What are my criteria for measuring running backs? No. 1 is the ability to make the first tackier miss, whether it's with elusiveness or balance or a feel for where the soft spot is in the defense. No. 2 is the power to break a tackle, and No. 3 is downfield speed. But in assessing overall value, you also have to look at a player's role in the passing game. Larry Centers, for example, may carry the ball only a handful of times a season, but his pass-catching makes him a valuable part of the offense. I'd like to include in my list backs whose primary job is to block, but I think they belong in a different category.
1 Marshall Faulk
? St. Louis moved him around last year, played him in space, ran him between the tackles, sent him downfield to catch passes—he did it all. And he shows no signs of wearing down.
2 Eddie George
?Like Faulk, he carried his team last season. A gathering force who simply wore down defenses, he figured prominently in the passing game with a career high in catches.
3 Edgerrin James
?He caught heat for skipping voluntary off-season workouts, but on the field he's been strictly business, leading the NFL in rushing in each of his first two years.
4 Curtis Martin
?Tireless runner has gained more than 1,100 yards in each of his six seasons. Responded with a career high in catches last year when called on to fill a need.
5 Warrick Dunn
?When will Tampa Bay stop hurling his 180-pound body into the line and start using him the way the Rams employ Faulk? A master at making people miss.
6 Ricky Walters
?He's been underrated throughout his career. Is he starting to slow down? No signs of it. Coming off his sixth straight 1,000-yard season and hasn't missed a game in seven years.
7 Corey Dillon
?Everyone figured he'd be snapped up in free-agency wars, but Cincinnati anted up $32 million to retain this slashing burner who keeps cranking out 1,000-yard seasons.
8 Fred Taylor
?When healthy, adds real punch to Jacksonville's attack with his power and elusiveness, but he missed nine games over last two seasons. I'm betting he can stay healthy.
9 Charlie Garner
?The knock was "not durable enough," but he didn't miss a game the past two seasons as a 49er. Should stay fresh in Oakland while sharing the load with Tyrone Wheatley.