This was a difficult list to rank. There are very few teams in the league with a poor situation at running back. Some have a few more question marks than others. Running backs are easier to find, the job is a little easier than most in today's NFL, which accounts for that.
You could almost think about it in tiers, to use the old fantasy trope. Looking at the No. 11-20 spots on the list, I think you can make a case for any arrangement of those teams. After No. 21, teams have a heavier burden of proof, and a few at the bottom need to scrutinize the waiver wire as preseason cuts happen.
Feel free to debate and discuss in the comments.
1. Houston Texans
Arian Foster and Ben Tate combined for more than 2,100 rushing yards last season, the only duo in the league with more than 800 yards each. Foster even missed three games. Houston would be near the top of these rankings with Foster alone, but the tandem with Tate makes it hard to put anyone else in the top spot.
2. Carolina Panthers
From Cat Scratch Reader:
What has been billed as Double Trouble in the past becomes Triple Trouble in 2012. The Panthers added RB/FB Mike Tolbert to the backfield to go along with their already lethal tandem of RB DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. In 2008 Williams and Stewart became the first RB tandem to log over 1,100 yards a piece as they juked and stiff armed their way through NFL defenses. Panther fans expect a return to those days as the Panthers hope to strike more of balance between running and passing in 2012. Tolbert is a TD vulture and is expect to carry the rock inside on goal line situations. With the #6 ranked offensive line front of them the Panther running game should be fun to watch in 2012.
3. New Orleans Saints
The Saints' Hydra of running backs was one of the more impressive offensive features in the league last season. Darren Sproles led the bunch with an average of 6.9 yards per carry, and his 86 receptions were second on the team. Pierre Thomas topped five yards per carry. Watch for a healthy Mark Ingram to add even more pop to this unit. Plagued by injuries, the talented Chris Ivory could be the odd man out this year.
4. Chicago Bears
The addition of free agent Michael Bush gave the Bears more than enough confidence to play hardball with Matt Forte over a contract extension before ultimately signing him. Forte's talent saved Chicago's offense from Mike Martz, who seemed determined to get Jay Cutler killed on a seven-step drop. Bush would have been more than capable of being a feature back. Bush's power and Forte's finesse will be a problem for opposing defenses.
5. San Francisco 49ers
Frank Gore has always battled injuries, but managed to play all 16 games last season. He struggled in the second half of the season, failing to top four yards per carry in all but one of his final eight games. Despite that, the 49ers have Kendall Hunter behind him, who reminds me of Brian Westbrook, but hopefully with better health. They signed Brandon Jacobs to take on some of the short yardage duties, and rookie LaMichael James adds a playmaking threat as a change of pace guy.
6. Baltimore Ravens
From Baltimore Beat Down:
With four year veteran Ray Rice newly inked to a huge long-term deal, the best all-around running back in the NFL will plan on disrupting defenses and creating havoc every time he touches the ball. The bigger question is who will give him a breather every now and then. With Ricky Williams retiring, the competition appears to be between 2nd year player Anthony Allen and rookie Bernard Pierce. Allen played very sparingly in 2011, due to Williams as well as injury issues. The Ravens traded up to grab Pierce in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft and he appears to be the favorite to end up as Rice's backup.
7. Buffalo Bills
Fred Jackson was a machine last season, averaging nearly 100 yards per game until he broke his leg. Buffalo felt strongly enough about his recovery to sign him to an extension this spring. C.J. Spiller erased memories of his disappointing rookie debut when he was pressed into full time duties.
8. Jacksonville Jaguars
Maurice Jones-Drew may miss the early part of training camp because of some bad blood over his insistence on a new contract, a new contract that is not coming with two years left on the current one. As long as he does not miss the regular season, the Jaguars should be fine. MJD is one of the best in the league, arguably the best. The backup situation is a concern. Rashad Jennings missed all of last season with a knee injury. A capable runner, he is a few steps down from MJD.
9. Philadelphia Eagles
LeSean McCoy led the league with 17 rushing touchdowns last season. He should be just as effective this season, and was probably one of the first three picks in your fantasy draft. Behind McCoy the picture is a little murky. I like Chris Polk, if he really is healthy, to earn the second spot over Dion Lewis.
10. San Diego Chargers
From Bolts from the Blue:
Despite losing Mike Tolbert and Darren Sproles in the last two offseasons, the San Diego Chargers still have one of the best backfields in the league. Ryan Mathews averaged 4.9 yards per carry last season and would've been a strong MVP candidate if not for being slowed by an injury in the middle of the season (which contributed to the team's 6 game losing streak). He'll get even more touches this season and is backed up by former Pro Bowl RB Ronnie Brown. Le'Ron McClain was also brought in to help with the run blocking, which can only work to help the team's top 2 RBs.
11. Tennessee Titans
From Music City Miracles:
It will be tempting to put the Titans low on this list because of the horrible year CJ had last year, but look for him to bounce back in 2012. We aren't ever going to see him go for 2,000 yards again, but he is motivated this season. He has been at all of the offseason workouts and has put on 8 pounds of muscle since last season ended. 2012 should see him return to one of the elite backs in the league.
12. Minnesota Vikings
Adrian Peterson's arrest may seem a little sketchy, but his knee injury is not. His status for the start of the season is still unknown. The Vikings have Toby Gerhart, who lacks Peterson's ability, as do 98 percent of all running backs. Gerhart is still a good back, albeit more of the workhorse type versus Peterson's dynamism.
13. Kansas City Chiefs
You have to think the Chiefs' season would have been much different, had they not lost Jamaal Charles. Fortunately, they are set to get him back this season. Entering his third season, Charles should unquestionably establish himself as one of the league's elite runners. If Peyton Hillis can stay healthy, Kansas City has a very effective pairing, better than the 2010 duo of Charles and Thomas Jones.
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
From Bucs Nation:
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have to choose between two wildly different players this season: the human bulldozer with fumbling problems and pass protection issues by the name of Legarrette Blount, and the all-around back and Ray Rice-clone Doug Martin. In the end, we'll probably see the first-round pick prevail - but Blount will still get his touches. With speedy rookie Michael Smith the Bucs have another change-of-pace back who can take a few carries. This is a very inexperienced group, but it's also very talented. The players had better live up to that talent, because Greg Schiano plans to run them until they drop dead from exhaustion, and then some more.
15. Oakland Raiders
I am a huge Darren McFadden fan. I just wish he could stay healthy for a full season, something he has never done. The good news here is that Oakland could use Taiwan Jones more. Acquired from the Panthers, Mike Goodson can provide a nice change of pace. Considering the health concerns here, Oakland really needs to be smart about doling out carries.
16. Dallas Cowboys
DeMarco Murray did not excite many pundits prior to the 2011 draft, who pointed to his size and injury history. He still has a few critics, despite an impressive debut in which he shattered the team's single-game rushing record. Murray has more than ability to be a top back in the NFL. Felix Jones struggled with health last season, finally having shoulder surgery.
17. Cleveland Browns
I really struggled with putting the Browns here. Soon enough, Trent Richardson will remind fans why he was the exception, rather than the rule, for running backs picked in the top 10 spots of the draft. Richardson will be the man in Cleveland. He has to be considering the lack of depth behind him.
18. Atlanta Falcons
Michael Turner excelled after getting out of Tomlinson's shadow in San Diego, helping ease Matt Ryan's transition to the NFL. After topping 300 carries three time over the last four years, the Falcons plan to reduce the 30-year-old's workload. No problem there, as they have a talented bowling ball in Jason Snelling who could see more than just third down duties. Jacquizz Rodgers was a player that intrigued a draftniks, but the results were underwhelming in his rookie season.
19. New York Giants
Some felt like the Giants reached for David Wilson in the draft, but there was no way they could have had him by waiting it out until late in the second round. A reach or not, Wilson's talent is undeniable. Pairing him with Ahmad Bradshaw, the Giants' running game should be a help as the champs defend their title.
20. Detroit Lions
Last season the Lions really missed Jahvid Best, whose playmaking ability is a perfect fit for this offense. Kevin Smith looked like an effective replacement for a game, until his usual inability to stay healthy bubbled up again. Who knows what Mikel Leshoure is capable of after missing last season, and facing a two-game suspension.
21. Miami Dolphins
From The Phinsider:
Reggie Bush proved in 2011 that he could be a feature back in the NFL, and run between the tackles, en route to his first career 1,000 yard season. Behind Bush is sophomore rusher Daniel Thomas, who brings power to the running attack, and showed flashes of what he could be before injuries took their toll. Rookie Lamar Miller is going to prove to be a steal in that position, with a mix of Bush's speed with Thomas' power. Add in the ability of the backs, especially Bush and Miller, to catch passes while causing matchup problems, and the Miami running backs should help get the team started this season, giving the passing attack time to mature.
22. Seattle Seahawks
Marshawn Lynch may avoid suspension this season. Despite that, his past leaves some wondering how he might perform without a contract on the line. It's a fair question. Rookie Robert Turbin brings some receiving ability to the group. He should leap Leon Washington for the No. 2 running back job.
23. St. Louis Rams
Steven Jackson has been one of the league's best, most-consistent running backs since 2004. Unfortunately, he was also the only talented member of a putrid offense that leaned heavily on him. He will still get carries and yards, but his elusiveness has faded. Backup Isaiah Pead gives the group some much needed speed.
24. New England Patriots
Being a running back in New England is the definition of anonymous toil. Nevertheless, this is a group deep with talent. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen lead the group, both entering their second season with the team. Look for Ridley to pick up some of the goal line work following BenJarvus Green-Ellis' departure.
25. Washington Redskins
From Hogs Haven:
The Redskins are a hard team to rank in the RB position. Tim Hightower, Roy Helu, and Evan Royster are all prototypical Shanahan RBs where there are no super stars, but as unit, they are productive. Football Outsiders has Evan Royster ranked as their best DVOA rusher of all-time (though he only has 56 career rushing attempts). Many media outlets will discard the Redskins in this category given Washington doesn't have an Arian Foster single-back star, but with these RBs' athleticism and Shanahan's ability to stretch the field, the yardage will come as a unit.
26. New York Jets
Shonn Greene is the top running back for the Jets, and without Tomlinson, will see an increased workload. That could be a problem, as Greene's talent is best doled out as part of a committee. Joe McKnight will be expected to take on an increased role.
27. Cincinnati Bengals
Cincinnati is a team that could still use a hand at running back. With Green-Ellis they do have someone for short yardage work. Out of Belichick's offense, can he handle more work? Bernard Scott had a career high in carries last season, with 116, and a career low in yards per carry.
28. Denver Broncos
Willis McGahee, who turns 31 in October, is Denver's top back after a renaissance season in 2011. You wonder if rookie Ronnie Hillman will be the top tailback before the season ends. The Broncos also have Lance Ball as a competent member of the group. Auburn's Mario Fannin landed on IR before the season started last year, but his size and speed combination is something to watch. Speed will be important considering rushing attempts will be limited with Peyton Manning calling the shots.
29. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals should be higher on this list, but Beanie Wells' has yet to live up to the talent he has. Injuries have not helped that, and Wells is coming off knee surgery. Ryan Williams had knee surgery of his own recently, which will limit his role as a motivational tactic for Wells. With their top two running backs dealing with recent knee problems, it presents a significant concern for the Cardinals.
30. Pittsburgh Steelers
Until the Steelers get Rashard Mendenhall back, they are stuck near the bottom of this list. Mendenhall is bullish about his ability to get back on the field, but tearing his ACL so late in the season puts his status in jeopardy. Isaac Redman, the prototypical blue collar running back, will be on top of the depth chart to start the season. Jonathan Dwyer looked sharp in limited work before breaking his foot.
31. Green Bay Packers
The Packers are another team that could probably use some help when roster cuts come in September. James Starks and Alex Green are their top two runners. Green tore his ACL in his rookie season, and durability is an issue with Starks as well.
32. Indianapolis Colts
Donald Brown was consistently mediocre aside from his Week 15 game against Tennessee last season. Behind Brown is Delone Carter who fumbled three times last year. Fifth-round pick Vick Ballard will likely take Carter's spot in the power back role.