Comparing the North: Running backs

The division gets a few new contributors with Jahvid Best in Detroit and Toby Gerhart in Minnesota, as well as Chester Taylor switching from Minnesota to Chicago. So how does the position stack up in the NFC North?


Starter — Matt Forte. Backups - RB Chester Taylor, RB Kahlil Bell, RB Garrett Wolfe, RB Harvey Unga, RB Brandon Minor, FB Will Ta'ufo'ou, FB Eddie Williams.

According to coach Lovie Smith, Forte remains the starter, but Smith is fond of saying that all jobs are open to competition. Taylor was brought in to complement and compete with Forte, whose production plummeted last season after an encouraging rookie campaign. Forte seemed a step slower than he was in 2008, but he didn't get much help from the offensive line. He still caught 57 passes last season for 471 yards, but Forte needed 258 carries to gain 929 yards (3.6-yard average). Not counting runs of 61, 53 and 37 yards against the Lions, Forte did not have a run of longer than 16 yards last season. Taylor is 30 but has low miles since he's only been the featured runner in one of his eight NFL seasons. However, Taylor's yards per carry have dropped in each of the past two seasons, from a career-best 5.4 in 2007, to 4.0 in ‘08 and down to 3.7 last season, when the Vikings also had difficulties run blocking. Like Forte, Taylor is a versatile back, combining inside and outside run skills with good hands and blocking ability. Rookie Kahlil Bell was activated off the practice squad after nine weeks last season and impressed in limited duty. The 5-foot-11, 212-pound Bell could move past Garrett Wolfe as the team's No. 3 runner this season. The 5-foot-7, 185-pound Wolfe has struggled to find a niche but has developed into an excellent special-teams player. Mike Martz's offense doesn't use a fullback very often, so the Bears might only keep one, and Unga could play a utility role as a backup running back and fullback.


Starter - Jahvid Best. Backups - Kevin Smith, Maurice Morris, Aaron Brown, DeDe Dorsey, FB Jerome Felton, FB Matt Clapp, FB Jake Nordin.

Oddly enough, the top two backs are both playing a game of catch-up as they enter training camp. But while rookie Best tries to absorb the playbook and nail down the job as the featured back, Smith is trying to regain his footing after a torn ACL late last season. Ideally, they can form a tandem, with Best providing a home-run threat as a runner and receiver - the Lions' running backs only had three rushes for 20 yards or more in 2009 - while Smith, who caught 41 passes last season, plays more of a third-down role. Morris, who got a chance to start late in the year, also is back, though his status and role could depend on Smith's health. Also returning is fullback Jerome Felton, who might see more time as a ball carrier than he did a year ago. The more intriguing camp question, though, is whether Brown - or possibly Dorsey - can do enough to land a roster spot.


Starters — Ryan Grant, FB Quinn Johnson. Backups — Brandon Jackson, James Starks, Kregg Lumpkin, Quinn Porter; FB Korey Hall, FB John Kuhn.

In the Packers' pass-thriving offense, Grant quietly produced a second straight 1,200-yard season, rushing for 1,253 yards to eclipse his 2008 output of 1,203. Grant regained the explosiveness that often eluded him the previous season and improved his per-carry average by a half yard to 4.4. Green Bay had little to speak of for rushing yards after Grant, however, in 2009. Rodgers, as the quarterback, ranked No. 2 on the team. Jackson likely will be the No. 2 back since he is dependable as a third-down blocker and pass catcher, but he must offer more than the 111 yards in 37 carries (3.0 average) from a season ago. Starks, a sixth-round draft pick, is an intriguing rookie prospect and could win the No. 3 job even after not playing his final college season at Buffalo because of a shoulder injury. Johnson is a bulldozer at fullback, and the time seems right to let him start after the team brought him along gradually as a rookie last season. Keeping three fullbacks another season seems unlikely, so it comes down to a battle between Hall and Kuhn, who offer a lot on special teams.


Starters — Adrian Peterson, FB Naufahu Tahi. Backups — Toby Gerhart, Ian Johnson, Ryan Moats, Darius Reynaud, Albert Young, FB Ryan D'Imperio.

Peterson created a stir by staying away from a three-day minicamp because he wanted to be in his hometown of Palestine, Texas, to celebrate a day in his honor. There was speculation that Peterson was unhappy with his contract — he has two years remaining and stands to make as much as $13 million in 2011 with escalators. The Vikings are going to need Peterson to prove he is a complete running back this season now that Chester Taylor has signed with Chicago as a free agent. Taylor had been the Vikings' go-to-guy on third down and two-minute situations because of his pass receiving and blocking abilities but that luxury is now gone. Peterson rushed for 1,383 yards and 18 touchdowns last season but the Vikings feel he can be more productive and must be a more patient runner. He also needs to clean up a fumbling problem that has become a major issue. Peterson lost six of seven fumbles during the regular season in 2009 and then had two fumbles (none lost) in the NFC title game. Favre was charged with another fumble on a handoff to Peterson that did result in a costly turnover late in the first half of that game. The Vikings traded up in the second round to get Gerhart and he will be expected to be Peterson's top backup. Young, Moats, Johnson and Reynaud figure to fight for the No. 3 job. Reynaud was a wide receiver for his first two seasons but has been moved to running back.

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