When was the last time an Arizona Cardinal definitively held the title "Best Running Back in the NFC West"? It's been a while.
The most recently it was even a debate was in 2007, when Edgerrin James had the second most carries of any back in the NFL. He racked up 1,222 yards and seven touchdowns on 324 attempts for the Cards that year.
Steven Jackson and Frank Gore were each 24 years old at the time. Both young RBs cracked 1,000 yards that season, and each at a higher yards per attempt clip than James. Gore actually outdid James in terms of total yards, but James led the group in total touchdowns. Not by much though. The three backs were actually very close.
The next season, Jackson and Gore took the Best RB in the NFC West mantle and passed it back and forth for a few years until Marshawn Lynch landed in Seattle. Beast Mode was the best out west for the remainder of his time with the Seahawks.
The timeline looks something like this:
Best Running Backs in the NFC West (by Year)
2007: Edgerrin James (Cardinals), Steven Jackson (Rams), Frank Gore (49ers)
2008: Jackson (Rams), Gore (49ers)
2009: Jackson (Rams), Gore (49ers)
2010: Marshawn Lynch (Seahawks)
2011: Lynch (Seahawks)
2012: Lynch (Seahawks)
2013: Lynch (Seahawks)
2014: Lynch (Seahawks)
2015: Todd Gurley (Rams), David Johnson (Cardinals)
2016: Johnson (Cardinals)
Lynch's final year in Seattle created a bit of a power vacuum in the NFC West. All four teams were led by new RBs by the end of the 2015 season, and three of those new RBs were rookies: the Rams had Todd Gurley, the Seahawks had Thomas Rawls, and the Cardinals had Johnson.
Gurley earned a Pro Bowl nod after he was the only NFC West RB to rack up more than 1,000 yards on the ground. He led the division with 10 rushing touchdowns as well.
Johnson put together an impressive rookie season of his own. He actually scored two more total touchdowns than Gurley in 2015, with five on the ground and seven through the air. Very nearly half of his 1,038 yards from scrimmage came in the pass game as well.
Last season Johnson ran away with the title. Literally and figuratively.
The Arizona stud was the fifth running back to earn first team All-Pro recognition in his second year in the league since 2000, along with Le'Veon Bell in 2014, Arian Foster in 2010, Chris Johnson in 2009, and and Adrian Peterson in 2008. A pretty impressive list.
Coming into the 2017 season, Johnson has to be considered the top back in the division and conference. He might also be the best running back in the league, depending on how you feel about Le'Veon Bell.
But what about the rest of the conference? Which of the Seahawks' backs will lead that group? What about Carlos Hyde in San Francisco? Let's break down the top five RBs in the NFC West.[divider]
Top 5 Running Backs in the NFC West
5. Thomas Rawls, Seattle Seahawks
This was the hardest decision in the top five. If Rawls had zero injury concerns, he might be higher on this list. If Tim Hightower were a year younger, Rawls wouldn't be on this list at all.
The craziest part? Even if he stays healthy, Rawls probably won't even be the second most productive running back on his own team. Eddie Lacy will get the first crack at starer carries and CJ Prosise has proven himself a legitimate threat in the passing game. But based on talent alone? Rawls belongs on this list.
He was an absolute wrecking ball in his first year with the team (albeit a small one at 5-foot-10, 217 pounds). He led the league in yards per carry in his first season: 5.6 on 147 attempts. Then he destroyed his ankle. He wasn't the same last season.
After another full year of recovery, maybe he can get back to some of the magic we saw in year one and move up this list.
4. Eddie Lacy, Seattle Seahawks
Feast Mode is here.
Eddie Lacy joined the Seahawks in free agency this offseason, signing a one-year, $4.25 million deal to prove his worth and leverage a bigger contract a year from now. Only $2.9 million of the deal is guaranteed money though. Nearly $400k of his deal is tied up in weight bonuses.
Eddie Lacy's weight incentives breakdown ($55k for each month achieved)
May: 255 lbs
June & August: 250 lbs
September-December: 245 lbs
If he hits those targets and can return to the form we saw from him early in his career, he's a Pro Bowl-caliber back. Seattle has nine running backs on their roster as of this writing. Lacy is the best of them. If he can come back from the high ankle sprain that held him out most of last season, don't be surprised to see the Hawks make some cuts early in the season.
Carlos Hyde was a bright spot in an otherwise very dreary 2016 season in San Francisco. His nine total TDs were the 12th most among running backs, and his 1,151 total yards from scrimmage were the 17th most of any running back in the league. So it wasn't a SUPER bright spot, but it was solid production for an otherwise offensively-challenged team.
Don't be surprised to see Hyde drop on this list by the end of the season, if Lacy is healthy or if Rawls comes back to form.
2. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
Gurley came out HOT as a rookie in 2015. He didn't start a game until Week 4, but still finished the season as the conference leader in rush attempts (229), rushing yards (1,106), rushing TDs (10), and yards from scrimmage (1,294). He earned a Pro Bowl nod for his effort.
Last season, he was the top running back selected in many fantasy football drafts. But he didn't exactly live up to that status. He put up a respectable 884 yards and six scores on the ground, but his yards per carry average dropped from 4.8 in year one to 3.2 in year two. Not great.
The biggest reason for this decline was Gurley's lack of explosive plays. He was the king of the home run ball as a rookie. Seventeen of his his 232 rush attempts went for at least 15 yards in 2015, and he took six of them at least 40 yards. Last year? Gurley's longest carry of the season was 24 yards, and just seven of his 278 rush attempts went for at least 15 yards.
Even after the down year, Gurley is without a doubt the second best running back in the conference.
1. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
Johnson amassed 2,118 yards and 20 touchdowns from scrimmage last season — both the best in the NFL, and both Cardinals records. He had the seventh most rushing yards in the league, and the 38th most receiving yards as well. He was outstanding.
As we discussed above, Johnson is the best back in the NFC and the best back in the NFL not named Le'Veon Bell. His combination of speed and power is rare, and his route-running/pass-catching ability out of the backfield might be unique in NFL history.
It will be exciting to see how Johnson handles himself coming off an All-Pro second season.
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