1. Carolina Panthers: The Panthers have the best one-two punch at running back in the entire league in Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. Although they traded Mike Goodson to the Raiders this offseason, they also signed Mike Tolbert, who could play some fullback as well as running back. The Panthers’ backfield is stacked.
I am extremely high on Stewart and would love to see what he would be able to do if he didn’t have to split time, as evidenced by his whopping 5.4-yard average in 2011. Stewart has power, elusiveness, is very fluid, but also explosive. He can be one of the very best running backs in the NFL. He has come into his own as a receiving option. Stewart’s 47 receptions last season were more than he accumulated over his first three years in the league combined. One knock on Stewart is that he could stand to improve as a pass blocker, but he also just recently turned 25, so his best might be yet to come.
There is also a ton to love about what Williams brings to the table. In 2008, Williams had a monster season, rushing for more than 1,500 yards. He has yet to approach such production again, but like Stewart, Williams averaged 5.4 yards per carry in 2011. Williams has great vision, runs with excellent pad level and I very much believe he has a lot more in the tank even though he recently turned 29. Williams is a solid receiver but seems to have been passed over by Stewart for the bulk of those duties.
Despite his stature, Tolbert also can contribute quite a bit in the passing game. I don’t see him as a fullback, but rather a punishing ball-carrier with an incredibly low center of gravity and excellent power. Tolbert has gotten into the end zone 21 times over the past two seasons and clearly excels near the goal line.
Having quarterback Cam Newton a part of this rushing attack helps a great deal, but the Panthers also will be getting mauling right tackle Jeff Otah back and drafted a similar bruising masher in the run game to play guard in Amini Silatolu. The Panthers should have one of the league’s very best rushing attacks -- and a very dangerous offense overall -- in 2012.
2. New Orleans Saints: The Saints have more backs than they know what to do with, but they distribute the touches from this position extremely effectively. The Saints did not have a first-round pick in this past draft because they traded it to acquire Mark Ingram in the 2011 draft. He appeared in only 10 games during his rookie season due to injury issues. He flashed some of that first-round ability during those games, but overall, it was a rough season for Ingram. However, this former Heisman Trophy winner has true “bell cow” running back traits. Ingram has an excellent combination of leverage, power and vision with a fine burst through the hole. He can make yardage on his own and has the temperament to carry the load. Ingram’s knee now has to be a bit of a concern, though.
The Saints’ most dynamic player at the position -- maybe in the entire league -- is Darren Sproles. He is pure electricity as a runner or receiver. And the Saints use Sproles’ talents to perfection. Drew Brees and the Saints’ coaching staff do a fantastic job of using personnel, formation and motion to get Sproles in advantageous situations -- either as a receiver against an inferior coverage player or as a runner against minimal defenders in the box. And Sproles excels when used in such a manner. As you would expect with his diminutive stature, Sproles can struggle in protection. But despite his size, Sproles hasn’t missed a game in the past four years and has missed only two games in his six-year career.
As third running backs go, Pierre Thomas has no equal in the NFL. Thomas is a potent blend of what both Ingram and Sproles bring to the table. Thomas is somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades, but a master of none. Thomas would start for several teams in the league right now. He finished the 2011 season with just under 1,000 combined yards.
Further showing off their embarrassment of riches as this position, the Saints also have Chris Ivory. Ivory isn’t flashy or dynamic, but he runs with great conviction and power. Getting Ivory the touches he deserves could prove difficult, unless Ingram’s knee remains a major problem.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Buccaneers traded into the late first round to select Doug Martin. Considering Greg Schiano’s history at Rutgers favoring versatile two-way running backs like Ray Rice and Brian Leonard, I expect Martin to quickly grab ahold of the starting job in Tampa Bay over LeGarrette Blount.
Blount is a very powerful runner and is good overall with the ball in his hands, but he has fumbling issues and offers little as a receiver or in protection, which is just too much of an advantage to the opposing defense when he is on the field. But if given carries or if the Bucs are playing with a lead, which was rare last year, Blount can pound the opponent into submission. His career average of 4.6 yards per carry should not be easily dismissed, especially considering the circumstances he was under last year.
But Martin is the better all-around talent compared to Blount. A compact bowling ball with very good vision and a natural skill set for churning out yardage, Martin is also highly adept as a receiver out of the backfield. The Bucs also used a seventh-round pick on Michael Smith, which further shows their lack of trust in Blount.
Mossis Madu is also in the mix for Tampa Bay. As shown by their investments at guard, the Buccaneers are a run-first team. That is what Schiano wants and his offseason moves strongly indicate that is the approach Tampa Bay will be taking going forward, along with taking some shots deep downfield to Vincent Jackson. Martin should get the bulk of the running back touches, but there might be enough to keep both lead backs fed.
4. Atlanta Falcons: In a division loaded with high-quality running backs, Atlanta’s backfield is last on my list. Michael Turner is the lead back here. I see Turner as a declining player who needs a high volume of touches to be effective. Although Turner is a decent pass blocker, he offers very little as a receiver, which is a huge detriment in today’s NFL.
After Week 11 last season, Turner had only one game in which he rushed for more than 76 yards. Turner finished the season with 1,340 yards on the ground and six 100-yard days, but his performance was much too up and down on a week-to-week basis for a back of his nature. I am not implying Turner is over-the-hill. He isn’t. Turner still has value and can be very effective if used properly. But he just isn’t what he once was in terms of his elusiveness and burst. Amazingly though, Turner can still break off long runs. He also has missed only five games over the past five seasons, but I think the Falcons would be wise to get some insurance for their 30-year-old back.
Jacquizz Rodgers is ahead of the game with his blitz pickup for a young back, but now the Falcons need to enhance his role catching the football. That seems like the next logical step in this dynamic player’s development. As a runner, Rodgers certainly isn’t built to be a lead guy, but he shows some power for his size and is competitive in all phases of the position. He could break out in 2012.
Antone Smith and Dimitri Nance are also on Atlanta’s roster, but it seems logical that the Falcons will add another veteran running back with size to back up Turner.
At fullback, the Falcons have one of the best lead blockers in recent years in Ovie Mughelli, but the usage of a fifth-round pick on Bradie Ewing, another downhill hammer blocker, could be the beginning of the end for Mughelli in Atlanta. The Falcons also have Mike Cox, a pure battering-ram fullback, in the equation. But it is unlikely they keep three blocking fullbacks on the roster.