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Ranking the positions: Ezekiel Elliott, Adrian Peterson among top backs to face Falcons


Editor's note: This is the sixth and final installment in a six-part series ranking the different position groups of the Falcons' 2017 opponents.

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Falcons are fortunate to have two of the most versatile running backs in the NFL in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. A backfield that provides various mismatch opportunities can be a major advantage, as Atlanta proved in 2016.


Speaking with reporters after Sunday's training camp practice, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said he believes Freeman and Coleman are "two of the most talented guys in the league."

Atlanta isn't the only team with talented backs in its backfield, however. The Falcons will face some of the best running backs in the league this fall. Here's my ranking of the top seven running backs the Falcons will play in 2017.

7. Ty Montgomery, Green Bay Packers

  • When they play in 2017:Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017, in Atlanta
  • Top plays in 2016:**Watch here**
  • Summary:A converted receiver, Montgomery became an effective running back for Green Bay last season. He's not a prototypical back, but Montgomery has a lot to offer in terms of agility. No running back was more elusive than Montgomery last year, according to PFF. His 116.4 elusive rating, which measures a runner's success when he's moved past the point of being helped by his blockers, was 25.7 points higher than the second back on the list.
  • Outlook:Green Bay drafted three running backs in April, which doesn't appear to bode well for Montgomery's long-term status at the position. But he was the NFL's productive running back with 5.9 yards per carry in 2016, which highlights how effective he can be.

6. Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers

  • When they play in 2017:Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, in Charlotte and Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Atlanta
  • Top plays in 2016:**Watch here**
  • Summary:Stewart isn't necessarily one of the top-tier backs in the league, but he's more than capable of putting together a big performance if teams aren't prepared. With Cam Newton in the same backfield, he's never had a massive workload in a single season, but Stewart did gain 824 yards and score nine touchdowns on 218 carries in 2016.
  • Outlook:As of now, Stewart should still be the top dog in Carolina. Even considering the additions of Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel, Stewart is built differently and should still receive a good portion of the work in the Panther's power-running game. All signs point to McCaffrey having the potential to be a true difference-maker for the Panthers, but he may be used as more of a hybrid running back-receiver in 2017. It would come as no surprise if McCaffrey is high on this list next year.

5. Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins

  • When they play in 2017:Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017, in Atlanta
  • Top plays in 2016:**Watch here**
  • Summary:Many expected Arian Foster to be the Dolphins' featured back entering last season, but it was Ajayi who became a breakout star. In his second NFL season, Ajayi gained 1,272 yards and eight touchdowns on 260 carries. According to PFF, his 58 forced missed tackles were the most in the league by a large margin.
  • Outlook:Like the other young backs on this list, Ajayi must now prove his 2016 season was more than one great year. He's an electric runner who looks poised to enjoy a successful career.

4. Adrian Peterson/Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints

  • When they play in 2017:Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, in Atlanta and Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017, in New Orleans
  • Top plays in 2016: Peterson –**Watch here**, Ingram –**Watch here**
  • Summary:Peterson has long been considered one of the best, if not the best, running back in the NFL. His 2016 season was cut short with a torn meniscus, but he gained 1,485 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2015. Ingram has steadily improved since arriving in the league in 2011. Last season, Ingram gained more than 1,000 yards for the first time in his NFL career.
  • Outlook:It remains unclear how exactly the Saints will utilize their two backs, so I've listed them together on this ranking. On the surface, Peterson seems like an odd fit in Sean Peyton's pass-oriented system. It's unlikely the Saints would have made this move without a plan in place, however, and if Peterson can get back to his 2015 form, it could pay off big.

3. Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears

  • When they play in 2017:Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, in Chicago
  • Top plays in 2016:**Watch here**
  • Summary:A fifth-round draft pick last season, Howard had a breakout rookie season and was one of the few bright spots for Chicago. Howard carried the ball 252 times for 1,313 yards and six touchdowns, and his 85.5 grade from Pro Football Focus was fifth-highest among running backs.
  • Outlook:With only one year under his belt, the biggest question concerning Howard is whether he can replicate his rookie production. Howard was a great player with the ball in his hands, but he struggled as a receiver coming out of the backfield. The Bears don't have much depth behind Howard to fall back on, although that shouldn't matter much in Week 1.

2. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills

  • When they play in 2017:Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, in Atlanta
  • Top plays in 2016:**Watch here**
  • Summary:In his second season with the Bills, McCoy topped the 1,000-yard mark for the fifth time in his eight-year career. When healthy, few backs are more proven than McCoy. He gained 1,267 yards and 15 touchdowns on just 234 carries and forms a lethal rushing tandem with quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
  • Outlook:Buffalo made a tremendous addition in the offseason by signing fullback Patrick DiMarco. Falcons fans will know what DiMarco will bring to his new team, which means the McCoy should be in even better shape next season. 1. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
  • When they play in 2017:Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017, in Atlanta
  • Top plays in 2016:**Watch here**
  • Summary:Elliott established himself as one of the best running backs and overall players in the NFL as a rookie in 2016. His fluid, powerful running style made Elliott one of the most exciting players to watch last season, and he led the league with 1,631 yards and 15 on 322 carries. Elliott was PFF's second-best running back in the league last year, earning an 88.8 grade.
  • Outlook:The Falcons avoided facing Elliott in the playoffs last season after Green Bay's dramatic victory over the Cowboys, but they will get to see the NFL's reigning rushing champ in Week 10. Watching Elliott go toe-to-toe with the likes of Deion Jones and Keanu Neal will make for an exciting afternoon of football.
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