May 26, 2009

General managers, coaches and fantasy footballers rank 1-2-3 (though not necessarily in that order) as talent evaluators for quarterbacks and running backs. And they need to be good at it because jobs and bragging rights are at stake when it comes to those positions.

In an effort to help all three groups with their evaluations, we've ranked the NFL's quarterback-running back pairings. Notably, two of the top nine QB-RB packages play in the NFC North (And here's a hint: Neither employs Brett Favre or plays indoors.)

Some notes on the measurements used:

• If a team's backup is an active ingredient in the mix or is arguably good enough to start for a number of other teams, that backup factored into the rating. This was not the case for every team.

• Since few teams use a true fullback in their schemes, we didn't fold that position into the backfield lineups.

• Rookies are difficult to rank, for obvious reasons, and quarterbacks particularly so. But we viewed some (Matt Stafford in Detroit, Mark Sanchez in New York) as positives because they likely can't be worse than what they're replacing.

• Additions and subtractions via free agency and the draft affected some backfields more than others, even if those additions or subtractions weren't quarterbacks or running backs. Changes at various positions, even on defense, have clear trickle-down potential for quarterbacks and running backs.

• Rankings are based on more than skills and numbers alone. Joe Montana, for example, may not have been the NFL's top passer in his prime, but he was arguably its best quarterback.

With that in mind, here's how the 32 NFL backfields rank:

(Agree or disagree with these rankings? Share your thoughts here.)

Who: QB Philip Rivers; RBs LaDanian Tomlinson, Darren Sproles

Add/subtract: When you have the NFL's top-rated passer and two backs combining for 1,440 rush yards, 81 receptions and 18 TDs, you don't need to add much. The Chargers went big on power, drafting two offensive linemen and two defensive linemen with their first four picks. Of course, getting Shawne Merriman back may be the biggest "add" of all.

Questionable: How much longer can L.T. continue being L.T.? And will Rivers' maturity finally match his talent? Maybe more to the point, if Merriman and that defense start setting up this backfield on short fields, how good can this team be?

The thought: Rivers and the Bolts got a delicious taste of what it feels like when it all comes together. And L.T., one of the great tailbacks in NFL history, has at least one year left, and his understudy would start for more than a few clubs.

Who: QB Eli Manning; RBs Brandon Jacobs,Ahmad Bradshaw

Add/subtract: The Giants will miss 1,000-yard back Derrick Ward and WRPlaxico Burress (who they sorely missed last season). But the Giants drafted two WR's (Hakeem Nicks, Ramses Barden), one TE (Travis Beckum) and an OT (Will Beatty) in the first three rounds to add playmates for an already elite backfield.

Questionable: The Burress aftershocks should be over, but are they?

The thought: This top-10 offense was on a mission to improve its skill positions. It will be difficult to keep it from topping the 427 points it notched last season.

Who: QB Tony Romo; RBs Marion Barber, Felix Jones, TashardChoice

Add/subtract:Terrell Owens. You decide if that's an addition or not.

Questionable: Can Roy Williams become the deep threat Romo needs to force defenses out of eight-man fronts?

The thought: Romo's passer rating (91.4) was significantly higher than his U.S. Open qualifying score (80), and that's a good thing. Instead of handing clubs to caddies, he'll be handing pigskins to the three-headed monster at tailback. Having all those options will allow Romo to play relaxed and balanced -- and talk to Jason Witten without T.O. getting suspicious.

Who: QB Tom Brady; RBs Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor

Add/subtract: Taylor is a class vet who fits the Patriots' mold. Brady returns to added OL depth and help at WR in the form of Joey Galloway and Greg Lewis, respectfully.

Questionable: Brady's knee is clearly the big question, but it's not the only one. How much fuel do Taylor, Galloway and others have left?

The thought: This bunch didn't miss many beats when Matt Cassel took over for Brady. And do we think Brady will come back even more motivated than usual, leading a team that uncharacteristically missed the playoffs?

Who: QB Donovan McNabb; RB Brian Westbrook

Add/subtract: LT Jason Peters is a franchise addition in front of McNabb and Westbrook, and Stacy Andrews is another starter-grade OL addition. Drafting Jeremy Maclin in the first round this season and DeSean Jackson in the second last year does nothing but make McNabb and Westbrook more dangerous.

Questionable:The heavy load on Westbrook has worn him down and McNabb is high mileage at 32.

The Thought: With the draft of Pitt RB LeSean McCoy in Round 2, McNabb and Westbrook now may feel like they're in Kiddieland.

Who: QB Ben Roethlisberger; RBs Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall

Add/subtract: Mendenhall missed all of last season, so he comes in as de facto rookie No. 1. Guard Kendall Simmons is gone but the Steelers picked up Kraig Urbik from Wisconsin in the third round.

Questionable: Parker missed five games last season with injuries and failed to average 3.0 yards per carry in five of Pittsburgh's last nine games. Then again, the Steelers also won four of those five.

The Thought: Few quarterbacks play as well within themselves as Roethlisberger, who has Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes developing and possibly Mendenhall long term.

Who: QB Matt Ryan; RB Michael Turner

Add/subtract: Trading for TE Tony Gonzalez gives Ryan a new, experienced toy.

Questionable: The Falcons went 11-5 and to the playoffs with a rookie QB and LT. How much better can they be if Ryan and Sam Baker avoid any sophomore jinx?

The Thought: This team thought it was so solid on offense that it spent its first five draft picks -- and seven of eight -- on defense.

Who: QB Aaron Rodgers; RB Ryan Grant

Add/subtract: The Packers spent their top two picks on defense, which makes sense considering the pending changes on defense. Plus, the Packers were already the No. 5 scoring offense in Rodgers' first true year.

Questionable: How much will the new 3-4 defense help the offense in the field position and turnover battles? And is the OL as good as the talent it is protecting?

The thought: It wasn't quite "Brett who?" by season's end, but Rodgers had become the best quarterback in the NFC North and No. 6 in the league in passer rating. Grant is a top-10 tailback. Add to that two 1,000-yard WR's and this is a backfield you do not want to play.

Who: QB Jay Cutler; RBs Matt Forte, Kevin Jones

Add/subtract: The Cutler trade was THE deal of the offseason, but the Bears also added three veteran offensive linemen (including Orlando Pace), two of whom likely will start and enhance the backfield.

Questionable: WRs like Devin Hester and Earl Bennett, plus rookie Juaquin Iglesias, are still huge unknowns. Cutler will make them better, but are they NFL-caliber? RT Chris Williams is a virtual rookie after missing much of '08 with a back injury.

The Thought: Cutler threw for 4,526 yards and eight TD's with no real defensive support. Forte rushed for 1,238 rookie yards and was No. 3 in total yards, with no consistent pass threat. They both have what they need now.

Who: QB Peyton Manning; RBs Joseph Addai, Donald Brown, Mike Hart

Add/subtract: Keeping C Jeff Saturday was a big add, and personnel guru Bill Polian's knack with late-round picks makes Brown (27th overall) worth a serious look.

Questionable: An offense 32nd in rushing average is just that: average. Even with Manning.

The Thought: Tony Dungy leaving the organization doesn't directly affect the offense, but Dungy did, in fact, directly affect just about everything. Manning is still one of the league's greats but he needs more from his backs. Still, Peyton Manning operating out of an empty backfield would rank in any top 10.

Who: QB Jake Delhomme; RBs DeAngelo Williams, Johnathan Stewart

Add/subtract: Few major transactions, but if DE Julius Peppers would show up without incident, everybody will feel a lot better.

Questionable: Delhomme is 34 and started 16 games in four of his six Carolina years. Can the Panthers' OL limit his sacks to 20 again?

The Thought: Delhomme's '08 finish vs. Arizona was a nightmare (five interceptions), but four of Carolina's five losses were to playoff teams. The Panthers have two No. 1's at tailback and No. 1's at both OT's (Jordan Gross, Jeff Otah).

Who: QB Chad Pennington; RBs Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams

Add/subtract: No significant additions to an offense that was balanced and effective.

Questionable: Will there be a letdown after one of the great one-season turnarounds in league history?

The Thought: The Dolphins' home arena has been renamed Landshark Stadium. There's a joke in there somewhere, but no one is laughing at the "Wildcat" package or the 11-5 mark last season, so this backfield gets ranking points for variety.

Who: QB Kurt Warner; RBs Tim Hightower, Beanie Wells

Add/subtract: The Cards thought Wells was worth a No. 1 pick to the point of parting company with Edgerrin James.

Questionable: Warner played 20 games last season; how likely is that to happen again? And Anquan Boldin's future is a question even if it is in Arizona again.

The Thought: Warner's chances of a second straight magical year are unlikely, even with Larry Fitzgerald's help. Wells needs to make an immediate impact to keep Arizona close to offense it was in '08.

Who: QB Joe Flacco; RBs Le'Ron McClain, Willis McGahee

Add/subtract: Adding OT Michael Oher with a first-round pick and C Matt Birk through free agency should upgrade a front that was responsible for the No. 4 rushing attack but ranked 22nd in sack percentage.

Questionable: How much more latitude with Flacco get from OC Cam Cameron? And is there a next step up for McClain, who was solid and improving through the final weeks?

The Thought: The offense was managed well in '08 with a rookie under center but the feature backs can do better than their 3.9 yards per carry.

Who: QB Matt Schaub; RB Steve Slaton

Add/subtract: The Texans lost swing tackle Ephraim Salaam, but they didn't address offense until the third round of the draft. And even then, they only addressed the interior line so Houston must be satisfied with its current backfield protection. Dan Orlovsky was added for QB depth.

Questionable: Schaub's consistency. He repeatedly posted big ratings but lacked the requisite steady production of an elite quarterback. He's only played 11 games in each of his two Houston seasons and has 24 TD's vs. 19 INT's in that span.

The Thought: Slaton was one of the NFL surprises in '08 but critics would argue that he and the Texans snuck up on teams and they often point to them winning five of their last six in another tease finish.

(Agree or disagree with these rankings? Share your thoughts here.)

Who: QBs Tavaris Jackson, Sage Rosenfels; RBAdrian Peterson

Add/subtract: Drafting WR Percy Harvin adds a threat to keep defenses from locking on Peterson. Losing vet C Matt Birk takes experience away from OL.

Questionable: Brett Favre? And how much better will they really be with him anyway? He's 2-6 against the Lovie SmithBears and he struggles with 3-4's, which the Packers will be playing. If Matt Stafford has a Matt Ryan-type rookie year, Favre arguably rates no better than the fourth-best QB in the division.

The Thought: The Vikes are still the AP Show and will be until their quarterback -- any quarterback -- is more than just a bit player.

Who: QB Drew Brees; RBs Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas

Add/subtract: Veteran running back Deuce McAllister was released in the offseason.

Questionable: Bush is recovering from knee surgery and has played 16 games in just one of his three seasons. It's time for more.

The Thought: Brees' passing numbers are bordering on the irrelevant without a backfield mate that commands some attention consistently.

Who: QBs Kerry Collins, Vince Young; RB Chris Johnson

Add/subtract: Using the No. 30 pick on WR Kenny Britt (6-foot-2, 218 pounds) puts a designer wideout to go with Justin Gage and Nate Washington.

Questionable: Young remains as enigmatic as he is talented. Until there is less enigma and more talent on display, the offense has limits. Ditto, LenDale White.

The Thought: Johnson was a jolt to the entire AFC as a rookie averaging 4.9 yards per carry and 43 receptions. But Collins is the definition of a journeyman, and Young is still a big-picture unknown.

Who: QB Marc Bulger; RB Stephen Jackson

Add/subtract: Departures of OT Orlando Pace and WR Torry Holt close an era, but Jason Smith could be an upgrade from where injuries had left Pace.

Questionable: Bulger, paging Marc Bulger ... your young receivers are waiting.

The Thought: At their bests, Bulger and Jackson were arguably the NFL's best passer-rusher pairing. Jackson is still an elite force with 1,042 rush yards and 4.8 combined yards every time he touches the ball but Bulger was the 30th-ranked passer with just 57 percent completions.

Who: QBShaun Hill; RBFrank Gore

Add/subtract: Adding WR Michael Crabtree with the 10th overall pick in the draft has Bay Area fans yearning from a return to the days of Rice/Taylor/Owens ... well, Rice/Taylor, anyhow.

Questionable: Gore has gone down with ankle sprains each of the past two seasons. And how much did Hill benefit from the element of surprise? Jimmy Raye is the 49ers">49ers' seventh offensive coordinator in seven years -- question enough?

The Thought: The 49ers won four of their last five under Hill and loom as an underrated challenge if Gore is part rather than all of the offense.

Who: QBs Byron Leftwich, Josh Freeman, Luke McCown; RBs Derrick Ward, Earnest Graham

Add/subtract:Jon Gruden moving from sideline to broadcast booth will have some effect on the QBs. Warrick Dunn's departure ends an era. But Ward was a 1,000-yard rusher with the Giants and Freeman was the No. 17 pick of the draft.

Questionable: A team that has two starting quarterbacks has none. What if it thinks it has three?

The Thought: The Bucs are on the rise but the quarterback competition will take focus away from one central figure, which figures to be Freeman in the future.

Who: QB Matt Cassell; RBs Larry Johnson, Jamaal Charles

Add/subtract: Cassell changed the quarterback situations of nearly 20 percent of the AFC, including the team he left, the team that got him and the one (Denver) that didn't. But as Cassell was arriving, franchise tight end Tony Gonzalez was leaving for Atlanta. Bobby Engram is a quality veteran if not a game-breaker.

Questionable: A draft strategy that did not address offense until round five and a skill position until a round later. Cassell could play catch with Randy Moss in New England; now he's got Mark Bradley. Question mark, as is a thin offensive line.

The Thought: Cassell is not operating behind that Patriot line or throwing to those receivers. As Johnson goes, so goes the offense.

Who: QB Carson Palmer; RB Cedric Benson

Add/subtract: No. 1 pick Andre Smith is working at RT, which he's never played. Laveranues Coles figures to offset the loss of T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

Questionable: Is the OL going to allow another 51 sacks? Because that could be the end of Palmer, who had a broken nose, sprained ankle and elbow injuries from the beatings.

The Thought: Sharing a division with Baltimore and Pittsburgh does no backfield any good and the Bengals ranked no better than 27th in nine of 10 significant offensive categories.

Who: QB Kyle Orton; RB (committee), Knowshon Moreno

Add/subtract: Orton in, Cutler out. The Broncos were volume buyers in free agency but the biggest personnel change was Josh Daniels in, Mike Shanahan out. Let the makeover begin, starting with Moreno, the 12th overall pick of the draft.

Questionable: Orton does not have major downside but how will he fare in a system other than Chicago's where he had two successful runs as a starter? The Broncos had eight different players rush for 100 or more yards but none totaling more than rookie fullback Peyton Hillis' 343, making their No. 12 rushing rank an illusion. Moreno needs to be the solution.

The Thought: Orton never was fully appreciated in QB-starved Chicago and played through ankle problems last season that turned the second half of the season into a franchise disappointment.

(Agree or disagree with these rankings? Share your thoughts here.)

Who: QBs Mark Sanchez, Kellen Clemens; RBs Thomas Jones, Leon Washington

Add/subtract: Brett Favre was set free to pester the NFC North for a job. Shonn Greene is a third-round pick that adds pop to the backfield, which Sanchez will need very much.

Questionable: Any rookie QB is a question, even this Mark. And how much of a problem will Jones' agitation for another new deal be?

The Thought: Sanchez needs to perform well and fast or face a New York-media-and-fan onslaught over his beefcake photo shoots and a high-profile rookie start a la Matt Leinart. Maybe it's a USC thing.

Who: QB Jason Campbell; RB Clinton Portis

Add/subtract: OL Derrick Dockery and Mike Williams give depth and experience up front but the hope has to be that adding help on defense will translate somehow into positives for the offense.

Questionable: Campbell's ego. It's one thing that his team didn't think he was as good as Jay Cutler, but when the Broncos didn't think Campbell was as good as Kyle Orton ...

The Thought: Campbell isn't as good as either of those two. And Portis is going into his eighth season. That's too much heavy lifting for high-volume legs.

Who: QB Trent Edwards; RB Marshawn Lynch

Add/subtract: Terrell Owens. The Bills also drafted interior OL help in the first and second rounds, but losing LT Jason Peters will require some scrambling, hopefully not all of it by Edwards.

Questionable: T.O. has disrupted better offenses and quarterbacks' minds than the Bills and Edwards.' Actually, unless T.O. breaks completely with custom, the question is, what were the Bills thinking?

The Thought: What were the Bills thinking?

Who: QBs JaMarcus Russell, Jeff Garcia; RBs Justin Fargas, Darren McFadden

Add/subtract: Garcia is a stable element either on or off the field. And Al Davis still loves his receivers, doesn't he? Darrius Heyward-Bey was a surprise pick at No. 7, but then again, knowing Davis ...

Questionable: Russell's leadership. When he understands that arm strength is less important than other strengths, then the Raiders might have something. And will someone please find McFadden some shoes that fit and, while you're up, a coherent role in the offense?

The Thought: If Russell doesn't seem to be taking his career seriously, why should anyone else?

Who: QBs Matthew Stafford, Daunte Culpepper; RB Kevin Smith

Add/subtract: No. 1's were invested in Stafford and TE Brandon Pettigrew and veteran OT Ephraim Salaam gives depth and stability up front. WR Bryant Johnson will complement Calvin Johnson for Stafford.

Questionable: The 0-16 is history but is all the scar tissue and losing mentality?

The Thought: They can't help but win more than they did last year. But this will be a shakedown cruise for a rookie in an NFC North with toughened defenses and that could indeed be shaky.

Who: QBs Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn; RB Jamal Lewis

Add/subtract: The Browns drafted WR's Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi besides signing Mike Furrey and David Patten. And all that with Braylon Edwards still in place.

Questionable: Anderson or Quinn? More important, is either NFL-grade ultimately? Lewis is recovering from offseason ankle surgery at age 30.

The Thought: The OL is strong and few teams have more potential threats at wide receiver to help their quarterbacks, but by midseason Eric Mangini may be asking one of them if he can take snaps unless Anderson or Quinn show something.

Who: QBs Matt Hasselbeck, Seneca Wallace; RBs Julius Jones, T.J. Duckett

Add/subtract: Houshmandzadeh was a marquee signing but he is not an elite No. 1.

Questionable: Hasselbeck's return from back problems is expected to be without incident but there's no guarantee for the soon-to-be 34 year old. And the Seahawks lost six of the seven games in which Hasselbeck did play.

The Thought: Wallace posted an 87.0 passer rating in Hasselbeck's place but the three top rushing averages were by QBs for an offense that desperately needs its next Shaun Alexander.

Who: QB David Garrard; RB Maurice Jones-Drew

Add/subtract: Fred Taylor, Matt Jones and Jerry Porter leave varying size holes in the offense but adding Tra Thomas up front and Torry Holt gives Garrard some help.

Add/subtract: Taking two OT's (Eugene Monroe, Eben Britton) in the first 39 picks of the draft was a statement and a much-needed one for a front that was 23rd in sack percentage.

Questionable: Garrard's play in general. After a 3-3 start, he had just two 100-plus passer ratings in a 2-8 run and one of those was against the Lions.

The Thought: Jones-Drew is a legitimate threat rushing or receiving, but Garrard has not taken a step he and the Jags need.

(Agree or disagree with these rankings? Share your thoughts here.)

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