Ranking the running backs

May, 16, 2011
5/16/11
11:00
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This is the second in our series of position-by-position rankings. It is a little different this season because we’re ranking the players before free agency starts and before rosters are set. We will adjust accordingly as we go along. Onto a strong running back group:

1. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City: Charles is one of the best running backs in the NFL. He is explosive and his statistics are eye popping. Give him the ball twice and you get a first down. He is fun to watch and he’s a credit to the division.

2. Darren McFadden, Oakland: It was great to see McFadden put it together in 2010, after two injury-filled seasons. His durability still worries me, but McFadden developed into an inside and outside threat in 2010. Like Charles, McFadden is a joy to watch.

3. Ryan Mathews, San Diego: This is a bit of a projection and I’m giving him the nod over Michael Bush and Thomas Jones because he is his team’s starter. Mathews has to stay healthy and he has to control his fumbling issues. But when he played as a rookie in 2010, Mathews showed flashes of being an excellent player.

4. Michael Bush, Oakland: I’m going with Bush over Thomas because I think he’ll have a better year in 2011. Bush is younger and he is effective paired with McFadden. Oakland has to hope that he is not a free agent when the lockout ends. He’d be popular on the open market.

5. Thomas Jones, Kansas City: Jones will be 33 and this is likely his last season in Kansas City. He can still be effective in the Chiefs’ strong offense. He’s a pounder and a team player.

6. Mike Tolbert, San Diego: I think this guy is one of the most underrated players in the division. He is a human bowling ball and he can tear through defenses. A Mathews-Tolbert pairing is pretty strong.

7. Darren Sproles, San Diego: I don’t expect Sproles to be around much longer. He is a free agent and he will test the market. But he’s in the division now and he’s got value, so he belongs on this list.

8. Knowshon Moreno, Denver: Frankly, Moreno hasn’t done much to impress me. He has some ability, but he has to stay healthy and start living up to being the No. 12 overall pick of the 2009 draft.

9. Marcel Reece, Oakland: The fullback position is dying in the NFL. Yet, I’m a big fan of Reece and he’s a key part of Oakland’s offensive success. He’s a multi-faceted player and he belongs in this group because of his blocking and receiving abilities.

Bill Williamson | email

ESPN San Francisco 49ers reporter

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