Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell

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Silverman: Bell, Elliott, Gurley Rank At Top Of NFL's Running Back Ladder

Steve Silverman
August 05, 2018 - 2:16 pm
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The running back position has been undergoing a transition for nearly 20 years. The position, which was once the key for both producing offensively and keeping a defense fresh, became less important as quarterbacks and receivers had the ability to light up the scoreboard on an every-game basis.

As that happened, running backs saw their impact on the game plan diminish, as coaches used them learly in short-yardage situations, near the goal line and in the fourth quarter with the lead to run out the clock. However, their status as the primary way to move the ball up and down the field all but disappeared.

In the early part of the decade, the situation started to turn around, as general managers and coaches started to remember how valuable and explosive the top running backs could be to the game plan. Coaches wanted running backs who could make explosive plays as runners or pass catchers, and a number of those backs have helped reinvigorate the position.

Here’s my look at the top running backs in the game. While past performance plays a key role in these rankings, projected production this upcoming season is also factored in.

1. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers

Yes, I understand Bell is going through yet another holdout, but I don’t think that will have an impact on his season-long production. I expect him to report by Sept. 1, and while he may not be at his best in the season opener at Cleveland, he should be ready to roll the following week against the Chiefs.

MORE: Silverman: Brady, Rodgers and Wentz Head List Of Top QBs 

Bell’s hesitation style of running works because he is in sync the with the Steelers’ offensive line, as he gives his blockers a chance to impose their will before he chooses the correct hole to run. This allowed Bell to run for 1,291 yards and nine touchdowns and catch 85 passes for 655 yards and two TDs last season.

Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin depends on Bell for his high level of production and his ability to make big plays. The Steelers have the top RB-WR combination in the league with Bell and Antonio Brown, and that will not change this season.

2. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

Elliott may be more responsible for upgrading the image of running backs than any other player in the league. The Cowboys selected him with the fourth overall pick in the 2016 draft, ending a yearslong drought of seeing a running back picked so highly.

Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott
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Elliott came through with a league-leading 1,361 yards plus 15 touchdowns as a rookie, and his second year might have been even better if he had not been hit with a six-game suspension based on personal conduct. He ran for 983 yards and seven TDs in just 10 games. At 6 feet, 225 pounds, the former Ohio State star runs with both power and speed, and he has not suffered any kind of serious injury in his first two years in the league.

If he avoids trouble, Elliott is one of the game’s elite players.

3. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams

Many publications have moved Gurley to the head of the running back class after a sensational 2017 season that saw him rush for 1,305 yards and add another 788 yards as a receiver. He thrived in coach Sean McVay’s offense, and there’s no reason to think he won’t produce at a similar level or better this season.

Gurley has a nose for the end zone, scoring a league-leading 19 touchdowns in 2017, and McVay believes there is “no limit” to what the running back can do in the upcoming season. Gurley should be a dominant player again in 2018, and if he can prove to be as tough as Bell or Elliott, the Rams could be a powerhouse team this season.

4. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals

After dislocating his left wrist in the season opener last year, Johnson never played another down all season, and the Cardinals scrambled to play competitive football without him. The team he comes back to in 2018 looks much different than the one he left. The Cardinals have a new coach in Steve Wilks, a new quarterback in Sam Bradford -- with rookie Josh Rosen waiting in the wings -- and a new outlook.

Johnson is the fastest of all the elite running backs, and he is nearly as good a receiver as he is a running back. Johnson carried 293 times for 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2016, and he caught 80 passes for 879 yards and four TD as a receiver. He is expecting to have at least 1,000 yards as a runner and a receiver, and he should be able to meet those goals as long as he stays healthy.

5. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

In addition to being a dominant force in the game plan during his final year at Penn State, Barkley was a sensational citizen who took a lead role in the locker room. He should be able to do the same thing even though he is a rookie with the Giants.

Barkley was the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, and that tells you what the Giants and the rest of the league think of him. The only thing that can stop him or slow him down will be injuries, and coach Pat Shurmur has already decided to lessen his load in training camp to allow him to be at his best during the regular season.

Barkley should have at least 350 touches as a rookie, and his explosive athleticism, combined with his football skills and IQ, should allow the Giants to make a dramatic improvement with their running game and perhaps launch the team into a position where it can make a run at a playoff spot.

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