Ah, the running backs.
A position so necessary for an effective offense but one often so fragile - dependent on the health of a player who gets hit more often than almost any other as well as on a playbook that knows how to effectively use the run in a pass-heavy league.
Pat Kirwan jokes in his blockbuster football book, “Take your eye off the ball,” that if Yogi Berra were to describe the NFL running backs, he’d say something like “Guys sure get old young around here.”
And he wouldn’t be wrong. The punishment running backs take on the field shortens their pro careers faster than just about any position, and it means teams need to strike a balance with experience but also fresh, healthy legs. And then, of course, it’s great to have a back with an eye for holes and an ability to use speed to their advantage - whether they “run downhill” or have an innate ability to cutback and zigzag their way behind blockers to find open space.
This combination has proved elusive for many an NFL team, and the AFC West squads are no different, though a few have found some consistent success to build upon.
Note: while we are pre-disposed to favor the Broncos, for this exercise we will try to be as objective as possible and welcome debates in the comments.
So let’s get to it.
#1 - L.A. Chargers
Given how Melvin Gordon sliced up the Broncos’ run defense - as well as many other teams - last sesason, the No. 1 ranking here is unfortunately not too hard to pick.
Most of us can’t forget his 48-yard touchdown run last fall that made the Broncos’ defense just look silly.
Melvin Gordon busts out for a 49-yard gain in the second half vs. the Chargers on Thursday Night Football. The Denver Broncos take on the San Diego Chargers during Week 6 of the 2016 NFL season. Subscribe to NFL: http://j.mp/1L0bVBu Start your free trial of NFL Game Pass: https://www.nfl.com/gamepass?campaign=sp-nf-gd-ot-yt-3000342 Sign up for Fantasy Football!
Luckily Gordon did that to several teams as his 997 yards and 10 touchdowns over the season were among the best in the AFC. He also caught 41 passes for 419 yards and another two touchdowns.
Gordon ended his Pro Bowl year with 1,416 total yards from scrimmage, putting him in the top 10 in the NFL last season and ranking 16th on the Bolts’ all-time single-season list. There’s nothing to indicate that his third year in the league won’t be more of the same.
Coming behind him, Branden Oliver looks to bounce back after missing the entire 2016 season to an achilles injury and much of the 2015 season to injury as well. But if the popular locker room player can produce close to his rookie campaign results - running for 582 yards and three touchdowns plus snagging 36 receptions for 271 yards and another score - the Chargers will have a very capable second back on the roster.
Andre Williams may compete for that backup spot as well after turning in a very impressive final game last season, rushing 18 times for 87 yards, averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
Two of the league's top young running backs. Who runs for more yards in 2017? pic.twitter.com/oo6fHqDpLJ— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 14, 2017
#2 - Denver Broncos
Admittedly, I’m going out on a limb here picking the Broncos over the Chiefs, but when it comes to this team, I like to gamble on the optimistic side.
So I’m betting on C.J. Anderson being healthy and hungry to prove he’s a worthy starter while Devontae Booker is chomping to take that place away from him. And I’m really counting on Jamaal Charles and his NFL-best 5.5 yards/carry average of giving this running backs group a big spurt in the rushing game. Not to mention new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy’s creativity with running backs both as rushers and pass-catchers. So I see this squad being more talented than Denver has seen at the position in a long time - and definitely improving its 3.5/4-ish yards per carry average last year.
Plus, I really like trolling the Chiefs and their fans with the fact that we got one of their beloved players in Charles - and reminding them of the fact that he’s always really wanted to be a Bronco anyway.
"I have great for hope him. I really think he could be a difference maker for this offense" - @markschlereth on @jcharles25 #Broncos pic.twitter.com/IA2Zc8pzVG— Schlereth & Evans (@StinkAndEvans) July 20, 2017
#3 - Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs produced a solid running game behind Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West last season, with Ware running for an impressive 921 yards in 14 games and averaging 4.3 yards/carry. He also caught the ball for another 447 yards, making his 2016 stats among the team’s offensive highlights.
But despite big yards, the two Chiefs running backs could barely find the end zone, combining for just four rushing touchdowns between the two of them. This is probably why the Chiefs are looking at third-round draft pick Kareem Hunt to help give their running game a lift.
One of the better running backs beyond the help of his blockers in 2016, what can the Chiefs expect from Spencer Ware in 2017? pic.twitter.com/3TrlOpZOue— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 17, 2017
#4 - Oakland Raiders
The best part of putting the Raiders last here is that the good folks at Silver and Black Pride ranked themselves second at the position while putting the Broncos last. So, I have returned the favor ;)
But although I love nothing more than giving Raiders fans a hard time, I find it hard to believe that they think a 31-year-old running back who was injured and then left football for the past two years is going to have a much more dramatic effect than a 31-year-old running back who spent the past two years on and off the field with injuries.
The main difference is that the Broncos aren’t counting on Jamaal Charles to be their every-down running back, while the Raiders seem to think BeastMode will be back to 2014 form when he averaged 4.7 yards/carry with his 1,306 yards and 13 touchdowns. Good luck with that, Del Rio.
However, the Broncos’ run D will certainly find out if it has improved when it faces Lynch and the Raiders.
Tackling Marshawn Lynch is one of the most difficult jobs in football pic.twitter.com/8yFfJ9C7Sa— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 8, 2017
Behind Lynch on the depth chart is likely Jalen Richard and/or DeAndre Washingon. Richard was an undrafted free agent last year who had 83 carries for 491 yards and one touchdown in 2016 plus 29 receptions for 194 yards and two touchdowns. Washington turned in 87 carries for 467 yards, two touchdowns plus 17 receptions for 115 yards.
With an aging superstar who has been out of the game for two years plus an injury the previous year, Richard and Washington are likely going to need to be ready to put up bigger numbers than last year running behind Latavius Murray.
And if they can’t do it, well, there’s always Taiwan Jones and his -8 yards rushing last season: “Jones is another player whose value can’t be accurately gauged by looking at his statistics,” according to the official Raiders.com website.
Go ahead, you can laugh at that.
OK, Broncos Country, you know the drill - sound off with your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for the rest of the position group rankings over the next few weeks.
Where would you rank the Broncos’ running backs in the AFC West this coming season?
This poll is closed
With a healthy crew, this group can contend for No. 1
I’m with the doc - No. 2 most likely.
Given last year’s pathetic performance, I don’t see how they can be ranked over the Chiefs - No. 3.
I’m a fan of the Raiders, so No. 4.