As the game shifts to more two-back platoon systems, the number of the elite backs running roughshod through the league has seemingly diminished.
Last season, only five rushers logged more than 300 rushing attempts, and six of the league's top ten rushing attacks employed some form of a running back by committee system. With more teams opting to diversify their rushing attacks by using multiple runners, the presence of an elite feature back stands out prominently in today's game.
In describing the ideal workhorse running back, most coaches would cite consistency and durability as key factors. Moreover, they would point out that the top running backs in the league possess special qualities that forces defensive coordinators to build their game plans around minimizing the star's impact.
For some backs, their game consists of an assortment of big-time running skills, which force defenses to stay in eight-man fronts on most downs. Others are exceptional receivers with the ability to create mismatches in the passing game. Regardless of their skill set, these special players have the talent to take over the game in a variety of ways.
With impact, consistency and durability as the critical factors for their inclusion on this list, let's examine the top five running backs in the game:
1. Adrian Peterson, Vikings
The two-time Pro Bowler has set the league ablaze during his first two seasons. He has terrorized defenses with his exceptional combination of speed and power. Though defenses have routinely employed eight- and nine-man fronts to stop him, Peterson has averaged 103.4 yards per game in his career, which ranks only behind Jim Brown as the highest single-game rushing average in league history. Peterson's 3,104 rushing yards ranks fourth all-time for the most yards gained during the first two seasons of a career. With a resume that already dwarfs some of the greatest players to ever man the position, it's indisputable that Peterson deserves his place at the top of the list.
2. Clinton Portis, Redskins
Affectionately known as "Southeast Jerome" in D.C., the seven-year pro has been a model of consistency at the position. He has rushed for over 1,250 yards six times and finished as the league's fourth-best rusher last year with 1,487 yards. As a superb "one cut" runner with explosive power and pop, Portis still flashes big-play ability at 27. His 13 runs over 20 yards last season were tie for the third-most in the league and equaled his career high. While others on this list may have garnered more headlines throughout their respective careers, Portis' consistent production justifies his standing as one of the top rushers.
3. LaDainian Tomlinson, Chargers
The ultra-productive veteran still occupies a spot on this list despite coming off his worst season. Although Tomlinson only averaged 3.8 yards per carry, he went over 1,000-yards rushing for the eighth straight season and ranked 10th in the league in the category. Even more impressively, the five-time Pro Bowler put up those numbers while battling through a nagging toe injury for most of the season. While he has missed parts of the playoffs the past two years, Tomlinson remains a double threat out of the backfield at 30.
4. Michael Turner, Falcons
His stellar first season in Atlanta will lead some to peg him as a one-year wonder, but those who closely examine his game see a burgeoning star taking advantage of his opportunity to be a feature back. After averaging an impressive 5.5 yards per carry in a reserve role with the Chargers, Turner broke out for 1,699 rushing yards last season and earned a Pro Bowl nod. The hard-nosed workhorse excels at running between the tackles, but, with 11 carries over 20 yards, also possesses the ability to bust a long run. Turner will have to display the consistency of others on this list to remain among the elite, but his outstanding debut with the Falcons has put him in the conversation.
5. Brian Westbrook, Eagles
An absolute terror since assuming the role as Philadelphia's featured back in 2004, Westbrook has amassed 8,106 yards from scrimmage in that span, which ranks as the second-best total in the league. Moreover, Westbrook's exceptional skills as a runner/receiver have made him the league's premier all-around back. Though his expansive role has resulted in numerous nagging injuries, Westbrook's continual dominance as a dual threat make him worthy of inclusion on this list.