Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ranking AFC East RB tandems entering '11

1 - New York Jets: LaDainian Tomlinson silenced all the critics last year after a disappointing 2009 season with the Chargers, where many thought his best years were behind him. Tomlinson rushed for 914 yards and put up his best yards-per-carry numbers (4.2) since ‘07. The 32-year-old officially handed over the reins to third-year back Shonn Greene this season, though Tomlinson will be very involved in third-down situations and passing downs.

Greene rushed for 766 yards on only 185 attempts in 2010, but hasn’t really stepped into a true No. 1 role since his time at Iowa. However, Greene has proven himself in the big moments, averaging 6.5 yards a carry in the playoffs. He has three postseason touchdowns, two of which were fourth-quarter game sealers. With a solid run-blocking offensive line and Greene’s hard-nosed, between-the-tackles style, the Jets should be the consistent ground-and-pound team Ryan is looking for all year.

2 - Buffalo Bills: Buffalo comes into this season with a lot of question marks, and one of those is C.J. Spiller. Despite the players’ and coaches’ confidence in the second-year back, Spiller has a lot to prove this year after a not-so-impressive rookie year that saw him snag only 283 yards on 74 attempts. Yes, some of that has to do with a mediocre O-line, but Spiller was prone to rookie mistakes last year as well, looking for the home run instead of taking the two or three yards given. Spiller’s role has already been up’ed this preseason, and expect to see him used much more this year.

That aside, the coaching staff has it made quite clear after some preseason debate that Fred Jackson will be the No. 1 out of the backfield. Jackson did see his numbers drop slightly last year, along with his attempts. But Jackson has averaged more than four yards per carry every year since his debut, and he is primed -- now that the depth-chart debate is over -- to have a productive year. Great things could come from this tandem this year, perhaps more impressive than the Jets duo. It all lies on the shoulders of the offensive line and their ability to keep defenders out of the backfield.

3 - New England Patriots: Yes, BenJarvus Green-Ellis was the only AFC East back to break 1,000 yards last year. Yes, Danny Woodhead averaged more than five yards a touch. Yes, the always-solid offensive line returns mostly the same from 2010. But the Pats drafted two running backs this year in Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, and there’s that other little factor named Tom Brady.

With such a well-rounded, spread-out offense that saw two tight ends combine for nearly 90 receptions and 16 touchdowns and added Chad Ochocinco to the wideout corps this offseason, it’s hard to say how much of a factor the running game will be. The 1,008 yards Green-Ellis put up last year was the most New England has seen from a back since Corey Dillon in 2004. Expect the run game to be what it usually is for the Pats: good enough to allow Tom Brady to do what he does.

4 - The Miami Dolphins: It seems like everyone in the league is betting against Reggie Bush, except of course, the Dolphins. Miami’s decision to start Bush as their premier back is a risky one, especially since he’s only gone without injury for a full season only once in his career. Even more curious is the quick departure of Larry Johnson, who in most fans’ eyes seemed to be decent insurance policy for the injury-prone Bush.

The ’Phins will now look to rookie Daniel Thomas for assistance if that issue arises, with 27-year-old Lex Hilliard rounding out the crew. Coach Sparano voiced his opinion on Bush’s history of injuries to the Miami media early in the week, saying, “I’m really not concerned one way or the other about that at this particular time, I’m just concerned with finding ways to get the guy the ball. He’s going to be the first runner out of the gate and we’re going to figure out ways to get him the ball.”