position on this list.
3 years ago

Thanks for the comment, Bob! I agree, David Wilson looks like he could be the real deal, and be a good complement for Bradshaw. If the Giants move away from their increasingly pass happy offense, those two could do some real damage.

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