Part 2 of my NFC North Preview: Ranking the Running Backs.
(Note: Only ranking the projected starters for each team.)
1. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
The most dangerous offensive player in the division, if not the entire NFL. I'm not ready to crown him the best running back in the league, as that title belongs to Mr. Tomlinson out in San Diego, but it's hard to question the potential of the 23 year old out of Oklahoma. Some of his runs that I saw last year were ridiculous. He kind of tailed off towards the end of the season last year, finishing with a total of 144 yards on 54 carries (2.67 avg) in his final 4 games, including a 14 carry - 3 yard performance versus the 49ers. It may have had something to do with a lateral collateral ligament injury he suffered, as well as the increased 8 and 9 man fronts he was forced to run against, due to a lack of a potent passing offense. Regardless, it was still a highly impressive rookie campaign, consisting of 2 games of 200+ rushing yards, including his record setting day of 296 yards versus the Chargers on November 4th. Peterson is an extremely physically gifted burner who can make one cut and run by the entire defense. He's the player that defenses will have to focus on stopping when facing Minnesota. A top 10 offensive line led by the likes of Steve Hutchinson, Matt Birk, and Bryant McKinnie helps pave the way for the 2nd year player. Peterson is the type of player that scares you everytime he touches the ball. With his first full year in the books and an increased understanding of what it takes to be a top notch runner in this league, expect another big, more consistent season out of AP.
2. Ryan Grant, Green Bay Packers
Grant became one the biggest surprises of the Green Bay Packers offense during the 2007 season. Once a no-name signing who figured to be just another backup running back, Grant emerged on the scene in Week 8 versus Denver. The season he ended up putting together was quite impressive. If you project the numbers he put up during his 12 starts (including playoffs) over a 16 game season, this is what you come up with: 296 carries, 1545 yards (5.22 avg) and 15 touchdowns. Not bad for a guy who never had an NFL regular season carry before arriving in Green Bay. Grant was Mr. Consistent throughout the course of the year, excluding 2 games in the regular season and the stinker he put up against the Giants in the NFC Championship (although that wasn't entirely his fault, and not to mention he carried the Packers the week before in the memorable Seattle game). Grant rushed for over 85 yards in 8 of 12 starts and failed to score in only 4 games. He seems to be an extremely good fit for the Packers zone blocking scheme, with good vision in finding the holes, and tough to bring down once he reaches the second level. I don't believe he will end up being a one year wonder, but Grant needs to have another quality season before proving he was not just a flash in the pan. With that said, I project Grant to be a top 10 running back this season.
3. Matt Forte, Chicago Bears
I don't know much about the other 2 projected starting running backs in the division, as they are both rookies. I give the edge to Forte in Chicago based off the fact that he was essentially given the starting gig once BUI/DUI man Cedric Benson was cut out of the mix, where as in Detroit, Kevin Smith will fight with Tatum Bell for the job. Forte will surely share some some carries with Adrian Peterson, but it seems like the Bears are high on Forte and ready to give the youngster out of Tulane every opportunity to become their lead guy. It's hard to project which rookie, Forte or Smith, will become the better of the two backs, as they are both unproven, obviously. I was going to base the ranking off of who has the better offensive line to run behind, but then realized both lines are probably ranked in the bottom quarter of the entire league.
4. Kevin Smith, Detroit Lions
The rookie out out Central Florida figures to compete with Tatum Bell for the #1 RB position in Detroit. As with Forte, I don't know all that much about Smith, so I'm not going to act like I do. What I do know, though, is that Smith was a monster workhorse in college, so that may transfer well to the NFL level in terms of being a full time back. Getting the ball 25 times a game in college, though, is different than getting the ball 25 times a game in the NFL.
1. Chester Taylor, Minnesota Vikings
2. Adrian Peterson, Chicago Bears
3. Brandon Jackson, Green Bay Packers
4. Tatum Bell, Detroit Lions