NFL1000: Ranking Every NFL Backfield
The truth of the modern NFL is this: Running backs don't generally mean what they used to.
The main men in most offenses in the previous millennium, backs must now do more to keep their esteemed positions—for the most part. Largely gone are the days of the one-trick pony—the power back who gets 300 carries a season to extend drives or the pure sprinter who gains 2,000 yards in a campaign.
For the most part, modern running backs must be some combination of first-down smashers, second-down pass-catchers and third-down blockers—and they'll most likely be doing so in some sort of committee.
The numbers bear this out. A recent study from FiveThirtyEight indicated the top 16 running backs in 2017 will earn less than players at any other skill position on offense or defense and that the average NFL back will make about half of what he did in 2000, relative to other positions.
This jibes with the notion that the NFL has turned into a quarterback's league, as does the distribution of passes to runs over the last 50 years. In 1970, the first season of the AFL-NFL merger, teams averaged 439.7 rushing attempts and 376.8 passing attempts. In 2016, they averaged 571.7 passing attempts to 416.3 rushing attempts. It's been a gradual shift, but it's drastic in the context of time.
So, to make the running game work in today's league, a back has to be efficient in everything he does, and he must do more things. The best backfields are manifestations of this understanding—that yes, it can still be about one transcendent back in rare instances, but far more often, multiple and different types of players will be sharing the load.
And with that understanding, we rank the NFL's backfields from worst to best. These rankings are less about the guy at the top of the rotation unless the top man defines the offense. It's more about how teams distribute carries and touches to the best advantage for their offensive philosophies.
Because in this era, that's what counts. And in 2017, it's the potential of one veteran switching teams that could decide the NFL's best backfield. If Adrian Peterson still has enough left in the tank, he could put the Saints' offense over the top--and over the backfields of the Titans and Falcons.
32. Green Bay Packers
RB Starter: Ty Montgomery
Depth: Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones, Devante Mays
Fullbacks: Aaron Ripkowski
The most interesting thing about the Packers' running back rotation in 2016 is that after the October injury to Eddie Lacy that ended his season, they basically didn't have one. Instead, they converted former Stanford receiver Ty Montgomery to the position, and despite some understandable growing pains, Montgomery looked pretty good at times, gaining 457 yards on just 77 carries and receiving head coach Mike McCarthy's endorsement as the starting halfback leading into the 2017 season, per Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Still, the Packers weren't standing pat, as they selected three running backs in the 2017 draft at the end of April, and Williams looks to be the most interesting of the lot. The BYU alum gained 1,375 yards and scored 12 rushing touchdowns on just 234 carries in 2016, and he's no one-year wonder, amassing 3,901 rushing yards over four seasons. McCarthy loves to have power backs in his system, and at 6'0” and 212 pounds, Williams fits the suit. He also has surprising speed at times—he ran for the BYU track team.
Jones, a fifth-rounder out of Texas-El Paso, is a smaller hybrid back (5'9", 208 lbs) who can also catch the ball, while Mays, taken in the seventh round out of Utah State, is more of a pure-power guy at 5'11", 230 pounds. The Packers are essentially rebuilding their running game on speculative talent, which is a lot easier to do when Aaron Rodgers is your quarterback.
31. Denver Broncos
Starter: C.J. Anderson
Depth: Jamaal Charles, Devontae Booker, De'Angelo Henderson, Bernard Pierce
Fullbacks: Andy Janovich, Juwan Thompson
There were many things that took the Broncos from Super Bowl champs to 9-7 and on the outside looking in over one season, and the lack of a cohesive rushing attack factored in. New head coach Vance Joseph has said every spot in the rotation is open for competition, which is what you'd expect for a team that finished 27th in the league in rushing yards with 1,484 and tied for 28th in yards per rushing attempt at 3.6.
The lack of a credible offensive line didn't help, but blaming quarterback Trevor Siemian for Denver’s lack of a ground game doesn’t make much sense, either—the Broncos did just fine in 2015 when Peyton Manning was falling off a cliff from a skill perspective.
Anderson has been the team's lead back, though his fall from a 4.7 yards-per-carry average in both 2014 and 2015 to a 4.0 average in 2016 was emblematic of the overall problem. He missed nine games with injuries, and that brought fourth-round rookie Devontae Booker into the mix.
In Booker, the Broncos may have a back they can tie their future to, in that he's a power rusher and the Broncos are looking to integrate more power-blocking concepts under Joseph and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. Booker gained 612 yards in his rookie campaign, and though he's not a second-level speed guy, he can sustain an offense in a rotation.
To get some speed and dynamism in the offense, the Broncos offered former Kansas City Chiefs great Jamaal Charles a one-year, $1 million contract. Charles—who ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at the combine before he was drafted in 2008—has played in just eight games over the last two seasons, so expecting the slashing speedster of old is a real stretch. But Joseph is looking for any port in a storm at this point.
Fullback is the one place this group is solid. Janovich immediately made himself the heart of whatever power running the Broncos could achieve last season, proving to be an outstanding blocker, especially in the red zone.
30. New York Giants
Starter: Paul Perkins
Depth: Shane Vereen, Wayne Gallman, Orleans Darkwa, Shaun Draughn
Fullbacks: Rhett Ellison
New York Giants head coach Ben McAdoo has already designated Perkins the starter for 2017 despite a rookie season in which he gained just 456 yards, per Paul Schwartz of the New York Post. And that should tell you all you need to know about McAdoo's desire to find a needle in the proverbial haystack when it comes to a true starting-caliber back.
Perkins may be that guy over time—the second-year man from UCLA gained 3,488 rushing yards in college, and he has shown the ability to get agile at the line of scrimmage and produce at the second level. Right now, he's the best the Giants have.
Vereen agreed to reduce his salary by $1 million this offseason, which probably kept the Giants from cutting him. He's been a productive player in the past, especially in the passing game. But he suffered from two triceps tears in 2016, and his season was basically a wash.
Gallman, selected in the fourth round out of Clemson, has as good a chance as anyone to steal reps in his rookie year, given the overall quality of this group. He gained 3,416 yards over three seasons for the defending NCAA champs, and he was a big factor in the offense in 2015 and 2016. At 6'0" and 215 pounds, he's less a speed guy and more of a power back, and he was debited to a degree by the 4.60 40-yard dash he ran at the combine.
29. New York Jets
Starter: Matt Forte
Depth: Bilal Powell, Elijah McGuire, Brandon Wilds, Romar Morris
Fullback: Julian Howsare
Because of a number of iffy drafts and free-agency moves over the last few seasons, the Jets may be as bereft of talent as any team in the NFL. And while that's not true of their running backs, there are concerns here as well.
Forte, a longtime star in Chicago, hasn't broken the 1,000-yard barrier since 2014, and he's in the second year of a three-year, $12 million contract. He has lost a lot of his pure speed, though he still shows some power and has always been an asset in the passing game. He underwent knee surgery in January, and combining that fact with his age (31), you can conclude he may be close to the end. Forte has something left to offer but not at the level he once did.
That leaves Powell as a potential lead back, and there's something to that. Though he's never had a 1,000-yard season, Powell looked good in 2016 as the offense was capsizing around him, gaining a career-high 722 yards on the ground and three rushing touchdowns and adding 58 receptions for 388 yards and two TDs. He's a shifty back with some power—he led the team with 34 broken tackles caused in 2016—and with all the talent holes this franchise needs to fill over the next few years, the Jets could do a lot worse.
McGuire, taken in the sixth round out of Louisiana-Lafayette, could find himself with some snaps because of his versatility. Not only did he rush 710 times for 4,301 yards and 42 touchdowns in his collegiate career, but he added 130 catches for 1,394 yards—an impressive 10.7 yards-per-catch average—and 10 receiving touchdowns. Like Forte in his heyday, he might be able to bring the option of lining up as receiver depth at times.
28. Indianapolis Colts
Starter: Frank Gore
Depth: Robert Turbin, Marlon Mack, Josh Ferguson
The Indianapolis Colts' move from Ryan Grigson to Chris Ballard in the general manager's chair was one of the biggest upgrades any NFL team made at any position this offseason. In going from Grigson's boom-and-bust theories to Ballard's strong personnel-based acumen, the team has started to set up itself well for years to come. Still, with one free-agency period and one draft so far to plug all the roster holes Grigson left, Ballard wasn't able to do much with a rushing unit in serious need of promising young talent.
Gore is the franchise guy until further notice, and the fact that he put up his ninth 1,000-yard season at the age of 33 behind a subpar offensive line speaks highly of his ability to transcend the age curse most running backs face. But the clock is ticking on Gore's potential Hall of Fame career.
Ballard told Kevin Bowen of the team's official website that backup Robert Turbin may get more playing time in 2017, and there's a lot to like about Turbin's strength between the tackles and his potential role in the passing game. It's wise of the new front office to get a sense of his full potential. But Turbin has never rushed for more than 354 yards in a season.
While that doesn't automatically designate him to the backup scrapheap, there's some projection involved. The Colts signed Turbin to a new two-year deal in the offseason, so Ballard is doing more than talking about it.
Mack, a fourth-round pick, was Ballard's one nod to the position in the draft, and the 5'11", 213-pound South Florida product does bring an interesting skill set. He rushed for 3,609 yards and 32 touchdowns in three seasons, adding 65 catches for 498 yards and a score. Mack has some power to go with his speed (4.50 40-yard dash), and you can expect the team to give him a heavy workload in the preseason to see how ready he is for prime time.
27. Detroit Lions
Starter: Ameer Abdullah
Depth: Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington, Mike James
Fullbacks: Mike Burton
The Detroit Lions' running back rotation has some estimable talent and versatility, but the lack of power and explosive plays in the running game is disconcerting. The entire group of backs had just 10 plays of 15 yards or more in 2016—for context, Ezekiel Elliott and LeSean McCoy tied for the league lead with 22 each. And Detroit's backs broke just 38 tackles on rushing plays (Jay Ajayi led the league with 58 broken tackles on the ground).
It's hard for any modern NFL offense to exist at a high level without specific power and speed elements, and it's a bit odd Detroit didn't address the situation in free agency or the draft. In early May, general manager Bob Quinn told 97.1 (via Tim Twentyman of the Lions' official website) that he thinks the team is fine with its current rotation, but the results last year told a different story.
Admittedly, it might look better when everyone is healthy. Abdullah missed most of the season with a torn ligament in his foot, and he's capable of creating plays downfield. But he still needs to learn how to take high-volume carries at the NFL level (he has 161 over two seasons), and at 5'9" and 203 pounds, he may not have the physical stature to deal with a 250-carry season.
Riddick missed six games and had surgery on both his wrists in the offseason. When healthy, the Notre Dame alum has a special ability to get things done in the passing game—he caught 80 balls in 2015—but at 5'9", 201 pounds, he is also a smaller back best worked in a committee. Zenner has some ability to run between the tackles and shows potential as a power back, but we'll need to see more than his 105 carries for 394 yards over two seasons to date.
Quinn might be right about his current rotation, but don't be surprised of the Lions come back after the 2017 season with a resolve to do more at the position.
26. Baltimore Ravens
Starter: Terrance West
Depth: Kenneth Dixon, Danny Woodhead, Javorius "Buck" Allen, Lorenzo Taliaferro
It's interesting that the Baltimore Ravens didn't do anything in the draft to address the running back position because the rotation seems undefined at this point.
Baltimore re-signed West to a one-year, $1.8 million deal in the offseason, and he'll be the lead back while Dixon serves his four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances. West led the team with a career-high 774 yards last season, and he has a decent combination of speed (4.54 40-yard dash) and power (225 lbs).
Dixon, a fourth-round pick in 2016, is slightly more explosive in the open field, and he led all Baltimore's primary backs with a 4.3 yards-per-carry average.
The signing of Woodhead was the Ravens' only real nod to their needs at the position, and though the 32-year-old veteran doesn't have the same burst and power he used to and is coming back from a torn ACL, he can still create a lot of plays in the passing game. That will be a major part of offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg's system, and Joe Flacco could use the help—the quarterback was far less than consistently efficient in 2016.
Allen and Taliaferro give some depth, but there's a distinct lack of an alpha dog in this rotation.
25. Washington Redskins
Starter: Rob Kelley
Halfbacks: Samaje Perine, Chris Thompson, Matt Jones, Mack Brown
The Redskins lost their two best receivers in free agency in DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, which makes it nearly impossible for quarterback Kirk Cousins to top the season he had in 2016. Therefore, it'll be up to Washington's running back rotation to perform at a higher and more efficient level in 2017. It has the talent to do that overall, especially if Perine is able to live up to his potential sooner than later.
The Oklahoma product had a productive three years with the Sooners, gaining 4,122 yards and scoring 49 rushing touchdowns. And his college tape shows a back capable of transferring his skill set to the NFL pretty seamlessly. Don’t be surprised if he's the team's lead back sooner rather than later.
Kelley led the team with 704 yards last season, and at 6'0", 228 pounds, he's a good part of a larger rotation as a bigger power back who can excel in red-zone situations. Kelley breaks tackles well, gaining 2.84 yards per rush after contact, and he's good for the occasional longer run. He broke 35 tackles on just 168 rushing attempts last year, which speaks to his ability to extend plays between the tackles.
Thompson (5'8", 195 lbs) adds a lot as a smaller speed back and pass-catcher, but the offense will depend more on Kelley and Perine this season.
24. Los Angeles Rams
Starter: Todd Gurley
Depth: Lance Dunbar, Malcolm Brown, Aaron Green
Fullbacks: Cory Harkey, Sam Rogers, Zach Laskey
One of the most distressing things about watching the Rams offense last season—for those who were brave enough to do it—was watching Gurley, one of the most undeniably talented college and rookie backs in recent years, disappear in a regressive offensive system with a terrible quarterback in 2016 No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff and behind an offensive line that wouldn't pass muster in the SEC.
Gurley went from 4.8 yards per carry in his rookie campaign to 3.2 in 2016, and though he was part of the problem, most of the blame can go to the factors around him.
New head coach Sean McVay, the former Redskins offensive coordinator, is a major upgrade in that he understands how to operate an NFL offense in the 21st century. It's McVay's job to get Gurley the openings he needs to make it to the second level and burn past defenders, and he understands it will take a team effort for him to be the special player he can be. "The run game takes all 11," McVay said, per Alden Gonzalez of ESPN.com.
Helping Goff improve is important. Bolstering the offensive line is also. To the second subject, the Rams signed left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan, two veterans who may be past their primes but will be better than their replacements--neither Greg Robinson at left tackle nor Tim Barnes at center proved to be credible options in 2016.
Former Cowboys third-down back Lance Dunbar should play the same role here, as a low-volume pass-catcher and creator of the occasional explosive rushing play. There's need for more and better depth over time, but right now, he has to help Gurley shine as the epicenter of the Rams offense.
23. New England Patriots
Starter: Mike Gillislee
Depth: James White, Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, Brandon Bolden
Fullbacks: James Develin, Glenn Gronkowski
The loss of LeGarrette Blount to the Philadelphia Eagles would be a blow to most backfields—Blount was a major part of the New England Patriots offense and led the NFL in rushing touchdowns with 18 last season. But as the Patriots typically do, they took advantage of other teams to restock their roster.
They picked up Mike Gillislee for a two-year, $6.4 million contract after the Buffalo Bills failed to match the offer, and Pats head coach Bill Belichick now has an underrated back who finished first overall in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted per-play metrics and showed a lot of power and speed as LeSean McCoy's backup in 2016.
Gillislee has never rushed for more than 577 yards in a season, but that primarily has to do with opportunity. When you watch his tape, you see a back who is quick to and through gaps, has the power to bull through first contact and can get it going with acceleration upfield. In part, Belichick has built his career in Foxborough, Massachusetts, on backs other teams didn't want because he understood their unique skill sets. Gillislee should thrive in this environment.
The Patriots also picked up former Bengals do-it-all back Rex Burkhead, and they still have the versatile Dion Lewis and Super Bowl LI hero James White. But the Gillislee acquisition should most greatly affect the offense—and make Belichick look smart once again.
22. San Francisco 49ers
Starter: Carlos Hyde
Halfbacks: Tim Hightower, Joe Williams, Kapri Bibbs, Raheem Mostert
Fullbacks: Kyle Juszczyk
One thing's for sure—the hire of new head coach Kyle Shanahan will improve San Francisco's running game. Shanahan has a unique ability to combine a zone-based blocking system with a set of schemes that maximizes the versatility of his backs no matter where he goes. You saw it in Atlanta, and you'll now see it with the 49ers.
Hyde stands to be the primary beneficiary, if the team can find the fit between his powerful, plodding running style and Shanahan's quicker, more multifaceted offense. New general manager John Lynch has expressed concerns, per Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, but the 49ers didn't take a running back until the fourth round (Utah's Joe Williams), so they must have some confidence in Hyde's ability to be the lead back.
Hightower is a clearer fit—when he was with the Saints in 2015 and 2016, he alternated between being a power runner and getting reps as a receiver out of the backfield. He's the kind of player you can flare into a receiver position, which Shanahan loves to do with his backs. Still, the 30-year-old Hightower isn't a lead back at this point in his career.
Williams is also an interesting story. A former track star, he bounced around the junior college circuit before landing at Utah in 2015. He was the starter in 2016, when he ran for 1,407 yards and 10 touchdowns on just 210 carries. He has the straight-line speed (4.41 40-yard dash) that gives Shanahan a bit more versatility.
Also, there's the signing of Juszczyk, who turned himself into one of the best fullbacks in the league with the Ravens. Like Patrick DiMarco, who played for Shanahan in Atlanta when he was offensive coordinator, Juszczyk is less a running threat and more a receiver and a blocker. Shanahan will use him to his potential.
21. Oakland Raiders
Starter: Marshawn Lynch
Depth: Jalen Richard, DeAndre Washington, Taiwan Jones, Elijah Hood
Fullbacks: Jamize Olawale
Marshawn Lynch's return to the NFL after one year of retirement is of course the big story here, but between a lot of underrated talent and a good offensive line, there's a lot to like in this backfield. Indeed, the primary question is how much Lynch has left in the tank after the year off and an injury-plagued 2015 season for the Seattle Seahawks in which he missed nine games and ran for just 417 yards.
Lynch has always kept himself in great shape with his private workouts in Northern California—it's one reason the Seahawks were liberal about his offseason schedule—and he will now have a far better offensive line than anything Seattle gave him. Lynch should still be able to do the one thing former lead back Latavius Murray couldn’t do consistently—create yards after contact.
In Richard and Washington, the Raiders have two young players who bring a lot to the rotation in different ways. A 2016 fifth-rounder from Texas Tech, Washington, 24, is built like a small bull at 5'8" and 204 pounds, and he finished his rookie season with 467 rushing yards. But Richard, a 2016 undrafted rookie from Southern Mississippi, could prove to be most interesting.
He ran for 491 yards last year, posting the same number of rushes of 15 yards or more as Washington (seven) but looking more explosive on the field. Richard also caught 29 passes for 194 yards and was consistent in the return game. With Lynch ostensibly providing the power, Richard is set up pretty well to add a lot of speed and explosiveness.
20. Seattle Seahawks
Starter: Eddie Lacy
Depth: Thomas Rawls, C.J. Prosise, Alex Collins, Troymaine Pope
Fullbacks: Kyle Coleman, Tre Madden
Through the head coach Pete Carroll era, the Seahawks have generally been among the best rushing teams despite iterations of the offensive line than have ranged from below-average to putrid. It helped a lot when Marshawn Lynch was demolishing defenses with his rare combination of brute force and scary agility, but even after Beast Mode retired following the 2015 season, the thought was Seattle had its next great power back in Thomas Rawls.
And when healthy, Rawls has been able to live up to that. He's a compact, bulling runner with impressive speed, and there's no doubt he was a steal as an undrafted player out of Central Michigan. When he gained 830 yards on just 147 carries in his rookie season of 2015, it looked like the torch had been passed.
But Rawls hasn't been able to stay healthy—injury limited him to nine contests last regular season, though he did impress with a 161-yard game against the Lions in the playoffs.
To help with the power aspect of the running game, Seattle signed former Green Bay Packers star running back Eddie Lacy to a one-year, $4.25 million deal that has a weight clause in it, per ESPN's Field Yates. There's a reason for that—according to SportsTrust Advisors, in his first weigh-in for the Seahawks in May, Lacy sat at 253 pounds.
Carroll told 710 ESPN Seattle (via ESPN's Sheil Kapadia) he wants Eddie big to use his power—and I've written about Lacy's ability to be agile despite his weight issues—but the Seahawks will have to find the balance between Lacy's size advantage and ensuring that he's in the kind of shape that will keep him on the field--he missed 11 games last season.
Prosise has also had his issues with injuries, though when healthy, he's proved to be effectively versatile. "When healthy" is the big qualifier for this rotation of backs, and it's the main reason they're ranked this low despite all the estimable talent. Last season, quarterback Russell Wilson was the most consistent runner on the team.
19. Kansas City Chiefs
Starter: Spencer Ware
Depth: Charcandrick West, Kareem Hunt, C.J. Spiller
Fullbacks: Anthony Sherman
2016 was Ware's best season to date, as the LSU product and former Seahawks backup rushed for 921 yards and three touchdowns on 214 carries and had 33 catches for 447 yards and two scores. Ware isn't a burner at the second level, which limits his usefulness to a degree, but he proved to be a strong and consistent factor in head coach Andy Reid's offense.
In April, West told Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star that he's lost 10 pounds in hopes of being more explosive, and after he gained just 293 yards on 88 carries last season, that would help.
With Jamaal Charles now gone to the Broncos, Reid needed someone who could do all the things he prefers backs to do—be a table-setter in the passing game who can get upfield for long runs and block well. And in third-round pick Kareem Hunt from Toledo—one of the most underrated backs in this draft class—Reid may have that.
At 5'10" and 216 pounds, Hunt has the ability to zoom the ball upfield, but he's also strong between the tackles—only Florida State's Dalvin Cook forced more missed tackles in the running game in the NCAA last season (Hunt forced 76). And the Toledo product forced 22 missed tackles as a receiver, ranking third among all college backs.
It might not happen right away—and Ware should still be a factor—but don't be surprised if Hunt is the future of Kansas City's running game.
18. Chicago Bears
Starter: Jordan Howard
Depth: Jeremy Langford, Benny Cunningham, Tarik Cohen, Ka'Deem Carey
Howard didn't get any serious carries until Week 4, but the Indiana product was still able to set the Chicago Bears' rookie rushing record in 2016 with 1,313 yards. At 6'0" and 222 pounds, he was able to roll over opponents even after Chicago's offensive line suffered several major injuries.
His combination of power and agility sets him up well as the team's franchise back of the future, as does his versatility. He was able to catch 29 passes for 298 yards and a touchdown, and he did that in an offense without a consistent quarterback.
Not that 2017 No. 2 overall pick Mitchell Trubisky or free-agent acquisition Mike Glennon will be Pro Bowlers this year, but at least now, and with the healthy return of guards Josh Sitton and Kyle Long, Howard could top his rookie campaign in 2017. Impressively, as a bigger back, 485 of his yards came on his 19 runs of 15 yards or more.
Langford was thought to be the Bears' starter in 2016, but less than stellar performances to start the season and an early ankle injury paved the way for Howard. The 2015 fourth-rounder from Michigan State doesn't have Howard's explosiveness in the open field, but he's a decent option as a backup power back.
Cunningham is another power runner, but he can catch the ball out of the backfield as well, which will keep him on the field. That skill has been hidden in the Rams' pitiful offense in recent years, but Cunningham caught 45 passes for 352 yards and a touchdown in 2014.
Also, keep an eye on fourth-round rookie back Tarik "The Human Joystick" Cohen from North Carolina A&T—at 5'6", 179 pounds, he's a smaller speed guy who has the potential to be explosive if he gets outside the formation (ran a 4.42 40-yard dash).
Head coach John Fox has said he loves how Cohen might affect defensive matchups, per ESPN.com's Jeff Dickerson.
17. Minnesota Vikings
Starter: Latavius Murray
Depth: Dalvin Cook, Jerick McKinnon, Bishop Sankey, C.J. Ham
2017 marks the first time since 2007 that Adrian Peterson won't be on the Minnesota Vikings' roster in some form, and head coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman did a lot to move on. They signed former Raiders back Latavius Murray to a three-year, $15 million contract and traded up in the second round to take Florida State's Dalvin Cook, a potentially franchise-defining back if he doesn't get into any off-field trouble.
First, Murray. He gained 1,066 rushing yards for the Raiders in 2015 and followed up with a 788-yard season in 2016. Perhaps the most worrisome factor in Murray's future with the Vikings is how well he'll transition from one of the NFL's best offensive lines to one of the worst.
His 2.60 yards-after-contact average was far behind those of backfield-mates Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington, and the ability to create yards after contact is crucial to any back hoping to do anything behind that front five. That's not to say Murray won't be productive in this offense, but it does explain why the Vikings were looking for more.
Cook is certainly that. He gained 4,464 yards and had 46 rushing touchdowns in his three years at Florida State and proved to be a top-notch receiver with 79 catches for 935 yards and two scores. Cook isn't the same kind of power back Peterson was, but his ability to create offense in space is rare and something quarterback Sam Bradford will appreciate.
McKinnon is a moveable chess piece in the offense, able to take the ball as a rusher and catch the ball from the backfield. With Peterson missing most of 2016 due to injury, McKinnon led the team with 539 rushing yards last season.
16. Philadelphia Eagles
Starter: LeGarrette Blount
Depth: Darren Sproles, Ryan Mathews, Wendell Smallwood, Donnel Pumphrey, Corey Clement
The signing of Blount to a one-year deal, as ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Wednesday, adds a lot of power to a running back rotation that desperately needs it. The 6'0", 250-pound running back led the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns in 2016, and though he's a bit of a one-trick pony (power through tackles more than anything else), it's a trick the Eagles didn’t have last season. And they weren't projected to have it this season before this deal.
Moreover, the signing allowed Philly's other backs to focus on what they do best. Sproles distributes his yardage pretty equally between rushing and receiving, and he's capable of the occasional breakout play. Mathews led the team with 11 rushes of 15 yards or more, though he could be on the bubble after the Blount acquisition. Second-year man Wendell Smallwood and 2017 fourth-round pick Donnel Pumphrey are smaller speedsters.
It will be especially interesting to see how the Eagles use Pumphrey—he finished his collegiate career as the NCAA's all-time rushing leader with 6,405 yards, but at 5'8" and 176 pounds, his usage will be somewhat limited.
Ultimately, adding Blount to the picture changes the complexion of Philly's running game and moved it from 25th to 17th in these rankings.
15. Los Angeles Chargers
Starter: Melvin Gordon
Depth: Branden Oliver, Kenneth Farrow, Andre Williams, Kenjon Barner
Fullbacks: Derek Watt
Gordon has not yet rushed for 1,000 yards in a season, but his 2016 campaign was a bit of a revelation after a 2015 season in which he gained just 641 yards, leaving a lot of people wondering why the Chargers selected him 15th overall in that year's draft.
2016 is when Gordon learned to put his power and his speed together at the NFL level, increasing his rushing touchdown total from zero to 10 and running for 997 yards. He also caught 41 passes for 419 yards and two touchdowns, and he forced 34 missed tackles in the running game alone. New Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn believes that he can get even more out of Gordon, and that's probably true.
Oliver, an undrafted back from Buffalo who was a rookie in 2014, was a pleasant surprise that year. He led the team in rushing with 582 yards on 160 carries, adding 36 receptions for 271 yards and a touchdown. Though he's only going to get serious carries from here on out if Gordon is hurt, he's a fine backup.
Williams, a power back selected in the fourth round by the New York Giants in 2014, hasn't done a lot in his NFL career, but he was good for an 18-carry, 87-yard performance against the Chiefs in the Chargers' 2016 season finale. Watt has the potential to be one of the better blocking fullbacks in the league--he finished ninth overall in the NFL1000 fullback rankings, and he allowed no sacks, no quarterback hits, and just one quarterback hurry in 141 pass-blocking snaps. Not bad for a sixth-round rookie.
Another key to the success of Los Angeles' rushing attack in 2017 is the performance of rookie guards Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney. Both are excellent power blockers who should fit Lynn's offensive ideology well.
14. Arizona Cardinals
Starter: David Johnson
Depth: T.J. Logan, Kerwynn Williams, Elijhaa Penny
Arizona's ranking here has a great deal to with the presence of Johnson, one of the NFL's best and most underrated backs. Few players in recent history can boast his combination of speed (4.50 40-yard dash), power, offensive understanding and true versatility. At 6'1" and 224 pounds, the third-year man from Northern Iowa can take a swing pass 50 yards to the house just as easily as he can bowl over a linebacker to get into the end zone.
Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians has said that he wants to use Johnson more—perhaps getting him 30 touches per game, according to ESPN's Josh Weinfuss. That's a lot for any back, but with his splits between rushing and receiving, Johnson should be able to handle it. He gained 1,239 yards and made 16 touchdowns on 293 carries last year and caught an impressive 80 passes for 879 yards and four scores. And he led the league in yards from scrimmage with 2,118.
The rest of the Arizona running back rotation got a bit thinner when the Cardinals chose to move Andre Ellington to receiver, but the addition of Logan in the fifth round of the 2017 draft was an interesting move. Logan is a smaller back at 5'9" and 196 pounds, and he ran a 4.37 40-yard dash at the combine. That speed shows up on the field. He'll also add value as a return man, but given Arians' desire to get all his playmakers on the field in different ways, Williams could surprise.
13. Cincinnati Bengals
Starter: Giovanni Bernard
Depth: Jeremy Hill, Joe Mixon, Cedric Peerman, Brandon Wilson
Fullbacks: Ryan Hewitt
With the departure of right guard Kevin Zeitler in free agency and the starting statuses of youngsters Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher at the left and right tackle spots, Cincinnati's offensive line won't look like it has in the past, and that is not necessarily a good thing. It will be more on the running backs to create plays, which is one reason the team made the controversial move to select Mixon in the second round.
Suspended for the entire 2014 season after he punched a woman in a Norman, Oklahoma, deli, Mixon came back to the Sooners in 2015 and 2016, gaining 2,921 yards from scrimmage in those two seasons and amassing an 8.0 yards-per-touch average. There's no questioning Mixon's ability—he has the potential to be a transcendent football player—but given the Bengals' boom-and-bust history when it comes to players with off-field issues, one wonders if Mixon could be in a better environment.
Mixon will probably get a lot of reps early on, though, because the depth chart has questions. Bernard tore his ACL in November and may miss a few games at the start of the 2017 regular season, per Geoff Hobson of the Bengals' official website. When he has his full skill set with him, Bernard is a good power back with the ability to help sustain drives—he gained 4.7 yards per carry in 2015.
After a 1,124-yard rookie season in 2014, Hill has disappointed in each of the last two campaigns, so he's trying a new workout regimen, per Hobson. He has the talent to be a lead back with his combination of power and acceleration if he's able to put it all together.
12. Houston Texans
Starter: Lamar Miller
Depth: Alfred Blue, D'Onta Freeman, Akeem Hunt, Tyler Ervin
Fullbacks: Jay Prosch
Given the extent to which quarterback Brock Osweiler failed in his one year with the Houston Texans, we're inclined to give extra credit to any running back who could make consistent gains against defenses who knew they could cheat against the run with Osweiler throwing the ball all over the place—and frequently to the wrong place.
And that's what made Lamar Miller's first year with the Texans so impressive. He gained 1,073 yards on 268 carries, blending perfectly with Houston's hybrid blocking schemes. The Texans used Miller to a fault early on, and he missed the final two games of the regular season with injuries. Clearly, Houston needed depth, and while Blue is a good reserve power back, the addition of Texas product D'Onta Foreman in the third round of the 2017 draft could yield exciting results.
Foreman gained 2,028 yards and scored 15 touchdowns on the ground for the Longhorns in 2016, and he fits what head coach Bill O'Brien wants in a power back. The challenge for Foreman will be to maintain his conditioning, as he's had weight issues in the past.
Finally, the first-round selection of Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson should add a new element of rushing dynamism to Houston's offense. If the 2017 No. 12 overall pick starts right away—and given Houston's quarterback depth chart, there's no reason to assume that he won't—remember he gained 1,105 yards on the ground in 2015 and followed that up with 629 rushing yards in 2016. It's not something the Texans will want to hang their hats on, but Watson brings a new dimension with his ability on scrambles and designed runs.
11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Starter: Doug Martin
Depth: Jacquizz Rodgers, Charles Sims, Jeremy McNichols, Peyton Barber
Fullbacks: Austin Johnson, Quayvon Hicks
Martin had a disappointing season in 2016, rushing for only 421 yards in eight games, but the team didn't select a running back high in the 2017 draft. General manager Jason Licht told Good Morning Football earlier this month that Martin has looked as good as he ever has. The 28-year-old running back will miss the first three games of the 2017 season because of a violation of the league's drug policy, but if he returns to the field as the same player who gained 1,402 yards on the ground in 2015, that would obviously be a positive.
Rodgers led the Bucs in rushing in 2016 with 560 yards on 129 carries, and the Oregon State product is a great change-of-pace back who can also consistently catch the ball out of the backfield. At 5'6" and 205 yards, Rodgers understands how to use leverage and a low base to get through small gaps, and 144 of his yards came on runs of 15 yards or more.
Sims missed all but seven games of the 2016 because of injury, but he's a dynamic speed runner and receiver when healthy. And 2017 fifth-round pick McNichols, who took over for Miami's Jay Ajayi in the Boise State backfield, rushed for more than 3,000 yards in two full years as a starter. It’s a deep backfield as long as the hype about Martin comes to fruition.
10. Cleveland Browns
Starter: Isaiah Crowell
Depth: Duke Johnson, George Atkinson III, Darius Jackson, Matt Dayes
Fullbacks: Dan Vitale
The Cleveland Browns' quarterback situation was a dumpster fire in 2016, and it looks to be that way again in 2017. So you'd be forgiven for thinking that nothing is going right with the Browns offense. After all, there are more seasons than not where that’s true.
But when you look at the running back rotation, there's a lot to like. Despite having virtually no passing game and an offensive line that was weakened by free agency, the Browns finished second to the Buffalo Bills in yards per carry last season with 4.9. And when you add in the acquisitions of center J.C. Tretter and right guard Kevin Zeitler in this year’s free-agency swarm, it's reasonable to expect similar (if not better) results in 2017.
Crowell, who gained 952 yards on just 198 carries last season, has an intriguing combination of power through the hole and speed to the second level. The Browns placed a second-round tender on the fourth-year man from Alabama State, and it's clear he's a big part of their immediate future.
And while Crowell is also a credible receiver, Johnson led all of Cleveland’s backs with 53 receptions for 514 yards. He gained 4.9 yards per carry on 7.3 rushing attempts last season, and he could be part of a better two-back rotation this upcoming campaign. Whenever the Browns decide to address their quarterback situation in the long term, you could see a lot more from these underrated backs.
9. Miami Dolphins
Starter: Jay Ajayi
Depth: Kenyan Drake, Damien Williams, Storm Johnson, Senorise Perry
Ajayi took the proverbial leap in his second NFL season, going from 49 carries for 187 yards in his rookie campaign to 260 carries for 1,272 yards in 2016. He had games of over 200 yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Bills (twice), and though he only rushed for over 100 yards in one other game (vs. the New York Jets), the Boise State alum seemed like he had an incredible amount of potential.
No NFL back caused more missed tackles in the running game last season than Ajayi (58), and he led the league in yards after contact per carry among backs getting at least 50 percent of their team's totes. If he can add more receiving skills to his repertoire (offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen seems to believe he already has, per ESPN.com's James Walker), there's nothing stopping Ajayi from becoming one of the league's best overall backs.
Williams is a decent reserve power back, but the man of interest is second-year back Kenyan Drake, who was a multiposition weapon at Alabama and could serve that same role in Miami. Per Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, head coach Adam Gase said he wants Drake more involved in the offense, which makes sense. When healthy, Drake can make plays everywhere from power back to outside receiver. As Miami's backs get more comfortable with Gase's power-running mindset, look for increased efficiency and productivity.
8. Carolina Panthers
Starter: Jonathan Stewart
Depth: Christian McCaffrey, Fozzy Whittaker, Cameron Artis-Payne, Jalen Simmons
Fullbacks: Darrel Young, Alexander Armah
The need to upgrade his team's rushing attack was clearly job No. 1 on the mind of Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman in the 2017 draft. He responded with authority, selecting Stanford's McCaffrey with the eighth overall pick and turning right around to select Ohio State runner/receiver Curtis Samuel in the second round.
Stewart still has some time on the roster as the starting power back, but make no mistake: McCaffrey is the future of the Panthers backfield.
The Stanford alum would be worth a first-round pick as a running back alone, as he gained 3,922 yards and scored 21 touchdowns on the ground in three years (two as a full-time starter), but it's his versatility that makes McCaffrey the perfect back for the modern NFL, when teams need their backs to do as much as possible. McCaffrey brought in 99 receptions for 1,206 yards in his collegiate career, and he'll create matchup nightmares for defenses as he rolls out of the backfield to threaten opponents as a legitimate receiver.
Samuel is more of a first-position slot receiver, but he can also take it to the house on a jet sweep, and he averaged 7.5 yards per carry on 172 carries for the Buckeyes throughout his career.
Oh, and there's the small matter of quarterback Cam Newton as a rushing threat. Though Carolina's offense regressed in 2016, Newton still rushed for 359 yards and scored five touchdowns. It may take time to get everyone on the same page, and Stewart may have reached the end of the line as a first-tier rusher, but as for the Panthers' opponents: good luck figuring out who to target in Carolina's backfield in 2017.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars
Starter: Leonard Fournette
Depth: T.J. Yeldon, Chris Ivory, Corey Grant, I'Tavius Mathers
Fullbacks: Tommy Bohanon, Marquez Williams, Tim Cook
New Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone told reporters that fourth overall pick Fournette will have to earn his way into the starting spot in Jacksonville's backfield, but let's be real about it: When you throw this much draft capital at a running back in this era, and the back in question is as ridiculously talented as Fournette, starting that back is a fait accompli.
Fournette ran for 3,830 yards and averaged 6.2 yards per carry during his three years at LSU, scoring 40 rushing touchdowns and adding 41 catches for 526 yards. At 6'0" and 240 pounds, he displays an entirely rare combination of power and speed. He put together a ridiculous highlight reel as he trucked defender after defender in his collegiate career, and he had 11 rushes of 15 yards or more in 2016 on just 128 carries.
He worked through an ankle injury in 2016, and he's not yet an asset in the passing game, but Fournette looks every bit the part of the old-school power runner, which perfectly fits where the Jags want to take their offense.
Yeldon, who had his own ankle injury last season, is another power back with potential, and he'll get on the field as a proven receiver, since quarterback Blake Bortles needs all the easy reads he can get. Ivory could be the man on the bubble—the Jags gave him a five-year, $32 million contract in March 2016, and he rushed for just 439 yards on 117 carries last season.
Few teams have put so many resources into their backfield, but with Fournette, Jacksonville should finally have something credible to show for it.
6. Dallas Cowboys
Starter: Ezekiel Elliott
The Cowboys will have success in the run game for the foreseeable future for a few reasons: the best run-blocking line in the NFL, and the efforts of 2016 rookies Elliott and Dak Prescott.
As a do-it-all running back, Elliott proved to be everything his supporters thought he could be in his inaugural campaign: He was a terrific blocker and an estimable power back, and he tied with Buffalo's LeSean McCoy for the league lead with 22 runs of 15 yards or more.
Elliott led the league in carries (322) and rushing yards (1,631), and with 32 catches for 363 yards, he rounded out a versatile skill set. It's rare that any rookie makes the NFL look this easy. Elliott has said he wants to improve as a second-level runner, per the Dallas Morning News' Jon Machota, and if he's able to do that in his environment, a 2,000-yard season is not out of the question down the road.
Prescott, who finished second on the team with 282 rushing yards, created a ton of opportunities for those long Elliott runs with his ability to sell the read-option aspects of Dallas' offense, and when Prescott took off from the pocket, he was always a danger to get rushing yards himself.
The depth beyond Elliott is average. Morris and McFadden are veterans nearing the end of the road, but as long as Elliott and Prescott stay healthy, and that line keeps blocking the way it does, the modern Cowboys will bring back memories of the Jimmy Johnson-era team—especially if they can sock away a Super Bowl win or two.
5. Buffalo Bills
Starter: LeSean McCoy
Depth: Jonathan Williams, Joe Banyard, Cedric O'Neal
Fullbacks: Patrick DiMarco, Mike Tolbert
The Bills led the NFL with 2,630 rushing yards in 2016, and though they lost high-potential running back Mike Gillislee to the Patriots in an avoidable restricted free-agent snafu (New England gave Gillislee a two-year, $6.4 million offer, and Buffalo refused to match), the backfield is in good shape—and has a few new cogs.
Of course, it all revolves around McCoy, who gained 1,267 yards and averaged 5.4 yards per carry in 2016. McCoy can run with power, but his primary attribute is that he's as slippery, agile and hard to tackle as any back since Barry Sanders. When he's behind a good line, as the Bills have, he's tough to deal with. McCoy's 2017 salary-cap charge of $8.875 million is high for his position, but at age 28, he's still worth it as long as he's healthy—though he has missed time to hamstring injuries in each of the last two seasons.
Williams will replace Gillislee as the second halfback, and the 2016 fifth-round pick from Arkansas has potential as a power back. But the real interest in the Bills backfield will be how they deploy both DiMarco and Tolbert, two veteran fullbacks with wildly different characteristics. With the Falcons, DiMarco was a great blocker, but he would also flex from the backfield to the formation as a receiver everywhere from the slot to out wide.
Tolbert, who signed with the Bills for the veteran minimum in March, is more of a traditional fullback: He blows open rushing lanes for other backs and has some red-zone ability. It's clear that new head coach Sean McDermott and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison want to feature power in the run game.
And when we're talking Bills rushers, don't forget quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who finished second on the team behind McCoy with 580 ground yards. Dennison has all kinds of interesting options at his disposal.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers
Starter: Le'Veon Bell
Depth: Fitzgerald Toussaint, James Conner, Knile Davis
Fullbacks: Roosevelt Nix
Bell is the most productive back in the league when healthy. Despite playing in just 12 regular-season games in 2016, he gained 1,268 yards on the ground, adding 75 catches for 616 yards. Few backs can match Bell's combination of patience in waiting for holes to open and acceleration through those holes. His development as a receiver is equally impressive.
He'll play under the franchise tag this season unless he and the Steelers can come to a long-term agreement before July 15, and his offseason groin surgery is a minor cause for concern, because when he's at 100 percent, Bell is the Steelers' best player and a mandatory part of any potential Super Bowl discussion for the franchise.
Toussaint is a decent-at-best backup option, though Conner is the interesting story here. He rushed for 1,765 yards for the Pittsburgh Panthers in his sophomore season of 2014 but missed most of the 2015 campaign after suffering a torn MCL in the season opener. It was then discovered Conner had Hodgkin lymphoma, the same type of cancer Chiefs safety Eric Berry suffered from and beat over time.
Conner came back impressively for the 2016 season, gaining 1,092 yards on just 216 carries, with 21 catches for 302 yards. At 6'2" and 235 pounds, Conner has the physical style that has been a hallmark of the Steelers' running game for decades.
For now, this ranking is mostly about Bell's excellence, but Conner is one to watch.
3. Atlanta Falcons
Starter: Devonta Freeman
Depth: Tevin Coleman, Brian Hill, Terron Ward
Fullbacks: Derrick Coleman, Soma Vainuku
Had the NFC champs managed to hang on to fullback Patrick DiMarco, who signed with the Bills and was a major part of Atlanta's blocking and passing games, this group might have taken the No. 1 spot in our rankings. Still, it's a testament to Freeman and Coleman's talents—and the way the Falcons used them—that they're third.
Freeman is the team's main running back by a nose, and the news that he plans to be "real disrespectful this year when it comes to football," per Kelsey Conway of the team's official site, is certainly encouraging. Not that Freeman had any trouble breaking tackles before—he caused 40 missed tackles on 266 carries last season. When you combine that with his estimable agility, it's clear that he has everything it takes to be a lead back.
Coleman is more of a wild card. He never had more than 14 carries in a game in 2016, but he's a potentially explosive playmaker on his own, and he's just as adept as Freeman is as a receiver. New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has promised to deploy the two backs much like Kyle Shanahan did before he took the head coaching position with the 49ers (with a few new wrinkles), per D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
If that's the case, you can expect two-back formations in which either Freeman or Coleman can easily motion out to receiver from the backfield, creating matchup advantages.
As for the fullback position, Derrick Coleman and Vainuku are more traditional thumper-blockers, while DiMarco was a legitimate threat in the passing game. But even with DiMarco gone, this is probably the most effectively versatile backfield in the league.
2. Tennessee Titans
Starter: DeMarco Murray
Depth: Derrick Henry, David Fluellen, Khalfani Muhammad
Fullbacks: Jalston Fowler
Many laughed when Mike Mularkey talked about his "exotic smashmouth" offense before the 2016 season, but few are laughing now. In Mularkey's first full season as head coach of the team, the Titans upped their record to 9-7 with a vastly improved offensive line, a heaping helping of two- and three-tight end sets, and a backfield that could do it all, after going 3-13 the year before.
Key among the backfield contributors was Murray, the former Cowboys star who returned to form after a lukewarm year with the Eagles in 2015. Murray rushed for 1,287 yards and nine touchdowns in Tennessee, displaying an estimable combination of power and agility. He added 53 catches for 377 yards and three touchdowns.
Adding power to the rotation was 2016 second-round pick Henry, the behemoth from Alabama who gained 490 yards on 110 carries in his rookie campaign and started to get more opportunities late in the season as Murray faded a bit. The 6'2", 247-pound Henry has all the power you'd want, but he can also be surprisingly agile at times.
And don't forget quarterback Marcus Mariota, who can also be a rushing threat. He finished third on the team with 349 rushing yards, and his ability to break out of the pocket for considerable gains adds yet another dimension to an offense that is, indeed, equal parts exotic and smashmouth.
1. New Orleans Saints
Starter: Adrian Peterson
Depth: Mark Ingram, Alvin Kamara, Travaris Cadet, Daniel Lasco
Fullbacks: John Kuhn
The Saints will have the NFL's most loaded, versatile backfield if Peterson's addition to a unit that already included Ingram and Cadet—and added Kamara in the third round of the 2017 draft—works out the way head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis hope it does.
For all Payton's genius in the passing game, the Saints have been at their best on offense when the coach has had multiple types of backs at his disposal. The 2009 Super Bowl championship team had Mike Bell as the power back, Pierre Thomas as the speedier scatback and Reggie Bush as the moving chess piece who would shift from the backfield to the slot, creating formation advantages.
Last year, Ingram gained 1,043 yards on 205 carries, adding 319 receiving yards on 46 catches. But he's more of a plodder than an explosive runner, and that's where Peterson can make a difference if he's able to return at full form from the torn meniscus that cost him all but three games last season.
Peterson has shown a near-bionic ability to recover from injuries in the past, so even though he turned 32 in March, there's reason to believe he has enough left in the tank to make his two-year, $7 million contract a relative bargain. If he can be most of the player who gained 1,485 yards on 327 carries for the 2015 Vikings despite a suspect offensive line, Peterson would be one of the steals of free agency.
Kamara is the wild card here. He was a fine speed rusher in his two years at Tennessee, but it's his ability as a receiver in multiple spots and as a return man that brings a little extra to this offense. Kuhn adds blocking power when the Saints use two backs, and Cadet is a decent option. But it's the top three guys who could have the Saints rolling with their best backfield in a good long time if everything comes together.
Advanced statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus, unless otherwise noted.