The majority of these decisions were clear-cut for me, including deciding between the top two. But after Michael Turner, this list became very difficult to compile.
I was torn between Rashard Mendenhall, Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy for the last two spots. For me, a true barometer when judging a running back’s greatness is consistency over a long stretch of time -- though I realize that running backs’ life spans are very short. And Mendenhall, Charles and McCoy have not demonstrated that consistency. I left Charles off the list because he isn’t the clear lead dog on his team -- although he certainly should be.
An all-time great who I thought was washed up, LaDainian Tomlinson, could very well convince me that he belongs back on this list if he continues to perform as well as he has for an extended stretch. What Tomlinson is doing is pretty remarkable, but I also think we need to keep it in perspective. He is in the ideal offense to succeed, with a hammer lead-blocking fullback, the best center in football, outstanding overall blocking, a quarterback who needs the safety blanket check-down receiver that Tomlinson provides and a playcaller dedicated to the run. Just look at how different Thomas Jones has been in Kansas City instead of New York. Still, Tomlinson has completely blown me away.
It's too early to include Houston’s Arian Foster among the top 10 running backs, but what he has done in 2010 is very impressive. I must see more from him, however, to put Foster with the big boys. Foster, the leading rusher in the NFL with 564 yards, has durability concerns and looks to be nicked up. He isn't special enough to be the type of guy who can be counted on week to week, but his downhill, no-nonsense running style is exactly what Gary Kubiak wants in his zone-blocking scheme. (Check out Jeffri Chadiha’s Hot Read on Foster.)
Here are my top 10 running backs.
1. Adrian Peterson, Vikings: He is noticeably better than he was a year ago in all phases of his game. And he was the best back in the league last year. I said it then, and I will say it now. Peterson is an all-time great and clearly the best overall running back in football.
2. Chris Johnson, Titans: Johnson has been up and down this year, but some of that has to do with his supporting cast. He did look like the 2009 version of himself in Week 5. There isn’t a more dangerous player in the game.
3. Steven Jackson, Rams: Jackson recently eclipsed the 7,000 rushing yards mark. Just think how many he would have on another team. Jackson contributes in every way possible.
4. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars: I actually worry that MJD might, just might, be showing the very first signs of decline to his lofty game. I hope I am wrong about that, because he is a joy to watch and is remarkably consistent. Jones-Drew is a touchdown machine who can beat you as a runner or receiver.
5. Frank Gore, 49ers: The only knock I have on Gore is durability, as he seems like a lock every year to miss a game or three with a lower-body injury. But he is a very special talent who can put a football team on his shoulders. It looks like he is going to have to for the 49ers to rebound.
6. Ray Rice, Ravens: This past week, we finally saw the Rice of 2009. He really does everything well at the running back position. If anything, he should move up this list soon.
7. DeAngelo Williams, Panthers: Wow, do I wish that we all could see Williams in Green Bay this year. Instead, he is in an absolutely dismal situation on one of the worst offenses in the league. Since Williams should be a free agent after this season, next year I might just get my wish. I bet he wouldn’t complain either.
8. Michael Turner, Falcons: Turner is a perfect fit for Atlanta’s power running game and they tend to go as he goes. For a big back, he breaks a lot of long runs, but he offers little in the passing game.
9. LeSean McCoy, Eagles: McCoy has come into his own. He is now stronger and understands the NFL game much better. Remember, last year he was one of the youngest players in the league. He’s a dual threat with rare elusiveness. And he really fits the Eagles’ offense. I am a believer.
10. Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers: Mendenhall has not been spectacular during the first four games this season, but he has gotten a ton of attention from opposing defenses because the Steelers didn’t have a quarterback to speak of. Prediction: The next 12 games will justify this ranking. He is quietly coming into his own and dripping with natural gifts.