Vikings vs. NFC North: Running backs

With the return of Adrian Peterson, the Vikings have the best running back situation in the NFC North once again, but two teams aren’t far behind.

1. Minnesota Vikings
Starter: Adrian Peterson
Peterson has been one of the best, if not the best, running backs in the NFL since he entered the league as a first-round draft pick out of Oklahoma in 2007. He was named Rookie of The Year in 2007 and was named MVP in 2012 when he was just nine yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record. Even though he didn’t break that record, he has set multiple other NFL records, including the single-game rushing record where he ran for 296 yards and three touchdowns against the San Diego Chargers as a rookie.

At the age of 30, many people are expecting there to be a drop off in production coming Peterson’s way, but after playing in only one game last season he has had plenty of time to rest his body. This means that he should be returning fresh and ready to run the ball again.

With 10,190 career-rushing yards, Peterson is already the Vikings’ all-time leading rusher and No. 28 all-time in the NFL. But with another 1,000-yard season he should be able to break into the top 20 during the 2015 season.

In his eight NFL season he has only played in all 16 regular season games three times – although he did not miss time due to injury in 2014, but rather legal issues. Another thing that could cut into his carries some is the emergence of second-year pro Jerick McKinnon. He was able to step up in Peterson’s absence last year and is likely going to be used as a change-of-pace back to Peterson during the 2015 season.

Even with McKinnon taking some carries away, Peterson is still going to be the featured back in this offense and should receive the bulk of them. The question then becomes, after missing an entire season and reaching the age of 30, can Peterson still be the same running back that we have seen the past eight years?

2. Chicago Bears
Starter: Matt Forte
Forte may be one of the best dual-threat running backs in the NFL and has been for some time. He has rushed for at least 1,000 yards five out of his seven years in the NFL and has never rushed for fewer than 929 yards, while also catching 44 or more passes a year during his career (44 receptions for 340 yards in 2012 was his lowest mark). He has also been responsible for 57 combined touchdowns.

The Bears have used Forte as an every-down running back since he entered the NFL as a second-round draft pick in 2008, and you have to begin to wonder how much longer he can last, especially when so much of the Bears’ offense has run through him for a majority of his career.

Forte is now 29 years old (will turn 30 during the regular season) and it seems the Bears might be thinking the same thing. In the fourth round of the 2015 draft they selected Jeremy Langford, a running back from Michigan State, and they appear to have high hopes for him. The Bears also declined to extend Forte’s contract earlier this offseason.

Head coach John Fox enters his first season with the Bears and has shown through his career that he likes to use a two-back system. This will likely lessen the workload for Forte, which should prolong his career, but it could also give Langford a chance to take hold of the backfield for the team.

During his career, Forte has been named to the Pro Bowl twice, broke Gale Sayers’ rookie team record of yards from scrimmage with 1,715 yards, broke the single-season NFL record for receptions by a running back in 2014 with 102 and is second all time to Walter Payton for most rushing yards by a Bears running back.

He has made a name for himself as one of the top running backs in the NFL during his seven-year career and has become one of the best running backs in Bears’ history. But that could be coming to an end soon and this coming season should tell us a lot about his future with the team moving forward.

3. Green Bay Packers
Starter: Eddie Lacy
The Packers selected Lacy in the second round of the 2013 draft out of Alabama, where they just seem to breed talented running backs. Since then, he has become one of the best young backs in the NFL and has shown an ability to contribute to his team in multiple ways.

In 2013, Lacy was named the Offensive Rookie of The Year and named to the Pro Bowl as a rookie after rushing for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns on 284 attempts. He also helped out in the receiving game, recording 35 receptions for 257 yards, all the while he only lost one fumble.

Lacy had a slow start at the beginning of his sophomore season and did not record a 100-yard rushing game until Week 5 of the regular season against the division rival Minnesota Vikings. After that game he seemed to get things back in order and finished the year with 1,139 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on 246 carries. He also got more involved in the passing game in his second season, recording 42 receptions for 427 yards and four touchdowns.

After just two seasons in the NFL, Lacy is already ranked No. 13 all-time among the Packers’ rushing leaders, and if this trend continues he should have no problem passing Ahman Green as the all-time leading rusher.

One thing that could hold Lacy back, however, is an issue with concussions. He suffered a concussion each of his first two seasons in the NFL but has also only had to miss one game. Concussions have become a serious topic in the NFL over the past couple years and if this trend continues his career could be in jeopardy long-term.

4. Detroit Lions
Starter: Joique Bell
After the Lions released Reggie Bush in February, the starting running back job was handed to Bell. Bell has had a long journey in the NFL to get where he is today. He began as an undrafted free agent that was signed by the Buffalo Bills in 2010. For the rest of that season and some of the 2011 season, he would spend time with the Bills, Philadelphia Eagles, Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints before finally ending up with the Lions.

Due to the fact that Bell was bounced around for a couple years in the NFL before getting playing time, he is a somewhat older back. He is 28, but the fact that it took him so long to get a shot at playing should allow him to be productive later into his career.

Bell received his first regular-season snap with the Lions in 2012 and has been a regular contributor since then. His workload has steadily increased during his time in Detroit, partially because of injuries to Bush, and last season he recorded 860 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on 223 attempts. He also caught 34 passes for 322 yards and a touchdown.

Even though Bell likely will be named the starter at the beginning of the season, expect Theo Riddick and rookie Ameer Abdullah to also get a good amount of touches. Bell is not the type of back who will outrun the defense in a foot race, but more of a punishing runner. So by splitting the carries between multiple backs, the Lions can take advantage of all their strengths.

However, if one of these backs is able to outperform the other two on a regular basis, expect to see the amount of carries shift in their favor.

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