Quarterbacks get all the love (see this page for some talk about them), but teams that run the ball well tend to have sustained success, particularly in the playoffs and in games played in cold weather. With that in mind, I thought it would be nice to compile a list of the top 10 RBs heading into the upcoming season. This is an early look, so things are all but certain to change in the coming months, but it’s a good starting point to see where teams stand. Don’t worry; we’ll discuss QBs plenty of times throughout the year!
1. Derrick Henry, Titans
The king will still reign until he is overthrown. No RB is more important to his team than Henry. He led the league in carries and yards in both 2019 and 2020, and he was on pace to do so again in 2021 before suffering a broken foot. Henry still managed to rush for 937 yards in a mere eight games. He runs through contact with remarkable ease, yet possesses breakaway speed at 247 pounds. It’s not normal. Ryan Tannehill suffers greatly whenever King Henry misses time, which might be the greatest compliment you can pay a running back.
2. Jonathan Taylor, Colts
Two straight AFC South backs lead us off. If Taylor were a QB, he likely would’ve won MVP last season. Surpassing 5.0 yards per carry in both of his pro seasons while averaging 330 receiving yards each year, Taylor is the engine that makes his offense go. That doesn’t figure to change despite the acquisition of a more competent QB in Matt Ryan. Taylor has a combination of supreme vision, speed, and power that allows him to quickly find running lanes, blast through them, and bust out of arm tackles. If the Colts return to the playoffs this year, Taylor will be the reason why.
3. Nick Chubb, Browns
It’s a shame that Chubb isn’t used too much in the passing game, because he is super explosive. Having averaged 5.3 yard per carry throughout his career, Chubb has topped 1000 yards rushing in each of the past 3 seasons despite sharing carries with Kareem Hunt. Good blocking certainly plays a role, but when watching the film, you see how Chubb explodes out of the backfield and hits every hole hard. Consistency is a key aspect: averaging 5 yards a carry over two runs of 10 and 0 yards is not as helpful as doing so with two 5-yard runs. Chubb epitomizes this fact, always producing positive gains and setting his offense up ahead of the chains.
4. Alvin Kamara, Saints
Injuries sapped a bit out of Kamara in his first season as the full-time starter last year, but he still topped 1200 scrimmage yards despite only starting 10 games. Even when Michael Thomas is healthy, Kamara functions as the team’s #2 receiving option, which is both an indictment of the Saints’ depth chart and a reflection of Kamara’s pass-catching skills. Few players are more dynamic in space or as fun to watch, so we hope Kamara is back to full strength in 2022. With a refreshed receiving core to prevent defenses from stacking the box, Kamara should return to 2020 form.
5. Christian McCaffrey, Panthers
McCaffrey takes a hit here due to durability concerns, but if he’s finally fully healthy, there’s no question regarding what he can do when he’s on the field. No player at the RB position is a better receiver than McCaffrey or has softer hands than him, and only Kamara is even close. He racked up a staggering 1005 receiving yards on 115(!) catches in 2019. However, he’s only played in 10 games since. The pre-draft questions surrounding injuries have been proven true, but hopefully we can see the McCaffrey of old in 2022, because that player literally puts the Panthers’ offense on his back.
6. Joe Mixon, Bengals
Mixon had the best season of his career in 2021, with 1205 rushing yards to go with 314 yards receiving. He provided much-needed balance for Joe Burrow, preventing the Bengals from becoming too one-dimensional. Mixon’s yards per carry averages aren’t as strong as those of some others on this list, but he also ran behind one of the worst offensive lines in the entire league. In that light, his production appears far more impressive and indicative of a player who creates on his own without help from his blockers. That is the sign of a premier back.
7. Leonard Fournette, Buccaneers
The third NFC South RB on this list, Fournette has experienced quite the career revival thanks to Tom Brady. After a tumultuous start in Jacksonville, Fournette had a slow beginning in Tampa before earning the legendary “Playoff Lenny” moniker. He carried that momentum into 2021, where he ran for 4.5 yards per carry and caught 69 balls for 454 yards as the favorite outlet of his Hallf-of-Fame QB. With Brady surprisingly returning for another season, Fournette should continue to be a high-end running back now that his receiving and blocking abilities have enabled him to stay on the field for all 3 downs.
8. Dalvin Cook, Vikings
Another RB whose injury issues knock him down a few spots, Cook rarely plays a full season, but that’s likely due to his trademark pounding running style. Despite having never played more than 14 games in one campaign, he has surpassed 1100 rushing yards and 200 receiving yards in each of the past 3 years. Cook has a dynamic one-cut running style with elusiveness in space, as well as the toughness to fight through contact. He’s easily be in the top 5 if he were more reliable.
9. Aaron Jones, Packers
Jones would probably be a bit higher if he weren’t in a timeshare with AJ Dillon. He owns a 5.1 career yards per carry average, yet he received only 171 carries a season ago. This is certainly due to Dillon’s bruising style and effectiveness, but that shouldn’t be taken as a slight against Jones. The Packers’ offense runs more smoothly with Jones in the lineup, and he has the hard-earned trust of Aaron Rodgers, both as a blocker and a receiver (350+ yards in each of the past 3 years). He is being paid as a top-tier back despite the sometimes limited workload, so the Packers know what they have.
10. David Montgomery, Bears
Montgomery tends to get overlooked when discussing the top rushers, but since the Bears traded up to get him in the 2019 draft, he has been an absolute workhorse, exceeding 1000 scrimmage yards during each season of his career. Outside of 2020, his yards per carry figures haven’t been very flashy, but it’s important to note that he faces a stacked box on every play because opposing defenses don’t fear the Bears’ QB. He produced 3.15 yards after contact per attempt in that 2020 season, showing that he tends to pick up much more yardage than is blocked. When you can create your own yardage, you’re a highly valuable asset.