More than ever before, today’s style of football demands more than one great option at running back. Some teams, like the Cardinals and Steelers, can survive with one because of the quality of Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson. But those are exceptions, and we’re seeing more receiving backs now because of it.
So to celebrate the evolution of the running back, here are the ten best running back combinations in the NFL going into 2017. The list chooses the teams with the best quality and depth in the backfield, while giving a brief analysis of each player mentioned.
So without further delays, let’s get this list started.
10. New England Patriots
Combination: Mike Gillislee, James White, Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis
The Patriots’ running back combination is strange in that not one back truly stands out as a top ten guy, but because of the quality and competence of the main 4 backs, there’s loads of depth.
Each of these four backs has their own unique skill sets, and under the best scheme in the NFL will be put in the best possible position for success. Rex Burkhead is a powerful, aggressive back that was previously with the Bengals, Mike Gillislee from Buffalo proved to be an adequate backup to LeSean McCoy in Buffalo, James White thrived in 2016 as a pass catcher, and Dion Lewis is a speedy, nimble back that looked better towards the end of the 2016 season after fully recovering, though he wasn’t the same after his ACL injury in 2015.
Regardless of who the Patriots decide to keep, they currently have 4 guys that can start right away if one guy goes down.
9. Minnesota Vikings
Combination: Dalvin Cook, Jerick McKinnon, Latavius Murray
The Vikings have done everything they could to build the skill players outside of a poor offensive line, having a good group of backs in addition to a good group of receivers.
Dalvin Cook is an exciting rookie who has shown good bursts and broke plenty of tackles at Florida State. Jerick McKinnon has been a good player who has suffocated behind a broken unit of pass protectors but has shown good patience and cutback ability. Latavius Murray is also better than his reputation would tell you, and is a powerful back with nice vision.
The Vikings won’t be able to mask the flaws of their pass protection on shotgun alone, but Cook, McKinnon, and Murray in the pass game would make the Vikings’ passing offense look at least bearable with a nice variety of options underneath.
8. Cleveland Browns
Combination: Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson
Suddenly, the Browns offense has a team with plenty of talented weapons on offense, and nowhere else is this more apparent than in the backfield.
Isaiah Crowell had a very good 2015 under Hue Jackson. The former Bengals coordinator understood how to use the now 4th year back, allowing him to thrive and have a career year. Crowell’s burst and vision in short gaps have proven to be valuable for the Browns.
Duke Johnson is one of the best receiving backs in the league, and certainly the best one no one talks about. For a RB he has an excellent catch radius, and has proven vital on 3rd downs due to his cutback ability and aggression. There has been talk of him being featured more in the slot, a move I look forward to. If Matt Dayes makes the team, he offers a solid backup role.
7. Chicago Bears
Combination: Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen, Benny Cunningham
Quietly, the Chicago Bears have built an impressive offense for a quarterback. While there are questions at the wide receiver position, the Bears easily have one of the best interior lines in the league and have built a backfield that is filled with quality depth.
Everybody knows about Jordan Howard at this point, and he’ll continue to be the horsepower back he was in his rookie season. Howard is also a great blocker in the pass game, one of a few Bears backs to have this trait.
Rookie Tarik Cohen is a slippery, patient runner that was sensational in college. Cohen alone gives the Bears another dimension in the backfield, but Benny Cunningham from the Rams is a pleasant surprise. He provides a fantastic backup option and should be used on 3rd downs and short yardage situations.
6. Detroit Lions
Combination: Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner
The idea that the Lions do not have a run game is foolish. They didn’t have a sustainable run game in 2016, but that was because their top two guys were out for the majority of the season.
With Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick healthy, the run game should thrive in 2017. Abdullah has had limited reps in his career due to his health, but his smooth running, vision, and cuts make him an enticing option Detroit can trust. If Riddick isn’t the best receiving back in the league, he’s at least in the top 5. His athleticism and skill set are one of the most complete you’ll find at the position, and his pass catching ability is stellar.
Zach Zenner got starts late in the season, and is a contrast to Abdullah and Riddick, offering a more powerful, speedier style of running. With these three backs, there’s impressive depth and quality in the Lions’ run game.
5. Carolina Panthers
Combination: Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey
Cam Newton is as much of an offensive weapon as he is a quarterback, and with Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey by his side, the Panthers run game has unlimited potential.
Jonathan Stewart has aged like a fine wine. He’s never been used as a workhorse nor has he suffered any recent set backs. Few backs have carried poor offensive lines as well as Stewart has, as he has proven countless times he is capable of making big runs out of hopeless situations. His strength, intelligence and size make him a little ball of fun.
First round draft pick Christian McCaffrey is the starter of the future, and I can tell you I have never been more excited to see a rookie running back. The most common (and accurate) comparison he has gotten is to Le’Veon Bell, as he offers the exact same combination of pure patience and technical prowess as a receiver. He might not be an immediate starter, but he will have an immediate impact bearing he’s fully healthy.
4. Seattle Seahawks
Combination: Thomas Rawls, C.J. Prosise
Both of the top two backs for the Seahawks haven’t gotten a fair shake. Behind a terrible offensive line and an injured Russell Wilson, the run game was not as useful as it was in previous seasons.
That doesn’t speak to the overall quality of Thomas Rawls and C.J. Prosise, but it shows how valuable Wilson is to the run game. Even so, Rawls is an excellent back who is insanely fast and head on, embracing tackles whenever he needs to without making it unnecessary.
Prosise has received unfair backlash due to his health, but as a young back he is full of talent. He can stretch the field vertically as a receiver and his cuts are as smooth as you’ll see from a running back in the NFL. Healthy, these two guys are loads better than what Eddie Lacy has become. Chris Carson is a name to look out for, as his swift, powerful running is a nice fit in Seattle.
3. Oakland Raiders
Combination: Marshawn Lynch, Jalen Richard, DeAndre Washington
The Raiders did a terrific job of addressing the loss of Latavius Murray, trading for Marshawn Lynch so he can return to his hometown of Oakland.
Beast Mode will go from one of the worst offensive lines in the league to one of the absolute best. His ability to fend off tacklers and create tons of yards after contact made him one of the most exciting backs of our time. He will be joined by Jalen Richard, who had a great rookie season. Richard is Oakland’s Darren Sproles or Danny Woodhead; His ability to be moved anywhere on the field and find success make him a matchup nightmare, and he can instantly plant and burst whenever he sees pressure.
That shouldn’t hide Oakland from using DeAndre Washington though. Washington is a talented young back who offers fast cuts and more explosiveness in a backfield filled with it.
2. Tennessee Titans
Combination: DeMarco Murray, Derrick Henry
The Titans addressed a poor running game from 2015 in two spectacular ways; by trading with Philly for DeMarco Murray, and by drafting Heisman winning Derrick Henry in the 2nd round of the NFL Draft.
After a lost season in Philly, DeMarco Murray thrived in Tennessee. His vision is outstanding and he has provided a boatload of long runs in 2016. He has proven he can still be a top 5 running back with what he did last year.
Derrick Henry will take over once Murray’s time is up. Henry is a tough back that has shown terrific ability to cut and get the outside edge, and has strong acceleration after initial contact.
Regardless of who finishes as the starter, the Titans have two insanely talented backs, so they can’t go wrong here.
1. Atlanta Falcons
Combination: Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman
The Falcons have two backs that are as much of a nightmare in the pass game (if not more so) as they are a threat in the run game.
Devonta Freeman recently got paid, and he deserves every penny. He’s made some of the deepest cuts you will ever see, and his vision as a runner is sensational. As a receiving back he’s just as deadly, Using a fast, hesitant approach when approaching gaps. He’s a borderline top 5 running back at worst.
Tevin Coleman is also a monster. He also provides some of the same athleticism and diversity in the run and pass game that Freeman does, but he is also a little faster.
You can make the argument that some of the weapons in Atlanta may see a regression with Kyle Shanahan leaving for San Francisco, but Freeman and Coleman’s development and success have not been flukes. They are nearly unstoppable in every phase they’re used in, making them the best running back combination in the NFL.
New York Jets (Matt Forte and Bilal Powell)
New York Giants (Paul Perkins and Shane Vereen)
Philadelphia Eagles (LeGarrette Blount and Darren Sproles)
Denver Broncos (C.J. Anderson, Devontae Booker, Jamaal Charles)
Featured image via titansonline.com