Jul
05
2021

The NFL’s Top 12 Running Backs For 2021

Overview

Runningbacks have become seemingly less and less valuable every year as the league adopts the committee backfield with open arms. Because of this, workhorse running backs have become fewer and far between. When a running back is a true RB1, capable of putting the team on his back and handling 25-30 touches a game, it’s not easy to miss. These are the NFL’s top 12 running backs…

Honorable Mention: Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers

Ekeler is set up for a very nice season in LA as possibly the third target for budding star Justin Herbert. He’s not the best pure runner, but his ability to affect the passing game from out of the backfield will play a large part in Herbert’s development. The only reason he doesn’t crack the top twelve is simply due to the possibility of missing early-down work to Justin Jackson and Josh Kelly later in games.

12. Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers

I was a little hesitant to include Harris in this list due to the well-documented issues of the Steelers’ offensive line. However, Harris’ ridiculous athleticism and power will make him a threat regardless.

Additionally, I believe that the Steelers’ passing game could be good enough to take some of the attention off of Harris. Watching the downfall of the 11-0 Steelers last season showed that their inability to run the ball severely handicapped the offense. They used a first-round pick to ensure that would no longer be the case. He may be a rookie, but he can certainly be among the NFL’s top 12 running backs.

11. JK Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens

This may be one of the bolder picks on the list, but I genuinely believe that JK Dobbins is one of the better pure runners in the league. With Mark Ingram permanently out of the picture, Dobbins is due for a huge year in the league premier rushing offense.

Despite the presence of Gus Edwards and the rushing ability of Lamar Jackson, JK will have plenty of opportunities to take over a game. His incredible, albeit maybe unsustainable, efficiency paired with reports of more involvement in the passing game will showcase him among the league’s best backs.

10. Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams

I could not be more confident in Akers’ ability and what I expect to see from him and the Rams’ offense this season. Malcolm Brown is gone and Darrell Henderson may annoy fantasy owners on occasion, but it is no secret who the lead back is in Los Angeles.

Akers ended last season on fire, taking the reins after an impressive performance in Week 11 against the 49ers. He rode that all the way to 221 rushing yards in his only two playoff games, pacing the Rams on offense and providing the spark they needed to contend in the NFC. This year, he will start Week 1 and will not slow down.

9. Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers

I wanted to put Jones higher on this list, I really did, but a lot still rides on the resolution of Aaron Rodgers and upper management. Additionally, I’m not sure if the Packers’ passing game can sustain their ridiculous production without the emergence of a true WR2. That would place more attention on Jones and cause teams to stack the box more often.

Not to mention, Jones just received a brand new $48 million contract, and the Packers want to make sure he makes it to the end of it. That might mean more spouts of AJ Dillon to take impactful touches away. Jones is a great back, and I want to say he’s among the top eight, but he may fall just short.

8. Ezekiel Elliot, Dallas Cowboys

It is no secret that Ezekiel Elliot struggled last season. He failed to reach 1,000 yards, tied his career-high in fumbles, and routinely lost carries to Tony Pollard. In short, it was disappointing, to say the least. However, remember who we’re talking about.

Elliot led the league in rushing yards per game in his first three seasons and still managed 1,357 in his fourth. Not to mention he received his lowest touches per game (19.8) and was struggling behind a broken line and backup quarterbacks.

7. Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts

Taylor ended his 2020 season on a seven-game run with 74 yards or more (including playoffs). That is only the beginning for him as he enters a pivotal sophomore season. With a new quarterback, one who is trying to rediscover himself, Taylor will be featured early and often.

In fairness, Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines COULD take some touches away, but Taylor took over for Hines late last season. Additionally, Indy seemed willing to part ways with Mack last offseason before his injury. I bet that the Colts treat Taylor like the workhorse back he is, and he delivers.

6. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

It was a shame to see Barkley miss virtually all of last season after his ACL tear in Week 2. However, in essentially two seasons’ worth of work, Barkley has amassed 3,563 yards from scrimmage, 2,028 of which came in his rookie season alone. Let’s not forget the ridiculous talent this man possesses.

He was arguably the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson when he came out of Penn State just three seasons ago. The Giants’ offensive line has not improved like it needed to, but it is a little deeper. However, with the addition of Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney to supplement the passing game, Saquon may have a little extra running room this season.

5. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

Yes, Kamara has yet to record a 1,000 yard rushing season. In fact, he has not had a 1,000 receiving season either. However, he averages over 102 scrimmage yards and nearly a touchdown per game. Truly ridiculous numbers by any standard.

If (When) Jameis Winston takes control of the offense, New Orleans may be willing to air out the ball a bit more than with Drew Brees these last few seasons. We all know how dominant Michael Thomas can be, and it could cut into Kamara touches. Without a strong and consistent target share, Kamara’s value could slip slightly. He may not be a workhorse, but a truly revolutionary and game-breaking weapon he is.

4. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns

When you say powerful runner, Nick Chubb should be the first player on your mind. He is almost impossible to bring down when he gets hot. Despite sharing a backfield with Kareem Hunt, his extreme efficiency leads to elite production.

Despite less than 16 rushes per game over only 12 matches, Chubb was still able to reach the 1,000-yard mark. Give this man 17 healthy games with a larger workload, and he could lead the league in rushing. Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry make that offense good, but Chubb makes them great.

3. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

I am probably going to catch a lot of heat for this one, but after a 2,000-yard season, it is hard not to see some sort of regression. I know this excuse may be overused, but Henry benefits greatly from the division he plays in. In his six divisional matchups, Henry racked up 1,042 yards on just 153 carries. These inflated stats on weaker defenses make Henry’s production look otherworldly.

For example, in his other 10 outings, Henry mustered 985 yards on less than 4.4 yards per rush. Still solid numbers no doubt, but not the world-beating rushing champion that he’s seen as. I’ll admit, Henry may be one of the most powerful backs in league history. However, with the addition of Julio Jones, and his limited catching ability, I just cannot place him over these next two guys.

2. Christian McCaffery, Carolina Panthers

CMC is the best pass-catching back in the league, and that is the reason he has been so successful. Versatility is vital in today’s league, and McCaffery is among the best weapons in the league. With Sam Darnold running the offense, and a clean bill of health, McCaffery is due to explode in 2021.

DJ Moore and Robbie Anderson will keep the passing game fruitful, and leave CMC room to run rampant. The only hesitation one could have with McCaffery is the addition of Chuba Hubbard. Hubbard will certainly get his touches and has a chance to be very efficient. However, the target share and otherwise shallow backfield will keep McCaffery among the league’s premier backs.

1. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

The title of the best pure runner is tight between Cook and Chubb, but Cook’s elite receiving ability sets him apart. Additionally, Cook does not have the privilege of running behind a top-tier offensive line. In fact, Minnesota’s line ranked 26th in PFF’s year-end rankings. To add on, Ezra Cleveland, Garrett Bradbury, Dakota Dozier all ranked outside of the top 32 at their positions.

During the draft, Minnesota beefed up the offensive line, landing Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw and Ohio State’s Wyatt Davis. While they will certainly help, Cook has proved to be successful without them. In his last 28 games, he has amassed 3,500 yards from scrimmage and 30 touchdowns. Those are superstar numbers from a man without superstar help. With an upgraded line and ample passing game, this is the year of Dalvin Cook.