Top 10 RBs in NFL: NFC East stars Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott lead the way
CBS Sports' NFL team collectively ranked the top 10 running backs in football right now
Last season, nine different running backs rushed for at least 1,000 yards. Last season, 16 different running backs caught at least 50 passes. Last season, 13 different running backs totaled at least 1,200 yards from scrimmage. Last season, 13 different running backs found the end zone at least 10 times. And not a single one of those running backs was the player who was considered arguably the best running back in the game entering the year.
All of this is just a long-winded way of saying, it wasn't easy figuring out who the top-10 running backs in football are right now. It wasn't easy -- but it's what the NFL writing and editing team here at CBS Sports tried to do. In the days and weeks to come, we'll be releasing our collective top-10 rankings for every single position group in the league. We began with the ; and now we move a few yards deeper into the backfield.
Below, you'll find our list of the 10 best running backs in the NFL right now. Note that the running backs were ranked collectively by a group involving more than 10 writers and editors. All of us ranked our top 10 running backs and our individual ballots were then fused into one list using a point system, so this is not my own personal list. Rather, it reflects the collective wisdom of the crowd here at CBSSports.com.
10. James Conner, Steelers
What an incredible rise it's been for the Steelers' young back. Before he ever made it to the NFL, Conner battled and beat Hodgkin's lymphoma, and he turned himself into a third-round pick for a team close to both his college (Pittsburgh) and home (Erie, PA). Conner barely factored into the Steelers offense during his rookie season as a now-former teammate led the NFL in touches. With that same former teammate (more on him below) sitting out the entire 2018 season because he refused to play a second straight year on the franchise tag, Conner had himself a breakout season.
The final line: 215 carries for 973 yards (4.5 per carry) and 12 scores in 13 games, to go along with 55 catches for another 497 yards and an additional score. Conner surely benefited from the presence of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and the Steelers' excellent offensive line, but he also showed excellent vision, timing, and burst through the holes that were opened for him. And as his catching line shows, he's versatile enough to stay on the field for all three downs and be a major contributor in the passing game. And Conner may be an even bigger factor in 2019 with Brown now playing elsewhere.
9. Todd Gurley, Rams
On talent alone, this is at least four or five spots too low.
Gurley is arguably the best all-around back in the league when he's healthy, though you can make an argument for a few other guys as well. But there are now major questions about the health of his knee, which was surgically repaired in college, bothered him all of last season, kept him out of several games down the stretch of the year, and made him look rather pedestrian for parts of their playoff run. With the Rams trading up to acquire Memphis' Darrell Henderson in the draft and the reports of a possible degenerative condition in Gurley's knee, the questions about him grew even louder.
Gurley can put all those questions to rest by coming back in 2019 and looking like his explosive self, but the crew here at CBS seems to have hedged against that possibility. He did not receive any top 5 votes and was actually off of a couple top 10 ballots entirely.
I'll cop to being surprised at first that Mixon landed this lofty place on the list. Then I looked at his numbers again. Year 2 was far better for the young Bengal than Year 1. His yards per carry average jumped from 3.5 to 4.9; he caught 13 more passes; and he went from finding the end zone on 1.9 percent of his touches, to doing so on 3.2 percent of them.
Mixon's sophomore campaign saw him rush for 1,168 yards and eight scores in 14 games, and haul in 43 catches for 296 yards and an additional score. He did this while working behind an offensive line that ranked in the bottom half of the league in both Adjusted Line Yards and Adjusted Sack Rate, per Football Outsiders, and on a team that had to deal with several injuries to important offensive contributors throughout the season.
With new head coach Zac Taylor hopefully scheming him into position for success, perhaps Mixon can take another step forward this season.
Johnson is likely coming off the worst season of any player on this list, but it's a near-universal opinion that such season was mostly not his fault. Arizona was considered to have been running one of the NFL's least creative offenses in 2018, as Johnson was routinely run into the middle of the line without any motion, misdirection, or other disguises to aid his journey.
That should not be the case under new head coach Kliff Kingsbury. Johnson should also benefit from the threat of Kyler Murray taking off to run, just as so many running backs have benefitted from the threat of speedy quarterbacks before. Add in Johnson's well-established bona fides as a pass-catcher and it's easy to see why expectations would be extremely high for him this coming season.
6. Le'Veon Bell, Jets
The last time we saw Bell on the field, he was racking up 406 touches in 15 games for the 2017 Steelers. This after handling 336 touches in just 12 games during the 2016 season. He combined for 3,830 total yards across those 27 games -- an average of 141.9 per contest. That's the kind of production that nobody else in the league can match.
Of course, Bell also has not played since January 14, 2018, which means it'll have been more than a year and a half between starts when he takes the field for the Jets in Week 1. It's tempting to say he doesn't have as much mileage on his tires as a typical 27-year-old running back because he sat out last season and missed 10 games in 2015, but he missed those 10 games due to a serious injury, he handled as large a workload as any back in the league when he was healthy during his time in Pittsburgh, and he sat out an entire season due to a contract dispute.
When Bell is on his game, there are few players in the league who are better. It's been a while since we've seen that version of him, but the memory sticks in your head well enough for him to firmly place inside the top 10 here.
The 2018 season was really the first time that Gordon was actually the player that he had been getting sold as during his far more inefficient 2015 through 2017 campaigns. Gordon averaged just 3.8 yards per carry during his first three NFL seasons, racking up production mostly through incredible volume -- he touched the ball 854 times during those three seasons, an average of 19.9 per game.
In 2018, things finally came together. Gordon's yards per carry average shot all the way up to a career-best 5.1 mark. He caught 76 percent of the passes thrown his way and gained 7.4 yards per target. On an average of 18.8 touches per game, he racked up 1,375 total yards and 14 touchdowns. He was a valuable security blanket for Philip Rivers in the passing game and nearly set a career high in rush yards per game despite averaging his second-fewest carries per contest.
There's no reason to expect that things will slow down for the Chargers in 2019, and the same is true of Gordon.
4. Alvin Kamara, Saints
As a rookie, Kamara showed he could be one of the most explosive change-of-pace backs in the NFL, snaring 81 passes as a receiver out of the backfield and racking up absurd 6.1 yards per carry on 7.5 totes per game. For his follow-up act as a sophomore, not only did Kamara nearly match his catch total by hauling in 80 balls, he also showed the ability to handle significantly greater volume on the ground. He took 12.9 handoffs per game in 2018, and turned them into 883 yards and 14 scores, becoming one of the most efficient red-zone runners in the league in the process.
With Mark Ingram now in Baltimore, Kamara should see even more volume this coming season. Considering his versatility, speed, quickness, vision, and spectacular fit for both Sean Payton's offense and Drew Brees' mind, there's every reason to believe his production will soar once again. Kamara may not reach the end zone 18 times again in 2019, but it's reasonable to expect that he'll top the 1,592 total yards piled up last season -- especially if he finally breaks into the 20 total touches per game mark.
McCaffrey's sophomore season was basically what you could expect would happen if Kamara were on the field for 90-plus percent of the snaps. CMC averaged 20.4 touches per game -- 13.7 on the ground and 6.7 through the air. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry and hit pay-dirt seven times as a runner. He caught 86 percent of the passes thrown his way, with 107 receptions in all, and found the end zone six additional times. He was, essentially, the ultimate dual threat.
With Devin Funchess, one of Cam Newton's top targets last season, now playing in Indianapolis, it appears that small, shifty receivers who can make things happen after the catch will be the ones getting the majority of the looks in Carolina. McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, and Curtis Samuel should all be top targets, and given that they can all be used in a variety of ways, the Panthers should be able to confuse the heck out of defenses. That should mean even more good things are in store for McCaffrey this year.
Elliott has been in the NFL for three seasons. He has led the league in rushing yards twice (2016, 2018); and the year that he didn't, he still led the league in rush yards per game. Elliott finally broke through as a major contributor in the passing game in Year 3, catching a team-high 77 passes from Dak Prescott. When Zeke is on the field, he's spectacular. There are very few players quite like him.
Zeke continues to have issues off the field, and the Cowboys should probably be having second thoughts about their willingness to commit major money to Elliott on a long-term, guaranteed deal. (He might only be 23 years old until later this month, and he might be a nearly-unmatched runner in terms of efficiency and volume, but he's also over 1,000 touches already in three seasons, he plays the position that has the shortest shelf life of any in the league, he has not proven himself reliable off the field, and Dallas has so many other top options to pay.) But that's not what these rankings are about. Elliott is the fulcrum of Dallas' offense, and will presumably continue to be under new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. We should expect another monster season.
1. Saquon Barkley, Giants
Elliott's NFC East rival cannot quite match him in efficiency, but Barkley's tendency to snap off the explosive play is what lands him in the top spot. Saquon ranked 40th out of 47 players with at least 100 carries last season in rushing success rate, per Football Outsiders; but he also had an NFL-best 16 rushes of 20 yards or more, a league-best four of which also went for touchdowns.
Barkley also became just the seventh player in NFL history to run for at least 1,000 yards and catch at least 90 passes in the same season -- and the first to do so as a rookie. His 2,028 yards from scrimmage led the NFL. His 75 percent catch rate was quite good considering who was throwing the passes. His 15 touchdowns are about all you could have possibly asked for. Barkley was everything the Giants expected him to be when they drafted him No. 2 overall. That didn't much help their performance as a team, but that's a topic for a different article. This one is about the best running backs in the league, and right now, Barkley has as good a claim to that title as anyone.
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