Welcome to the 2013 NFL season! Forget everything you gleaned from last year's games, offseason practices and preseason action. Most of the illusions we presume to be true will be shattered by the end of the month. That's the great drawing power of the NFL.
Keep that in mind while perusing the 2013 debut of Around The League's power rankings. We will break down a different position each week, starting with running backs. Instead of straight rankings, the format will feature tiers so as not to be as arbitrary.
This is not a fantasy football cheat sheet, nor is it an attempt to predict which players will finish with the best statistics this season. The premise is which running back I would want to saddle up for the 2013 season. Although statistics, scouting reports and other factors such as durability were considered, the criteria is based primarily on game film from the 2012 season and 2013 preseason.
The NFL's snow leopard, alone atop the mountain, Peterson finished last season with roughly the same production (1,598 rushing yards) over the final 10 games as runner-up Alfred Morris accrued all season (1,613 yards). If not for a painful abdominal muscle tear that prevented him from padding his stats in garbage time of the Vikings' Week 16 victory, Peterson would have broken Eric Dickerson's NFL single-season rushing record. On the merits of his once-in-a-generation talent and eye-popping production, Peterson belongsto a tierunto his own.
Next level:Ray Rice, Arian Foster, C.J. Spiller, Marshawn Lynch, Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, Trent Richardson, Doug Martin
NFL Network analyst Terrell Davis recently chose Rice as the No. 2 tailback in the league. I can't argue. Year-in and year-out, he's among the most effective runners and receivers out of the backfield. I was tempted to dock Foster for his too-heavy workloads and declining per-play effectiveness. Then I went back and watched his playoff performances over the past two years, when he averaged 166 yards from scrimmage in four games. Foster's excellence is undeniable.
With Spiller's insane lateral agility, elite long speed and high marks in the passing game, he is now what Chris Johnson was early in his career. Can his body hold up to 300-plus touches this year? Lynch might be the most consistent chain mover in the game as a missed-tackle machine. Lynch's renaissance is reminiscent of Jerome Bettis, who also fell out of favor after starting his career with two 1,000-yard seasons.
Charles is a boom-or-bust back in the fashion of Johnson, but he hits the hole more decisively than Johnson at this stage of their respective careers. When the Chiefs feed him, he's money. Chip Kelly's run-dependent offense remains largely under wraps, but McCoy's skill set should be ideally suited to the track-meet tempo. The severe concussion that sidelined Shady for a month late last season is more than slightly disconcerting. Richardson gets high marks for playing through knee soreness and broken ribs that were so painful he had to sleep upright. He's a better talent than fellow second-year pros Martin and Alfred Morris.
Answering the bell:Maurice Jones-Drew, Matt Forte, Alfred Morris, Chris Johnson, David Wilson, Frank Gore
It's easy to forget that Jones-Drew was the NFL's rushing leader just two years ago. He's been one of the league's most under-appreciated backs throughout his seven-year career. Don't be surprised if Forte posts a career year in Marc Trestman's feature back-friendly offense. It's rare to see a big back with the footwork, balance and patience of Morris. He'll have to prove this season that his stats aren't padded by the Redskins' pistol attack.
Johnson will move up the list if he regains some semblance of consistency and loses his recent hesitation habit; the upgraded offensive line will help.
As one of the most dynamicbig-play backs around, Wilson has a chance to go Spiller on the league this season. Gore keeps chugging along as one of the best players at his position for a decade. Can he sustain that production into his 30s?
Make or break:Eddie Lacy, Darren McFadden, DeMarco Murray, Darren Sproles, Bernard Pierce, Steven Jackson, Ryan Mathews
Lacy is Around The League's near-consensus pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. McFadden and Murray have to prove they can play a full season. There isn't a tougher cover out of the backfield for linebackers and safeties than Sproles.
Pierce is the best backup in the NFL, boasting a Corey Dillon starter kit -- right down to the lethal stiff arm. Speaking of Dillon, Jackson is a good bet to follow that path to a late-careerrenaissance on a contender. Mathews has been one of the most impressive backs on preseason game film. In other words, he looks like the highly effective 2011 Mathews as opposed to the disappointing 2012 version.
Best of the rest:Lamar Miller, Giovani Bernard, Stevan Ridley, Bryce Brown, Christine Michael, Ben Tate, DeAngelo Williams, Ahmad Bradshaw, Reggie Bush
Miller might be the second-fastest running back in the league behind Johnson. He joins David Wilson as obvious breakout candidates. Bernard is a passing-game mismatch coming out of the backfield. He'll have to get on the Ray Rice weightlifting program to usurp lead-back duties from BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Ridley moves the chains, in large part because the Patriots rarely face loaded boxes. Brown, Michael and Tate join Pierce as the most talented backups in the game. Bush has been a disappointment more often than not; he leaves a lot to be desired as a runner.
NFL Network analyst Heath Evans believes his former teammate, Thomas, would be a top-10 running back if not for the Saints' committee approach. Ingram has the ability to be a lead back in a ball-control offense. Vereen is a more versatile weapon than Danny Woodhead. Greene is the ideal complement to Johnson. Ivory is Lynch in china-doll form. Rodgers and Bell are among the most efficient passing-down specialists in the NFL. Richardson failed to find the end zone on 122 touches last season, which is a troubling sign for a smallish speed back. He's a complementary player, not a featured back.
Green-Ellis is best utilized as a short-yardage specialist and "keep the lead" back. Bush and Gerhart can handle a heavy workload if the starter goes down. Ballard, Hillman, Moreno, Powell and Redman are timeshare backs. Woodhead should be limited to the hurry-up offense and two-minute drills. Thomas has been a certified bust through two seasons.
Formerly one of the most talented backfield weapons in the NFL, Stewart is at crossroads in his career following twin ankle surgeries. Bell will take over the Steelers' backfield once he's recovered from a Lisfranc injury. Unlike James, Dunbar drew raves for his training-camp and preseason work.
Pead is more talented than Richardson, but he simply hasn't run with confidence. Undrafted rookies Robinson and Wood jumped off the preseason game tape.