Rumor has it running backs don’t matter, but I suppose that logic depends upon which ones you’re talking about. For when it comes to assessing the best in the NFL at the position, you’re hard-pressed to keep that argument going, knowing full-well not everyone can do what they do — when/if given the chance. It’s the reason the Dallas Cowboys awarded Ezekiel Elliott a historic contract despite re-signing Alfred Morris as insurance during his 2019 holdout, and only months after drafting Tony Pollard.
It’s also why the New York Giants will do the same for Saquon Barkley or risk losing him in the future, and not long after the Carolina Panthers threw an entire Wells Fargo at Christian McCaffrey. And then there’s the looming Derrick Henry contract with the Tennessee Titans, so forth and so on. Detractors point to the Todd Gurley contract divorce from the Los Angeles Rams, but are reports of his demise accurate?
Or exceedingly premature?
A myriad of variables determine how successful a running back will be at the NFL level, and the bottom line is not all of them are created equal. That becomes deathly clear when attempting to identify the best in all of football. The following 10 players have proven to be in a league of their own, in one way or several.
Translation: They matter.
10. Dalvin Cook, Vikings
There’s no doubt Cook has shown he’s one of the best running backs in all of football.
The problem for the former second-round pick is while that’s obviously true, so are questions surrounding his durability — his battle with injuries having tied down his potential prior to 2019. Cook burst onto the scene in his rookie scene by taking the franchise record for single-game rushing yards from Adrian Peterson, running for 127 yards in his NFL debut, but wound up with only 354 rushing yards and two touchdowns that year after suffering a torn ACL that sidelined him after Week 4.
He’d miss more time in Year 2 due to hamstring issues before breaking out last season, and subsequently holding out with the hopes of commanding a more “respectable” contract offer from the Vikings. Cook has not yet proven more than the others on this list but, that said, he’s a force when he’s healthy.
The only question is, can he stay that way in 2020 and beyond?
9. Todd Gurley, Falcons
Remember this guy?
It’s easy to take the lazy route and write off Gurley as damaged goods, but there’s nothing that actually indicates he’s damaged — unsubstantiated narratives and headlines aside. Gurley is only two years removed from having been made the highest-paid running back in NFL history, and he was awarded that contract (and early) by the Los Angeles Rams for a reason. The team released him this offseason in a move that felt more for cap workings and to end a mushrooming rift with head coach Sean McVay than due to an actual regression on the field, considering Gurley delivered 1,064 yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns in 2019, and he did it despite seeing his utilization scaled down by McVay.
A three-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro, Gurley heads home to Georgia to rebuild his brand with the Atlanta Falcons — having accumulated 4,988 yards from scrimmage and 54 touchdowns in the last three seasons alone and not missing more than two regular season games since his 2015 rookie season.
Gurley is still one of the best in the business, and I fully expect to place him back in the top five come 2021.
8. Leonard Fournette, Jaguars
This just in: Fournette is still very good at American football.
Things got scathingly close at this point of the list, because I easily (and was readily willing to) put Gurley above Fournette, but there’s something to be said for a guy who racks up for 1,674 yards from scrimmage — including an 81-yard spurt — on a drowning team like the Jacksonville Jaguars. The club bounced back and forth between Nick Foles and rookie Gardner Minshew over the course of the season, but Fournette provided a steady hand through it all.
Some argue he hasn’t played equal to his draft status as a former fourth-overall pick but, questions about his attitude included, you’re left wondering if it’s all more attributable to the toxic environment in North Florida than his ability. He might not be with the Jaguars much longer and, if so, his new team would love to have a guy who posted 3,016 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns in two of his three NFL seasons.
Fournette didn’t get his wish in having the team sign Cam Newton in 2020, and must now again be the anchor for Minshew, but he’s already proven he can do it — fairly easily.
7. Chris Carson, Seahawks
Not mentioning Carson in the upper echelon of RBs is weird, because he deserves the nod.
The problem is not many outside of the Pacific Northwest would include him in the conversation, and maybe it’s because he operates in the shadow of Russell Wilson and the Seahawks passing attack. There’s also the fact he’s tasked with being a star in a post-Marshawn Lynch era — increasing the level of difficulty as it pertains to being recognized for his abilities. Make no mistake about it though, Carson gets the job done in all ways possible. You won’t see his name plastered across the Pro Bowl banners or on primetime football lead-ins, but ask Wilson and head coach Pete Carroll what the 25-year-old means to Seattle.
Before suffering a fractured hip in late December, Carson blew past 1,300 scrimmage yards and posting nine touchdowns for the second consecutive season, landing on 1,496 total in 15 starts. He followed up his breakout 2018 season by leveling up beyond it in 2019, and his 2020 looks exceedingly bright. Like Cook, he simply needs to remain healthy but, unlike Cook, we’ve seen him dominate for nearly two full seasons now.
On a list full of former first- and second-round picks, this former seventh-round pick is getting it out of the mud and has earned a hearty salute.
6. Joe Mixon, Bengals
If you think Fournette has it bad…
Allow me to introduce you to Mixon, who is an insanely talented player on literally the worst team in the entire NFL. Sure, things are [again] looking up for the Bengals, on the heels of grabbing quarterback Joe Burrow with the first-overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, but Mixon has been one cooking with Crisco for quite some time now. Since joining the Bengals as their 48th-overall pick in 2017, the team has stumbled to a forgettable 15-33 record, but not because of Mixon. A weapon out of the backfield as either a runner or a receiver, his last two seasons have seen him accumulate 2,888 yards from scrimmage and 17 touchdowns.
Consider he’s done this with a carousel of questionable QB play and an overall lack of a downfield threat to take the pressure off of him — A.J. Green having been repeatedly sidelined with foot issues — and despite changes to the coaching staff in Year 3.
On any given Sunday, Mixon can adapt to whatever the opposing defense gives him. If he needs to play bully ball, he’ll do it. If he needs to stretch linebackers thin with screen passes and force an imbalance in the secondary, he can do that as well. There weren’t many bright spots in Cincinnati before Burrow landed, but Mixon has become a lighthouse for Bengals fans desperately looking for something positive to hold onto.
He must now help Burrow hit the ground running, and all signs indicate he’ll have no trouble doing so.
5. Nick Chubb, Browns
Chubb is no stranger to struggling in Ohio, either.
Well, to be more accurate, he’s no stranger to being on a struggling team, because as an individual — he’s been stellar. Being forced to share the load with Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson in his rookie season barely put a dent in what he did on the field, pushing them both out of the way (and eventually off of the team) en route to 996 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns in only nine starts. Fully unleashed in Year 2, the former second-round pick exploded for 1,494 rushing yards (1,772 from scrimmage) and emerged as one of the top five best running backs in all of football.
Like Gurley, Chubb is a former Georgia Bulldog who has proven he can dominate at the NFL level as a runner and a receiver — landing honors as a Pro Bowler in his first season as a full-time starter. The Browns, yet again, have a lot to figure out, but the running back position isn’t one of those things. Chubb is an animal by any and all measure, and the fact Cleveland was able to secure him without using a first-round pick is a coup.
Aggressive. Fast. Sure-handed. Physical. Durable. Intelligent.
Chubb is a premier back who, as crazy as it sounds, hasn’t hit his peak yet. That’ll happen when Baker Mayfield and the passing attack can start consistently stretching the field, leaving opposing defenses with the inability to stack the box against Chubb. Once that begins to happen, not even Animal Control will be able to get this dawg back in the cage.
4. Derrick Henry, Titans
The King is here.
Yes, you can attribute some of the turnaround in Nashville to Ryan Tannehill. For the most part, however, it was Henry strapping the Titans on his back and bulldozing through opponents in 2019. When Tannehill couldn’t get things going, Henry took the ball and became a man possessed — especially when it mattered most. In the playoffs, he rushed for an eye-popping 182 yards and 195 yards respectively in the upsets over both the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens, and on the road… and with both teams throwing the kitchen sink at him. He could only be stopped by the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, but the aforementioned playoff performances let everyone know his regular season was no fluke.
And what a regular season it was, with Henry taking the NFL rushing title with a career-high 1,540 yards to go along with 16 rushing touchdowns, and those who believed he was simply a bowling ball found out he can navigate around the pins at-will; as evidenced in the All-Pro adding another 321 receiving yards to his resume last season.
Henry has gotten better every season at the NFL level, and it correlates directly with having been crowned the full-time starter in 2018. And now that he has the throne in Tennessee, he’s not giving it up.
3. Saquon Barkley, Giants
That’s the thought you’ve often had during one of Barkley’s many highlight plays, and there have been quite a bit of them already as he readies for his third year in the NFL. Despite his prowess at Penn State, some were concerned NFL teams were placing too high of a value on the position when the Giants opted to select Barkley with the second-overall pick only two seasons after the rival Dallas Cowboys used a fourth-overall pick on Ezekiel Elliott and one year after the Panthers took Christian McCaffrey eighth-overall, but bollocks to that.
Barkley is a generational talent that can’t be replaced with the next man up on the roster, and anyone who believes so is basically saying the Giants could plug in anyone and get 3,469 yards from scrimmage and 23 touchdowns, and with two different QBs — on an offense with an afterthought of a passing attack. That, to me, is the equivalent of saying all Daenerys Stormborn needed was three canaries to take the Iron Throne, because “they can fly, too”.
Good luck with that.
Whether it was a turnover-prone Eli Manning in 2018 or a rookie in Daniel Jones who tossed his share of interceptions the following year, every team lining up against the Giants knows the only task at hand has been to stop Barkley. Still, they’ve mostly been unable to do it, and it’s because he’s one of the best halfbacks this league has ever seen. If Barkley continues playing at his current pace, he’ll have a bust in Canton, Ohio when he hangs up his cleats.
2. Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys
Spoiler alert: Zeke is still Zeke.
Elliott set the stage for running backs like McCaffrey and Barkley to be taken with high picks in 2017 and 2018, respectively, because he proved the Cowboys right when they added him to the roster in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Elliott shattered records long-held by legends like Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett, and was easily Rookie of the Year if not for the fact he happened to be slightly overshadowed by the emergence of fourth-round pick Dak Prescott that very season.
Still, he was able to garner First-Team All-Pro honors, a Pro Bowl nod and the crown as NFL rushing leader in his first year out, and he’s not looked back since. Elliott is now a two-time rushing champ, two-time All-Pro, three-time Pro Bowler who hasn’t missed a single game in four seasons due to injury and is only one year removed from posting a career-best 2,001 yards from scrimmage. Those alleging he took a step back in 2019 are willfully ignoring what truly happened, in that Prescott and the passing attack took a step forward under the tutelage of first-year offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.
Despite the newfound passing prowess in Dallas, Elliott remains the lynchpin in the offense, rushing for 1,357 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground — adding 420 receiving yards to his 2019 stat line as well. If that’s a step back, then it tells you just how far ahead of the class he was before. For perspective, only Henry, Chubb and McCaffrey rushed for more yards last season than did Elliott, and only Henry and McCaffrey had more rushing TDs. If the addition of Mike McCarthy sees Elliott utilized more in the passing attack, his full potential will finally be tapped because, believe it or not, it still hasn’t.
That should terrify defenses who couldn’t stop him when they stacked the box, and now face a receiving corps that dares them to keep trying. Expect nothing less from a guy even COVID-19 can’t tackle.
1. Christian McCaffrey, Panthers
Things get dicey when approaching the top of this list — given the stratospheric level of talent — but it’s hard to argue McCaffrey being anywhere but atop of the hill. Both Elliott and Barkley, along with others on this list, have the ability to catch out of the backfield as well, but what the Panthers have unleashed in McCaffrey feels like an absolute cheat code. He’s as much of a wide receiver as he is a running back, but he’s still very much the latter, racking up rushing yards and rushing touchdowns at a blistering pace, and his 2,392 yards from scrimmage (and 19 touchdowns) in 2019 was downright disrespectful to opposing defenses.
He was rewarded this offseason when the Panthers leapfrogged him over Elliott as the highest-paid running back in NFL history, which sets the stage for Barkley to take the financial throne in the near future, but the Giants as a football team might never require Barkley to be what McCaffrey is in Carolina.
In case you didn’t do the math above, McCaffrey was both a 1,000-yard rusher and 1,000-yard receiver in 2019, and he’s even been known to return kicks and punts. The two-time All-Pro is a renaissance man — the likes of which have been rarely seen in the NFL — making him the best in the land. As the Panthers work to move on from Ron Rivera and Cam Newton, they’ll look to the spry 24-year-old to continue carpet-bombing the league going forward.
Show me the person who doubts McCaffrey can, and I’ll show you how to sell them the Brooklyn Bridge.