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Ranking the RB units the Patriots will face in 2017

Positional Rankings Series: The Patriots’ 2017 opponents — running backs.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

In this series we’ll rank the positional groups for each of the 13 teams on the Patriots’ 2017 regular season schedule. We’ll start at the core of the defensive front seven and work outward throughout the defense. Then we’ll do the same for the offense, ultimately finishing at the quarterback position.

Have you missed a position in this series? Catch up here:

Defense: Int. DL Edge DefendersLinebackersSafetiesCornerbacks

Offense: Int. OLTacklesTight Ends — Running Backs — Wide Receivers — Quarterbacks

The Patriots’ defense held their opponents’ ground games to just 88.6 yards per game last season — third in the NFL. Here are the 13 running back units the Patriots will be tasked with stopping in 2017.

1. Atlanta Falcons

The best running back duo on this list is also the best in the NFL. Fifth-round rookie Brian Hill out of Wyoming presumably takes over the third-string duties in 2017. His development and integration into Atlanta’s offense over the next two seasons could prove crucial with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman scheduled for free agency in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

For those wondering, Le’Veon Bell will not impact the wide receiver rankings in this series (of course), despite comments the super star running back reportedly made to former teammate Ike Taylor, now an NFL Network analyst, that he’s looking to be compensated not only as the league’s top ball carrier, but as Pittsburgh’s number-two pass catcher as well. Contract issues aside, Bell is talented enough to carry this unit to the penultimate ranking on this list, regardless of who is behind him on the depth chart.

3. New Orleans Saints

The signing of Adrian Peterson and selection of Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara gives this unit an incredible amount of upside. Polarizing former Heisman winner Mark Ingram looks to build off of a 2016 season in which he played in all 16 games for the first time since 2012. One of the league’s more underrated contributors in the passing game, Ingram notched ten total touchdowns while accumulating 1,362 yards from scrimmage on 251 touches (46 catches) last year.

4. Miami Dolphins

This Dolphins’ unit possesses the most depth of the teams on this list whose carry share is dominated by a prominent “feature” back. Jay Ajayi, PFF’s fourth highest graded running back in 2016, should once again monopolize the workload in Adam Gase’s offense. Behind Ajayi is Damien Williams, who was solid in his his limited short yardage and goal line situations last year, as well Kenyan Drake, the team’s speedy third-round pick from Alabama who was active for all 16 games in his rookie season. Drake’s development into a consistent outlet for Ryan Tannehill and the passing game could be a major factor in Miami taking their offensive attack to the next level.

5. Los Angeles Chargers

Following a disappointing rookie season, Melvin Gordon achieved “breakout” status in 2016 by amassing 1,311 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns through the first 13 weeks, only to see his year cut short by an achilles injury. With the departure of Danny Woodhead this offseason, Gordon will have the entire backfield to himself in 2017, with Kenneth Barrow, Brandon Oliver, Andre Williams, and Kenyon Barner all vying for a spot on the Chargers’ running back depth chart heading into training camp.

6. Carolina Panthers

Veteran Jonathan Stewart, who hasn’t been active for all 16 regular season games since the 2011 season, won’t be relied upon nearly as much in 2017 with the arrival of his eventual full-time replacement Christian McCaffrey, the ninth overall selection in this year’s draft. The role of Curtis Samuel, the team’s shifty second-round hybrid athlete out of Ohio State, has yet to be defined. The rookie tandem will bring a welcome dose of athleticism and versatility to a Carolina offense in desperate need of both.

7. Oakland Raiders

Traditionally one would expect a sharp decline in production from a running back unit that saw 47% of its snaps walk in free agency, only to be replaced by a veteran returning from a one-year respite from the game. Yet, even though the return of Marshawn Lynch to his hometown organization isn’t entirely without its apprehensions, it’s difficult to restrain the presumption that he’ll be an upgrade over Latavius Murray, whose plodding, uninspiring style failed to produce anything above and beyond the baseline results you would expect from such a high-volume role. Beast Mode will join talented second-year backs Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington behind Oakland’s dominant interior offensive line trio.

8. Buffalo Bills

Depth is clearly the component plaguing this unit’s ranking. With the Patriots’ poaching of Mike Gillislee this offseason, 2016 fifth-round pick Jonathan Williams will assume the role of LeSean McCoy’s primary backup. Shady, who enters his ninth year in the NFL in 2017, will be called upon once again to be the bell cow that keeps the Bills’ offense on track. Barring injury, he should eclipse the 10,000 career rushing yards threshold this season.

9. Houston Texans

Lamar Miller’s 2016 career-high touch total of 299 was 45 more than his 2013 total. The added work, coupled with poor offensive line and quarterback play, took a toll on Miller’s effectiveness towards the end of the season. Whether or not Alfred Blue returns to his backup role in 2017 remains to be see, as he’ll receive a challenge from University of Texas rookie D’Onta Foreman.

10. New York Jets

Bilal Powell might be the league’s most underrated running back. He was improperly deployed and underutilized in 2016, with the Jets opting to start the aging, hampered Matt Forte until week 15. After stepping into the lead back role in the first half of the the team’s week-14 contest in San Francisco, Powell was out to make sure the Jets’ coaching staff was fully aware of what they had deprived the offense of all season long. In those final four games, he racked up 552 total yards on 103 touches with six touchdowns.

11. Denver Broncos

After matching the Dolphins’ four-year, $18 million offer sheet last offseason for C.J. Anderson, the Broncos’ running back unit seemed to be on the right tracking heading into the 2016 season. But the injury that ended Anderson’s season after just seven games sent the unit’s production into a nose dive. Rookie Devontae Booker, who was perhaps thrust into the spotlight too soon, struggled to gather momentum. Anderson, now healthy, returns to his starting role in 2017 and is joined by Booker, veterans Jamaal Charles and Bernard Pierce, and Juwan Thompson.

12. Kansas City Chiefs

The usual suspects — Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West — will be returning to the Chiefs’ backfield this fall. The sturdy yet unspectacular duo split the workload in Jamaal Charles’ absence over the past few seasons. However, it’s a unit where burst and athleticism have been in short supply — a deficiency the Chiefs set out this offseason to correct by bringing in talented third-round rookie Kareem Hunt from the University of Toledo. Hunt should have his sights set on immediately chipping away at the carry share in Andy Reid’s offense.

13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

With Doug Martin receiving little to no reassurance from the coaching staff that his spot on the roster is safe following a drug related suspension in 2016, Tampa’s running game could find itself relying heavily the “so underrated he might be a little overrated” Charles Sims, Jacquizz Rodgers, Peyton Barber, rookie Jeremy McNichols,etc. Training camp will undoubtedly be a true pasta test for this unit — throw it against the wall and see what sticks.

How would you rank these units?

Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter - @Bphillips_PP