After looking at the top ten quarterbacks in the NFL, it’s time to continue on with this series by ranking the top ten running backs. Ironically, after looking at the most important position, we’re now examining the least important and most replaceable position. Still, the top running backs are still able to make a major impact despite that, especially the top half of this list, who are on another tier. Who are those players? Who compiles the rest of the list? Let’s discuss.
#10: Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers
Though running the football will always remain a running back’s top priority, the value in a running back who can be an effective receiving option out of the backfield cannot be overstated. No running back fills that role better than Austin Ekeler; his receiving DVOA (30.3%, 27.1%) is off the charts, and his 481 DYAR is impressive considering he only had a part-time role. Heck, he’s also done quite well as a rusher, averaging 5.5 yards per carry over the last two seasons. Obviously, with just 153 carries over his two-year carrer, he’s not a workhorse. But if you’re looking for an efficient, quality over quantity type running back that works well in a committee, the value Ekeler brings is tremendous.
#9: Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
Speaking of quality over quantity, there may be no better way to describe Aaron Jones’ NFL career so far. The 24-year-old may have only 1,176 rushing yards and 214 carries in his two-year career, but with 5.5 yards per carry in that span, he’s certainly efficient. However, just because he hasn’t had a heavy workload means he cannot handle it; former head coach Mike McCarthy’s pass-heavy game plan meant Jones never received more than 17 carries in a single game. Despite the roadblocks, Jones’ DVOA (16.9%, 31.3%) has been fantastic throughout the early stages of his career, while he also proved to be a decent receiver. With a new play-caller in head coach Matt LaFleur, whos’ already emphasized his desire to run the football, Jones could be in for a major breakout season. His inclusion on this list may be surprising, but I have faith he’ll prove this spot on the list to be even a little low; fantasy owners should scramble to make sure they land Jones in their drafts this year.
#8: Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
After averaging just 3.5 yards per carry last season, the Bengals really needed Joe Mixon to step up in his second season in order for them to make a playoff push. Injuries ultimately derailed their efforts, but Mixon delivered in a huge way. The 22-year-old averaged 4.9 yards per carry and progressed in nearly every statistic. Plus, unlike his first year, he also provided value in the receiving game, per Football Outsider’s statistics. Even more impressive, he did this behind a bottom ten run blocking offensive line and continued to produce despite being the focal point of the offense after quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver AJ Green went down with injuries. With the offense back healthy, including center Billy Price, expect Mixon to have an even better third season; he’s certainly on the right trajectory.
#7: Le’Veon Bell, New York Jets
When doing this list, there was no player harder to rank than Le’Veon Bell. The 27-year-old held out all season due to a contract dispute with the Steelers before signing a four-year contract with the Jets in free agency; we haven’t seen him play since the divisional round of the 2017 season. Furthermore, although he’s immensely talented, his numbers regressed in that season, and he was used heavily as a Steeler; how much tread does he have left on his tires before he regresses further? It’s not as though he was bad in his final season as a Steeler; he ran for 1462 EYards and 652 receiving EYards, which are both tremendous marks. Still, he only averaged 4 yards per carry, and his patient style means that he needs a strong offensive line to have success. The Jets don’t have that, and honestly, Bell’s value with the team comes with his ability to be a safety valve as a receiver for second-year quarterback Sam Darnold. If he can do that and remain a solid runner, he’ll prove to still be a top ten running back. If he fails to adjust, however, he may find himself off the list next season.
#6: Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
Recently, Melvin Gordon made headlines in a bad way for the Chargers; he plans to hold out if he doesn’t receive a new contract or isn’t traded. How the team handles that remains to be seen, but for now, Gordon still remains a fringe top-five running back. The 26-year-old had a major breakout season last year, averaging 5.1 yards per carry and a 20.5% DVOA. Furthermore, he had an excellent 53% success rate, while he has also provided positive value as a receiver in each of the last two seasons. Obviously, playing behind a top-five run-blocking offensive line helps, and it’s unclear how efficient Gordon would be without the Chargers; I’m not sure if I’d be willing to give him the contract he is demanding. Still, he’s a very talented player, and as far as this ranking is concerned, may be a top-five running back if he replicates his success from lasts season (assuming he plays at all).
#5: Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
In today’s NFL, it’s rare for a running back to be the centerpiece of an offense. However, that’s exactly what Ezekial Elliott has been with the Cowboys. He had over 300 carries last season despite not playing the last game of the season and had nearly 2000 yards from scrimmage. Yet, I’m not sure Elliott is the top running back in the NFL, despite him being endorsed in that way. His DVOA (3%) and DYAR (150) were underwhelming, and despite having a top-ten run-blocking offensive line, did not put up the numbers you’d expect from an elite running back. Additionally, per Football Outsider, he has been below average as a receiver, so he’s not the dual-threat the running backs ahead of him on this list have proven to be. Elliott’s a very talented player who is extremely important for the Cowboys, but still, he may be slightly overrated at the moment.
#4: Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
Speaking of being centerpieces of offenses, that’s what Saquon Barkley will have to be for the Giants this season. With an aging, low-quality quarterback in Eli Manning, little outside receiver talent after trading Odell Beckham Jr., and a poor offensive line, he’s honestly the offense’s only hope to being any sort of threat next season. Drafted with the second overall pick in the draft, he shined in his rookie season; he averaged 5 yards per carry and ran for 1121 Eyards. His DVOA (2.9%) and DYAR (123) was a little underwhelming, as was his 41% success rate. However, he played behind the fourth-worst run-blocking offensive line, and also had 643 receiving Eyards last season. Overall, he ranked as Pro Football Focus’ third-best running back just as a rookie, and assuming he progresses further in his second season based on his overall talent, he could compete for the top running back; he’s the most talented running back in the entire league already.
#3: Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
Another former first-round pick, Christian McCaffrey continues to go under the radar as an elite dual-threat option out of the backfield. He ran effectively last season, averaging 5 yards per carry, posting a 55% success rate, while also running for 1058 EYards. Furthermore, he added 894 receiving EYards, an 11.5% receiving DVOA, and totaled nearly 2000 yards from scrimmage. He wasn’t part of the Panthers offense last year, he WAS the Panthers offense. Especially with Cam Newton’s shoulder problems, McCaffrey will have to carry the offense for the team to have success next season. I believe he’s up to the task, and although many will consider this too high of a ranking for him, I’m certain he’ll justify it with another amazing season.
#2: Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
Right now, Todd Gurley’s production isn’t the concern with him. With a 23.7% DVOA, 367 DYAR, and 1573 EYards last season, he was tremendous as a runner, while he’s also been an elite receiver out of the backfield, making him the complete package as a running back. In fact, he was an MVP candidate last year, though he doesn’t play a valuable enough of a position to win it. However, his injury issues are a major concern. He dealt with knee problems last year, may have arthritis, and was almost unusable at times down the stretch last season. Now, it’s unlikely he’ll ever be the workhorse he once was, which limits his value. Still, it’s hard to ignore his recent production, and even in a slightly smaller role, he should continue to be a very efficient and complete running back.
#1: Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
Throughout this article, we’ve constantly gone over the value of dual-threat running backs. No one fits that mold better than Alvin Kamara. After averaging 6.1 yards per carry and posting a 44.5% DVOA, with 969 receiving EYards and a 36.4% receiving DVOA in his sensational rookie season, his numbers were bound to regress in his sophomore season. Despite that regression, he still has a very efficient season as a runner; he had 1138 rushing EYards, an 18.5% DVOA, and a 58% success rate. Plus, his receiving abilities were on full display (831 EYards, 19.4%) DVOA. He was a top-five runner and easily the best receiver out of the backfield last year; he has no weakness. He may not be as popular as Elliott or Barkley, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s undoubtedly emerged as the best running back in the NFL, and with Mark Ingram out of the picture this season, he may reach even greater heights this season.