The 2012 Rushing Title – Who Has a Shot?

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Let’s hit a statistic that I’ve overlooked until now: yards per game.  Maurice Jones-Drew led the league in the statistic in 2011 with 100.4 yards per game.  While I love the statistic for seeing how involved a running back was in a team’s offense, I find it misleading in the fact that many players that are constantly fed the ball will appear on the list.  It makes projecting a top 10 in total yards difficult because a player with better yards per attempt may easily surpass a player who averages higher yards per game in the next year simply by being given a couple more touches per game.  In 2011, no player who averaged in the top of yards per attempt was in the top of yards per game.  While I still stand by my decision that Jonathan Stewart could easily slip into the top ten in total yards due to a potential increase in attempts, it’s difficult to base our potential top ten purely on yards per game.

Fortunately, there is one player on the list of rushing yards per game that I find will probably benefit greatly from offseason additions and a new offensive coordinator: Matt Forte.  Chicago brought in wide receiver Brandon Marshall, fired Mike Martz as offensive coordinator, and brought in Michael Bush as insurance as Matt Forte may hold out after being given the franchise tag this offseason.  Unfortunately for the Bears, they have to pay the man.  Matt Forte is a lightning rod for an offense that desperately needs balance.  Martz tried to implement a heavy passing attack last year but failed to be successful unless Forte had the ball in his hands (either on the ground or in the air).  While the Bears and Forte are currently at an impasse, don’t expect him to remain holding through more than a couple weeks of the preseason.  Forte increases his value for free agency/a long term deal by being on the field.  Head Coach Lovie Smith wants him there and Jay Cutler needs him for offensive balance.  Without Forte, the Bears won’t be the Super Bowl chasing team that I know they are. Look for Forte to put the differences behind him and climb into the top ten in 2012.

We only have one spot left.  I’m going to fill it, but I doubt I will be right as some undrafted free agent will probably run wild in 2012 and make me look foolish.  While I’ve been notably high on the Browns this offseason, I just don’t see the team making Trent Richardson into a do it all back in his rookie year.  He’ll do what’s asked of him all year long, but I give him a year or two to become the best he can be, much like Ryan Matthews.

For the final spot of the top ten, I think that Darren McFadden will slip in.  With Michael Bush’s departure to Chicago, McFadden cements himself as the man in Oakland.  Further, he proved that he could decimate opponents last year when the Raiders ran all over the opposition for a couple games.  Of course, the Raiders followed this up with utter mediocrity.  But with a year of play behind Carson Palmer, I expect that the team will have an advantageous balance of running and pass threats.  They may even manage to secure more than eight wins this year.  McFadden will be an important part of that balance.  He averaged 87 yards per game this past year and 89 yards per game in 2010.  He was 4th on the list in yards per attempt in 2011 with 5.4 and will only get more touches in 2012 – especially with Michael Bush (10th in the league in touches in 2011) no longer there to take away opportunities for McFadden.

So, how will our top ten be ordered?  I believe it will look a little something like this:

  1. LeSean McCoy
  2. Maurice Jones-Drew
  3. Michael Turner
  4. Ray Rice
  5. Matt Forte
  6. Darren McFadden
  7. Adrian Peterson
  8. Arian Foster
  9. Ryan Matthews
  10. Jonathan Stewart

Why the changes?  Let’s take them one at a time:

  • McCoy looks to be more involved in Philadelphia’s offense (if that’s even possible) and should only improve every time he touches the ball – which is a lot.
  • MJD will still be productive, but will lose carries to Rashad Jennings in 2012.  This will invariably help his yards per attempt but probably won’t help his yards per game.  I fully expect him to slide a little.
  • Michael Turner returns to third for the third straight time simply because I don’t expect the Atlanta offense to change much from 2010-2012.
  •  Ray Rice will slide simply because McCoy will be more productive in 2012 and Rice wasn’t that much farther ahead of him or Turner.  With quarterback Joe Flacco desperate to prove he can be an effective passer, Rice will get a few more looks on passing downs but less touches on the ground.
  • Matt Forte will be the most involved player on this list outside of Rice and McCoy for his offense, he wants a lucrative long-term deal and if it isn’t with Chicago, he’ll make sure the rest of the NFL is watching as he works hard to be “the man” someplace else.
  • McFadden should be successful as the premier back in Oakland, but don’t expect him to be pushing any of the top five out of the way.
  • Look for AP to be successful whenever he takes the field.  If Minnesota is winning in 2012, it’s because he’s getting touches.
  • Arian Foster will suffer on this list because he splits a lot of carries with Ben Tate.  Further, the entire right side of the offensive line is being rebuilt.  Expect a rough start to the season, but overall strong productivity.
  • I think Matthews will once again prove why he was a first round pick in the 2010 draft.
  • Jonathan Stewart has a chance to slip into the discussion for best in the business as Carolina evolves into a normal offense as well.

If McCoy isn’t crowned with the 2012 rushing title, then there is little justice for a man who carries a team on his shoulders.  Michael Vick is good, but he just isn’t as good as Donovan McNabb once was.  The Vick experiment won’t end anytime soon because he presents too much of an offensive threat due to his versatility.  But when Vick does well, it’ll be because he has a crutch to lean on in McCoy.

To the Jacksonville faithful, I apologize, but I just can’t see MJD getting the rushing title two years in a row.  He’s still going to be amazing, but 2011 may be the only year he takes it home.

– Luke N. Sims

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