This year’s draft saw the first running backs picked in the opening round since 2012, and with Todd Gurley’s impressive return from a knee injury at Georgia, along with the likes of Leonard Fournette tearing defenses asunder in college, the day of the “bell cow” running back may return in the near future.
However, for the time being, the lie of the land in the NFL—and the preferred approach for the majority of teams—is to work a tandem or a committee of backs through their backfield to make the most of a skill set of a number of running backs, hoping to best aid the offense in all phases of the game.
So, taking our all new player ratings tool in hand, here is a look—not at the top five running backs in the NFL—but at the top five running back tandems in the league, the backfields that get the best use from a pair of running backs to drive their offense from the backfield.
Le’Veon Bell (95.3) and DeAngelo Williams (72.9)
The Steelers' backfield is led by our highest graded running back (Bell), but Pittsburgh has shown the value of having a quality backup running back, even when you have a dominant ball carrier. Suspended for the first two games, Bell was deputized by the veteran Williams, who broke eight tackles and collected close to 4 yards per carry in a losing effort against the Patriots in Week 1, while racking up three touchdowns in the Steelers' first win the following week against the 49ers. Since Bell’s return, Williams has played a mere 32 snaps in five games but Pittsburgh has the confidence that should Bell be unavailable at any point in the future, they have a quality replacement waiting in the wings.
Doug Martin (91.9) and Charles Sims (76.2)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers boast a more conventional tandem and committee in the backfield, with Martin and Sims splitting a combined 400 snaps almost evenly (220 for Martin, 180 for Sims). After seven weeks, both Tampa Bay running backs sit inside our top 20 graded running backs, in a spectacular reversal of their 2014 form. Leading as the runner of the tandem, Martin has broken 24 tackles, which is a mark bettered by only Carlos Hyde (32) and Jonathan Stewart (24). Meanwhile, in the passing game, Sims lies sixth in receiving yards among running backs on only 16 receptions, and has broken 11 tackles on 47 carries. Few would have picked this tandem to rank so high two months ago.
Marshawn Lynch (85.8) and Thomas Rawls (75.2)
Everybody knows about Lynch, and when he’s been healthy, he has once again been his tackle-breaking, offensive line-defying self. On 82 carries this season, he has broken 18 tackles and is gaining 2.5 of his 3.8 yards per carry average after first contact. The surprise in this tandem is Rawls, an undrafted free agent from Central Michigan, where he finished the 2014 season as our second-highest graded running back behind Toledo’s Kareem Hunt—in spite of only playing in nine games (34 missed tackles forced). In three spot starts for Lynch from Week 3 to Week 5 he earned a positive overall grade in each game, trailing only Le’Veon Bell in terms of rushing grade during that span.
Giovani Bernard (79.8) and Jeremy Hill (73.7)
Of this top five, the Bengals’ duo is the truest of the classic “thunder and lightning” combination, with the downhill running power of Hill blended superbly with the open field ability of Bernard in the Bengals’ backfield. While Bernard plays nearly 60 percent of his snaps on passing downs, Hill plays more on running downs; both are able to contribute on running or pass downs, such that neither being in the game is a prohibitive tell of the play call. Hill has been somewhat of a “feast or famine” performer this season, but at his best, brings a physical edge to the Bengals' ground game that Bernard cannot. Bernard, meanwhile brings the explosive threat, with gains of 15 yards or more in every single game so far this season, forcing a combined 22 missed tackles.
Todd Gurley (78.0) and Benny Cunningham (73.1)
St. Louis Rams
The Rams have thrown “draft capital” at the running back position in recent years, but finally have their top running back in Gurley. However, in easing him back into the action after his knee injury, they have also unearthed Benny Cunningham, who has impressed against the Seahawks and Packers, in particular, so far this season with his work in the passing game. Cunningham has broken 16 tackles on 40 touches this year, flying under the radar as a valuable safety valve for Gurley to ensure the rookie is not overworked on his return to the field. Gurley has rattled off three straight 125+ yard games, breaking 10 tackles to claim a spot in our of Team of Week 7. This is a tandem on the rise that could move up this list throughout this season—and beyond.