Bucky's Best  


DeMarco Murray, Arian Foster headline top 10 workhorse backs


With the recent devaluation of running backs in the draft and free agency, many observers have fallen prey to the narrative that the NFL is a "quarterback-driven league," failing to see how the presence of a dominant playmaker in the backfield alleviates the pressure on a signal-caller to carry the offense on the strength of his arm.

Take a look at the surging Dallas Cowboys (6-1); their emergence as one of the top teams in the NFL has been fueled by a run-first premise -- and specifically, an increased reliance on DeMarco Murray. The Pro Bowl runner has put the Cowboys' offense on his back with seven straight 100-yard games, racking up at least 22 rushing attempts in each. His dominance has enhanced the explosiveness of Dallas' aerial attack (forcing defenses to employ more eight-man fronts, leaving corners in one-on-one coverage on the outside against Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams) and reduced Tony Romo's exposure in the pocket. Additionally, a commitment to the run has helped the team control the tempo of the game and mask defensive liabilities.

With the Cowboys relying on Murray as a true workhorse, I decided to see if other teams are feeding their running backs with great success, and I was surprised at the results in this pass-centric league.

This season, teams with a running back totaling at least 20 rushing attempts have combined for a 40-10 record (.800 winning percentage). Additionally, teams with a 100-yard rusher have compiled a 31-11-2 mark (.705). Teams featuring a runner with 20-plus carries and 100-plus rushing yards? They've gone 22-7 (.759).

Sure, skeptics will argue that this is the classic chicken-or-egg debate, suggesting "correlation does not equal causation." But there is no denying that the threat of a dominant running back changes the way defensive coordinators elect to defend offenses, leading to more opportunities in the passing game. With opponents loading up the box to stop the run, offensive play callers can attack one-one-one coverage on the outside. They can also get clever with play-action and movement-based passes (bootlegs, naked boots, etc.) to produce explosive plays. Yes, a workhorse back is a boon to an offense. Not to mention, the cumulative effect of dealing with a hard-nosed running attack for 60 minutes, or the challenge of stopping a lathered-up runner when the winning team is executing the four-minute drill at the end of the game.

So, who are the top workhorse backs in the NFL today? That's my task in today's installment of "Bucky's Best." As always, feel free to take this debate to Twitter (@BuckyBrooks), but don't blink when I fire back with a snarky response.

Without further ado, here is my list:

1) DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys: The hottest running back in the NFL is on a mission to silence the critics who questioned his durability, toughness and physicality when he entered the league as a third-round selection in 2011. Finally given the opportunity to truly carry the load in a more run-centric Cowboys offense, Murray has responded by breaking Jim Brown's NFL record for most consecutive 100-yard games to start a season and guiding the 'Boys to the top of the division. With Dallas sporting a sparkling 17-1 record when Murray receives at least 20 carries, it's time to appreciate the 26-year-old's value as the most dominant workhorse runner in football today.

2) Arian Foster, Houston Texans: After missing half of last season with a back injury, Foster hasn't taken long to remind the football world that he's a dominant force with the ball in his hands. The 2010 rushing king has topped the 100-yard mark (and logged 20-plus carries) in five of his six starts this fall. Displaying a silky smooth, one-cut running style that lulls defenders to sleep on the edge, Foster rarely loses yards on rushing attempts, which keeps the offense in manageable situations. Given the importance of staying on schedule with a suspect quarterback under center (sorry, Ryan Fitzpatrick), Foster's re-emergence as an elite running back has kept the Texans in contention in the AFC to this point.

3) Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers: The best young running back in football deserves a spot atop this list after surpassing 100 scrimmage yards in each of the Steelers' first seven games. The 6-foot-1, 225-pounder has been a virtual wrecking ball from the backfield, amassing 938 total yards (599 rushing, 339 receiving) while displaying a versatile game that reminds me of a young Steven Jackson. With the Steelers committed to feeding Bell early and often on an assortment of hard-hitting runs and deceptive passes, the second-year pro could become the gold standard at the position before long.

4) LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles: The reigning rushing champ remains the most explosive runner in football, despite his pedestrian numbers in 2014. McCoy is a dynamic jitterbug with exceptional vision and burst. He freezes defenders with unique stop-start quickness, yet displays enough power and pop to blow through arm tackles in the hole. Although he only has one 100-yard game under his belt this fall, McCoy has shown signs of breaking out of his slump with the injury-riddled offensive line finding some continuity. Going forward, look for Chip Kelly's offense to recapture its potency from 2013.

5) Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs: Andy Reid's fascination with the passing game will skew Charles' numbers as a runner, but don't overlook this Pro Bowler's talents as a capable workhorse in the traditional sense. Charles has rushed for 80-plus yards in each of the Chiefs' last three games, showcasing the same explosive combination of speed, quickness and acceleration that has helped him top the 1,000-yard mark four times in the past five years. Although Charles has yet to post a 100-yard game this season, the fact that he still commands eight-man fronts on early downs helps the Chiefs' offense create production in the passing game despite an underwhelming cast of pass catchers.

6) Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks: "Beast Mode" is probably nearing the conclusion of his career as a Seahawk, but he remains the driving force of the offense, despite the emergence of Russell Wilson as an elite playmaker in the pocket. Since 2011, the Seahawks are 19-6 when Lynch receives at least 20 rushing attempts -- and 15-13 when he doesn't. His steady pounding commands defensive attention, which opens up the field for Wilson on a variety of play-action passes on the perimeter. Although Lynch has failed to surpass the 100-yard mark in each of the Seahawks' last five games, he still flashes the quickness, strength and physicality to be an effective workhorse when provided the opportunity to carry the load. Given the team's recent struggles, we should have plenty of chances to see if Lynch still has the goods to be a workhorse at this stage of his career.

7) Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers are a better team when the offense runs through Gore -- that's just the truth. The veteran runner remains one of the most productive players at his position, despite his advanced age (31). He still flashes the pitter-pat, vision and short-area burst that made him a terror as a young player, yet his veteran patience and efficiency keep the 49ers in manageable situations. Although some outsiders will suggest that the 49ers hand the reins to Colin Kaepernick to drive the offense, the team's best plan for immediate success begins with a steady diet of Gore between the tackles.

8) Alfred Morris, Washington Redskins: Don't let recent numbers taint Morris' value as a workhorse runner. Despite failing to surpass the 100-yard mark in 14 straight games going back to November of last season, Morris remains the same hard-nosed runner who finished with the second-most rushing yards in the NFL as a rookie in 2012 and posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons to start his career. Sure, the loss of Robert Griffin III has diminished his effectiveness (Morris thrived on zone-read plays with RGIII under center), but he is an effective downhill runner ideally suited for the Redskins' zone-based scheme. When given the opportunity to play alongside a viable QB capable of executing bootlegs, zone-reads, etc., Morris will return to the top of the charts as a rusher.

9) Matt Forte, Chicago Bears: The Bears star doesn't accumulate touches as a traditional workhorse runner, but that doesn't mean Forte should be excluded from a list of dominant feature backs. The 6-2, 218-pound veteran is a slippery runner with terrific vision, instincts and cutback skills. Although his exceptional receiving talents change how observers view him -- not your typical "grinder" -- his ability to handle a heavy workload as a runner or receiver gives the Bears offensive freedom. With Chicago struggling to find an offensive identity in Marc Trestman's second season, it might be time for the team to up Forte's carries and give the attack better balance.

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10) Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers: The 2013 Offensive Rookie of the Year has gotten off to a slow start this season, but his presence as a hammer between the tackles has alleviated some of the pressure on Aaron Rodgers, who has been nothing short of brilliant thus far (18 touchdown passes against one interception). Lacy's hard-charging running style forces opponents to drop an extra defender into the box, yet aggressive defenses can still have problems containing the second-year pro. If Lacy can become a bigger part of the offense as the season wears on, the Packers will become a bigger title threat.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.



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