Every NFL head coach, in his introductory news conference, will, at some point, promise to field a squad that "can run the ball and stop the run." This is the purest definition of being a physical team: imposing your will on your opponent in the bluntest way possible. But the fact of the matter is, while everyone would like to run the ball well, it is no longer the top priority in today's NFL, whether in terms of establishing an offensive strategy or building a roster.
Consider that last year's leading rusher, DeMarco Murray, served as the set-up man for an even more prolific passing offense, with the Cowboys' aerial attack (3,784 yards) easily outpacing Murray's production (1,845 rushing yards). (In Philadelphia this year, where he's working with a less-adept line and less-effective quarterback play, Murray has been shackled. It's not that he became bad overnight; it's merely that the other crucial variables changed.)
In 2000, when I was coaching the Baltimore Ravens, we drafted Jamal Lewis fifth overall -- and that season, we combined the NFL's fifth-ranked rushing attack with a defense that set a record in points allowed in a 16-game season (165) to win a Super Bowl, despite having a passing offense that ranked 22nd. It's worth noting that the top three passers in the NFL that year were a young Peyton Manning, Jeff Garcia and Elvis Grbac. Our march to the Super Bowl went through Brian Griese, Steve McNair, Rich Gannon and Kerry Collins -- not quite the gauntlet of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks a contender must go through today.
Over the last couple of years, we've seen running backs pushed down the draft charts, with the position de-emphasized in light of the increased reliance on the passing game and, not incidentally, the fact that the backs are viewed as more interchangeable than they once were.
People still covet marquee running backs, but these days, a back must be really special to merit a first-round draft pick, especially after 2012, when Trent Richardson, Doug Martin and David Wilson went in the opening round. Martin is the NFL's second-ranked rusher this season, but Richardson and Wilson are no longer even in the league. No back went in the first round of a draft again until 2015, when Todd Gurley went 10th overall to the Rams and Melvin Gordon went 15th overall to the Chargers.
As recently as 2010, 10 running backs notched at least 300 carries for the season. The past two years, we've had just two. Large rushing loads have gone the way of big pitch counts in baseball. Coaches in football, just like managers in baseball, are more cognizant of preserving their players for a longer period.
Long gone are the days of backs like Emmitt Smith, who played 14 seasons -- and logged at least 300 carries in seven of them. In Smith's best year -- 1995, the season the Cowboys beat the Steelers in Super Bowl XXX -- he posted 377 carries for 1,773 yards and 62 receptions. The key number there for me is 62 receptions, for in today's NFL, you have to be a back who can run and catch.
Running backs can still be workhorses, but at least 50 of their touches are likely to come through the passing game. Big bruisers like Eddie Lacy can still be valuable, especially down by the goal line. But the modern game is built for the multi-purpose back, someone who is strong and dexterous, has supple hands and the ability to run precise routes and be maddeningly elusive in the open field.
With that as the criteria, I've put together a list of the 10 running backs I'd choose to build a team around, all 25 or younger, with 2015 stats below each name:
1) Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Age: 23. Games: 6. Rushing yards: 556. Rushing TDs: 3. Yards per carry: 4.9. Rec. yards: 136.
Bell went on injured reserve with a torn MCL in early November -- but he's still the most complete back in the NFL going forward, regardless of age criteria. With power and speed, he can play with the bruising style the Steelers are known for, but he's even more effective as a pass catcher out of the backfield. When healthy, the third-year pro is a 1,300 yard-1,500-yard runner who can also give you 70-80 receptions a year. He also sets up blocks as well as anyone I've seen. Of course, he certainly benefits from all the talent around him in a loaded offense, but presuming he recovers from his injury without incident, the former second-round pick belongs at the top of this list.
2) Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
Age: 23. Games: 12. Rushing yards: 851. Rushing TDs: 9. Yards per carry: 4.4. Rec. yards: 498.
A fourth-round steal out of Florida State in 2014, Freeman is a smaller -- but no less powerful -- version of Bell. Installed as Atlanta's starter this season, Freeman is on pace for 1,000-plus rushing yards and 70-plus catches. He has exceptional balance and is deadly in yards after catch, but what make him special are his vision and field awareness. His effectiveness behind a subpar offensive line shouldn't be understated.
3) Todd Gurley, St. Louis Rams
Age: 21. Games: 11. Rushing yards: 975. Rushing TDs: 8. Yards per carry: 5.2. Rec. yards: 150.
Gurley, taken 10th overall in 2015, is the highest-drafted player on this list, and he has the potential to be an impact player similar to Adrian Peterson. Gurley is a workhorse capable of a 300-carry season, but with just 18 catches thus far, he has not been much of a receiving threat out of the backfield. That is the part of his game he'll want to develop in order to be impactful in all phases, particularly in the two-minute drill. Of course, he has been hampered by not having a legitimate quarterback to throw him the ball.
4) Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals
Age: 24. Games: 13. Rushing yards: 647. Rushing TDs: 2. Yards per carry: 5.1. Rec. yards: 413.
Before the 2013 NFL Draft, in which Bernard was a second-round pick, I compared Bernard's skill set to that of NFL Media analyst (and future Hall of Fame back) LaDainian Tomlinson. Bernard (5-foot-9, 205 pounds) is slightly smaller than Tomlinson (5-10, 215), but like Tomlinson, he has elite feet and vision, and he's just as capable between the tackles as he is catching screen passes out of the backfield. The biggest difference between the two is their workload -- while Tomlinson logged 300-plus carries in each of his first seven NFL seasons, Bernard has yet to carry it more than 170 times in a season. The Bengals might have the best pair of young backs in the NFL in Bernard and Jeremy Hill -- but between the two, Bernard has the wider range of skills.
5) Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints
Age: 25. Games: 12. Rushing yards: 769. Rushing TDs: 6. Yards per carry: 4.6. Rec. yards: 405.
The 2009 Heisman Trophy winner dropped to 28th overall in the 2011 NFL Draft, as the position was devalued in NFL scouting departments following a 2010 season in which Arian Foster -- an undrafted free agent -- led the league with 1,616 yards. At the time, Ingram was the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson, and his low center of gravity and subtle shiftiness reminded many of Emmitt Smith. Ingram is a power runner who has worked on his receiving game to the point that he's now capable of a 60-catch season. He was finally living up to his potential on a bad Saints team this season -- he was on pace for his first 1,000-yard campaign as a pro, plus 540 receiving yards -- before landing on IR with a shoulder injury, only fueling concerns about ex-Alabama players coming to the NFL with too much wear on their tires.
6) T.J. Yeldon, Jacksonville Jaguars
Age: 22. Games: 12. Rushing yards: 740. Rushing TDs: 2. Yards per carry: 4.1. Rec. yards: 279.
Another former 'Bama back who is capable of 1,000 rushing yards and at least 50 receptions, Yeldon is bigger than Ingram -- though the rookie's durability has yet to be truly tested. As of this posting, a sprained MCL had put his availability for Sunday in question. The second-round pick is just one of many young emerging skill players in Jacksonville who give Jaguars fans hope for the future.
7) Thomas Rawls, Seattle Seahawks
Age: 22. Games: 13. Rushing yards: 830. Rushing TDs: 4. Yards per carry: 5.6. Rec. yards: 76.
A relatively unknown undrafted free agent out of Central Michigan, Rawls showed the type of power as a rookie this season to get Seattle's coaches thinking about life after Marshawn Lynch. Of course, Rawls can also serve as a prime example of why investing cap money in a big, physical runner is such a risk. Just as he was breaking out, having put up 391 rushing yards and four total touchdowns from Week 11 to Week 13, he fractured an ankle in Week 14 and wound up on IR. It's simply hard to avoid injury when shifting through all the trash between the tackles, especially with someone who has Rawls' physical downhill rushing style.
8) Lamar Miller, Miami Dolphins
Age: 24. Games: 13. Rushing yards: 769. Rushing TDs: 7. Yards per carry: 5.1. Rec. yards: 346.
A fourth-round pick in the 2012 running back disaster draft (see the intro), Miller may prove to be the best back taken that year, even though seven others were taken before him. Miller is capable of 1,000 rushing yards and 50 receptions, but has to get better at pass protection if he is going to move up the list.
9) Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers
Age: 25. Games: 12. Rushing yards: 641. Rushing TDs: 3. Yards per carry: 4.2. Rec. yards: 153.
The third Alabama running back on this list is a big, physical player -- and that may also be his biggest obstacle to overcome. As NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks have discussed on the "Move the Sticks" podcast, when Lacy was coming out, scouts were worried about his body type and his inability to keep extra weight off his frame -- and those concerns appear to have been borne out this season, which included a five-carry effort in Week 13 after he missed curfew. Lacy -- who is coming off his best game of the year, a 124-yard outing against Dallas last week -- is complemented in the Packers' offense by James Starks, who is a 50-catch guy and may even be more explosive, but lacks the front-end bulldozing power of Lacy.
10) Ameer Abdullah, Detroit Lions
Age: 22. Games: 13. Rushing yards: 437. Rushing TDs: 1. Yards per carry: 3.8. Rec. yards: 155.
The Lions desperately need this second-round pick from Nebraska to develop into the consistent running threat they've missed since Barry Sanders hung 'em up after the 1998 season. Explosive and quick with very good acceleration, Abdullah is too small to be a 300-carry guy, but -- like Darren Sproles -- he can be a 60- or 70-catch weapon who has a major impact in the return game. Abdullah had an atrocious 24 fumbles in college, and he has yet to kick the resulting stigma in the pros, with four fumbles (one lost) on just 134 touches. If that doesn't get cleaned up, he may not get the chance to show he can do more.