Sports Outside the Beltway

NFL’s Best Running Back Tandems

Scouts, Inc. ranks the best running back team combos:

1. San Diego Chargers
It is hard to not be ranked No. 1 when you have the reigning league MVP and best running back in the NFL on your roster. LaDainian Tomlinson was unstoppable last season. He is the most versatile running back in the NFL because he can beat you as a runner and receiver. The 2006 coaching staff did an excellent job creating mismatches with him in the passing game. With his vision, run instincts and playmaking ability, we expect him to pick up right where he left off in 2007. The other thing that makes this unit special is depth. In addition to Tomlinson, they have Michael Turner, who is the best backup in the NFL. Turner provides an excellent change of pace to Tomlinson. When both are in the lineup at the same time, they give defenses fits.

2. Kansas City Chiefs
We put the Chiefs second not because of their depth, but because of the star power they have in No. 1 RB Larry Johnson. Johnson is the No. 1 workhorse back in the NFL and set a league record last season with 416 carries. Throw in 41 receptions, and Johnson averaged nearly 29 touches per game. With veteran quarterback Trent Green gone to Miami, Johnson will be counted on for similar production in 2007. The Chiefs must avoid overworking him and get better production out of their backups. Often injured and seldom-used backup Michael Bennett has excellent speed, but he can’t stay healthy. He could be a solid change-of-pace runner if he can shake the injury bug. Veteran Priest Holmes is still on the roster, but his neck injury remains a concern. Don’t look for him to play anywhere in 2007.

3. Washington Redskins
If San Diego has the best one-two punch in the NFL, Washington isn’t far behind. Starting RB Clinton Portis was limited to eight games last season because of a shoulder injury. That injury really opened the door for backup Ladell Betts. Betts finished the 2006 season with 1,154 yards on 245 carries. Betts, scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after the 2006 season, re-signed with Washington. His return should make for a very good training camp battle with Portis. Depth-wise, the Redskins are excellent. They also signed former Chiefs and Jets RB Derrick Blaylockand have a scatback in Rock Cartwright. Fullback Mike Sellers is a very good special teams player, blocker and pass catcher. With young QB Jason Campbell at the controls, the Redskins will rely on this deep backfield to carry the offense.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars feature runners who can attack the line of scrimmage and make plays consistently. They finished the 2006 season with the No. 3-ranked run offense in the NFL. The leader of this group once again will be veteran Fred Taylor. He led the team in rushing last season with 1,146 yards on 231 carries. Second-year RB Maurice Jones-Drew will dip even deeper into Taylor’s carries this season. As a rookie last year, Jones-Drew had 941 yards on 166 carries. Taylor is not the player he once was, but when healthy, he still can make defenders miss and shows very good explosiveness through the hole. Look for the two backs to be closer to a 50-50 split in carries this season, which will put a ton of pressure on defenses.

5. Minnesota Vikings
When Brad Childress went to Minnesota last season, you could see there would be a major emphasis on running. The Vikings’ offensive line underachieved a little last season, but with a year to gel, it should be one of the best units in the NFL in 2007. With barely tested Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback, the Vikings once again will focus on the ground game behind starting RB Chester Taylor. Taylor joined Minnesota as an unrestricted free agent after the 2005 season and in his first season as a starter showed he could carry the load as the No. 1 runner. This season he will get some help in that area from rookie first-round pick Adrian Peterson, who dropped right into the Vikings’ lap on draft day. These two have a chance to be one of the top duos in the NFL in 2007. Taylor is exceptional out of the backfield catching the ball and Peterson is an excellent inside runner who can get the tough yards. Throw in Mewelde Moore, Ciatrick Fason and Artose Pinner, who played well late in the season, and the Vikings have the deepest running back unit in the NFL.

6. New Orleans Saints
You could say the rich got richer this offseason when you talk about the Saints’ running backs. The team will once again have Deuce McAllister as its featured back. One year removed from a knee (ACL) injury, he rushed for 1,057 rushing yards in 2006. While that number is not great, it is very good for a player coming off a serious knee injury, and we expect that he will be healthier and more explosive in 2007. Even though McAllister will be the starter, former USC star Reggie Bush will continue to get more involved in the offense in his second season. Bush had 155 carries in 2006 but more importantly, he had 88 receptions. Look for Bush’s carries to go up some while still being heavily involved in the passing game. The team also got a steal in the draft, Antonio Pittman, in the fourth round. He might struggle to get touches early, but should have a bright future. The Saints won’t put up huge rushing numbers because they love to throw, but this unit is deep and talented.

7. Seattle Seahawks

While the depth is not great, the team still features 2005 MVP Shaun Alexander. Alexander rushed for only 896 yards last season, but he missed five games and played the first three games of the season with a broken bone in his foot. He never really got healthy, but still bounced back to have a solid second half of the season. If Alexander is healthy in 2007, look for him to be closer to the MVP of 2005. Backup Maurice Morris proved his worth when Alexander was out. Morris finished the season with 604 rushing yards and averaged 3.8 yards per carry last season. Overall, this is a team with a great back in Alexander and solid backup in Morris.

8. Denver Broncos
Despite finishing the 2006 season ranked in the top 10 (No. 8) in rushing, the Broncos shook up their backfield this offseason. They traded starter Tatum Bell to the Detroit Lions. Despite being productive at times, Bell had durability issues, is not a physical runner, and fumbles too often. The team got a solid upgrade when it added former Titans RB Travis Henry. Henry is more experienced, has better vision and is a tougher runner than Bell. Backing up Henry will be Mike Bell, who put together a solid rookie season in 2006 as an undrafted free agent. There is no legitimate star power here, but Henry and Bell will provide a solid 1-2 punch for an offense that loves to work its play-action passing game off the run game.

9. San Francisco 49ers
It is hard to place the 49ers when you talk about the running back unit as a whole. This is a team that doesn’t have great running back depth. But it has one of the best young runners in the game in Frank Gore. Behind Gore’s 1,695 yards, the 49ers featured the NFL’s No. 6 rushing offense in 2006. Gore, who has had a history of knee issues prior to coming to the NFL, should continue to get stronger. The depth is not very good here, and if Gore gets hurt, the 49ers would have serious issues. Former college quarterback and backup RB Michael Robinson has been used primarily in short-yardage situations, and Maurice Hicks averaged only 2.8 yards per carry. Gore is a stud in this offense, but the depth is marginal at best.

10. Dallas Cowboys
With a new head coach in Wade Phillips, a lot of jobs will be up for grabs. One of those jobs will be the running back position that has been manned by starter Julius Jones over the past few seasons. However, Jones has been pushed by backup Marion Barber III, who will get his opportunity in the preseason to win the starting job. The two bring a little something different to the table. Jones is a better outside runner, and Barber is a more physical runner between the tackles. Neither back is really a feature guy, but used properly, they form a very good 1-2 punch.

While I admit to bias, I think the Cowboys tandem of Jones and Barber are much better than 10th best in the league. They’re not LT and Turner, to be sure, but they’ve both quite good. And they should be much better in a non-stupid offense.

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