<strong>July 25, 2005</strong>
Source: <a href="http://www.usatoday.com/sports/football/nfl/2005-07-20-sw-rankings-running-backs_x.htm">USA Today</a>
In a time of increasingly liberalized passing rules, running backs easily get overlooked. But this also has emerged as a time of nearly unmatched prosperity for running backs. While the NFL's all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith, retired this offseason, Nos. 4 and 5 on the list -Curtis Martin and Jerome Bettis- are still going strong.
And winning teams know the importance of a good running game. Three of the final four teams in last season's playoffs ranked in the top seven in rushing offense. The Super Bowl champion New England Patriots had one of the most effective backs in the league as Corey Dillon finished second in the NFL with 109 rushing yards per game.
Running backs and fullbacks are the focus of the fifth part of our 2005 NFL player ratings series, developed by The Sports Xchange for Sports Weekly. Players are sorted into seven categories: Elite, A Notch Below, Rock Solid, On the Rise, On the Rebound, Setting Sun and Under the Radar.
LaDainian Tomlinson has been one of the NFL's best running backs during his four seasons with the Chargers and was a major reason they reached the playoffs last year. Tomlinson is the complete package: strong, explosive, a good receiver and as important to his team as any player in the league. He missed the last game of the 2004 season to rest a troublesome groin injury, the only game he has missed in his career.
The Jets' Curtis Martin, 32, keeps plugging along. He is coming off a career high of 1,697 yards in 2004 and joined Hall of Famer Barry Sanders as the only players with more than 1,000 yards in 10 consecutive seasons. Martin remains one of the best conditioned and most durable runners, not missing a game since 1998. Although he is past the age that running backs traditionally start to slow down, Martin has shown no signs that time is gaining on him.
Despite finishing second in the league with 2,031 total yards, the Colts' Edgerrin James sometimes was overlooked during Peyton Manning's record-setting touchdown season. James' versatility out of the backfield is a nice balance to Manning's throwing and prevents defenses from stacking up against the pass. His TD total (nine, tied for 25th) remains low because Manning often takes over in the red zone.
A notch below
Shaun Alexander has yet to sign the Seahawks' tender offer as their franchise player but should return as one of the league's most productive backs. He is the only player to score at least 15 TDs in four consecutive seasons and finished 1 yard shy of sharing the league lead last season. The Seahawks, though, have been reluctant to commit to a long-term contract because they still have questions about Alexander's toughness and consistency.
The Patriots gave Corey Dillon a new home, and Dillon thrived in winning his first Super Bowl ring. Dillon finished third in the league with 1,635 yards, despite sitting out one game because of injury, and had at least 79 yards in every game he played. Although he is not much of a receiver, Dillon returns as a major part of the offense as the team shoots for its fourth title in five seasons.
Clinton Portis had easily the worst numbers of his three-year career in his first season in Washington, but the Redskins think he will bounce back after the return of standout right tackle Jon Jansen and after the team adjusted its blocking schemes to match Portis' slashing style. Portis proved rugged enough to handle a heavy workload necessary in coach Joe Gibbs' offense, and if his big-play potential returns, he will move back into the upper echelon.
The past three years of Tiki Barber's eight-season career have been the best as he averaged 1,374 yards and did not miss a game to injury. He is a versatile back who has averaged 59.3 catches in his eight-year career and licked his fumbling problem for most of the season until he lost the ball four times in the final five weeks. Barber will be the Giants' workhorse again as young quarterback Eli Manning matures.
Cincinnati's Rudi Johnson finished sixth in the league in rushing with 1,454 yards in his first full season as a feature back and was rewarded with a five-year extension. The up-and-coming Bengals expect Johnson, a powerful and deceptively fast runner, to be the centerpiece of the offense for several seasons.
Injuries have kept Warrick Dunn from reaching stardom during an eight-year career, but he has become an important part of the Falcons' rushing game. Dunn is the quick slasher to T.J. Duckett's plodding running style, and Dunn contributed to Atlanta's No. 1-ranked run offense last year.
Just as effective as a receiver as a runner, Brian Westbrook perfectly fits the Eagles' pass-oriented offense. His 73 receptions last year were only four fewer than Terrell Owens had, and the Eagles use him in a variety of ways, often splitting him out wide. Not being a powerful interior runner will keep Westbrook from being one of the league's best.
On the rise
Willis McGahee displayed his strength and explosiveness in 11 games as the Bills' starter last year, prompting Buffalo to put backup Travis Henry on the trading block. Though McGahee still has to prove his surgically rebuilt knee can handle a 16-game workload, his value is clear as he had seven 100-yard games and five multiple-TD efforts in those 11 starts.
In just under half a season, the Cowboys' Julius Jones showed that he could be on his way to being the league's next great runner. He averaged 114.7 yards and scored seven times in seven games in a feature role. He missed most of the rest of the season because of a broken shoulder blade and has to prove he can stay healthy under the considerable load coach Bill Parcells will put on him.
Detroit's Kevin Jones needed half a season to adjust to the tempo of the NFL, but once he did, the results were impressive. Jones averaged 113.3 yards over the final eight games even though he scored a total of just four TDs. With the Lions featuring three first-round picks at wide receiver, Jones again could have significant running room.
LaMont Jordan finally gets his chance to be a feature back after leaving the Jets to sign with the Raiders. Jordan never has had more than 93 carries in a season but has averaged 4.9 yards a carry over his four seasons. The Raiders' dynamic passing attack should open up plenty of running room for Jordan.
The Rams are prepared to turn their main running back duties over to second-year player Steven Jackson after Marshall Faulk manned the position for six seasons. Jackson was a powerful and explosive runner in limited time last year, but he has to prove himself in the passing game, always a big part of the Rams' offense. He had only 19 catches in 14 games last season.
If Tatum Bell wins the Broncos' starting job, he could be the next explosive young Denver runner. Bell struggled with injuries as a rookie but averaged 5.3 yards on 75 carries.
On the rebound
After offseason ankle surgery and a fourth-month jail term for his role in arranging a drug deal, Baltimore's Jamal Lewis is prepared to bounce back to his 2,000-yard form of 2003. Lewis remains one of the most powerful backs in the league, although he is not as explosive as some other runners.
The Saints' Deuce McAllister averaged a career-low 4.0 yards per carry as he was plagued all season by a severe high ankle sprain. New offensive coordinator Mike Sheppard plans to center the offense around McAllister and his stats could return to the levels of 2003, when McAllister rushed for 1,641 yards and set a franchise record with 2,157 total yards.
A couple of Ahman Green's old problems - fumbles and injuries - sabotaged his 2004 season, and he faces a steep challenge to return to his previous heights after the Packers lost standout guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera in free agency. Green still is only 28 and the Packers want him, not quarterback Brett Favre, to carry the offense.
Michael Bennett is trying to bounce back from another injury-ruined season to be the Vikings' feature back. Carolina's Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster both are also coming back from injuries; whoever is healthier could wind up as the team's starter.
Kansas City's Priest Holmes has scored a record 66 TDs over the past three seasons despite missing 10 games in that stretch to hip and knee injuries. But the injuries also threaten to take away a hint of his breakaway ability. And, turning 32 in October, Holmes already has admitted to thinking about retirement. This could be his final season, especially if this is coach Dick Vermeil's final year.
Fred Taylor might not even make it to Jaguars training camp. The former injury-prone back shook that label by missing only two games over the past three seasons, but he has needed the entire offseason to recover from knee surgery that was worse than what the team initially said. Concerns about whether Taylor ever will get back to full strength prompted reports that the Jaguars would trade for Henry, who eventually ended up with the Titans.
Faulk, 32, is near the end of an 11-year career with his knees showing the effects of playing on artificial turf that entire time. Faulk knows the Rams' complicated offense as well as anybody other than coach Mike Martz and will remain a valuable role player because of Martz's respect for him.
Jerome Bettis' resurgent 2004, in which he had at least 100 yards in each of the six games he started and scored a career-high 13 TDs, convinced him to return to Pittsburgh. The 33-year-old Bettis, the fifth all-time leading rusher, could retire after this season, his 13th.
Under the radar
The Texans' poor record kept Domanick Davis out of more headlines, but the team knows his value as he finished last season by scoring in nine consecutive games. Davis finished second among backs with 68 receptions but needs to be more durable and improve his pass blocking.
Pittsburgh's Duce Staley has a strong start in 2004 with an average of 101 yards in his first seven games before being derailed by a hamstring injury and overshadowed by Bettis. If Staley got through a season healthy, his value would be clear.
Tennessee's Chris Brown showed the versatility to be an excellent all-around back but has struggled with injuries. If he can stay on the field for a full season, he will command more defensive attention.
Tony Richardson has emerged as a key player in the Chiefs' powerful offense. He rarely gets the ball and instead is usually making key blocks downfield for Holmes.
The Chargers' Lorenzo Neal is the classic, underappreciated fullback who has bounced around throughout his career. Entering his 13th season, he has found a home clearing the way for star running back Tomlinson.
Expect new 49ers coach Mike Nolan to make good use of Fred Beasley, a good receiver, strong run blocker and nearly perfect fit for the West Coast offense.
A notch below
William Henderson remains a key part of the Packers' offense, both as a solid all-around blocker and as an underrated receiver, especially in the red zone.
The run-oriented Ravens rely on consistent effort from Alan Ricard to help Lewis, even though Ricard is smaller than most fullbacks at 237 pounds.
In two seasons since replacing Richie Anderson, Jerald Sowell has capably filled an important role in the Jets' offense. Last season, Sowell led all fullbacks with 47 receptions.
The Seahawks keep trying to replace Mack Strong and he continues to fight off challengers. He should enter his 13th season as the starter and is much more effective in the ground game.
On the rise
As the Steelers' offense becomes more physical and more ground-oriented, some credit has to go to Dan Kreider, one of the game's best lead blockers. The Steelers don't ask him to do much else and have little reason to do so.
Jeremi Johnson is emerging as a strong blocker for the Bengals ahead of Johnson. Defenses face quite a load when the 270-pound Jeremi is clearing holes for the 220-pound Rudi.
Cory Schlesinger can be a crunching lead blocker and surprisingly good receiver, but his role has been reduced in Detroit's offense.
Mike Alstott, 31, always has been more of a runner than a true blocking back. But his job might be in jeopardy as he tries to recover from neck and knee injuries as the Bucs have stocked up at running back.
Jon Ritchie is trying to come back from a torn ACL, but the Eagles' offense functions well without him and he might have trouble landing a roster spot.