Last week we took a look at the Top 5 Running Back battles in the NFC. In case you missed it, you can catch that here. For today, we will move on to the AFC battles.
5. Rashard Mendenhall vs. Isaac Redman – PIT
Since drafted in the first round one spot ahead of Chris Johnson, Mendenhall has been the leading rusher for the Steelers every year save for his rookie campaign. This includes last year, when he tore his ACL just before the last game of the regular season. Mendenhall hasn’t exactly been a top five back, but he has been very solid for the Steelers, hitting his apex thus far in 2010 when ran for 1273 yards and 13 TD’s.
Regardless of a runner’s previous performance, anytime he goes down for a significant amount of time (possibly the whole season in Mendenhall’s case) he runs the risk of his job being taken. There have been so many running backs that were nearly unheard of coming out of college and proceeded to become among the league’s elite, with Arian Foster being the most recent example. In this instance, the back that threatens to upset the balance is Isaac Redman.
Redman will be entering his third year, coming into the league as an undrafted free agent. Over his first two seasons in limited action, he has rushed for 4.5 yards per carry. Mendenhall, on the other hand, has a career YPC of 4.1. However, it remains to be seen if Redman will be able to keep his average up with the increased workload that is to follow. If he has a breakout year, it could be the beginning of the end for Mendenhall in Pittsburgh.
4. Reggie Bush vs. Daniel Thomas – MIA
Reggie Bush has earned the right to start the season for the Dolphins. He rushed 216 times last year for an impressive 5.0 YPC, and was often times the type of dynamic runner many envisioned him becoming in New Orleans. However, many are soon to forget that Daniel Thomas was going to be the work-horse and the starter throughout the season, with Bush coming in on third down situations and as a spell back. With Thomas going down early, though, Bush took advantage of an opportunity and earned the respect as a runner he was never able to get before.
Thomas was a second round pick for the Dolphins last year, and he is going to get more opportunities this season, but Coach Philbin will make him earn them. He was given plenty of opportunities to show something last year, and failed to do so. In 165 rushes, he managed only 3.5 YPC; a dramatic finish from Bush’s. However, it’s unfair to judge a player after only one season, and whatever the organization saw in him last year is still there. If Thomas has the drive, especially if Bush gets injured, we could see Thomas get much more playing time than expected.
3. Fred Jackson vs. C.J. Spiller – BUF
Since coming into the league as a UFA in 2007, Fred Jackson has slowly but surely worked his way towards becoming a great running back. Last season was huge for him, as he rushed for more yards in 10 games than he did in 16 the year previous. In just over half a season, he had 1,376 offensive yards, as he proved to be just as dangerous catching the ball as running it. C.J. Spiller was thought to be a sure thing, but has floundered since coming into the league. However, that hasn’t stopped Coach Gailey from proclaiming that both backs are going to be featured in his offense and will be rotated in throughout the game.
Whne it comes down to athleticism and natural ability, Spiller bests Jackson easily. However, Jackson is a tough guy, and it shows in the way he runs. Spiller may be the more athletic of the two, but Jackson takes on a much larger leadership role in the locker room, and plays harder than Spiller has so far. Still, the staff seems intent upon trying to make a star of Spiller, and it will be interesting to see if he can have his third year breakout this year.
2. Willis McGahee vs. Knowshon Moreno vs. Ronnie Hillman – DEN
Willis McGahee played beyond his abilities last year. In his last two seasons with the Ravens, he rushed for 109 and 100 times respectively. Much of this was due to the emergence of Ray Rice, but it also indicated that McGahee was at the tail end of his career, his body no longer able to withstand all the punishment. Then he signed with the Broncos last year and proceeded to rush the ball 249 times for 1199 yards. This will be his ninth season, and while he can be expected to contribute, it would be shocking to see him carry as large of a workload this year.
Knowshon Moreno has been a colossal bust, especially given his high draft slot and the fact that he was one-half of the franchises return on the Jay Cutler trade (the other being Demaryius Thomas, who last year showed signs of developing into a great wide receiver). Last year in 7 games he had only 37 touches, and unless he makes some major displays this season, it will be his last as a Bronco.
Enter Ronnie Hillman. Hillman is a third round pick out of San Diego State that has done nothing but impress this off-season. While initially thought to be a developmental player, he has shown enough talent and dedication to warrant serious consideration as the starting back of the Broncos. While imp[ressive in and of itself, this should also be seen as a further indictment of Moreno's and McGahee's abilities.
1. Jamaal Charles vs. Peyton Hillis – KC
Jamaal Charles is one of the most explosive and dangerous running backs in the NFL when healthy. In 2010, his last year as a full-time starter, he rushed the ball 230 times for a 6.4 YPC. 6.4?! That’s unheard of given that many carries. Unfortunately he also blew out his ACL very early in the season last year. Many medical professionals have made it clear that fully recovering from an ACL tear can take well over a year, and even if he does return this season, he may not ever get back to 100%.
Everyone knows about Peyton Hillis. He performed so well in Cleveland two seasons ago that it was enough to get him on the cover of Madden (even if rabid Cleveland fans did heavily influence that vote). Then last year happened. Through a bizarre series of weeks where he appeared to be injured and then not, he completely destroyed any goodwill with the franchise that he had built up the season before. Also, McDaniels looked less dumb for trading him away for nothing. However, if he can get his career back on track and dedicate himself, he will have numerous opportunities with Charles on the mend.
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