Being an NFL running back in 2023 is a as evidenced by the lack of long-term contracts being doled out to some of the position's top performers. However, in the words of Green Bay Packers Pro Bowl back Aaron Jones, running backs can still make an impact in a number of areas across a team's offense.
"It's crazy to me because running backs bring so much value," Jones told CBS Sports on July 17 when asked about the running back market after Josh Jacobs, Saquon Barkley and Tony Pollard didn't receive new deals. "You got to be able to protect, and have to pass protect just like an offensive lineman. You have to know all the offensive line calls up front, who they're working to. You have to run the ball as well with 11 guys trying to hit you. You make it hard to take you off the field, so you're involved in the passing game. You're doing just as much as anyone else except for the quarterback and maybe the center [on offense]. I really don't understand how the position got devalued, but I hope our value comes back because if you look at it, running backs make a big difference in the game. Whether it's protecting the quarterback -- being that sixth-man in protection -- running the ball, or taking pressure off of the quarterback [in the passing game]."
With that value in mind, here's a ranking of the NFL's eight divisions according to the value of their projected starting running backs entering Week 1.
8. AFC East
This division is all about their quarterbacks and throwing the football downfield, so none of these teams have significant investments in their starting running backs. Rhamondre Stevenson was one of the NFL's most efficient backs last season, averaging 5 yards per carry (the sixth-most in the NFL among running backs) while totaling 1,461 yards from scrimmage, the ninth-most in the league among running backs. He could become a star with a little more volume and playing a much-improved scheme under new offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien.
Breece Hall totaled 681 yards from scrimmage through the first seven weeks of the 2022 season as a rookie, the sixth most in the league and more than Derrick Henry (667). However, a torn ACL in Week 7 ended his first NFL season, and he's still working his way back, in training camp. James Cook had an OK rookie year -- 507 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns on 89 carries -- but he was Buffalo's third-leading rusher behind Devin Singletary (819, now a Houston Texan) and quarterback Josh Allen (762). The second-rounder has potential, but he needs to realize it in Year 2.
Raheem Mostert is a 31-year-old committee running back whose career-high 891 rushing yards last season were good for 21st in the NFL. He's a solid player, but he's not threatening to make the Pro Bowl.
7. NFC North
In arguably Aaron Rodgers' worst season as a Green Bay Packer (he totaled a career-low 91.1 passer rating as the Packers starting quarterback in 2022), the other Aaron, running back Aaron Jones, picked up the slack. He amassed a career-high 1,121 rushing yards last season while averaging 5.3 yards per carry, the second-most in the entire NFL among running backs. That high-level efficiency is business as usual for Jones since 2022 marked the fourth time in six career seasons that he's averaged more than 5 yards a rush.
He also played a larger role in the passing game than he had in Rodgers' recent MVP seasons (2020 and 2021), hauling in a career-high 59 catches for 395 receiving yards, the ninth-most in the league at his position. Jones' career 5.1 yards per carry ranks as tied for the fourth-most in the Super Bowl Era by a running back, and alongside a new, young quarterback in Jordan Love, his workload could be the largest of his entire career.
Khalil Herbert didn't have a jaw-dropping amount of volume in 2022, but he made the most of his timeshare in the Bears backfield by leading all running backs in yards per carry last season (5.7). He could have a big year with Montgomery's departure to Detroit. Speaking of David Montgomery, he's remarkably consistent: over 1,000 scrimmage yards in each of his four seasons, and he has averaged under 4.5 yards per carry each year. Alexander Mattison only has six career starts to his name after living in Dalvin Cook's shadow, but his 115.5 scrimmage yards per game in those six starts rank as the third-most among starting running backs since 2020.
6. NFC South
Alvin Kamara is only 1 of 12 running backs in NFL history with 8,000 or more scrimmage yards (8,888) and 70 or more touchdowns (72) in each of their first six seasons. However, he's coming off the first season of his career in which he didn't earn a Pro Bowl nod since Sean Payton was no longer on the sidelines. Plus, a suspension.
Miles Sanders is coming off the first Pro Bowl nod of his career after totaling a career-high 1,269 rushing yards (the fifth-most in the league and most by an Eagles running back since LeSean McCoy in 2014) and a career-high 11 rushing touchdowns (the eighth-most in the NFL and most by an Eagles running back since LeSean McCoy in 2011).
The Falcons selected University of Texas running back Bijan Robinson eighth overall in the 2023 NFL Draft. That makes him the highest-drafted player at his position since the Giants took Saquon Barkley, now a two-time Pro Bowler, second overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. There's a good reason why: Robinson is special. He became the first player in the Pro Football Focus era (since 2006) with more than 100 missed tackles forced in a single college season (104 in 2022).
Rachaad White exploded in the second half of the 2022 season starting with his big day in Germany back in Week 10. If White's numbers from the second half of the 2022 season, when he started every game, were extrapolated across 17 games, he would have totaled 1,104 yards from scrimmage (774 rushing and 330 receiving) instead of the 771 (481 rushing and 290 receiving) he actually totaled his rookie year. That 1,104-yards-from-scrimmage figure he would've had if he had possessed a starter's workload all season would've had White tied for the 21st-most scrimmage yards in the league along with fellow rookie rusher Dameon Pierce of the Houston Texans.
5. NFC East
In his second season back from a torn ACL, Saquon Barkley showcased the potential he flashed during his 2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year season, totaling a career-high 1,312 rushing yards in 2022. That figured ranked as the fourth-most in the NFL behind only Josh Jacobs, Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb. Plus, his 2022 total also marked the most by a New York Giant since franchise legend Tiki Barber ran for 1,662 rushing yards back in 2006. The second overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft has always had the physical gifts to become this type of runner, and after what happened in 2022, Barkley should be primed for a massive 2023 entering the season in a contract year.
Tony Pollard is now the Dallas Cowboys' new "lead back" in the words of head coach and new team offensive play-caller Mike McCarthy. The 26-year-old, who is playing out 2023 on the franchise tag, earned the first Pro Bowl selection of his career for his efforts during the 2022 season with bests in rushing yards (1,007), rushing touchdowns (nine), carries (193), receptions (39), receiving yards (371), and receiving touchdowns (three). It was a new workload for Ezekiel Elliott's former backup, as he became a co-starter in 2022 while readying to be the guy in the Cowboys backfield in 2023 with Elliott being released.
Pollard's 5.9 yards per touch led the NFL among players with at least 200 touches in 2022, but he still had 16 fewer touches than the declining Elliott, whose 3.9 yards per touch was dead last in the league among players with at least 200 touches last season. He could go off with a , something he's been looking forward to his entire career.
Brian Robinson's 797 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns in 12 games were solid output for a rookie who was shot in the leg twice during an attempted armed robbery two weeks before the 2022 season began. He could have a big Year 2 entering 2023 fully healthy while the Commanders offense breaks in a new starting quarterback.
D'Andre Swift is one of only five players in the entire league with over 1,500 rushing yards (1,680) and 150 receptions (156) in each of the last seasons. Swift has elite company in that club as he's joined by NFL two-time defending scrimmage touchdowns leader and Chargers running back Austin Ekeler, Packers Pro Bowl running back Aaron Jones, Saints Pro Bowl running back Alvin Kamara, and Super Bowl LV champion Leonard Fournette. Swift's 5.5 yards per touch over the course of his career, the last three seasons, is tied for the fifth-most in the league with Ekeler.
4. AFC North
Nick Chubb is arguably the most tenacious runner in the entire NFL: his 3.94 yards after contact per carry are the most in the league among the 129 players with 100 or more carries since he entered the league in 2018. In 2022, Chubb maintained his standard of excellent play, ranking top five in numerous rushing categories including second in the entire league in tackles avoided rate (27.5%), not bad for the five-year vet. Only Houston Texans rookie Dameon Pierce avoided tackles at a higher percentage than Chubb last season at a 28.2% clip.
Nick Chubb NFL ranks 2022 season
Tackles Avoided Rate
* Ranks among 42 RBs with 100+ carries last season
The 27-year-old also started every game in 2022 for the first time since the 2019 season, a strong showing for a position that puts wear and tear on the body like no other. Chubb's career yards per carry average of 5.2 ranks as the second-highest among running backs in the Super Bowl Era, since 1966, trailing only retired Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles on that leaderboard. With Kareem Hunt no longer sharing the Browns running back room with him, Chubb could set a career-high in rushing yards for the second season in a row in 2023.
Joe Mixon's 25 scrimmage touchdowns across the last two seasons rank as tied for the third-most in the league with Davante Adams, trailing only Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (38) and Arizona Cardinals running back James Conner (26).
Najee Harris turned it in the back half of last season, totaling 790 scrimmage yards (the sixth-most in the NFL) from Week 10-18 as quarterback Kenny Pickett picked up steam. He could break out for a second Pro Bowl season behind the best offensive line of his three-year career after the Steelers drafted Georgia Bulldogs offensive tackle Broderick Jones 14th overall in the 2023 draft and signed former Eagles guard Isaac Seumalo. JK Dobbins' career yards-per-carry figure of 5.9 leads all running backs with at least 225 carries since he entered the NFL in 2020. If he can break the injury bug -- he tore his ACL in 2021, missing the entire season, and needed a scope on the same knee in the middle of the 2022 season -- Dobbins could be one of the NFL's most dangerous rushers in 2023.
3. NFC West
The San Francisco 49ers offense didn't skip a beat going from Jimmy Garoppolo, a nine-year NFL veteran and Super Bowl starting quarterback, to Brock Purdy, the last player selected in the 2022 NFL Draft, last season in large part because of Christian McCaffrey. His presence as both a rusher and receiver in the starting lineup beginning in Week 8 following a midseason trade from the Carolina Panthers helped power San Francisco to a perfect 10-0 record to finish the regular season. It doesn't get much better than that.
McCaffrey serving as both Garoppolo's and Purdy's starting backfield mate also elevated the 49ers offense to the second-highest scoring attack in the entire league (30.5 points per game) as well as the most efficient passing game in the NFL (114.1 passer rating).
49ers offense before and after McCaffrey joined starting lineup
|SAN FRANCISCO||WEEKS 1-7||WEEKS 8-18*|
3rd Down Pct
|Yards/Pass Attempt||7.6 (10th)||8.1 (2nd)|
|Passer Rating ||87.2 (19th)||114.1 (1st)|
* Since McCaffrey joined the 49ers' starting lineup
No running back totaled more receiving yards in the final 11 weeks of the 2022 regular season than McCaffrey's 440, astounding considering the rusher behind right behind him in that category, Austin Ekeler, had 75 fewer receiving yards (375) despite four more catches in that span than CMC (54 to 50). Only Tony Pollard averaged more yards per touch in that span, 5.8 to McCaffrey's 5.7. However, McCaffrey maintained that near-league-leading figure despite 47 more touches, 201 to 154, than Pollard from Week 8 to the end of the regular season. CMC's 201 touches in that run were the third-most in the NFL while Pollard's workload ranked tied for 20th.
McCaffrey during 49ers' 10-game win streak to end regular season
|MCCAFFREY||WEEKS 8-18||RB RANK|
1st Downs/TD Per Play Pct
* Among 38 players with 100+ touches from Week 8-18
McCaffrey catapulting the 49ers offense to a top-five level in nearly every critical metric while San Francisco was in the process of shuffling starting quarterbacks is the sign of the ultimate, most valuable game-changer at the running back position today.
Only Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (38) has more scrimmage touchdowns than Conner's 26 across the last two seasons. Seahawks running back Kenneth Walker III, their second-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, led all rookies in carries (228), rushing yards (1,050), and rushing touchdowns (nine) last season. Cam Akers finished 2022 with a bang, rushing for 345 yards and three touchdowns across the last three weeks of the season. Those figures both rank as the second-most in the entire NFL in that span. Perhaps his career is set to take off in 2023.
2. AFC West
Austin Ekeler has led the league in touchdowns scored in each of the last two seasons, making him one of only seven running backs to do so since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger, and he also became only the second player in NFL history to have multiple seasons with 10 or more rushing scores and five or more receiving scores along with Pro Football Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk (2000-2001).
He also showcased historic versatility as his 107 catches led all running backs in 2022 and rank as tied for the second-most ever in a single season by a running back in NFL history. Only Christian McCaffrey hauled in more passes as a running back when he totaled 116 receptions in 2019, his season with over 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards while on the Carolina Panthers. Ekeler served as the heartbeat of the Chargers offense under now-fired offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, and with the hiring of Kellen Moore, the Dallas Cowboys offensive play-caller from 2019-2022, as the new Los Angeles OC, his game could soar to new heights in a critical, contract year in 2023.
Josh Jacobs was the 2022 First-Team All-Pro running back after leading the NFL in rushing yards (1,653), rushing first downs (93), and tackles avoided (103). He was also Pro Football Focus' highest-graded rusher among running backs last season (91.9). He was one of the most elusive rushers in the league last season, averaging a tackles avoided rate of 26.5%, the third-highest in the league among those with 100 or more carries.
Javonte Williams is set to return from a torn ACL that limited him to four games in 2022. He had 1,219 scrimmage yards in his rookie season in 2021, the third-most among rookies behind only Najee Harris (1,667) and Ja'Marr Chase (1,476). Isiah Pacheco totaled the fourth-most playoff rushing yards (197) by rookie drafted outside the top 100 draft picks in the Super Bowl era, momentum he could carry into 2023.
Most playoff rush yards by rookie outside top 100
Super Bowl era
Timmy Smith (WAS)
James Starks (GB)
Ahmad Bradshaw (NYG)
* Includes undrafted players
1. AFC South
There have only been seven occurrences of a player accumulating 1,500 or more rushing yards and 10 or more rushing touchdowns in a season in the last four years, since 2019. Three of them belong to Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry, including his 2022 "down year" of 1,538 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. These numbers coming in a year in which the Titans had to use three different quarterbacks because of injuries -- Ryan Tannehill (12 starts), Malik Willis (three starts) and Joshua Dobbs (two starts) -- only add to the legend of King Henry.
Even though his rushing yards per carry average of 4.4 last year marked the third-lowest of his career, Henry plowed ahead for those 1,538 yards, which ranked as the second-most in the NFL. Still standing as the NFL's scariest battering ram, Henry remains one of the NFL's best entering his age-29 season, a contract year, in 2023.
Jonathan Taylor totaled 841 rushing yards in 2022, more than Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon (814), then-Chicago Bears running back David Montgomery (801), and Washington Commanders running back Brian Robinson (797) despite missing six games with ankle injuries. However, he still averaged 4.5 yards per carry, the same as Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler, in his "down year."
Prior to the injury-riddled campaign, Taylor led the NFL in rushing yards (1,811) and rushing touchdowns (18) during his last healthy season in 2021. He also had never averaged lower than 5 yards a carry in his first two seasons without the ankle injuries. Under new head coach Shane Steichen, the Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator during their run to becoming NFC champions last season, and still only 24 years old, Taylor remains one of the NFL's top-five running backs.
Travis Etienne shined when given the football in Year 1 under head coach Dough Pederson: his 5.7 yards per touch ranked as the third-most in the entire NFL, trailing only Tony Pollard (5.9) and Christian McCaffrey (5.7, trails by decimal points). Dameon Pierce was one of the most elusive running backs as a rookie in 2022. His 79 tackles avoided ranked as the third-most in the NFL, trailing only 2022 rushing champion Josh Jacobs (103) and Nick Chubb (97). He could be in for a much bigger season with an improved supporting cast.