Now that we're hitting the summer months, we can finally get a relatively accurate picture as to how the NFL rosters are going to be shaping up for the 2017 season. There's been no shortage of powerhouse moves this offseason, with varying degrees of risk. One of the main units on any team that is generally affected by these moves is the backfield. While running backs may not have the same clout that they did 20 to 30 years ago, there are still a plethora of great ones in the league today.
Moreover, they still have a pronounced ability to help win games for any team. The best backfields in the league serve as another dimension to help the offense succeed, and the worst are a distinct detriment to the offense as a whole. Additionally, many teams utilize multiple running backs in today's brand of football, and their skills run the gamut from pass-protection, pass-catching, and of course, running the ball. It'll be interesting to witness which backfields take a step forward in 2017, and which ones regress into mediocrity. Let's take a look at which teams fall into each respective category.
Ranked below are the 8 best and 7 worst backfields heading into the 2017 season.
15 Carolina Panthers (Best)
After a surprising draft that saw them land two elite pass-catchers out of the backfield in Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel, the Panthers now have one of the most intriguing units in the league. In combination with the veteran power runner Jonathan Stewart, this is a versatile group of players that will be an integral part of the offense.
Of course, the offense still runs through Cam Newton, but the trio of McCaffrey, Samuel and Stewart can combined for a ton of all-purpose yards when it's all said and done. With McCaffrey and Samuel's ability to line up as a wide receiver, all three could be on the field at the same time to do some serious damage. What was considered a so-so backfield in 2016 now stands to be one of the league's best this year.
14 Baltimore Ravens (Worst)
The Ravens don't have much in the way of a go-to runner on their roster right now. Terrance West, Javorius Allen and Lorenzo Taliaferro all fall under the "meh" category of spell running backs. The team did acquire aging veteran Danny Woodhead, but between injuries and a one-dimensional pass-catching skill set, he isn't the long-term answer.
That means that there's going to be a lot of mixing and matching in Baltimore to find the combination of runners that works best. More likely, however, all of the running backs on the roster are sub-par, and the future lead back will have to be acquired via the draft next season. For now, the Ravens will need to rely on their passing game to carry the bulk of the load on offense.
13 Minnesota Vikings (Best)
What looked to be a dire situation for the Vikings following the injury and then loss of Adrian Peterson, has actually turned into a strength. The team was able to land Latavius Murray from the Raiders in free agency, which immediately provides a consistent option. Then they drafted Dalvin Cook in the 2nd round of the draft, who many believe was a top-20 overall talent. Finally, Jerick McKinnon will be back again in a change-up role, after filling in respectably for Peterson last year.
The offensive line still may leave some questions unanswered, but in terms of running back personnel, the Vikings have a lot of room for success. Murray has the ability to get some tough yards on the ground, and Cook is an all-purpose threat, able to catch, run and make dynamic plays at any time. Without question, Minnesota has one of the most promising units in the league.
12 Miami Dolphins (Worst)
The Dolphins may have thought they struck gold with Jay Ajayi last season, but he's going to have to prove that he can be a running threat on a consistent basis. If that doesn't pan out, which is very possible, then there's little in the way of a backup plan. Kenyan Drake and Damien Williams don't instill any fear into opposing defenses. They're fillers, and nothing more.
If Ajayi is able to shoulder the load, the the Dolphins may be able to establish a middle of the pack running game. However, he still has major questions about his overall game, and may not be the starter that everyone seems to think he is. As mentioned, if he goes down at any point, it's slim pickings in the stable of backups currently on the team.
11 Oakland Raiders
With the acquisition and return of Marshawn Lynch, Oakland is suddenly one of the best running teams in the league. Factor in several dangerous pass-catching options in DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard, as well as a simply dominating offensive line, and they appear to be a juggernaut. Lynch will handle the between-the-tackles work, while Richard and Washington figure to be solid route runners who can make the occasional big play.
Of course, the argument against this is that Lynch will be a step slow having taken a year off from football. While it's difficult to say whether he'll excel or start to show his age, he was still playing at a high level in Seattle, and if he picks up where he left off, the he could be looking at a big first year in Oakland. Overall, the Raiders should finish as one of the top rushing teams in the league.
10 Detroit Lions (Worst)
There's a whole lot of mediocrity right now in the Lions' backfield, Ameer Abdullah has been a major disappointment after being selected in the 2nd round several years ago, and suffered a major injury that kept him out for most of last season. Theo Riddick is a middling pass-catcher, and Zach Zenner is a middling power runner. All in all, not the most inspiring group.
While the Lions' offense operated through Matt Stafford and the passing game, they'll still need a competent running game to set up the air yards. Their best bet is to hope for Abdullah to finally have a breakout year. If that doesn't happen, they should be prepared to throw the ball even more than they already do, because the running game will struggle.
9 Houston Texans (Best)
The Texans are loaded with quality runners right now. Lamar Miller, who was a notable free agent pickup from 2016, had a very solid first year with the team last season. Alfred Blue has shown to be a solid change-of-pace back, and rookie D'Onta Foreman combines a bruisers skill set with breakaway speed.
Truly, this has the potential to be one of the best backfield units in the league for this season. Miller will get the bulk of the carries, but the rest all will have ample opportunity to contribute, and head coach Bill O'Brien will be able to get creative on play calling. They may be flying slightly under the radar right now, but expect Houston's running back corps to have a monster season, and get the recognition they deserve.
8 Washington Redskins (Worst)
There are too many questions with the Redskins' backfield right now to be remotely confident in their success for 2017. Jay Gruden likes to run a passing-based offense, but their running back personnel is pretty bad overall. Robert Kelley, Chris Thompson and Matt Jones have proved next to nothing, and are not long-term options as lead runners.
The really curiosity here is 2017 draft pick Samaje Perine out of Oklahoma, who is presumed to be eventually take over the starting duties once the others fizzle out. As a mid-round pick however, Perine is far from any kind of a guarantee. Pinning the hopes of the run game to such a questionable situation doesn't bode well for Washington, and they'll likely finish near the bottom of the league in rushing.
7 Tennessee Titans (Best)
The Titans power-running game worked to great success last year, with both DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry forming a solid one-two punch out of the backfield. They'll be back for 2017, and the Titans won't really need anyone else to carry the load. They have a dominant offensive line, and Murray/Henry combination will be one that should be able to sustain itself for the entire season.
If they can get similar production out of the backfield as they did last season, the Titans will be a team to watch this season. A playoff win could be on the horizon. Either way, this figures to be one of the best rushing attacks in the league, and could prove valuable in close games late in the year. Tennessee will finish near the top of the league in rushing yet again.
6 New York Jets (Worst)
Yikes, what a mess the Jets have on their hands right now in the backfield. Matt Forte's career is almost finished, and he didn't provide the spark that some thought he would when he was signed in free agency last year. Bilal Powell is the definition of a spell running back, and the rest of the backfield personnel is nothing more than complete no-name players.
This isn't going to end well for the Jets, who are just beginning a complete rebuilding project that is going to take several offseasons at the very least. In the meantime, they'll need to hope that Forte can find the fountain of youth and contribute at least one solid season as lead running back. If not, it's going to be a committee of runners that are short on talent, to say the least.
5 Seattle Seahawks (Best)
While Seattle may not have one running back that is going to top the league in rushing yards, they've compiled a group that can contribute as such collectively. C.J. Prosise and Alex Collins are two good young players that only figure to improve after showing some flashes in 2016. Thomas Rawls will probably get the most carries, and is a decisive runner with a lot of toughness. Finally, Eddie Lacy will look to get his career back on track, likely as a goal-line and short-yardage carrier who can pick up tough yards.
It's not a group that's laden with numerous All-Pro players, but it doesn't have to be. If Seattle can get even marginally better offensive line play, then they'll be a high-quality unit in the backfield. There's still a lot of talent, and tons of options to take the pressure off of Russell Wilson under center.
4 Green Bay Packers (Worst)
The Packers had such a dire backfield situation in 2016 that they were using wide receiver Ty Montgomery as their lead runner by the end of the season. It may have worked in a limited role for one season, but that isn't sustainable strategy moving forward. Outside of mid-round draft pick Jamaal Williams, they didn't do much to rectify the situation.
Of course, the most important aspect of their offense is Aaron Rodgers and the passing game, but it still is paramount that they find a solution sooner rather than later for the backfield. Williams has a lot of potential, but as a rookie, it would be hard to count on him for the entire season. The issue is, he's by far the most notable runner on the team, and that means that the personnel isn't going to get any better by the start of the season. Luckily, the Packers have Rodgers to take the pressure off, but their backfield is still terrible.
3 New Orleans Saints (Best)
After landing coveted free agent Adrian Peterson earlier in the offseason, the Saints now have a fearsome bunch of runners, each with a unique skill set. In addition to Peterson, Mark Ingram is liable to get a ton of carries, and rookie Alvin Kamara was one of the most promising prospects in this year's draft. That forms a three-headed monster of quality running backs who can each contribute in their own way.
It's looking good for New Orleans as far as their running game is concerned, which should only go to aid Drew Brees and the passing game. Overall, it could be one of the top offenses in the league yet again, much to the dismay of everybody in the NFC South. If only they could fix their perennially terrible defense...
2 New York Giants (Worst)
Inexplicably, the Giants failed to fix their backfield in the offseason, even though it was clearly the most pressing issue on their entire team. Paul Perkins was painfully mediocre as a rookie, and Shane Vereen is nothing more than a 3rd-down pass-catching option this late in his career. Rookie Wayne Gallman should contribute to a degree, but as a mid-round pick, how much will New York truly be able to count on him? Orleans Darkwa and Shaun Draughn are nothing more than fringe players who may not even make the roster.
It doesn't help that their offensive line is only marginally improved at best. While the Giants figure to have a dominant passing attack, their lack of a running game will hurt the offense in the most important of games in 2017. Maybe they can find a diamond in the rough in their current stable of running backs, but they'll likely just be really bad.
1 Dallas Cowboys (Best)
Yeah, no doubt about it on this one. Ezekiel Elliott is one of the best young players in the game, and his presence alone makes the Cowboys have a dominant backfield. Add on to that Darren McFadden, who has shown to be an effective rusher behind the juggernaut Dallas offensive line, and Alfred Morris, who is good in short-yardage situations, and there's not a better backfield in the league.
The Cowboys have made running the ball a priority over the last few seasons, and they're going to do the same in 2017. With a premier runner in Elliott, and the change-of-pace options at their disposal, it's hard to believe that they won't be among the tops in the league in this category yet again. Specifically, we could see Elliott really take off in 2017, and become the best running back in all of football, if he isn't already. As far as backfields go in the NFL right now, this is as good as it gets.
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