Perhaps no NFL position has been more devalued in recent years than running back, with so many big names . But that doesn't mean there aren't dynamic talents at the position. It's one thing to debate whether these players warrant lucrative investments compared to, say, wide receivers or pass rushers. It's another to discredit their game-changing abilities.
In the spirit of, we're turning to these oft-overlooked ball-carriers around the league. Which ones are bona fide weapons? Which ones are closer to the "replaceable" label often thrown upon the position? Here's one opinion on the RB landscape going into 2023, with all 32 projected starters -- plus a bonus wild card -- separated into six tiers:
Tier 1: The game-changers (5)
These are what you might call the last of a fading breed: the three-down, do-it-all workhorses. McCaffrey has an injury history from his Panthers days, but he proved in his half-year San Francisco debut he's still a QB's best friend when healthy, fully competent on the ground but even more reliable as a target machine. Henry's bound to feel the wear and tear of his heavy, bruising role someday, but you just can't teach his superhuman combo of size and silky speed. Jacobs went from fellow bruiser to physical and explosive in a 2022 breakout. Chubb, despite a smaller role in the pass game, is still supremely underrated for his week-in, week-out production; his vision and stocky power have effortlessly produced 6,300+ yards in five years. And Ekeler has long provided McCaffrey-like volume out of the backfield in Los Angeles.
Tier 2: The 'prove-it' stars (5)
All five of these vets have either recently been at the top of the RB mountain or still are, albeit with minor lingering questions. Taylor is a lot like Nick Chubb in that he makes consistently stellar rushing look easy, but an ankle injury slowed him in 2022 and could still be a factor going into this year. Barkley has unteachable tools and was a dual-threat centerpiece of Brian Daboll's debut, but he's still looking to prove he can stay healthy for consecutive years. Jones is one of the game's most natural playmakers, but a slew of nicks and bruises have prevented him from enjoying a true breakout season. Cook is even more explosive at full speed, offering breakaway ability, but his availability -- he's played just one full season -- helped the Vikings justify his cost-saving release. Kamara, meanwhile, is like a more electrifying version of Ekeler as a high-volume pass target, but injuries have slowed him lately, and he's also due to an off-field misdemeanor.
Tier 3: The next generation (8)
Travis Etienne Jr. (Jaguars), Tony Pollard (Cowboys), Rhamondre Stevenson (Patriots), Dameon Pierce (Texans), Kenneth Walker III (Seahawks), Isiah Pacheco (Chiefs), Bijan Robinson (Falcons), Jahmyr Gibbs (Lions)
Here lies the great middle, comprised almost exclusively of first- and second-year prospects with the juice to leap into a top tier. Etienne made up for a lost rookie year by eclipsing 1,400 scrimmage yards as a Trevor Lawrence outlet. Pollard is finally set for a full-time role after years as Ezekiel Elliott's more explosive relief. Stevenson faces the uphill battle of retaining a majority role in the Patriots' crowded backfield but was busy as both a runner and receiver as a rookie. Pierce flashed the imposing strength to warrant a bell-cow job under DeMeco Ryans. Walker combined power with slippery change-of-direction ability in an Offensive Rookie of the Year bid. Pacheco's high stride helped give the Chiefs a bonus punch during their title run. And both Robinson and Gibbs enter the NFL with the kind of electricity that should bolster strong run games in Atlanta and Detroit.
Tier 4A: The serviceable vets (3)
If you're looking for solid, if unspectacular, results, these are your guys. Harris certainly has the yardage and body type to justify an old-school role at the heart of the Steelers offense, but in today's NFL, you'd like far more than 3.9 yards per carry over two seasons. An improved line should help, but he still profiles as more of a traditional back than a game-changing one. Mixon has been similarly inefficient, though he's also enjoyed more hot streaks over the course of his career. Sanders has smooth home-run ability, but his vision and pass-catching have been scattershot.
Tier 4B: The high-upside bets (5)
Hall was extremely efficient as a big-play cruiser before going down with an ACL tear in New York. Swift saw injuries tarnish a mercurial Lions run but has the multipurpose skills to break out in the Eagles' friendly attack. Williams was a bowling-ball rookie for Denver before his own ACL tear shortened 2022. Dobbins has been severely limited due to injuries (notice a theme here?) but is ultra-efficient when active alongside Lamar Jackson. And Cook is looking to go from situational speed to full-timer, replacing the departed Devin Singletary in Buffalo.
Tier 5: The placeholders (7)
This isn't meant to be a slight against these backs; some of them may well prove to be top-15 starters, if things swing their direction. But the reality is, at a position where rotations are more common than ever, these vets are most likely to either share the backfield or eventually surrender it entirely. Robinson deserves props for his off-field journey to a physical rookie year, but he's already been labeled a two-down type. Mattison is entering a trial run as Dalvin Cook's more straightforward successor. Conner is a tough red-zone body with a big injury history. White managed just 3.7 yards per carry in a quasi-starting debut. Akers has struggled to stick in three years under Sean McVay. Foreman has flashed big-bodied production in his last two stops but figures to lose touches to the more explosive Khalil Herbert. Mostert can fly but is also part of an inevitable committee in Miami.