Rumor has it NFL running backs don’t matter, but I suppose that logic depends upon which ones you’re talking about, because they’re not all created equal. 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 not so long ago, and why you then saw Christian McCaffrey financially blow the roof off — with Derrick Henry likely resetting the market in the near future.
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, with some being forced to produce with much less of a supporting cast for much of their career to this point, e.g., Joe Mixon. All of this, and more, becomes deathly clear when attempting to identify the best in all of football at the position.
The following 10 players have proven to be in a league of their own, in one way or several.
Translation: They matter, and in a major way.
10. David Montgomery, Bears
It feels like Montgomery doesn’t get the praise he should on a national level, and that’s very odd. With so much disappointment in the QB and coaching ranks in Chicago, Montgomery has been the glimmer of hope and routinely given Bears fans something to cheer about when they had little else. He’s now amassed more than 3,700 yards from scrimmage and 24 touchdowns in his three years with the team, and he’s done it in spite of abysmal quarterback play that led to the Bears using a first-round pick on Justin Fields. And now, as Fields and Co. become acclimated to a new coaching staff, Montgomery will have to serve as the security blanket for the Bears’ offense — a role he’s not entirely unfamiliar with — providing impact as both a runner and a receiver.
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9. Aaron Jones, Packers
So, you’re probably thinking there is one or two honorable mentions (listed below) who deserve this spot over Jones, but if I agreed with you, they’d be in this spot. Fact is, while Jones took a step back in production in 2021, he’s still every bit the dominant back he was when he delivered more than 3,000 yards from scrimmage and 30 touchdowns for the Packers in the two previous seasons. His streak of consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons ended at two, but 1,190 total yards with 10 touchdowns in 15 starts is nothing to shake a stick at. Additionally, as it relates to who belongs in the top 10, there’s also something to be said for having skins on the wall, and while some of the promising up-and-comers — one in particular notwithstanding (scroll down) — have a lot to look forward to, they simply haven’t also been producing for as long as Jones has.
The Chargers let Melvin Gordon walk because of their belief in Ekeler, and it was well-founded. Elevating Ekeler to the starting role has paid off like gangbusters in tandem with the drafting of Justin Herbert, and his dual-threat ability that also allows him to be an effective receiver out of the backfield truly does take defensive pressure off of wide receiver Mike Williams. It’s a powerful aesthetic that translates very well on the field, and it feels like Ekeler is just getting started. For while he hasn’t cracked his way into the 1,000-yard rushing club as of yet, he’s produced more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage in two of his last three seasons, and all he has to do now is remain healthy to see if the powder blue sky in Los Angeles is truly the limit.
7. Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys
For all of the hubbub about Tony Pollard, a justifiable nod to the potential of the Cowboys backup, it’s still Elliott’s throne in Dallas and for good reason. The former two-time NFL rushing champ was off to a blazing start to the 2021 season that saw him as fast, quick and decisive as he’s ever been, but he was slowed by injury in the back half of the season that made many forget what he was doing prior to that point. And, even though the Cowboys should have shut him down for a few games to rest what was later revealed as a torn PCL in his knee, he was still able to play through the ailment en route to another 1,000-yard season (1,289 yards from scrimmage) with 12 total touchdowns. If he can do all of that on a bum knee, imagine what he can do on two good ones, as was the case early on last season.
Sometimes running backs have to do more with less, and no one knows this better than Mixon. It’s easy to look at the success of the Bengals in 2021 and forget what it took for them to get there, which is to say what Mixon had to fight through to keep the team relevant and to ultimately still be around in Cincinnati for it. Prior to the drafting of Joe Burrow and then Ja’Marr Chase, it was Mixon literally carrying the load for the Bengals’ offense, and he was still able to be a key reason for their special 2021 season despite it morphing into the Burrow-Chase show. That’s saying the least, by the way, because Mixon broke the 1,500 yards from scrimmage mark for the first time in a career dominated by consistency, and his needle continues to point due north.
5. Dalvin Cook, Vikings
It feels like forever ago when everyone was wondering if Cook would live up to his potential. Having battled injury early in his promising career, he’s since overcome that dark cloud — mostly — and become everything the Vikings could have hoped for. He’s been able to not only produce at a high level, but to do so in an offense that features Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, which is a nod to just how productive he is when his number is called. And though his numbers took a slight dip from his 1,900-yard (from scrimmage) season in 2020, he was still able to mount a third consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season and averaged less than 11 yards per game shy of a 100-yard per game average.
4. Alvin Kamara, Saints
Kamara is one of the halfbacks on this list who recently landed his bag, but it hasn’t altered his approach to the game. The former Volunteer is continually volunteering to punch defenses in their mouths, but with what can only be described as an electric finesse. It was Kamara who helped keep the Saints’ offense relevant in 2021 — absent All-Pro wideout Michael Thomas and any sort of consistent production at QB following a torn ACL suffered by Jameis Winston — and it’s neither the first nor last time he’ll be tasked with being the bulk of the production. Kamara is truly lightning in a bottle and, without him, the Saints’ offense wouldn’t have been worth any conversation in 2021.
3. Nick Chubb, Browns
Splitting duty with Kareem Hunt has done absolutely nothing to slow or curb the production of Chubb. If anything, it simply makes you wonder just how much more destructive he’d be if he was the only option out of the Browns’ backfield. The Dawg-turned-Dawg has been a dynamo since landing in Cleveland by way of Georgia, being the steady hand for a roller coaster of a ride with former first overall pick Baker Mayfield and, in the absences of Mayfield due to injury, whomever else took the QB reins in the moment. It is virtually impossible to take Chubb down on first contact, or second, and if he gets into the open field — it’s good night, Nancy. And he does all of his damage in the most buttoned-up manner possible, reminiscent of how Barry Sanders used to operate.
2. Jonathan Taylor, Colts
Like a bat out of the gates of hell, Taylor flies onto this 2022 list with flames dripping from his wings. The fact the Colts laid an egg in a win-and-get-in against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars last season was much more attributable to the ghastly play of the now-traded (again) Carson Wentz and not Taylor, who was the heart and soul of the team’s offense the entire season. Taylor was so potent in his destruction of opposing defenses that he remained in the MVP conversation throughout and landed Offensive Player of the Year honors, having racked up 1,811 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns while adding 360 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns to his stat line. And with Matt Ryan now replacing Wentz, it’s likely Taylor might terrorize the NFL yet again in 2022.
1. Derrick Henry, Titans
Don’t let the fact he battled through injury in 2021 throw you off of what is the glaringly obvious: Henry remains atop the mountain of best running backs in the NFL. Henry is a cyborg, simply put, and can do it all — from running around and through defenders with ease, to running past them with speed unnatural to his size, to catching the ball out of the backfield to throwing it. As the future of Ryan Tannehill begins to come into question in Nashville, and with Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Brown traded away to the Philadelphia Eagles during the 2022 NFL Draft, the Titans will depend more than ever on Henry, which isn’t exactly a stretch when considering that’s mostly what they’ve been doing to this point in his career anyway; as evidenced by his 2,141-yard season (!!) in 2020.
Bottom line? The king still reigns.
My my, how the mighty have fallen.
The most notable deletion from this list entirely is Saquon Barkley, who has lately seen injury derail his potential to be a generational talent, and McCaffrey is treading dangerously close to falling victim to the same dark entity. McCaffrey lands in the honorable mention category only for the sheer magnitude of his talent, one that is arguably unmatched when healthy, but he’s only played in 10 games since signing his mega deal in 2020.
As such, he’s cascaded from near the top of this mountain to the valley below, and needs to prove himself in a major way in 2022. But as he works to do so, promising upstarts like the Harris Bros. (spoiler: they’re not actually brothers) threaten to challenge the incumbents for supremacy going forward, as veterans like Conner and Jacobs threaten to find another gear to reach this coming season. For Barkley and McCaffrey, however, it’s time to become what they once were, or be pushed aside entirely.