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AP (then everyone else): Ranking the running backs

We hear it all the time. The NFL is a passing league. ... We're in a golden age of quarterbacks. ... Running backs will be considered the bottom rung of humanity in a future dystopian society.

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Well, nobody's saying that last one, but still. Somewhere along the line, running backs stopped getting respect. They rarely get paid big money. They can't even get drafted in the first round anymore.

All this disregard obscures the fact that we're living in a sneaky golden age of NFL tailbacks.

In an ATL Mailbag this weekend, a reader asked if Arian Foster was an elite running back (Ed. note: Ugh, "elite"). My first thought was, "Of course he is!" but then he barely cracked my top five.

That got me thinking: How would a list of top running backs look? Taking rookies out of the equation, here's my top 30. Feel free to savage me in the comment section and across all modes of social media.

All hail the king


1) Adrian Peterson

You can't build any golden age argument without at least one G.O.A.T. candidate. Peterson is coming off (arguably) the greatest season by a running back in NFL history. In six seasons, he has 8,849 rushing yards and 76 touchdowns. If he stays healthy, every rushing record can be his. When breaking down a list like this, it's AP and it's everyone else.

Studs


2) Marshawn Lynch
3) LeSean McCoy
4) Arian Foster
5) Doug Martin

I didn't mean to summon memories of bad syndicated television of the 90s, but if I did, I have no regrets .You can build a franchise around any of these guys. Hell, they could all be Hall of Fame selections before their time is done. Lynch is only now getting the recognition he deserves, while McCoy might be the league's most frightening back from a gameplan standpoint. Foster has powered the Houston Texans for three seasons, while Martin is coming off one of the best rookie seasons ever.

More franchise building blocks


6) Jamaal Charles
7) Alfred Morris
8) Frank Gore
9) Ray Rice

In truth, there's not much separating this group from the four names ahead of them. This is what I mean when I say sneaky golden age -- we have some serious depth in terms of star power. Though it was obscured by Peterson's heroics and a crummy Kansas City Chiefs team, Charles' return from knee surgery was outstanding. Morris was a sixth-round pick who ran for 1,600 yards as a rookie. How can you not love Gore? As for Rice, we'd have him higher on this list if we didn't believe Bernard Pierce was about to take a substantial bite out of his workload.

You can't go wrong


10) Matt Forte
11) Chris Johnson
12) Darren Sproles
13) Stevan Ridley

You can make the argument that Forte deserves to be higher, and I'll be glad to hear it. Johnson has yet to come close to his 2,000-yard production in 2009, but his three 80-yard touchdown runs last season prove he still has the burst (he has an offensive line now, too). We wouldn't have Sproles this high if he weren't in the Saints' offense, but he is, and he's perfect in it. Ridley has the potential to be New England Patriots' first true backfield star since Corey Dillon.

Candidates for "The Leap"


14) C.J. Spiller
15) David Wilson
16) Trent Richardson
17) Bernard Pierce

As a Spiller fantasy owner last year, I found great anguish in Chan Gailey limiting Spiller to just 207 carries. No disrespect to Fred Jackson, but Spiller deserves bell-cow status. Wilson emerged from Tom Coughlin's doghouse and became a home-run threat. Richardson is a serious talent who never got a chance to play at 100 percent last year. Pierce may be the future at running back in Baltimore.

Track records with question marks


18) Maurice Jones-Drew
19) Fred Jackson

This time last year, MJD was the defending rushing champ chirping about contract indignities. One failed holdout and a serious foot injury later, we'll see if he can approach past glories. Jackson has had trouble staying healthy the past two years and now shares the load with an emerging star in Spiller.

How can I trust you?


20) Darren McFadden
21) DeMarco Murray
22) Rashard Mendenhall
23) Ryan Mathews

Blame on scheme if you wish, but McFadden was dreadful last year. We're sick of waiting for him to become a true star. Murray needs to prove his body can withstand the duties that come with a featured role. Mendenhall gets a fresh start with the Arizona Cardinals, but his 2012 season left a bad taste. Mathews is running out of time to show he's anything other than a huge personnel blunder by the Bolts.

Floating in the ether


24) Ahmad Bradshaw

Still unemployed. Still has bad feet. Then again, Bradshaw consistently is productive and was always praised for his toughness by New York Giants coaches and teammates. It's surprising no one has taken a flier yet.

Bound to disappoint


25) Reggie Bush

I don't have anything against Bush, but the empty hype around him never seems to cease. Bush is like a buffalo chicken wrap -- the idea of it is better than what you actually get.

JAG


26) BenJarvus Green-Ellis
27) Steven Jackson
28) Shonn Greene
29) Chris Ivory
30) Willis McGahee

JAG, as in, just another guy. Green-Ellis is a annual JAG all-star. He might get a call from the JAG Hall of Fame when all is said and done. Sorry, I'm not ready to buy into Jackson reverting back to his Rams hey-day with the Atlanta Falcons. Greene is a dreadfully boring football player, while his replacement with the New York Jets -- Chris Ivory -- won't exactly summon Fireman Ed from his fortified underground bunker. McGahee is Jason Voorhees unkillable, and for that, he rounds out this list.

Follow Dan Hanzus on Twitter @DanHanzus.

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