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Running the show: No surprises atop list of NFL's best RBs

Ranking any position is really just an exercise in reviewing past performance and projecting a player's supporting cast for the future.

Kirwan's QB rankings

Pat Kirwan ranks the 35 best quarterbacks in the NFL, including a top five that includes four passers who've led their respective teams to Super Bowl triumphs. **More ...**

On any given Sunday, any one of the 45 running backs on this list could give a performance typical of the five players in Group A. In fact, almost every one of these backs has done it, with the exception of the two rookies who made the list.

As in the past, I prefer to group players in sections of five, in alphabetical order, so please don't view the last back in Group B as the 10th-best back. There will also be an arrow up (^), down (v) or flat (>) indicating where I think a player might end up at the end of the 2011 season if he stays healthy and plays 16 games.

Here are the running back groupings in alphabetical order:

GROUP A (1-5)

  1. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars (>): Jones-Drew was fifth in rushing while playing in 14 games. He plays with a bull's eye on his back due to the lack of a great passing game in Jacksonville.
  1. Arian Foster, Texans (^): A rising star who did it all in his first season as a starter, finishing first in rushing yards and second in runs of more than 10 yards.
  1. Chris Johnson, Titans (>): Johnson was fourth in rushing yards, but fell well short of his prediction to have the greatest rushing season ever. Things could get tough when Jake Locker takes the field and defenses focus on the run game.
  1. Adrian Peterson, Vikings (>): The best back in the NFL, but he too could be paired with a rookie quarterback, which spells extra defenders near the line of scrimmage.
  1. Michael Turner, Falcons (>): A solid workhorse who finished third in rushing and tied for fourth in rushing touchdowns. The Falcons' passing game creates conflicts for defenses and Turner will benefit from a lot of run audibles against two-high safeties. He could have a big year.

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GROUP B (6-10)

  1. Jamaal Charles, Chiefs (^): Charles needs the ball even more this year. He led the NFL in explosive runs with 45 (carries of 10-plus yards), and his ratio of 10-plus yard runs to carries was off the charts at 1:5. He averaged 6.4 yards per rush last year.
  1. Steven Jackson, Rams (v): A big, workhorse back who gets the tough yardage, he finished second in carries at 330. Jackson really needs the passing game to grow and another back to lighten the load, or he is going to run out of gas.
  1. LeSean McCoy, Eagles (^): McCoy led the NFL in receptions (78) among running backs and was fourth in yards from scrimmage. Like Charles, he's on his way to big things.
  1. Darren McFadden, Raiders (>): A dual-threat as a runner and receiver. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry and could become a bigger threat in the passing game with Hue Jackson as the coach.
  1. Ray Rice, Ravens (>): A workhorse who would benefit from a reduction in the 307 carries he had last season.

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GROUP C (11-15)

  1. Cedric Benson, Bengals (>): A very productive back since joining the Bengals. He will still give you 18-20 carries and 100 yards.
  1. Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants (^): Bradshaw is explosive, has more power than many think and is a threat as a receiver. He moved into the feature role last season ahead of Brandon Jacobs and had a ratio of 1:8 in 10-yard runs per attempt. He could be a free agent this year.
  1. Matt Forte, Bears (>): Forte gets his 1,000 yards behind a questionable line and scares defenses more as a receiver. Not flashy, but really solid in all phases of the game.
  1. Frank Gore, 49ers (v): A very physical runner and no one works harder. Gore scored only three touchdowns in 11 games. He still generates a ratio of 1:10 in 10-plus yard runs.
  1. Peyton Hillis, Browns (>): Burst onto the scene last year and wound up on the cover of the "Madden" game. He was third among running backs in receptions and tied for sixth in touchdowns.

5B. DeAngelo Williams, Panthers (>): Injured last year and only played in six games. Williams rushed for 2,632 yards and 25 touchdowns in the last two full seasons he played (2008-09).

GROUP D (16-20)

  1. LeGarrette Blount, Buccaneers (^): Hard to believe this undrafted player was released by the Titans and wound up with 1,007 yards in 13 games. He also had 32 runs of 10 yards or more (1:6 ratio per attempt). If he gets 300 carries this year instead of the 201 he had as a rookie, Blount could be a 1,500-yard back.
  1. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Patriots (>): He's in the shadow of Tom Brady, but look at his production: Tied for second in rushing touchdowns (13) and rushed for more than 1,000 yards while averaging just 14 carries per game.
  1. Brandon Jacobs, Giants (>): A big, power back who had his role reduced to 147 carries. Still, he averaged 5.6 yards per rush and had nine touchdowns. Jacobs averaged a touchdown once every 16 rushes.
  1. Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks (>): Just look at the epic run he had in the playoffs last year and ask yourself how many players could duplicate that effort.
  1. Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers (>): Fans might not forgive him for the fumble in the Super Bowl, but check his production over the whole season. Mendenhall was tied for second in rushing touchdowns (13), seventh in rushing yards (1,273) and fourth in attempts (324) for a team that went to the Super Bowl.

GROUP E (21-25)

  1. Joseph Addai, Colts (v): Addai has missed 15 starts over the last four years and played just eight games last season. When he's healthy, he is still solid.
  1. Jahvid Best, Lions (^): A very dangerous situational player who gets help this year from rookie Mikel Leshoure. Best will still get close to 20 touches per game and should produce like Brian Westbrook used to for the Eagles.
  1. Fred Jackson, Bills (>): Jackson plays in the obscurity of Western New York, but was good enough for the Bills to part ways with Lynch.

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  1. Knowshon Moreno, Broncos (>): While more was expected of Moreno coming out of Georgia, he is a solid back and not very flashy. He's only 23 and will deliver more than 1,200 yards of total offense.
  1. LaDainian Tomlinson, Jets (v): L.T. can still play at a high level and, if used wisely, can win games. He still pops a 10-plus-yard run once every 10 carries and is a factor in the passing game.

GROUP F (26-30)

  1. Reggie Bush, Saints (>): A situational player who should take a pay cut and stay in New Orleans. Sean Payton knows how to use him.
  1. Shonn Greene, Jets (^): A power back who still has a lot to prove.
  1. Mark Ingram, Saints (^): The first rookie on the list and is headed into a perfect situation. Teams defend Drew Brees first, which opens up running lanes that Payton takes advantage of.
  1. Thomas Jones, Chiefs (v): Say what you want but Jones brings attitude and production to every offense he's been with.

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  1. Jonathan Stewart, Panthers (v): If he can stay healthy, especially with Williams not likely back, Stewart could put up some big numbers.

GROUP G (31-35)

  1. Ronnie Brown, Dolphins (v): Teams seeking a backup for 10 carries and a Wildcat role should value Brown. His ability to throw makes him difficult to defend.
  1. Felix Jones, Cowboys (>): He never really grabbed the lead role in Dallas. While he has speed and is a factor in the passing attack, it's getting down to a make-or-break situation.
  1. Ryan Mathews, Chargers (^): He played in 12 games and had 158 carries as a rookie. If he stays healthy, gets 250 carries at his 4.3-yard average and adds to his seven rushing touchdowns, then he moves up a few groups.
  1. Pierre Thomas, Saints (v): Health and the presence of Ingram has changed the landscape for Thomas. He needs a big season.
  1. Cadillac Williams, Buccaneers (v): I would want him on my team for his work ethic and how he fought back from injuries. Williams would be perfect in St. Louis backing up Jackson.

GROUP H (36-40)

  1. Justin Forsett, Seahawks (>): A situational player who is shifty. Coaches tell me is underrated.
  1. Mike Goodson, Panthers (^): You will hear a lot more from Goodson this year with DeAngelo Williams likely gone and Cam Newton needing the protection of a running game and short-passing attack.
  1. Ryan Grant, Packers (>): He told me he could have played in the Super Bowl, but being on injured reserve prevented that from happening. Grant is a solid zone-scheme runner who might have to move on to get the work he wants.
  1. Chris Ivory, Saints (^): Had some impressive numbers when given the chance in New Orleans. How about a 10-plus-yard run once every 6.5 attempts and five rushing touchdowns in 137 carries?
  1. Ryan Torain, Redskins (^): Feed him the ball if the numbers mean anything. His ratio of 10-plus-yard runs is 1:6.

GROUP I (41-45)

  1. Marion Barber, Cowboys (v): His physical style is grounds for a short career. It looks like his playing days in Dallas might be numbered.
  1. Michael Bush, Raiders (>): Plays in the shadow of McFadden, but the more he plays the better he looks.
  1. Tim Hightower, Cardinals (>): Cut in the mold of Barber.
  1. Mike Tolbert, Chargers (>): Big back who is underrated. He had 11 touchdowns last year.
  1. Ryan Williams, Cardinals (^): A rookie out of Virginia Tech who will take over in Arizona.
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