Wednesday, February 16, 2011

U-25: Best Running Backs Under the Age of 25

In the game of football, having an effective ground game may be the key to having a successful championship run.

Not every team out there has the blessing of possessing a quarterback of Super Bowl XLV MVP Aaron Rodgers' caliber, meaning a solid ground game is the perfect compliment to a decent passing attack. Despite Aaron's record-breaking performance in four postseason games in January and early February in which he passed for over 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns, the Packers had a decent ground game without last season's top rusher, Ryan Grant.

Keys to having an elite ground game? Well, first of all having quick, powerful guards who can pull quickly and create openings in the line. But most of all I think is having a healthy group of backs. You, of course, want the one go-to guy who will start games and make solid runs on first and second down. But having a healthy back who can come in on third downs and move the chains is a huge upside as well.

It's been proven that many backs hit a wall at age 30, and production in most cases quickly drops with each passing year once they hit the wall. That's why having young, fresh players is always a great commodity in the National Football League.

Listed below are 15 running backs (age 25 and under) who I see as elite backs in the league, and what makes them so elite. I understand it would make more sense to pick guys who will be 25 and under at the start of the 2011 season (a few of them will be 26 before September), but I just couldn't resist leaving some of these guys off the list.
Arian Foster, 24

Foster broke on to the scene this year with a league-leading 1,616 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground in just his second professional season. With the preseason injury to rookie Ben Tate, Foster was forced to step up right away and delivered in Houston's week one matchup against Indianapolis with a franchise game-high 231 rushing yards and three touchdowns in their upset win. Foster proved to be a consistent force throughout the regular season and may have been the sole reason Houston got off to such a quick start.

Chris Johnson, 25

One year off his record-breaking 2,006 yard season in 2009, Johnson disappoints the league. By disappointing, I mean he finished the season just shy of 1,400 yards (fourth-most in league) and 11 touchdowns. His explosiveness and speed between the tackles was still there, but the Titans' offense was more one dimensional than it was in 2009, therefore defenses keyed in on Johnson a little more often. Still the most exciting running back in the league, he just didn't have quite as many highlight reels as 2009. Tennessee is currently in the rebuilding process, so hopefully the Titans will revamp its offense and allow Johnson a little bit more to work with in 2011.

Adrian Peterson, 25

It's a bit of a stretch adding AP on this list considering he will be 26 in a little over a month (March 21), but Peterson has been in an elite running back for four straight seasons now. In fact, Peterson has ran for 1,200 yards and 10+ TDs in all four of his seasons in the league. Aside from last year, when Johnson took over the spotlight, Peterson has always been known as the most explosive and powerful runner since entering the league out of Oklahoma in 2007. The only downside in Peterson's game is fumbling in key situations. But after six lost fumbles last season, he worked on that problem over the offseason and limited himself to just one fumble in 2010. Looks like he is once again the most complete back in the league.
Maurice Jones-Drew, 25

Jones-Drew and his 5'8'' frame seems to get overlooked quite a bit by fans and analysts alike. He has consistently produced great results on the ground for the Jaguars, but a lack of a potent passing attack has been holding the Jags' offense back lately. Jones-Drew only got the ball in the end zone a grand total of seven times in 2010 (five on ground, two through the air), but has run for 54 touchdowns in five complete seasons in Jacksonville, while accumulating over 5,200 yards rushing. The production has been there for the shifty little man, and his ability to break tackles has yet to leave him after five hard-working seasons. A guy of Jones-Drew's size will likely hit the "age 30 wall," but he still has a good 4-5 seasons until Jacksonville will start to worry about him in that sense.

Jamaal Charles, 24

Charles, one of the NFL's fastest men coming out of the backfield, broke out on to the scene with his 1,467 yards (second-most behind Foster) and five rushing touchdowns. One of Jamaal's biggest upsides is his ability to come out of the backfield as a viable weapon for young gun quarterback Matt Cassel. Charles caught 45 passes for 468 yards (10.4 YPC) and three additional touchdowns this past season. Charles' shiftiness and breakout speed is what has put him near the top of the running back list in 2010, and that's exactly what is going to keep him there for the next several seasons.

Darren McFadden, 23

Considering McFadden is a former fourth overall pick in the NFL draft (2008), I've expect much more from the former Arkansas Razorback. But, after two underachieving seasons in which he started a total of just 12 games, McFadden finally broke-out for a career-high 1,157 yards and seven touchdowns in 13 starts. Carrying the ball just 223 times, McFadden posted an astonishing yards per carry average of 5.2. Not quite as impressive as Jamaal Charles' 6.4, but it's still up there.
Matt Forte, 25

Much like guys such as Jones-Drew and Charles, Forte is always a threat to catch passes out of the backfield and break out for sizable gains. Forte barely eclipsed 1,000 yards on the ground (second time in his three year career) in 2010, but he added on over 500 receiving yards. One of Forte's upsides is he doesn't take too many hits and has managed to stay healthy and start all 16 games in each of his three pro seasons.

Ray Rice, 24

Despite a maturing Joe Flacco in Baltimore, and an added Pro Bowl wideout to his arsenal in 2010 (Anquan Boldin), Rice saw his carries rise this past season as he broke 300 attempts for the first time in his short, three-year career. Though he was less productive (1,220 yards and a career-low 4.0 YPC average), Rice's presence was still felt on offense. With opposing defensive coordinators better aware of Rice's ability to break out long runs, they keyed in on him a little more, but with Flacco on the brink of elite status, Rice may not be the center of attention in 2011. This could only mean one thing for Ray: more production.

Rashard Mendenhall, 23

Mendenhall is on the minds of every defensive player after his 1,273 yard, 13 touchdown regular season performance. Add on his 230 yard, four touchdown postseason performance and you've got yourself a rising star in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger still has plenty of time left in his career, but I do think his best days may be behind him. With a rebuilding offensive line, it looks like the only direction the young Mendenhall is headed is up.
LeSean McCoy, 22

McCoy hasn't really impressed too many fans with top-tier speed or bruising strength, but his perfect combination of the two has certainly given him a little fortune and fame. Averaging 5.2 yards per carry on 207 attempts was enough to get him over the 1,000 yard mark for the first time in his career. McCoy's 78 receptions and 592 yards made him a respectable option for quarterback Michael Vick, who often dumped the ball off to him to avoid defensive pressure. McCoy can certainly take pride in being one of the youngest on the list.

Ahmad Bradshaw, 24

Bradshaw is, in my eyes, one of the most underrated backs in the league. Starting just one career game in his three seasons prior to 2010, the bruising back broke out for a career-high 1,235 yards and eight touchdowns after the Giants benched his teammate Brandon Jacobs. The 5'9'' back, just under 200 pounds, has a great combination of speed and power. He has the ability to run through, or around defenders. I would expect him to add on to his success in 2011, and maybe breakout with double-digit touchdown totals.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis, 25

What made Green-Ellis' season so great was New England's heavy use of him while in the red zone, particularly in goal-line situations. Green-Ellis ran for a career-best 1,008 yards on 229 carries but, more impressively than that, found the end zone a team-high 13 times on the ground in just 11 starts. The Pats, of course, were a pass-heavy offense like usual, but Green-Ellis' successful campaign allowed Tom Brady's attack to be a little more two dimensional than most defenses expected. Brady's best days may be behind him, so look for more carries to come BJGE's way in the coming years.
Jonathan Stewart, 23

An off-year for Stewart? Try 770 rushing yards (two touchdowns) in just seven starts. With both Stewart and teammate DeAngelo Williams battling injuries in 2010, the previous season's greatest running back duo had limited playing time, but that didn't stop Stewart from breaking tackles and having big games against formidable opponents (had just two 100-yard games, but added on two 90-yard performances in losing efforts for the lowly Panthers). Lack of a consistent quarterback may have been a factor in Stewart's down year, but either way I expect both him and his teammate to make a strong recovery in 2011 and hopefully we'll see Stewart back in his 1,110 yard, 10 touchdown form next season.

Peyton Hillis, 25

Denver gave let Hillis slip away, and all they got in return is a third-string caliber quarterback in Brady Quinn. Not exactly a deal I would be willing to tell people about. The bruising 6'1''/240 pound Hillis caused many to scratch their heads as he broke out with 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns in 14 starts with Cleveland. The former seventh round pick of the Broncos uses his brutal power and elusiveness to bowl over defenders, making him a solid goal-line and short-yardage option.

LeGarrette Blount, 24

As a rookie filling in for former AP Offensive Rookie of the Year Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, Blount impressed me with his outstanding late-season performances. He showed his speed and athletic ability by jumping completely over a defender not once, but twice, this past season, making Sportscenter's Top 10 Plays in both instances. Blount was my pick for Offensive ROY (1,007 yards, 6 rushing TDs in seven starts), but the Associated Press awarded it to Sam Bradford instead. I would expect Blount to remain Tampa's go-to running back in 2011 and for him to improve on his four 100-yard games from this past season.
Just missed the Cut...

There's so many backs under the age of 25, that I just couldn't figure out where to put these guys. They haven't quite proven they belong on the list of top 15, but some of them haven't been given a real shot yet. Next season will be their chance to show me they belong.

*Felix Jones, 23
*Knowshon Moreno, 23
*Tim Hightower, 24
*Ryan Mathews, 23
*Shonn Greene, 25

It's rare to find a consistently effect running back over the age of 30.
Here's a few guys who are considered feature backs and haven't hit the (age 30) wall just yet. But some are getting mightily close to that time in their careers, and may already be on the downfall.
Michael Turner, 29
Steven Jackson, 27
Frank Gore, 27
Cedric Benson, 28
Joseph Addai, 27
DeAngelo Williams, 27
Clinton Portis, 29
Ronnie Brown, 29  
Already hit the wall (no longer able to carry the team's workload)
Ladainian Tomlinson, 31
Thomas Jones, 32
Ricky Williams, 33
Brian Westbrook, 31

Photo credit
Arian Foster: AP Photo/Reinhold Matay
Maurice Jones-Drew: Perry Knotts/NFL
Darren McFadden: AP Photo/Tony Avelar
LeSean McCoy: AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
Jonathan Stewart: AP Photo/Chuck Burton
LeGarrette Blount: AP Photo/Nick Wass

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