Ranking the top 10 RB units in the NFL
If we could have any team’s running backs, which team would we pick? That was the question we tried to answer in these rankings.
We prioritized each team’s lead back, but also factored in backups and the quality of each team’s depth at the position.
Here are the top 10 running back depth charts in the NFL heading into 2015:
(Check out our top 10 QB rankings here.)
- Seattle Seahawks
No. 1 in our 2014 running back rankings, Marshawn Lynch powers a group that also features a Robert Turbin and Christine Michael – but those two guys aren’t the reason Seattle ranks first here. What Beast Mode has done the past two regular seasons is fantastic. He’s graded in the top three in each and broken 58 more tackles than any other running back during that time span, while producing the highest elusive rating (our measure of how difficult a back is to tackle). But it’s his work in the postseason that gives the Seahawks the top spot. In three playoff games last season, Lynch earned the highest postseason grade we’ve ever given a running back and broke more tackles (29) than Bengals RB Jeremy Hill – a talented back in his own right — did in the entire regular season. And he did all of it behind just the 17th-best run-blocking O-line in the league.
- Philadelphia Eagles
DeMarco Murray would not be my second pick if I were ranking individual running backs right now, but the depth of the Eagles’ rushing attack makes them the choice at No. 2 on this list. Philadelphia goes three deep in quality backs. We all know about Murray’s outstanding 2014 season, which was boosted by the Cowboys’ excellent offensive line, but Murray has been running at a high level for some time now. He actually had a much higher yards per carry average in 2013 than last year (5.2 versus 4.7), and he averaged more yards after contact (2.7 versus 2.5). Backup Ryan Mathews has graded positively every season since his rookie year, despite running behind a bad Chargers offensive line, and the Eagles also have the most prolific scat back of the last decade in Darren Sproles, who averaged 5.8 yards per carry last season.
- Pittsburgh Steelers
There wasn’t a more complete running back in the NFL last season than Le’Veon Bell. He was a completely different player in 2014, having dropped weight since his rookie season. His elusive rating jumped from 18th overall in the NFL to fifth, and his overall grade took a massive leap from +.8 to +23.8. The biggest improvement came in the passing game, where his 1.74 yards per route run in 2014 led all starting running backs. The Steelers don’t have much after Bell, however, and that problem will only be exacerbated when he sits out the first two games of the season. Dri Archer was a third-round pick a year ago and has impressed at times this preseason, but he isn’t a full-time option due to his size (5-foot-8, 173 pounds).
- Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs, like the Steelers, get downgraded just a touch here for having no proven depth behind their star lead back. Knile Davis has a serious lack of field vision, and averaged a measly 2.3 yards per carry from Week 5 onward last season. What Jamaal Charles carries the Chiefs all the way to the No. 4 spot. He averaged a very good 5.1 yards per carry and 2.6 average yards after contact per carry behind our 27th-ranked run-blocking offensive line a year ago. The veteran back finished fourth among starters in elusive rating last season, and he’s dangerous as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.
- Minnesota Vikings
Peterson turned 30 this offseason and is coming off a year in which he touched the ball just 23 times before being suspended for the rest of the season, but he has earned the benefit of the doubt based on his past play. Even in a slightly down year by his standards in 2013, Peterson led the league in yards after contact per attempt (3.0) and had the league’s highest elusive rating (64.6). Peterson’s backup is no slouch, either, as Jerick McKinnon had a +3.3 rushing grade on 113 carries as a rookie. The 2014 third-round pick should have considerable room for development as well, given he played for an FCS school in Georgia Southern, where he split time between running back, quarterback and defensive back.
- Green Bay Packers
If Le’Veon Bell was the most complete running back in the NFL last season, then Eddie Lacy was a close second. Lacy graded inside the top 10 at the running back position for running (+7.6), receiving (+8.4), and pass blocking (+3.6). The former second-round pick has started his career with back-to-back seasons with top-5 overall grades. While Lacy is a three-down back, the Packers still substitute heavily and James Starks is a more than competent backup. The fifth-year back has averaged an impressive 2.9 and 3.0 yards after contact per attempt the last two seasons.
- Denver Broncos
Midway through the 2014 season, no one in their right mind would have claimed the Broncos had a top-10 backfield. Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball were floundering behind a mediocre offensive line. Then, out of nowhere, C.J. Anderson took the bulk of the carries in Week 10 against the Raiders, beginning an eight-game stretch that ended with Anderson accumulating the third-highest rushing grade of any running back last season. I’d expect Anderson to come back down to earth a little bit in 2015, but a performance that impressive deserves a spot on this list.
- New Orleans Saints
The second legitimate trio of quality running backs in the top 10, the Saints have an eclectic backfield. It features two former first-round picks from major college football programs (Mark Ingram and C.J. Spiller), along with a former undrafted free agent from Division II West Texas A&M (Khiry Robinson). Ingram appears to be the starter after a resurgence the past two seasons, and while Spiller has been hamstrung by injuries, he is a big-time talent who graded out as our second-best back in 2012 after averaging a ludicrous 3.6 yards after contact per attempt. Robinson has done nothing but play lights-out football ever since he broke 16 tackles on 49 carries in his first preseason in 2013. The only thing holding him back so far is touches, as he’s only had 160 since he came into the league.
- Miami Dolphins
One of the more underrated performances in all of the 2014 was the job that Lamar Miller did behind a sieve of an offensive line in Miami. On 216 carries, Miller earned the fifth-highest running grade (+11.0) in the NFL, despite taking handoffs behind our 31st ranked run-blocking line. He’s the type of back who was meant to play in space, and Bill Lazor’s new scheme in 2014 gave him exactly that in Miami.
- Cincinnati Bengals
The first six running backs taken in the 2013 draft are all represented somewhere in the two-deeps on this list, while only one of the first six backs taken in the 2014 draft is represented in the top 10. The good news for Cincinnati is that after selecting the first running back in the 2013 draft (Gio Bernard) and the second back off the board in 2014 (Jeremy Hill), the Bengals have a top-10 running back duo. They complement each other well, as Bernard is a fantastic receiving threat out of the backfield (second-highest receiving grade among backs in 2013), while Hill can grind it out between the tackles (his 2.8 yards after contact per attempt ranked second-best of any running back this past season.