Around The AFC East: Ranking the running back stables

This week's edition of "Around The AFC East" is going to be a little bit different.  Instead of going around the division and talking about various team-related topics, we're all writing the exactl same post - sort of.  Each week, we will rank the four AFC East teams in various categories - and then let the debate begin.

This week, we will rank the division's running back stables from top to bottom.  My rankings are below.  But the bloggers for the other three teams also have their rankings posted on their blogs.  So make sure you head over to Buffalo Rumblings, Pats Pulpit, and Gang Green Nation to see their rankings of the division's running back committees.

MATTY'S RANKINGS OF THE AFC RUNNING BACK STABLES

1. Miami Dolphins - Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, Patrick Cobbs

When three of the four AFC running backs to make the Pro-Bowl last season come from the same division, you know you got some horses to choose from here.  But there isn't one back in the AFC East that is more talented than Ronnie Brown.  Less than a year removed from tearing his ACL during a career year, Brown broke out against the Patriots in week three as the Dolphins introduced the 'Wildcat' to the world - running for 113 yards on 17 carries and 4 touchdowns (while throwing for another as well).  But while Ronnie's 2008 season was certainly a good one, running for over 900 yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging 4.3 yards per carry, Brown himself admits that he wasn't himself.  Said Brown a few weeks ago about a DVD highlight reel he requested the team put together that featured every snap he took in 2008, "I looked at that, and I could see I wasn't 100 percent. I just wasn't. I feel right now I'm more explosive right now in the things I'm doing."

And it wasn't just his injury that held him back in 2008.  The offensive line really took a hit when Donald Thomas went down in week one.  Justin Smiley was lost for the season as well after 12 games and center Samson Satele just wasn't a very good run-blocker.  But the line is improved now and Ronnie admits he's stronger and faster now than he's ever been - meaning he could be in store for the kind of season he was on his way to having in 2007 before the knee injury ended his year prematurely.

The bottom line with Brown, though, is that there isn't one running back in this division which you can make a case for being clearly better than Ronnie.  And there isn't one back who can do any more than Brown can do.

But Ronnie is only part of the reason why I have the Dolphins at the top of this list.  Their depth at the RB position is the main reason.  Ricky Williams, while he isn't the same Ricky as 2002, is still explosive and he showed that at times last year.  His 659 rushing yards is more than any other backup running back from the AFC East last year.  He also added 29 receptions for 219 yards through the air - and scored 5 total touchdowns.  And at the age of 32, Ricky still has plenty left in the tank.

Rounding out Miami's RB stable is the versatile Patrick Cobbs.  He doesn't have impressive numbers by any stretch of the imagination.  Cobbs only had 275 yards receiving and 88 yards rushing in 2008 (though he did average 7.3 yards per rush and 14.5 yards per catch).  But he scored 3 touchdowns and his versatility is one of the key factors to the Dolphins' 'Wildcat' success.

While the Dolphins may have finished just third in the division in rushing last season, I don't see any other backfield with as much talent from one through three as Miami has.  With improved health (and play) from the offensive line in 2009, there's no reason why the Dolphins shouldn't be the top rushing team in the AFC East this season.

2. Buffalo Bills - Marshawn Lynch, Fred Jackson, Dominic Rhodes

While I think that Marshawn Lynch is overrated, that doesn't mean I don't think he's good.  He has a lot of talent - as proven by his two 1,000 yard seasons.  But in his 28 career games, he's only averaged over 4 yards per carry in 10 games.  Meanwhile, he's averaged 3.5 yards per carry or less in 10 games.  From what I've seen from Lynch in the limited times I've watched him play, he looks hesitant at times with the ball in his hands.  And his off-the-field troubles are well documented.

I do really like Fred Jackson.  He's an under-the-radar player who simply makes plays.  He had 888 yards from scrimmage last season - 10 more than Ricky Williams - and is every bit as explosive as Ricky.  He's a terrific #2 running back for any team and an excellent compliment to Lynch.

The acquisition of Dominic Rhodes will provide the Bills with a reliable veteran to act as Jackson's backup while Lynch is suspended to begin next season.

3. New York Jets - Thomas Jones, Leon Washington, Shonn Greene

I know what Jet fans are thinking: how can I have the Jets ranked so low when their top back led the AFC in rushing last year?  Well that answer is simple.  He's going to be 31 years old in August and after four consecutive 290+ carry seasons, he's not going to put the same numbers again.  After all, isn't that why the Jets traded up to take Shonn Greene in April's draft?

Leon Washington is as explosive a player as there is in this league - no doubt about that.  We Dolphin fans know first hand how talented he is.  And in other divisions, this unit probably wouldn't be ranked only third.  But top to bottom, I don't think the Jets' running backs are as physically talented as Miami's or Buffalo's.

I also believe that a big part of the Jets' success on the ground is their offensive line.  Alan Faneca and Nick Mangold are as good as any guard/center combo in the league.  And I think that a big part of New York's success on the ground last year was because of those big guys up front - as well as the threat of Brett Favre and the deep ball.  When defenses are preparing more for the passing attack, it's easier to run successfully.  It's that simple.

4. New England Patriots - Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor, Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris

I'm sure Patriot fans aren't going to be happy here.  After all, they did average 142 rushing yards per game in 2008.  But I believe that's more because of the weapons at receiver than it is because of the talent of their running backs.  When a defense has to prepare for Randy Moss and Wes Welker, it's much easier to run the ball.  And New Englans' offensive line is very good - which makes it even easier for the running backs.

The bottom line here is that we know what Sammy Morris - the Pats' leading rusher last year - is.  He's a marginal NFL running back who, in the right situation, can perform well.  But he isn't a great running back.

I do like Kevin Faulk, though.  He's basically the perfect model for a guy like Patrick Cobbs.  Some would even call Cobbs a "poor man's Faulk."  And I think Laurence Maroney should not be written off yet because he's had to battle some injuries.  I also feel like Fred Taylor still has some gas left in his tank.

But I simply wouldn't take New England's running backs over any of the three other AFC East teams.  Whoever you put as their top back isn't as good as any of the other three top backs in the division.  And while they are fairly deep, I can't say any of these backs would worry me on any other team.  But when your defense is forced to defend the pass like  they are against New England, these guys can get the job done.


So that's my list.  Agree?  Disagree?  Let's hear it.

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