A popular opinion blurted out by fans and analysts is that the modern NFL is a quarterback-driven league. Call me crazy, but the winners of Super Bowl XLVIII seemed to have a pretty decent running back on their roster.
Both the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks demonstrated how important it is for teams to have at least solid rushing attacks come January. At the other end of the spectrum are the Cleveland Browns, who traded away running back Trent Richardson in September. While that trade, on paper, appears to have been a steal for Cleveland, the team never adequately replaced Richardson, and the Browns finished the season with a 4-12 record.
One thing sticks out like a sore thumb when reviewing the cap numbers of the top running backs in the league: Rookie contracts in the NFL are like gold when a team hits on a running back in a draft. Here are the top 10 running back bargains of the 2013 NFL season.
10 Chris Ivory - New York Jets: $1.5 million in 2013
Ivory remained an imperfect product in 2013. Consistency is a concern, although part of that can be blamed on the fact that the offense of the Jets has experienced many hiccups over the past several years. That said, he didn't go for 100 yards or better in a game last season until October 20. He had 34 carries on that day.
Ivory's numbers improved during the second half of the season, and he finished with a respectable 833 rushing yards and an average of 4.6 yards per carry. The Jets will need more from him in the future, and vice versa, if Ivory is to take that next step into greatness.
9 Ryan Mathews - San Diego Chargers: $2,829,250 in 2013
Mathews may not find the end zone as often as some of the top running backs in the league, but he remains a steal with a cap hit of under $3 million. Mathews finished seventh in the league in rushing yards with 1,255, just two yards behind Mr. “Beast Mode” Marshawn Lynch. Lynch had a cap number of $8.5 million in 2013.
Mathews has a career rushing average of 4.4 yards per game, a number he matched last season. He was banged up at the end of the year and thus couldn't help the Chargers much in January, but that doesn't take away from what was a fantastic campaign. An argument could be made that Mathews is the most underrated running back in the league.
8 LeSean McCoy - Philadelphia Eagles: $4,931,250 in 2013
Shady McCoy would be a bargain at just about any price tag. He led the NFL in rushing yards (1,607) and in rushing yards per game (100.4). He's the best and most explosive player at his position in the business. McCoy deserves a paycheck that is double or triple of what he currently makes.
Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles grabbed a lot of headlines with his stellar play in replacing Mike Vick. All of that hoopla was deserved, but don't even think about underselling what McCoy means to the Eagles every time he takes the field. He's going to have a special career if he stays healthy.
7 Reggie Bush - Detroit Lions: $3.355 million in 2013
Detroit took a flier on Bush in the offseason, and he didn't disappoint. He picked up over 1,000 yards on the ground, he had an average of 4.5 yards per carry, and he finished the season with 506 receiving yards. The only time he had more receiving yards in a NFL season was during his rookie campaign in 2006.
Injuries will be the first talking point of Bush's pro career when all is said and done. That's too bad, because he is such a special player when at 100 percent. I believe he could have been an all-time great had he not had to worry about such issues.
6 Le'Veon Bell - Pittsburgh Steelers: $749,200 in 2013
The rookie out of Michigan State had a pretty good but not a breakout initial NFL season. Bell went for 860 rushing yards in 13 games, and he also had 45 receptions. He did well to shake off a foot injury that caused him to miss the first three games of the season, and some have compared him with Matt Forte of the Chicago Bears.
The Steelers seem to effortlessly churn out great running backs once every several years. Early returns indicate they've done so again in Bell.
5 Jamaal Charles - Kansas City Chiefs: $4,333,333 in 2013
Charles was asked to be the engine of the KC offense, and he ended the season as the MVP of the Chiefs. He rushed for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns, the second feat being matched only by the previously mentioned Lynch. It's not all good news about Charles, however, as he picked up a concussion in his side's playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts.
There is always concern whenever a running back suffers such a head injury. One more similar event during a meaningful game, and he could miss multiple contests. That scenario could be devastating for the Chiefs.
4 Zac Stacy - St. Louis Rams: $449,125 in 2013
The Vanderbilt product would have been Rookie of the Year in some other season. He experienced a slow September, but then went on to gain a total of 973 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. Add in 141 receiving yards and a touchdown catch, and you've got yourself a pretty good first pro season under your belt.
Most experts believe that the Rams will take an offensive lineman in the upcoming NFL Draft. The 5'8" and 224 lb Stacy didn't need a ton of room to make magic happen last year. He could be in for a special 2014 if the Rams do indeed bolster the o-line.
3 DeMarco Murray - Dallas Cowboys: $810,938 in 2013
The NFC East has three special running backs, and Murray is undeniably one of them. Murray rushed for 1,124 yards and nine touchdowns, and he contributed 350 receiving yards and a score to the Dallas passing attack. He has been called “one of the most impressive draft picks the Dallas Cowboys have made over the last decade.” Some believe that the best from Murray could be yet to come.
When a team is paying a quarterback the money that Tony Romo is getting, that QB is going to be the front man of the offense. Murray should, if healthy, be getting 300 touches every season until he is run into the ground. 217 carries isn't enough for him.
2 Eddie Lacy - Green Bay Packers: $616,802 in 2013
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has an elite running back in his backfield. Some guys really do have all the luck.
Lacy finished fifth in the league in rushing yards with 1,178, and he found the end zone 11 times. He was also a decent receiver, grabbing 35 passes for 257 receiving yards. What did experts think of Lacy's first year in the league?
The Associated Press and Football Writers of America named him Offensive Rookie of the Year.
1 Alfred Morris - Washington Redskins: $510,775 in 2013
No wonder the New York Giants are possibly taking a linebacker in the first round of the NFL Draft. Morris' stats in his first two seasons in the NFL read like numbers you'd expect to see in Madden; 2,888 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns. I guess it's a good thing for other NFC East teams that the Redskins also don't have a play-maker at quarterback.
Morris has lost seven fumbles in his first two NFL seasons, and that is one reason why some have suggested that his load should be lightened starting in 2014. I'm a big believer that elite running backs should have no fewer than 300 touches per season. His getting around 270 carries (he had 276 in 2013) shouldn't be a problem so long as he can stay healthy and hold onto the football.