By Steve Silverman
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The smell and taste of the football season are just around the corner. Players will be reporting to camp in a matter of days as teams prepare for the 2016 season.
It’s time to give support to the importance of the running game in the NFL. Just a few years ago, the running game appeared to be a thing of the past, as it was all about the passing game and lighting up the scoreboard.
However, the overall play of defenses such as the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks indicates that the passing game is not the be all, end all and that the running game is anything but an iconic symbol of days gone by.
Additionally, no more than half the teams in the NFL have the kind of quarterbacks who can dominate consistently, so it is vital to have a running back who can break big plays and also carry the load in the second half when his team has the lead.
It’s something of a rebirth for running backs, and here is our top 10.
1. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
Lifestyle choices and decisions about how to discipline children are not an issue here, and Peterson remains the prototype running back in the league even though he is 31 and has nine years of NFL tread on his tires. Peterson is still a monster in terms of strength, and while he has lost a half-step in quickness, he punishes opposing tacklers like few running backs of the past two decades. Understand that the Vikings are built to make a run at the title this year, and there is no reason Peterson can’t match or exceed last year’s 1,485 yards and 11 touchdowns.
2. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
Chip Kelly made a lot of mistakes in Philadelphia, and perhaps the biggest was failing to realize what a special player McCoy was and trading him to the Bills. Rex Ryan is not complaining, because he has a player who can make game-changing plays as a runner or a receiver. McCoy is a tireless worker who has make-you-miss moves as a runner and can make the tough catch as a receiver. Look for McCoy to exceed 1,100 yards as a runner with at least 35 receptions.
3. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers’ gave it a great run last year after Bell’s season ended following his MCL injury just six games into the year. Bell is healthy again, and many believe he will be the best running back in the game. He excels after contact and has excellent anticipation and change of direction. Once he gets used to taking a hit again – by no later than the second game of the season – Bell will show off his dynamic talent and relieve some of the pressure on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown. Look for a 1,400-yard season from Bell.
4. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
The Rams are going to try to re-establish themselves as a viable franchise as they return to Los Angeles this year, and Gurley could become a legitimate Southern California icon if he can build off his 1,100-yard rookie season. Gurley’s ability to overpower tacklers and run away from them makes him a difference maker and will help the Rams overcome their issues at quarterback.
5. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs
This is a risky pick since Charles is coming off ACL surgery and has had two bouts of knee surgery in the past four years. He will ease back into it during the preseason, but the Chiefs believe he will be fully ready to compete in Week 1. We will go with that, and Charles will show his typical speed and quickness to help the Chiefs take charge in the AFC West.
6. Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers
In a league filled with brilliant athletes, Stewart is nothing special. However, when it comes to getting the most out of every run and setting up opposing defenses with his ability to change direction, Stewart has nothing to apologize for as he prepares for his ninth season. Stewart gained 989 yards last year, but more important than the total, he took pressure off of quarterback Cam Newton. The same scenario holds this year.
7. Justin Forsett, Baltimore Ravens
After rushing for 1,266 yards in 2014, Forsett finally arrived in the NFL and became one of the game’s stars. He was on his way to another 1,000-yard season last year before he broke his arm, and he has become a bit of a forgotten man. Look for the Ravens to rebound well in 2016, and Forsett will once again blow past 1,000 yards.
8. Matt Forte, New York Jets
The Chicago Bears thought that they could get along just fine without Forte this year, and they may be regretting that move by the time the season reaches the halfway point. If the Jets finally resolve their quarterback issues, Forte will give them a lifeline with his running and receiving abilities. He is capable of taking over a game and running through arm tackles consistently.
9. Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers
After a subpar 2015 season, Lacy has reportedly devoted himself toward stripping away the excess layer of fat and getting into the best condition possible. While we have doubts about his ability to do this every year, look for a resurgent Lacy in 2016 as he becomes a fourth-quarter battering ram who helps the Packers regain their offensive consistency.
10. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
There was not a more effective running back in the first half of the season than Freeman. He had four games of 100-plus yards in a five-week span and also had back-to-back three-TD games as the Falcons got off to a sharp start. However, they didn’t have the strength to sustain their early success, and Freeman slowed quite a bit. Look for a more even-keeled year from the running back and the team this year, and 1,000 yards is once again on the horizon.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy