Ranking NFL's top 10 running backs heading into 2015 season
Ahead of the 2015 season, SI.com is ranking the top 10 starters at every position group. You can read our quarterback rankings here. Next up: The NFL's 10 best running backs.
Lynch didn't lead the NFL in rushing yards last season—he finished fourth with 1,306 regular-season yards—but it's difficult to imagine, in the current NFL where backs are frequently seen as fungible entities, a back more important to his team. From a purely technical standpoint, Lynch has a special combination of toughness and agility; his ability to move through defenders is one of his most underrated attributes, and the way he defies contact and gains extra yardage after first contact is unparalleled.
Per Pro Football Focus, Lynch caused 117 missed tackles on 343 rushing attempts in the 2014 regular season and postseason, by far the highest mark in the league. He's able to do this despite the fact that defenses are keying on him on nearly every play, due to the rudimentary nature of Seattle's passing game. And though he doesn't say much to the media, make no mistake—he's the tone-setter for his team in the locker room. Outside of the league's best quarterbacks and a handful of defensive players, there isn't an NFL player more crucial to the success of his team than Lynch is.
2. Le'Veon Bell, Steelers
Bell will miss the first two games of the 2015 season due to a violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy (it was recently reduced from three games), which is a huge hit to the Steelers. Consider their 2014 playoff loss to the Ravens—Bell was out after hyperextending his knee in the regular-season finale, and Pittsburgh only managed 68 rushing yards on 19 carries in that game, falling to Baltimore.
Though the Steelers will go as far as Ben Roethlisberger will take them at this point, given the atypically uncertain nature of their defense, Bell is right up there with receiver Antonio Brown as the team's second-most important player. Ever since the Steelers took him in the second round of the 2013 draft, his main attribute has been his patience when waiting for holes to open up, and when he does get back on the field in 2015, he'll continue to power the ground game.
3. DeMarco Murray, Eagles
Murray led the league with 1,845 rushing yards in 2014, but according to some, he left a lot of big plays on the field and almost entirely benefited from Dallas's outstanding offensive line. In truth, Murray did a lot to make his line look good, as well—he finished second behind Marshawn Lynch with 77 missed tackles caused in 2014, and he's always been a more powerful runner than his 6'0", 214-pound frame might indicate. Murray is more of a straight-line runner than one who will juke you out of your shoes, but he shows good vision and gap awareness on a consistent basis.
Will he ever put up another season like he did in 2014? The test comes this year, as Murray left for Philadelphia in free agency. He'll be a big part of Chip Kelly's running back rotation there, and Kelly does have a way of making things work very well for his backs. However, Philadelphia's offensive line isn't quite at Dallas's level when it comes to run-blocking.
4. Eddie Lacy, Packers
The 5'11", 231-pound Lacy is primarily a power back, but there's some burst in what he does as well. Last season, he finished second in the league with 20 runs of 15 yards or more, behind only Murray. Does he benefit from the fact that defenses are set up to stop Aaron Rodgers's passing game more than anything else? To be sure, but he's also given Rodgers and the Packers the most sustained and consistent running game they've had in many years. Packers coach Mike McCarthy has said that he wants to keep Lacy fresh by limiting his rushing attempts in 2015, but don't expect his value to decrease—more and more, Rodgers is relying on Lacy as an option in the passing game, and that could take a serious uptick in the new season.
5. Jeremy Hill, Bengals
It didn't take long for the second-round rookie to blast off in Cincinnati's offense once he jumped out of the rotational role—in the second half of the 2014 season, no back rushed for more yards than Hill's 929. The Bengals have an iffy quarterback and one serious receiver in A.J. Green, so Hill was the main focus of every front seven that he faced.
The 6'1", 233-pound LSU alum has a perfect combination of first-level power and second-level burst, and despite his size, he blew past defensive backs in the open field consistently. When Hill averaged more than 15 carries in a game in 2014, he averaged 5.6 yards per carry. He very well could be the NFL's next great running back, and there's no question that he'll be the main man in Cincinnai all the way through in 2015.
6. Jamaal Charles, Chiefs
Like Hill, Charles succeeds despite a limited quarterback, a factor that allows defenses to key on him more often. And like Murray, Charles is often incorrectly perceived as an upright, straight-line speed runner. In truth, Charles can bull through the line when necessary, but why do that when you can juke a linebacker out of his shoes and make a cornerback look like he's running in wet cement? Charles has been doing this since he entered the league in 2008.
At age 28, though, Charles may have to make some adjustments to maintain his excellence. He's made a commitment to good health, and Andy Reid will always make a commitment to getting Charles the ball in the passing game. With those two factors at play, Charles should be able to excel through the end of his current contract, which goes through the 2017 season.
7. Arian Foster, Texans
Admit it: if you haven't paid much attention to the Texans over the last two seasons, you probably thought Foster was a name from the past. But he gained 1,246 yards in 2014 despite a horrible quarterback situation, an inconsistent offensive line and injuries that kept him out of three games. Coach Bill O'Brien has said that as long as the 28-year-old Foster has what it takes, he'll get the ball as often as possible. In truth, O'Brien might be better off managing the workload of a back who has missed 11 games over the last two seasons and is nearing the wrong end of the age curve, but as the team did little to advance that shaky quarterback situation this offseason, the Texans are best-served by running Foster into the ground and letting J.J. Watt destroy every enemy offense.
8. Justin Forsett, Ravens
Forsett considered retirement before Gary Kubiak decided that he could be a boon to Baltimore's running game and signed him last April. But nobody expected him to have the season he had as a result of that move. The six-year player signed a minimum veteran deal, expecting to be part of Baltimore's running back rotation. But then Ray Rice's life turned upside down, Bernard Pierce got hurt and Forsett ran for 1,266 yards and eight touchdowns on just 235 carries, which isn't bad for a guy whose previous high was 619 yards with the 2009 Seahawks. Forsett is now Baltimore's main back, and he's got a nice skill set—surprising power for his size, patience through gaps, and impressive second-level acceleration.
9. Lamar Miller, Dolphins
Since he was taken in the fourth round of the 2012 draft by the Dolphins, Miller has been a favorite of the fantasy football community and a regular on the "guys to watch" lists. The hype came true in 2014, when Miller rushed for 1,099 yards and eight touchdowns on just 216 carries, including a 97-yard run against the Jets in the regular-season finale. Not a bad total for a guy who never had 20 carries in a single game.
Miami's coaching staff is open to giving him more carries, though we'll have to see how Boise State rookie Jay Ajayi plays into that rotation. Miller put on 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason, so he's certainly making his case to be the Dolphins' bell-cow back.
10. Adrian Peterson, Vikings
The great unknown. Should Peterson be higher on this list, given his amazing career accomplishments, and the fact that he ran for nearly 1,300 yards in 2013? The year off due to off-field issues will have some wondering about his conditioning, while others will say that it gives him a new lease on life from a physical perspective. One thing's for sure: Peterson turned 30 in March, and that's a bad place to be for any running back. The Vikings re-worked his contract in late July—they're giving him $20 million guaranteed, so they certainly believe that he's still got it.
Concerns about Minnesota's offensive line are legitimate, but coach Mike Zimmer has said that he expects to give Peterson a heavy workload from the word go. One thing in Peterson's favor is that he hasn't had a quarterback as adept as Teddy Bridgewater since he benefitted from Brett Favre's presence in 2009. And at this point in his career, the fewer eight-man boxes he faces, the better.