Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Top 5 NFL Running Backs

We've blown by the halfway mark in the NFL season, and there has been so much talk about the market for running backs being flooded. Many backs are free agents at the end of the year, and the draft class could once again be stacked. Why sign a 28-29 year old to a long term deal when you can draft his faster, younger replacement for less? There has also been much discussion this season about Ladainian Tomlinson being the best running back in the NFL and even, the best player in the NFL. Some even say that Tomlinson is the modern version of Walter Payton. Either of those statements are stronnnnnng words when the league is stacked with outstanding running backs, and "Sweetness" is considered the greatest running back of all time (or no. 2 behind Jim Brown). In an earlier post, I listed who I thought were the top 5 running backs in the league. With the help of some outside sources, I wanted to compare these backs numbers, styles, and even the tough to define, intangibles. I've watched some TIVOs of games and watched plenty of live telecasts to compare my top 5.

Before I get to my Top 5, I want to recognize 5 other backs who could crack this list in the near future or are just outside the top. In 2 years, some of these guys could be mainstays of the top 5 list. You will not find Priest Holmes because I think he is on the steep downside of his career. His numbers this year are more due to that outstanding offensive line than Priest's skills. Larry Johnson is proving my point right now. I also dislike a running back who tells his coach he wants 2000 yards in a season, not "I want a Super Bowl ring" (like no. 5 on my list). First, I want to recognize 3 backs who are on the rise and the 3 toughest omissions.

Three on the Rise (no order)

Julius Jones - The biggest concern with this guy has to be durability after his track record with Notre Dame and so far with the Cowboys. When he does play, the guy is extremely quick. His numbers this season are not outstanding, but soem of his biggest and most impressive runs have been nullified by illegal motion and other stupid penalties by the Cowboys. Against the Chargers, Jones had two runs of 20+ yards called back for a false start and motion penalties. On one of those runs, Jones showed why he is impressive. He hit the hole extremely fast, juked a linebacker, bounced off of an arm tackle, and picked up 25. When Dallas opens a slight crack in the line, Jones pounds it. He can catch out of the backfield and when he played last year, was a workhorse and 'clutch'. If you look at his 2004 splits, when the Cowboys were down in tight games, Jones averaged 7.0 ypc and had 3 TDs. His 4th quarter stats and stats for carries 26+ (in a game) are all above the average of his normal stats. If Jones can remain healthy for 16 games, he will blossom into a top 5 back.

Steven Jackson - When Dallas had an opportunity to draft him, I was excited they would draft Jackson. They didn't. Julius Jones is a nice consolation prize and time will tell who was right, but Jackson is something to watch. His yards per carry are outstanding at 4.9 for his career, and now that Mike Martz is gone, he looks to get more touches. He is not a breakaway speedster like Julius Jones, but Jackson bounces off weak tackles and runs people over. In the Jacksonville game, Jackson did everything asked of him: catch, run and block. His size and strength wear defenses down. In the Jacksonville game, I saw him run over defensive backs and juke linebackers. That versatility is what you want in a franchise back. He is big enough (6'2" and broad) to absorb punishment and put in 25 carry games on a regular basis.
Rudi Johnson - This guy has grown out of the shadow of Corey Dillon. Johnson is a bruiser who works best between the tackles but has something very important: first step acceleration. When a hole opens up, Johnson has a quick enough first step that he can get to the hole prior to its closing or the plugging by a linebacker. He does not fear contact and has that Walter Payton "make them hurt for hurting you" style of running. He does need to work on his hands, and he does not have a ton of speed, running to the outside is not for him. I think that is why the Bengals drafted Chris Perry. Johnson is a perfect foil to the high powered passing offense. Teams can not accuse the Bengals of being soft when Rudi is ramming the middle of the line.

3 Toughest Omissions

Warrick Dunn - He's running great right now but the Falcons run offense could have 2 clowns in the backfield and still probably have the best rushing offense in the league. I still like him because of his lateral movement and quickness.

Deuce McAllister - Deuce is big, strong, tough, fast, and is an explosive player. The last couple of years have been odd. He's fought injuries and seems to be languishing with an idiot coach and super-moronic coach. Out for this year with a knee injury, you wonder if he is due for a huge rebound season when the Saints get a new QB or if this is the beginning of the end.

Clinton Portis - Clinton is a threat from anywhere on the field. He has great agility and quickness. He has bulked up and it has not slowed him down much. I think that he is a great runner on sweeps and tosses where he can watch his blocks develop & pick a hole or change direction. He is not a good receiver, but he is decent with screens and outlets. If the Redskins passing game can improve, pressure will be taken off Portis and holes might start to reappear when 8 men aren't in the box.

The Top 5 Running Backs in the NFL

5. Shaun Alexander - My entry last week explained how I feel about Alexander. I think he should be signed to a 5 year deal as soon as possible so the Seahawks can cram some of the salary into this season's cap numbers. A hang up I have on him is that he does not break out big numbers on great defenses or big games. I think it is because he lacks the creativity and ability to make something out of nothing that you see in others on this list or on the honorable mention list.

4.
Tiki Barber - I have been impressed with his rebirth in New York, and I wonder what took NY so long to use him this way. He spent 5 years fighting for time because of stupid coaching and failed experiments with splitting time/carries. He can catch well out of the backfield and has pretty good speed. People say he does not have top flight speed, but he does not get caught going around the corner often. The first play against the Redskins showed this acceleration. Barber took a toss and got tot he corner quick. The Giants had set up a wall well and he eluded one tackler and scampered down the sideline for 50+. He did not have the speed to outrun the secondary int he end, but he still quickly got to the outside. He is a strong back who fights through tackles despite being 'smaller'. His fumbling is an issue, but he has become better at protecting the ball. I think some of his problems with ball protection come from his ability to fight through tackles. By the time the second or third tackler is getting to him to take the ball away, he has carried a defender with him for a couple of steps.

3. Willis McGahee - I was surprised when the Bills took him in the first round after that horrific knee injury. Because of his speed and shifty moves, people forget that McGahee is a tough, big back (biggest back in the top 5). Against the Patriots this year, McGahee carried the anemic offense of the Bills. He has explosive moves and constantly bounced to the "A" gap on runs or hit the hole before defenders could make a move to stop him. if they did make their move in time, McGahee appeared to slam them and hammer away at the Patriots' interior defense. His leg power is amazing, as he can push through a hole and then shift into an open field speed that can leave linebackers in the dust. There were a couple of short yardage 3rd downs where the Bills passed rather than give the ball to McGahee, which made no sense with how effective he was all game. Willis was really moving the pile on some of his shorter runs and driving his legs. He has good hands out of the backfield, and has the open field speed to be a threat in the passing game. As a starter in 2004
, McGahee played in 5 games against playoff teams and had 3 games over 100 yards (averaging 92.8 ypg).

2. Edgerrin James - The Edge is playing some of the finest football in the NFL, yet the big focus has been on LT. James has quickness to run wide, yet still has the power to run up the middle. Against the Patriots, James hit a lot of holes between the tackles and carried tacklers with him. It seemed that he still gained 2 yards after each first contact. James has good lateral moves and can catch the ball very well. The Colts have once in a while run out and ups with James, which is a rarity with running backs. He does appear to have lost some speed after the knee injury, but still commits his body to blocking for the NFL's favorite son. I do think that his injuries are going to catch up with him. They are not minor sprains or bumps/bruises. His injuries are core injuries to the body or knees that can slow a back down. Despite that, he is performing extremely well in the Colts offense.

1. Ladainian Tomlinson - I just watched Tomlinson play against the NY Jets, and I saw him earlier this season against the Cowboys. He is a joy to watch. When he came out of college, people questioned his catching ability. He caught 100 receptions in 2003 for the Chargers. Tomlinson waits for holes to develop, and if they do not develop, he cuts to the "A" gap or bounces outside for yardage. On his first rushing TD against the Jets, he ran left, stopped on a dime, laterally moved to the right to miss a tackle and charged into the endzone. Tomlinson has great vision on sweeps and outside runs, as he waits for blocks to develop and picks his holes. He also has an instinct for the flow of a defense and when to take advantage of a cut back. On a swing pass, Tomlinson had a defensive back in his sights. He looked to where the DB's weight was centered, juked that way, then exploded to the left and left the defender in the dust.
Tomlinson has strength as well, which works well in the MartyBall offense which needs a power back to soften defenses. Think about his last 4 season and how they stack up to Priest Holmes. Now think about the offensive lines of each team. LT has doen so much with so little, and that is why he is the best today.

I think that the defense adjusted rankings provided by Football Outsiders show a top 5 similar to mine. I think that after 2 seasons, this top 5 list will have a couple of new faces. Alexander & Barber will still produce but not at their current levels. I am unsure how the Edge is going to perform into his next contract. While he is younger than Barber and Alexander, he has had knee surgery and nagging injuries already. The latest RB draft class and next year's will flood the league with even more quality backs, so the next few years will be great to watch for lovers of rushing attacks.

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