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What's happened to the running back position in today's NFL is similar to the decline of the manual transmission in the automobile industry. Just like stick shift in car production,  running backs used to be a standard, signature feature of NFL offenses. However, both have fallen on hard times in 2023: the running back position non-exclusive franchise tag value of $10.091 million was the second-lowest among all positions in the NFL, ahead of only the kickers and punters figure of $5.393 million, and CarandDriver released an article to inform the general public about which new cars still feature a manual transmission option in 2023. 

The position hasn't had an NFL MVP winner since then-Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson in 2012 and has only had one Offensive Player of the Year winner in the last five seasons (Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry in 2020 when he became the eighth player in NFL history with over 2,000 rushing yards in a single season). Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler, who has led the league in touchdowns scored in each of the last two seasons, 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). The retired Ram won OPOY in both of those seasons while Ekeler lost out to a wide receiver each year, Rams wideout Cooper Kupp in 2021 and Minnesota Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson in 2022. 

When top-tier running back talent is utilized well in a team's offensive scheme, plenty of value and enjoyment can still be had, just like manual transmission with a savvy driver behind the wheel. Here's a look at the 10 best backs in the NFL entering the 2023 season and how they add real value to an offense. Forty percent of the list is populated by members of the 2017 draft year in San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey (eighth overall pick by Panthers), free agent Dalvin Cook (41st overall pick by Vikings), Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (182nd overall pick by Packers), and Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (undrafted). 

10. Dalvin Cook, free agent 

Dalvin Cook
BAL • RB • #33
Free agent
Att264
Yds1173
TD8
FL4
Released by Vikings on June 9
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Dalvin Cook being let go from the Vikings has everything to do with the economics of the running back position, and Minnesota's desire to get out of paying the $14 million he was owed entering the 2023 season. Even though the soon-to-be 28-year-old's 4.4 yards per carry in 2022 was the lowest of his career, Cook is far from washed. He is the only running back in the NFL with at least 1,100 rushing yards in each of the last four seasons since 2019, and his 3.2 yards after contact per rush last season were the 11th-best in the league, just barely outside of the top 10, and the second-highest of his career. 

Cook is also coming off his most durable season ever, starting all 17 games in 2022. The reason he remains on the open market is because of his reported $10 million per year asking price, not his playing ability. Wherever he ends up playing in 2023, Cook will provide top-10 running back production.

9. Tony Pollard, Cowboys

Tony Pollard
DAL • RB • #20
Att193
Yds1007
TD9
FL0
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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. San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey totaled 1,880 scrimmage yards, 502 more than Pollard's 1,378, while ranking second in yards per touch (5.7) behind the Cowboys rusher (McCaffrey had 97 more touches than Pollard (329 to 232).  If Pollard can maintain a similar yards per touch average on a higher workload, he'll climb up this list rapidly in 2023. 

8. Aaron Jones, Packers

Aaron Jones
GB • RB • #33
Att213
Yds1121
TD2
FL3
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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. Jones 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 five 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. With 2020 first-round pick Jordan Love entering his first season as the Packers starting quarterback, Jones has made an effort to build chemistry with his new backfield mate, flying out to California to catch passes from Love outside of team-mandated practices and workouts. 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, his workload could be the largest of his entire career. 

7. Saquon Barkley, Giants

Saquon Barkley
NYG • RB • #26
Att295
Yds1312
TD10
FL0
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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 on the franchise tag. 

6. Josh Jacobs, Raiders

Josh Jacobs
LV • RB • #8
Att340
Yds1653
TD12
FL1
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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). The reason he trails Jonathan Taylor and remains outside of the top-five is because of his rushing efficiency. Jacobs has never averaged five yards a carry in a season during his four-year NFL career as his 4.9 yards per carry last season stands as his career-best. To be fair, he was still 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, but to break into the top-five, a little bit more efficiency is required. Like Barkley, Jacobs also enters 2023 on the franchise tag, providing plenty of motivation for another high-level campaign. 

5. Jonathan Taylor, Colts

Jonathan Taylor
IND • RB • #28
Att192
Yds861
TD4
FL3
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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 five 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. 

4. Nick Chubb, Browns

Nick Chubb
CLE • RB • #24
Att302
Yds1525
TD12
FL1
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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



NFL Rank

Rushing Yards

1,525

3rd

Rush Yards/Carry  

5.0

5th*

Rush TD

12

T-4th

Tackles Avoided Rate  

27.5%  

 2nd*  

* 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. 

3. Austin Ekeler, Chargers

Austin Ekeler
LAC • RB • #30
Att204
Yds915
TD13
FL3
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As already mentioned above, 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. 

2. Derrick Henry, Titans

Derrick Henry
TEN • RB • #22
Att349
Yds1538
TD13
FL3
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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. 

1. Christian McCaffrey, 49ers

Christian McCaffrey
SF • RB • #23
Att244
Yds1139
TD8
FL0
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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*

W-L record

3-4 (T-16th)

10-0 (1st)

PPG

20.7 (20th)

30.5 (2nd)

Total YPG

355.0 (13th)

373.1 (5th)

3rd Down Pct

43.2% (7th)

46.3% (6th)

Yards/Pass Attempt7.6 (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

MCCAFFREYWeeks 8-18RB Rank

Scrimmage Yards

1,148

3rd

Scrimmage Touchdowns

10

T-2nd

Yards/Touch5.72nd*

1st Downs/TD Per Play Pct

29.3%

2nd*

* 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 position today. That's why he's the cream of the crop at the running back position entering 2023, the Stanford alum's first full season back home in the Bay Area.