Ranking the NFL's deepest backfields
By Marc Sessler
In May, Around The League's Dan Hanzus took a look at the NFL's top running backs, an exercise he affectionately titled "Adrian Peterson, then everyone else."
Peterson reigns as king, but outside of Toby Gerhart, it would be a stretch to call Minnesota's backfield especially deep. The Vikings are a one-man show, but most teams around the league have chosen to build the ground game around multiple ball carriers, putting an emphasis on depth.
With that in mind, here's my list of the NFL's deepest backfields heading into training camp:
1. San Francisco 49ers (Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, Anthony Dixon, Jewel Hampton,
Gore at age 30 remains highly productive, but the 49ers have planned for his eventual departure with a packed stable of backs. Hunter is coming off Achilles surgery but remains a strong bet to keep the No. 2 spot if he's healthy come September. James completes coordinator Greg Roman's three-headed monster in the backfield. Dixon is a possible cut amid reports the 49ers "really like" Hampton.
Then there's Lattimore, who looms as Gore's potential replacement if he makes it back from knee surgery.
2. Seattle Seahawks (Marshawn Lynch, Robert Turbin, Christine Michael, Derrick Coleman)
Lynch was the NFL's second-best runner behind Peterson last season. Like the 49ers, Pete Carroll's Seahawks have used the past two drafts to stock the shelves with physical young runners. Turbin was valuable spelling Lynch last season and should hold onto the No. 2 job. Running backs coach Sherman Smith said in June that Michael will have to earn his carries as a rookie, but he's going to win people over with his battering-ram style of play.
3. Baltimore Ravens (Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce, Anthony Allen, Bobby Rainey, Damien Berry)
Like Gore and Lynch, Rice is another workhorse back who has carried the load for years. We tabbed Pierce to make the leap this season and move into more of a split-duty role with Rice. Pierce's workload increased as last season wore on, and the Ravens leaned hard on his downhill, tackle-shedding style in the playoffs. Rice is still the main dish, but Pierce makes this ground game a versatile beast.
4. Houston Texans (Arian Foster, Ben Tate, Deji Karim, Ray Graham, Cierre Wood)
If Tate could stay healthy, I'd be tempted to rank the Texans above the Ravens. The fourth-year pro struggled with injuries last season, but coach Gary Kubiak said Tate had a "really good" offseason. Foster is the unquestioned centerpiece here, with a league-leading 1,115 touches over the past three seasons. The Texans don't use Tate consistently enough to call this a committee approach, but both runners have been sensational in spots. We expect Houston to again crush teams on the ground.
5. Philadelphia Eagles (LeSean McCoy, Bryce Brown, Felix Jones, Chris Polk, Matthew Tucker)
Gregg Rosenthal likes the Eagles' backfield more than I do, but nobody's debating McCoy's value. He's arguably a top-five back and should enjoy a bounce-back season in Chip Kelly's run-heavy attack. Brown's four fumbles in four starts were an issue, but he was explosive when he wanted to be. Add Jones to the mix, and all three runners should see work in 2013.
6. New Orleans Saints (Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram, Travaris Cadet,
Trading Chris Ivory to the New York Jets was addition by subtraction for the Saints. This was a crowded house last season, but Thomas is in position to have a productive year alongside Ingram. After the Saints finished 25th on the ground in 2012, coach Sean Payton told the team "we've got to get back to running the ball, having 100-yard games nonstop," according to Thomas. Sproles, meanwhile, gives Drew Brees one of the league's most dangerous, pass-catching X-factors out of the backfield.
7. New England Patriots (Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Leon Washington, LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden)
Ridley's 1,263 yards and 12 scores didn't receive enough fanfare last season. He was an effective tackle-shedder and entered the offseason program "looking like a house." Ridley is the unquestioned starter here, especially with Vereen being used as a wide receiver in spring practices. Bolden is a punishing runner bound to improve upon his 56 carries as a rookie. Blount is fighting for a roster spot, while Washington remains dangerous as a return man.
8. Carolina Panthers (Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert, Kenjon Barner,
Armond Smith, Tauren Poole)
Question marks abound. Stewart's ankle problems make him a shaky proposition heading into camp. If healthy, he'll start over Williams, who turned 30 in April and hasn't crossed the 1,000-yard mark since 2009. Carolina makes this list because of quarterback Cam Newton. Teams must prepare for him like a running back, and his 1,447 rushing yards over two seasons are no fluke. Tolbert is a versatile fullback who can carry the ball. Barner, Smith and Poole will compete for snaps, and someone from this group could emerge if Stewart and Williams are hobbled.
[B]Honorable mentions: Atlanta Falcons, Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos[/B