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Ranking the North: Running Backs

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No other division in football prides itself on physical play, defense and the running game like the AFC North. When the dust settles in 2015, the running game may very well be what determines the winner in this Black and Blue division.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

No other division in football features the talent (and youth) at the running back position which the AFC North features, and in a physical division like the North, the running back position could very well determine who walks away with the AFC North crown in 2015. We rank where each team in the division stands when it comes to the running backs on their respective rosters.

1) Bengals

Likely Depth Chart: RB: Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard, Rex Burkhead, Cedric Peerman/James Wilder, Jr.; FB:  Ryan Hewitt

I can already hear the Steelers fans crying "homer" on this pick, but there is no homerism here whatsoever. I believe Jeremy Hill and Le'Veon Bell are both great backs and both have a legitimate claim for the best back in the division - if not all of football. However, the Bengals get the nod at the running back position for two reasons:

  1. Hill did not start until mid-season, and once he became the starter, he led all running backs in the NFL in not only yards, but yards per carry as well. In the last nine games of the season (playoffs excluded), Hill had 929 yards, 7 touchdowns and averaged 5.4 YPC; compared to Bell's numbers over the last nine games of 762 yards, 7 touchdowns and an average of 4.4 YPC.
  2. The running back depth chart. This isn't just a ranking of the starting backs. These rankings take into account the backups as well. The Bengals backup is Giovani Bernard, a third year player who will be a huge contributor in the passing game and would be the starting back on many other teams. Meanwhile, the Steelers backup is a 32-year-old running back coming off an injury plagued season. While Williams does not have the wear and tear of most 32-year-old running backs (1,432 attempts in 9 seasons), he is coming off a season with a career low in games played (6), yards rushing (219), YPC (3.5), receptions (5), receiving yards (44) and touchdowns (0). In fact, the Bengals second, third and fourth string running backs are all likely better than Williams at this point in his career.

2) Steelers

Likely Depth Chart: RB: Le'Veon Bell, Deangelo Williams, Dri Archer, Josh Harris; FB:  Will Johnson

As I mentioned above, Le'Veon Bell has a legitimate argument for being the best (and most complete) back in the NFL and is coming off a season of 2,000+ all-purpose yards. However, Bell will be watching the first two games of the season from the comfort of his own home and the Steelers top three backups combined for 81 carries and 275 yards in 2014. Should Williams get injured, or prove ineffective in the first three games of the season, the Steelers do not have a typical "Bell Cow" type back behind him. Dri Archer, while lightning fast, stands just 5'8" and 173 pounds - both fairly generous listings - and cannot take the beating of a starting running back in the NFL. And, Josh Harris, while bigger (5'11", 210 pounds), doesn't have the size or speed for a starting NFL back either.

3) Browns

Likely Depth Chart: RB: Isaiah Crowell, Terrance West, Duke Johnson (R), Shaun Draughn; FB:  Malcolm Johnson

The Browns' backfield is loaded with youth and potential, but short on experience. Last offseason, the Browns signed veteran running back Ben Tate to a two year $6.2 million dollar deal. Eight games into his deal, the Browns felt comfortable enough with a pair of small school rookies (Crowell and West) to let Tate walk. While Crowell and West had solid rookie campaigns and combined for nearly 1,300 yards, neither established themselves as a full-time back, and as a result, the Browns took Duke Johnson in the third round of the 2015 draft.

Johnson is a talented and quick back out of Miami and left the storied program as their all-time leading rusher - an impressive accomplishment for a program that has seen the likes of Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee, Otis Anderson and Frank Gore. Johnson is a smaller back (5'9" 207 pounds), but has drawn comparisons to Giovani Bernard and Justin Forsett, two other impressive AFC North backs. If Johnson can prove he can pass protect at the NFL level, he will likely catapult himself to the top of this young depth chart before the 2015 season ends.

4) Ravens

Likely Depth Chart: RB: Justin Forsett, Lorenzo Taliaferro, Buck Allen (R), Terrence Magee (R); FB:  Kyle Juszczyk, Kiero Small

After five seasons of limited playing time in Seattle, Houston and Jacksonville, Forsett was looking at another season of limited touches behind Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. Then, Rice threw a haymaker on his wife in a casino elevator, Pierce proved ineffective and Forsett was the benefactor, finally getting a chance to be the lead back. To say Forsett took advantage of his opportunity would be an understatement. In his first five seasons combined, Forsett had 347 carries, 1,692 yards and 8 touchdowns. In 2014 Forsett nearly doubled the stats on the back of his football card, compiling 235 carries, 1,266 yards and 8 touchdowns to go with 44 receptions and 263 receiving yards. It is safe to say Forsett was a pleasant surprise for the 2014 Baltimore Ravens and likely the reason the Ravens were able to salvage a good season after a train wreck of an offseason. Forsett's impressive performance earned him a three year extension with the Ravens worth $9 million. The big question with Forsett is can he duplicate his 2014 performance? At 5'8" and 195 pounds, Forsett's durability will be a concern, especially given the fact that he will turn 30 one month into the season. While Forsett does not have the normal mileage of a 30-year-old running back (582 rushes), time is not kind to NFL running backs once they cross into their 30's. Should Forsett go down in 2015, the Ravens run game will be in trouble.

The Ravens running back depth chart is a compilation of young players, featuring a combined grand total of 68 NFL carries...all of which belong to Lorenzo Taliaferro. Who is Lorenzo Taliaferro you ask? My point exactly. Taliaferro is a second year player with good size (6'0", 225 pounds). Behind Taliaferro is a fourth round running back from USC, Javorius "Buck" Allen and an undrafted rookie (Terrence Magee) from LSU. The questions surrounding the Ravens' backfield are what makes this group the weakest in the AFC North.

Thoughts from the AFC North SB Nation bloggers:

Chris Pokorny (@DawgsByNature), Dawgs By Nature

Plenty of youth and potential, but will the team be able to commit to one player as the featured back or will the week-to-week changes continue (which possibly disrupts chemistry)?

Matthew Stevens (@MatthewS_balt), Baltimore Beatdown (@BMoreBeatdown)

The Ravens have a solid rushing attack, but I wonder how much of that is due to Forsett's experience and skillset rather than arguably the best offensive line in the NFL. However, a 5.4 yard per carry average is tops in the NFL for a reason. Yet again, I have to rank the Steelers' Le'Veon Bell as the top AFC North rusher simply because of his ability out of the backfield as a pass catcher and for his youth. Jeremy Hill is closing in quickly on Forsett as well, but the journeyman running back holds off the Bengals running back for another season.

Jeff Hartman (@BnGBlitz), Behind the Steel Curtain (@btsteelcurtain)

Pittsburgh possesses the most versatile and dynamic running back in the NFL. Le'Veon Bell's ability to run between the tackles, have the speed to gain the edge as well as his tremendous blocking and pass catching skills makes him a do-it-all back.