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Ranking all 32 NFL backfields: Projections and 2018 outlook

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Woody: Bell is 'the best all-around back' in NFL (1:06)

Damien Woody sees Le'Veon Bell as the most important piece to the Steelers' offense. (1:06)

The running back position is not what it used to be.

With NFL teams passing more than ever and backs expected to catch and pass-protect, focus has shifted from workhorses to committees.

Here is my ranking of all 32 backfields, with stat projections and what to expect from each unit in 2018.


1. New Orleans Saints

Top three backs: Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, Terrance West

Projected unit stats: 386 carries, 1,721 yards, 16 TDs; 122 receptions, 1,080 yards, 5 TDs

Outlook: Ingram's four-game suspension to begin the 2018 season is not enough to knock New Orleans from the top spot. Led by Ingram and Kamara, the Saints' backfield paced the league in rushing yards (2,011), yards per carry (5.10), receptions (143), receiving yards (1,254) and total touchdowns (26) last season. New Orleans backs have flourished in the passing game during the Drew Brees/Sean Payton era, ranking first in the league in receptions (1,339), receiving yards (10,187) and touchdown catches (67) over the past decade. West and intriguing sixth-round pick Boston Scott are the favorites for No. 3 duties and could make some noise while Ingram is sidelined.

2. Los Angeles Rams

Top three backs: Todd Gurley II, John Kelly, Malcolm Brown

Projected unit stats: 374 carries, 1,636 yards, 13 TDs; 75 receptions, 660 yards, 3 TDs

Outlook: Gurley was arguably the league's best running back last season. He paced all backs in scrimmage yards (2,093) and touchdowns (19), while averaging 4.7 YPC (10th) and 12.3 yards per reception (second). Gurley was on the field for more than 80 percent of the Rams' offensive snaps when he was active, and that number doesn't figure to change much in 2018 with Brown and intriguing rookie Kelly, a sixth-round pick, next up on the depth chart.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers

Top three backs: Le'Veon Bell, James Conner, Jaylen Samuels

Projected unit stats: 379 carries, 1,610 yards, 12 TDs; 88 receptions, 704 yards, 3 TDs

Outlook: Bell is the ultimate workhorse. Counting only the weeks he was active over the past two seasons, he was on the field for 92 percent of the Steelers' snaps, ran a route on 85 percent of the pass plays and was responsible for 82 percent of the designed runs and 20 percent of the targets. Last season, Bell easily paced the position in carries (321), rushing yards (1,291) and receptions (85). Assuming his holdout ends prior to Week 1, Bell will be a good bet to eclipse 1,200 scrimmage yards for the fifth time in six seasons. Second-year back Conner and rookie H-back Samuels will pick up the scraps.

4. Atlanta Falcons

Top three backs: Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Ito Smith

Projected unit stats: 384 carries, 1,600 yards, 13 TDs; 86 receptions, 767 yards, 4 TDs

Outlook: If this experiment was instead focused on backfield duos, you'd be hard-pressed to rank Atlanta outside the top two. Since teaming up in 2015, Freeman and Coleman have combined for 1,049 carries for 4,540 yards and 43 touchdowns to go with 223 catches for 2,091 yards and 12 scores. That works out to an outstanding 4.3 YPC and 9.4 YPR. Freeman, who signed a contract extension last August, will continue to lead the Atlanta backfield, but Coleman, who's entering a contract year, will mix in with 10 to 12 touches per game.

5. Dallas Cowboys

Top three backs: Ezekiel Elliott, Tavon Austin, Rod Smith

Projected unit stats: 398 carries, 1,730 yards, 14 TDs; 73 receptions, 634 yards, 3 TDs

Outlook: Since Elliott arrived in 2016, the Dallas backfield ranks first in the NFL in rushing attempts (839), first in rushing yards (3,757), fifth in rushing touchdowns (30) and third in yards per carry (4.5). On the other hand, Cowboys backs haven't done much as receivers, ranking near the bottom in most categories, including dead last in touchdown catches over the past three years (four) and decade (12). Elliott is the feature back here, but Dallas traded for Austin in April, and he's expected to handle change-of-pace and some receiving duties. Believe it or not, Austin's 6.7 YPC since entering the league in 2013 is best among all backs with at least 100 carries.