The National Football League is changing. Gone are the days where defenses like the ’85 Chicago Bears dominated, and offenses were centered on getting your workhorse running back upwards of thirty carries a game. Sure, there are still teams out there that feature a single bell cow like the Minnesota Viking's with Adrian Peterson or the Seattle Seahawks with Marshawn Lynch. However, these teams are becoming an exception.
Now, NFL teams are employing the increasingly popular running back by committee strategy, which features a back for every situation or down. Teams are no longer happy with just one running back, but are instead using two or three guys in their offenses. So, which AFC team has the best group of backs?
I’ve separated the 16 AFC teams into three categories: top tier, middle tier and lower tier based on their current backfields. These rankings are based off not just the teams with the best individual back, but the teams that have the best group of ball carriers and pass catchers in the backfield.
The Steelers don’t just have the best running back in the league in Le’Veon Bell, but they also added former starters DeAngelo Williams and Ben Tate. Tate and Williams are both getting older, but they are both solid second and third options and are threats in the passing game. Rounding out this deep Steelers backfield is second year player Dri Archer out of Kent State. Archer saw limited action as a rookie with 40 yards rushing on 10 carries, but could see a greater role this year. The Steelers shouldn’t miss a beat during Bell’s three game suspension.
The Broncos are absolutely loaded at the running back position with their own four-headed monster in C.J. Anderson, Montee Ball, Juwan Thompson and Ronnie Hillman. The four of them combined for 15 touchdowns last season. Anderson leads the group, but all four will get touches in different scenarios. With Peyton Manning returning for another season, expect these group to finish comfortably in the top five of the AFC in both rushing and receiving.
The Buffalo Bills made one of the biggest moves this offseason by trading Kiko Alonso to the Philadelphia Eagles for running back LeSean McCoy. McCoy is a home-run threat every time he touches the ball, and has already become the runner the Bills were hoping C.J. Spiller would be. Spiller is gone and McCoy joins the consistent Fred Jackson. Anthony “Boobie” Dixon and Bryce Brown provide nice third down options for this dynamic Bills offense. I expect McCoy to be the favorite target for whoever starts for the Bills at quarterback.
Hands down the Bengals boast the best duo of backs in the AFC, and maybe even in the entire league. Jeremy Hill had a monster year last year, totaling 1,124 yards (5.1 yard average) on 222 attempts for 9 scores. He is a fantastic pass protector and can catch the ball out of the backfield and make plays downfield. Throw in Giovanni Bernard, the shifty back out of the University of North Carolina, and the Bengals are set at the position. Don’t underestimate this team’s depth at the position either. Rex Burkhead and Cedric Peerman are both players that could develop into solid contributors in the next few years.
The Jaguars selected T.J. Yeldon in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft out of the University of Alabama. Yeldon could be the starter come the second half of this season, if not before. He is a proven runner inside the tackles, but is perhaps most dangerous in the receiving game. The Jaguars are debating moving last year’s starter Denard Robinson to wide receiver. They have great short yardage and goal line backs in Toby Gerhart and Bernard Pierce. Rounding out this extremely deep unit is former seventh round pick Storm Johnson.
The Chargers let Ryan Matthews go to the Eagles but found his upgrade in first round selection Melvin Gordon. Gordon completely dominated college football at his position, totaling 49 touchdowns and over 5,000 yards from scrimmage at the University of Wisconsin. The starting job is his to take, and a lot of experts are comparing him to Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles. Joining Gordon in the Chargers’ backfield is Danny Woodhead, a squirrely back that doubles as a slot receiver. In addition to Woodhead, the Chargers have goal line threat Donald Brown and Brandon Oliver, who resembles former Charger running back Darren Sproles.
The Gang Green, much like division rival Buffalo, have a talented set of rushers. The Jets made offseason moves for Stevan Ridley and Zac Stacy, and return last year’s workhorse Chris Ivory. Add in Bilal Powell, who averaged 4.3 yards a carry last season, and the Jets have four possible starters. I expect Ivory to retain his role as the team’s starter, but look for a medley of backs featured each week.
Latavius Murray became one of the AFC’s better starting running backs last year. He only carried the ball 82 times last season, but still managed to rack up 424 yards and two touchdowns. Look for both of those numbers to increase dramatically this year as he should play 16 games barring an injury. The Raiders have also added Roy Helu, a pass catching monster that previously played for the Redskins. Trent Richardson rounds out an underrated Raiders backfield.
The Browns don’t have a star running back, but they have three talented young players competing for the starting job. They drafted dual threat Duke Johnson out of the University of Miami. He will join last year’s tandem of Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West. Few people know just how potent this backfield was last year. Crowell and West combined for 12 touchdowns and over 1,200 yards after Ben Tate left Cleveland. A good backfield should get even better.
Jamaal Charles has been a top five back in this league for some time now. Explosively dangerous in the open field, Charles can do it all: run inside, run outside, catch screens. His production has been off the charts. The Chiefs pair Charles with Knile Davis, who quietly had seven touchdowns last season. Both of these players are three down guys, and make one of the better duos in the AFC. Rising runner De’Anthony Thomas touched the ball just 14 times last year, but for a whopping 113 yards (8.1 yard average) and a score. There is a three-headed monster in Kansas City’s backfield.
I bet you didn’t know that Dolphins running back Lamar Miller finished as the 10th best rusher in the NFL last season. Miller has quietly become a reliable starter with playmaking abilities for Miami, and totaled 1,099 yards on 216 carries for 8 scores in 2014. The Dolphins also pulled off what could be the steal of the 2015 NFL Draft, taking Jay Ajayi in the fifth round. Ajayi became the first player in FBS history to have 1,800 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in the same season while at Boise State. This tandem will see the return of Mike Gillislee and LaMichael James. This group of young backs is on the rise.
The Colts backfield instantly got better when Trent Richardson moved onto Oakland. The Colts upgraded at the position, adding Frank Gore this offseason. Gore will join Ahmad Bradshaw, Dan Herron and Vick Ballard. Four solid guys that aren’t special but are consistent. Gore proved last season he still has a lot of gas left in the tank, rushing for over 1,000 yards with four scores for the San Francisco 49ers.
Nobody thought the Ravens would be able to recover after the Ray Rice scandal unfolded last season. And then out of nowhere came Justin Forsett, an eighth year guy out of California that began his career anew. Forsett had 1,266 rushing yards and eight touchdowns last season, good enough to rank him fifth in the league for 2014. Baltimore’s unsung hero is Lorenzo Taliaferro, who also scored four times on 68 attempts last year. Look for this AFC North tandem to get even better in their second year as partners in the Baltimore backfield.
I know what you are thinking. How can the Texans be considered in the bottom tier with Arian Foster? Before you get too upset, remember that these rankings are based off the best group of running backs, not the best back. Foster alone is a top tier rusher, no doubt about it. But what Houston lacks is depth at the position. After Foster, the Texans have Alfred Blue. He appeared in every game last year, but totaled just two scores and 598 yards. After Blue the Texans have Jonathan Grimes and Chris Polk. Who are they? Exactly. If Foster goes down as he has done in the past, the Texans go from having one of the best rushers to hurting at the position.
The Titans just don’t have a lot of firepower at the position. Bishop Sankey did not have the rookie year everyone expected, and Shon Greene is getting old. Dexter McCluster is just a situational back, although he is a good receiver. A few years down the road, this unit could be a lot stronger. But for now, they will move forward as a bottom tier group.
In a recent article ranking the AFCs wide receiver groups, I stated that the Patriots are good for two reasons and two reasons only. They have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. That can be confirmed by looking at the Pats running backs. This year, they will start with LeGarrette Blount, a guy who went from a locker room nuisance to posting 189 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the playoffs last year. Blount will be joined in New England’s backfield by Jonas Gray, Tyler Gaffney and Brandon Bolden. But then again who cares, they have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.