The 2012 Rushing Title – Who Has a Shot?

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Maurice Jones-Drew didn’t come out of nowhere to win the rushing title in 2011.  He has been a consistent threat for years.  His electrifying play (which some say isn’t around anymore) makes him a threat whenever he’s on the field, whether blocking, running, catching, or calling plays that Blaine Gabbert still doesn’t understand.  But there’s a multitude of guys that could put up enough yards to win the rushing title?  I thought the entire running back position was a glut of talent that could be found outside of the draft?

While there will inevitably be someone who comes out of nowhere to put up some big numbers like Arian Foster has done, who really has a shot at taking home the title and being the “best running back” in 2012.  For purposes of discussion, the best running back will be defined as the most yards on the ground in a season (the same qualification for running backs to win the rushing title).

So, who will it be?  A rebounding Adrian Peterson?  A no longer disgruntled Chris Johnson?  How about Ben Tate rather than Foster?  Here are the top ten from last year:

  1. Maurice Jones-Drew: 1,606 yards
  2. Ray Rice: 1,364 yards
  3. Michael Turner: 1,340 yards
  4. LeSean McCoy: 1,309 yards
  5. Arian Foster: 1,224 yards
  6. Frank Gore: 1,211 yards
  7. Marshawn Lynch: 1,204 yards
  8. Willis McGahee: 1,199 yards
  9. Steven Jackson: 1,145 yards
  10. Ryan Matthews, 1,091 yards

Of the top ten from last year, five were in the top ten from 2010: Maurice Jones-Drew (5th), Ray Rice (10th), Michael Turner (3rd – talk about consistent!), Arian Foster (1st), and Steven Jackson (8th).  The players who didn’t repeat?  Adrian Peterson (6th), Jamaal Charles (2nd), Chris Johnson (4th), Rashard Mendenhall (7th), and Ahmad Bradshaw (9th).

Of the five who have repeated the past two years (some longer than that), I think it is safe to say that Ray Rice, Maurice Jones-Drew, Arian Foster, and Michael Turner will be back in the top ten for 2012.  As much as I like Steven Jackson (and I like him a lot!) I don’t see him replicating his success in 2012 with a revamped offense, new head coach, and some serious wear and tear on his body (the guy averaged 20 attempts per game the past three seasons and has had injury issues).

With the assumption that four of our top ten spots will be filled, who can we expect to join them?  From last year’s top ten, I find that the most probable returns for 2012 will be Ryan Matthews and LeSean McCoy.  McCoy has proven he will be a versatile threat on every down and he is featured in a lot of plays under Andy Reid.  Matthews will be forced into taking more handoffs with the departure of wide receiver Vincent Jackson to Tampa Bay and will carry a much bigger burden of the offense.  Matthews stepped it up last year by 21 yards per game and an increase of only two more attempts per game.  The guy is finally filling LaDainian Tomlinson’s shoes.

Right now, our list is sitting with six players on it.  All of whom have been in the top ten this past year.  Who gets the final four slots?  Who will round out the top ten in the competition for the rushing title?  For that, I turn my attention to the yards per attempt statistics for last year.  Of the running backs who are already in our six defined spots, none of them are in the top ten for yards per attempt (though the statistics do include quarterbacks Cam Newton and Tim Tebow).  Of the top ten in yards per attempt, two teams (Buffalo and Carolina) have two running backs in average yards per attempt.  C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson represent Buffalo, and DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart represent Carolina – as does Cam Newton.

I expect that the loads on both sides will continue to be split amongst multiple players, though if Williams is injured again – as his history suggests he may be – I fully expect that Stewart could slip into the top ten to round out the bottom.  And with Cam Newton focusing more on passing rather than running, look for Stewart’s attempts per game to increase. Unfortunately for Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, I don’t expect either of them to outdistance the other in 2012.  Especially with Spiller expected to have a very good year.  Both players will be successful, of this I have no doubt, but neither will be able to set such a pace that the team abandons its two-headed monster of a backfield.

Right now, this is how our top ten looks (with no rankings applied)

  • Maurice Jones-Drew
  • Ray Rice
  • Arian Foster
  • Michael Turner
  • LeSean McCoy
  • Ryan Matthews
  • Jonathan Stewart

I think it is about time we took a look at Adrian Peterson.  Adrian Peterson injured himself in the 12th game of the season last year and is still working on coming back full force.  But in 12 games, he put up 970 yards.  That’s 80.8 yards per game (good enough for 8th on the list of yards per game).  Will AP be back in time for the start of the season?  Maybe.  But he’ll be back at some point.  And when he returns, he’ll be hungry.  If the guy doesn’t put up at least 1,000 yards in 2012 I’ll be shocked.  Just over 1,000 yards should be enough to put him in the top ten anyway.

See the next page to see who rounds out our top ten and who will take the rushing title!