AFC South: Rashad Mendenhall
March, 15, 2011
By Paul Kuharsky | ESPN.com
ESPN.com IllustrationThe voting for the NFL's top running back was a tight one between Tennessee's Chris Johnson and Minnesota's Adrian Peterson.ESPN.com’s NFL writers rank the top 10 running backs in the league today. Next week: Top 10 pass-rushers.
When it came to deciding who we think is the NFL’s best running back, everyone representing the NFL Blog Network chose between Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson at the top of the ballot.
Everyone except AFC West blogger Bill Williamson, that is.
Williamson’s second-place vote for Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles bumped Peterson to third on his ballot. So instead of Peterson splitting the top spot with Johnson, he came in second by a mere point -- 76 to 75.
Johnson joins Houston receiver Andre Johnson as tops at his spot in our positional power rankings.
“I squeezed Charles in between Johnson and Peterson because I think Charles may be rising some and Peterson may be falling just a tad,” Williamson said. “We all know running backs have short shelf lives, so any little indication of slippage could be significant.
“I know Johnson slipped some in 2010, but this is still a highly productive player who has plenty left in the tank. I think Johnson gives defensive coordinators more Tuesday night headaches than any tailback in the league right now. I get to see Charles quite a bit, and he is simply explosive. He truly can score any time he touches the ball.”
Full disclosure: I very nearly put Charles second, too, though had I made the move it would have pushed back Johnson, not Peterson -- and given us that tie. Ultimately, I put Peterson first because I think he’s largely resolved his biggest issue, fumbling, while Johnson regressed in 2010 as a pass-catching threat. I think Charles is fantastic, but he hasn't approached the workload of AP or CJ yet, so I put him third.
The overall ballot created a tie for third between two other top-flight backs, Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew and Houston’s Arian Foster, giving the AFC South three of the top four backs in the poll.
Foster was dinged by an eighth-place vote by me (love him, but one year is not a big enough sample size for a lead back), while Jones-Drew was hurt by an eighth-place vote by NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert.
"Maybe next time MJD will think twice about crossing an NFC North player,” Seifert said. “Seriously, his Twitter criticism of Jay Cutler played no role in my decision. As I did last week with Andre Johnson, I'll plead unfamiliarity. I don't have anything against Maurice Jones-Drew. As an NFC North divisional blogger, I haven't had many opportunities to see him play. First-person observations tend to have a bigger impact on your judgment. Plus, I wanted to give the Jaguars' fan something to get upset about."
Charles finished fifth, with the second-place vote from Williamson and No. 10 vote from NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas, who also cast the lone vote for Charles’ backfield partner, Thomas Jones.
Yasinskas put Jones, who was with the New York Jets in 2007-09, two spots ahead of Charles.
Yasinskas said he didn’t want to give too much weight to flavor-of-the-year candidates and still wants to see more from Foster and Charles before really anointing them.
“That’s why I based my ballot mainly on looking independently at combined rushing totals of the last two years and the last three years and then drawing conclusions,” Yasinskas said. “Foster’s had one good year and Charles has had two. I tried to focus on guys who have been consistently productive for at least two years and preferably the last three years.
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesTennessee's Chris Johnson rushed for 1,364 yards and 11 touchdowns last season and topped the list of four of our eight panelists.
“That thinking led me to cast the lone vote for Thomas Jones, who didn’t make our top 10. I’ve got no regrets about that vote. Jones’ numbers dipped last season and there is no doubt he’s nearing the end of his career. But his numbers in the previous two seasons were outstanding, and when you combine them with his numbers from last year he still stacked up well compared to most running backs over two- and three-year spans, which were the time periods I tried to focus on.”
Jones, 32, and LaDainian Tomlinson, 31, were the oldest backs to draw votes. Seifert placed Tomlinson 10th.
Otherwise the panel leaned to youth.
Among the 12 backs who made our top 10 list, based on ties, Michael Turner (29), Steven Jackson (27) and Frank Gore (27) rank as the old men. The other nine are 25 or younger.
Turner edged Jackson for sixth, making every ballot. AFC East blogger Tim Graham didn’t include Jackson in his voting.
“I couldn't bring myself to vote for Jackson because he averaged only 3.8 yards a carry, scored six touchdowns and had little impact in the passing game,” Graham said.
Ray Rice has a big cushion for eighth while Rashard Mendenhall finished ninth, with two seventh-place votes but three voters not including him.
Gore, LeSean McCoy and Darren McFadden finished tied for 10th, while Jones, Peyton Hillis and Tomlinson got votes but didn’t make the final list.
I found it tough to pass on Gore, but he played in only 11 games in 2010 before landing on IR with a hip injury. There was such stiff competition, so I leaned on guys who were more durable.
“Gore has certainly played at a high level longer than Rice, Turner or McFadden,” NFC West blogger Mike Sando said. “He's produced across systems for a team that has had a different offensive coordinator every season of his career.
“He's never had a quarterback to take pressure off him. Defenses have known what was coming, and Gore has kept coming anyway. It's bitten into his production and taken a toll on his body, but he has produced.”