While we’re waiting for next week’s Mini-Camp to arrive, let’s play a game.
Who are the top-five running backs in the NFL? I’ll play the game first, and then you go.
- Arian Foster – Houston Texans: Led the NFL in yards from scrimmage the last two seasons with 4,072. Foster also seemed unstoppable in last season’s playoffs. He rushed for 153 yards and two touchdowns in the Wild Card game against the Cincinnati Bengals’ 10th ranked run defense. Then he rushed for 132 yards and one touchdown the next week in Baltimore against the Ravens 2nd ranked run D. He did all this while rookie T.J. Yates was the Texans quarterback and defenses were primarily focused on shutting down the Texans’ running attack.
- Maurice Jones-Drew – Jacksonville Jaguars: Led the NFL in rushing yards last season with 1,606 despite playing for a very bad team. Jones-Drew has gained 9,327 yards from scrimmage since 2006 – 44 more than Frank Gore has gained over that same period of time. Jones-Drew turned 27-years-old in March. His best season could be next season.
- Darren McFadden – Oakland Raiders: Averaged 5.4 yards per carry in 2011 before a fluky Lisfranc foot injury ended his 2011 season. He’s the most talented running back in the NFL – no one has his combination of size, speed and youth (still just 24-years-old) – but he’s never completed a 16-game season. If he plays every game next season, there’s a good chance he’ll become the No. 1 RB on this list.
- Adrian Peterson – Minnesota Vikings: The best running back in the NFL since he was drafted in 2007, but Peterson tore his ACL, MCL, and meniscus Week 16 last season at Washington. He’ll probably return from this injury, but will he ever be the same?
- Ray Rice – Baltimore Ravens: Led the NFL in yards from scrimmage last season (2,068). He’s the most valuable player on the Ravens offense by far, but he disappointed in the playoffs, averaging just 3.02 yards per carry in two games against the Texans and the Patriots.
BONUS LIST: Three running backs who I admire but may not rank in the top five anymore. This list is in no particular order.
- Steven Jackson – St. Louis Rams: Perhaps the best running back of his generation, Jackson has gained 12,096 yards from scrimmage and scored 60 TDs so far in his eight-season career. I’ve never seen a running back play as consistently vicious as Jackson does. He runs every carry like his life depends on it, blasting through the hole like a missile. And he does this for bad teams – he hasn’t played in a playoff game since January 2005. He’ll be 29-years-old next season. His best playing days may already be behind him.
- Darren Sproles – New Orleans Saints: The toughest little runner I’ve ever seen. Sproles is 5-6, 190 pounds but he never shies away from contact.
- Frank Gore – San Francisco 49ers: The Joe Frazier of running backs. Gore is one of the toughest athletes I’ve ever seen. He’s not the biggest or the fastest running back, but he’s consistently one of the best. Gore turned 29-years-old last month, and the Niners added two running backs – LaMichael James and Brandon Jacobs – this offseason to help Gore carry the load. But don’t expect Gore to fade away. Like Frazier, Gore would never throw in the towel. He would compete to the death.