Few NFL position groups underwent more change this offseason than at running back.
Philadelphia, New Orleans and Buffalo are just a few of the clubs that engineered massive makeovers at the position.
Even though runners are paid like kickers and punters in today's game, good luck enduring the long season without a capable cast of backs. It's no surprise that 10 of the 12 weakest rushing teams from one year ago watched the playoffs on the couch.
With all the turnover, it's time to take a look at where teams stack up in the backfield. We've ranked all 32 squads from best to worst and reached out to a handful of NFL coaches and draft experts to weigh in on this year's cast of veteran and rookie runners.
It's June, so ranking anything is a moving target. In this exercise, proven veterans earn more points than newbies yet to play. We also factored in strong offensive lines and quarterbacks who can hurt you on the ground.
Here's the list:
Philly's deep and diverse backfield sits out there as the NFL's finest in my book. Coming off his league-leading 392 carries last season, DeMarco Murray gives Chip Kelly the kind of one-cut runner he didn't see in LeSean McCoy. Still, look for Ryan Mathews to serve a much bigger role than some expect with the Eagles. ESPN's Louis Riddick came away from team OTAs saying: "Murray gets the headlines, but Ryan Mathewslooks very good. And they like him. A lot."
Kelly also has Sproles to lean on, but after averaging just 3.8 carries per game, the 31-year-old back told Philly.com in May: "They told me that my role wouldn't change." Sproles has talked with Kelly, though, about using him more on passing downs, which can be expected this season.
» NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah, a former scout for the Ravens, Browns and Eagles, also placed Philly at No. 1, saying: "Murray gets all the headlines and attention, but I'm even more intrigued to see what the role is for Mathews and Sproles. The way they do it, you go out there for a series. I think it's going to be a good fit. I kind of worry about those secondary runners when you get a carry here, a carry there. But the Eagles with their tempo, (Mathews is) going to get a full series and he's going to get a chance to get into a rhythm."
Seahawks fans will say they belong at the top of this list. It's a close call because Marshawn Lynch remains a comprehensive headache for opponents. Stopping Seattle on the ground also means shutting down quarterback Russell Wilson, who finished 16th among all players with 849 yards. June has brought another round of "Christine Michael Breakout" posts, with coach Pete Carroll saying "he's got tremendous talent," while talking about "high expectations." We need to see it on the field in 2015.
Adrian Peterson -- the best running back of our generation -- is enough to lift the Vikings into the top five. I have no reason to doubt that he will be any less of a force come September. He actually finds himself in a much better offense now, with young quarterback Teddy Bridgewater throwing the ball to Mike Wallace, Charles Johnson and Kyle Rudolph. Even when teams stack the box, though, Peterson remains the most successful runner in NFL history against eight-man fronts.
»Vikings running backs coach Kirby Wilson told Around The NFL on Thursday that Peterson could see fewer snaps this season. "No question that the workload will be a lot more balanced than in the past because the organization has done an outstanding job of acquiring talent and other explosive pieces," Wilson said, emphasizing that he was talking about fewer snaps, not carries.
*» *That might mean more third-down work for Jerick McKinnon, the second-year back who Wilson called "an NFL starter-caliber runner" and "a premier, dynamic playmaker that you can count on every Sunday for X amount of plays." Peterson still remains a top candidate to lead the league in rushing after Wilson noted that A.P. has been "extremely explosive" in practice and "still has electric foot speed," saying: "I don't see any difference from the guy who left here X amount of months ago."
Along with Philly, the Saints vastly improved their backfield by re-signing Ingram and adding C.J. Spiller, who chose New Orleans because of the role he expects to play in Sean Payton's offense. After seeing what the coach did with Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush, Spiller has a shot to top Ingram in touches. As for Ingram, there were weeks in a row last season when he looked like the hardest-running back in the NFL. We love that New Orleans kept him around.
» "You stay married to your college grade and I was such a big proponent of C.J. Spiller and we've seen it in glimpses, he's just never been able to stay healthy," said Jeremiah, adding that it "wouldn't shock me at all" if New Orleans was top five in carries with Payton "kind of following the blueprint" of last year's Cowboys.
Bell is such a special athlete. As much as Pittsburgh's offense centers around Ben Roethlisberger, Bell's absence buried the Steelers in January's playoff loss to the Ravens. Williams is no threat to steal snaps in this backfield, with Bell squarely in place to match or top his 23.3 touches per game from last season. "You hate to ever take him off the field," said play-caller Todd Haley, but the Steelers will need to do just that during Bell's three-game suspension. Without him, this backfield wouldn't crack the top half of this list.
» Coach Wilson was in Pittsburgh during Bell's rookie campaign, and quickly agreed that he has the talent to consistently finish as a top-three NFL runner. "No question," Wilson said. "The first thing is he's extremely gifted from a technique standpoint. He's extremely instinctive as a runner, he's got a tremendous amount of versatility, he can do a little bit of everything. There isn't anything he can't do as a player."
Jeremy Hill was a blast to watch last season, finishing the year as the league's top rookie rusher. Ending the regular season with outputs of 148, 147 and 100 yards, he gives play-caller Hue Jackson a one-cut dynamo who runs harder and shows more agility than many expected. Tough to bring down, Hill has a legitimate shot to become a top-five back in the NFL, while Giovani Bernard remains in place as arguably the league's top passing-down weapon. The Bengals last season notched their most carries since 2009. That trend won't change with a full season of Hill tearing through opponents:
Buffalo is a candidate to lead the league in carries under Rex Ryan. Still, it's worth noting that LeSean McCoy's yards per tote last season (4.2) dropped almost a full yard off his 1,600-yard outburst in 2013. I'm not in love with this offensive line -- or the LeBron-free quarterback mess -- but the Bills have an intriguing mix of young talent behind the aging Fred Jackson. Bryce Brown feels like the odd man out if Anthony Dixon outplays him.
Knile Davisdoesn't see a "gap" between himself and Jamaal Charles. We do. The Chiefs rank eighth here because Charles continues to produce against a stacked box on a weekly basis. He's still the beating heart of this offense. If he doesn't play upwards of 14 games this season, Kansas City will sleep with the fishes.
I slipped the Packers into the top 10 because of Lacy alone. He's in an enviable situation with defenses forced to focus on Aaron Rodgers and his bevy of weapons. That dynamic shouldn't discredit what Lacy has been for Green Bay: A terrifying, tackle-breaking fireball whose 690 yards after contact was topped only by Murray, Lynch, Foster and Bell.
We aren't talking about the Texans at No. 10 unless Foster stays on the field. "You can rest assured that as long as he's healthy and he's out there, we will run the ball," said coach Bill O'Brien. "I can tell you that. That's one thing we will do." With the underwhelming Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett battling for the quarterback job, Foster is on target for a ton of carries once again.
11. Colts:Frank Gore, Dan Herron, Vick Ballard, Zurlon Tipton, Josh Robinson
12. Chargers:Melvin Gordon, Branden Oliver, Danny Woodhead, Donald Brown, Jahwan Edwards
13. Broncos:C.J. Anderson, Montee Ball, Ronnie Hillman, Juwan Thompson, Jeremy Stewart, Kapri Bibbs
14. Bears:Matt Forte, Jacquizz Rodgers, Ka'Deem Carey, Jeremy Langford, Senorise Perry
15. Redskins:Alfred Morris, Matt Jones, Silas Redd, Chris Thompson, Jordan Campbell
» The days of Gore seeing constant eight-man fronts are over. Like Lacy, he's playing with one of the game's best passers and should top last year's 1,106 yards if his body holds up. Let's not forget that Boom Herron caught 10 passes in Indy's playoff win over the Bengals and showed some fire down the stretch.
» Even without Ryan Mathews, the Chargers can attack teams in multiple ways. Melvin Gordon is a strong candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year, with Philip Rivers saying the first-round runner reminds him of Jamaal Charles. Game Rewind displays Oliver's burst and ability to stay on his feet after contact.
»Peyton Manning went out of his way last week to praise C.J. Anderson, saying, per ESPN.com: "If you talk to him you think he's about a 12-year veteran starter and he's only started six games. I'm getting a ton of reps with him, and the sky is the limit for him, I will say that." I'm not in love with Ball's tape from last season, but he and Hillman make this roster a deep one. I trust that Kubiak will make it work.
» The Bears were one team I moved up and down this list. Forte's yards per carry dipped from 4.6 to 3.9 last season, but his 102 catches set an NFL record for backs, breaking Larry Centers' mark of 101 grabs in 1995. After Chicago finished 27th on the ground in 2014, we expect coach John Fox to give a backup runner a bigger role than Marc Trestman did.
» The Redskins are another team that could make a fool of this exercise. Alfred Morris is a strong fit for O-line coach Bill Callahan's beloved man-power scheme, but coach Jay Gruden says the team won't entirely abandon last year's zone approach. Callahan actually used elements of both in Dallas, so we expect a flexible attack that also hands carries to intriguing rookie Matt Jones.
» Forsett was dazzling last season, topping the league with 5.4 yards per carry. I'd like Baltimore's depth chart more if he wasn't entering his age 30 season. Taliaferro has looked quicker this offseason and will battle with Allen for No. 2 duties behind one of the AFC's better lines.
» "I'm a big believer in Hyde," Jeremiah said of the 49ers back. "I like him a lot coming out. I think I had him in the 20s in my top-50 board, so I thought he was a first-round back and I think he's really going to run with this opportunity, but it will be interesting to see how they carve up the carries."
» As with Russell Wilson in Seattle, Carolina's backfield is partly powered by the quarterback, with Cam Newton averaging 642.8 yards per year over his four NFL seasons. Also helping the effort is Stewart, who put some of his best game film together last season. Still, he's missed 20 games over the past three years with a variety of injuries.
» The Rams have a chance to leap up this list if Gurley blows up, but we need to see him fully healthy first. Mason was a versatile revelation down the stretch, but his touches are going to dip if Gurley delivers as expected.
» The Jets quietly ranked third in rushing last season. There isn't a special runner on the roster, but this is a deep group. With Stevan Ridley still on the mend, Gang Green's current depth chart in Florham Park reads like this: Ivory, Powell, Richardson and Stacy. A healthy Ridley would give New York another physical back who can blast teams between the tackles.
21. Dolphins:Lamar Miller, Jay Ajayi, Damien Williams, LaMichael James, Mike Gillislee
22. Giants:Rashad Jennings, Andre Williams, Shane Vereen, Orleans Darkwa, Akeem Hunt, Kenneth Harper
23. Browns:Isaiah Crowell, Terrance West, Duke Johnson, Glenn Winston, Shaun Draughn
24. Lions:Joique Bell, Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, George Winn, Zach Zenner
25. Falcons:Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Antone Smith, Jerome Smith, Terron Ward
» A Browns team source told me he would rank Cleveland's running back room "around 12 to 15 with the potential to crack the top 10." I don't have them that high, but this group is trending up. Isaiah Crowell gives Cleveland a young back who ran with urgency last season. Terrance West showed flashes, too, but is already facing competition from a pair of rookies. Our source praised tailback Duke Johnson and fullback Malcolm Johnson, saying that both are "going to play a lot of football for us," adding that "both young men are very versatile, have good hands and can play both traditional roles in the backfield" and even some wide receiver. Browns running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery told reporters: "The best way I can describe Duke is what Thurman Thomas was for Buffalo," saying that the former Hurricanes star would line up all over the field in what he called a "Where's Waldo?" scenario for defenses. Behind one of the NFL's grittiest lines, "I'd be shocked," said our source, "if we aren't in the top five in the NFL in rushing attempts."
» There's hope in Detroit based on what Jeremiah said about Abdullah and Riddick: "I know they lack size, but they're both guys who can really be dynamic in the passing game as well as hit home runs," adding that Detroit will be "able to scare safeties" out of position with how they spread the field with both backs and tight end Eric Ebron. Jeremiah called Abdullah "a lot like Gio Bernard," saying: "He is really, really quick, but the issue with him is fumbling. He got better at it during his college career. He also can be a real asset to them in the return game. He's strong, he's quick, he can catch the heck out of it and he's good after the catch."
26. Cowboys:Darren McFadden, Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar, Ryan Williams, Lache Seastrunk
27. Cardinals:Andre Ellington, David Johnson, Stepfan Taylor, Kerwynn Williams, Marion Grice
28. Jaguars:T.J. Yeldon, Denard Robinson, Storm Johnson, Bernard Pierce, Toby Gerhart
29. Patriots:LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, Jonas Gray, James White, Travaris Cadet, Tyler Gaffney, James Develin, Dion Lewis
30. Raiders:Latavius Murray, Trent Richardson, Roy Helu, George Atkinson, Michael Dyer
31. Titans:Bishop Sankey, David Cobb, Shonn Greene, Dexter McCluster, Antonio Andrews (Editor's note: Greene reportedly will be cut.)
32. Buccaneers:Doug Martin, Bobby Rainey, Mike James, Charles Sims, Dominique Brown
» I'm tempted to rank the Patriots higher because they always milk production out of no-namers. That said, one NFL position coach told us that he'd put New England "30 to 25" because of "too many unproven players." LeGarrette Blount has been a January hero, but he's tough to trust for an entire season. That said, the Patriots could get a 200-yard game out of Lindsay Lohan if need be.
» It's no fun ranking teams this low because one standout rookie can change everything. Maybe that will happen in Tennessee, where coach Ken Whisenhunt summed up David Cobb's "impressive" tape by calling him a "three-down back." Jeremiah labeled Cobb a "sneaky Rookie of the Year candidate," saying: "I'm a big fan of David Cobb. He's a really good player, just a hard runner and I think his game translates very well to the next level. I know that Sankey's been a big disappointment early on and I think Cobb could wrangle away that job and he'd be one to watch."
»Doug Martin's rookie season feels like decades ago. He's won over new coordinator Dirk Koetter, but we need to see it firsthand before putting the Bucs higher on this list. To be fair, that offensive line was no help last season.