Now it’s the turn of the running backs in the NFC South. Once again the division throws up a great power rankings battle with three teams holding arguably a top ten runner back on their roster. So lets get right into it, are we in for another surprise or can Carolina hold onto the top spot?
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After impressing with their Tight Ends, the Bucs come back to earth with a bump when we look at their backfield, as they ranked 29th with just over 1500 yards on the ground. Peyton Barber leads the line with 1500 yards over three seasons in Tampa, averaging 3.8 yards per carry. To be fair, the Auburn alum only had 163 carries over his first two seasons and doubled his career bests with 871 yards from 234 attempts in 2018 though. Will he be a true workhorse under Arians? Ronald Jones played half a season as a rookie a year ago and managed only 44 yards with fewer than 1.9 yards per rush and beyond that there is even less depth with rookie Bruce Anderson and a couple of special teamers. Barring a superstar breakout by Barber, the Bucs will need to be very pass heavy again in 2019.
3. Atlanta Falcons
Some things in life are inevitable, and the Falcons being third in these power rankings is one of them. It’s a shame that this talented backfield was only good enough for third on this list but it shows the talent higher up the list. That said, they managed only 27th in the rushing table with 1573 yards in; Ito Smith was serviceable deputising for Devonta Freeman but Atlanta did miss their bellcow. Freeman rushed for exactly 3000 yards over three seasons before having only 14 rushes in 2018, playing in week 1 and 5 before being shut down with injury. With 4.3 yards per carry, Freeman is a threat in the backfield and the Falcons will hope he can work with sophomore Ito Smith, who managed 315 yards as a rookie at an average of 3.5 yards per attempt to form a pounding backfield. Veteran Kenjon Barner and rookie Qadree Ollison add some depth to the backfield but the Falcons will be praying for better injury luck in 2019.
2. Carolina Panthers
Christian McCaffrey doesn’t deserve to be number two on this list but the depth of the Saints drops the Panthers backfield to the 2 spot. McCaffrey ended last season with 1965 scrimmage yards as the Panthers all purpose back, giving them a lot of flexibility with rush/pass looks. The Stanford alum even averaged 5 yards a carry and has averaged 8.1 yards per reception over his career and even added 13 touchdowns in 2018, despite the Panthers using Newton around the goal line. Now McCaffrey has bulked up to improve his effectiveness between the tackles and if he can keep his elusiveness, he will be an even bigger threat against anyone. The Panthers have added depth in rookies Jordan Scarlett and Elijah Holyfield, though the number two option is Cameron Artis-Payne, who adds a blocking option and averages over 100
1. New Orleans Saints
The Saints seem to have realised the importance of having a strong running game to protect Drew Brees in his final few years. Despite losing Mark Ingram to the Ravens in free agency, they are still a strong unit, even if they have lost a tiny edge. New Orleans rushed for 2025 yards a year ago, good enough for sixth in the league, and while the Panthers topped that, they had the advantage of Cam Newton as a running threat and the 488 yards he contributed – this list is about running backs, not the running game as a whole. But the difference between one and two on this list is razor thin. Alvin Kamara added 150 yards to his 2017 rushing total, rushing for 883 yards, helped by Ingram’s four game suspension, although he did end up with fewer receiving yards and lower yards per attempt in running and receiving as teams gameplan against him. Regardless, Kamara has contributed well over 3000 yards in his first two seasons in the NFL and had a whopping 18 TDs last year, 14 on the ground. If Kamara v McCaffrey is a dead heat, he Saints edge it with their depth, with Ingram being replaced by Latavius Murray, who will be the power back threat, good for 500-750 yards a season, and Buck Allen adding another threat.
This was a very tough call for number one between the Saints and Panthers but it is an example of how tight it has been in terms of pure ability between these two teams.
Here’s how they stand so far (average score over all categories in brackets).
Photo: Kelsey Riggs / Twitter