The recent rise of the running-back-by-committee approach in the NFL has led to speculation that the position has been devalued in meeting rooms around the league -- a theory that was further advanced when no backs were selected in the first round of each of the past two drafts.
While I believe the first-round shutouts were merely a coincidence spurred by the wealth of talent available at other positions, the fact that so many teams are committed to sharing the load in the backfield says a lot. The running backs of yesteryear were expected to run, catch and block at a high level; today, NFL coaches are having a tougher time identifying those with the skills and mentality to succeed as three-down players. Thus, the league is filled with specialists at running back.
This certainly wasn't the case when I entered the NFL in 1994. Running backs rarely split carries, and most teams used their feature back in every situation. In Buffalo, I played with Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas, a standout running back with remarkable skills as a runner/receiver who would put the offense on his back in key moments. Thomas was an exceptional runner with terrific balance, body control and burst. He could make defenders miss in a phone booth while also displaying the short-area burst to separate in the open field. Thomas used those same traits to terrorize opponents in the passing game. He shocked defenders with his route-running skills, routinely blowing past linebackers on option routes and post-corners. In addition, he showed impeccable timing on screens, leading to huge gains on simple passes.
With Thomas' versatile game and impact as a multipurpose playmaker serving as the gold standard in my mind, I decided to use the next installment of my ongoing "Bucky's Best" series to rank the top running backs in the NFL based on their versatility, production and performance. Here's my list of the 10 most complete running backs in the NFL today:
10) Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers: The 2013 Offensive Rookie of the Year looks like a sledgehammer-type runner at first glance, but pegging Lacy as a one-dimensional playmaker would diminish his impact in the passing game. Last year, he quietly tallied 35 receptions, a number of which came on check-downs and dump-offs from Aaron Rodgers. While it's easy to dismiss those as throwaway plays, the fact that Lacy consistently catches the check-down gives the Packers' offense a chance to survive against some of the coverage tactics designed to take away Rodgers' deep ball. With Lacy also giving the team a legitimate workhorse in the backfield, I believe the second-year pro deserves a spot on this list.
9) Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers: Bell didn't get a chance to fully display his wares as a rookie last season due to a couple of nagging injuries, but he's a rare big-bodied back (checking in at 6-foot-1, 244 pounds) with exceptional skills as a runner and receiver. Despite playing in just 13 games in 2013, Bell paced the Steelers with 860 rushing yards and emerged as one of Ben Roethlisberger's favorite targets, collecting 45 receptions. Those numbers represent solid production for a young feature back -- and they suggest he'll continue to thrive in the Steelers' offense as he gains reps and experience.
8) Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers: The additions of Donald Brown this year and Danny Woodhead last year have turned Mathews into a bit of a role player in the Chargers' offense, but he still displays the skill and versatility to be a three-down back. The fifth-year pro has surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in two of his past three seasons, exhibiting the balance, body control and vision to be effective between the tackles or on the perimeter. Mathews finished 2013 with six 100-yard games (he narrowly missed a seventh, posting a 99-yard effort in Week 16) and caught at least three passes in four different contests. Although his receiving numbers were greatly affected by Woodhead's prominent role in the passing game, Mathews' skills as a runner/receiver make him worthy of consideration as one of the league's most complete running backs.
7) Reggie Bush, Detroit Lions: It's debatable whether Bush has lived up to the hype that accompanied his arrival into the NFL in 2006, but few can question his explosiveness and versatility as a hybrid player. Bush has topped the 1,000-yard mark in two of his past three seasons -- and he's caught at least 40 passes in six different campaigns, including a 54-catch effort in 2013. The 29-year-old veteran still has his trademark speed, quickness and burst, and I still rate the electric playmaker as one of the game's top multipurpose backs.
6) DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys: Injuries have prevented Murray from joining the ranks of the elite, but observers paying close attention to his game should be impressed with his versatility and explosiveness. He notched three runs of 40-plus yards en route to his first 1,000-yard season in 2013, displaying outstanding speed, quickness and acceleration as a home-run hitter. Additionally, the fourth-year pro shows excellent hands and receiving skills when snagging swings and option routes out of the backfield. With Murray adding 53 receptions to his fine production on the ground last season, it's easy to make the case for his standing here.
5) Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks: Lynch is unquestionably the straw that stirs the drink for the Seahawks' offense. The eighth-year pro both sets the tone for Seattle with his rugged skills as a runner and gives Russell Wilson a reliable safety valve on swings and check-downs. While Lynch's receiving numbers aren't at an elite level, his overall impact and presence mean he belongs in this discussion.
4) Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings: I know the Twitter-verse will take me to task for Peterson's ranking, but the six-time Pro Bowler lacks the versatility to stack up with those above him. Sure, Peterson has compiled six 1,000-yard seasons in his seven-year career, and he's topped the hallowed 2,000-yard mark (2,097 yards in 2012), but he is a limited contributor in the passing game. He has finished with at least 40 receptions just twice in his career and rarely runs advanced routes from the backfield. While new offensive coordinator Norv Turner's arrival in Minnesota should increase Peterson's involvement in the aerial attack, AD simply lacks the overall production needed to wear the crown.
3) Matt Forte, Chicago Bears: It's hard to imagine a multi-time Pro Bowler being underappreciated on the national scene, but I firmly believe the football world has slept on Forte's talents as a dynamic multipurpose threat. The seventh-year pro has posted four 1,000-yard seasons and snagged at least 50 passes five times in his career. While those numbers are certainly impressive, it is the smooth, fluid nature of Forte's versatile game that stands out to me. He is one of the few running backs in the NFL capable of grinding between the tackles while also possessing the receiving skills to run precise routes as a quasi-receiver on the perimeter. Given Bears coach Marc Trestman's reputation for maximizing the talents of his running back, it's possible that Forte will make a run at the top spot on this list in 2014.
2) Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs: The most explosive runner in the NFL has become an unstoppable force in Andy Reid's offense. Charles accounted for 1,980 yards from scrimmage (1,287 rushing and 693 receiving) in 2013 while displaying a versatile skill set that makes him impossible to defend on the perimeter. Charles -- who was voted by his peers as the eighth-best player on NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2014" -- possesses the speed and quickness to score from anywhere on the field, which is why Reid makes a concerted effort to get him the ball in space on outside runs or quick passes. Given Charles' spectacular wiggle and stop-start quickness, the Chiefs' decision to use him as a dynamic dual-threat is one of the reasons the team re-emerged as a playoff contender last season.
1) LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles: Some might be surprised to see McCoy's name at No. 1, but opposing defensive coordinators certainly understand the challenge that the NFL's reigning rushing champion poses on the field. The shifty runner has superb vision, balance and body control. He excels at making defenders miss, yet he's tough enough to gain the hard yards between the tackles. McCoy is also a polished receiver out of the backfield with the footwork, hands and ball skills to produce big plays in the passing game, as evidenced by his eight receptions of 20-plus yards in 2013. Even with offseason acquisition Darren Sproles lightening his load in 2014, McCoy will continue to drive the Eagles -- his dynamic nature as a runner/receiver opens up a world of possibilities for offensive wizard Chip Kelly.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.