Ranking Each of the 32 NFL Starting Running Backs: From 32 to 1
Ranking Each of the 32 NFL Starting Running Backs: From 32 to 1
The running back position is becoming more and more devalued, seemingly with every new NFL season. Most teams possess a two- or maybe even three-headed backfield to keep one rusher from getting worn down over time. When one guy goes down, another one seems poised to step in, and usually at a low-value contract.
However, there are some teams that ride with a lead guy a la Derrick Henry or Jonathan Taylor. The offense revolves around them and the threat of them. It doesn't matter what those handful of players mean in the grand scheme of the league, but where do those players fall within their positional rankings? Let's dive in and see who the top dog is among this year's presumed starters.
32. Marlon Mack, Houston Texans
Mack is set to be the 1A in a Houston backfield that could also include a 1B and 1C: Rex Burkhead and Dameon Pierce. And the reason is quite simple. It's been more than two years since the 26-year-old attempted more than 28 rushes in a season or more than 10 in a single game. This past season, in his mere 59 snaps, Mack earned a PFF grade of 56.4 -- two years after he posted a 69.5 grade. He rushed for nearly 1,100 yards and 8 touchdowns, yet he was limited to 14 catches and a 43.5 receiving grade. Mack has never proven to be a receiver, and after his run of serious injuries he has failed to show he can produce the same rushing numbers he did earlier in his career.
31. Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills have a lot of great things going for them, but an elite running back talent isn't one of them. Although Singletary rated out 11th in rushing grade in 2021, he was 34th overall as a result of an awful receiving grade (42.3) and another sub-50 rating in pass blocking. The latter is especially important when you consider that specific job is protecting a $250 million quarterback from oncoming blitzers. Singletary will likely surrender a lot of obvious passing-down situations to rookie James Cook, who projects as a willing pass-catcher and someone that could be an upgrade as far as pass protection.
30. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs
For all the disappointment Chiefs fans and fantasy owners shared during Edwards-Helaire's rookie season, they were probably feeling a whole lot worse this season. The back's overall PFF grade fell by 11.6 and he was limited to three fewer games due to injury. His per-carry average remained above four for a second straight season, but his receiving opportunities were few and far between. His passing skills earned him a top-half grade in the receiving game -- that wasn't the problem. The problem was his 49.3 pass blocking grade, which kept him from superseding the likes of Darrel Williams and Jerick McKinnon on third-down and behind-the-sticks snaps. He has a lot to prove this year, and will have to do with free agent signee Ronald Jones breathing down his neck in K.C.
29. Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks
Penny is a particularly baffling player to evaluate going into the 2022 season. For the first three seasons of his career, the now 26-year-old just couldn't stay healthy, appearing in a combined 27 games with no more than 10 games after his rookie year. He turned things around in 2021, when he appeared in 10 games, started 6 and -- in doing so -- produced 749 rushing yards and 6 scores. His 80.5 PFF grade was 12th at the position, but it remains to be seen if he can hold up over a larger timeframe. It's likely that Penny cedes at least 30% of the carries to rookie Kenneth Walker.
28. Chase Edmonds, Miami Dolphins
Edmonds is one of only a few running back faces in new places this coming year. The former Arizona Cardinal signed a two-year deal with Miami in free agency and is set to lead the way in what will likely be a three-headed backfield between Edmonds, Raheem Mostert and Sony Michel -- assuming Myles Gaskin is phased out. Last year, in 12 games, the 26-year-old averaged 75.2 yards (rushing plus receiving) on 13.3 touches per contest, acting as the 2B to James Conner's 1A. In doing so, he was 40th in player grade with a rather weak 51.7 PFF grade in pass-blocking. Given the emphasis on Tua Tagovalioa's development and keeping him healthy, Edmonds will need to improve in that area to grow his role on his new team.
27. D'Andre Swift, Detroit Lions
This past season, in his sophomore campaign, Swift played a hair over 50% of the Lions' offensive snaps, and though he received more attention as a weapon, he was limited to 13 games for a second consecutive year. His 57.3 PFF grade was 59th among qualified backs, consisting of a 61.3 run grade, 58.5 receiving grade and 26.8 pass-blocking grade. Swift's been projected as a dual-threat with his hands out of the backfield, but his combination of poor production and unreliable pass protection speak to the disappointment thus far. Can he rebound behind one of the league's best offensive lines? Consider it improbable for him to do a lot more based on all we know today.
26. Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars
Etienne is a big-time projection ranking, seeing as we have yet to see him play in an NFL game. The 23-year-old back will be returning from a Lisfranc injury that sidelined him for the entirety of his rookie year, though it wasn't all bad. The Clemson standout avoided running behind a bad offensive line and playing in an Urban Meyer offense that failed to do much with Trevor Lawrence under center. As a first-round pick, though, there's promise, especially when you consider the new environment due to the Jaguars' offseason moves which included adding Brandon Scherff at guard and bringing in Doug Pederson to lead the team and offensive gameplan.
25. Antonio Gibson, Washington Commanders
A very divisive player in NFL and fantasy football circles, Gibson has experienced a wide range of shifts in how he's been perceived early on in his career. Following a strong but somewhat limited rookie year, he exceeded 1,000 rushing yards with 7 touchdowns and another 3 scores through the air. His receptions and receiving yards per game have been low for a guy that was a part-time receiver at one point at Memphis. Last year saw him fight through a leg injury, and that had to be influential in his 63.3 player grade and 57.8 receiving grade. There has to be worry that he won't bounce back in year three, and the franchise agreed in their selection of Alabama's Brian Robinson in the third round of this year's draft.
24. Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles
In 2021, the Eagles ran their way to the league's third-most efficient rushing offense -- per Football Outsiders' DVOA. Miles Sanders played a role in that, but he also didn't for stretches of games. Not only was the three-year veteran limited to a dozen games, but he averaged nearly 10 fewer yards per game than a year ago and not once made it into the endzone (on the ground or through the air). It's hard to completely ignore what he did between the goal lines, though. He rated 24th in PFF grade and earned himself 71.4 and 66.0 marks rushing and receiving, respectively. His largest weaknesses are availability and pass-blocking, where he garnered just a 47.3 grade for his efforts.
23. David Montgomery, Chicago Bears
The Bears' offense has been and will, in all likelihood, continue to be a struggling offense, even with Justin Fields at the helm. Like the young quarterback, Montgomery has done the opposite of benefit from a poor offensive line and a questionable offensive approach as a whole. Nevertheless, for all he's shown he's not a bottom-tier backfield talent. He has accounted for more than 1,000 scrimmage in each of his first three seasons, and in amassing 1,150 total yards this past season he was 28th in PFF grade. What's stood out above others is his 69.2 receiving grade and 76.6 pass-blocking grade, which makes him a vital player that can play every down albeit in an otherwise abysmal offense.
22. Elijah Mitchell, San Francisco 49ers
In 2021, Mitchell was the 194th overall pick (in the sixth round) out of Louisiana, representing the 49ers' second back selected behind third-round pick Trey Sermon. In true Shanahanian fashion, Mitchell turned out to be the superior first-year back in the San Francisco offense, converting 226 touches into 1,100 total yards (963 rushing) and 6 touchdowns. His 76.8 player grade consists of a solid 75.5 rushing grade, 65.7 receiving grade and 69.2 pass-blocking grade. The last of the three may not be as big of a factor with Trey Lance assumed to be taking over at quarterback this year, but he runs the ball and does it well.
We'll be waiting to see if he can take it to the next level in this run-first San Fran offense.
21. Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders
Believe it or not, Jacobs was sneaky good in 2021. Following a 76.3 grade that rated 21st in 2020, the 24-year-old earned a 79.5 grade that ranked eight spots higher, though his counting stats would suggest as much. His rushing yardage and touchdowns were both down, but in the receiving game he notched 110 more yards with an 84% that outpaced 2020 by 11%. Combined with an 82.8 rushing grade, Jacobs' 63 and 75.3 grades out of the backfield and cutting down rushers made him a top-15 guy at his position. He's poised to do it again in what figures to be an improved offense with Davante Adams now on board.
20. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
There are a lot of Tony Pollard stans out there among the masses, but Elliott is still the number one back in Big D. Sure, the money talks, but Zeke's workhorse ability keeps him ahead of Pollard and is reportedly pushing the backup to take more snaps as a receiver. The reason for Dallas' confidence lies in Elliott's bounce-back in 2021. He improved his player grade by 17 spots, and -- in a full 17 games -- rushed for more than 1,000 yards on 4.2 yards per carry with 2.8 catches a game. However, it's 100% worth noting that Pollard was far better in receiving and pass-blocking grade in his time on the field.
19. Cordarrelle Patterson, Atlanta Falcons
After years of being held as a gimmick-like player stuck between a running back and receiver, Patterson broke out in his first year in Atlanta in 2021. The 31-year-old veteran finished fifth in overall PFF grade, including first with a 91.4 receiving grade. Patterson's fantastic route-running and hands led to 52 catches, more than 500 yards receiving and 5 touchdowns. In an outstanding campaign, he also tallied 600-plus rushing yards and 6 touchdowns for a down offense. Patterson intends to do the same this season after re-signing in Atlanta on a two-year, $10.5 million contract.
18. JK Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens
It's been a minute since we've seen what Dobbins can offer in a meaningful football game on an NFL field. Back in August, he suffered a preseason ACL injury that landed him on Injured Reserve for the year, but that means he's ready for a comeback season in Baltimore. If 2020 was any indication, Dobbins should once again be a top-20 runner in the Ravens' Lamar-led offense. A rookie statline of 805 yards, 9 touchdowns and 6 yards a tote should not go overlooked for a player that will be more than a year removed from surgery when the season gets underway in September.
17. Breece Hall, New York Jets
Hall is the highest-rated rookie and the only one to be near-certain to serve as the lead back for his team. In his time with Iowa State, Hall ran for more than 1,400 yards in each of his final two seasons with no fewer than 5.6 yards per carry in the Big 12 conference. Across his three years, he also racked up 82 catches for 730-plus yards, speaking to the dual-threat skillset that spoke to the New York brass. Hall's ability could push Michael Carter to the side and allow him a chance to be a top-10 guy come this time next season.
16. Damien Harris, New England Patriots
Harris is a unicorn of sorts. His professional career got off to a slow start, abiding his time under Bill Belichick's tutelage and trailing more experienced backs, only to become the full-time guy in New England this past year. Over a 15-game sample, the 25-year-old -- in the prime of his running back life -- turned his 200 carries into 929 yards and a massive 15 scores. There was a lot to be desired in his little pass-game involvement, but his PFF marks were enough to hold up an 84.7 rush grade that ranked fifth and catapulted him to second overall among all backs. Placing him on the lower half of the league feels awkward when you consider those gaudy advanced stats and alpha runs like this.
15. Leonard Fournette, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Leonard Fournette arc is very interesting, as he, after being so overhyped out of LSU and struggling in Jacksonville, he has surprised and exceeded expectations in his second career with Tampa Bay. He's become a Super Bowl champ, yes, but after showing out in the 2020 playoffs he returned in 2021 to rush for more than 800 yards, haul in 69 balls for more than 450 yards and account for 10 total trips for six. When all was said and done, he was 21st in player grade, but for me the fact that he's a workhorse and is relied on by none other than Tom Brady gives him a bump of a few spots. At 27, he should have one or two more seasons of top-half production in his bag.
14. Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams
There might not be a single non-rookie that's tougher to gauge than Akers. His freshman season showed a lot of promise, including big performances in the Rams' first playoff run. Since then, he has been limited to a few regular season snaps and four playoff games because of an Achilles injury suffered at the very start of 2021. He struggled to a measly 2.6 yards per attempt over the sample of his Super Bowl run, but all indications are that he's healthy and likely to regain his pre-injury form. In 2020, that meant a 68.4 player grade as an inexperienced rookie. If he's truly healthy, Sean McVay will get the best out of him in 2022.
13. Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
Mixon enjoyed a career year in 2021. In his route to the Pro Bowl, the 25-year-old (he turns 26 before the new season gets underway) posted a career-high 1,205 rushing yards alongside 13 touchdowns and another 3 receiving. He's benefited from Joe Burrow as a passing threat and might take that up a notch this year due to upgrades to the Bengals' offensive line. Even with a poor and banged up line, Mixon was able to put up an 82.1 rushing grade and finished 14th in overall running back grade at 79.2. If there's any area where he's not at the very least solid it's in the pass-blocking game, where he ended the year in the bottom 10 of player grades (37.3) among qualified backs.
12. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
Let's just say it took some effort to get to Barkley's name on the PFF player grades page. The former Offensive Rookie of the Year came in 58th of 62 qualified runners, rating out best in rushing grade at 65.7 -- in the two other passing-game areas he was abysmal. Knowing that, there needs to be more scrutiny -- it's all on Daniel Jones right now -- on Barkley to be the back he was prior to his run of injuries. But we know what he can do when healthy and back in the routine of the season. Back in 2018 he was the third-best back in PFF's charting, as he eclipsed more than 2,000 total yards. With some new beef on the line, Barkley should have the opportunity to prove me -- and others -- right, that he is in fact a second tier back with first-tier talent at the position.
11. Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos
For a rookie who was in on just 50% of his team's snaps, Williams sure did impress. On just over 200 carries, the former Tar Heel dashed his way to 900 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns, and surprisingly to some threw in another 300 yards and 3 touchdowns out of the backfield as a pass-catcher. Based on that, I'm not even sure his 19th-ranked PFF grade does him justice, especially when you consider he didn't have a single category grade below 65. Oh -- and he was the broken tackle master... in his rookie season. The arrow is pointing up and up in year two.
10. James Conner, Arizona Cardinals
Conner might come as a surprise as the player to kick off the top 10, but he really shouldn't. And even if you want to scream "small sample" in reference to last year's performance in Arizona, consider that he has never had a single-season grade below 69.4. With the Cardinals, he was unlocked to the tune of the league's seventh-best running back grade and second-best receiving grade, with Conner brining in 37 of 39 targets for 375 yards and 3 touchdowns. All total, he had over 1,000 yards and 18 touchdowns in a Pro Bowl year. Another year in Kingsbury's system should only boost his chances at another monster performance.
9. Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
It's worth noting that Jones and A.J. Dillon might just be the league's best backfield duo with their lightning and thunder approach in Green Bay. But in 2021, it was the speedier Jones who logged more than 51% of snaps even though he missed two games due to injury. For that reason, he came up short of 800 rushing yards for the first time in three years. However, he exceeded the prior year's receiving total and was a force out of the backfield in the redzone, turning in six scores. PFF awarded him with the sixth-best grade at the position, a 72.6 receiving grade and 67.5 pass-block grade. You couldn't ask for more in an Aaron Rodgers led offense.
8. Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers
Admittedly, this is likely higher than most NFL people would expect Harris to be in the ranks, and PFF and their 69.6 grade from last year would back that up. Harris' overall mark was 30th among backs in his rookie year, but he was really solid running and served as a surprisingly great safety valve for Ben Roethlisberger's retiring arm. His 62.5 and 67.0 grades in receiving and pass-blocking, respectively, speak to his being ahead of the curb at a young age. It's almost impossible for him to experience as heavy a workload as a year ago (307 carries and 97 targets), but he's proven that he can do it (1,667 yards and 10 touchdowns), and it sounds like he's going to have to continue to do so.
A big sophomore season is in store for Harris.
7. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
At first glance, Cook had another Cook-like year for the Vikings in 2021. On nearly 250 carries, he went for 1,159 rushing yards, and added 224 in the receiving game. However, he only found the endzone six times, and his efficiency with his hands wasn't there. His catch rate fell by 12%, and that was reason enough for him to fall to 46th in receiving grade among backs. All that being said, it's impossible to discount a guy who is a back-to-back-to-back Pro Bowler who is only a year removed from being the third-best back by player grade. Think of this past year as anomaly for a guy who, when fully healthy, could be among the top three in this list.
6. Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers
Like most of the other elite backs, Ekeler is a do-it-all type that is as much a driver of his team's offense as his star quarterback. This past year, the 27-year-old returned from an injury-riddled 2020 with a career-high 911 rushing yards, 647 more in the air, and all for a total of 20 touchdowns. He now has more than 400 receiving yards and no fewer than 4.4 catches per game in three straight seasons. His 75.3 PFF grade doesn't do him and his versatility proper justice.
5. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
Just like Dalvin Cook, Kamara had himself a poor 2021 for his standard of play. Uncertainty at quarterback and injuries that had him in and out of the lineup produced an up-and-down year at the end of which he finished 51st in player grade with average marks rushing and receiving. And as for his pass-blocking, his 12.3 mark is half of the next qualified player. That will need to improve, and Kamara will have to stay healthy, but if that happens, he has the proven talent that will keep him a top-five stud.
4. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
McCaffrey is as much of a victim of the running back position as anyone. Suffering through injuries over the last two seasons, he's been capped at a total of 10 games and 158 carries. What's promising, though, is that in this last year his PFF grade was 11th in his seven-game sample, as he averaged 4.5 yards per carry and 9.3 yards per catch and posted a league-best 92.8 receiving grade. With another offseason under his belt, expect CMC to get back to the Offensive Player of the Year candidate he was in 2019.
3. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
What is there to explain about Henry? 2021 represented his first ever injury-plagued season, and despite that he was 17th in PFF grade and produced north of 900 yards and 10 scores (in 8 games). Once you get past the very recent injury issues, the big man is a year removed from being the number one back, according to PFF's charting. Without A.J. Brown in town, Henry will be called upon even more as the focal point of the Titans' offense. Taking into account health, I'd bet on one final year of peak Henry.
2. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
Ask anyone, and they'll tell you that Chubb is one of the most gifted, natural backs in the league -- hands down. He bounces off of tacklers left and right, and with his stalky build, has proven himself as a pass blocker. This past year, he was eighth in overall grade and fifth in pass-blocking, which will be key if and when Deshaun Watson steps in as the franchise quarterback. Before that point, he will shoulder an even larger workload, and based on that we could get quite the showcase in what Chubb can do behind one of the league's highest-paid offensive lines.
1. Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts
Possessing an 87 PFF grade and 90 rush grade, Taylor ended 2021 as the league's best, most-efficient back. He did so on one of the league's largest workloads, having touched the ball 372 times (catches plus runs) on 766 snaps. All the Wisconsin product did was turn that into an All-Pro season consisting of 1,811 rushing yards, 360 receiving yards and 20 total touchdowns. To say the offense revolved around him would be an understatement, especially when you consider Carson Wentz and his inconsistencies in the Colts' passing game. At 23, Taylor is at the very start of his prime, so expect to see more of this for some time.
Brett Oswalt has been writing about sports for five years, has covered everything from the NBA to College Football DFS, and previously served as an editor at numberFire. He is a Senior Workforce Planning Analyst at Highmark by day, and an avid sports fan and girl-dad by night. He resides in Pittsburgh, PA with his wife, Marley, daughter, Aria, and goldendoodle, Braun.