We're now entrenched in the doldrums of the NFL offseason. Free agency and the draft are long gone, and 90-man rosters are starting to take shape. It will be a while before we can start to nail down final 53s, but for now we can at least start to piece together where teams are strongest, deepest, most talented, and conversely where they're thin or threatened.
I included 16 NFL clubs on my list today, all teams with the most realistic shot at being among the NFL's best in 2014. I've tried to consider depth as a key factor in this group, maybe more than at some other positions, because of the way that teams use running-back-by-committee or use players in specialized roles in the modern NFL. Also, it's a big factor because of the frequency of injuries at the position. That said, I'm sure I overrated, underrated, or forgot about a couple teams with talent and depth at running back within my list.
(italics indicates a rookie)
It seems like Frank Gore has been finding cutback lanes and emerging from pileups unscathed since I was in grade school, and at 31, he doesn't really seem to be slowing down too much. While he may get fewer carries in 2014, there are few backs that are better suited for their team's scheme than Gore, who combines patience with power and balance to follow pulling guards through the hole then cut back to daylight. He's an old-school sustainer type of running back that does his best work late in the game after the defense has been worn down.
After the ageless Gore, San Francisco boasts one of the deepest running back groups in the NFL, including the steady veteran Kendall Hunter, explosive LaMichael James, and versatile fullback Bruce Miller. Putting San Francisco over the top in my mind are two extremely high-ceiling prospects in 2013 4th rounder Marcus Lattimore and 2014 second rounder Carlos Hyde. Lattimore obviously missed all of 2013 rehabbing his knee but if he can get back to the form that made him a superstar at South Carolina, he could be an unexpected force for the Niners. If Lattimore suffers any setbacks or is not ready, Hyde steps to the vanguard as a probable backup to Gore and could see significant snaps in his rookie year. Hyde's a punishing north-south runner that projects to fit San Francisco's identity and style perfectly.
If and when Frank Gore needs a breather, the Niners have the depth to tap in and potentially see little drop-off.
C.J. SPiller, Photo credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
There might not be a more purely explosive running back in the NFL than C.J. Spiller (OK, maybe Adrian Peterson). Still, Spiller displays rare, rare balance, lateral agility, acceleration, change-of-direction and speed. That said, 2013 was not his best, as he continually fought an ankle injury that robbed him of his explosiveness. He's back to full health now, per reports, and will look to get back to his 2012 form. I'd bet on Spiller lighting things up for Buffalo this year, and he'll have plenty of chances to do so, playing in an offense that ran the ball more than any other club last season.
He'll have plenty of support, too. Fred Jackson is now 33 but could play a key role as Spiller's backup (he did finish 8th among running backs in Football Outsiders' DYAR (value over replacement) in 2013, illustrating that he hasn't lost it quite yet), and the team just traded for the talented Bryce Brown. Add free agent Anthony Dixon into the mix, and it's a deep, experienced and versatile group.
Like Spiller, Tampa Bay's Doug Martin will look to bounce back after an injury-plagued 2013 season. Martin, the Muscle Hamster, rushed for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns on 4.6 yards per carry in his rookie year but tore the labrum in his shoulder and played in only six games in his second. When healthy, he's explosive, dynamic, elusive and is a home run threat any time he has the football in his hands.
The Bucs, in Martin's absence last year, found that they've got some pretty exciting depth behind their star running back, and both Mike James and Bobby Rainey flashed. Rainey ran for 163 yards and two touchdowns in Week 11 vs. the Falcons, but James in particular impressed me before suffering a season-ending ankle fracture, and averaged 4.9 yards per carry in eight games while displaying surprising power to fight through tackles. His best performance was Week 9 at Seattle, where he bullied a normally very stout Seahawk run defense for 158 yards on 5.6 yards per carry.
The Bucs added another piece of insurance at the position with the selection of West Virginia's Charles Sims. Sims' early role for Tampa bay could be as a receiving option out of the backfield, as he was known to be an excellent pass catching back in school.
RB Giovani Bernard, RB Jeremy Hill, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB Cedric Peerman, RB Jeff Scott, RB Rex Burkhead, RB James Wilder Jr.
Giovani Bernard had an excellent rookie season and looks to only get better in his sophomore campaign. Bernard was used more as a space player, receiver, and change of pace than last year's bell-cow in BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but made his touches count. On 170 carries, Bernard averaged 4.1 yards per carry (YPC) — solid while not overly impressive — but did catch 56 passes for 514 yards and three touchdowns to go with his five scores on the ground. Illustrating Bernard's explosive elusiveness in Pierre Thomas and Jamaal Charles in total number.field, the rookie forced 20 missed tackles on receptions per ProFootballFocus.com's tracking, behind only
Likely providing the thunder to Bernard's lightning in 2014 is LSU's Jeremy Hill, chosen 55th overall by Cincinnati. Hill, like San Francisco's Hyde, is a 230-odd-pound brute carrying the football, and displayed uncanny balance and tackle breaking ability while in college. The combination of Bernard and Hill, along with solid depth in Green-Ellis and any of Cedric Peerman, Rex Burkhead, or rookies Jeff Scott and James Wilder Jr make Cincy one of my top backfields.
The damn good
You may have heard that the Lions like to throw the ball? Well, if not, they like to throw the ball. A lot. Fitting this philosophy, both Reggie Bush and Joique Bell are dangerous as pass catchers and the two combined for 107 receptions, 1,053 yards, and three touchdowns through the air in 2013.
Pride of Detroit
Of course, they can both run it too, and Bush eclipsed 1,000 yards on 223 carries for 4.5 YPC while Bell went for 650 yards and eight touchdowns as the primary goal-line and short yardage back (he averaged 3.7 YPC in "clear running situations, as PFF points out).
If the Lions decide that they'd like a sustaining bell-cow type of back to rely on when they're not passing 100 times a game, Mikel Leshoure is an experienced and tough "between-the-tackles" type of guy that they can call on for that. Overall, I like the group in Detroit despite the fact that it's a very pass-heavy club.
RB Eddie Lacy, RB James Starks, RB DuJuan Harris, FB John Kuhn, RB Johnathan Franklin, RB LaDarius Perkins, RB Michael Hill, RB Rajion Neal
The Packers went from 3.9 YPC as a team in 2012 to 4.7 YPC in 2013, and will challenge to eclipse that mark in 2014 with some continued health at the running back position. Eddie Lacy was named an All Pro after his rookie season, in which he ran for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns to lead the Packers' renewed rushing attack. He figures to improve in his second season with better understanding of scheme, better strength and conditioning, and with more experience.
Lacy was backed up last year by James Starks, who quietly averaged 5.5 YPC in that role, and provides a steady, veteran piece of depth. Re-entering the fold as a complementary piece is a guy that I actually was pretty impressed with in 2012, and that's DuJuan Harris. Harris missed 2013 with a knee injury but will now battle Johnathan Franklin and rookie LaDarius Perkins for a role and roster spot. Franklin was highly touted coming out of UCLA in 2013, didn't get much action in his first year, but could make a jump his second season. Perkins, out of Mississippi State, is another explosive space type of player that could factor in to the competition with the incumbent, Harris.
Undrafted free agent Rajion Neal is a long-shot for a roster spot, but has reportedly looked good in camp thus far.
RB Pierre Thomas, RB Mark Ingram, RB Travaris Cadet, RB Khiry Robinson, RB Tim Flanders, FB Erik Lorig, FB Austin Johnson
The Saints lost Darren Sproles, which hurts them in this series (they did pick up Brandin Cooks, which helps them in real life), but still have a very strong group at running back. Pierre Thomas didn't light up the boxscore running the football, is a prolific pass-catcher out of the backfield that led all running backs with 77 catches in 2013. He'll be highly targeted and a big part of the offense again in 2014, I figure, as will Mark Ingram, the Saints' 2011 first round pick.
Ingram showed some nice promise as a runner late in the season — and ended up rushing 78 times for 386 yards on 4.95 YPC — which is encouraging for the club, but will face some competition from the exciting Khiry Robinson. Robinson, a bruiser at 6'0, 220 pounds, rushed for 4.15 YPC in 2013 and has been getting nice reviews thus far in camps this offseason.
The wild cards
Just earlier this week, CBS Sports' Pete Prisco posited that Marshawn Lynch's reputation for going Beastmode during this season was a "myth," citing Lynch's decline from 5.0 to 4.2 YPC from 2012 to 2013 and his paltry 39 yards in Super Bowl XLVIII. Touché, but I say balderdash! Balderdash! Lynch easily perpetuated his nickname this year by remaining probably the toughest player to, like, actually tackle, to the ground, in the NFL. Per Pro Football Focus' charting, Lynch forced 75 "missed tackles" by opponents, most in the NFL by a long shot, and substantiating this, Football Outsiders determined that he led the NFL, again by a long shot, in "broken tackles" with 59.
Marshawn Lynch in the Super Bowl, Photo credit: Rob Carr, Getty Images
Yes, the defense led Seattle to a championship season, but it also helped that Beast Mode was going FULL BEAST MODE for the entire year. Lynch has been near the top of the league in broken tackles in years past but we had never tracked a year quite like last year. We marked Lynch with at least two broken tackles in every single regular-season game of 2013 except for the Week 13 Monday Night Football dismantling of the Saints, when he had none. (Lynch actually had just 45 yards on 16 carries in that game; the passing game provided all the offense.) The highlight of Lynch's season came against Houston in Week 4, when he broke four different tackles on a 43-yard run including safety Danieal Manning twice.
Obviously, Lynch remains the focal point for the Seahawks run game in 2014, but I list Seattle as a Wild Card because of the players behind him.
Robert Turbin is a powerful north-south runner with excellent ball security and pass protection chops, but doesn't have the elusiveness or dynamic playmaking ability as the player he's backing up. Behind Turbin, though, sits the enigma, 2013 2nd rounder Christine Michael, who is, no exaggeration, one of the most explosively athletic human beings currently in the NFL. Michael has true breakout potential but has almost no experience, so he remains a big question mark going forward.
After Michael, former LSU running back Spencer Ware fills out the depth chart, and provides Seattle with a guy that Pete Carroll called "the toughest runner in college football" in the 2012 season. Again, though, Ware is green and missed the 2013 season on the IR. The Hawks also drafted a fullback this year in Kiero Small, who closely resembles a 250-pound bowling ball. All in all, a highly talented group on the back-end with little experience past The Beast.
Jamaal Charles should be listed among the NFL's elite at running back, and his combination of speed, balance, and most importantly, vision, is constantly astounding. Charles isn't only a stronger-than-expected middle-of-the-field runner (39 broken tackles per FO in 2013, speaking of broken tackles), he's extremely elusive in space and an excellent receiver out of the backfield (70 receptions (!!) in 2013).
Charles is invaluable to the Chiefs' offense, but is also backed up by some exciting, albeit somewhat inexperienced players. It's just a group that I am intrigued by quite a bit. Knile Davis, like Christine Michael mentioned above, is a physical freak of nature (4.37 40 at 227 pounds) whose speed/size ratio seems to defy the laws of physics, but is mostly untested apart from spot duty and some playoff carries for an injured Charles last year.
Oh, and the Chiefs seem to have a type: really, really fast guys. Cyrus Gray, Joe McKnight (who is making some noise, y'all), and rookie De'Anthony Thomas all intrigue as potential backups and/or complementary pieces to the All Pro starter. Add in fullback Anthony Sherman, who has had a career renaissance of sorts in KC as well, and taken overall, it's a very interesting and deep, if wild-cardy, group.
Ben Tate, who has been a very consistently effective runner in his career thus far, will finally get the chance to be the feature-back, but he'll have a potentially very interesting committee behind him. It's highlighted by Terrance West, a Browns' third-round pick, and Isaiah Crowell, an undrafted pickup.
West came into the draft as one of the more underrated sleepers and the Browns obviously saw his talent to have taken him where they did. He profiles as an excellent backup to Tate, both in size and style as a bigger one-cut and go downhill runner, and should be one of the more interesting rookie backs to watch this year in Kyle Shanahan's zone scheme.
Similarly, Isaiah Crowell is one player I'll be watching closely. Crowell was a big-time 5-star recruit and SEC Freshman of the Year at Georgia but ended up at Jackson State after getting into trouble and transferring, and character red-flags likely dropped him out of the Draft altogether. That said, I think he's a fabulous talent, and he's a nice fit in Cleveland. He has a shot at the roster, and if he does make it, his upside is what helps land the Browns on my Wild Cards list.
With the departure of the Shanahans from Washington it will be interesting to see how the Redskins' running back philosophy changes. Regardless of scheme, though, I think there's some talent in this group, and it obviously starts with Alfred Morris. There are few running backs tougher than Morris in this league, and he's respected almost universally for this and his humble personality. Morris is among the league's best at breaking tackles and has combined this skill with excellent vision and surprising quickness to become one of the most productive backs the past two years.
Behind Morris, the Redskins have Roy Helu, another very physical back and good receiver, and Evan Royster, an experienced runner. Chris Thompson, one of my favorite change-of-pace space backs from the 2012 Draft, is a wild card that is set to return to the field after spending last year on the IR, and Lache Seastrunk is an explosive open-field runner with some intriguing potential in this offense. All in all, it's a talented and diverse group with some high-upside players sitting deep on the depth chart.
The Chargers are fairly underrated when it comes to their backfield, I think, and got even better with the addition of free agent Donald Brown. Brown has seen some criticism as a first-round bust and was also part of one of the funniest moments in NFL history (to me anyway, for some reason I find it seriously hilarious), but when no one was looking, had a really pretty good 2013 season in Indy. Brown finished second in Football Outsiders DVOA among running backs in 2013, outplaying Trent Richardson at times on his way to a 5.3 YPC average.
Brown joins Ryan Mathews, who also got the injury monkey off his back in 2013 and performed up to par (or closer to par), for a full season, with how the Chargers had expected him to when they selected him 12th overall. Danny Woodhead, meanwhile, caught 76 passes last year and quickly became a security blanket for Phillip Rivers, who also had a renaissance of sorts under Ken Whisenhunt. Whisenhunt is now gone, but with Kerwynn Williams and rookie Marion Grice in the fold, this is an intriguing group of backs in San Diego.
The dynamic duos
RB LeSean McCoy, RB Darren Sproles, RB Chris Polk, RB Matthew Tucker, RB David Fluellen, RB Henry Josey
The only reason that Philly (and New England and Pittsburgh) is down here and not up in the "elite" or "damn good" sections is really just a question of depth for me. That said, each of these next few teams have an extremely strong one-two punch at running back that could, in reality, compete with the best of teams in the NFL.
Obviously, LeSean McCoy is one of the best backs in the NFL, is the reigning rushing champion, and fits Chip Kelly's schemes like a glove as he's given the chance to get into space and do what he does best: make people miss. McCoy will continue to be prolific and dangerous in 2014, and will give defensive coordinators headaches as they try to scheme how to stifle him. The addition of Darren Sproles does ... not ... help.
As if the Eagles' offense wasn't already cool enough, the addition of Sproles to the equation makes for some fun scenarios. However it ends up looking, Kelly has two very dynamic and versatile players at his disposal, and this Eagles team is going to be breaking a lot of ankles (figuratively) this year.
RB Stevan Ridley, RB Shane Vereen, RB Brandon Bolden, RB James White, RB James Develin, RB Jonas Gray, RB Stephen Houston, RB Roy Finch
The Patriots went to LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden last year when Shane Vereen was injured and Stevan Ridley was coughing the ball up, but I would guess Ridley and Vereen will see their roles increase greatly again in 2014. Ridley is a talented and physical running back that can sustain the Patriots rushing attack, and Vereen is one of the best pass-catching running backs in the league. Used creatively — and possibly together on the field at the same time this year — Bill Belichick will have some interesting options in run-pass disguising.
RB Le'Veon Bell, RB LeGarrette Blount, RB Dri Archer, RB Alvester Alexander, RB Miguel Maysonet, RB Tauren Poole
Le'Veon Bell broke out as a rookie in 2013 and LeGarrette Blount more effective for the Patriots than most probably thought he'd be. Together, they pack a lot of punch and fit the Steelers' identity as a smash-mouth AFC North team. It remains unclear what kind of rotation will end up taking shape, but rest assured Pittsburgh will look to punish opponents physically with this combo.
RB Adrian Peterson, and some other guys.
I don't think you're allowed to talk about running backs and not mention Adrian Peterson. It's a law, or something, I heard. So, because of that, the Vikings get the nod. All-Day is the best running back of this generation, maybe ever, and when you watch him play football, you're witnessing history. Take it in this year, appreciate it, and marvel in his ability. The guys behind him are ... guys. I think rookie Jerick McKinnon is actually really interesting though, so that's something.
I'm not going to pretend I got all these into the correct groupings, and I'm sure I left a few candidates off the list, so in the comments below, let me know where you differ in opinion or let me know where I missed the mark.