NFL Team-by-Team Rankings: Running Backs

Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse more stories
NFL Team-by-Team Rankings: Running Backs
(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

I recently published an article which ranked all 32 NFL teams according to their starting quarterbacks.

The job was tedious, but it entertained me, so I decided to give it a try for running backs as well.

In this list, I am ranking teams according to the overall talent of the running backs who will receive the majority of carries in the 2009 season.

Teams on which one runner receives the bulk of the carries (e.g. Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings) will be ranked according to that player.

Teams which split carries (e.g. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart of the Carolina Panthers) will have any significant back listed and taken into account.

Please remember that a list of this nature is quite subjective. There are teams that could easily be moved higher or lower, depending on how that team’s talent is evaluated by the author.

Because of this, I look forward to the comments suggesting which teams should be moved around.

Here are the team-by-team rankings of NFL Running Backs.

32. Cincinnati Bengals: Cedric Benson / Kenny Watson

The Cincinnati Bengals finished 29th in the NFL in rushing yards in 2008. No significant additions were made, and the starting job seems to remain in former Chicago Bears bust Cedric Benson’s hands.

In 2008, Benson played 12 games, averaging only 3.5 yards per carry and finding the end zone just twice. Don’t expect greater dividends in 2009, as the only thing that may return to prominence is Carson Palmer and the Bengals passing game.

31. Cleveland Browns: Jamal Lewis

Jamal Lewis is a rarity in the modern NFL. He is a goal line back built for red zone carries that somehow landed a first-string gig. Led by the fleet-footed Lewis, the Browns rushing attack averaged only 3.9 yards per carry in 2008.

Lewis topped 1,000 yards for the seventh time in his career, but did so running for just 3.6 yards per attempt. Unless backup RB Jerome Harrison is given more touches, the Browns running game won’t be any more productive than 2008.

30. Seattle Seahawks: Julius Jones / T.J. Duckett

Part of me dies inside every time I write about the Seattle Seahawks running game. Despite being a Seahawks fan, I can still admit that the 'Hawks seriously lack rushing talent.

Julius Jones was the team’s leading rusher in 2008 with a paltry 698 yards. The highlight of the Seahawks running game is when T.J. Duckett comes in to fall over the goal line from two yards out.

If the Seahawks plan to win in 2009, it will have to come via the air attack.

29. Detroit Lions: Kevin Smith

Kevin Smith grew into a serviceable back throughout his rookie year, finishing with 238 rushes for 976 yards. Anyone would consider being benched for Rudi Johnson a career low, and after recovering the starting gig, Smith averaged 97 rushing yards and one touchdown per game over his last three starts.

Despite some promise, Smith still plays for the Lions. Detroit has no talent on the offensive line and will most likely face uncertainty from the quarterback position. Smith will probably rush for 1,000 yards, but it won’t be pretty and will often be in a losing effort.

28. Arizona Cardinals: Tim Hightower / Chris Wells

The Arizona Cardinals’ 2008 rushing campaign was notably unnecessary. Arizona finished dead last in rush attempts and total rushing yards, while finishing as one of only seven teams to average fewer than 4.0 yards per carry.

Don’t expect much more in 2009. Despite the addition of rookie Beanie Wells, the Cardinals will probably air it out just as much as 2008.

27. New England Patriots: Laurence Maroney / Fred Taylor

With the return of Jesus, the New England Patriots will probably not resemble their 2008 team, which finished sixth in the league in rushing.

Laurence Maroney returns in 2009 after missing most of the 2008 season for a plethora of reasons. His talent, combined with the veteran presence of Fred Taylor, will give the Patriots a consistent rushing attack.

Fortunately for the Patriots, they won’t need it very much, as Tom Brady will be throwing the ball early and often.

26. Denver Broncos: Knowshon Moreno / Correll Buckhalter

With two new running backs in town, history says that the Denver Broncos will do what they always do: produce 1,000-yard rushers. The question is whether or not the 1,000-yard rushers will come from the opening day roster and if their productivity will help the team win.

Moreno is a future star, and Buckhalter was excellent when called upon as a backup in Philadelphia. These two should fight through the growing pains, as each is adjusting to a new role in Denver, but with Mike Shanahan out of the picture in Denver, don’t expect their annual rushing parade to march again in 2009.

25. Baltimore Ravens: Willis McGahee / Le'Ron McClain / Ray Rice

The Baltimore Ravens' team rushing statistics last season are deceptive. Baltimore finished fourth in the NFL in rushing but did so while averaging only 4.0 yards per carry on a staggering 37 rushing attempts per game.

Total rushing yards: good. Rushing efficiency: not so good. Willis McGahee is falling apart, Le'Ron McClain is more of a fullback than anything else, and Ray Rice is still developing. With all three facing difficulties, the Ravens' rushing in 2009 won’t be anything of note.

24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Derrick Ward / Earnest Graham

The wild card here will be former Tampa Bay star Cadillac Williams. If the Caddy is ready to ride, he could steal carries from Derrick Ward, which could inhibit either back from finding a groove throughout the season.

Earnest Graham won’t compete for the job, as he is too valuable as a fullback to ever start at running back, but this efficiency won’t stop him from thieving goal line touches.

23. New Orleans Saints: Reggie Bush / Pierre Thomas

Unfortunately for Reggie Bush, godliness in video games does not equate to real life success. Unlike the 98-speed Reggie Bush who dominates video games, Bush is often tackled for a loss against real life opponents.

Pierre Thomas ran well last year when called upon to start, tallying six rushing touchdowns (and three receiving) in six starts to close out the season. While this rushing attack won’t blow anyone away, it should be enough to let the Drew Brees show pick apart opposing secondaries.

22. Kansas City Chiefs: Larry Johnson / Jamaal Charles / Kolby Smith

In an ideal world, Larry Johnson would receive the vast majority of carries in 2009, and the rest of the Chiefs running backs wouldn’t need to be listed here.

In reality, however, L.J. might throw a temper tantrum and get traded, leaving Charles and Smith to divvy up what’s left of the Chiefs rushing attack.

If this was L.J. circa 2005, the Chiefs would be top five on this list. As is, the world will be surprised if they can piece together a top-20 attack.

21. Green Bay Packers: Ryan Grant

Ryan Grant was a statistical anomaly in 2008, rushing over 300 times for 1,200 yards but finding pay dirt only four times.

He cemented his place as the Packers' starting running back with a stellar 2007 postseason and remains at the top of the depth chart entering 2009. He is a good-but-not-great runner who can complement Aaron Rodgers and provide a solid Packers rushing attack.

20. Oakland Raiders: Justin Fargas / Darren McFadden

The Oakland Raiders have the most potential of any backfield combination in first round draft picks RB Darren McFadden and QB JaMarcus Russell. Unfortunately, neither of these players can consistently find playing time.

RB Justin Fargas, who was a 1,000-yard rusher the year before McFadden was drafted, joins him at running back to provide stability in the ground game. If it weren’t for the Oakland Raiders offensive line, this duo could rush for more, but as it stands, the 2009 Raiders rushing attack will be in the middle of the pack.

19. New York Jets: Thomas Jones / Leon Washington

Thomas Jones had an outstanding 2008 campaign, finishing with 290 rush attempts for over 1,300 yards and 13 touchdowns. Jones has put together four straight 1,000-yard seasons, but he is aging in running back years, as he will be 31 at the start of the 2009 season.

Backup RB Leon Washington is an X-factor in any game, as he returns kicks and punts as well as contributing rushing and receiving yards.

The 2009 Jets rushing attack will be productive, but don’t expect a repeat of last year’s production from an aging Jones and a maturing Washington.

18. Indianapolis Colts: Joseph Addai / Donald Brown

It is unclear how much Donald Brown will factor into the Indianapolis Colts' playbook this year, but Joseph Addai has regularly split carries throughout his career and still been productive. Peyton Manning fuels the Colts offense, and because of this, their offensive line is geared towards pass blocking.

One of the greatest downfalls for the 2008 Colts was the inability to run the ball. Indianapolis finished dead last in the NFL in yards per carry, averaging only 3.4 per touch.

If Brown plays effectively in 2009, the Colts' rushing attack could improve greatly. Even with improvement, the ceiling for Indianapolis' rushing game seems to be the middle of the pack.

17. Buffalo Bills: Marshawn Lynch / Fred Jackson

This platoon favors the starter more than most on this list. Marshawn Lynch receives the clear majority of carries, but Fred Jackson’s contributions are significant, especially in the passing game.

Lynch has two straight 1,000-yard seasons to start his career, and if Terrell Owens can provide a spark to the Buffalo Bills passing game, then he will have more room to run in 2009. In the AFC East there isn’t any margin for error, so if Lynch improves the Bills could still falter.

16. Pittsburgh Steelers: Willie Parker / Rashard Mendenhall

It’s difficult to place a team who focuses on smash-mouth running this low on the list, but health problems have factored heavily into both Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall’s recent seasons.

A healthy attack could finish top 10, but if injuries arise, look for the Steelers' ground game to finish in the middle of the pack. This won’t bother the Steelers, however, as they have a knack for old school football and low scoring games.

15. San Francisco 49ers: Frank Gore

Despite the San Francisco 49ers' unsuccessful search for a new franchise quarterback, Frank Gore has been consistently productive in the Niners’ backfield. Gore is an all-purpose back whose impact cannot be measured by rushing alone, but that does not mean his rushing numbers should be discounted.

Shaun Hill and Alex Smith are unlikely to relieve any pressure from Gore in 2009, but he will get his statistics regardless.

14. St. Louis Rams: Steven Jackson

Similar to Frank Gore, Steven Jackson is a young, talented running back who is constantly hampered by inconsistency at the quarterback position. S-Jax, otherwise known as the only guy in St. Louis who plays football, is a beacon of light on a dark Rams depth chart.

It is yet to be seen if Jackson can hearken back to his 350-carry, 1,500-yard season in 2006, but the potential is there.

13. Houston Texans: Steve Slaton

Slaton sits immediately ahead of a number of talented backs on this list who he should outproduce in 2009. He had a phenomenal rookie campaign, making Houston fans completely forget the team’s 2006 snub of projected-star-but-now-not-a-star RB Reggie Bush.

If he continues to progress, he could easily lead the Texans rushing attack to new heights in 2009.

12. Jacksonville Jaguars: Maurice Jones-Drew

Fantasy managers worldwide celebrated the departure of RB Fred Taylor, making Maurice Jones-Drew the full-time back in Jacksonville. In three seasons in the NFL, MJD has never topped 200 carries but has produced excellent yards per carry while functioning as a touchdown machine (34 TDs in three seasons).

If his full-time work is half as good as his previous years, he will be a force in 2009.

11. Washington Redskins: Clinton Portis

Clinton Portis is a rarity in the NFL. He is a hard-nosed runner who averaged 4.3 yards per carry in 2008 and seemed to get just that every time he touched the ball. He isn’t flashy, and he might not be a home run threat, but it’s not unusual for him to top 100 yards without a single rush longer than 15.

Despite a lack of highlight reel rushes, Portis is a workhorse year in and year out. Newly acquired G Derrick Dockery will bolster the Redskins' offensive line, and with an improved Redskins defense, Portis could be given more carries to grind the clock with a lead.

10. Chicago Bears: Matt Forte

The surprise entry in this top 10 is Matt Forte and the Chicago Bears. Forte had an outstanding rookie season, rushing for over 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns. The arrival of Jay Cutler will raise the Bears offense to unprecedented heights, as he is the first star-caliber quarterback to suit up in Chicago in years.

If Cutler expands the passing game, Forte will have more lanes to run through, which could lead to a rushing explosion in Chicago.

9. Dallas Cowboys: Marion Barber / Felix Jones

Tashard Choice played well when called upon in 2008, but with Felix Jones healthy, Choice won’t factor into the 2009 playbook. Marion Barber and Jones are the ideal combination of power and speed, respectively, and have the combined talent to lead a fierce Cowboys rushing attack.

Regardless of eventual success, these two combine for more talent than most teams dream of having.

8. Miami Dolphins: Ronnie Brown / Ricky Williams / Pat White

Yes, I’m guilty of jumping the gun on this, but if/when Miami puts Pat White in the Wildcat formation, it is going to be a giant boom or a massive bust. Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams were dangerous as a running tandem in 2008, especially out of the Wildcat.

However, defenses soon figured out how to play the Wildcat: Stick all 11 defenders on the line of scrimmage with single coverage on any route-runners.

If White can execute the Wildcat, it will force the defense into more than single coverage deep, which will open up the line of scrimmage, which will do God knows what to the Miami Dolphins rushing attack.

The Dolphins have rushing talent even without White, but if he contributes this attack could be lethal.

7. New York Giants: Brandon Jacobs / Ahmad Bradshaw

Earth, Wind, and Eli? It doesn’t have the same ring to it, but with Derrick “Fire” Ward gone to Tampa Bay, it will have to do in 2009. Even with Ward gone, Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw are a legitimate rushing threat.

Jacobs is a MAN (ask LaRon Landry), and Bradshaw has shown moments of brilliance during his tenure in New York.

6. San Diego Chargers: LaDainian Tomlinson / Darren Sproles

Remember the days when LaDainian Tomlinson ruled the world? Me neither...

Entering 2009, Tomlinson is loaded with question marks, but scat-back Darren Sproles seems primed for a breakout year. These two combined could lead a dangerous rushing attack in 2009.

Philip Rivers has evolved into a top-tier quarterback, which should take significant pressure off of the San Diego running game in 2009. Even if the statistics don’t play in San Diego’s favor, the Chargers undoubtedly have one of the most talented backfields in the NFL.

5. Philadelphia Eagles: Brian Westbrook / LeSean McCoy

I debated leaving LeSean McCoy out of the title, but given the health of Brian Westbrook, it seems that McCoy could have an impact in his rookie year. Health issues aside, Westbrook might be the most dangerous all-around running back in the NFL.

It is important to note that he affects more than the Eagles’ rushing attack. If this were a list of leaders in yards from scrimmage, he would be on top. As is, he makes the Eagles a top-tier rushing threat in 2009.

4. Atlanta Falcons: Michael Turner

The most important part of the Atlanta Falcons' success last season was the production of RB Michael Turner. Matt Ryan was excellent under center, but Turner regularly strapped the team on his back and carried them.

How much? He led the NFL in rushing attempts, with a staggering 376 carries, while finishing second behind Adrian Peterson in rushing yards. As Ryan matures in 2009, Turner could be even more productive.

3. Tennessee Titans: Chris Johnson / LenDale White

If it weren’t for LenDale White’s portly nature, it could be said that Tennessee features the best one-two punch in the NFL (see below for which team actually does). Chris Johnson is Al Davis’ wet dream; a slashing runner with 4.3 (or better) speed.

White loves all-you-can-eat-buffets as much as he loves the end zone, and few runners are equally efficient in the red zone. As a tandem, this duo is difficult to beat.

2. Carolina Panthers: DeAngelo Williams / Jonathan Stewart

The Carolina Panthers easily have the most rushing talent of any team in the NFL. DeAngelo Williams’ league-leading 18 rushing touchdowns were a surprise in 2008, a year when most experts predicted he would lose his job to newcomer Jonathan Stewart.

Williams and Stewart complemented each other perfectly last season, rushing for over 2,300 yards on 357 carries to lead the Panthers to an NFL-best 30 rushing touchdowns. Look for repeat success in 2009.

1. Minnesota Vikings: Adrian Peterson

The top of this list belongs to, in my opinion, the most talented running back in the NFL. Peterson was a workhorse in 2008, leading the NFL with 1,760 rushing yards on 363 rushes.

The Vikings quarterback situation is still in turmoil, which isn’t good news for Peterson, who is getting used to seeing 11 defenders in the box. Regardless of how many defenders meet him at the line of scrimmage, Peterson will contend for the rushing title again in 2009.

That does it for my team-by-team running back rankings.

Please comment below with what you think I got right, what you think I got wrong, and what you would write if given this task.


Follow B/R on Facebook


Subscribe Now

By signing up for our newsletter, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.

Thanks for signing up.