The running back position has been devalued around the NFL, but there are still a handful of runners capable of putting the fortunes of a franchise on their backs. In Chicago and Baltimore, respectively, the presence of Matt Forte and Ray Rice in the backfield have kept those franchises in contention despite glaring weaknesses in their offensive lineups.
The 26-year-old Forte is coming off the best season of his four-year career. He topped the 1,000-yard mark for the second time in his career despite missing the final four games of the season with a knee injury. He posted career bests in yards per carry (4.9) and runs of 20-plus yards (12), while ranking eighth in yards per game average (83.1). Those numbers are remarkable production for a feature runner previously playing for a pass-first offensive coordinator (Mike Martz) and a makeshift offensive line.
Rice, 25, is also coming off the best season of his career. He finished second in the NFL in rushing (1,364), while surpassing the 1,000-yard mark for the third consecutive season. He also posted career bests in runs of 40-plus yards (5), rushing touchdowns (12) and yards per game (85.2). Impressive numbers for a runner who rarely receives 20-plus carries as the feature back.
With Forte and Rice entering the primes of their respective careers, let's match them up in five critical categories to see who is the better running back:
Forte's smooth running style overshadows his athleticism, but he shows impressive quickness and burst for a big back. He gets to top speed quickly in the hole and flashes the burst to run away from defenders at the second level. Forte also displays balance, body control and agility elude defenders in tight quarters. As a result, he routinely breaks off big runs on off-tackle plays and is emerging as one of the most difficult runners to bring down in space.
Rice is an explosive athlete with speed and quickness. Although he is not a blazer by track and field standards, Rice excels at running away from defenders in a 40-yard box. He shows burst, acceleration and quickness exploding through the hole, and is a dynamic runner in a short area. In addition, Rice displays agility and lateral quickness eluding pursuing defenders in traffic. He is an excellent stop-start runner with the balance and body control to make defenders miss in the hole. Though other runners might possess more pure speed, there are few runners capable of rivaling Rice's combination of burst, agility and quickness.
Forte doesn't get enough credit for being one of the NFL's elite runners. However, he is one of the best in the business at finding creases beyond the line of scrimmage. Part of his success can be attributed to his combination of vision and instincts. He is a natural cutback runner with a knack for finding creases at the line of scrimmage. Forte's combination of vision, instincts and anticipation is superb, and he rarely takes a solid shot from defenders in the hole. With a crafty running style that results in few big hits on the body, it is not surprising Forte has been one of the NFL's most reliable backs since entering the league.
Rice is a hard-nosed downhill runner ideally suited to play in the Ravens' zone-based scheme. He attacks the hole with his shoulders square, but displays the agility and lateral quickness to avoid unblocked defenders in the backfield. Rice's ability to avoid defenders in the hole is remarkable, and he routinely finds a way to generate positive runs despite facing stacked defenses at the point of attack. With few runners capable of rivaling Rice's elusiveness, power and agility, it is not a coincidence he has ranked among the league leaders in rushing yards each of the past three seasons.
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Elite runners consistently produce big runs on the ground, and few are better at delivering explosive plays than Forte. He ranked second in the NFL in the both explosive run categories (Forte finished with 12 runs of 20-plus yards and four runs of 40-plus yards), and posted a gaudy 4.9-yard average as a result. Part of Forte's success is due to his exceptional ability to set up his blocks down the field with nifty moves in the open field. He bobs and weaves at the second level to get defenders out of position, and finds a way to use receivers as a shield down the field to turn 10-yard gains into home runs.
Rice looks like grinder at first glance, but he flashes explosiveness and burst beyond the line of scrimmage. He attacks linebackers and safeties with his quickness and agility, and routinely finds a way to break off big runs on inside plays. Although he lacks the long speed to take it the distance with consistency, Rice led the NFL with five runs of 40-plus yards and remains a dangerous playmaker in space.
The proliferation of the passing game in the NFL has changed the job description of running backs. Feature backs are expected to contribute in the passing game, and the elite players have the skills to run routes from the backfield, slot or a wide alignment. Forte earns high marks in all categories as a receiver and the Bears are taking advantage of his unique skill set by routinely getting him the ball in space. In the clip to the right from the Bears' Week 1 matchup against the Atlanta Falcons, Forte is cleverly targeted on a run fake before leaking to the flat on a screen pass. Although the Falcons appear to have the play defended well, Forte's combination of hands and open-field running skills turns a five-yard gain into a 56-yard touchdown.
Rice is just as productive as a playmaker in the passing game. He is capable of running the entire route tree from his backfield spot, and his quickness gives opponents problems in the open field. The Ravens capitalize on his skills by frequently getting him the ball quickly in space on an assortment of angle and circle routes from an offset position. Rice routinely runs away from defenders in tight coverage, and his ability to thrive as a safety valve in the passing game enables Joe Flacco to play at a high level when his top receivers are covered.
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A player's worth can't be solely judged based off his statistics, but numbers matter when it comes to defining players as franchise-caliber talents. In using that scale to evaluate Forte, it is hard to dispute his worth to the Bears. He has consistently ranked among the league leaders in total yards from scrimmage during his tenure, and his ability to amass 4,233 rush yards behind a porous offensive line reveals his greatness. In addition, he has played with a marginally talented receiving corps, which has allowed teams to routinely employ eight-man fronts to limit his effectiveness. To combat those tactics, the Bears have made Forte an integral part of their passing game, leading to an impressive 223 receptions for the running back over a four-year period.
Rice's numbers also stand out when considering the lack of talent surrounding him at the skill positions. With the exception of Anquan Boldin, Rice is the Ravens' lone offensive weapon. He carries the load as a runner, but also makes key contributions as a receiver. He has surpassed the 75-catch mark in two of the past three seasons, and posted three straight 1,000-yard seasons as the team's feature back. As the No.1 option for a perennial title contender, Rice would be hard-pressed to produce more as a playmaker in the backfield.
After spending a ton of time studying both players, I'm absolutely convinced both guys are worthy of being considered elite players at the position. They make contributions in every aspect and their consistency is what you want as an evaluator. If I had to choose one to star on my team, I would lean toward Rice because of his slight edge in overall production, but it is hard to go wrong with either player as the designated workhorse in a pro-style offense.