Ranking the NFC South Running Backs

Bored Tolbert judges you... - USA TODAY Sports

We've been ranking the NFC South teams by position or position group and today we have the running backs. Which NFC South team brings the best horses into 2013? Let's take a look.

Looking at the running backs across our division has given me a little bit of heartburn, so bear with me as I try to soldier my way through this piece. Amongst our enemies we have a legitimate superstar in Steven Jackson to contend with twice this year, and as he enters the twilight of his career you know he will be laser-focused on getting a ring. With old-school coach Greg Schiano, a beastly offensive line, and a quarterback that has been unreliable at best, you know the Buccaneers will be giving us a healthy dose of the "Muscle Hamster" every chance they get. Then we have the Sean Payton-led Saints and their sneaky and underrated rushing attack; perpetually overshadowed by Drew Brees and that seemingly endless cadre of receiving threats.

Fear not, Panthers faithful! Following my sage advice (as I'm sure our new general manager reads through the comment threads here at CSR as often as possible) the front office shrewdly doubled down on the defensive tackle position in the draft, giving us potentially one of the stoutest defensive fronts in the league. However, this article is purely a comparison of the running backs across the division, and call me a homer but I think that even as strong as our opposition is, our backfield has the potential for greatness...

Carolina Panthers - #1

Running Back Fullback
DeAngelo Williams Mike Tolbert
Jonathan Stewart Richie Brockel
Kenjon Barner Mike Zordich
Tauren Poole
Armond Smith

It seems like ages ago, but DeAngelo Williams was once a 1,500 yard back and has averaged 4.9 yards-per-carry throughout his career. He isn't much of a receiver and he is getting older, but there's relatively little wear on the tires as he has spent most of his career splitting carries. He seems to pick up steam the more carries he gets and ran roughshod over the Saints at the end of last season, so he's still got gas in the tank.

Jonathan Stewart is an enigma. Like Allen Iverson, he seems to take a firm "We're talking about PRACTICE!!!" approach to being an NFL player, as he rarely even sniffs the practice field. X-rays of his ankles probably look like one of my 8-year old's Erector set inventions, and we haven't seen him dribble a head off the turf in quite some time. However, if he comes back healthy he is a dynamic playmaker who gets the tough yards. He is also a sure-handed receiver and savvy pass-blocker. Cross your fingers, because we need him on the field this season in what is sure to be another tough race for the divisional title.

Bowling ball and soft-handed dancer extraordinaire, Mike Tolbert is - undeservedly so far - one of my favorite Panthers. I loved him coming out of Coastal Carolina, I loved him in San Diego, and I love him here. If Mike Shula doesn't forget about him existing like Chud seemed to, Tolbert can be a Swiss-Army hammer for us. We all know he isn't much of a lead-blocker, but great weapons don't always have to be. This could be why the Panthers have brought in Mike Zordich from Penn State to look at, though. It will be interesting to see if he hangs around or ends up on the practice squad.

I am sure that Gettleman and Rivera were simultaneously salivating and cringing when Oregon running back Kenjon Barner was still sitting at home waiting to hear his name called during the sixth round of this year's draft. To get him there was undoubtedly a steal, and they are surely envisioning him being our version of Darren Sproles, but we had many other holes that were more pressing, so the pick was by no means a sure bet.

Tauren Poole and Armond Smith have both looked good in training camp and preseason action during their careers, but in a crowded backfield they will never see the field unless the injury bug hits us hard. It is nice to have quality depth, though, because as we all know the injury bug does seem to prefer the temperate Charlotte climate.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers - #2

Running Back Fullback
Doug Martin Erik Lorig
Brian Leonard
Mike James
Michael Smith
Matt Brown
Jeff Demps

Let's face it: it is easier to trust a star running back on the upswing of his career than one on his last legs. Steven Jackson could arguably be a better back than Doug Martin, but with running backs, when the wheels fall off they tend to go FAST. Two years ago Michael Turner was still a stud. Last year he looked like he switched out his cleats with concrete boots. Doug Martin will be running behind one of the better offensive lines in the league, he has a fairly talented traditional blocking fullback clearing a path for him in Erik Lorig, and Greg Schiano loves to run the ball.

The problem for the Bucs? Depth. If Doug Martin goes down with an injury they have no one behind him who would put fear in opposing defenses. Journeyman Brian Leonard is the best of the rest, and he played under Schiano at Rutgers so maybe they are hoping he will have a renaissance of sorts with his new team under his old coach.

2013 sixth round pick Mike James and UDFA Matt Brown round out the hopefuls, and Michael Smith returns as the most likely kick/punt returner. The Bucs acquired Olympic speedster Jeff Demps in the trade that sent Legarrette Blount to the Patriots, but he is sitting out training camp while running track, and may not make the team due to that decision alone.

Atlanta Falcons - #3

Running Back Fullback
Steven Jackson Bradie Ewing
Jacquizz Rodgers Devonte Campbell
Jason Snelling Patrick DiMarco
Josh Vaughan
Ronnie Wingo
Donald Russell
Antone Smith

Steven Jackson has somehow remained miraculously unscathed throughout his long career with the St. Louis Rams. He's been their resident workhorse for years, and is the only active NFL running back with more than 10,000 rushing yards to his name. After being expected to carry a miserable offense on his shoulders behind perennially bad offensive lines and without a decent passing game for eight years, Steven is stepping into a great situation in Atlanta. The Falcons have a great passing game and a passable offensive line, and talented youngster Jacquizz Rodgers is there to help out on third downs and in passing situations.

As mentioned before, Jacquizz Rodgers is the primary backup and will see a lot of time in a tweener role, taking advantage of his speed and quickness out of the backfield on passing routes. Jason Snelling returns as a versatile backup who can play both running back positions and is a sure-handed receiver. The team also looks to get fullback Bradie Ewing back, who will be a big boost as the lead-blocker for S-Jax and Co. Everyone else are just camp bodies, and I believe what we will see heading into the season is Jackson, Rodgers, Snelling, and Ewing, barring some crazy happenings in camp.

New Orleans Saints - #4

Running Back Fullback
Pierre Thomas Jed Collins
Darren Sproles
Marc Ingram
Khiry Robinson
Travaris Cadet
Austin Johnson

Truth be told, I had a very hard time putting the Saints fourth on this list. I have always thought Pierre Thomas was extremely underrated, and Darren Sproles is still one of the most dangerous weapons in the game. Also, while Marc Ingram has clearly been a "bust" to this point in his career, he still has talent and could decide at any minute to put it all together. The blocking is also there. Jed Collins is a very solid fullback and the offensive line is stout.

The problem is that the Saints just don't use the rush like most teams, and I find it hard to rank a crew of talented specialists who will surely be underutilized again this year over the potential stars on the other three divisional teams. Remember, while Darren Sproles is technically on this list, he does most of his damage for the Saints as a return man. His second most production comes out of the passing game off of screens and by shifting out to the wide receiver position. When the Saints did rush it last year, they barely eclipsed 4 yards per carry and ranked twenty-fifth with only 1,577 yards as a team.

The bottom line is that the Saints are built to pass. They will use the running game as a distraction and to keep the opposition honest, but this is Sean Payton and Drew Brees' team, and the road to victory lies with the pass. This is the very reason the Saints are ranked dead last for running backs. Not because they don't necessarily have the talent, but because the talent will not be used to its potential.

Well, that about does it for my thoughts on the NFC South running backs. What do you guys think? Sound off in the comments!

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