Rating running backs in the NFC West

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The Seahawks' decision to sign 31-year-old Edgerrin James and confer upon him "complementary" status behind "workhorse" Julius Jones showed what the team thought about its quality depth at running back: not a great deal.

The move upgraded the position, in my view, because James is better suited than was T.J. Duckett to step into the lineup on a full-time basis if needed.

But the Seahawks still might be chasing the rest of the NFC West at the position.

James' signing provides an opportunity to size up the position across the division.

I ranked each team's situation at running back in my mind before calling Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. to talk through each situation. He felt more strongly than I did about ranking the Rams' situation No. 1, ahead of the 49ers' situation. We agreed on ranking the Cardinals' running backs third, ahead of the Seahawks' backs.

Rankings and explanations follow:

1. St. Louis Rams

Current backs: Steven Jackson, Samkon Gado, Antonio Pittman, Kenneth Darby, Chris Ogbonnaya, Mike Karney (FB), Jerome Johnson (FB)

Williamson's take: "Adrian Peterson is the best back in the league and I would probably give the No. 2 honor to DeAngelo Williams right now, but then Steven Jackson is right there -- if healthy, of course. I think he'll get a ton of touches there. They are installing more of an Eagles-type offense. He'll be a bigger, badder version of Brian Westbrook and catch a lot of balls. He will also be the focus of every defense and there could be a greater chance of injury. Karney is a little more athletic than some of the pure straight-ahead hammer blockers. He has had injury problems, too."

My take: The 49ers' overall depth at running back appeals, but Jackson is unquestionably a special player athletically, more so than any back in the division. Special traits always appeal to the scout, which might explain why Williamson was quick to rank the Rams' running backs ahead of those in San Francisco. From my perspective, the Rams' situation at running back might be best in the division while it lasts. I question whether Jackson can hold up for a full season. The drop-off from Jackson to the next guy -- whoever it might be -- will be more dramatic than elsewhere in the division. That's another reason I'm a little nervous about ranking the Rams' running backs No. 1.

2. San Francisco 49ers

Current backs: Frank Gore, Glen Coffee, Michael Robinson, Kory Sheets, Moran Norris (FB), Bill Rentmeester (FB), Brit Miller (FB)

Williamson's take: "I like Gore as well. I would say he is more of the fifth- to 10th-best back in the league. I do not think his skills are as impressive as Jackson's skills. He is also going to be a jack-of-all-trades and get a ton of touches, but his job will be a little easier because I think their passing game will be more respectable than St. Louis' passing game. Of the fullbacks, I like Norris probably the best in the division. He will help Gore's cause. I don't think that is a determining factor one way or another, though."

My take: Gore has shown signs of wearing down late in seasons. He could be at additional risk as the team commits more fully to a run-oriented power scheme. But his toughness and running style earn him high marks. He's enjoying a sensational summer and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye has said Gore will matter more than the quarterback. All signs point to Gore revisiting the production level he enjoyed during the 2006 season. And with Coffee breaking out in the preseason, the 49ers appear better protected than the Rams if their starter gets hurt.

3. Arizona Cardinals

Current backs: Tim Hightower, Beanie Wells, Jason Wright, LaRod Stephens-Howling, Chris Vincent, Dan Kreider (FB), Tim Castille (FB), Reagan Maui'a (FB)

Williamson's take: "James is more proven than Hightower, but Hightower is cheaper. I don't think he is a special player at all. He has had a better preseason than I expected, but he does not bring any special quality to the table. He is not an extremely powerful player, he is not going to wear down defense, his pass-catching skills are ordinary, he is not a make-you-miss guy and he is not a speed player. Wells has the most talent of any back in Arizona or Seattle."

My take: Cutting James and adding Wells is like moving money from a savings account into something riskier. James was never going to pay off big at this stage of his career. Wells has the talent to complete an already productive offense, but it's tough to believe he'll be healthier in the NFL than he was in college. I know he didn't miss many games at Ohio State, but he's already missed a bunch of training camp. The burden of proof is on Wells at this point. Hightower has been more productive in the preseason because he has taken the opportunity seriously. He looks leaner and quicker than he was last season. The Cardinals can get more from this position by resisting the temptation to throw so frequently.

4. Seattle Seahawks

Current backs: Julius Jones, Edgerrin James, Justin Forsett, Devin Moore, Owen Schmitt (FB), Justin Griffith (FB), Dan Curran (FB), David Kirtman (FB)

Williamson's take: "I don't trust Jones to carry the load. I probably like him better than Hightower, though. I don't like him as a No. 1, but I don't know if either team has a No. 1 right now. Wells has the best chance. Jones is a complementary player, a gets-what-is-there kind of back. I don't think he is a great receiver or anything. He is not tremendously powerful or elusive. Justin Forsett is probably the most intriguing back between Arizona and Seattle. With Edgerrin James, I don't have a lot of faith in him. One thing people don't understand about his game, though, is that he is a great pass-protection back. He will be used more out of the backfield than he was the last couple years, especially with Seattle's offensive line being shaky. He can grind out some yards and could be good in the red zone."

My take: The Seahawks haven't targeted the position early in the draft recently and it shows. Paying Shaun Alexander all that money a few years ago set back the position. The team wasn't going to immediately invest as much in a replacement. Jones and James are both very good in pass protection, though, and I think that will help the offense more than the running stats will show. This looks like a pass-first team on paper. We'll find out whether the zone blocking scheme can manufacture production. Having the same five offensive linemen for more than a week or two would certainly help. Forsett has been the Seahawks' most impressive back this summer.