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Ranking the AFC North running backs: League’s best

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Who is the best of the rest?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals
Le’Veon Bell
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The AFC North features arguably the best all-around running back in the NFL in Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell. But, if Bell’s holdout continues, someone has to step up and grab the division’s top spot. There are a lot of talented individuals vying for that distinction, and every team in the division will feature a spirited competition for the top nod in the running back rankings.

1. Le’Veon Bell

The Pittsburgh Steelers running back is hands-down the best player at his position in the NFL.

Bell, a two-time Pro-Bowler, rushed for 1,268 yards with an average yards-per-carry of nearly 4.9 in 2016. He also scored seven touchdowns, despite playing in just 12 games. In addition, Bell boasted 75 receptions for 616 yards (an average of 8.2 yards per catch) and tallied an additional two touchdowns.

Bell is arguably the team’s second-most important receiver behind the ultra-talented Antonio Brown, who just received a four-year, $64 million contract for his efforts.

Last year, Bell became the first player in NFL history to average more than 50 yards receiving per game in addition to 100 rushing yards. And his total of 157 yards from scrimmage per game was third-most in league history. Bell wants to be paid as the best runner in the NFL, and as the team’s No. 2 receiver.

Durability has been about the only knock on Bell, who has played in all 16 games just one time in his four-year NFL career. In 2014, Bell earned his lone All-Pro selection when he rushed for 1,361 yards and scored eight touchdowns. He also recorded 83 receptions for 854 yards and three touchdowns that season.

Some have been quick to note that the Steelers have won at a higher rate without Bell during the past two years. Pittsburgh has gone 11-5 during that span without Bell, and only 12-7 with him. But five of those losses came without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers went 10-3 during the past two years in games in which both Bell and Roethlisberger played.

Even more telling is the gap between Bell and his replacement, who for the past two seasons has been DeAngelo Williams. Of course, Williams is no longer with the team and the backup situation is far from settled. With Williams in the mix, the disparity between starter and backup was the fourth-highest in the league. Without Williams, Bell would seem to be all but irreplaceable.

Pittsburgh may not fully appreciate Bell’s values. But his teammates do and though he’s currently holding out of training camp and has yet to sign his franchise tag, the only option if he wants to play in the NFL this year, he’s sure to be back soon enough and is the top running back in the AFC North.

2. Isaiah Crowell

Isaiah Crowell routinely gets overlooked, and for a number of reasons. He plays for the Cleveland Browns, whose players never get much recognition because of the team’s poor on-field results. And he has never rushed for more than 1,000 yards in a season, which is one of the benchmarks of a successful running back.

But Crowell had just 198 rushing attempts in 16 games last season. For comparison, Bell carried the rock 261 times while missing four games. Crowell was one of only seven players to average at least 4.8 yards per carry on a minimum of 190 attempts, joining Bell, Ezekiel Elliott and LeSean McCoy among the best backs in the NFL last season.

Crowell seems poised to establish himself as the Browns’ best running back this season, easily surpassing Duke Johnson. If he gets 250 or more carries, he should easily eclipse 1,000 yards on the ground, considering how strong the Browns’ offensive line appears heading into the 2017 NFL season.

Last year, Crowell ran the ball 15 or more times in only six games and never had more than 19 carries in a game. In six other games, he carried it 10 or fewer times. Now that the Browns boast one of the top offensive lines in the game with the additions of Kevin Zeitler and JC Tretter, Crowell should easily establish himself as one of the best backs in the league.

3. Giovani Bernard

On November 20, 2016, in the 10th game of the NFL season, Giovani Bernard of the Cincinnati Bengals suffered a torn left ACL and was placed on season-ending Injured Reserve. He finished the season with 337 yards rushing on 92 carries, an average of 3.7 yards per carry, and two touchdowns. He also recorded 39 receptions for 336 yards and a score.

The injury actually marked Bernard's second torn ACL. He tore his right ACL as a freshman running back at the University of North Carolina before the 2010 season, but recovered in time for spring practice.

"When people say 'Oh, you came back so quick,' I just always tell them I'm Haitian and we're just born different, we just have different DNA than everybody else,” Bernard said via ESPN. “We just have a different blood type. I don't know. It's something I joke around with. We just come back from injuries like it's nothing. Like a Wolverine kind of thing, I don't know. I've got two bionic knees now. Now they're even."

Bernard is back with a vengeance in 2017. So far in training camp, he has proven to be one of the most pleasant surprises for the Bengals. His recovery from ACL surgery has been nothing short of miraculous and Bernard is out to prove that he is the same back who rushed for 730 yards on 154 carries in 2015 for an average of 4.7 yards per attempt.

4. Duke Johnson

Duke Johnson is a dual threat for the Browns and finished third on the team in 2016 with 53 catches, which was tied for sixth among NFL backs. In his first two seasons, he’s averaged 57 catches and 524 yards, and his 114 receptions rank third since 2015.

Because he is such a good receiver, his number of carries as a running back dropped from 104 as rookie to 73 for 358 yards last season, but his average went up from 3.6 yards to 4.9. Johnson is primarily a third-down back but what he hasn’t done is score touchdowns. In his first two seasons in the league, Johnson has only three touchdowns: one rushing and two receiving.

5. Jeremy Hill

Unlike Johnson, Cincinnati’s Jeremy Hill is a touchdown machine. During his three-year career, Johnson has scored 29 touchdowns, including a league-leading 11 in 2015. But not everything has been coming up roses for the Bengals’ workhorse back and he’s not all that likely to retain his undeserved starting role with the Bengals this year.

Hill became the first Bengals' rookie running back to top 1,000 yards rushing since Corey Dillon in 1997. His 1,124 rushing yards was the most among NFL rookies in 2014 and eighth most overall, and his 5.1 yards-per-carry average ranked him second among NFL running backs. Unfortunately, he also lost five fumbles after losing only one in two seasons at LSU.

After an incredible rookie year in which he finished with 222 carries for 1,124 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, Hill just hasn’t been the same.

Things did not go nearly as well in 2015 and Hill finished the season with only 794 yards rushing on 223 carries, an average of 3.6 yards per carry. And his fumble problems continued as he lost three during the regular season. But what people remember most was his fumble with less than two minutes remaining in the AFC wild card game against the Pittsburgh Steelers that helped turn an almost-certain Bengals victory into a mind-numbing defeat.

About the only positive note from Hill’s 2015 season was that he scored 11 touchdowns, tying him for the NFL lead with Devonta Freeman of the Atlanta Falcons, Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson and Pittsburgh’s DeAngelo Williams.

Last year, Hill finished the season with 839 yards rushing on 222 carries, an average of 3.8 yards per carry, and nine touchdowns. He did finally get a handle on his fumbling problems as he did not lose one all season.

The tandem of Bernard and Hill initially looked to be a real strength of a Bengals’ team that finished 15th in total offense in 2014. Behind the efforts of Thunder and Lightning, the Bengals racked up the sixth-best rushing yardage in the NFL, and their yards-per-rush average of 4.4 was 12th best.

But their performances didn’t stack up nearly as well over the past two years. In 2015, Bernard held up his end, but Hill dropped off considerably. Injuries derailed Bernard’s 2016 season and pretty much the same way with 730 rushing yards (23rd) and 472 receiving yards Hill missed the final game of the season, as well. He was playing banged up for much of the year and it showed.

2017 is a contract year for Hill, and he will need to find the kind of success he experienced as a rookie if he hopes to remain in Bengals’ stripes.

6. Joe Mixon

At first glance, it would appear that Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon may be a better ball carrier than numerous players on this list. At Oklahoma, he was used exclusively out of the shotgun and occasionally lined up in the slot. He was arguably the best athlete at his position in the 2017 NFL Draft in terms of size, speed and agility, and has all the makings of a successful running back in a traditional Marvin Lewis Bengals’ offense.

Mixon has yet to take a snap in the NFL, but once he does, he could quickly see himself into one of the top spots on this ranking.

Mixon, who stands 6-1, weighs in at 227 pounds and runs a 4.46 40-yard dash, was named First-Team All-Big 12 after his final season at Oklahoma and set single-season school records for all-purpose yards (2,331) and all-purpose yards per game (194.3). Mixon’s all purpose yards-per-game average ranked him second nationally and his yards-per-rush average of 6.81 was fourth best in the nation. He scored 10 touchdowns rushing and accounted for 37 catches, 538 yards and five touchdowns as a receiver.

7. Kenneth Dixon

Baltimore’s Kenneth Dixon should probably be ranked higher than this, but a torn meniscus has him out for the 2017 season and he was already going to be suspended for the first four games of the year. Dixon isn’t the biggest or fastest running back, but he manages to get the job done. Although he did not start a single game, he averaged 4.3 yards per carry and caught 30 passes for 162 yards.

8. Terrance West, Danny Woodhead

With Dixon out, Baltimore turns to Terrance West, Danny Woodhead, Javorius Allen and Bobby Rainey to help pick up the loss of production.

West is the most likely candidate to get more playing time after leading the Ravens in rushing last season, gaining 774 yards on 193 carries and scoring five touchdowns. West also contributed 236 yards and one touchdown on 34 receptions out of the backfield.

With his playmaking abilities, Woodhead also hopes to be able to replace Dixon’s production in his first year in Baltimore. During the course of eight NFL seasons, Woodhead has run for a total of 2,182 yards on 503 carries and has scored 15 touchdowns on the ground. He has also recording 2,498 yards on 267 receptions and 17 receiving touchdowns during that time.

9. Knile Davis and James Conner

DeAngelo Williams, who served as Bell’s backup for the past two seasons, was not re-signed by the Steelers, despite rushing for 1,250 yards and scoring 15 touchdowns during that time.

Knile Davis came to the Steelers from Kansas City and has just 100 yards rushing over the past two seasons. Davis has accounted for less than 1,000 yards rushing in his four-year professional career, and most of his production came during his first two seasons in the league.

James Conner was selected in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, but there are legitimate questions about his durability. He had a major knee injury at Pitt and missed most of the spring with a hamstring injury. He now is battling a shoulder injury. Of course, Conner is well known for beating cancer while at Pitt and it will be fun to see his NFL career, even if it has to be in Pittsburgh.

Poll

Which AFC North team has the best running back unit?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    Baltimore Ravens
    (5 votes)
  • 78%
    Cincinnati Bengals
    (565 votes)
  • 5%
    Cleveland Browns
    (38 votes)
  • 15%
    Pittsburgh Steelers
    (113 votes)
721 votes total Vote Now