The transformation of the NFL into predominantly a passing league has naturally lessened the importance of the featured back. Neither 2011 Super Bowl participant boasted a premier running threat. New England has enjoyed its run of contention with a comparatively weak ground game.
Several of the top running backs in the league toil on poor teams, including sensational talents such as Maurice Jones-Drew (Jacksonville), Steven Jackson (St. Louis), Marshawn Lynch (Seattle) and even Adrian Peterson (Minnesota).
But that doesn’t mean that great running backs are no longer tremendous contributors to excellent teams. Frank Gore (San Francisco), Michael Turner (Atlanta), LeSean McCoy (Philadelphia) and Ray Rice (Baltimore) immediately come to mind.
Who are the best of the best? Here is a list of the 15 top running backs in the NFL:
15. Jamaal Charles (Kansas City): If he can stay healthy, he’ll zoom up this list. But his injury history forced the Chiefs to sign Peyton Hillis in free agency.
14. Darren McFadden (Oakland): He was averaging more than 100 rushing yards a game in 2011 before falling victim to injury. McFadden is a Top 5 talent.
13. Steven Jackson (St. Louis): He’s on the downside, but he still managed 1,145 yards rushing last season despite a pronounced lack of wide receivers to draw away defensive attention.
12. DeMarco Murray (Dallas): Came out of nowhere to average 5.4 yards a carry and rush for 897 yards despite missing four games with an ankle injury.
11. Chris Johnson (Tennessee): Yes, the most dominant back in the NFL has slipped this far. His holdout last year apparently set him back greatly.
10. Ryan Matthews (San Diego): This underrated young back should receive more attention and carries in 2012.
9. Michael Turner (Atlanta): The presence of top receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White helps Turner find room to roam downfield.
8. Matt Forte (Chicago): He hasn’t been able to match his brilliant rookie year of 2008, but he made a nice comeback last year, averaging nearly five yards a carry.
7. Frank Gore (San Francisco): Most backs experience a significant drop-off after a few years. Gore has been consistent and productive since emerging as a stud back in 2006.
6. Marshawn Lynch (Seattle): A wonderful combination of power and speed makes Lynch one of the best around, though you would never know it based on the lack of publicity he receives.
5. Adrian Peterson (Minnesota): An injury that could sideline him at the beginning of the regular season pushes him back. Peterson has slipped, but he remains a force.
4. Maurice Jones-Drew (Jacksonville): He’s a little dynamo whose lack of size belies his ability to run with power. There is no more feared back in the NFL.
3. Ray Rice (Baltimore): Another back with a tremendous combination of speed and power, Rice allows the Ravens passing offense to thrive because defenses must key on him.
2. Arian Foster (Houston): If not for the presence of talented backup Ben Tate, Foster might have rushed for 1,800 yards in 2011. He’s also a tremendous threat as a pass-catcher.
1. LeSean McCoy (Philadelphia): He averaged nearly five yards a carry and led the league with 17 rushing touchdowns last season. Enough said.