In a league that increasingly values the passing game, benefiting quarterbacks and wide receivers, some of the hardest workers in the league, the running backs, can feel undervalued at times. […]
In a league that increasingly values the passing game, benefiting quarterbacks and wide receivers, some of the hardest workers in the league, the running backs, can feel undervalued at times.
Yes, it’s true that you don’t need a top running back to reach and win the Super Bowl in the modern NFL. But having a consistent threat at the position can still be an offense’s bread and butter in 2022, and a solid running game opens up even more opportunities in the passing game. While it’s been quite some time since the league’s top running back willed his team to a Super Bowl win, having a top player carrying the ball still results in success: four of the my top ten running backs helped their team reach the playoffs, and nearly all of them (save for injuries) had their team in at least striking distance of a playoff berth.
Just like ranking quarterbacks in 2022 requires a look at not only the player’s passing skills, but their rushing abilities as well, ranking the league’s top running backs calls for an evaluation of these player’s pure rushing abilities as well as their ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. There are different styles at the position for sure: from downhill runners like Derrick Henry to speedsters like Nick Chubb to pass-catchers like Alvin Kamara and total packages like Christian McCaffrey.
When ranking running backs, I’m looking at their prospects for the 2022-23 season. While previous success is great, wear and tear will also factor in to the rankings for the upcoming season. I’ll be taking in to consideration:
Effectiveness: Not every running back gets the same opportunities, but what they do with these opportunities matter. Yards per carry and yards per game are important metrics here. Big runs (20+ yards) are a huge plus, and fumbles are generally a drawback.
Receiving ability: As mentioned, despite different rushing styles, the modern NFL running back is generally tasked with catching at least a couple passes a game. If an exceptional rusher is only an average receiver, that’s not necessarily a negative, but abilities that help the offense in the passing game are definitely positives.
Workload and consistency: Running back can be a flash-in-the-pan position at times, but these top players have carried the ball numerous times, and for the most art, for numerous seasons. These top running backs have demonstrated clear value above replacement-level players.
Saquon Barkley, New York Giants: Former Penn State standout and second overall pick by the New York Giants in 2018, Saquon Barkley, deserves a shout-out for his raw talent as well as his incredible 2018 and 2019 campaigns. Barkley led all NFL players with 2,028 yards from scrimmage in 2018, earning Rookie of the Year and Pro Bowl honors. But Barkley has been slowed by injuries, and even when he’s on the field, lackluster offensive line play and steeply declining returns in yardage totals. Entering his fifth NFL season at just 25 years old, Barkley can still re-establish himself with a solid year on the new-look Giants. Don’t take this honorable mention as Barkley being a Top 15 RB: he’s probably not as of right now. However, he posses more potential than the average running back to become one of the league’s top rushers in 2022.
Damien Harris, New England Patriots: While New England Patriots running back Damien Harris doesn’t rush the ball with quite the volume of the league’s top running backs, he made the most of each and every carry in 2021. The third-year back punched the ball in the end zone 15 times on 202 carries, totaling 929 rushing yards and averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Harris also caught 18 passes for 132 yards with a high 85.7% catch rate, averaging just over one catch per game.
Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders: I really wanted to put Las Vegas Raiders third-year running back Josh Jacobs on this list, but he just misses the cut for the Top 10. To move up, Jacobs needs to improve his yards per carry (4.0) and yards per game (58.1) totals from 2021. But Jacobs was still productive in multiple ways: picking up 872 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground off 217 rush attempts, and hauling in 54 catches for 348 yards. Jacobs picked up 59 first downs for the Raiders between rushing and receiving, and totaled 1,220 yards from scrimmage on the season.
Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers: Entering his sixth season in the NFL, Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones just misses the Top 10. However, Jones is an underrated anchor on the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers offense. Jones carried the ball 171 times in 15 games for 799 yards and four touchdowns. Jones caught 52 passes for 391 yards and six touchdowns as well, totaling 1,190 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns overall.
10. Ezekiel Elliot, Dallas Cowboys
Ezekiel Elliot has certainly accumulated some wear-and-tear over his six seasons in the NFL. The former Ohio State running back and fourth overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys took the league by storm, leading the league in rushing yards in two of his first three seasons. While Elliot has regressed a bit and experienced a so-so 2021 campaign (by his own high standards,) the Cowboys running back is still one of the most talented rushers in the league.
Elliot played in all 17 regular season games in 2021, anchoring the Cowboys offense en route to an NFC East division title. Elliot carried the ball 237 times for 1,002 yards and 10 touchdowns. Elliot’s 1,002 rushing yards ranked seventh in the NFL, and his 10 rushing scores was tied for sixth in the NFL.
Where Elliot lagged behind was yards per carry (4.2, just above his career low) and yards per game (58.9, nearly half of what he was averaging in his rookie campaign.) Elliot also mustered just three “big runs” of 20 yards or more in 2021, something he was routinely doing when he first came on to the league.
Elliot’s usage in the passing game declined after three seasons averaging over three catches per game, but Elliot was still impactful with 47 catches for 287 yards and two scores.
Finally, Elliot has been able to cut down on the fumbling issues that plagued him early in his NFL career. After putting the ball on the ground 21 times through five seasons, including six times in 2020, Elliot fumbled just once in 2021.
9. Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
Joe Mixon has been an above average running back for the Cincinnati Bengals since 2018. After an injury-shortened 2020 campaign, the 25-year-old running back picked up right where he left off in 2021, earning his third straight 1,000-yard campaign in seasons where he played 14 games or more. Mixon was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career in 2021, and was undoubtedly a key factor leading to the Bengals successful season and deep playoff run.
Mixon carried a heavy workload for the Bengals, with 292 rush attempts, the third-most in the NFL behind Jonathan Taylor and Najee Harris. Mixon totaled 1,205 yards on the ground, third in the NFL, with 13 rushing scores, fourth in the NFL. Mixon’s 4.1 yards per carry didn’t rank particularly high, but given his high volume, it’s a respectable number nonetheless.
Out of the backfield, Mixon caught 42 passes for 314 yards and three touchdowns from quarterback Joe Burrow. Mixon caught nearly everything thrown his way, with an 87.5% catch rate.
With a career-high 334 touches, Mixon fumbled just twice. The fifth-year running back out of Oklahoma has only put the ball on the ground six times in 66 career games and 57 career starts.
8. Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers
After being selected 24th overall in the 2021 NFL Draft out of Alabama, the Pittsburgh Steelers wasted no time putting Najee Harris to work last season. Harris was a workhorse for the Steelers rushing offense: totaling 1,200 yards (fourth in the NFL) on 307 carries (second in the NFL.) Harris found the end zone seven times on the ground and averaged 70.6 yards per game in his 17-game rookie campaign. Harris broke out for six 20+ yard runs with a longest rush of 37 yards.
At 3.9 yards per carry, Harris can work on improving his efficiency moving forward. But given the circumstances of the team he was on, where opposing defenses knew Harris was getting the rock, as well as his insanely high usage, Harris performed quite well in 2021 and is already establishing himself as one of the league’s top running backs.
Harris made a huge difference in the passing game, recording 74 receptions for 467 yards and three touchdowns. Between his 307 rush attempts and 74 catches, the Steelers rookie running back led the NFL with 381 touches last season. Even more impressively: in 381 touches, Harris didn’t fumble the ball even once.
Harris was ultimately selected to the Pro Bowl to cap off an impressive rookie season.
An integral part of the Chargers offense (alongside another Top 10 player at their position, quarterback Justin Herbert,) Ekeler made impacts all over the field. Ekeler carried the ball 206 times for 911 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns last season. Despite his 206 carries ranking 14th in the NFL, Ekeler finished fifth in rushing touchdowns and 12th in rushing yards.
Ekeler averaged a cool 4.4 yards per attempt on the ground, but made an even bigger impact in the receiving game. Ekeler caught 70 passes from Herbert for 647 yards and eight receiving touchdowns. Ekeler averaged 4.4 catches per game, constantly making an impact in the passing game, and averaged 9.2 yards per reception.
Ekeler led the NFL in total touchdowns with 20: 12 on the ground and 8 as a receiver. Scoring 20 times on 276 touches is pretty impressive: Ekeler basically put the ball in the end zone on 7% of his touches.
Ekeler could work on ball security (four fumbles in 2021) and breaking off longer runs (longest run in 2021 was 28 yards, just three 20+ runs) but overall, the Chargers running back is one of the most successful players at his position right now.
6. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
The next two players on this list represent a crossroads where insanely productivity (Harris and Ekeler) meets perceived talent. New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara has been one of the NFL’s best players, overall for his entire five-year career. He’s been named to the Pro Bowl all five seasons, including a slightly injury-plagued, slightly underproductive 2021-22 season.
Let’s start with last season, where Kamara appeared in 15 games. The fourth-year running back rushed for 932 yards on 187 carries (a strong 5.0 yards per carry) and scored 16 touchdowns on the ground. Kamara gained another 756 yards as a receiver, catching a career-high 83 passes and scoring five touchdowns. Kamara led the NFL with 21 total touchdowns in Drew Brees’ final NFL season.
In 2021, the new-look Saints used Kamara much more as a traditional runner, and his efficiency took a hit as a result. Despite appearing in a career-low 13 games, Kamara had a career-high 240 carries last season for 898 yards and four touchdowns. Not only was Kamara’s touchdown rate down (after twice posting double-digit rushing scores) but Kamara also rushed for a career-low 3.7 yards per carry, lowering his career average to 4.6 yards per carry. Kamara caught 47 passes from Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill for 439 yards and five touchdowns, with a career-low 70.1% catch rate.
Based purely on 2021 production, Kamara may not seem like one of the NFL’s best backs right now, but the fact of the matter is, Kamara is still an elite player at the running back position. His down year can be excused due to on-and-off injuries, a major change at quarterback, the absence of Michael Thomas at as a receiving threat, and a change in usage style. I fully expect a healthy Kamara to be dominating the field again in 2022.
5. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
When healthy, Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey is one of the best players in the NFL, regardless of position. Unfortunately, after appearing in all 48 games over his first three seasons in the league, McCaffrey has been limited to just three games in 2020 and seven games in 2021.
So let’s look back to McCaffrey’s last full season: a historic 2019 campaign where McCaffrey became the third player ever to surpass 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving. McCaffrey ran for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns on 278 carries (4.9 yards per carry) and caught an eye-popping 116 passes for 1,005 yards and four touchdowns. All together, that’s 394 touches for 2,392 yards and 19 touchdowns in one season: and McCaffrey fumbled the ball just once, not even losing it.
Running back shelf lives aren’t super long, but McCaffrey will be just 26 years old heading in to the 2022-23 season. Assuming McCaffrey recovers from the shoulder, hamstring, and ankle injuries he suffered from 2020 to 2021 (all after signing the richest running back deal in NFL history in 2020,) the Panthers running back should be one of the league’s top offensive players once again in 2022.
To put McCaffrey’s once-in-a-generation talent in to perspective, here are some NFL records the running back holds after being selected eighth overall in the 2017 NFL Draft out of Stanford, per Wikipedia:
Most receptions by a running back in a single game (15)
Most receptions by a running back in a single season (116)
Only running back to have two seasons with 100 or more receptions.
First player in NFL history to record over 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in the first 10 games of a season.
Only the third player in NFL history to record over 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in a single season.
First rookie running back in NFL history with 70 receptions and five receiving touchdowns
First player in NFL history with 50 rushing and 50 receiving yards in five consecutive games
Most receptions by a running back in first 3 seasons with 303 receptions
Only the second running back in NFL history with 2000+ receiving yards in his first 42 games
Only the second player in NFL history with at least 20 rushing TDs and at least 15 receiving TDs through their first three seasons.
Third most scrimmage yards in a single season in NFL history (2,392)
4. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
The Panthers struck gold with their pick of Christian McCaffrey eighth overall in the 2017 NFL Draft, but the Minnesota Vikings got their hands on an elite running back in that draft as well when they selected Dalvin Cook with the 41st overall pick.
After easing in to the Vikings offense in 2017 and 2018, Cook has been Minnesota’s full-time running back for three seasons now. That’s three straight seasons with over 248 rushes, over 1,100 rushing yards, five or more touchdowns on the ground, at least 4.5 yards per carry, and for four straight seasons, Cook has ripped off a run of 66 yards or longer. Simply put, Cook has consistently been eating away at opposing defenses for the last three seasons: and he’s been selected to three straight Pro Bowls as a result.
Cook only appeared in 13 out of 17 games in 2021, but still finished fifth in the NFL with 1,159 rushing yards. Cook’s nine runs of 20 yards or more ranked fourth in the NFL, and his six ground scores were tied for 21st in the league. In terms of efficiency, Cook’s 89.2 yards per game ranked fourth in the NFL, and 4.7 yards per carry ranked 12th among qualified running backs.
Cook is also a solid receiving threat, catching an average of 43.7 passes per season over the last three years. In 2021, Cook caught 34 passes for 224 yards. It was Cook’s least productive year-to-date as a receiver, and for some reason, finding the end zone as a pass-catcher has eluded Cook: with just three receiving scores on 182 catches.
Cook also needs to improve his ball security, with three fumbles in 2021 and five fumbles in 2020.
But even with these faults, Cook is still one of the most productive running backs in the NFL right now. He ranks above Kamara and McCaffrey mostly due to the fact he’s been on the field and we know what to expect heading in to 2022. From a pure talent standpoint, sure, McCaffrey probably has what it takes to surpass Cook. But until then, I’m comfortable calling Dalvin Cook the fourth-best running back in the NFL.
3. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
Selecting running back prospects in the NFL Draft is a very hit-or-miss game, but the Cleveland Browns hit one out of the park picking Georgia running back Nick Chubb with the 35th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
In an era of multi-talented backs that can rush and receive to advance the ball, Chubb is a pure rusher, relentlessly terrorizing defenses with his strength and speed. Chubb has basically rushed for 1,000+ yards each year in his NFL career, though his rookie season ended with 996 rushing yards. The Browns running back as also scored eight or more touchdowns in each of his first four seasons, showing incredible consistency. Finally, Chubb has never averaged less than 5.0 yards per carry in a season and holds a career mark of 5.3 yards per rush on 908 career carries. That’s an elite mark that most running backs can’t hit for one season, let alone four.
In 2021, Chubb earned his third straight trip to the Pro Bowl. Appearing in 14 games, Chubb rushed the ball 228 times for 1,259 yards and eight touchdowns. Chubb ranked second in rushing yards behind only Jonathan Taylor, and second in 20+ rushes with 12, also just behind Taylor. Chubb’s longest run in 2021 was 70 yards, and he’s broken off 88 and 92-yard runs in his career as well.
Chubb isn’t much of a pass-catcher, averaging 1.6 catches per game in his career, but can still make an impact when necessary. Chubb caught 20 passes in 2021, turning nine of them in to first downs and one of them in to a touchdown. On 248 touches, Chubb fumbled the ball just twice in 2021, and has a total of six fumbles to his name in 58 career appearances.
While the league has no shortage of running backs who do a lot of damage in the passing game, Chubb is a pure running back that gives Cleveland’s offense a consistent force on the ground.
2. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
Derrick Henry was undoubtedly the best pure running back in the NFL in 2019 and 2020. The Tennessee Titans running back led the league in rushing yards (1,540), rushing touchdowns (16) and rushing yards per game (102.7) in 2019, earning Second-Team All-Pro honors behind a monster Christian McCaffrey campaign that included more receiving accolades. Henry broke through to the All-Pro First-Team in 2020, leading the league in those same three categories once again but improving, with 2,027 rushing yards, 17 rushing touchdowns, and 126.7 rushing yards per game.
Henry pretty much picked up where he left off in 2021, carrying the ball 219 times in eight games (a whopping 27.4 carries per game) and amassing 937 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. Henry’s 117.1 rushing yards per game would have led the league if he qualified, with Jonathan Taylor’s 106.5 yards per game offically leading the league.
There’s not much I can say about Henry that hasn’t already been said. I’ve seen Henry play in-person, and the 6-foot-3, 247-pound running back simply imposes his will on opposing defenses with his astounding size, speed, acceleration, and ability to pick up yards after contact.
Including Henry on this list hardly demands an explanation: it’s putting him at #2 that I have to justify. From a pure hand-the-ball-off-and-run-up-the-middle point-of-view, Henry is still my pick to carry the rock in crucial situations in 2022. But with my criteria valuing receiving abilities and a mix of experience without too much wear-and-tear, Henry is an extremely close #2 (with every chance to reclaim the top position) heading in to next season.
Henry actually picked up his pace in the receiving game 2021: recording 18 catches (just one short of his career-high) despite appearing in just eight games. Over four seasons as the Titans RB1, Henry has averaged 1.3 catches per game, and has found the end zone just three times as a receiver. Henry has caught 75.2% of his targets in his career, including a career-high 90% in 2021, but is generally just not used much in the passing game.
Henry’s 2021 campaign was paused by a foot injury that caused him to miss nine regular season games before re-appearing for the Titans in a Divisional Round game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Henry rushed for 62 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries in the loss.
Entering his age-28 season, Henry should still be one of the best rushers in the league in 2022. But coming off a major foot injury, as well as the years of wear-and-tear the running back has accumulated on his body, it’s quite possible Henrys athletic peak is slightly behind him.
1. Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts
After Derrick Henry went down halfway through the 2021-22 season, AFC South divisional rival Jonathan Taylor stepped up to fill the void as the best running back in the NFL. The second-year running back, a 2020 NFL Draft second round pick out of Wisconsin, built off a hot start for the Indianapolis Colts with an even stronger finish. While Indianapolis ultimately missed the postseason by just one game, Taylor did everything in his power to put the Colts in playoff position.
Following a successful rookie campaign that included 1,169 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, Taylor led the league in nearly every major rushing category in his sophomore season: 1st in carries (332), 1st in rushing yards (1,811), 1st in rushing touchdowns (18), longest rush of the season (83 yards), 1st in yards per game among qualified rushers (106.5). Taylor also led the league in total scrimmage yards (2,171) and total rushing and receiving touchdowns (20).
While Henry did outpace Taylor in rushing yards per game, Taylor was still elite in the category, and made an impact in the receiving game to boot. Taylor caught 40 passes for 360 yards and two touchdowns, averaging over two catches and 21.2 receiving yards per game.
Taylor’s incredible season broke many Indianapolis Colts franchise records, including rushing yard and rushing touchdown season totals. Taylor was named a Pro Bowler, First-Team All-pro, and runner-up for Offensive Player of the Year for his icredible season.
Choosing between AFC South rivals Derrick Henry and Jonathan Taylor is like splitting hairs: a classic six of one, half a baker’s dozen of the other scenario. Henry has more raw power and strength, while Taylor is a bit faster on his feet. Taylor broke off a league-leading 14 runs of 20 yards or more last season, while Henry was on pace for just six (three in eight games.)
I put Taylor in the top position because he’s just a bit more versatile, and he has years of top rushing ahead of him. Again, I don’t expect Henry to fall off a cliff talent-wise anytime soon, but 28 years old is unfortunately about the time running backs start to peak. At just 23 years old with 640 career touches, Taylor’s the running back I’m building my team around whether we’re talking one game, one season, or one franchise.
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