Every Thursday until the season begins, I’ll be going through each position group in the NFC South, ranking them by team from fourth to first. I know everyone is waiting for wide receiver rankings, but we’ll wait to see what happens with Julio Jones first. Instead we’ll turn to running backs, where two teams in the division have a star ball carrier, while the other two rely on a committee approach to steer their run game.
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4. Atlanta Falcons
Falcons RB Mike Davis – Photo by: USA Today
At 28 years old, Davis will be entering an NFL season as a team’s feature back for the first time in his career. We’ll see if Atlanta adds anyone before the season, but right now Davis leads a backfield with very little experience or success at the pro level. That’s not to say Davis is a slouch, as the veteran filled in admirably for Christian McCaffrey last season in Carolina. Davis finished the year with career highs in snaps, carries (165), yards (642), touchdowns (six) catches (59), receiving yards (373) and receiving touchdowns (two). Not bad for a guy who has bounced around the league for six seasons.
Ollison and Brooks-James have combined for 33 career carries, and Hawkins and Huntley are rookies. Fullback Keith Smith has 12 career rushing attempts, but will mostly just contribute as a blocker. Considering that new head coach Arthur Smith hails from Tennessee, where he had Derrick Henry
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Ronald Jones II
Tampa Bay’s top four running backs are as locked in as any team’s, but finding a real role for Vaughn when the season begins remains a mystery. Can he be a regular special teamer? Vaughn played just 39 special teams snaps last season. The Bucs would love to get him a hat on game days, but right now it feels unlikely to happen on a weekly basis. It’s a big offseason for the former third-round pick, and Vaughn should get plenty of opportunity to prove himself in the preseason.
Bruce Arians has already said that Fournette and Jones will battle it out for the starting job in camp, but both will play a lot when the season begins. Bernard is easily the most reliable back on the roster thanks to his sure hands and pass protection skills, which should be a huge boost to the Bucs in passing situations. Tampa Bay may not have a star in their room, but they’ve been the smartest team in the South for allocating less resources to the least valuable position on the field.
2. New Orleans Saints
Saints RB Alvin Kamara – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
The Saints not only have a premier running back in Pro Bowler Alvin Kamara, they also have one of the deepest running back rooms in the league. Murray is capable of carrying the load for a game or two, and has even made strides at receiver during his time in New Orleans. Montgomery has ideal traits for a Sean Payton offense, while Washington has flashed a few times in his career, and is a key special teamer. Armah comes over from Carolina to be the next Payton fullback and add to New Orleans’ outstanding special teams.
But Kamara is the prize of the group. The fifth-year back is a very good, not elite pure runner, but an outstanding pass-catcher. What Kamara gives the Saints as a receiver is very difficult to replace. It’s not far-fetched to think the best two receiving backs in the league reside in the NFC South.
1. Carolina Panthers
This is it. The Panthers’ crown jewel. Carolina claims the top spot in the division at running back, provided Christian McCaffrey stays healthy this season. What sets McCaffrey apart isn’t that he’s a great runner, although he certainly is. Instead it’s his pass-catching skills, where he consistently creates separation as a route runner, even from a receiver alignment. McCaffrey only played three games last season, and his loss was felt more acutely in the pass game than the run game.
Davis impressed as McCaffrey’s backup last year, but now there is limited depth in Carolina. They’ll hope Trenton Cannon, Rodney Smith, Reggie Bonnafon and Chuba Hubbard are able to step up. Smith had 41 carries and nine catches last season, but didn’t really stand out. The Panthers hope Hubbard, a fourth-round pick, can become their eventual replacement for Davis.
Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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