1) Arian Foster
Arian Foster was an undrafted rookie who, two years ago, might have had to think about employment not involving football. Then the Houston Texans took a chance on him and now in his 3rd year, Foster has become the best back in the NFL.
Foster has been the best fantasy football commodity at running back over the past two years, a true dual-threat player. Foster has mastered running between the tackles, long stretch runs and hitting long pitches to the outside, where he is able to find holes and make precise cuts to hit them with violence. He can be dominant in the passing game in Gary Kubiak’s quarterback-friendly scheme, running screens and even passing routes.
Foster has helped the Texans establish the best play-action offense in the NFL. While Foster doesn’t have as much experience as AP or Mojo, he was able to back up his unbelievable 2010 with a very solid 2011 campaign despite an early injury.
Additionally, Foster was spectacular in this year’s playoffs, breaking an NFL record for the most rushing yards for a player’s first two playoff games. Those games were played against two very good defenses in Cincinnati and Baltimore. Foster was one of the main reasons the Texans got as far as they did.
At age 25, Foster is capable of building on his already successful NFL career next year. For my money, Foster is the best back in the NFL.
2011: 1,224 rushing yards (5th) 4.4 yards per carry, 10 touchdowns in 13 games. 141.6 total yards per game (1st).
2010: 1,616 rushing yards (1st) 4.9 yards per carry, 16 touchdowns in 16 games. 138.8 total yards per game (1st).
2009: 257 rushing yards, 4.8 yards per carry, 3 touchdowns in 6 games (1 started).
2) Maurice Jones Drew
While this might be a shocker having him over Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew is the definition of the Jacksonville Jaguars offense. Despite having to play with a college QB (Gabbert) and having defenses keyed on him every week, Mojo was still able to lead the league in rushing. Mojo is an extremely hard worker, always putting in the effort each off season to improve his game. He fell to the second round of the 2007 draft primarily because of his size (5’7″ 207 lbs), but his thighs are bigger then most grown men, giving him exceptional power to break tackles and make people miss.
The human pinball also possesses 4.4 speed and the ability to break off long runs. Mojo is solid in the pass game, but is not an elite pass catcher like some of the other backs on this list. Mojo is able to slow down a strong pass rush and tire out a defense, though, and could be even more effective if he had a strong QB to play with.
What blows my mind with Jones-Drew is that he is and has been the only option in the Jags offense, facing 8 or 9 in the box his whole career. Mentored by Fred Taylor early in his career, Mojo is now one of the leagues best backs.
2011: 1,606 rushing yards (1st), 4.7 yards per carry, 8 touchdowns in 16 games. 123.8 total yards per game (5th)
2010: 1,324 rushing yards (5th), 4.4 yards per carry, 5 touchdowns in 14 games. 117.2 total yards per game (5th)
2009: 1,391 rushing yards (4th), 4.5 yards per carry, 15 touchdowns in 16 games. 110.3 total yards per game (5th)
3) Adrian Peterson
Adrian Peterson is probably the most physically talented running back in the league, and all he has done since being the first back drafted in 2007 is dominate the NFL with four consecutive seasons of 1300+ yards and double digit touchdowns scored.
While most still consider him the best running back in the game, I have him at number 3 for a couple of reasons. First is ball security: 22 career fumbles including one year of 7 and another of 9. While he has helped his cause the past couple of years, it has definitely been an issue in his career.
The second reason he is number 3 is the more important one: his injury history, particularly his recent injury which could have a serious effect on his running style and career. Peterson blew out his knee against the Washington Redskins in week 16, and needed surgery on both his ACL and MCL. Rehabbing from this could put the start of his 2012 season in doubt, and at age 26, we have to wonder how many elite years he has left.
Had AP not been as banged up, though, he would probably sit on top of this list once again.
2011: 970 rushing yards, 4.7 yards per carry, 12 touchdowns in 12 games. 92.4 total yards per game (12th)
2010: 1,298 rushing yards (6th), 4.6 yards per carry, 12 touchdowns in 15 games. 109.3 total yards per game (7th)
2009: 1,383 rushing yards (5th), 4.4 yards per carry, 18 touchdowns in 16 games. 113.7 total yards per game (4th)
4) Ray Rice
Shifty, quick and young, Ray Rice is the feature player in the Baltimore Ravens offense. He is the engine that makes their offense click, and god knows how bad Joe Flacco would be without him.
Like Maurice Jones-Drew, Rice is able to shrug off defenses and run between the tackles despite his size (5’8″ 212 lbs). That said, Rice is at his best when he catches the edge and uses his breakaway speed to get past defenders.
Similar to Mojo, Rice is built bottom-heavy with very thick strong legs which makes him harder to tackle. All the Ravens know Rice is the key to their success, just ask T-Sizzle or Ray Lewis who complain to Cam Cameron when the beast isn’t fed.
Rice has now put together 3 very strong seasons in a row making him one of the league’s best backs. He’s also extremely durable, having played every game over that span. Rice is also a legitimate dual threat, being extremely effective in the passing and screen game and helping his accuracy-challenged quarterback manage a successful offense.
2011: 1,364 rushing yards (2nd), 4.7 yards per carry, 12 touchdowns in 16 games. 129.3 total yards per game (3rd).
2010: 1,220 rushing yards (10th), 4.0 yards per carry, 5 touchdowns in 16 games. 111.0 total yards per game (7th).
2009: 1,339 rushing yards (6th), 5.3 yards per carry, 7 touchdowns in 16 games. 127.6 total yards per game (2nd).
5) Lesean “Shady” McCoy
While the other running backs on this list are impressive, no one assembled more “wow” plays this season than Shady McCoy. McCoy was elusive and almost impossible to tackle this season showing shades of Barry Sanders, consistently creating positive plays out of broken ones. McCoy had a breakthrough year this year, breaking out of a platoon situation in Philadelphia and establishing himself as one of the elite runners in the league.
When McCoy was able to get the edge this year it was off to the races and 7 points. McCoy had several highlight reel runs this year that I am sure will make defenders cry when watching tape this off-season.
McCoy might have jumped even higher on some peoples list but to me he is still very fragile and needs to be consistent and come back with a strong year next year if he wants to be considered the top back in the NFL.
2011: 1,309 rushing yards (4th), 4.8 yards per carry, 17 touchdowns in 15 games. 108.3 total yards per game (8th)
2010: 1,080 rushing yards (16th), 5.2 yards per carry, 7 touchdowns in 15 games. 111.5 total yards per game (6th)
2009: 637 rushing yards, 4.1 yards per carry, 4 touchdowns in 16 games (4 starts – rookie season)
Chris Johnson: Next year show up to camp in shape and earn your 100 million dollar contract and then maybe I can put you back on this list.
Jamaal Charles: Entered the season as a legit challenger for the top spot… but was derailed in week one. We’re all waiting to see what you can do in 2012.
Matt Forte: A front-runner for MVP honors in Chicago before the knee took him down. This could have been his breakout year, but he gets overlooked again.
Darren McFadden: Perhaps the most violent back in the NFL, puts fear in the hearts of opposing runners. His loss kept the Raiders from making the playoffs.
Fred Jackson: A dark horse runner who could challenge for a top-five spot next year if he puts together a full season doing the kind of work he dd this year (137.6 total yards per game in 2011, second only to Arian Foster).