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Posted: Tuesday May 26, 2009 1:00PM; Updated: Thursday May 28, 2009 9:42AM

Ranking best backfields in the NFL

Story Highlights

San Diego ranks No. 1 with Philip Rivers and LaDainian Tomlinson

Deep stable of running backs help Dallas Cowboys crack the top three

Recent injuries, unmet expectations to blame for bottom two backfields

By John Mullin, Special to

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Philip Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson
San Diego QB Philip Rivers and RB LaDainian Tomlinson lead the NFL's top backfield.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

General managers, coaches and fantasy footballers rank 1-2-3 (though not necessarily in that order) as talent evaluators for quarterbacks and running backs. And they need to be good at it because jobs and bragging rights are at stake when it comes to those positions.

In an effort to help all three groups with their evaluations, we've ranked the NFL's quarterback-running back pairings. Notably, two of the top nine QB-RB packages play in the NFC North (And here's a hint: Neither employs Brett Favre or plays indoors.)

Some notes on the measurements used:

• If a team's backup is an active ingredient in the mix or is arguably good enough to start for a number of other teams, that backup factored into the rating. This was not the case for every team.

• Since few teams use a true fullback in their schemes, we didn't fold that position into the backfield lineups.

• Rookies are difficult to rank, for obvious reasons, and quarterbacks particularly so. But we viewed some (Matt Stafford in Detroit, Mark Sanchez in New York) as positives because they likely can't be worse than what they're replacing.

• Additions and subtractions via free agency and the draft affected some backfields more than others, even if those additions or subtractions weren't quarterbacks or running backs. Changes at various positions, even on defense, have clear trickle-down potential for quarterbacks and running backs.

• Rankings are based on more than skills and numbers alone. Joe Montana, for example, may not have been the NFL's top passer in his prime, but he was arguably its best quarterback.

With that in mind, here's how the 32 NFL backfields rank:

(Agree or disagree with these rankings? Share your thoughts here.)

1. San Diego Chargers

Who: QB Philip Rivers; RBs LaDanian Tomlinson, Darren Sproles

Add/subtract: When you have the NFL's top-rated passer and two backs combining for 1,440 rush yards, 81 receptions and 18 TDs, you don't need to add much. The Chargers went big on power, drafting two offensive linemen and two defensive linemen with their first four picks. Of course, getting Shawne Merriman back may be the biggest "add" of all.

Questionable: How much longer can L.T. continue being L.T.? And will Rivers' maturity finally match his talent? Maybe more to the point, if Merriman and that defense start setting up this backfield on short fields, how good can this team be?

The thought: Rivers and the Bolts got a delicious taste of what it feels like when it all comes together. And L.T., one of the great tailbacks in NFL history, has at least one year left, and his understudy would start for more than a few clubs.

2. New York Giants

Who: QB Eli Manning; RBs Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw

Add/subtract: The Giants will miss 1,000-yard back Derrick Ward and WR Plaxico Burress (who they sorely missed last season). But the Giants drafted two WR's (Hakeem Nicks, Ramses Barden), one TE (Travis Beckum) and an OT (Will Beatty) in the first three rounds to add playmates for an already elite backfield.

Questionable: The Burress aftershocks should be over, but are they?

The thought: This top-10 offense was on a mission to improve its skill positions. It will be difficult to keep it from topping the 427 points it notched last season.

3. Dallas Cowboys

Who: QB Tony Romo; RBs Marion Barber, Felix Jones, Tashard Choice

Add/subtract: Terrell Owens. You decide if that's an addition or not.

Questionable: Can Roy Williams become the deep threat Romo needs to force defenses out of eight-man fronts?

The thought: Romo's passer rating (91.4) was significantly higher than his U.S. Open qualifying score (80), and that's a good thing. Instead of handing clubs to caddies, he'll be handing pigskins to the three-headed monster at tailback. Having all those options will allow Romo to play relaxed and balanced -- and talk to Jason Witten without T.O. getting suspicious.

4. New England Patriots

Who: QB Tom Brady; RBs Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor

Add/subtract: Taylor is a class vet who fits the Patriots' mold. Brady returns to added OL depth and help at WR in the form of Joey Galloway and Greg Lewis, respectfully.

Questionable: Brady's knee is clearly the big question, but it's not the only one. How much fuel do Taylor, Galloway and others have left?

The thought: This bunch didn't miss many beats when Matt Cassel took over for Brady. And do we think Brady will come back even more motivated than usual, leading a team that uncharacteristically missed the playoffs?

5. Philadelphia Eagles

Who: QB Donovan McNabb; RB Brian Westbrook

Add/subtract: LT Jason Peters is a franchise addition in front of McNabb and Westbrook, and Stacy Andrews is another starter-grade OL addition. Drafting Jeremy Maclin in the first round this season and DeSean Jackson in the second last year does nothing but make McNabb and Westbrook more dangerous.

Questionable:The heavy load on Westbrook has worn him down and McNabb is high mileage at 32.

The Thought: With the draft of Pitt RB LeSean McCoy in Round 2, McNabb and Westbrook now may feel like they're in Kiddieland.

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