A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In football terms, a team’s success hinges a lot on how well they can accommodate its weakest position on the field. The game is changing, and in today’s NFL, teams need more than one workhorse running back to keep their head above water in their run game. The days of Jim Brown and Walter Peyton powering their way as the sole man in the backfield are long gone. The game is becoming progressively more pass oriented, yet teams need multiple backs to succeed—as painful as that is for fantasy football players. Some teams have already caught on and are doing a great job of using their different pieces to succeed on the ground. Here are the top five backfields in the NFL today.
Top 5 NFL Backfields
Just missed the cut
Cincinnati Bengals- key contributors: Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill
Cincinnati has one of the truest backfield splits in the league between Hill and Bernard. Both are very talented and can make use of open space, but Bernard is more of a receiving back while Hill can really beat teams between the tackles. The problem is that neither can handle a big load. Bernard has torn his ACL twice, once in college and once last season. Hill meanwhile failed to take full advantage of his time as Cincinnati’s main guy, needing Rex Burkhead to take snaps away from him. Despite this, the two have managed to combine for 5200 yards in their careers. While this is a good start, the Bengals need to add another back to the mix, either through free agency or the loaded draft class.
Pittsburgh Steelers- key contributors: Le’veon Bell, Fitzgerald Toussaint
The Steelers could easily be ranked number one or two on this list, and probably would be if it was just a number one running back list—but it’s not. Bell has revolutionized the running back position. His patience is unparalleled. Bell can make anyone miss, and if he can’t, he will just run over the defender with his 6’1, 230 pound frame. He ran for 1268 yards and added 600 yards through the passing game, being a true double threat. The issue with the Steelers is that they don’t have anyone behind him. Pittsburgh did not resign veteran backup DeAngelo Williams and now just have the smaller and unproven back Fitzgerald Toussaint behind Bell. Unless they bring someone in this offseason, the Steelers will stay out of the top five.
New England Patriots- Key Contributors: Dion Lewis, James White, Rex Burkhead
New England is always impossible to judge where the production will come from, and this year will be no different. As of this point, they have yet to resign Legarrette Blount after his 18 touchdown season, leaving them with three very similar options at running back. All three are quick players that are on the shorter side—White and Burkhead are both 5’10, while Lewis stands at 5’8. They all can be used in the passing game, making them great weapons for Brady, but none are big enough to take it in between the tackles and be a battering ram like Blount was a year ago. That is why they do not crack the top five. Brady, however, will definitely enjoy having some weapons in the backfield that can catch his passes.
The Top 5 NFL Backfields
#5: Seattle Seahawks- Key contributors: Eddie Lacy, Thomas Rawls, CJ Prosise
It was hard to leave Seattle out of the top four, but as of this moment they are sitting at five for one key reason: We have no clue how they will take this attack. Lacy and Rawls are very similar players, while Prosise is a dual threat with soft hands like a receiver. No one knows how they will split the time between Rawls and Lacy, and each guy has had serious trouble staying on the field. Rawls has had multiple ankle and knee injuries; same with Prosise. Lacy meanwhile missed almost all of last year and has had weight related issues, forcing Seattle to put in contract bonuses for the amount of weight he loses. If we could fast forward to next offseason with having seen the Seattle trio in action this year, it could be that this group should have been ranked higher as they certainly have room to grow.
#4: Tennessee Titans- Key contributors- DeMarco Murray, Derrick Henry
DeMarco Murray was a dominant back last year for Tennessee, running for almost 1300 yards and nine touchdowns. One of the biggest hits against Murray was his failure to stay healthy. But 2016 was a relatively healthy year for him, playing in every game. Henry meanwhile, was a second round pick in the 2016 draft. He spent most of the year playing as Murray’s backup. Derrick Henry has some serious size on his side, listing at 6’3 and 238 pounds. As a Heisman winner at Alabama, Henry ran for 1986 yards and 23 touchdowns for the Crimson Tide. He was a surprise pick by the Titans after they signed Murray that same offseason, but the two make a great pair. That is of course, if the Titans coaching staff commits to using both. Coach Mike Mularkey said recently that Murray is “the guy” in the Titans backfield, but don’t be surprised to see a lot more of Derrick Henry next year.
#3: Arizona Cardinals- key contributors: David Johnson, Chris Johnson, Kerwynn Williams
David Johnson ruled the NFL last season, coming up one game short of having at least 100 yards from scrimmage in every single game. He piled up over 2000 yards of total offense between his rushing and receiving, launching himself to one of the best backs in football. However, as it was mentioned before, it takes an army. So, Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians supplied Johnson with some nice weapons behind him.
Chris Johnson ran for over 2000 yards in 2009. Johnson, dubbed CJ2K after that season, ran a then record 4.24 40 yard dash at the 09 combine as well. While Johnson is already 31 and his days as the feature back are over, he is a great backup that can still take very meaningful reps when the other Johnson needs a break.
And then there is Kerwynn Williams. Arians has raved about the 5’8 Williams in the past and said recently that he could even see him taking the top backup job over C. Johnson. Williams was a seventh round pick by the Colts, CJ2K was a first round pick by Tennessee and Johnson was a third round pick by Arizona. While their depth could improve some through the loaded draft, the Cardinals have a top five backfield, mostly due to the do-it-all Swiss knife running back David Johnson.
#2: Dallas Cowboys- key contributors: Ezekiel Elliott, Alfred Morris, Darren McFadden
Dallas selected rookie sensation Zeke Elliot with their fourth pick in 2016. Elliott went on to run for over 1600 yards and 15 touchdowns on his way to what would have been a rookie of the year season, but was second fiddle to Dak Prescott. He’s an athletic freak, able to dodge defenders and pull away into open space, but also is able to run them over. While Elliott is the future for Dallas at the position, he has two very good backs behind him.
Morris is entering his sixth season out of Florida Atlantic, spending his first four seasons in Washington. As a Redskin, Morris ran for 4700 yards, topping 1000 three times. Last year as Elliott’s backup, Morris carried the ball 69 times, averaging three and a half yards per carry. Darren McFadden had just 24 attempts last year and averaged 3.6 yards per carry. McFadden was Dallas’ top back in 2015, racking up almost 1100 yards as the starter. He was drafted fourth overall by the Raiders in 2008 and brings a nice veteran presence to the backfield. If Elliott was to get hurt, he would have two very capable players to fill in, especially behind one of the best offensive lines in football.
#1: Atlanta Falcons- Key Contributors: Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman
This tandem is the best duo in the NFL, period. The way that the Falcons are able to use Freeman and Coleman together is often tried in the league today, but it is also often failed (see Jacksonville Jaguars 2016 running game).
Freeman ran for 1079 yards and Coleman ran for over 500 yards last season, while they added nearly identical receiving stats, each gaining more than 400 yards through the air. While Freeman is the “starter”, Coleman’s value has been immense. Opposing teams cannot prepare for just Freeman or just Coleman. Then they also have to worry about Julio Jones, Matt Ryan and the rest of the Falcons’ passing attack. Freeman is slightly more athletic than Coleman, being more of a north and south runner, but Coleman is a weapon, especially when on the field with Freeman. Defenses have to pick their poison when both are on the field.
The best part for Falcons’ fans? They are each so young. Freeman is entering his fourth year and Coleman us entering his third. Atlanta will have the best rushing attack in the NFL for years to come and will be a Super Bowl contender again next year.
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