DeMarco Murray surprised the rest of the NFL in 2014, putting up huge numbers after a few decent, but injury-plagued seasons. He finished with 1,845 yards to lead the Dallas Cowboys to their best season in some time. Le'Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers, LeSean McCoy of the Buffalo Bills and Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks have also proved themselves capable of shouldering any load and coming out the other end looking fresh.
But not every team has the kind of workhorse running back who can take every carry. In fact, Murray, McCoy and Bell themselves could be looking at reduced roles heading into next season, given the talent behind them. No matter how good your starting running back happens to be, having a solid backup who can take advantage of a softened defense or start in case of emergency is a big deal in today's NFL.
Running backs have an short shelf life, and at times it feels like they're undervalued for what they do. It's sometimes difficult to tell which running back is the backup on any team, and the position typically sees a lot of turnover because rookies have more burst and stamina.
These men deserve appreciation, so we've elected to look at and rank the best No. 2 backs heading into next season. Obviously, it's not a definitive list, and depth charts are a weird thing sometimes, but for the most part these are the guys you can expect carrying the load behind the starters:
The Definitely Productive
One player on this list may be somewhat divisive, so we'll start with the other two. Ryan Mathews and Giovani Bernard are players who could be feature backs in the NFL and have ended up in backup situations.
Mathews has had some impressive seasons since being made a first-round pick in 2010, but he also missed 10 games in 2014, and another 10 combined over the three seasons prior. As a backup to DeMarco Murray, Mathews should get his carries and flourish against Murray-battered defenses.
Bernard, meanwhile, was passed by Jeremy Hill on the depth chart to no fault of his own, and will be doing everything he can to show he deserves more touches next season. Hill may be a better feature back, but few players possess Bernard's flash. He definitely has his uses, scoring five touchdowns last season.
Then there's Spiller, who is one of the most exciting backs in the league when he isn't limited with multiple injuries. He could easily go into the "question marks" category below, but the fit is just so perfect behind Drew Brees in the New Orleans Saints offense. We could finally see him reach his full potential behind the hard running of a resurgent Mark Ingram.
The Solid Backups
Jonas Gray, New England Patriots
Daniel "Boom" Herron, Indianapolis Colts
Montee Ball, Denver Broncos
Robert Turbin, Seattle Seahawks
Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills
James Starks, Green Bay Packers
Shane Vereen, New York Giants
This was the hardest tier to define because so many teams could use more production out of their backups, but the seven teams listed here should be content with their backfields heading into 2015. Shane Vereen is the most interesting name on this list, mostly because we have no idea what the Giants' depth chart is going to look like. Vereen could be incredibly productive for the Giants, and he was initially going to be in the category above this one. But with Andre Williams and Rashad Jennings also competing for attention, he was dropped slightly.
Fred Jackson has been a productive back for years in Buffalo, and he should flourish behind LeSean McCoy, who the team traded for this offseason. Montee Ball, when healthy, is an effective runner, which can also be said for Robert Turbin, who may be responsible for shutting down the Christine Michael hype train. Guys like Jonas Gray and James Starks are just OK, and can be plugged and unplugged into the game at any time for any reason.
The Question Marks
This may be a small category, but it's a significant one. All the players on this list are there for different reasons:
-- Williams has been a productive running back over the course of his career, but he's been inconsistent of late, and injuries have limited him so much that he may not be able to carry the load Le'Veon Bell goes down.
-- Richardson has remained relatively healthy and certainly looks the part of an every-down NFL running back. But in four seasons since being named the No. 3 overall pick, he has disappointed at each stop. This may be his last chance to keep earning a paycheck in the NFL.
-- Bush joins a 49ers team that has had Frank Gore behind in the backfield for ages and is now transitioning to an offense led by Carlos Hyde. Bush faces an uncertain 2015, with Kendall Hunter also in the mix in San Francisco, and a recent history of injuries and poor productivity.
-- Ridley looked like a surefire NFL feature back with the Patriots as recently as 2012, but the wheels fell off in 2013 and he missed 10 games due to injury in 2014. Ridley has the potential to earn a starting role but he's got a long way to go to get back to that point.
Whatever the reason, the backs above could struggle to fill their high potential.
A Lot To Prove
Joseph Randle, Dallas Cowboys
Jerick McKinnon, Minnesota Vikings
Charles Sims, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Fozzy Whittaker, Carolina Panthers
Knile Davis, Kansas City Chiefs
Lorenzo Taliaferro, Baltimore Ravens
Alfred Blue, Houston Texans
Players in this tier have shown flashes, but haven't spent much time in the league yet. Joseph Randle, for example, is hoping to start for the Cowboys, but he didn't get many opportunities to show his stuff behind DeMarco Murray a season ago. Still, he averaged 6.7 yards per carry on 51 carries last season, and he could have a bright future in the league if he stays out of trouble.
Blue and Davis showed flashes behind Arian Foster and Jamaal Charles, respectively, but they too have a ways to go as second-year players. You can expect to find out a little more about them this season, but they may not spend that much time on the field unless tragedy befalls the superstars in front of them.
Todd Gurley, St. Louis Rams
Melvin Gordon, San Diego Chargers
Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins
David Cobb, Tennessee Titans
T.J. Yeldon, Jacksonville Jaguars
Duke Johnson, Cleveland Browns
Matt Jones, Washington
Tevin Coleman, Atlanta Falcons
David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
Ameer Abdullah, Detroit Lions
Jeremy Langford, Chicago Bears
Sussing out the impact of rookies is a complex task, mostly because running back is a complex position. Running back depth charts are constantly changing. Gurley and Gordon seem like the two most likely rookies to start from the outset of the 2015 season, but Tre Mason and Branden Oliver are good enough to cut significantly into their workload.
It has been said before: This year's running back class is stellar, with players selected in several different rounds who look like future stars. Players like Yeldon, Ajayi and Coleman should challenge for starting roles right away, though all would slot nicely into backup roles, too. Players like Johnson, Cobb and Jones look destined for supporting roles, at least for now, but physically they are NFL-ready.
The future is bright for most of these players, but it's anybody's guess where they'll actually be on their respective depth charts by the end of the regular season.