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Ranking the Running Backs of the AFC West

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 06:  Willis McGahee #23 of the Denver Broncos runs the ball in for a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders at Coliseum on November 6, 2011 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 06: Willis McGahee #23 of the Denver Broncos runs the ball in for a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders at Coliseum on November 6, 2011 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Like crochet, pog slamming, and professional Wiffle Ball the existence of the feature running back is slowly fading into memory. Gone are the days where every team had their one guy that got the vast majority of all carries. Those bruisers have been replaced by a shared carry system where instead of featuring one back, a system might showcase as many as three different running backs, perhaps all with different styles and strengths

As the role of the running back continues to become more specialized, the value and needs of running backs for each team are changing. In this study we will be looking at each of the teams in the AFC West and ranking the RB squad as a whole. As I dug into the backs in the AFC West I did my best to keep an open mind about where the future of this division is headed. While so much of its talent has been injured or traded over the past two years perhaps even now our division, which has long been known for its powerful runners, may be setting the stage for a comeback at the running back position.

On the other hand, my grandmother just told me that crochet is still alive and well so who knows, maybe I don't know what I'm talking about. Let's have a little fun breaking these teams down.

As the time continues to race to August the Broncos are in a strange place when it comes to running backs. Historically, the Broncos have always had a dominant running game, especially under Shanahan where seemingly any back in the system could put together a 1500 yard season.

More recently, it seemed that the Broncos had become an all or the other team in terms of the run to pass ratio. Under the Orton/McDaniels' era we saw a focus on the pass (which could have had a lot to do with the fact we were losing most of the time, or could have been the reason we were losing most of the time). Under the Fox/Tebow run it became nearly all run with a pass or two (literally) thrown in every quarter to keep things kind of interesting.

Quite possibly one of the most intriguing things about this new Broncos offense under Manning is what exactly they plan to do with the running game. Manning may be accustomed to throwing the ball 30-40 times per game or more but whichever running back lines up in his backfield would understand that many of those passes will be check downs to him.

The role of the running back under this new Bronco offense is expanding. The more optimistic among us could see this as one of the final chances for Knowshon Moreno to take that decisive next step as a legitimate NFL running back. Others may see it as a real reason to move on now before we waste any more time on him before he brings down our fancy new, powerful offense. Either way, we know that McGahee cannot be the only ball carrier we have in our backfield and that while he may be labeled our feature back and sit at the head of the table on the depth chart, he may soon discover that the depth chart is fluid and the table is round.

Times Are Changing

The AFC West is particularly prone to the multiple back system. Mathews/Tolbert, Charles/McCluster/Jones, McFadden/Bush, and Tebow/McGahee. Take out Tolbert, Bush, and Tebow and the power running game that this division sported last season has been significantly diminished.

The introduction of Peyton Hillis back to the division is definitely an interesting wrinkle in an already potent Chiefs backfield. I'm not exactly excited to see that guy back in anything other than the Orange and Blue, but on the other hand I won't be sad to see Joe Mays mash him a few times here and there.

Because of all this running back change in our division I've opted to not simply do a statistical analysis and go for a projected opinion for next year.

1. Kansas City Chiefs - Jamaal Charles/Peyton Hillis/Dexter McCluster

This running back trio is dynamic, powerful, and dangerous. The random act of devastation that hit the Chiefs last season when Charles was struck with some kind of dark magic to his ACL while attempting the dangerous mission of running out of bounds is arguably the single greatest factor in the Chiefs winning only 7 games last season. Charles, who had missed only one game before last season, has logged in a ludicrous 6.1 average yards per carry over his career. While not exactly a scoring machine (being forced to give up goal line carries to the aged Thomas Jones) the guy is a legitimate all-star caliber runner who simply blows up games on his own. Charles isn't that consistent 100 yard rusher, averaging between 70-85 yds/game, but when the guy goes off he's gone.

I'm prone to believe my rapping career will soon follow this same path.

Peyton Hillis was an interesting pickup by the Chiefs. After being subjected to the Madden curse for an entire season during which he was debilitated by things like strep throat and achy biceps, Hillis hopes to find new life in his old division. Coming off his all-star year in which he broke the 1K yard barrier for Cleveland in 2010, 2011 was a thing of nightmare during which he was involved in everything from terrible performance to crazy scandal in which he was accused of holding out on the team for a bigger contract and overdosing on NyQuil medicine.

Actually, I just made up that NyQuil part but I thought I had strep throat once like Peyton and I'm telling you, that's what one does when one thinks he has strep throat. Turns out the hot wings I ate were too hot and it was an understandable overreaction by both Hillis and myself. The point stands though, if you have and or think you have strep you OD on NyQuil.

Bottom Line: The Chiefs are scary good in the backfield. I think adding Hillis was a great move and if Jamaal Charles decides to avoid things like empty sidelines and high feather count down pillows to keep his ACL safe they will be the rushing attack to beat in our division.

2. Oakland Raiders - Darren McFadden, Mike Goodson, Taiwan Jones, Marcel Reece

Somebody needs to get a Raiders fan in here to explain to me where exactly letting go of Michael Bush was a good idea. Darren McFadden is the living embodiment of the term "glass cannon". I literally wikipedia'd (fresh verb alert) glass cannon and there was a picture of a pirate ship with a cannon made out of glass and right beneath it there was Darren McFadden hurting his foot on some stolen booty. I know, I thought it was a little anachronistic as well but it's wikipedia and wikipedia never lies.

I don't mean to make light of Lisfranc injuries but to be quite honest I always used the term Lisfranc to show off my expansive wine knowledge. It wasn't until he carried it that final 113th time against the Chiefs in late October and ended not only his season but my fantasy football team that I began to understand the seriousness of the Lisfranc.

McFadden, for all his talent and knack for making the Broncos defense look like The Biggest Loser: Cirque du Soliel Edition, is simply not a legitimate season long threat. If it could even be suggested that McFadden would last an entire season I think he's hands down the best running back in this division. His injury problems thus far have made him the epitome of boom or bust for the Raiders.

As to the rest of the Raiders backfield I had no idea who Mike Goodson even was. We saw a little bit of Taiwan Jones last season and I've got to say, I think this kid has some legitimate upside. Whether that be on special teams or as a special downs back I'm not entirely sure. The kid is a burner though and he fits that Raider speed formula to a T. Look for him to, like every other Raider back and random wide receiver, give the Broncos fits all season long.

The true gem of this backfield aside from McFadden, in my opinion, is the Fullback Marcel Reece. This guy can do it all. He can run, catch, and probably chew his gum at the same time. The gum part is simply an unsubstantiated rumor at this point. Marcel Reece is heading into this third year and with limited action he has made the most of it, especially against our Broncos.

Bottom Line: Even with the loss of Michael Bush I think the Raiders will have a significant run offense this year. McFadden will always be a question mark in terms of health but as long as he is healthy you simply cannot overlook the power of the Raiders running game. However, it's guys like Marcel Reese that tip the scales in my opinion. They are understated yet devastating threats that always seem to haunt us at the worst possible times. The Raiders earn the #2 spot in my running backs breakdown of the AFC West.

3. Denver Broncos - Willis McGahee, Lance Ball, Knowshon Moreno

I'll be honest, when I initially sat down to write this I had a pretty good idea in my head how I thought the rankings would go. I knew that losing Tebow meant losing our #1 rushing attack. Still, I have been very impressed with the production of McGahee and even Lance Ball at times even when we were running the ball straight into 8 or 9 man boxes. It didn't take long to realize that the Tebow effect on the run game can hardly be underestimated in terms of our production last year. There are two glaring things that will change under the Manning era that promise to take away from our overall running production.

1. The QB won't rack up significant rushing stats. With Tebow gone and the offense returning to something that makes the less adventurous amongst us more comfortable we know that the QB draw play is most likely being taken out of the playbook and shoved somewhere between Nahum and Habbakuk in the nearest Bible (a fitting burial wouldn't you say?) Tebow was, for all intents and purposes, a legitimate second RB during his option plays.

2. The number of run attempts per game is about to drop significantly. Want to know the easiest way to be the #1 rushing team in the league? Run the ball just about every damn down. When Tebow took over the Broncos we went hyper-conservative. Protect and run, the motto of one night stand artists the world 'round. The sheer amount of running chances almost guaranteed us a top 5 rushing offense while at the same time guaranteeing us a basement dwelling passing attack.

This is a passing league and now we've got our passer. The running game is about to take a backseat. This section may have been heavy on the Tebow but let me be clear, our running game was almost everything that it was thanks to Tebow. To explain our new rushing offense minus Tebow is to explain something that was next to the worst in the league under Orton. Now, I really like McGahee and I think he has a legitimate shot at a 1000 yard, 8 touchdown season. If he goes big, maybe he'll have a 1,078 yard season.

Like I mentioned earlier, any running back behind Manning knows that catching the ball is a must and this is where I think Moreno has been given the greatest gift for his final shot at proving his worth. If Moreno can't find his stride under Manning I think we'll have witnessed one of the few times a player was given the opportunity to play for nearly every level of skill, except for complete incompetence. This needs to be Moreno's year.

Bottom Line: As far as the running game is concerned losing Tebow was significant. However, the new leader has his own style and it definitely does involve a running game and our feature backs must realize that their role is changing. The draft could add a significant piece to this backfield but after careful consideration I simply cannot rank them above the likes of a McFadden or Charles. Once again, the running backs of the Broncos have something to prove.

4. San Diego Chargers- Ryan Mathews, Curtis Brinkley, LeRon McClain, Betty White

I took a chance on Ryan Mathews last year in fantasy football and as such he and I became very intimate. Mathews is being given the keys to the car after the Chargers watched Tolbert head to the Panthers. The Chargers have lost Darren Sproles and Mike Tolbert in back to back years and it has got to be some of the best news the Broncos have ever heard.

With the spotlight directly on Mathews 2012 is his year to stake his claim to that starting job. After watching his every snap last season I feel pretty confident in suggesting the Chargers are already looking for someone to compliment him in a similar fashion to Mike Tolbert. Mathews is a fine runner and perhaps even more of a threat in the pass, but his injury issues have benched him in both of his seasons.

Backing Mathews up at the moment is Curtis Brinkley, a second year player out of 'Cuse. Obviously, this will be his year to break out and no doubt his career total of 13 carries may be broken by game three.

A more significant threat than Brinkley is the fullback Le'Ron McClain who made a name for himself as a Raven in 2008 by posting up a 900 yard/10 TD year. Unfortunately for Le'Ron, 2008 was the rookie season for one Ray Rice who ultimately forced McClain to pick up second fiddle within twelve months. McClain spent a quick year in KC before moving to warmer weather where he must hope to increase his work load behind a feature back that, while talented, hasn't been able stay healthy.

Bottom Line: The Chargers bottom out this list of RB groups, a strange position after being home to names like Tomlinson, Sproles, and Tolbert. Like the Broncos I expect the Chargers to attempt to add some talent at that position in the draft and force us all to reconsider these rankings as training camp opens. As for me and Ryan Mathews... it's over bro.

It was over before Christmas.