Group Effort: The Best Running Back Corps in the AFC

Charles HenryCorrespondent IJuly 15, 2009

DETROIT , MI - NOVEMBER 27:  LenDale White #25 of the Tennessee Titans celebrates a second quarter touchdown with Chris Johnson #28 while playing the Detroit Lions on November 27, 2008 at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

It seems like almost all of the press lately has been going to the quarterbacks and the diva stars formerly known as receivers. 

The media coverage tended to focus on the Brett Favres (will he? Or rather, when will he?), the Jay Cutlers (aka, temper tantrum boy), the Terrell Owens’ (will he ever find a house in Buffalo?), and the Brandon Marshalls (Mr. “I wanna go play with Jay”).

I thought it was time to take a glance at the high profile workhorses of the offense: the backs. Regardless of whether you use the term fullback, running back, or halfback, if you don’t have a good one, you’re in trouble; and one may not be enough.

The recent trend in the NFL is to have a group of backs, and platoon them. The thought process is simple–if you use different backs in different situations and use multiple backs, you can keep the entire group rested, and potentially get more production.

As with receivers, linebackers, and others, there are good groups and there are bad groups. What follows is a listing I put together of the five best running back corps in the AFC. 

Honorable Mentions:
c) Denver Broncos. 
Why they’re not in the top five: the Broncos have plenty of depth, but it is a group of second-stringers. Moreno might push them over the top, but not in time for this list.

b) Miami Dolphins.
Why they’re not in the top five: Two good backs top their list, but Williams is past his prime. Was the Wildcat the reason they did well last year? I don’t think so.

a) Jacksonville Jaguars. 
Why they’re not in the top five: the Jaguars’ top back, Jones-Drew, might be considered by many to be the top back in the AFC, but there isn’t much behind him.

The Top Five AFC Running Back Corps

5) Baltimore Ravens. Willis McGahee, LeRon McClain, Ray Rice.
Every team knows the Ravens intend to run. Despite this, they still managed to gain over four yards per carry.

The key to this group is health. McGahee has missed a number of games lately, and his presence is essential. Ray Rice did satisfactorily in McGahee’s absence, and McClain is a solid powerback. If McGahee plays the entire season, this group could be devastating.

4) San Diego Chargers. LaDainian Tomlinson, Darren Sproles, Michael Bennett.
This group is led by Tomlinson, who was considered at one time the best back in the NFL.  Injuries and age are taking their toll, and the last few seasons have made many question if it was the back or the offensive line. 

Regardless, Tomlinson’s difficulties have allowed Darren Sproles to emerge. He is still considered little more than a third-down back by some, and will need to prove himself.  Bennett is an okay third option, but his best years have long since passed.

3) New England Patriots. Fred Taylor, Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk.
The depth of this group is what gets them this high ranking. Three of them have been regular starters at one point or another in the NFL, and Kevin Faulk is one of the better third down backs in the NFL. 

There is also talk of the Patriots keeping BenJarvus Green-Ellis on the roster. Green-Ellis, a second year player, gained a a lot of game experience last season, and if the Patriots keep him, they would be the only team in the NFL that has four backs with 70+ carries each last season.

2) Pittsburgh Steelers. Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore.
Willie Parker is a very good back, and that’s shown strongly in the past two seasons.  Sometimes he does require that extra space, but he knows how to make it work. 

Rashard Mendenhall demonstrated promise in the little action he had before being injured. I fully expect him to do well in 2009. Mewelde Moore had to step in for each of them, and did so to the tune of nearly 600 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns. He also added 40 receptions to the list.

1) Tennessee Titans. Chris Johnson, LenDale White, Chris Henry.
The strength of this group is the effectiveness of the top two backs. Johnson had an excellent rookie year, providing a spark. 

LenDale White has taken hold of the power back role, and has fulfilled it admirably. The questions here regard the other backs: will Chris Henry step up for that No. 3 role, and how well will he fill it?


One team that didn’t make the honorable mention category but has potential to be in the top five, is the New York Jets. As a Patriots fan, I have to hate the Jets (it’s a requirement, I think a federal statute). However, if Shonn Greene comes on strong as a rookie, he could provide the bump to put them over the top. 

Thomas Jones is solid, and Leon Washington is exciting. Rex Ryan has a run-first philosophy, so look for them to shove the ball down the opponents’ throats.

I had to think long and hard about accepting what my figures gave me and how they conflicted with my own personal feelings on the matter. It was hard to get the two to coexist. I used my own ranking system, then went to several sites for how they ranked rb’s, and combined the results. 

It is, of course, according to my own formulae and opinion, so if your team doesn’t rank as highly as you expect, give me a reason to change my mind! Regardless, I’d love feedback!


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