We all know the running back ain’t what it used to be in today’s NFL.
The position is devalued and the money formerly devoted to the game’s elite talent has been siphoned off to other premium positions over the last decade-plus. With teams emphasizing the analytically superior passing game over an antiquated reliance on establishing the run, the NFL doesn’t feature the ball-carrying generational talents, like Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith, many of us grew up gushing over.
Of course, just because GMs are paying receivers, cornerbacks, and edge pass rusher the big bucks these days doesn’t mean the NFL is void of supremely gifted players in the backfield. They may never match the greatness of Smith, Sanders, and other legendary running backs throughout NFL history because they’ll never amass the same amount of carries. But that doesn’t mean today’s top talents at running back can’t get to Canton. They'll just do it by catching 100 balls out of the backfield and racking up 2,000 yards from scrimmage instead of strictly rushing their way to that milestone.
Today’s best ball carriers and pass catchers out of the backfield do a little bit of everything and can break open a game as easily as the best wide outs. Supremely athletic and dynamic in ways players at the position rarely were 25 years ago, there are some ridiculously talented running backs in today’s game that aren't receiving the hype they may have back in the 90s. So before the season kicks off in less than a month, we did our due diligence and ranked the 10 best running backs according to our rigid and thorough ranking process (aka we argued about it via Zoom).
10. Le’Veon Bell
Bell’s first season with Gang Green was disappointing, to say the least. After taking a year off from football in 2018, big things were expected from Bell in 2019 and he didn’t deliver. But it wasn’t entirely his fault. The Jets’ offensive line wasn’t a full-blown disaster, but it was close to it as Bell racked up his fewest yards from scrimmage since his injury-plagued 2015 season. At 28 years old, Bell’s far from finished and behind an enhanced offensive line, expect a bounce back season from one of the premier pass catching running backs in the NFL. If you watched any Jets games last season—which you’re excused if you didn’t because why subject yourself to bad football—then you know Bell showed you that despite that year off he hasn’t lost a step. He’s still shifty, still has an elite burst, and once his teammates can consistently open up holes for him he’ll return to the stat sheet filler he was in Pittsburgh.
9. Joe Mixon
You honestly probably don't know how good Mixon is because he plays on the Bengals, but the fact is, he's very good. His 2019 numbers were good, but would have probably been a lot better if he weren't on the worst team in the league. And yet, he still put up over 1,100 yards and eight total touchdowns. With Joe Burrow coming to town, the Bengals should be a lot better than Mixon's first three years in the NFL, when the team has won a total of 15 games. With a nice balance of speed and power, Mixon is a true three-down back for the Bengals and a cornerstone of that franchise. Some already know how good Mixon is. The rest are about to find out.
8. Aaron Jones
We all know Aaron Rodgers could use another weapon or two up in Green Bay, but the man undoubtedly has one of the best weapons out of the backfield in Jones. The Packers running back was a scoring machine last season, rushing for a league-high 16 TDs (same as Henry). While his 1,084 yards rushing in 2019 pale in comparison to some on this list, expect those numbers to increase in 2020 since second-year Packers head coach Matt LaFleur appears to be way more committed to the run than previous Packers coach Mike McCarthy ever was. But proving he’s more than just a runner, Jones ended 2019 with 1,558 yards from scrimmage and showed he’s became a serious threat catching the ball in ways we hadn’t really seen his first two seasons in the league. Being healthy for the first time for all 16 games had a lot to do with that as Jones averaged a robust 7.0 yards per target in 2019 and finished the season with the second most receptions on the Packers. Other than Rodgers, this Aaron is the Packers most dynamic offensive player and as long as he stays healthy his 2020 numbers should prove worthy of the top 10 status we’ve bestowed upon him.
7. Alvin Kamara
Kamara is a true "do it all" running back in the NFL. We do have to point out that his 2019 season was a down year compared to his first two seasons in the NFL. There's a variety of factors that played into that, including Kamara missing two games with injury. The Saints also have an offense where a lot of guys touch the ball, but that doesn't diminish the fact that Kamara is one of the most electric players in the NFL. He's a guy that can break away for a big play at any moment, and we've continually seen that throughout his career. In today's NFL, you need backs who can run and catch, and nobody outside of Christian McCaffrey is better at it than Kamara.
6. Dalvin Cook
Before we run through Cook’s on-field stats real quick, the most surprising one associated with the Vikings ball carrier heading into the 2020 season is that (as of right now) he’s the 55th highest-paid running back in the NFL. That’s going to change shortly because there’s no way Cook doesn’t deserve big money (he’s set to make a base salary of $1.3 million this season) for the production he provided the Vikings last year. His 2019 campaign saw him set single-season highs in all major rushing (and receiving) categories as he finished seventh in the league in rushing touchdowns. Minnesota has vowed to work out a fair deal to compensate their best offensive player now that Stefon Diggs is playing in Buffalo. It remains to be seen what Cook and the Vikings think is fair and where he’ll be slotted among the highest-paid backs in the league. All we know is the man deserves a helluva a lot more than that base salary if he’s going to give you at least 1,135 yards rushing and average 9.8 yards per catch like he did last season.
5. Nick Chubb
Chubb is easily the most underrated player on this list. In just two seasons, he's rushed for almost 2,500 yards and racked up 16 touchdowns. He was really the only bright spot for the Browns offense last season and will likely be a huge factor in Kevin Stefanski's run-heavy offense this season. Chubb is certainly a guy who lets his play do the talking for him and has proven that he has breakaway speed in the open field. Who knows if the Browns will actually be good this season, but they can surely count on a huge season from Chubb, a true workhorse running back that is dependable as they come, who came just a few yards short of a rushing title in 2019.
4. Derrick Henry
He’s as old-school as it gets in today’s game because no other running back is the physical freak Henry is. Running at an imposing 6’3”, 247 pounds, you would expect Henry to barrel over defensive backs and shrug off the linebackers trying to lasso him down like it’s nothing because he’s so big. But what really sets Henry apart, and makes him one of the top 5 running backs in the game, is his breakaway speed. Guys his size aren’t supposed to outrun defenders, but how many clips have we seen of Henry, last year’s leading rusher in the NFL, surprisingly outsprint guys you thought were faster than the former Heisman Trophy winner? Happens all the time and the Titans surprising run to the AFC Championship Game was largely predicated on Henry’s success running the ball when he averaged an absurd 148.7 yards per game in the playoffs. If you were sleeping on Henry before last season, we’ll give you a pass since his numbers, while respectable, were kind of pedestrian. 2019, of course, was a different story, and entering his fifth season in the league, at age 26, Henry’s vaunted himself into the upper echelon of NFL running backs because he’s incredibly unique and downright scary trying to stop in the open field.
3. Saquon Barkley
Barkley is probably the most gifted athlete in the NFL. Like, have you seen the video of him jumping out of a pool? The guy is unreal. He's also got the best shot to hit No. 1 on this list and stay there for multiple years going forward. Fact is, he's only coming in at No. 3 this year because he had a down sophomore season that was plagued by an ankle injury. Even so, he still put up 1,000 yards and scored eight total touchdowns. The future is bright for Barkley and the Giants, and honestly, the only question about Saquon going forward is whether or not he can stay on the field. If he has more seasons like his rookie year, where he put up over 2,000 yards from scrimmage and scored 15 touchdowns, then he'll be on his way to Canton, Ohio when his career wraps up.
2. Christian McCaffrey
Arguably the most versatile running back, one of the most durable, and assuredly the highest-paid in NFL history, the Panthers workhorse is part of the vaunted 99 Club in Madden and certainly will be one of the most coveted players in every fantasy football draft. But we’re not here to justify McCaffrey’s vaunted status with his fantasy football rankings or video game ratings. We’re hear to rave about his production. A First Team All-Pro last season, McCaffrey led the league in yards from scrimmage, points per game, tied for the league lead in touchdowns, and caught an astounding 116 balls out of the backfield. As we mentioned up top, the running back position has evolved drastically over the past few decades, but who ever envisioned someone out of the backfield catching 116 balls in a season like McCaffrey did last year? As one of the most impressive physical specimens in the NFL and the Panthers' franchise player with Cam Newton now up in New England, only a fool would bet against the 23-year-old McCaffrey supersizing the impressive numbers he put up in 2019 this year.
1. Ezekiel Elliott
Elliott is the best running back in football. That's just what it is. The numbers alone tell the story, but if you've ever watched Zeke play, you know he's a different kind of force on the field. You know you're in a class of your own when they consider 1,300 yards and 14 total touchdowns a "down" season. Fact is, Zeke has gotten to the point where he's so good, if he doesn't put up unreal numbers on a weekly basis people try and say he fell off. That's just what happens when you're the best at what you do. And the Cowboys paid him as such last offseason. They know how much value Elliott brings to the table. He makes the Cowboys go. And some will laugh and say Dallas hasn't gone anywhere, but think of where they would be without Zeke? Exactly.