The NFL’s Top Running Backs

Life is easier when you have a running back to grind out first downs and keep a defense honest. So who’s at the top of the class in 2011? As always, let’s review the candidates.

Editor’s Note: This is part three of the quest to determine the one player, at each position, I’d want over all the rest. Still to come: DL, DB, WR, and QB. Apologies to the offensive line, special teamers, and fullbacks. It’s not that I don’t appreciate you, it just wouldn’t be much fun to write about you. Sorry.

Remember, contract, age, fantasy value, and whether or not I despise the player will not influence my decision, nor will statistics and popularity. There’s no mathematic formula. It’s simply one humble man’s opinion. I’m picking the one player I want most on my team, regardless of what anyone else believes. If you feel inclined to share, do so.

Before we begin, let’s all admit the running back position isn’t nearly as important as it once was. Teams aren’t built around horses like Emmitt Smith and Marshall Faulk anymore. In fact, I can hardly remember the last team to win a Super Bowl with a marquee running back. Hold on, let me research…
…Had to go back to the 1999 Rams. (Although, you could count the 2000 Ravens depending on your feelings about Jamal Lewis.) Either way, it’s been over a decade since a Super Bowl champion relied heavily on a single running back. In 2010, the Green Bay Packers lost their starting running back, Ryan Grant, for the season in Week One. They went on to win the Super Bowl. And Chris Johnson wonders why he can’t get paid.

Here we go. In reverse order.

5. Ray Rice
Grittiest back in the NFL. Rice was already a tough kid coming out of Rutgers, but excelling in Baltimore has validated that toughness. While he’s undersized, he doesn’t run like it. Rice will blow you up if need be. That’s not why he’s on my list, though. I’m a big fan because he’s a talented receiver, a short yardage bull, has big play potential, and can single-handedly carry an offense. In other words, he’s Duce Staley 2.0.

4. Chris Johnson
I know, I know, you think I’m punishing him for holding out, but I’m not. I’m simply not in love with him like everyone else. Sure, Johnson is an amazing talent and a lot of fun to watch (maybe not so much in 2010), but he’s not an exceptional receiver, and 2010 proved he’s no Barry Sanders, either. Add the holdout to his resume and he’s slightly less attractive.
In case you haven’t heard, Johnson doesn’t just want to be the highest paid running back in the NFL. No sir. He wants to be one of the league’s highest paid players. Period. Johnson is clearly off his rocker. Running backs and receivers who over-value themselves are a ticking time bomb for a franchise. (By the way, if you employ the NFL’s highest paid RB, please know you overpaid. The position isn’t important enough to dish out that much cash.)
On the other hand, the Titans stink and have zero marketable players outside of Johnson and maybe rookie QB Jake Locker, so they’ll probably cave. Just know it won’t benefit them now or in the future. Even as Johnson was galloping his way through NFL defenses in 2009 and 2010, Tennessee still failed to win more than eight games and missed the playoffs both years. Running backs are certainly a part of the puzzle, just not the piece you build around. When Chris Johnson leads the Titans within sniffing distance of the playoffs, I’ll move him up my list.

3. Arian Foster
I am emotionally and financially tied to the success of Arian Foster. In my 2010 fantasy draft, I took Foster in round six. My belief in Foster paid off. I can now keep him for 2011 as a 5th round pick. Highway robbery… hopefully. Unfortunately, the surprise standout rarely puts on a comparable encore. This could be devastating for me.
Anyway, that’s the primary reason I don’t have Foster at two or even one on this list. I’m worried he’s a one-hit-wonder. What evidence is there to support that fear? In all honesty… none. Foster is as good as there is at finding and hitting the hole, a typical characteristic of all great running backs. Watch him run. There’s no wasted energy or flailing body parts. It appears effortless. On a related note, Foster is always at his best in the 4th quarter, punishing exhausted defenses and milking the clock. He’s quick. He’s tough. He’s fast. He’ll also contribute in the passing game (1st in the NFL in receiving yards among RBs, 2nd in receptions). Most importantly, Foster is fully invested in working his tail off to maintain this level of play (or so he says). He knows he was lucky to get an opportunity, and he appears way too smart and self-aware to take his success for granted. Did I just talk myself out of Arian Foster being a bust in 2011? You bet I did.

2. Jamaal Charles
Oh yeah! Jamaal Charles is the most electrifying and underused running back in the NFL. Congratulations, Todd Haley, you’re a dope. When your running back averaging 3.7 yards per carry has 15 more attempts than your running back averaging 6.4 yards per carry, there’s a problem with your offensive philosophy. Please don’t preach about goal line carries and keeping the slim Charles healthy (round of applause for the unintentional Wire reference!). You give your best players the ball if you want to win. Or, at the very least, give your best player the ball more than the lesser player behind him.
Let’s revisit that 6.4 yards per carry. To put in perspective how amazing that is, the next closest player with over 200 carries was LeSean McCoy… at 5.2 yards per carry. For you English majors, that’s over a yard more per carry. Charles carried the ball 230 times, so it’s not like the numbers are distorted by limited attempts. He did it all year, even in the playoffs against Baltimore’s vaunted defense.
Todd Haley, it’ll take a miracle for your Chiefs to make the postseason again this year. Miracles do happen, though. Especially when Jamaal Charles gets more than 17 touches per game.

1. Adrian Peterson
Remember earlier when I ranted about teams not building around running backs, etc, etc… Well, Adrian Peterson is the exception to that rule. Peterson was a Favre brain fart from carrying Minnesota to a Super Bowl in 2009. Last season, Peterson suffered at the hands of a dying Favre and the overall ineptitude of Minnesota’s offense. If Donovan McNabb can be slightly better than average, Peterson should be enough to get Minnesota back in contention for a playoff spot.
Ideally, I want my running back to be an exceptional receiver. While Peterson isn’t known for his receiving abilities, his strength and power make it easy to look past such shortcomings. Teams often throw to running backs to get them in the open field. Peterson runs over people to get into the open field. I think I could live with that. I’m certain I could live with a battering ram like Peterson punishing opposing defenses for four quarters.

Honorable Mention
Maurice Jones-Drew – Sorry, MJD. You should have been on the list. Your 2010 campaign was another glowing success. Unfortunately, your TDs were down and that made everyone think you underachieved. Fantasy football sucks like that. Anyway, I left you off my list because, well, you play for the Jaguars. (Sorry.)

LeSean McCoy – Originally, McCoy was on my list. Probably the best receiving back in the NFL, McCoy surprised as a natural runner as well. Unfortunately, that space between his right and left ear worries me. The latest evidence: Not squashing a harmless Twitter beef with new teammate Steve Smith. Anytime you want to graduate from the 7th grade, LeSean, we’d love to have you.

Darren McFadden ­– McFadden unanimously wins the “Never in a millions years did I expect to have you on this list,” award. Did McFadden really turn a corner, or was it a fluke? My money is on the former. Don’t be surprised if McFadden evolves into everything we thought Reggie Bush would be.


  1. younger brother

    Now I know you aren’t putting stats into it, but are you basing solely on the 2010 season? If not…McFadden? 1 season of +1,000 yards. Foster? 1 season of +1,000 yards. L’Shady? Barely 1,000 yards. Not trying to be a homer or anything, but not even honorable mention love (I wouldn’t put either in the top five) for The Double Trouble gang? They’ve had injuries, but Foster already has groin issues, McFadden is suspect as well, and L’Shady is simply lacking in maturity. Not even any love for Mr. Gore? And MJD should be on the list. I mean he’s already calling out folks for lowering him on fantasy rankings. You might be next.

  2. Ryan (Author)

    My picks are based solely on nothing.
    I pick who I want to pick.
    I mostly ignore stats.
    I kept DeAngelo Williams off Honorable Mention because it was 2AM and I got sleepy.
    Jonathan Stewart was left off because he vastly underachieved last season.
    McFadden because I think he’s the real deal. Hopefully, I’m right.
    McCoy because I’m a homer.
    Gore is overrated. Wouldn’t trade 25% of the starting RBs in the NFL for him.
    MJD should have been higher but I was unimpressed last year.
    As for Foster, how dare you.
    I’m out of breath.
    Next question please.

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