Taking a Look at the Top 12 Running Backs in the NFL

The NFL is still expecting to get their season started in early September as they plan on playing a full 16-game slate this season. With that thought process in mind, it never hurts to take a look at any kind of information we can get about how teams may fare this season. The sound way to do that is to evaluate some of the talent that teams have around the league and identifying the elite players at each position to see how they stack up. Earlier this week, we took a look at the top 10 quarterbacks in the league. Today, we take a look at a position that is becoming extremely expendable: running back. Once guys hit their late 20s or the dreaded 30, they are discarded and replaced by a younger, cheaper guy. Who are the best backs in the mix for this season?

1) Christian McCaffrey, Panthers

Last season: 287 carries, 1387 yards, 4.8 yards per carry, 15 rushing TD, 116 receptions, 1005 yards, four TD

PFF Grade: 86.6

Even though Carolina struggled last season to win games, the fact remains that there isn’t a back that is as complete as McCaffrey. He caught over 100 passes for the second straight season and found the end zone 19 times overall. One thing that will have to be monitored is how the heavy workload will take a toll on him going forward but on the plus side, he’ll only be 24 when the season starts. Throw in that he became the third running back in league history to run for 1,000 yards and add 1,000 receiving yards in the same season, joining Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk, and you’re in some elite company.

2)Derrick Henry, Titans

Last season: 303 carries, 1540 yards, 5.1 yards per carry, 16 rushing TD, 18 receptions, 206 yards, two TD

PFF Grade: 76.2

Henry isn’t as complete a back as McCaffrey, which is why he’s not considered for the top spot. However, he is a battering ram on the ground and he will wear down opposing defenses. We saw him finish the regular season strong and followed that up with big games in the playoffs New England followed by Baltimore. Henry led the league in rushing yards and carries last season while also pacing the NFL in rushing scores. He needs to become a better receiver out of the backfield to avoid becoming a two-down back. Dion Lewis is gone, taking that out of the equation from last season’s offense.

3)Nick Chubb, Browns

Last season: 298 carries, 1494 yards, five yards per carry, eight rushing TD, 36 receptions, 278 yards

PFF Grade: 88.7

Chubb was a solid workhorse back last season and averaged five yards a carry behind a Browns offensive line that was upgraded this offseason. He wasn’t even slowed by the addition of Kareem Hunt when the former Chief became eligible midseason. With Jack Conklin added to the Browns’ front, the Browns are looking for big things from Chubb. He should be able to deliver another solid performance, especially with the other weapons in the Cleveland arsenal, in 2020.

4)Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys

Last season: 301 carries, 1357 yards, 4.5 yards per carry, 12 rushing TD, 54 receptions, 420 yards, two TD

Elliott led the league in average rushing yards per game in his first three seasons, including a pair of rushing titles, but finished fourth in rushing yards last season. Perhaps the toll of over 1,000 touches in his first three seasons slowed him down a bit. He still put up quality numbers but the fact that the Cowboys have other capable offensive weapons in the passing game, a mobile quarterback in Dak Prescott and the solid rookie season of Tony Pollard could lead to a slightly lighter workload this season for Elliott.

5)Josh Jacobs, Raiders

Last season: 242 carries, 1150 yards, 4.8 yards per carry, seven rushing TD, 20 receptions, 166 yards

PFF Grade: 87.1

Jacobs was the Raiders’ feature back in his rookie season and he showed why he was a first-round pick. He broke the 1,000-yard plateau despite missing three games with injuries. Jacobs played through a fractured shoulder before missing some time and lost a game with surgery on a skin infection. Seeing how the team is planning to utilize Jacobs more in the passing game this season after going with the combination of Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington in that role last season. Richard is still around but at 22, Jacobs is clearly the lead back for the next several years as far as the Raiders are concerned.

6)Saquon Barkley, Giants

Last season: 217 carries, 1003 yards, 4.6 yards per carry, six rushing TD, 52 receptions, 438 yards, two TD

PFF Grade: 72.2

Barkley wasn’t healthy last season as he missed three games with a high ankle sprain that hampered him in a few other contests. Still, he went for more than 1,000 yards despite a rookie quarterback and a weak offensive line. He has the size to run you over and the speed to run past you, either inside the tackles or out on the sideline. With a year under his belt, Daniel Jones won’t be as shell-shocked and inconsistent as he was last year. That, along with better health, should help Barkley bounce back to his rookie season numbers.

7)Dalvin Cook, Vikings

Last season: 250 carries, 1135 yards, 4.5 yards per carry, 13 rushing TD, 53 receptions, 519 yards

PFF Grade: 81.4

Cook has the tools to be a top-five back, if not climbing higher than that on the list. The problem for him is his inability to stay on the field at times. He played just four games as a rookie in 2017 and 11 in 2018 before logging a career-high 14 games last season. Still, that’s a bit concerning as he’s played in just 29 of a possible 48 regular season games in that stretch. Cook has the ability to use his speed and he has some size that may be deceptive. He averaged 2.4 yards per carry after contact last year, which accounted for more than half (596) of his total yards on the ground.

8)Chris Carson, Seahawks

Last season: 278 carries, 1230 yards, 4.4 yards per carry, seven rushing TD, 37 receptions, 266 yards, two TD

PFF Grade: 77.9

Carson is a guy that can bowl over opposing defenders as he has the power to make life tough with his battering ram style. He is going to be the feature back once again for the Seahawks this season though the Seahawks did bring in Carlos Hyde on a one-year deal. Carson does have to work on his fumbling: he coughed it up seven times last season, and a total of 10 in in the last two seasons. He also has to deal with injury issues that have hampered him in the last couple of years. That includes a hip injury that he suffered late last season.

9)Alvin Kamara, Saints

Last season: 171 carries, 797 yards, 4.7 yards per carry, five rushing TD, 81 receptions, 533 yards, TD

PFF Grade: 70

Kamara had his ups and downs in his first season as the go-to feature back in the Saints system. He dealt with a couple of nagging injuries that cost him two games and he wasn’t as effective as he was when he was paired with Mark Ingram II. Still, if he stays healthier this season, he should be able to put up better numbers in the ground game while still being an extremely dangerous receiver out of the backfield. His ability to be a safety valve makes him a tough back to defend.

10) Joe Mixon, Bengals

Last season: 278 carries, 1137 yards, 4.1 yards per carry, five rushing TD, 35 receptions, 287 yards, three TD

PFF Grade: 75.3

Mixon was one of the lone weapons offensively for the Bengals last season, who were without A.J. Green all year and John Ross for part of it. Throw in a rookie quarterback in Ryan Finley getting a few starts and Mixon hitting the 1,000-yard mark is nothing short of amazing. With a rookie QB in #1 overall pick Joe Burrow under center this season, the Bengals may lean on Mixon to lead the way again. He showed he could be more of a factor in the passing game last season as well, which could cut into Giovani Bernard’s playing time.

11) Austin Ekeler, Chargers

Last season: 132 carries, 557 yards, 4.2 yards per carry, three rushing TD, 92 receptions, 993 yards, eight TD

PFF Grade: 85.2

Ekeler had been more of a third-down, receiving type of back for the Chargers before last season. When Melvin Gordon held out, Ekeler stepped into the starting lineup and contributed right out of the gate. He put up decent enough numbers as a runner, and his receiving skills make him one of arguably the top three pass-catching backs in the league along with McCaffrey and Kamara. With Gordon moving on to Denver in free agency, Ekeler now has a clearer path to the #1 job. With Tyrod Taylor and rookie Justin Herbert under center, they’ll lean on proven commodities like Ekeler.

12) Aaron Jones, Packers

Last season: 236 carries, 1084 yards, 4.6 yards per carry, 16 rushing TD, 49 receptions, 474 yards, three TD

PFF Grade: 85.1

Jones had a terrific season last year as he led the league in rushing scores. In addition, he provided a reliable option for Aaron Rodgers as a safety valve in the passing game. With a still unproven group at receiver outside of Davante Adams, Jones is going to play a big role for the Packers again this season. He’s still looking to work out an extension and stated this week that he wants to be a Packer for life. With a contract year on the docket, one has to think Jones is going to be motivated to put up big numbers again this season.

(Statistics provided by profootballreference.com and PFF.com)

Author Profile
Chris Kubala

Christopher Kubala has been crunching stats and following sports for over 30 years. His in-depth analysis and passion for sports have led him to writing books about sports, regularly being featured on sports talk radio and as the go-to person for any obscure trivia. Chris keeps an eye on transactions and statistics like a hawk, especially when it comes to football, both the NFL and college. He is also very knowledgeable in the NHL, the NBA, college basketball and MLB. If you want consistency, then be sure and check out Chris’ content daily.