Running backs are slowly turning into the “point guards” of the NFL. In the NBA, point guards (and even shooting guards) seem to be flooding the association without a sign of stopping anytime soon, creating a logjam at the position. This makes it more difficult for players at that position to draw a lot of interest from professional squads because of the immense competition that exists. Likewise, running backs are beginning to fall into that same situation, causing the spot on the field to be undervalued by many teams because the amount of halfbacks available in the draft, post draft, and in the free agent pool are at a premium.
This year’s draft marked a historical moment for running backs, but not on the good side of the spectrum. With the twenty-second pick in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft (fifty-fourth overall), the Tennessee Titans selected University of Washington tailback Bishop Sankey. While that action might not give away a lot on face value, the fifty-fourth overall pick in the NFL Draft became the lowest overall pick ever for the first running back to be selected in a given draft. As the NFL continues to evolve into a sport dominated by duel-threat quarterbacks such as Russell Wilson and hybrid receivers who can move into the backfield at any given time in a game, some teams continue to hold the originally game plan in tact. Even some organizations committed to the west coast styled offense maintain the idea that a versatile running back is important to an NFL roster.
Based on the ability and potential to produce at the position, here are the ten best running backs heading into the 2014 NFL season.
10. Zac Stacy, St. Louis Rams
From a productivity standpoint, Zac Stacy’s stats stood much taller than his actual height.
His 216 lbs. frame allowed him to bull rush at heavyset opposing front sevens and flaunt his elusiveness in the second level against defensive backs, providing him with very deceptive strength. Despite St. Louis selecting former Auburn running back Tre Mason in May’s draft, the Rams recently released Daryl Richardson who was actually the starting halfback for last season’s kickoff. Furthermore, with the addition of Mason and the surprise of Stacy, Isaiah Pead will most likely receive minimal touches in a backfield specializing in underrated talent.
Even if he ends up splitting carries with Tre Mason, Zac Stacy should be the day one starter going into the offseason, giving him the chance to once again prove why he deserved the first string job and produce significant numbers for the St. Louis Rams.
9. Bishop Sankey, Tennessee Titans
Maybe it is just me, but I love Bishop Sankey. It might just be the ring of his name. Whatever the case may be, the kid oozes talent in every facet of the game.
Sankey runs quick in and out of cuts, does not shy away from contact, can catch passes out of the backfield, and always has a relentless pursuit for the end zone. It became pretty clear this past season that Chris Johnson was no longer going to be “the guy” in Nashville anymore. Despite making a head-scratching first-round luxury pick in offensive tackle Taylor Lewan (a position that the team already had depth at), the Titans struck gold in the second round with Bishop Sankey, the running back for the future of the organization.
Sankey looks to be the bonafide-starting halfback in Tennessee and given Shonn Greene’s role with the team, the rookie should be looking at plenty of field time to show off the talents that every other team in need of a tailback could have had.
8. Matt Forte, Chicago Bears
The only reason why Matt Forte is not higher than number eight on this list is because of one thing: Jay Cutler.
Somehow, Matt Forte always seems to make the most of his situation on the field. If he is having a slow day running the football, he simply runs a route into the outside flat and makes his money on screen passes. If Jay Cutler is not throwing the ball well, he can place the ball in Forte’s hands and let him go to work, slicing up defenses at various levels.
“So why isn’t he higher on the list?” I am glad you asked! When Jay Cutler signed his new 7-year/$126 million deal, head coach Marc Trestman was entrusting him the offense for the immediate future. As Cutler has proven throughout his career, his arm is unsurpassed in strength throughout the league; however, his decision-making skill is not worthy of such a large contract (in my opinion).
I firmly believe that Matt Forte will take a hit in the production department given Cutler’s inability to make the right decisions at the right times.
7. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Le’Veon Bell was a really nice surprise last year for NFL fans, particular those in Pittsburgh.
Known for his tough running and hole-hitting demeanor regarding the line of scrimmage, Bell showed off some speed that most professional scouts could not have gathered from his collegiate career given his style of play. Newly drafted hybrid back Dri Archer out of Kent State is sure to get some carries, playing the role of Darren Sproles (a backfield and receiving threat) for the Steelers this season. Regardless of Archer’s touches, it seems pretty clear that Le’Veon Bell is the number one running back on the roster, especially with former Steeler backs Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer no longer with the team.
With two other receiving threats in Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery gone as well, Bell should be salivating at a chance to put up very impressive numbers this season in the “steel city.”
6. Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers
The reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, Eddie Lacy produced better statistics than most teams could have anticipated.
Remember that picture of Lacy in training camp in which he appeared to be overweight?
That speculation is long gone by now.
A backfield threat on an offense headed by one of the best instinctual quarterbacks in the NFL, Eddie Lacy does all of his damage hitting holes in the line of scrimmage with elusiveness comparable to that of an eighteen-wheeler. While other players in the Green Bay backfield have proven their ability to play efficient football when called upon, Lacy’s game is unmatched in Green Bay or elsewhere within the Packers’ division.
There appears to be no doubt that Lacy will have another productive season this year. If he gets involved in the passing game a little bit too, his return to the pro bowl should not be in question whatsoever.
5. Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks
A list of productive running backs could not be made without mentioning Marshawn Lynch.
“Beast Mode” is so relentless running the football, you almost fear for the safety of defenders trying to tackle him. His strength has never been doubted and Lynch does have reliable speed. But he is very savvy in the trenches, making subtle moves to shake off defenders and extend plays into the defensive backfield. While Robert Turbin and Christine Michael add depth to the Seahawks halfback cohort, they also at times absorb some carries that could take away (even just slightly) from Lynch’s productivity. Regardless of that, he is always in the running for an effective season.
If I could base his productivity on the amount of skittles the Seattle Twelfth Man throws at him during touchdowns, I would say that a game day this season should just be another day at the office for Marshawn Lynch.
4. Arian Foster, Houston Texans
Despite the health issues that kept him sidelined last year, Arian Foster appears eager and prepared to make the most of this coming season with a rebuilding Houston team.
I have him ranked at number four on my potential productivity list because of a significant reason: former Texan running back Ben Tate is now in Cleveland. Whether Foster was injured or healthy, Tate always provided reliable running for a team that did not have too much depth at the position.
With Tate’s departure, Foster should expect to regain his massive workload in the Texans backfield, reestablishing his speed, catching ability, and finesse to extend simple offensive plays into touchdowns, making newly hired head coach Bill O’Brien and disgruntled wide receiver Andre Johnson very satisfied individuals.
3. LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles
LeSean McCoy is not a good running back – he is a great running back.
I would agree that he is arguably the best running back in the league. Then again, that qualification is equally reputable for the top two running backs on this list.
McCoy did last season exactly what most defenses outside of Philadelphia expected him to do – outplay them. He flaunted his video game speed as well as his elusiveness against defenders, and his ability to move wherever he wanted to whenever he chose to. Shady looked like a recreated Barry Sanders at some points in the season, stopping on a dime, altering his route, and finishing in the end zone. The only reason I have him at number three on this list is because of the addition of Darren Sproles, who will undoubtedly take away some of McCoy’s productivity.
Even with the loss of DeSean Jackson and the pickup of Sproles, look for LeSean McCoy to continue his rampage on defenses around the league.
2. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs
Just watch the game film from the Kansas City Chiefs’ 2013 season. That should give you all the information you need to know about Jamaal Charles.
Jamaal Charles is, for lack of a better word, ridiculous. His quickness is evident to all, but his strength is not even accounted for. Once he gets into the second level, defensive backs trying to tackle him are in for a rude awakening. While flex-back Dexter McCluster did not impinge on Charles’s backfield productivity, his departure from Kansas City opens the door towards an even bigger role for Jamaal Charles.
Look for the Kansas City star to have another season full of energy and productivity, keeping quarterback Alex Smith and head coach Andy Reid looking like geniuses whenever they call a play designed for Charles.
1. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
Adrian Peterson is a different specimen than nearly every other athlete on the face of the universe.
It is one thing to recover and produce significantly after suffering from a torn ACL. But to recover in a quicker timetable than the average athlete (which is already faster than the recovery period of the general human population) and then rush for nine fewer yards than the single-season record held by Eric Dickerson is downright impossible for nearly 99% of professional football players.
Although Adrian Peterson’s 2013 season was viewed as somewhat disappointing given his historic season the previous year, it was not an unproductive year by any means. Every game, Adrian Peterson shows up, coining the nickname “All Day.” Trying to tackle him is not a fun task for any defense, and it usually requires the assistance of at least three or four tacklers on any given play.
With lingering instability at quarterback in Minnesota even with the drafting of Louisville star Teddy Bridgewater, Peterson should be all systems go for another hefty workload, especially after the departure of former Viking running back Toby Gerhart.
Written by Alex Floch, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
I am currently a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Growing up in a sports family, I have formed a distinct love for the industry. I enjoy writing about sports in my free time and hope to one day be able to pursue it as a career.