Rumor has it running backs don't matter, but I suppose that logic depends upon which ones you're talking about, because they're not all created equal. For when it comes to assessing the best in the NFL at the position, you're hard-pressed to keep that argument going, knowing full-well not everyone can do what they do, when/if given the chance. It's the reason the Dallas Cowboys awarded Ezekiel Elliott a historic contract despite re-signing Alfred Morris as insurance during his 2019 holdout, and only months after drafting Tony Pollard.
And, of course, you then saw Christian McCaffrey financially blow the roof off not long thereafter. It's also why the New York Giants will do NFL level, and the bottom line is not all of them are created equal. That becomes deathly clear when attempting to identify the best in all of football., the latter not being something the Tennessee Titans wanted to take a chance on when they awarded Derrick Henry his new deal. A myriad of variables determine how successful a running back will be at the
The following 10 players have proven to be in a league of their own, in one way or several.
Translation: They matter, and in a major way.
You have to love "Playoff Lenny," unless you were one of the defenses tasked with stopping him this past winter. Fournette rejuvenated his brand after going from being released by the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars in 2020 to being a key reason the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in February, and while he's no longer being asked to carry an entire offensive load, he's still one of the best in the league at the position. The same goes for Carson, who re-signed with the Seattle Seahawks and is easily one of the more slept on halfbacks in the league. If Carson can stay healthy and get back to producing like he did in 2018 and 2019 -- when he delivered 2,810 yards from scrimmage and 18 touchdowns combined -- he'll knock at the door to potentially enter the top 10 on this list.
And don't go counting out Ekeler and Montgomery, two players who've stepped into the role of franchise player and who also might be one season away from challenging to be listed this time next year.
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If you think Fournette had it bad in Jacksonville...
Allow me to introduce you to Mixon, who is an insanely talented player on what was recently [literally] the worst team in the entire NFL. Sure, things are [again] looking up for the Bengals, on the heels of grabbing quarterback Joe Burrow with the first-overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, but Mixon has been one cooking with Crisco for quite some time now. A weapon out of the backfield as either a runner or a receiver, his last two seasons have seen him accumulate 2,888 yards from scrimmage and 17 touchdowns.
Consider he's done this with a carousel of questionable QB play and an overall lack of a downfield threat to take the pressure off of him -- A.J. Green having been repeatedly sidelined with foot issues -- and despite changes to the coaching staff in Year 3. On any given Sunday, Mixon can adapt to whatever the opposing defense gives him. If he needs to play bully ball, he'll do it. If he needs to stretch linebackers thin with screen passes and force an imbalance in the secondary, he can do that as well.
There weren't many bright spots in Cincinnati before Burrow landed, but Mixon has become a lighthouse for Bengals fans desperately looking for something positive to hold onto, and needs only be healthy in 2020 to rejoin Burrow (and now wideout Ja'Marr Chase) in giving opposing defenses a nightmare or two.
9. Josh Jacobs, Raiders
Welcome to the party, Mr. Jacobs.
A breakout rookie season for the Raiders put Jacobs on the radar for this list, but a bigger sample size was needed before listing him as one of the 10 best in the league at his position. One year later, he's earned the right to be listed here, to say the least. Yes, the Raiders are having difficulties on offense, but it's not because of the run game. Jacobs has been consistent in his ability to punch opposing defenses in the mouth on a weekly basis. Two years in, he already has two 1,000-yard seasons without the benefit of a dominant pass game to complement him (Darren Waller notwithstanding) and to take pressure off of him a a snap-to-snap basis.
All Jacobs did with that complication was pretend it didn't exist, rushing for 2,215 rushing yards and 19 rushing touchdowns in his first two years as a pro and he'd add an extra 404 receiving yards to his stat line in the process. Maybe the addition of Kenyan Drake shaves some of his numbers in 2021 and maybe not, likely the latter. The bottom line is Jacobs will get his reps and he'll make the most of them when he does, as has been the case heading into Year 3. And with looming contract talks on the horizon, he has an added reason to continue elevating his game.
A favorite of quarterback Derek Carr and head coach Jon Gruden, Jacobs is the transmission that helps the motor go in Las Vegas, and rightfully so. He's one of the brightest up-and-coming stars in the NFL, and he's seemingly just getting started.
8. Saquon Barkley, Giants
That's the thought you've often had during one of Barkley's many highlight plays, and there have been quite a bit of them already as he readies for his fourth year in the NFL. Despite his prowess at Penn State, some were concerned NFL teams were placing too high of a value on the position when the Giants opted to select Barkley with the second-overall pick only two seasons after the rival Dallas Cowboys used a fourth-overall pick on Ezekiel Elliott and one year after the Panthers took Christian McCaffrey eighth-overall, but bollocks to that.
Barkley is a generational talent who can't be replaced with the next man up on the roster, and anyone who believes so is basically saying the Giants could plug in anyone and get 3,469 yards from scrimmage and 23 touchdowns, and with two different QBs in his first two seasons -- on an offense with an afterthought of a passing attack. That, to me, is the equivalent of saying all Daenerys Stormborn needed was three canaries to take the Iron Throne, because "they can fly, too."
Whether it was a turnover-prone Eli Manning in 2018 or a rookie in Daniel Jones who tossed his share of interceptions the following year, every team lining up against the Giants knows the only task at hand has been to stop Barkley. Still, they've mostly been unable to do it, and it's because he's one of the best halfbacks this league has ever seen. It seems the only thing that can stop Barkley is his own body.
7. Aaron Jones, Packers
Things might get very interesting for Jones in 2021.
Questions on if he'll have Aaron Rodgers or Jordan Love under center doesn't detract from the present moment though, when Jones is easily one of the best RBs in the league. Knowing what he brings to the table, he waved off an initial offer from the Packers last offseason and instead opted to bet on himself going into a contract year, and that bet literally paid off in a big way. The Pro Bowler inked a four-year, $48 million this past March after posting career numbers in 2020 that helped the Packers have a special season that included Rodgers landing honors as MVP -- aided by the fact teams couldn't ignore the Green Bay rushing attack to throw the sink at deleting Rodgers receiving weapons.
Jones himself became one of those receiving weapons a time or two, adding 355 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns to a campaign that also saw him rush for 1,104 yards and nine TDs. Sure, the TD tally was down from 2019, but his value to the offense never dipped one iota, and averaging 5.5 yards per carry is evidence to what he does when the ball is in his hands. Jones is slippery, quick and has the burst to make a defender regret the whatever angle he chose to take in attempting to tackle him.
As Jones enters his fifth year in the league, he may be asked to do more if Rodgers isn't in uniform, but you likely won't hear him complain about it. He loves every opportunity afforded to him, and doesn't often disappoint when it's time to come up big when the team needs him most.
6. Nick Chubb, Browns
Like Mixon, Chubb is no stranger to struggling in Ohio but, unlike Mixon, things changed in 2020.
And, to be more accurate, Chubb is no stranger to being on a struggling team, because he's been stellar as an individual since entering the league. Being forced to share the load with Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson in his rookie season barely put a dent in what he did on the field, pushing them both out of the way (and eventually off of the team) en route to 996 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns in only nine starts. Fully unleashed in Year 2, the former second-round pick exploded for 1,494 rushing yards (1,772 from scrimmage) and emerged as one of the top five best running backs in all of football.
Chubb has proven he can dominate at the NFL level as a runner and a receiver -- landing honors as a Pro Bowler in his first season as a full-time starter -- and with barely a sound as his production is often tempered in the eyes of some by his refreshing humility and buttoned-up demeanor. The Browns, yet again, had a lot to figure out (and did), but the running back position wasn't one of those things. Chubb is an animal by any and all measure, and the fact Cleveland was able to secure him without using a first-round pick is a coup.
Aggressive. Fast. Sure-handed. Physical. Durable. Intelligent. These are all adjectives you can use to describe Chubb, one-half of the Browns dynamic duo along with Kareem Hunt, as we all witness a premier back who -- as crazy as it sounds -- hasn't hit his peak yet.
5. Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys
Zeke is still Zeke, but he knows the NFL needs a reminder.
Dak Prescott and a healthy offense that's proven it can (and has) statistically been the best in the league. Elliott set the stage for running backs like McCaffrey and Barkley to be taken with high picks in 2017 and 2018, respectively, because he proved the Cowboys right when they added him to the roster in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Elliott shattered records long-held by legends like Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett, and was easily Rookie of the Year if not for the fact he happened to be slightly overshadowed by the emergence of Prescott that very season., heading into 2021 in the "best shape of his life" and "locked in" to reunite with
Still, he was able to garner First-Team All-Pro honors, a Pro Bowl nod and the crown as NFL rushing leader in his first year out, and he's not looked back since. Elliott is now a two-time rushing champ, two-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler who hasn't missed a single game in four seasons due to injury and is only one year removed from posting a career-best 2,001 yards from scrimmage.
Despite the passing prowess in Dallas, Elliott remains a lynchpin in the offense, and simply needs to get back to eliminating giveaways (as he did in Week 7 through Week 17 last season) along with continuing to add value as a receiver out of the backfield (as he's done the last two seasons). For perspective, only Henry, Chubb and McCaffrey rushed for more yards in 2019 than did Elliott, and only Henry and McCaffrey had more rushing TDs that season. He had the worst season of his career in 2020, and was still only seven rushing yards away from being in the top 10, statistically -- something to keep in mind here.
4. Alvin Kamara, Saints
Cash the check.
Like others on this list, Kamara deservedly secured his bag from the New Orleans Saints, landing a five-year contract extension worth $75 million ahead of the 2020 season. Not a soul could justifiably question why the team forked over that much coin, because Kamara has been lightning in a mason jar since getting the nod out of the University of Tennessee in 2017. Questions on if he could carry the load without a complement like Mark Ingram were answered, and then some. The four-time Pro Bowler has become the gold standard for what a dual-threat back looks like -- averaging 1,541 yards from scrimmage over his first four years in the NFL.
But Kamara isn't simply racking up major yardage, he's also navigating his way through traffic and into the end zone on a regular basis. He's given the Saints double-digit TD tallies in three of his four seasons and a total of 21 (!!) last year alone. Trying to contain Kamara involves trying to figure out if he's going to take a handoff in the traditional manner, or in motion, or will it be a fake handoff and then delivered to him as a bubble screen, etc. etc. It's a game of chess head coach Sean Payton plays masterfully, knowing Kamara can take whatever's thrown at him; both literally and figuratively speaking.
Without Drew Brees in the mix, he's in a similar situation (schematically) as Aaron Jones, as in trying to determine what changes his offense might involve without a future Hall of Famer quarterback under center but, by all accounts, Kamara will be just fine whether it's Jameis Winston, Taysom Hill or rookie Ian Book getting a look in 2021. He's good enough to weather the storm at QB, because he's a hurricane in the backfield.
3. Dalvin Cook, Vikings
Dalvin can most definitely cook.
There's no doubt he's shown he's one of the best running backs in all of football. The problem for the former second-round pick is while that's obviously true, so were questions surrounding his durability heading into last season -- his battle with injuries having tied down his potential prior to 2019. Cook burst onto the scene in his rookie year by taking the franchise record for single-game rushing yards from Adrian Peterson, running for 127 yards in his NFL debut, but wound up with only 354 rushing yards and two touchdowns that year after suffering a torn ACL that sidelined him after Week 4.
He'd miss more time in Year 2 due to hamstring issues before breaking out last season, and subsequently holding out with the hopes of commanding a more "respectable" contract offer from the Vikings. He both landed his contract and then went on to show everyone why he was worth it. Cook nearly set career-best marks across the board, racking up 1,557 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns en route to 1.918 yards from scrimmage and 17 total touchdowns while averaging 5.0 yards per handoff. I'm hard-pressed to nudge him past the two players ranked above him on this list, at least at the moment, but I also wouldn't die on a hill that says he isn't now potentially one of the top-2 talents in the league.
2. Christian McCaffrey, Panthers
Things get dicey when approaching the top of this list -- given the stratospheric level of talent -- but it's hard to argue McCaffrey being anywhere but atop of the hill, even with a lost 2020 season. Others on this list have an obvious ability to catch out of the backfield as well as dominate on handoffs, but what the Panthers have unleashed in McCaffrey feels like an absolute cheat code. He's as much of a wide receiver as he is a running back (and they paid him as such), but he's still very much the latter, racking up rushing yards and rushing touchdowns at a blistering pace, and his 2,392 yards from scrimmage (and 19 touchdowns) in 2019 was downright disrespectful to opposing defenses.
He was rewarded last offseason when the Panthers leapfrogged him over Elliott as the highest-paid running back in NFL history, which sets the stage for Barkley to take the financial throne in the near future, but the Giants as a football team might never require Barkley to be what McCaffrey is in Carolina. In case you didn't do the math above, McCaffrey was both a 1,000-yard rusher and 1,000-yard receiver in 2019, and he's even been known to return kicks and punts. The two-time All-Pro is a renaissance man -- the likes of which have been rarely seen in the NFL -- making him the best in the land.
As the Panthers moved on from Ron Rivera and Cam Newton and now into Matt Rhule and Sam Darnold, they'll look to the spry 25-year-old to continue carpet-bombing the league going forward. He lost some ground after injury stole his 2020 season, and players like Cook nudged closer while Derrick Henry ran right past him for the No. 1 spot heading into 2021. That said, if he's back to form this year, Henry better glue eyes to the back of his head.
1. Derrick Henry, Titans
All hail the king.
Yes, you can attribute some of the turnaround in Nashville to Ryan Tannehill. For the most part, however, it was Henry strapping the Titans on his back and bulldozing through opponents. When Tannehill couldn't get things going, Henry took the ball and became a man possessed -- especially when it mattered most. In the playoffs following the 2019 season, he rushed for an eye-popping 182 yards and 195 yards, respectively, in the upsets over the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens, on the road... and with both teams throwing the kitchen sink at him. He could only be stopped by the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, but the aforementioned playoff performances let everyone know his regular season was no fluke.
And what a regular season it was, with Henry taking the NFL rushing title with a career-high 1,540 yards to go along with 16 rushing touchdowns, and those who believed he was simply a bowling ball found out he can navigate around the pins at will; as evidenced in the All-Pro adding another 321 receiving yards to his resume last season. Some wondered if he could replicate that success and, to be fair, he didn't. Instead, he ran past those marks like they were standing still -- rushing for a monstrous 2,027 yards with 17 rushing touchdowns while averaging an eye-popping 126.7 yards per game in the process.
Henry has gotten better every season at the NFL level, and it correlates directly with having been crowned the full-time starter in 2018. There are zero signs of him slowing down or being slowed down in 2021, and that should make the battle to retain his throne this season something to behold. And now Titans opponents have to also account for Julio Jones, so good luck.