NFL 2012: Top 5 Running Back Battles: NFC Edition

Dale Zanine-US PRESSWIRE

One of the most fascinating aspects of football is noting the evolution over the years. What once began as a simplistic game of short runs and single-wing formations has since evolved into a multi-faceted and complex chess match between superior athletic specimens.  Personnel changes became necessary as more intricate and varied schemes were introduced, and as a result of the increased size and speed of the players, many teams found themselves in need of multiple quality starters at a given position. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Running Back position. Many teams have found themselves in a position where there are two, or even three, players with the potential to be a full time starter. Let’s take a look at who and what teams have unanswered questions at the starting running back position.

Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

5. Dallas Cowboys – DeMarco Murray vs. Felix Jones

Felix Jones is going into his 5′th season, and while he got off to a promising start, his career never materialized. I’ts easy to forget that in his rookie year, Jones ran just 30 times for a staggering 266 yards, which translates to a 8.9 YPC; that type of production is almost unheard of, even at that few carries.

Unfortunately the more that Jones workload increased, the worse his performance got, with him finishing last season with 575 rushing yards and a 4.5 YPC, to go with only one total touchdown. DeMarco Murray, on the other hand, had an impressive rookie year that saw him carry the ball 164 times to Jones’ 127, playing in one more game en route to a 5.5 YPC. Murray will be given the job from the outset, and it is his to lose.

If Jones responds well to the competition, he could make a push for the job, but at the moment it is Murray’s to lose.

4. New York Giants – Ahmad Bradshaw vs. David Wilson

Bradshaw was a 7′th round pick that slowly and effectively worked his way from being Brandon Jacobs’ complement to an effective and capable starter. In two seasons between 2009 – 20011, Bradshaw rushed for a combined 15 touchdowns and just under 1,900 yards. Last season, though, he managed only 12 games and 659 yards for an unacceptable 3.9 YPC.

Surprisingly, though, he did find the end zone 9 times. That, however, wasn’t enough to keep the Giants from spending their first round pick this year on David Wilson out of Virginia Tech.  It’s interesting to note that at 5, 10″, 206 lbs., to go with a 4.5 40-yard dash, he shares many similar attributes with Bradshaw, and his selection, along with injuries last season, may speak to a durability issue with Bradshaw. Watch for David Wilson to get more carries as the season progresses.

3.  Arizona Cardinals – Beanie Wells vs. Ryan Williams

Beanie Wells was expected to be something of a franchise savior, if not the missing piece of the puzzle that would make the Cardinals a consistent playoff contender. However, Wells had done so little up to last year that the organization saw fit to draft Ryan Williams with the 6′th pick of the second round last year. Unfortunately for Williams, he suffered a season ending injury during pre-season and failed to record a single stat during his rookie season.

Wells, understanding this to be his last chance to impress the franchise, responded in a big way, especially during the first half of the season. However, the injury bug took a shining to Wells as well, and it manifested itself in a fairly incomplete season that saw him absolutely dominate one week, only to disappear the next. This battle may very well come down to who can stay healthy throughout the season.

Mandatory Credit: Jim O

2. Washington Redskins – Roy Helu vs. Tim Hightower

Shanahan’s Redskins were the definition of running-back-by-committee last year (much to chagrin of fantasy owners everywhere). When the franchise brought in Tim Hightower, he was expected to have a breakout year, as he had been steadily improving since his days in Arizona.

As a result of injury, though, he was limited to five games and 321 rushing yards. Helu played in 15 games, but only carried the ball 151 times, putting up a 4.2 YPC average in the process.

Both backs have their strengths, and Shanahan may split time fairly evenly between both of them in an attempt to bring out the best in each.

1. Carolina Panthers – DeAngelo Williams vs. Jonathan Stewart vs. Mike Tolbert

It’s not often that you can lay claim to three potential pro-bowl running backs on one team, but Carolina does just that. (Carolina is also a passing team despite this, simply because of Newton; A riddle wrapped in a puzzle wrapped in an enigma, they are) Williams is as dynamic a playmaker as they come, as evidenced by his 2008 season that saw him put up 18 touchdowns on the ground and another two through the air. However, he does not have the durability to make it as an every-down back these days, proving far more effective when kept to around 150 carries in a season (he managed a 5.4 YPC on 151 carries last season).

Stewart is another back that could be any number of teams starter. He had over 1,000 offensive yards last season, as well as 5 total touchdowns to go with a 5.4 YPC as well.

While finding enough time for these two backs to be on the field would be difficult enough, the Panthers also signed Mike Tolbert out of San Diego in the off-season. Tolbert is technically designated a fullback, but is given as many opportunities to make plays as most of the guys on this list. He has over 900 total yards in each of his last two seasons with San Diego, despite never being the starting running back. Last season he even punched it in the end zone a total of 10 times.

The way this trio of backs will most likely play out is Williams and Stewart splitting time primarily, with Tolbert used in Goal Line scenarios and I-formations. Expect to see a number of different offensive looks, with all three lining up in various splits and positions in the backfield.

Follow me on Twitter @TitanSizedJason

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Topics: Ahmad Bradshaw, Arizona Cardinals, Beanie Wells, Carolina Panthers, Dallas Cowboys, David Wilson, DeAngelo Williams, DeMarco Murray, Felix Jones, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert, New York Giants, Roy Helu, Ryan Williams, Tim Hightower, Washington Redskins

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