While the ‘ground-and-pound’ era is now a thing of the past, running backs still hold great value in the NFL. Versatile, all-purpose backs are the new prototype—players who can rip off big runs, protect the quarterback and catch passes.
Let’s take a look at the 10 best running backs in the NFL today.
10. Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It might come as a surprise to see Martin listed as a top-10 back. He is just entering his third season and missed 10 games last year with a torn labrum. But look back at his rookie year—over 2,000 total yards and 12 total touchdowns—Martin was a force on the ground and in the passing game.
While Martin certainly wasn’t on pace for another 2,000 yard season last year, many circumstances were out of his control. Martin ran behind a powerless offensive line and faced a brutal schedule to begin the season. Martin should remain the all-purpose back that made him a Pro Bowler in 2012. His ability to either outrun a defensive back or run them over is rare to find, but Martin takes it a step further with his vision and quick reactions. Once he finds a hole, he bursts through it and is off to the races for the big play.
Before training camp, the Buccaneers’ running back situation was cloudy. Martin was the clear starter, but Tampa Bay had depth to split touches. Now with Mike James and Charles Sims hurt, Martin is set to be the Buccaneers’ bell cow. Tampa Bay’s improvements to the offensive line and coaching staff will help Martin return to top form this season.
9. Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers
The eldest player on this list, Gore has been the battering ram behind the 49ers’ offense for almost a decade. Even as he enters the 2014 season at the age of 31, the veteran still continues to rack up yards at will.
While some might see Gore’s production as an indication of the 49ers’ phenomenal offensive line, that isn’t giving him enough credit. Few players are better at reading the line of scrimmage before the play, anticipating how the defensive line will attack and what hole will open up. Even if there is just a crack of space, Gore will find it and drive through the arm tackles.
Few tailbacks are as durable, tough, agile and smart as Gore. We are starting to see his role in this offense dip as Colin Kaepernick blossoms, but he remains a leader on this team. This might be his final 1,000-yard season, but it will be fun to watch.
8. Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers
Finally, Mathews showed everyone why the Chargers selected him with the 12th overall pick in 2010. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2011 and showed real signs of progress in 14 games. Things came crashing back down the following season with just 707 rushing yards and a touchdown in 2012. Perfectly capturing his roller-coaster career—down year in 2010, breakout in 2011 and then disappointment in 2012.
In 2013, it all came together and Mathews played a big role in the Chargers’ resurgence. San Diego focused more on a committee approach at running back and it paid off—Mathews started all 16 games and carried the ball 285 times, resulting in a career-best 1,255 rushing yards. The explosiveness and elusiveness that scouts fell in love with at Fresno State was back.
Ryan Mathews’ 809 yards rushing from week 9 on were the 2nd most in the NFL last year.
— Fantasy Douche (@FantasyDouche) August 21, 2014
This is a big season for Mathews. Following the trend: Every other year he seems to shine, only to fumble opportunities the next season. Consistency is key long-term for the running back, because he certainly has the talent to be a great player. We saw it in 2011 and 2013 when everything came together for him. If he can stay healthy and hold on to the football, there is no question he is a top-10 running back.
7. DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys
Like Mathews, health and consistency have always been a major roadblock in Murray’s career. He burst onto the scene as a rookie against the St. Louis Rams—after receiving just 25 carries in the first five games, Murray exploded for 253 rushing yards on 25 carries. He finished the year with 897 rushing yards on 164 carries, the beginning of what looked like a bright future. In 2012 we saw a different player—hampered by a foot injury, he missed six games and wasn’t the same physically.
Murray’s game is built in large part off speed—a foot injury for a running back is like removing a back tire off a car. Sure it will run, but you can’t run it every day. He would play in just 10 games—rushing for just 663 yards, 333 of which came in December when his foot was closer to 100 percent.
Last season he was healthy and shined—setting career-highs in rushing yards (1,121) and touchdowns (9). Murray is also a threat as a receiver, proven by 50 receptions for 350 yards and a touchdown in 2013.
Aggressiveness and power are two other criticisms onMurray—he has been known to run out of bounds instead of lowering his shoulder and fighting for extra yards. But his approach seems to be improving, focusing more on being more aggressive and decisive. If Murray’s approach has changed, he can flourish this season behind an outstanding offensive line and OC Scott Linehan’s system.
6. Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers
Green Bay’s offense has relied heavily on the passing game for years. When you have Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, it makes sense, especially when the talent at running back was thin. Things changed last season—Rodgers missed seven games with a broken collarbone, forcing the Packers’ into a run-oriented offense. Suddenly, everyone realized Green Bay had a great rookie running back.
Lacy carried the Packers when Rodgers went down—often going against defenses stacked in the box. He still found the end zone six times when Rodgers was out, but his 35 receptions last season might be even more surprising given the questions entering the draft.
Lacy immediately found success, fitting perfectly into what the Packers’ needed. He’s a thumping running back who can power his way through the hole, ripping past arm tackles and fighting for extra yards. He doesn’t have great speed, but what makes him special is the initial burst and quick cuts that are generated by his feet. He can cut through to find space and then use his power to carry him the rest of the way. Now that Rodgers is healthy and the offensive line has improved, Lacy is primed to take another step forward this season.