Plumbing the NFC North Depths: Running Back and Fullback

Yeah, that guy's a Bear. How does he help the Bears stack up against the division's running backs?

Yesterday, we looked at the wide receivers and tight ends throughout the division, and corrected a couple errors that I made in misclassifying a receiver or two for Green Bay. Tonight, we'll turn our attention to the running backs and fullbacks.

Bears
2011:
Matt Forte, Marion Barber, Kahlil Bell, Armando Allen / Tyler Clutts, Kyle Adams
2012: Matt Forte, Michael Bush, Kahlil Bell, Armando Allen / Tyler Clutts, Kyle Adams

Obviously this is presuming the signing of Matt Forte to either his franchise tender or some other deal, but even without that, Michael Bush is still a solid back, at this point a better version of Marion Barber with much less mileage. Bell performed pretty well when called upon, and Armando Allen also played well for a fourth running back. And, well, we know what Matt Forte is. Clutts displayed some decent blocking ability and the occasional soft hands, especially for an undrafted player in 2008.

Lions
2011:
Mikel Leshoure (injured), Jahvid Best (injured), Kevin Smith, Keiland Williams, Maurice Morris, Jerome Harrison / TE Will Heller
2012: Jahvid Best, Mikel Leshoure, Kevin Smith, Keiland Williams / James Bryant

If there's a team that knows about running back depth, this is it. They lost their top two backs to injury (Leshoure's Achilles and Best's concussions), lost Harrison after a failed physical found a brain tumor that voided a trade to the Eagles (for Ronnie Brown) and potentially saved his life, and had to ride out the season with re-signing former draft pick Kevin Smith and playing Keiland Williams and Maurice Morris. They hope they won't have to rely on the same crew, but Best is in a bit of jeopardy with all his concussion issues and who knows how Leshoure will take his first NFL carries.

At the fullback position, they signed James Bryant from the CFL, but since they don't use one much, Heller might moonlight again as the fullback.

Vikings
2011:
Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart, Lorenzo Booker / Ryan D'Imperio
2012: Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart, Lex HIlliard, Jordan Todman / Jerome Felton, Ryan D'Imperio

The Vikings stack first-round picks at the running back position, and one of them is in the conversation as arguably the best running back in the NFL, though Peterson will be coming off an injury. Gerhart filled in adequately, but he'll need to take a next step in the coming year. That's pretty much what matters for the Vikings - the fall-off is pretty steep after that.

D'Imperio worked out okay last year, but the Vikings picked up Jerome Felton in the offseason, who was passed around from the Panthers to the Colts last year and now to the Vikings.

Packers:
2011:
Ryan Grant, James Starks, Alex Green, Brandon Saine / John Kuhn
2012: James Starks, Alex Green, Brandon Saine / John Kuhn

Yeah, I botched up Saine in the receivers piece, but he really is a running back. But if he's a significant piece in the Packers' future, something happened here. And the Pack no longer has Ryan Grant, electing instead to go with James Starks as their feature back and hoping Alex Green can pick up more than the three carries and one reception he got last year. Starks hasn't been bad, but so far he hasn't taken a full season load - given the system Green Bay runs, it's not likely he'll have to.

As far as KUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUHN goes, the only thing more annoying than his short-yardage pounding is that crowd-call any time he touches the ball. But there's a reason he's picked up eight touchdowns in the last two seasons and last year made a Pro Bowl as a fullback - he does the little things well and chips in carrying the ball himself.

So as far as ordering this unit... I'd say for once the Packers rate at 4 - though their offense doesn't suffer for it because the passing game is just so good. I'll put the Lions at 3, because between their top two combining to miss 26 games last season, do they really know what they have there? And will Best even be able to come back this season with his concussions?

Then it becomes a tossup between the Vikings and the Bears for 1 and 2... And it's really close, because the Bears have a deeper, more proven top 3 and top 4, but the Vikings have a pair of first rounders at the position, one of whom is arguably the best running backs in the NFL. Forte may be a better receiver than Peterson and makes up much of the difference between the pair's rushing with his receiving, but Peterson's never had a year of less than 10 touchdowns rushing, never had less than a 4.4 yards-per-attempt.

I'll take the Vikings at 1 and the Bears at 2 (reeeeeeeeeeeeeally close) for this reason: while Forte and Peterson both played in the same amount of games this year and Forte outdueled him in total yards from scrimmage, I don't see how one can pick against a guy who did some really ridiculous things in his career (almost 1300 yards in four straight seasons, 2010 had 1298 yards) and, approaching his age 27 season, will still be the same age as Matt Forte, and thus, at this point I think it's fair to overlook the one year where Forte had more yards from scrimmage. Peterson does have an additional year of NFL carries that Forte doesn't (Peterson declared for the draft his junior year), I will admit. (Forte did play his senior year at Tulane, so it's not so much of a difference, as he had 361 carries and 32 receptions his senior year - Forte has 2,173 total NCAA and NFL touches compared to Peterson's 2,314.) But Gerhart was a first-rounder for a reason, and should be able to keep Peterson fresher as they continue to push along the painfully slow quarterback development plan. Forte's been great the last two years, and Bush will be a solid complement, but I'm just not sure if that tandem (plus Kahlil Bell) is greater than the Peterson/Gerhart tandem.

What do you guys see out of the division running backs?

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