By Steve Silverman
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A year ago, Adrian Peterson and Todd Gurley were looked at as the top two running backs headed into the 2016 season.
A lot has changed in the past year. If this article had been written just two weeks ago, Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys would be the No. 1 or No. 2 running back. However, a six-game suspension (which could be reduced upon appeal) has hurt his status.
Current holdout Le’Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers is my top running back going in, and the lack of work in training camp is not likely to hurt him too badly since he is an established superstar who can dominate on a nearly every-week basis. His timing may be off in his first or second week back, but he will quickly get back to top form.
In this piece, I look at the top 10 running backs in the league. The ratings criteria include the performance level in 2016, talent, importance to the team and historical performance.
1. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh
Bell is almost certainly the most talented running back in the league, and he is in his prime at the age of 25. He had 1,268 rushing yards and 616 receiving yards in 12 games last season, and if he remains in the lineup for 16 games, he could easily exceed 1,500 rushing and 800 receiving yards. Bell has only played 16 games once in his career, as he has had injury and suspension issues. Nevertheless, he’s the best in the game.
2. David Johnson, Arizona
Johnson is coming off a monster second season in which he ran for 1,239 yards and scored 16 rushing touchdowns. At 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, he has the size needed to take the pounding and the speed to be an explosive contributor. As long as the Arizona receivers do their job and don’t make the Cardinals one-dimensional, Johnson should be an elite performer.
3. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo
While the Bills have made some curious moves in recent weeks – including trading wideout Sammy Watkins – McCoy remains a game-breaking player who can carry his team with his rushing skills and receiving ability. McCoy had 1,267 rushing yards last year and averaged an impressive 5.4 yards per carry. He also caught 50 passes, and he will remain one of quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s favorite targets. McCoy’s ability to make tacklers miss is his greatest attribute.
4. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta
The presence of Tevin Coleman in the Atlanta backfield may give some fantasy owners pause, but the reality of the situation is that Freeman’s running back partner gives him some relief and keeps him from getting fatigued. Like McCoy, Freeman is one of the premier combination backs because he excels as a receiver as well as a runner. It is difficult for defenders to put a clean shot on the 5-foot-8, 225-pound Freeman because he can make himself small as he runs through the hole. Freeman had 1,079 rushing yards and 11 TDs on the ground, and he also caught 54 passes last year.
5. Jordan Howard, Chicago
Howard took advantage of his opportunity as a rookie last season after Matt Forte departed for the Jets. Howard did not have a lot of hype and the Bears were simply an awful team last year, but Howard ran for 1,313 yards and he averaged a robust 5.2 yards per carry. If Mike Glennon can give Chicago decent quarterback play, Howard should be able to meet or exceed last year’s totals.
6. Lamar Miller, Houston
The acquisition of Miller prior to the 2016 season was one of the best moves made by the Texans because it gave them a talented running back who wanted the ball on nearly every play. His attitude was a 180-degree turnaround from Arian Foster, who was clearly talented but had a difficult time staying in the lineup after the 2012 season. Miller had 268 carries for 1,073 yards last year, and he could get nearly as many carries this year.
7. DeMarco Murray, Tennessee
Murray was a great fit for the Titans a year ago after a wasted 2015 season in Philadelphia. He returned to his familiar downhill style of running and had 1,287 yards and nine rushing touchdowns. He also caught 53 passes, and while powerful Derrick Henry will take away some of his opportunities, Murray is a dependable runner who figures to remain an important part of head coach Mike Mularkey’s game plan.
8. Jay Ajayi, Miami
Ajayi was the breakout star of the year for the Dolphins in 2016 as he ran for 1,272 yards and nine touchdowns. Ajayi ran with explosive power and shocking aggressiveness, and he has to match last year’s production with questionable quarterback Jay Cutler in the lineup. Ajayi had some monster games for the Dolphins – two 200-yard performances against the Bills and one against the Steelers – but coach Adam Gase needs more consistency from him.
9. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas
Elliott would shoot up in these ratings if his suspension for domestic violence gets reduced. After rushing for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns as a rookie and winning the rushing title by more than 300 yards, Elliott is a true superstar on the field. However, his off-the-field issues are going to prevent him from coming close to having last year’s impact.
10. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
We anticipate a bounce-back season from Gurley, and he will get a boost if second-year quarterback Jared Goff proves to be something more than a bust. He could only gain 3.2 yards per carry as opposing defenses keyed on him since the Rams’ quarterbacks were so ineffective last season. Gurley is an excellent combination of speed and power, but he needs a threat of a passing game to help him get to 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @Profootballboy