The Biggest Steals in NFL History: Running Backs
Running backs were once the focus of the best offensive teams in the NFL.
If you were going to win games, you needed a running back who was not only capable of making big plays and running for 100 yards in a game, but needed to be able to grind out first downs and punch the ball into the end zone in short-yardage situations.
While there is now a much greater emphasis on the pass, the running game is still vital. Coaches want running backs who can take pressure off the quarterback, and they also want to be able to control time of possession. It's very difficult to do that without a competent running game.
Many of the top running backs in the current game and throughout NFL history were steals who produced remarkable numbers even though they were not top draft picks or they followed a superstar.
Here's our look at the biggest steals at the running back position.
Drafted: Third round, 1979 draft (79th pick)
Team: Atlanta Falcons
Key Stat: Rushed for 1,567 yards and seven touchdowns while catching 59 passes for 609 yards and four touchdowns in 1983.
Overview: William Andrews appeared to be a role player for the Falcons when they drafted him out of Auburn, but he quickly showed that he was a dynamic runner with excellent pass-catching skills. Andrews ran for 1,000 yards or more in four of his first five seasons, and his remarkable 1983 performance showed that he was one of the best backs in the league.
Andrews excelled at running the ball between the tackles, was capable of running crisp pass patterns and could also punish defensive players with his stout blocking.
He was on a Hall of Fame arc until he suffered a devastating knee injury that kept him out of action in 1984 and '85. When he returned in '86, he was just a shell of the player he had been and he was forced to retire.
Drafted: Second round, 1977 draft (49th pick)
Teams: Cincinnati Bengals (1977-83); Miami Dolphins (1984); San Diego Chargers (1984)
Key Stat: Scored 12 touchdowns or more in four of his eight seasons.
Overview: Johnson made a name for himself as a powerful fullback at Ohio State, and he continued along that path with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Johnson was one of the best short-yardage backs of his generation because he could get low and generate surprising agility and shocking power when he ran between the tackles.
Johnson was more than just a power back. He ran for 1,077 yards in 1981, and he also caught 46 passes for 320 yards and four touchdowns that season. Johnson was a solid blocker when the Bengals asked him to man that role.
Johnson was often overlooked throughout his career, but he was the kind of versatile and effective player who coaches loved.
Drafted: Sixth round, 1995 draft (196th pick)
Team: Denver Broncos
Key Stat: Rushed for 2,008 yards and 21 touchdowns while averaging a league-high 5.1 yards per carry in 1998.
Overview: Terrell Davis had a magical impact for the Denver Broncos. Before they drafted him as a seeming afterthought in 1995, they did not have a legitimate running game to complement John Elway at quarterback.
But Davis became a lot more than a complementary back for the Broncos. He became a meal ticket and that gave Elway the opportunity to lead the Broncos to two consecutive Super Bowl championships following the 1997 and '98 seasons.
Davis rushed for 1,117 yards in his rookie year, and that was just a warm-up. He followed that with seasons of 1,538, 1,750 and 2,008 yards. Davis appeared primed to become one of the greatest running backs in recent memory, but injuries ruined his career. Right before the 2002 regular season, he was forced to retire.
Drafted: Seventh round, 1994 draft (201st pick)
Team: Atlanta Falcons
Key Stat: Carried the ball a league-high 410 times for 1,846 yards and 14 touchdowns in 1998.
Overview: Jamal Anderson looked like an ordinary draft pick when the Falcons used a seventh-round selection to bring him into the fold. He looked like a player who might make the team or the practice squad and could hang around for a couple of years before his career ended.
However, Anderson got stronger and learned how to pick his holes as he got some NFL experience. He reached his peak as a workhorse during the 1998 season. Anderson helped carry the Falcons on his back to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Denver Broncos.
Anderson suffered a serious knee injury in 1999, and he was never the same after. His career was over by the end of the 2001 season.
Drafted: Second round, 1988 draft (40th pick)
Teams: Buffalo Bills (1988-99), Miami Dolphins (2000)
Key Stat: Rushed for 1,407 yards and seven touchdowns and caught 62 passes for 631 yards and five touchdowns in 1991.
Overview: You could hear the laughter after the Buffalo Bills drafted Thurman Thomas in the second round. "Don't they know he has no cartilage in his knee? He won't last more than a year in the NFL."
That's what many general managers and scouts said, but Buffalo general manager Bill Polian knew what he was doing. He knew the medical reports, but he also knew that Thomas was a tremendous competitor who would leave it all on the field.
Instead of getting a year or two out of Thomas, the Bills got 12 years. He helped get them to the Super Bowl four times and Thomas earned a spot in the Hall of Fame in 2007.
Drafted: Fifth round, 1956 draft (58th pick)
Team: Chicago Bears
Key Stat: Carried 153 times for 707 yards and four touchdowns and caught 33 passes for 502 yards and three touchdowns in 1961.
Overview: Little was known about Willie Galimore when George Halas drafted him out of Florida A&M in 1956. However, the Chicago Bears got a highly skilled running back who was as dangerous as a receiver as he was a runner.
Galimore had speed and quickness, and he often made opposing tacklers miss with a quick juke move that allowed him to draw the defender one way and quickly cut in the opposite direction.
Galimore made the Pro Bowl in 1958 and he averaged an impressive 4.5 yards per carry throughout his career.
Tragically, he died in a car wreck before the 1964 season.
Drafted: Seventh round, 1958 draft (84th pick)
Team: Cleveland Browns (1958-61); Washington Redskins (1962-68)
Key Stat: Carried 111 times for 506 yards and five touchdowns and caught 45 passes for 612 yards and six touchdowns in 1960.
Overview: Mitchell started his career as a running back with the Browns and finished it as a flanker for the Washington Redskins.
Throughout his career, Mitchell was one of the most versatile players in the league. He was an excellent runner for the Browns, but they traded him for Ernie Davis, whom the Redskins had just drafted from Syracuse.
Davis would never play in the NFL after he was diagnosed with leukemia, but Mitchell became an integral part of the Redskins' offense.
He also became the first African-American player in franchise history as Washington owner George Preston Marshall became the last NFL owner to integrate his team.
Drafted: Third round, 2005 draft (65th pick)
Team: San Francisco 49ers
Key Stat: Rushed for 1,695 yards and eight touchdowns while averaging 5.4 yards per carry in 2006.
Overview: Frank Gore had been one of the most highly touted high school recruits when he entered Miami (Fla.), but his college career was torn apart by injuries.
While scouts respected Gore's effort and hard-running style, few thought he would last in the NFL because his knees were so beaten up.
While the scouts may have been dubious, Gore didn't care about their reports. He has done nothing but been a workhorse for the 49ers since he was drafted. Gore does not accept punishment merely because he runs with the ball; he dishes it out to opposing tacklers.
Gore excels at wearing out defenses by running between the tackles, but he can also make big yards once he gets to the second level.
Gore has broken the 1,000-yard mark in seven out of his last eight seasons and appears to be a future Hall of Famer.
Drafted: First round, 1986 draft (27th pick)
Team: Chicago Bears
Key Stat: Carried 274 times for 1,275 yards and 11 touchdowns and caught 50 passes for 434 yards and four touchdowns in 1989.
Overview: You may not think that Neal Anderson belongs on this list because he was a first-round draft choice. However, the Bears brought him into replace Walter Payton, perhaps the greatest all-around player in the history of the game.
How do you follow Payton? Anderson wrote the book on replacing one of the game's greatest superstars. While he could not match Payton in flair or pizazz, he had three straight seasons of 1,000 yards or more and he was always one of the Bears' most dependable receivers.
The transition from Payton to Anderson was nearly seamless, and that was due to this very underrated star.
Drafted: Eighth round, 1964 draft (110th pick)
Team: Cleveland Browns
Key Stat: Carried 248 times for 1,239 times and 16 touchdowns and caught 22 passes for 297 yards and four touchdowns in 1968.
Overview: Just like Neal Anderson did a sensational job of following Walter Payton, Leroy Kelly was magnificent after he took over as the Cleveland Browns' No. 1 running back when Jim Brown unexpectedly retired following the 1965 season.
Kelly did not have a special look as he backed up Brown in his last two seasons, but once he took over the starting position in 1966 it was another story. Kelly became one of the best running backs in the game.
Kelly had excellent change of direction and he could accelerate to top speed in an instant. Kelly rushed for 1,100 yards or more in three straight season beginning in 1966.
While he was not in Brown's class, he may have been the next best back in the game from 1966 through '68.
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