Position Rankings (OTA Edition): Running Backs

For years, years before my time, football was a running game.  The style of play was geared to grind out yards by being stronger and more physical than the other team.  A team was led by its running backs.  A prime example of the importance placed on the running game occurred in 1962 when the Cleveland Browns selected Ernie Davis with its first pick of the draft that year.  The Browns already had Jim Brown, the best running back of all time, in their backfield and if that happened today, Mel Kiper and Todd Mchsay would spontaneously combust on camera.  That would be the equivalent of the Detroit Lions drafting Emmit Smith a year after they drafted Barry Sanders. 

 Today’s style of play is much more pass oriented and while a star running back is no doubt helpful to a team, the best running backs of the last decade have no super bowl rings.  In this edition of my OTA rankings, I will look at the AFC East running backs.  I’m sure you are familiar with the phrase, a team is only as strong as its weakest link, well a running back is also weakened by his offensive line, or lack thereof.

1) Miami Dolphins- Miami gets the top ranking here due to a number of factors.  The first factor being the dual-headed monster they possess with Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams.  Early reports from Dolphins camp say that Ronnie Brown will be fully recovered by training camp and Ricky Williams has already told reporters that Brown was beating him in sprints this past week.  With a fully healthy duo in the backfield, and a legitimate weapon on the outside, teams won’t be able to put 9 men in the box when playing the Dolphins, allowing Ronnie and Ricky more room to run.   

Fullback is often forgotten when discussing a teams running backs, Lousaka Polite is a smart strong blocker who last year was perfect in short yardage.  In just about 20 chances, whether it was 3-1 or 4-1 Polite got the first down.  Polite is a battering ram and along with a solid offensive line, they helped Williams average close to 5 yards per carry.

Although Brown has been hurt seemingly every other year, Ricky Williams was able to shoulder the load and become the first person to rush for 1,000 yards with a 6 year hiatus in between. It’s pretty impressive when you think of the shelf life of running backs.  Adding to Williams efforts in Brown’s absence was unknown Lex Hilliard.  While his name sounds like a bad 80’s movie villain, Hilliard provided Miami with a great power running game toward the end of the season, and proved to be a solid receiver out of the backfield.    Miami’s ability to march out two, dynamic, star running backs, coupled with a great run blocking offensive line, give the Dolphins the edge in a division with some strong backfields.

2) New York Jets- The New York Jets led the league in rushing last season so it may come as a shock to you that they are ranked 2nd on this list.  While I feel Miami has improved its running game by adding a receiver to keep defenses honest and also new offensive lineman to upgrade trouble areas, I see a Jets team moving slightly backwards in the running game. The first blow to the Jets running game was letting go Thomas Jones.  Jones finished 3rd in the NFL in rushing yards last season with 1,402 yards, only 14 yards shy of 2nd place behind Steven Jackson.  Then during the draft the Jets traded, 2nd string running back at the start of the season and return man extraordinaire, Leon Washington to the Seattle Seahawks.  Just days after the draft, where New York selected two rookies, one being a fullback, they released their best offensive lineman in Alan Faneca.  So far this offseason, the Jets got rid of their leading rusher, their backup running back, and their best blocker; they really are testing that addition by subtraction theory here.

Now I did watch the playoffs this season and I did see Shonn Greene lead the post-season in rushing.  However, with the loss of the best guard in football, and the fact that he has never shouldered the load in the NFL, the second year running back has a mighty tall task ahead of him.  He will be backed up as we all know by Ladainian Tomlinson.  No matter what side of the fence you are on, does he have anything left or not, he’s on the wrong side of 30 and his production has progressively gone down each year.  Another 30 plus back in the Jets backfield is Tony Richardson, a solid blocking fullback that will continue to help in the run blocking game.  Not as dynamic as he used to be, Richardson will see mostly all of his opportunities in blocking situations.  Joe McKnight is the third option out of the backfield at this point and, after throwing up to start rookie camp, showed some fluidity and receiving skills that has the coaches thinking he could see the field in certain packages this season.   With the age factor of LT, and the youth of Green, I think McKnight will be seeing the field more than projected; this is not a good thing.   I think Tomlinson can be very productive in the passing game for this team and may provide some sparks or flashes of greatness, but to say that after all of the flux in the Jets backfield they still are the best backfield in the division, no. 

3) Buffalo Bills- If the Bills had any sort of productive lineman, they would be at least second in this ranking.  The combination of Marshawyn Lynch, Fred Jackson, and rookie play-maker C.J. Spiller, could be deadly if surrounded by the right parts.  Marshawyn Lynch is no longer the star he once was in this backfield. Fred Jackson proved last season that he could handle the load during Lynch’s 4 game suspension, and is the main reason for all of the trade talks surrounding the troubled back.  With that abysmal line in front of him, and no passing threat, Fred Jackson managed to rush for 4.5 yards per carry! Lynch wasn’t nearly as productive as Jackson, averaging 3.8 per carry and in 4 less games fumbling the ball just as much.  I still feel that Lynch has a lot of tread left on his tires and if the new regime in Buffalo can get him motivated, he will return to the Lynch of two years ago and be a force again.    

At the ninth pick in the draft this off-season the Bills, in a shocking move, drafted C.J. Spiller.  Spiller brings the big-play ability the team was lacking last season.  Jackson is more of a grinder and Lee Evans and Terrell Owens couldn’t seem to stretch the field.  I can see Spiller being used as Percy Harvin was last year in Minnesota, and while he may not have the supporting cast Harvin did, no player in college football had more scoring plays over 50 yards than Spiller did during his time at Clemson.  Its very tough to find a backfield with three potential starting running backs with the production level that each three has displayed in the past.  With solid offensive line play, these three have the ability to take over a game. 

4) New England Patriots- The Patriots are fourth in this category because they fall into the category of quantity over quality in my opinion.  The Laurence Maroney experiment will end after this season when his contract expires.  The easiest way to play yourself out of a starting position as a running back is to fumble the ball.  Maroney has coughed it up, ON THE GOALINE, time after time, and he can no longer be trusted with carrying the load.  Fred Taylor’s past suggests that he won’t suit up for you on a consistent basis throughout the course of the season, and neither does running mate Sammy Morris.  

 It makes you wonder why the law offices of Ben Jarvis Green-Ellis aren’t given more of an opportunity to run the ball.  Coaches see him everyday in practice as well as the fumbles on game film from Maroney, why wouldn’t Ellis get a shot at a bigger workload?  There is a couple of conclusions I can draw from this; 1) he just isn’t that good, 2) Maroney’s draft pick is holding back his development, or 3) his pass protection is so poor, in a pass oriented offense, that it trumps him from reaching the field. I think choices two and three are more likely scenarios.  Now I don’t want this to seem like I am bashing Maroney because to his credit, things seemed to click for him in the middle of last season.  He was hitting holes that were given instead of running into his lineman’s jersey, he was running with a purpose instead of being timid.  All of this would have been a great starting point for him to build off of going into this season.  The fact of the matter is you cannot turn the ball over that much and keep your job.  I expect Maroney to be released after this year unless he has a Tiki Barber-like adjustment to his fumbilitis, and I also expect a free agent to be brought in to add depth to this backfield either during this season or a year from now. 

Taylor showed small windows of the back he once was last season, and New England will no doubt need him to contribute on a more consistent basis this year.  Morris is another aging back in this backfield that if he was healthy, may have a shot at the starting job this season.  Then you have Kevin Faulk, arguably the most valuable, versatile back, in Patriots history.  All Kevin Faulk does, is everything.  He isn’t a true running back, he falls into that “football player” category, where a guy will do whatever it takes to get the job done.  If you need 17 yards, Faulk will get you an ugly 18. Faulk too, is old and is mostly a third down back.  The combination of age and inconsistency in the backfield makes me question the future of the Patriots running game.   The lack of a true starter limits the potential of this backfield, thus giving it the lowest grade in the division

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