Ranking the running backs, team by team


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Jan 22, 2006
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Ranking the running backs, team by team
Tim Gerheim / FootballOutsiders.com
Posted: 11 hours ago

At some positions, depth is exclusively a matter of injury. The starter is the starter, and if all goes well, he's always the starter. Peyton Manning doesn't come off the field in certain formations. The Chiefs don't spell Willie Roaf on some plays or take him out for a series to keep him fresh. Evaluating those positions is about ranking the starters first and foremost, then making small adjustments based on the quality of the backups and the likelihood that they will play.

The same is not true for running backs. Herm Edwards wants the Chiefs to run the ball more than 500 times this year, and no team had fewer than 360 rushing attempts in 2005. 350 carries is heavy use for a single back. That leaves a lot of work for the rest of the depth chart. Add in the increasing number of teams that use a running back committee rather than a clear first-string starter, and it's clear that when ranking the NFL's 32 teams on their running backs, you have to consider more than just 32 players.

These rankings started with the productivity of each team's halfbacks in 2005 and then were adjusted subjectively for things like age (the cruel reality of the NFL, especially for running backs), the quality of fullbacks, and the likelihood of improvement or decline. Teams like the Giants, Falcons and Cardinals (including Edgerrin James) would top the charts based on last year, but they all rely heavily on aging backs likely to pull either a Curtis Martin — an injury-plagued season after a career year at age 31 — or a Marshall Faulk — a slow decline after a consistently productive career. The teams that top the rankings below have great starting backs who are relatively young and durable, with good players available behind them — and ideally great fullbacks in front of them.

You'll see a lot of stats you recognize here, and a couple you may not: DPAR, or Defense-adjusted Points Above Replacement, and DVOA, Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. Both stats take every single play during the season and compares it to the league average based on situation and opponent, rewarding players for strong performance on third down and in the red zone and giving them less credit for meaningless gains like a nine-yard catch on third-and-12. The difference: More DPAR means a running back with more total value, while a higher DVOA means a running back with more value per play. This page lists these advanced stats for all running backs in 2005, both rushing and receiving.

1. Seattle
The Seahawks' ground game starts with MVP Shaun Alexander. Alexander is still on the right side of 30 and hasn't had an inordinate number of carries in his career, so although he had a dangerous amount of work in 2005, he still has a good chance to stay healthy in 2006. If he does get injured, backup Maurice Morris has a solid track record with a 4.7 yards-per-carry average in four seasons. In last year's playoffs, the Seahawks' offense had no problem against Washington — the second-best defense in the league according to DVOA — even though Morris played the lion's share of the game after Alexander suffered a concussion. And if you're enough of an NFL follower to be reading this article, you probably already know Mack Strong's name — and considering how anonymous most NFL fullbacks are, that says a lot.

2. San Diego
The Chargers just missed the top spot because LaDainian Tomlinson has not been as good the last two years as Shaun Alexander. Woe are the Chargers, no doubt. Their starter is easily one of the top five backs in the league, he is only 27, and he has only missed one game in his career. In limited action, top backup Michael Turner has looked good enough to start for several teams. He and fullback Lorenzo Neal sported the two best rushing DVOAs in the league last year. Neal is also one of the best blocking fullbacks in football.

3. Washington
The Redskins may be a surprising choice at third, but they belong in the conversation with their neighbors in this list. Only five running backs posted more DPAR last year than Clinton Portis, and he is younger than any of them. After his rocky first year in Washington, Portis appears comfortable in Joe Gibbs' one-back offense. Last year, according to the Football Outsiders game charting project, only the Colts and Patriots ran behind a fullback less often than the Redskins. Ladell Betts and Rock Cartwright work well as change-of-pace backs — Cartwright in particular deserves more playing time — although neither has the all-around talent to really take over for Portis should he suffer a major injury.

4. Cincinnati
Rudi Johnson is for real. Trading Corey Dillon to make room for Johnson now looks like the smartest thing the Bengals have done since drafting Carson Palmer. Or maybe since they hired Marvin Lewis. These Bengals have been on a roll lately. Johnson is young and doesn't have very many carries under his belt, so he's one of the safest bets among the top backs to stay healthy. Johnson has a strong backup in Chris Perry, a one-time first-round pick who also is one of the more misunderstood players in the NFL. By reputation, Perry is a great outlet receiver but nothing special as a runner. Our numbers say Perry did well when he carried the ball, but his -5.4 DPAR was the second-worst receiving total for a running back in 2005. Sure, he had 52 catches, but many of them were meaningless: only 7 of his 17 catches on third or fourth down actually converted for a new set of downs, and Perry actually lost yardage on four of his receptions. Jeremi Johnson is (characteristically) underrated at fullback; the Bengals run behind a fullback more than any other team in the league, 93 percent of the time.

5. Kansas City
Running back depth charts, it turns out, shake out into two general groups. Some teams have multiple backs, including fullbacks, who are very good at what they do. Sure, the backup isn't as good as the starter (except in Baltimore, more on that in a bit), but compared to his fellow backups he's a valuable, quality player.

Other teams have running back depth charts that look like quarterback depth charts: the starter is so much better than the backups that it would be a disaster if he were injured. The Kansas City Chiefs are kings of the second group. Larry Johnson had the best running back season in the league last year — yes, according to DPAR, he was more valuable than Shaun Alexander — and he only started nine games. He's young. He doesn't even have two seasons' worth of carries for his career. If this were a simple ranking of running backs, he would be at the top.

But this is a depth chart ranking. Priest Holmes has one foot in the grave, NFL-ogically speaking, and the team's other backups are Dee Brown, Quentin Griffin, and some undrafted rookies. On top of that, standout fullback Tony Richardson left for Minnesota, leaving no one on the roster who has ever started at fullback. Although the Chiefs only run behind fullback 60 percent of the time, the lack of experience at the position is still worrisome. The Chiefs squeak into the top five because they have the best running back in football, and nothing else; if Larry Johnson stays healthy and effective, nobody will notice the lack of depth behind him.

6. Baltimore
Jamal Lewis: great Ravens running back, or the greatest Ravens running back? A year ago, Lewis was 13.1 points below replacement level. So the Ravens replaced his backup, Chester Taylor, who was more effective. They brought in Mike Anderson, who was much more effective last year. (Some of this was the difference between the Denver and Baltimore offensive lines, of course.) Lewis had a lot of reasons for performing poorly last year — chiefly injury and incarceration. This year he's in danger of losing his starting job. A depth chart of Mike Anderson backed up by Jamal Lewis, led by fullback Alan Ricard, looks formidable indeed. If Lewis makes an unlikely return to near his 2003 form, Baltimore will have the best running back group in the league.

7. Chicago
They lack the top-end talent of the teams ranked above them, but the Bears have the deepest running back pool in the league. On the right teams, Thomas Jones, Adrian Peterson, and Cedric Benson could all start. Jones was the most effective last year, ranking 11th in DPAR, but Peterson was the most efficient: he led all backs with at least 75 carries in rushing DVOA. Benson held out and got injured, so he really didn't contribute anything last year, but if your third running back was the fourth overall pick in the draft only one year ago, you have some strength at the running back position.

8. Pittsburgh
The Steelers prepare — a tear in their eye — to begin life after Bettis. Duce Staley will try to do a better job this year of staying healthy and being the MicroBus. Willie Parker is the Steelers' little engine that could. He looks like a poor man's Clinton Portis, built the same way and given a similar number of carries in his first year as a starter. Apparently the difference between a second-round pick and an undrafted free agent is the difference between 5.5 and 4.8 yards per carry. With Parker starting and Staley playing the role of short yardage battering ram, all behind superlative blocker Dan Kreider, the Steelers shouldn't miss Bettis' production on the field nearly as much as his leadership off it.

9. New York Giants
Tiki Barber had a phenomenal 2005 season, gaining 1,860 rushing yards, the 11th-highest total in NFL history. But 31-year-old running backs don't repeat career years, particularly career years that also included a career-high 357 carries. Only two running backs in NFL history managed 1,500-yard seasons at age 31 or older: Curtis Martin and Walter Payton. With increased age and usage comes increased chance of injury and/or slowdown. Brandon Jacobs provided some of the thunder-and-lightning counterpunch last year that the Giants never quite got out of Ron Dayne, particularly late in the season as he got better at not running so upright. But the Giants would not be happy if Jacobs had to start for an extended period of time.

10. New England
A banged-up Corey Dillon who missed four games and came off the bench in two others was still worth over 20 points above replacement level. With first-round pick Laurence Maroney available this year to spell the aging Dillon, the Patriots shouldn't have to go so far down the depth chart that the backup fullback gets over 50 carries again. Even though he'll be 32 at midseason, Dillon should be healthy and effective enough, when paired with Maroney, to allow Kevin Faulk to return to his proper role as third-down back. That, in turn, will help Faulk rebound from the third-worst rushing DVOA in the league last year.

11. Arizona
It almost seems wrong to rank the Cardinals' backs so high. The Cardinals, with Marcel Shipp and J.J. Arrington, are in hot competition with the Chiefs for the distinction of having the worst backup rushers in the league. Denny Green and company obviously thought so as well, and that's why they brought in a back as superlative as Edgerrin James. He has been in the top 10 in DPAR for the last three years, including third last year. But he has a lot of mileage on his tires, and research you can find in Pro Football Prospectus 2006 indicates that he's due for a drop in yards per carry — and that's before taking into account the atrocious Arizona offensive line. He'll also have to get used to running behind fullback Obafemi Ayanbadejo; the Colts ran with a fullback a league-low 27 percent of the time last year, while the Cardinals did it a league-average 77 percent of the time.

12. Tampa Bay
Cadillac Williams won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors even while being banged up for much of the middle of the season. If he can improve his strength and conditioning for 2006 so that he is able to play all season at the level he played at last September, the Bucs could ride back to the playoffs in style. Michael Pittman is in the running for best backup/third-down back in the NFL. Nobody runs a wheel route better than Pittman. "Fullback" Mike Alstott may not be the best short-yardage back in the league anymore, but he is probably the best-loved by his fans. The real fullback will be veteran Jerald Sowell, formerly of the New York Jets, who was among the league leaders in receiving DVOA for years and years before crashing down to earth with an awful season in 2005.

13. Atlanta
31-year-old running backs don't repeat career years. It's as true now as it was four paragraphs ago. With 90 fewer carries in 2005 than Tiki Barber had, Dunn isn't as much of a risk to break down physically. Of course, Dunn gives up 20 pounds to Barber and at least 50 to any NFL linebacker, so the carries may affect him disproportionately, and Dunn has set career highs in carries in consecutive years. T.J. Duckett is the bowling ball to Dunn's shuttlecock; with Jerome Bettis retiring, the Falcons probably have both the lightest and the heaviest regularly contributing running backs in the NFL. But Duckett had his worst year as a pro in 2005, so rookie Jerious Norwood could take over as Dunn's primary backup.

14. Minnesota

The staff of Football Outsiders has loved Chester Taylor ever since he outplayed Jamal Lewis (on a per-play basis) in 2004 and then again in 2005. He has a lot of upside, especially running behind former Chiefs fullback Tony Richardson. However, this is another team like Chicago, with good depth and some potential but not a lot of top-shelf talent. Last year Mewelde Moore was worth nearly 10 DPAR each as a rusher and as a receiver; if Taylor can establish himself as the starter, Moore would be a superlative third-down back. The Vikings round out the depth chart with Ciatrick Fason and the most euphonious name in the league, Adimchinobe Echemandu. The Minnesota backs have a lot of potential if they can each just find a niche and fill it.

15. Denver
We trust Mike Shanahan. But we just can't trust Ron Dayne. He did look good in limited action last year, posting the second-highest DPAR and fourth-highest DVOA of any running back with fewer than 75 carries. Still, he's Ron Dayne. Tatum Bell shows flashes of greatness, but Shanahan has shown that he doesn't fully trust Bell — in particular, he doesn't want him carrying the ball more than 15 times a game. It was certainly a risk letting Mike Anderson leave for Baltimore, and it shows Shanahan's faith in Dayne. It could always be worse: The Broncos could be relying instead on their 2005 third-round pick. Who was that guy again?

16. New Orleans
So begins the career of Reggie Bush, messiah. It's probably a shock to him to move to a team, and particularly a backfield, that's not as talented as what he had around him at USC. The popular perception is that the Saints didn't really need Bush (though they're glad to have him) because Deuce McAllister is a franchise back. He isn't; he's not consistent enough to help the offense stay on the field and score points. But like Jamal Lewis, McAllister would make one of the best (and least affordable) backup running backs in the league. Aaron Stecker and fullback Mike Karney are excellent complementary pieces.

17. Oakland
While the franchise was collapsing all around him, LaMont Jordan quietly posted the 10th best combined (rushing and receiving) DPAR among all running backs. However, that rank comes with an asterisk. There was a big gap between the top nine elite backs and Jordan, who had just two-thirds as many DPAR as ninth-ranked LaDainian Tomlinson. Jordan also doesn't have the supporting cast that guys like Tomlinson and Clinton Portis enjoy. When short-yardage bruiser Zack Crockett is the second-best back on your team, you have to really hope the best back on your team doesn't get hurt.

18. Miami
This is the Ronnie Brown show. Now that Ricky Williams is gone, the Miami backups are pictured in the Football Outsiders dictionary under "replacement level." But our KUBIAK projection system loves Brown — so much so that we put him on the Pro Football Prospectus 2006 cover. As long as he stays healthy, Brown should be good for over 1,300 yards. And that as much as anything will make Daunte Culpepper's knee feel better.

19. Carolina
We at Football Outsiders don't care for DeShaun Foster. He's an inconsistent boom-or-bust back, mixing his highlight-reel runs with too many runs for approximately zero yards on early downs. But apparently the Panthers do like him, and they've found a way to win with him: the "Pass to Steve Smith" method. Being in unfavorable down-and-distance situations seems almost to play into Jake Delhomme's swashbuckling style of quarterbacking. First-round pick DeAngelo Williams should provide some more consistency, however. If there's one thing you can expect out of the player with the NCAA record for most career all-purpose yards and the fourth-most career rushing yards, it is consistency. A running back's college career just simply isn't long enough to run up huge numbers if he's only playing well half the time.

20. Buffalo
Take the Dolphins prediction, replace "Ronnie Brown" with Willis McGahee, and you basically have the lowdown on the Bills. The differences are slight. Ratchet down the prediction for McGahee a little bit because of that pesky "as long as he stays healthy" proviso. He has some injury history, something about gruesomely blowing out a knee on national television in January, 2003. The one thing the Bills have going for them over the Dolphins is that backup Shaud Williams is young yet and has shown some promise, so he could still turn into a solid backup. With older backups, unless they're Priest Holmes, you know what you've got.

21. Philadelphia
The Eagles are like Chiefs Lite. He's no Larry Johnson, but Brian Westbrook is a very good back in his own right, and he's a perfect fit in Andy Reid's offense. Trouble is, he's a little guy, and he's never been the most durable. The Eagles learned last year how fun it is to try and run their offense through Ryan Moats and Reno Mahe, and they would prefer not to do it again. They don't really have a lot of other options; Correll Buckhalter will never play a full NFL season unless the nymph Thetis dips him in the river Styx — and even then he would probably still hurt his ankle.

22. Dallas
Like the Bears and Vikings, the Cowboys are a team whose running backs are fairly deep but don't show much superstar upside. Julius Jones has a tendency to get banged up, and that tends to get him stowed in Bill Parcells' doghouse. Marion Barber showed some ability as a rookie, but it was the ability to play up to the level of about ... Julius Jones.

23. Cleveland
Everyone takes the success of Reuben Droughns in Cleveland as final clinching proof that Mike Shanahan really knows how to find good running backs. Except Droughns really didn't have that great a season in Cleveland last year, posting just the 39th-best DPAR and 41st-best DVOA. Maybe it's something in the mountain water. It seems to work in Coors commercials. Even on the shores of Lake Erie, Droughns and Lee Suggs, if he can ever stay healthy, could make a decent tandem, and they should be able to do some real damage this year behind the revamped Browns line.

24. St. Louis
Remember the good old days, when everyone wanted the first fantasy draft pick in order to take Marshall Faulk? He averaged over five yards a carry and 10 yards a catch from 1999 through 2001. Now he's a backup and mentor with balky knees, considering retirement. Take a moment to appreciate the greatness that was Marshall Faulk. Too often in our quest to find the next great thing, we don't properly appreciate the last.

Steven Jackson is the next thing, at least for the Rams. He's in that middle tier of good backs with guys like Thomas Jones and Domanick Davis. He seemed a strange fit in St. Louis — a big, powerful back stuck in Mike Martz's offense — so new head coach Scott Linehan may be able to get even more out of him. Faulk should still be a serviceable third-down back if his knees don't betray him, but our advanced stats say that even his receiving value has fallen to league-average levels.

25. Houston
Domanick Davis is a good back, but he's inconsistent. Part of that is a reflection of playing for the god-awful Texans, but he also misses a few games a year to injury and plays banged up a lot of the time. Vernand Morency has much of the same talent as Davis but not as much feel for the game. Davis is a much better receiver. Expect the Texans to use the fullback, newly acquired Jameel Cook, much more than last year. New head coach Gary Kubiak's Broncos ran behind the fullback 80 percent of the time, while the Texans did it just 53 percent of the time last year.

26. Indianapolis
It's one thing to bring in a rookie running back and then design a system around him, like Reggie Bush in New Orleans. It's quite another to bring in a rookie running back, ask him to replace the second-most productive back in football, and require him to fully assimilate a complex, one-back offense using a lot of no-huddle. Joseph Addai has his work cut out for him. One of Edgerrin James' most underrated skills in the Colts offense was his ability to identify and pick up the blitz, which enabled him to stay on the field almost every down.

To the extent Addai can internalize his blocking assignments and learn to read Peyton Manning's chicken dance, he'll enable the offense to run like the well-oiled machine it has been. When he doesn't know what he's doing, markedly less athletic players like Dominic Rhodes and James Mungro will have to come in. That throttles down the offense, and it forces the Colts to huddle to make substitutions when Manning and the coaches may prefer to keep the pressure and pace up. And you know what that means: that patented Peyton Manning bitter beer face. No one wants to see that.

27. Detroit
Football Outsiders is still trying to get the last of the egg off our faces after putting Kevin Jones on the cover of Pro Football Prospectus 2005. Something about making a football omelet comes to mind, but we'll save the elucidation of that metaphor for a more intrepid article. In the meantime, we expect a modest bounce back from Jones. Disappointing as he may have been, opponents still preferred the games he missed. The names Shawn Bryson and Artrose Pinner have never struck fear into the hearts of any NFL defender. A full year with a healthy Cory Schlesinger should provide Detroit a big boost. The Lions run behind the fullback 90 percent of the time, so the running game really missed the lead blocker for much of 2005.

28. Tennessee
It's one thing to bring in a rookie running back that draws comparisons to some of the greatest backs in NFL history. It's quite another to bring in a guy who careened down the draft boards due to an injury at his pro day, a bit of a perceived attitude problem, and a general inability to push away from the table. That doesn't mean LenDale White is no good. It means that he's no lock to be good. And since Chris Brown and Travis Henry are pretty much locks to be about average, the Titans look unlikely to have a particularly good group of running backs this year.

29. San Francisco
Cadillac Williams won Offensive Rookie of the Year, but he didn't even have the highest rushing DPAR among rookie running backs. That title belonged to Frank Gore of the lowly 49ers. The Kevan Barlow experiment has been a complete failure, but Gore and Maurice Hicks have the potential to be a serviceable running back pair. Of course, when you have "potential" to be "serviceable," you fall into the range of damning with faint praise. And that's right about 29th out of 32.

30. Jacksonville
All NFL running backs can be considered old at the age of 30, but in terms of physical wear and tear, Fred Taylor is the oldest 30-year-old running back around. Taylor has entered the inevitable decline phase of his career, and while he will probably remain the starter for the Jaguars in 2006, he won't be the most effective rusher. That will be Greg Jones, the man without a position. The team seems to think of him as a fullback, but that title doesn't fit unless he's a fullback in the mold of Mike Alstott circa 1999.

31. Green Bay
If Taylor is the oldest 30-year-old running back in the league, Ahman Green is very clearly the oldest 29-year-old running back in the league. He too has entered the inevitable decline phase of his career. He may experience something of a bounce back, but it will be a stretch for him to get back to 1,000 yards. His longtime fullback William Henderson, a major part of the offense, is 35 and overdue to start fading as well. Najeh Davenport and 2005 surprise Samkon Gado are ready to take the mantle, but each had his shot last year and neither set the frozen tundra on fire. This is yet another team that has depth but lacks any real star power.

32. New York Jets
Curtis Martin is 33, and the inevitable decline phase of his career hit him like a ton of bricks in 2005. Running backs just don't rebound from the kind of season Martin had last year. It's time for the young Jets to step up, but there's not much there. Derrick Blaylock failed to accomplish much of anything in his first year with the team, and rookie Cedric Houston was mediocre. Veteran fullback Jerald Sowell is gone, replaced with B.J. Askew, who has very little experience aside from special teams. It will be easier going for the backs behind first-round offensive linemen D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold, but by midseason the Jets may find themselves wishing they had found a way to get Reggie Bush. The Official Football Outsiders Favorite Rookie, fullback Nick Hartigan, has a better chance of making the roster with New York than just about any other team in the league.
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