The running back position is one that’s evolved more than just about any other over the past decade. Gone are the days of big 250-pound pound running backs carrying the ball 25 times a game and not being much of a factor catching passes. Now, NFL teams are looking for more versatility at at the position, typically with a committee of players.
A lot of teams are going with a group of players who have differing skill sets, which keeps the backs fresh and healthy for the long haul of a 16-game season. But that’s not always the case -- especially if a team has someone as capable as Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson or Le’Veon Bell.
We ranked the 12 best running back situations in the league, which doesn't account for running quarterbacks or offensive line play. Only depth and talent at the position.
Jacksonville looked like it was in good shape last season with Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon atop the depth chart – two backs with solid potential. Unfortunately, both struggled mightily, leading the Jaguars to draft Leonard Fournette fourth overall. His presence alone will elevate the play of the entire backfield and will take pressure off quarterback Blake Bortles.
What gives Jacksonville one of the best running back situations in the league is the depth. Ivory is a former 1,000-yard rusher, and Yeldon has showed flashes of being a really good player. Fournette will obviously be the starter for most (if not all) of the season and will probably lead all rookies in rushing yards, but Ivory and Yeldon will have a chance to contribute, particularly on third down.
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The Bengals took a huge risk by drafting controversial running back Joe Mixon in the second round, facing a great deal of scrutiny from the public and fans. However, as long as he can prove to be a good citizen and teammate, he’ll contribute as a rookie. In fact, his presence will elevate the Bengals’ running game by a substantial amount.
Mixon joins Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, who are likely to be backups. Bernard is the best receiver of the bunch, while Hill is more of a bruiser. Mixon is essentially a combination of the two, which is what makes the Bengals’ rushing attack so intriguing.
Cincinnati should easily crack the top 10 in the league in rushing this year after finishing 13th in 2016. There’s a lot of potential in the Bengals’ backfield, largely thanks to Mixon’s skill set.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints did some serious work on their backfield this offseason, adding both Adrian Peterson and Alvin Kamara to a depth chart that already featured Mark Ingram. All three players are capable of being starters if called upon, giving the Saints arguably the most depth of any team in the league.
What pushes them down this list is the uncertainty. Ingram has just one 1,000-yard season in his career, Peterson is coming off of a significant knee injury at 32 years old, and Kamara is just a rookie. Ingram is likely to be the starter in Week 1 – or at least he should be – with Peterson and Kamara working as his backups. You probably shouldn’t buy too much fantasy stock in any of New Orleans’ running backs, but as a whole, they'll get the job done.
The Seahawks added Eddie Lacy to their running back room this offseason, but he’s hardly the reason their ground game will be really good in 2017. Thomas Rawls and C.J. Prosise are two young players who can make big plays when healthy, even though they weren’t very often last season. Sure, Lacy is a decent option if he can stay in shape, but the Seahawks’ running game will go as Rawls and Prosise do.
What makes their backfield so intriguing and promising is the fact that they have so much depth. Rawls, Prosise and Lacy can all handle a starting role, which is key considering the injury issues they’ve all gone through. As a result, the Seahawks will be in much better shape than they were last season when they ranked 25th in rushing. Health will be a major factor in where they check in this year.
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The Panthers made a bold move by taking Christian McCaffrey eighth overall in the draft. He’s a special player who can contribute in multiple phases of the game, but Jonathan Stewart was already on the roster. The Panthers' running game was at its best when Stewart was sharing the backfield with DeAngelo Williams a few years ago. And now that Stewart is 30 years old, it was wise of the Panthers to add a younger back who can also thrive on third down.
McCaffrey and Stewart give the Panthers two capable starters in any given week, which is a big plus when considering the nature and physicality of the running back position.
Don’t be surprised to see Carolina finish in the top 10 in rushing this season, but the biggest boost will be the number of passes McCaffrey catches out of the backfield.
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For the second straight year, the Bills led the NFL in rushing. Their 2,630 yards and 29 touchdowns were league highs by a wide margin. That doesn’t tell the whole story, though. LeSean McCoy accounted for 1,267 yards of that total, and Tyrod Taylor and Mike Gillislee rushed for 580 and 577 yards, respectively.
Gillislee is now in New England, and Taylor isn’t a part of the running back group – hence Buffalo’s lower-than-expected ranking on this list. That’s not to say the Bills won’t once again have a great rushing attack. They will. The numbers just aren’t reflective of the talent they have at running back. Expect them to take a bit of a step back with McCoy getting up there in age and Gillislee no longer in Buffalo.
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David Johnson would be the starting running back for pretty much any team in the NFL and has solidified his place as one of the best offensive players in the league. He put together a historic season in 2016 with more than 2,100 yards from scrimmage and an eye-popping 20 touchdowns and is the definition of a workhorse back, rarely coming off the field.
Part of the reason for his massive workload is because the Cardinals don’t have a viable backup, which is why they’re a bit lower on this list than you might expect.
Andre Ellington is converting to wide receiver, leaving rookie T.J. Logan as Johnson’s likely backup. We saw DJ suffer a knee injury in the season finale, and while durability isn’t a concern, the Cardinals are playing with fire by not having a reliable player at No. 2 on the depth chart.
Mike Mularkey’s “Exotic Smashmouth” offense worked to perfection last season as Tennessee finished third in rushing with 2,187 yards. It did so with a pair of backs capable of being starters in DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, both of whom averaged more than 4.4 yards per carry.
The duo rushed for 14 touchdowns last season, which was more than 17 teams, and is an underrated aspect of Tennessee’s offense. Between Marcus Mariota’s savvy in the red zone and the Titans’ ability to pound the ball at the goal line, they rarely fail when it comes to scoring points inside the 20.
This season, we should expect to see a bit more of Henry and a tad less of Murray. Not only is Henry younger, but he also doesn’t have fumbling issues. Murray put it on the ground three times last season – which albeit, is low for him – while Henry didn’t have any fumbles.
Jordan Howard is entering just his second season in the NFL, but he’s already one of the most underrated running backs around. He finished second in rushing last season to only Ezekiel Elliott, racking up 1,313 yards and six touchdowns on only 252 carries. He averaged a healthy 5.2 yards per carry behind a not-so-great Bears offensive line, which was the most impressive part of his season.
Howard is going to carry the Bears’ offense again with the passing game likely to struggle, and a sophomore slump shouldn’t be expected. He said he’s lighter and faster this offseason, and he's eager to prove he wasn’t a one-year wonder. Jeremy Langford and rookie Tarik Cohen – the Human Joystick – are good complements to Howard, as well, providing the Bears depth at running back.
You could make the case that Le’Veon Bell is the best running back in the game today, or at least the most versatile. He can do anything you ask of him on offense, and he can do it extremely well. Whether it’s pounding the ball behind the center, bouncing a run outside after the hole closes, or lining up as a boundary receiver, Bell can hurt opponents in a number of ways.
What prevents Pittsburgh from being No. 1 on this list is depth. DeAngelo Williams is no longer in the mix as Bell’s backup, with that job likely going to rookie James Conner. Knile Davis will also get some snaps, but he’s rushed for a total of 100 yards the past two seasons (25 games). If Bell gets hurt or suspended, which he often does, the Steelers aren’t in great shape. They have to hope Conner can prove to be a suitable No. 2 early in the season.
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The Cowboys ranked second in the NFL in rushing last season, finishing with 2,396 yards on the ground. Of course, 1,631 of those came directly from Ezekiel Elliott, which should come as no surprise. Entering his second season, Elliott should be even more productive – if you can imagine that being possible.
He’s the workhorse and will carry the ball at least 300 times in 2017, but Dallas is in good shape behind him, too. Darren McFadden was a 1,000-yard rusher two years ago, and Alfred Morris has starter experience. Neither player should eat into Zeke’s carries too much, but they provide solid depth in the event that Elliott gets injured.
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The Falcons get a lot of credit for having one of the most prolific passing attacks, and rightfully so, but their backfield is arguably the best in the NFL. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman make up a dynamic duo of versatile backs who can both run between the tackles and catch passes out of the backfield.
The fact that they’re essentially interchangeable gives Atlanta a number of options offensively. The Falcons can line up Freeman as a single back while splitting Coleman out wide as a receiver, or vice versa. All that puts the defense in a bind, keeping defenders honest when diagnosing the play.
The Falcons finished fifth in rushing last season, but they’ll climb even further as long as both players stay healthy.