The NFL’s top 11 running backs

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Do running backs matter?

We’ve been arguing that for years, and while it’s true that they aren’t as important to offenses as they used to be in a general sense, imagine the Titans’ offense without Derrick Henry, or Sean Payton’s offenses without the versatile backs who can line up all over the field. Put Pete Carroll out there without a top-tier back, and he might decide to go back to college. The importance of running backs in today’s NFL has a lot to do with individual team and scheme, and how those backs fit what the coaches want to do. Running backs matter in that constraint to a greater or lesser degree depending on positive workload, and the combination of sustaining style and explosive plays. As is the case with everything else in the NFL, it’s not a binary answer.

Perhaps it’s not so much that running backs don’t matter, and more that longevity at the position is a pretty tough go. Look at Ezekiel Elliott, who you won’t find on this particular list. Elliott led the league in rushing attempts and rushing yards in two of his first three NFL seasons (2016 and 2018), but he’s seen his carries, yards, yards per attempt, and yards from scrimmage decrease in each of the last three seasons. Elliott has been dealing with injuries, which is part of the problem, and it doesn’t help that injuries have also affected the Cowboys’ offensive line. Saquon Barkley led the NFL in yards from scrimmage in his rookie year of 2018, and has managed to play in just 15 games since. Todd Gurley was once the standard-bearer at the position, but his output has declined precipitously over the last two seasons.

Running back is a tough gig. Never mind whether you matter; the end goal is to survive at a high level as long as you possibly can.

When you’re on top of the world as a running back, things can change very quickly. Here are the 11 best running backs in the NFL… at the moment.

(All advanced metrics courtesy of Pro Football Focus and Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise noted).

11. Ronald Jones, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The Buccaneers selected Jones in the second round of the 2018 draft out of USC, and it took him a while to become a major part of Bruce Arians' offense. That happened in 2020, as Jones became a key cog in Tampa Bay's offense -- especially when Arians and Tom Brady got on the same page about halfway through the season. Including the postseason, Jones gained 1,117 yards and scored seven touchdowns on 227 carries, gaining 802 yards after contact (fourth-best in the NFL behind Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, and Nick Chubb), and proving that he has the vision, contact balance, lateral movement, and acceleration to be a perfect foil behind the Buccaneers' outstanding offensive line. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1412828608171761665

10. Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team

(Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Gibson was a hybrid receiver and runner at Memphis, which may have left some NFL minds wondering just what he would be at the next level. Washington didn't care -- they clearly saw Gibson's capacity for explosive plays, took him 66th overall in the 2020 draft, and wound up with quite the bargain. Even with the quarterback position collapsing at the best of times, Gibson proved to be remarkably consistent and efficient... https://twitter.com/PFF/status/1413135924855066625 ...and more than just a highlight-reel guy. Gibson gained 826 yards and scored 11 touchdowns on just 184 carries last season, forcing 39 missed tackles and gaining 193 yards on eight carries of 15 or more yards. If Gibson gets more touches in 2021 (and he clearly should), expect a running back with everything it takes to be one of the league's best. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1412744920264290304

9. Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts

(Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Colts head coach Frank Reich loves his two- and three-tight end sets, and Taylor benefited from those personnel packages, gaining 348 yards and scoring five touchdowns out of 12 personnel, and gaining 129 yards with two touchdowns on 32 carries out of 13 personnel. https://twitter.com/ZachHicks2/status/1412559896961224708 Overall, only Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook gained more rushing yards than Taylor's 1,247, and Taylor added 12 rushing touchdowns on 253 carries in an offense that was pretty seriously limited with Philip Rivers at quarterback in Rivers' swan song season. Not that we're sure about what the Colts are getting in Carson Wentz, but we're pretty sure that Taylor will continue to be the team's bastion of consistency.

8. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

(Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

McCaffrey missed all but three games in 2020 with injuries, so you may have forgotten just how good he was in 2019, when he became the third player in NFL history after Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk to gain more than 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same season. When he's on the field, McCaffrey has proven to be a complete back in every sense of the word -- explosive in the open field, better in short-yardage situations than you might expect from a back his size, and clearly capable of doing anything you want as a receiver. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1412755519467626499 McCaffrey managed 225 rushing yards and five touchdowns last season on just 59 carries, adding 17 receptions for 149 yards and another score. If he's healthy enough to manage the high snap rates the Panthers would prefer of him in 2021, McCaffrey could be once again among the league's best -- and most versatile -- backs.

7. David Montgomery, Chicago Bears

(MARK HOFFMAN/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL)

Montgomery has the eighth-most rushing yards in the NFL over the last two seasons (1,959), becoming an underrated star in a Bears offense that has quite obviously suffered at the quarterback position. One hopes that the addition of Justin Fields will accentuate what Montgomery can do as a runner and a receiver; it can't be much worse than it's been before, and Andy Dalton is nothing but a short-term option. Last season, Montgomery gained 1,101 yards and scored eight touchdowns on 259 carries; he also forced 54 missed tackles (the fourth-highest number in the league), gained 800 of his yards after contact (the fifth-most in the league), and had six carries of 15 or more yards. When you talk about running backs who have done more with less, you can start right here. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1412747066443505665

6. Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders

(Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)

The Raiders signed former Dolphins and Cardinals back Kenyan Drake this offseason, and it's estimated that Drake will play more of a versatile role, including lining up as a receiver. Whether that happens or not, Jon Gruden already has a top-tier back in Josh Jacobs, who gained 1,065 yards and scored 12 touchdowns on 273 carries last season. Jacobs has been one of the better power/speed backs both of his years in the league, forcing 51 missed tackles last season and gaining 187 yards on 10 carries of 15 or more yards. Questions abound as to whether the Raiders' offense will cook with a vastly different (and relatively talent-deprived) offensive line, but as much as any back can transcend his front five, Jacobs is a good bet to do so. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1412773523660156936

5. Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers

(Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports)

The big news in Green Bay's offense is of course the status of Aaron Rodgers, but the second most important Aaron in that offense is Jones, and he's become one of the league's most prolific backs. Since Jones' rookie season of 2017, only Todd Gurley, Derrick Henry, and Alvin Kamara have more rushing touchdowns than Jones' 37, and only six backs have more rushing yards than Jones' 3,364. Jones has averaged 5.17 yards per carry in his career -- only Nick Chubb has a higher yards per carry total since 2017 among backs with at least 500 carries in that time. In 2020, Jones had 11 carries of 15 or more yards for 425 yards, ensuring his status as a big-play back. Add in his receiving ability, and Jones is also one of the most complete backs in the league. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1412802316630102019

4. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

(Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports)

Kamara was most notable for his incredible game against the Vikings in Week 16 last season, when he scored six rushing touchdowns and blasted through Mike Zimmer's defense for 155 yards on 22 carries. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1412802160794996737 But that's not all there is to Kamara's game, of course. He's a fabulous runner, but he's also a major part of Sean Payton's passing game, and that will continue to be the case as the Saints transition from Drew Brees to whatever combination of Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston happens in 2021. Given the fundamental limitations of those quarterbacks, Kamara might see even more targets than the 115 he had in 2020, putting up 88 receptions for 793 yards and five touchdowns. As was the case with Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles in Payton's offense, few backs are better at moving linebackers and safeties by motioning from the backfield to the slot pre-snap.

3. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

(Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)

Of all the backs on this list, Cook may have the widest gap between production and recognition. This could be because he's on a team that missed the playoffs last season, and hasn't advanced beyond the divisional round since his rookie season of 2017, but there's no doubt, when looking at both metrics and tape, that Cook is one of the NFL's best backs over the last few seasons. Only Derrick Henry had more rushing yards than Cook's 1,557, which he amassed with 312 carries, averaging five yards per carry and scoring 16 rushing touchdowns along the way. Cook forced 68 missed tackles last season, and gained 1,039 yards after contact -- he and Henry were the only backs to break the 1,000 yards after contact barrier last season. With his vision and acceleration, Cook might be the best inside/outside zone runner in the league, which perfectly fits Minnesota's preferred running styles. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1412790306584641539

2. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns

(AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Including the postseason, Chubb gained 1,212 yards, scored 12 touchdowns, and averaged 5.5 yards per carry -- on just 221 attempts, which tied him with Green Bay's Aaron Jones for the 11th most rushes in the 2020 season. If Chubb were not in a committee relationship with Kareem Hunt, you might see him at a Derrick Henry production level, but it's also true that Chubb is on the right side of the workload concern, and it's tough to think of too many backs who are better on a play-to-play basis. Chubb forced 66 missed tackles last season, had 19 runs of 15 or more yards (only Derrick Henry had more), and gained 883 yards after contact (only Henry and Dalvin Cook had more). Baker Mayfield may be the face of Cleveland's improving offense under head coach and shot-caller Kevin Stefanski, but Chubb is the heart of the whole thing. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1412791684866453507

1. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

(Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports)

When explaining why Henry is the NFL's best back at this particular time, you could go with one particular statistic to back it up: Over the last two regular seasons, Henry has more yards after contact (2,758) than any other back has total rushing yards (Dalvin Cook has 2,692 rushing yards combined in 2019 and 2020). That's pretty ridiculous. Then, you add the fact that Henry has 3,567 total rushing yards over that time, which puts him 875 total yards ahead of anybody else at his position. Among running backs in 2019 and 2020, only Nick Chubb has a higher yards per attempt average (5.25) than Henry's 5.24. Henry has 39 runs of 15 or more yards over the last two seasons, more than anybody else. Nobody has more rushing touchdowns than Henry's 33. No other back has more rushing first downs than Henry's 164. It's possible that Nick Chubb or Dalvin Cook could match Henry's numbers with the same number of carries -- Henry has 681 over the last two seasons to Cook's 562 and Chubb's 488 -- but now we're getting into the realm of what might be as opposed to what is. What is, is that Derrick Henry is the NFL's best running back, and catching up with him in that capacity seems just as difficult as catching up with him on the field. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1412787991496564739

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