Escobar is clutch
Join Date: Sep 2010
Casino cash: $960461
NFL's top 10 RB combos -Insider-
Maurice Jones-Drew last year seemed to define what an NFL workhorse running back should look like. In a season when the Jacksonville playbook was essentially just a picture book with MJD's face on every page, he ran the ball 343 times for 1,606 yards. No other NFL runner was within 40 carries of MJD (two games' worth). No other Jacksonville runner topped 130 yards.
Yet, if you took every running back from the past 25 years, put them together in a group and ranked them based on most carries in a season, not one runner the past five years in the NFL would even crack the top 25. MJD's quintessential workhorse season, the one that has him waiting for a new contract? It ranks No. 50.
In reality, the traditional "bell cow" back by the old standards doesn't exist. Larry Johnson might have been the last of its kind. He carried the ball 416 times in 2006 at his physical peak and, in a good lesson of what 416 carries in 16 games can mean, rushed the ball a little more than 500 times the next five years … the rest of his career. Whether NFL teams learned the lesson from Johnson's example or the life teachings of "Varsity Blues" ("It's not worth it"), the don't-take-him-out approach to running backs is hard to find in the modern game.
Most teams diversify by design or necessity, so instead of ranking running backs, let's rank the manner in which groups are deployed, the best backfields in terms of overall efficiency and productivity entering 2012. (So don't cite an incredible 2010 for one guy, or forget about injuries for another.) For this exercise, I've excluded the running quarterback as a part of the mix, mainly because in large part, the "running QB" isn't by design.
1. Carolina Panthers
(Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert)
Last year, Carolina ranked No. 1 in the NFL in overall rushing efficiency. And while Cam Newton's 706 yards helped the cause, the Panthers' backfield is loaded because there's high productivity, and no drop-off. Both Stewart and Williams averaged 5.4 yards per carry, fumbled one time combined and were Nos. 2 and 3 in the NFL in DVOA, meaning both were far better than the average runner in producing yards in any given play.
Then they went and added Tolbert, who combines the appeal of trying to tackle a 245-pound armadillo with a vastly underrated ability to catch the ball -- only Darren Sproles (86), Ray Rice (76) and Chris Johnson (57) had more catches among RBs than Tolbert (54) in 2011. This running game could be extremely effective in 2012; the backfield is loaded and diverse -- and that's not even counting Newton.
2. New Orleans Saints
(Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram)
Surprised? That's fair, because teams were constantly surprised by this unit in 2011. Consider that while Drew Brees was breaking Super Tecmo Bowl passing records, not just mere NFL ones, New Orleans mixed in the NFL's second-most efficient running attack. Start with Thomas, who led the NFL in rushing Success Rate -- in layman's terms, he was the best at keeping you "on schedule" by picking up solid chunks on every down and distance -- and is a rare RB above average as a runner, pass-catcher and blocker. Then there's Sproles, who may have had the greatest "all-purpose RB" season in NFL history. Consider that Sproles caught more passes than Larry Fitzgerald, Victor Cruz and Steve Smith, and averaged 6.93 yards per rush attempt. Did I mention Tecmo Bowl stats? Sproles essentially turned "We need a Sproles-type" into a front-office cliché. Ingram wasn't even healthy, and still racked up almost 500 yards rushing. This is the perfect example of a modern, complementary, devastating backfield.
3. Buffalo Bills
(Fred Jackson, C.J. Spiller) I was surprised this group came out ahead of Houston's very good pair, but give credit to Jackson who, with lesser blocking, averaged more yards per carry (5.4) and was exceptional by most advanced metrics in 2011. He and Spiller caught a combined 78 passes, and created a ton of big plays, with a combined 17 runs of 20-plus yards. On superficial numbers, Buffalo trailed only Carolina, Minnesota and Philadelphia in yards per rush last year, with 4.9 as a team, and it starts with how coach Chan Gailey mixes these two.
4. Houston Texans
(Arian Foster, Ben Tate)
Texans fans probably would think these two belong higher based on raw production. Houston trailed only a gimmicky Denver "attack" in rushing yards per game, with 153.7, but there are drawbacks. Although Foster and Tate are both above-average runners, they also take serious knocks by combining for eight fumbles and -- particularly in Foster's case -- for not being more dangerous behind one of the league's best offensive lines. Foster was just 24th in DVOA in 2011. Where Foster makes up for that is as a great screen-game RB. He caught 53 passes a year after catching 66 in 2010.
5. Minnesota Vikings
(Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart)
Maybe the only knock on Peterson is his Success Rate dropped as he looked for the big play. Think Barry Sanders, where the 80-yard run was always a possibility, but you might see too many second-and-12s as he went looking for it. Good for NFL primetime, but not for a young QB who needs more manageable down-and-distance situations. Gerhart was pretty productive after a lackluster rookie season, and is quietly one of the better blocking RBs you can find. Yes, we know -- he's cerebral.
6. Chicago Bears
(Matt Forte, Michael Bush)
Forte's superficial numbers were exceptional last year given the rusted-out screen door that was the offensive line. Bush provides a nice complement, and the two rarely fumble.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers
(Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman)
Both rate only slightly better than average in terms of taking what's available, but the explosiveness is lacking. Just six runs of 20-plus yards in 338 attempts, and against defenses far more concerned about the pass than in years past. What they do accomplish is they truly complement each other.
8. Philadelphia Eagles
(LeSean McCoy, Dion Lewis)
Mendenhall and Redman have those six runs of 20-plus yards. McCoy had 14 by himself last year. No NFL RB has a great claim to having more total value than McCoy in 2011, which means, congratulations Dion Lewis! You're on this list!
9. Dallas Cowboys
(Demarco Murray, Felix Jones)
The odd thing here is that Murray is cast as the workhorse complement to the explosive Jones, but in what's been true of Jones throughout his career, he's often the less-explosive option. Murray had a high Success Rate (No. 2 in the NFL), a penchant for big plays and a nice per-rush average of 5.5 yards. Jones likely won't be a Cowboy in 2013, so this is a big year for him to prove there's some value remaining.
10. Baltimore Ravens
(Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce)
The Ravens edge the Giants here, because while David Wilson is a superior prospect to Pierce, Rice is head and shoulders ahead of Ahmad Bradshaw in terms of reliable production. Rice is really just a slightly above-average runner of the football, but he's an exceptional pass-catcher (76 catches in 2011) and hasn't missed a game in three years.
These backfields don't make the grade for a variety of reasons. Some don't measure up statistically, while other combos simply don't complement each other.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: LeGarrette Blount has a Christian Okoye highlight, but Tampa drafted Doug Martin because running over people is Blount's one true skill.
New England Patriots: Like New Orleans, vastly underrated as a rushing team, but The Law Firm is in Cincinnati, and he takes with him a ton of reliability (and ball security).
St. Louis Rams: Could jump if Isaiah Pead explodes.
Jacksonville Jaguars: MJD needs a friend. Currently, Montell Owens, Rashad Jennings and their combined 137 NFL carries are the help.
San Francisco 49ers: Surprised? Well, Frank Gore was bad last year, even with decent blocking; like, well below an average running back bad in terms of DVOA (not just superficial totals like rushing yards.) No way around it. Kendall Hunter was slightly better. Same with Brandon Jacobs. More name value than real value. LaMichael James could help.
New York Giants: If Wilson emerges (he should), he and Bradshaw should crack the list.