Thursday, March 1, 2012
AFC North position rankings: Running back
By Jamison Hensley
The AFC North is running a series where every position will be ranked and what could change at that position.
1. RAVENS: Baltimore has one of the best backfields in the NFL, not just the AFC North. The Ravens boast Pro Bowl players at tailback (Ray Rice) and fullback (Vonta Leach). Rice produced an NFL-best 2,068 total yards and set a team record with 15 touchdowns. He led the AFC North in rushing (1,364 yards) and receptions by a running back (76). Much of Rice's success on the ground came from running behind the powerful blocks of Leach, who was as good as advertised. Ricky Williams was a relative non-factor as a backup because Rice never got seriously injured. What could change: Rice is a free agent but he isn't going anywhere. The Ravens will franchise him and it should happen Friday. The Ravens have to find a new backup running back because Williams decided to retire. Baltimore will give rookie Anthony Allen the first shot at the job.
2. STEELERS: As a group, the Steelers ran for the second-most yards (1,903) in the division and had the best average (4.4 yards per carry). Rashard Mendenhall didn't run with authority, or in between the tackles, and fell short of his third straight 1,000-yard rushing season (he had 928 yards). He only broke three runs over 20 yards. His season came to an abrupt end with a knee injury in the regular-season finale. Isaac Redman came through in limited opportunities and gained 121 yards in the playoff loss at Denver. Mewelde Moore and Jonathan Dwyer both averaged over 7.0 yards per carry before sustaining season-ending injuries. Pittsburgh's running game proved to be efficient but not electric. What could change: Mendenhall underwent surgery in January, so he is expected to start the season on the physically unable to perform list (he would miss at least the first six games of the season). If the Steelers don't add another running back, Redman would take over as the featured back. Moore is a free agent and is not expected to return.
3. BENGALS: Cincinnati's top two running backs, Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott, both averaged fewer than 4.0 yards per carry. The blame has to be equally shared by the Bengals' ineffective guards and plodding running backs. Benson finished with 1,067 yards, his lowest total since 2008. The Bengals wanted more big plays out of Benson, who had four runs over 20 yards. He complained about splitting carries with Scott, who is a good change-of-pace back but averaged 3.4 yards per carry. If you think that's poor, Scott averaged 2.9 yards per catch. Fullback Chris Pressley was one of the few bright spots of the backfield. As a team, Cincinnati was tied for 26th in the NFL with a 3.9-yard average in the running game. What could change: The Bengals need to find another running back because there will be a mutual parting of the ways with Benson, who is a free agent. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said he is leaning toward a running back-by-committee system. Alabama running back Trent Richardson isn't expected to fall to the Bengals, but Oakland free agent Michael Bush has been strongly linked to them.
4. BROWNS: You know times are tough when Chris Ogbonnaya goes from the Texans practice squad to the Browns' starting lineup in two weeks. The Browns' three top running backs -- Peyton Hillis, Montario Hardesty and Brandon Jackson -- all missed significant time with injuries. Hillis was the biggest disappointment of the group, watching his rushing yards drop from 1,177 in 2010 to 587 last season. He was sidelined for five games with a hamstring injury and one with strep throat. Hardesty missed all of his rookie year recovering from knee surgery and missed six games in 2011 with a calf injury. The Browns like the promise of rookie fullback Owen Marecic, but they missed the blocking of Lawrence Vickers. The Browns finished 28th in the NFL in rushing. What could change: The big question is whether the Browns will re-sign Hillis. If they bring him back, it'll likely be for one year. If they don't, they will have to find another lead back. It would be huge if Jackson bounces back from a turf toe injury that sidelined him all of last season.
Feb. 20: Special teams; Feb. 21: Defensive line; Feb. 23: Linebackers; Feb. 24: Defensive backs; Feb. 27: Offensive line; Feb. 28: Wide receivers; Feb. 29: Tight ends.
For Friday: Quarterbacks