Like at the quarterback position, the AFC North is very strong at running back — which is critical for teams looking to make a deep playoff run. And while most teams in the AFC North have talent at the top, they also have depth behind the starters. In fact, the division might be the NFL’s best when it comes to the running back position. Let’s get into the rankings.
1. Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals
If these rankings were based on potential and not on year-to-year production, Pittsburgh would be above Cincinnati. But that’s not the case, as the Bengals’ running backs — even in a down year for Hill last season — still out-produced Pittsburgh’s. Cincinnati’s running back duo has only missed three regular season games over the past two years; Pittsburgh’s has missed 10.
Hill’s 20 rushing touchdowns over the past two seasons lead the NFL, and he did this despite not even becoming the Bengals’ starter until halfway through the 2014 season. Hill has looked fantastic during the preseason; he’s more decisive, quicker and more elusive. On top of that, he has excelled running out of shotgun, which will be huge for Cincinnati if Ken Zampese doesn’t deviate from what was a shotgun-heavy offense in 2015. Fresh off an offseason extension, Bernard is the NFL’s best situational back and would be more than capable of starting for several NFL teams.
2. Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, Pittsburgh Steelers
On paper, the Steelers have what looks like the best running back situation in the AFC North and quite possibly the entire NFL. However, the game of football is not played on paper. Bell, at his best, is the best running back in the NFL, but the back’s upright running style leaves him very susceptible to injury. There’s also the issue with his suspension heading into the 2016 season; Bell will miss three games due to suspension to begin the year, which will leave Pittsburgh with its number two and three running backs leading the charge.
And that’s where Williams comes in. Pittsburgh’s signing of the former Panthers running back was one of the best moves of the 2015 offseason, as the back was excellent throughout his first year in the Steel City. But as good he is, Williams is on the wrong side of 30 and coming off a season which will more than likely be an aberration. It’s incredibly difficult for me to peg Pittsburgh down to number two on these rankings — and I feel like a homer in doing so — but the Bengals currently have the better situation of the two teams heading into 2016. At best, Pittsburgh will get 13 games out of its starting running back — who is coming off two major surgeries in the past two years. For me, that’s too much to ignore.
3. Justin Forsett and Terrance West, Baltimore Ravens
2015 was a rough year for AFC North running backs, with only the Bengals’ Bernard and the Steelers’ Williams excluded; Forsett was no exception. After posting career-highs in virtually every statistic in 2014, the Ravens running back looked his age in 2015, coming back down to earth in a mediocre season before breaking his arm late in November. It’s easy to dismiss Forsett, who will be 31 in October, but he certainly wasn’t terrible in 2015. The former seventh-round draft pick still looks like a middle-of-the-pack starting running back, which is good news for Baltimore.
In even better news for the Ravens, former Browns third-rounder and 2016 preseason standout West is looking great. 2015 fourth-rounder Javorius “Buck” Allen and 2016 fourth-rounder Kenneth Dixon can also make an impact in limited snaps. Though, Dixon is currently hurt after an injury in the third preseason game.
4. Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson, Cleveland Browns
Am I the only one who still can’t understand how Crowell is still the number one back on Cleveland’s depth chart? If his 3.8 yards per carry average wasn’t bad enough for the Browns, his terrible Tweet should’ve sent management over the edge — but apparently it didn’t.
Duke Johnson, a third-round pick in 2015, figures to play a prevalent role in the offense — similar to the role Bernard has played in Cincinnati. He could potentially lead the Browns in receiving with a good season.
The offseason addition of former Bengals practice squad back Terrell Watson, who likely chose to sign with Cleveland because he worked with head coach Hue Jackson on the Bengals, makes the Browns’ backfield just a little more interesting as well. He’s currently listed fourth on the depth chart, but the former small-school back has the build and talent of a potential bell-cow. Only time will tell whether Watson can make a name for himself in Cleveland.