Life is about evolving. At some point in your life, you weren’t able to walk, but look at you now! Heck, there was a time where I wouldn’t have had the technological resources to talk to you here! As much as we like it or not, change is natural over time, and it’s up to us to learn to embrace.
Think about this when it comes to the game of football. Believe it or not, but the “forward pass” was once not a part of a football game. From there, passing remained a rarity, and while that changed over time, the general sense was that the formula for winning came from a strong defense and productive rushing attack. After all, just take a look at the Hershel Walker and Ricky Williams trades!
Alas, that is no longer the case. While we’ve continued to see the markets at quarterback, wide receiver, offensive line, and every defensive position continue to rise, Ezekiel Elliott’s $90 million contract signed prior to the 2019 season remains the contract with the most amount of guaranteed money given to a running back, while the top of the running back market in the second lowest among every significant NFL position. Why is this the case? Well, of course, for a position that is as susceptible to injuries, there is already extensive risk with investing a significant amount of resources into a player at the position. Meanwhile, plenty of research has been done to show the overall replaceability of running backs, whose production is generally very reliant on their offensive line and the opposing defense’s box counts. Of course, it also doesn’t help matters for running backs that passing the ball is almost always a more efficient maneuver that running the ball, and, thus, the best NFL teams are usually built through their passing attacks.
Now, does this mean that there is zero inherit value of having a strong running back? Of course not! Although the general concept of “running backs don’t matter” has gained overall popularity, the slogan is very misleading, and does a major disservice to some of the game’s premier athletes; there’s no reason why you would willingly want an inferior running back, and no offense is going to pass the ball 100%, let alone 3/4 of the time. Simply being able to limit defenses to play from light boxes is a tremendous benefit for any team’s offense, and any sort of explosive element that can be created on the ground is still extremely important- you’re always looking to find edges on the margins.
Plus, running backs are just fun to watch! Whether it’s a player whose value comes from the receiving game, a breakaway artist, or a traditional “power back”, there are so many different prototypes in which a running back can fall under, and they certainly can be the center of attention for the general football fan; fantasy football’s continued growth in popularity only continues to make this the case.
That being said, the traditional method of evaluating running backs, which tends to be more off of total volume and name value than actual efficiency, could be altered. Hence, what we’re trying to accomplish today. That’s not to say that being able to handle a three-down load and a notable workload isn’t important. Yet, would you rather have an eight-ounce perfectly looked filet mignon, or a 14-ounce overcooked skirt steak? Yeah, I’ll take the filet mignon, and that’s my exact viewpoint running backs; in reality, efficiency in the standard, while the volume is what sets the elite running backs over the top. At the end of the day, volume is all about opportunity, which may be significant for fantasy football, but, in reality, teams control the opportunity.
If you combined the ability to handle volume with adding yards above average based on their rushing and receiving skills, have you ever wondered who the best running backs truly are? Before we can get to ranking and tiering the game’s best running backs ahead of the 2022 season, let us take a look at the running backs projected to be able to offer the most value. After conducting a statistical study looking back over the past three seasons, the following metrics were found to be needed in a multi-variable model to predict future success in terms of the overall yards added above average:
- Yards After Contact/Attempt: The most predictive metric for predicting rushing success, how many yards a running back is getting after contact better measures their ability to create yardage on their own, as opposed to what is paved open by the offensive line.
- Explosive Rush Rate: Any rush attempt that goes that goes for 10+ yards
- Yards/Route Run: How many receiving yards does a running back accumulate per route run?
- Pro Football Focus (PFF) Receiving Grade: The analysts at PFF chart every running back on a -2 to 2 scale for every pass attempt they’re a part of, which properly isolates their impact on a given passing play from the circumstances that may boost their production.
- Pro Football Focus (PFF) Rushing Grade: The same method as PFF receiving grade, but for every rushing play.
For overall projected volume, this is NOT a fantasy football projection based on the current situation every running back, but, rather, how much total yardage you’d expect a running back to accumulate in a neutral situation; this takes into account their previous yard accumulation totals with a projection of their overall quality of play. From there, the volume and efficiency was combined to create a 0-100 rating of every running back’s isolated projected value. Speaking of which:
Of course, this is still only part of the puzzle. With any sort of statistical model when it comes to football analysis, there is needed context added on; as much as we try to isolate the performance of any particular player, the NFL is too much of a team sport for that to be fully accomplished. Plus, between ascending profiles, aging curves, the idea the volume projection is too low based on previous poor situations, or simply what the running back was asked to do, there are so many different variables that cannot be addressed without later context.
That’s where we come in. Heading into 2022, who are the running backs that you a general manager would want to target should they need to build a Super Bowl contender for this upcoming season? Let’s not only rank the running backs based on the foundation established, but, also, let’s tier them; deciding between who is #1 or #2 is less significant than understanding what “talent bucket” a running back falls into, especially with so much season-to-season variance in a small sample size sport. Thus, while there are rankings attached to each player, the main focus should come with the tiers they fall into- within the tiers, you could essentially pick your poison in terms of which running back you’d rather have.
Currently, we’re at a time where many of the game’s established running backs are started to reach the dreaded age of 26/27- where running back production generally starts to decline. Thus, it’s time for the new age of running backs to take over, and with more teams moving towards backfields by committees, what’s asked of running backs has changed drastically. Thus, between efficiency and volume, I’ll always lean to the former, even if from a pure Wins Above Replacement (WAR) standpoint, the volume is quite critical for dictating the overall value the running back had a given season; although WAR is very predictive of team success, you can get the same WAR with less volume between multiple efficient backs than one high-volume running back who isn’t as efficient. Anyways, what are we waiting for? Let’s preview the players at one of the game’s most entertaining positions.
Tier 1: High Volume, Extremely Productive Running Backs
#1: Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
- Overall Rating: 94.97 (1st)
- Projected Volume Rank: 2nd
- Projected Yards Added Rank: T-1st
- Main Strength: Receiving Ability
- Main Weakness: Performing After Contact
In 2021, the second-ranked running back in terms of yards/route run (among running backs with at least 40 targets) was Cordarrelle Patterson at 2.24 (more on him in a moment), though that number also came with him spending a lot of time as a wide receiver. Christian McCaffrey, on the other hand, averaged 2.91 yards/route run. That’s right- 2.91! Not only was that a monumental amount for a running back, but that would place him only behind Cooper Kupp and Deebo Samuel among ALL positions. Remember, this is a running back!
Of course, that came in just a seven-game sample, and McCaffrey has played just ten games over the past two seasons due to various injuries. Sadly, if there was a prime example of the risks of signing a running back to a top-of-the-market contract, this is it. For some, this would be a notable red flag, though it is also worth noting that each injury was not related to a previous one, and this is the same player who had the highest workload between 2017-2019. In some ways, he has less tread on his tires than the average running back assuming he wasn’t completely worn down from those years, while he’s continued to handle an insane amount of volume every time he’s on the field.
The edge that is gained by being able to have a legitimate wide receiver at running back cannot be overstated. McCaffrey’s 1.9-yard average depth of target puts him up there with the most vertical receiving running backs in the NFL – he’s not someone being fed passes behind the line of scrimmage, and the combination of elite ball skills (career 85% catch rate), yards-after-catch skills, and overall savviness allows him to find space, and create a sizable-enough gain from there. While not a powerful runner who creates a lot of yardage after contact compared to average, he still has consistently rated out as an explosive rusher, and the trade-off is more than worth it for what he brings in the receiving game; that edge continues to make him the staple of the modern-day running back. Now, just please stay healthy!
#2: Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
- Overall Rating: 92.89 (2nd)
- Projected Volume Rank: 4th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: T-1st
- Main Strength: Best Rusher In The NFL
- Main Weakness: Lack of Impact In Receiving Game
What are you looking for in a running back? With the way modern offenses are evolving, having a chess piece like Christian McCaffrey would appear to be optimal, yet if you can create dynamic players on the ground and change how other defenses attack you, that is tremendously beneficial and can honestly make as great of an impact for an offense’s passing game.
Hence, the value of Nick Chubb. As someone who hasn’t made a notable impact as a receiver, you’d imagine it’d be difficult for him to find his place in the modern NFL. Well, things get a lot easier when you’re statistically the best pure rusher in the NFL. Among running backs with at least 70 rush attempts over the past two seasons, no player has had a higher percentage of their carries go for 10+ yards than Chubb (17.81%), while he’s also led the league in yards after contact/attempt (4.12) during that span as well. It’s impressive enough to be at the top of the league in the two most predictive measures of future rushing success, but to simply be in another weight class compared to any other running back is simply absurd.
Thus, the only question regarding Chubb is what he can provide in the passing game. While some of Chubb’s limited work as a receiver has been due to presence of Kareem Hunt, they still haven’t typically given him an enlarged role in passing situations even when Hunt has been injured. Now, he’s consistently rated out as one of the best pass-protecting running backs, while his success an explosive rusher leads to him being quite proficient on schemed touches. Regardless, what he does as a rusher is more than enough to compensate for any lack of receiving ability. It’s going to be tough for the Browns to produce offensively, though the onus is on on Chubb to continue to be the outlier he has proven to be.
#3: Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts
- Overall Rating: 85.22 (3rd)
- Projected Volume Rank: 3rd
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 8th
- Main Strength: Dynamic Rusher
- Main Weakness: Lack of High-End Impact In Receiving Game
Throughout college football’s existence, the University of Wisconsin has been quite the powerhouse when it comes to running back talent. Thus, the fact that Jonathan Taylor rushed for more yards at Wisconsin than any running back other than Ron Dayne is mightily impressive. In spite of absurd college production and a dominant athletic profile, Taylor was only the third running back selected in the 2020 NFL Draft, which, in hindsight, seems to have been illogical.
During his rookie season, Taylor didn’t start off on the right foot, yet, starting in Week 11, he started to see enlarged role, and, from there, dominated (91.2 PFF rushing grade) in every which way. Carry that over to the 2021 season, and he essentially was as productive as the season prior, except with an even greater role. Among running backs with 100+ carries, here’s where he ranked in several key metrics:
- PFF Rushing Grade: 3rd
- Yards After Contact/Attempt: 3rd
- Explosive Rush Rate: 5th
As a receiver, Taylor leaves a lot to be desired (62.5 PFF receiving grade, 1.3 yards/route run), while he’s struggled notably in pass protection. Consequently, we may see Taylor used less in the passing game in favor Nyheim Hines, though, if needed, he definitely isn’t a liability there. Still, he’s very much a clone of Chubb, though perhaps slightly less absurd as a runner and superior in the passing game. Whatever way you slice it, though, this is what an elite running back looks like.
Tier 2: Not Quite As Elite as Tier 1, Yet Still High-End Players
#4: Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos
- Overall Rating: 69.2 (15th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 18th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 17th
- Main Strength: Consistently Dominant Rushing Production
- Main Weakness: Lack of High-End Impact In Receiving Game
Compared to other positions, running back is quite different in many ways, but particularly in terms of the development curve. With it being such an athletically-based position, the “peak production” generally comes right away, and when you see flashes from a player as a rookie, it’s generally likely that you want to bank on them becoming high-end players. After all, just ask Jonathan Taylor. If a team had the choice of an ascending player who has shown enough reasons for optimism and a more established player whose performance on the decline, the former would, in most cases, be the ideal option.
In that same sample that we discussed with Taylor (100+ carries in 2021), Williams finished seventh in yards after contact/attempt (3.42), and led the league in missed tackles forced (0.31) per attempt. In other words, when out in space, he’s about as proficient in making a defender miss as imaginable, and he’s got plenty of explosiveness (13th) as well. I mean, just look at this:
We didn’t see Williams take on as large of a workload as one may have, thanks, in large part, to the presence of Melvin Gordon III. Of course, at 5’10” and 220 pounds, he certainly has the size to do so in his second season, which he saw him do in the one game Gordon has absent for. All indications are that Denver wants to give him a larger role, which, considering their aspirations for this season, makes a lot of sense. After all, while he has some work to do as a receiver, he’s already established himself as the clear passing-down back on the team, which he showed the capability of being in college as well. All told, if you’re looking for the next great running back, here it is.
#5: Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns
- Overall Rating: 73.24 (11th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 21st
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 6th
- Main Strength: Explosive Player
- Main Weakness: No Clear Deficiency
How does it feel to have two of the game’s best running backs on one team? Well, just ask the Browns. Heck, there’s another running back we’ll get to later on that is also an elite pure runner is his own right, but to have Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt in one backfield has to be a dream come true for head coach Kevin Stefanski.
Since coming over to Cleveland in 2019, Hunt hasn’t had to take on the type of three-down role that he is more than capable of handling. Only Javonte Williams missed more tackles per attempt than he did last season, while he has ranked right at the top of the league in explosive rush rate as well. While he’s more than elusive enough, his ability to break away in the open field is precisely what you’re looking for in a modern-day running back, particularly since he’s such an asset in the receiving game; his usage is much more correlated to someone who can legitimately can open in the short passing game, as opposed to simply on schemed touches.
Hunt has reportedly asked for a trade, which is not likely to be granted. As such, Chubb and Hunt are likely to build the type of one-two tandem that will come as close to us figuring out how much a team’s running backs can elevate an offense as it gets. Well, at least we know what to focus on when watching the Browns play.
#6: Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys
- Overall Rating: 72.05 (12th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 24th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 4th
- Main Strength: Absurd Efficiency
- Main Weakness: Volume
Sadly, football is not always a meritocracy. Now, that’s evident on a variety of fronts, but few are a better example than the Dallas Cowboys backfield- despite being one of the league most efficient running backs, we still haven’t Tony Pollard get the volume he has certainly earned. Yet, if the opportunity presented itself, it’s pretty clear we’re looking at one of the best running backs in the NFL.
Only D’Ernest Johnson had a higher PFF rushing grade (90.3) than Pollard, who was only less efficient after contact than Rashaad Penny, Nick Chubb, and Jonathan Taylor. Mind you, this is not a fluke; he had been as productive in his first two seasons as well. Oh, and as a former college receiver, he’s also quite productive through the air as well, as only Christian McCaffrey and Cordarrelle Patterson averaged more yards/route run (1.90) than Pollard. As a dynamic dual-threat weapon, he’s everything you’re looking for in a running back.
Now, due to the presence of Ezekiel Elliott, a player in the midst of a $90 million contract, Pollard doesn’t perhaps have a chance to accumulate the total yardage he’s capable of. After all, he’s never reached 15 carries in a game of his career, nor does he got as many snaps on obvious passing situations as he should. Yet, given his proficiency in the latter, that’s not a major concern, while I’d be careful to pay to much attention to the former; Austin Ekeler only averaged 12.9 carries/game, and I’m pretty sure we’re not discounting his ability to be an impact lead back. Thus, similar to Hunt, even if he isn’t your ideal early-round fantasy football pick, let’s not overlook how valuable of a player Pollard certainly could be in a neutral solution. Eventually, that time will come.
#7: Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers
- Overall Rating: 76.18 (7th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 8th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 15th
- Main Strength: Elite Receiver with Plus Rushing Efficiency
- Main Weakness: Rushing Volume?
Speaking of Austin Ekeler, what a perfect transition! Through 2019, Ekeler was mainly typecast as a traditional third-down back, as he played a backseat role to Melvin Gordon III in the Chargers’ rushing attack. Prior to him getting injured in 2020, there were indications that was changing, which it did completely in 2021. Still, as someone who isn’t going to physically dominate defenders, it may be difficult for him to get the full credit he warrants.
Ekeler’s main value added is rather obvious- he’s a prodigious receiver. Even if his PFF receiving grade (62.6) doesn’t back that up, consider that he had an 81.5+ receiving grade in each of the four seasons prior (right at the top of the NFL), while he’s averaged a healthy 2.03 yards/route run throughout his NFL career. For perspective, only 13 qualified wide receivers reached that number last season. Mind you, this is not a player being fed passes behind the scrimmage, but, rather, is creating on his own. For Justin Herbert’s sake, Ekeler is about as elite of an outlet as it gets.
Yet, don’t let that overlook the fact that Ekeler has been an above-average rusher in every key metric as well. Will he carry the ball 20 times a game. No, but that’s not something that you necessarily want any running back to do for their own well-being, especially when they make such a dynamic impact in the passing game. Rushing efficiency, elite receiving prowess; what else would you want? Talk about the perfect running back for a prolific Chargers offense.
#8: Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
- Overall Rating: 76.35 (6th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 9th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 13th
- Main Strength: Impact Receiver and Tremendous Runner
- Main Weakness: Slight Decline In Rushing Efficiency Last Season
With a receiving corps that Pro Football Focus ranked as the second-worst unit in the NFL, how are the Packers going to remain successful offensively? While perhaps not the ideal strategy, the general expectation is that the team’s running backs are going to be asked to carry a significant amount of the load, including in the passing game. It’s times like this where it becomes much easier to appreciate having Aaron Jones on your team.
A fifth-round pick in 2017, Jones consistently demonstrated high-end efficiency through his first two seasons in the NFL, yet it wasn’t until 2019 where he truly got the opportunity to thrive. Since then, he’s served as one of the team’s main passing options as well as the overall lead rusher, and it’s clear Aaron Rodgers has a tremendous amount of faith in him. Why? Let’s just say he’s quite good at his job. Jones has lined up as a wide receiver on 20% of his routes in consecutive seasons, and, in that role, has been plenty successful (1.52 yards/route run in 2021) running legitimate routes; he’s not simply being fed schemed touches. In fact, we saw him eclipse double-digit targets on two occasions last year, including one without Davante Adams, which, perhaps, is a sign of things to come in the future. Regardless, he’s certainly an above-average receiver.
Plus, of course, Jones is an elite rusher; he’s earned a 79.6+ PFF rushing grade in every season as a pro and has been one of the best rushers creating yardage after contact. Even if his explosive rushing numbers were down last season, it’s not enough to not project him an efficient all-around player who’s received plenty of volume in the past, and it’s also possible we have just seen the crux of what he’s capable of. At this point, who else is there for Aaron Rodgers to trust?
#9: Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
- Overall Rating: 83.7 (4th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 1st
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 24th
- Main Strength: Elite Rushing Track Record + Volume
- Main Weakness: Pass Catcher Limitations, 2021 Decline
The king is back! To be fair, Derrick Henry did make it back from his foot injury to play in the divisional round of last year’s postseason, but it’s great to have one of the game’s most exciting players back in action after being limited to just eight regular season games this year. During a time where spread out offenses have taken over, Henry remains a blast from the past as a true bulldozing power back, and has generally been seen (fair or not) as the catalyst of the Titans offense. With AJ Brown out of town, I guess it’s time to find out.
Rather than get into another conversation about positional value, let us rather take a look at Henry as a player. In 2020, not only did he rush for 2,000 yards, yet he ranked 1st in PFF rushing grade (91.7), second in yards after contact/attempt (3.85), and fifth in yards/attempt (5.2), all carrying the ball 396 times. That is utterly absurd, and speaks to the true freak of nature he was.
Of course, it’s unclear how long that will last. Studies have shown that running back performance tends to drop off after 1500 carries, and Henry (1557) is not only over that mark, is coming off of a notable foot injury, and was heavily used in college as well. That’s a lot on its own, yet there’s more here. See, missing time with the foot injury, Henry’s overall rushing production was down:
- PFF Rushing Grade: 72.8 (Lowest Since Rookie Season, 92.1 in 2020)
- Yards After Contact/Attempt: 3.32 (Lowest Since 2017, 3.94 in 2020)
- Yards/Attempt: 4.3 (Lowest Since 2017, 5.4 in 2020)
- Explosive Rush Rate: 9.1% (Lowest Of NFL Career, 12.7% In 2020
Suddenly, in 2020, Henry looked to be much more of a mere mortal version of himself, and while the foot injury could have hampered him, those are also the risks when a player is worked as hard as he is. For players like Jones and Ekeler, they can handle a bit of a loss in rushing efficiency, yet that doesn’t work for Henry, who has historically played a very small role in the passing game. Thus, his margin for error is much lower, and it’s hard to see someone who relies on sheer physical dominance continuing to produce in his seventh year in the NFL.
To be fair, Henry’s ability to induce heavy defensive box counts not only could hurt his efficiency, but opens up opportunities in the passing game as well; consider the latter an indirect effect that can’t be ignored. Still, when a player induces a less-efficient style of play, they need to be utterly dominant, and there is legitimate concern about Henry’s ability to be that anymore. Now, I very much hope my worst fears turn out to be foolish, though, at the same time, we can’t simply overlook legitimate facts in lieu of hope.
#10: Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
- Overall Rating: 77.37 (5th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 6th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 18th
- Main Strength: Still a Tremendous Receiver
- Main Weakness: Decline as a Runner Certainly Evident
The best feeling a team can have is to immediately know they have something special with a rookie player. Well, that’s exactly what happened with New Orleans with Alvin Kamara. How confident did the Saints feel about a running back who wasn’t even the lead back for his college team? They traded a future second-round pick to select him in the third round in 2017, despite the fact they already had Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson (who they had just signed to a multi-year deal) on the roster. From the start, though, it was pretty clear that Kamara stood out from the rest of the pack.
Remember how absurd it seemed that Christian McCaffrey accumulated 2.91 yards/route run, an unprecedented number, in a seven-game sample. Well, Kamara (2.62) came close in a full season’s worth of games, and that prowess continued- he earned a PFF receiving grade above 87.5 in three of his first four seasons, while putting up receiving efficiency numbers that rival some of the game’s better wide receivers. Sans an injury-plagued 2019 season, all Kamara had done was serve as a legitimate wide receiver and an explosive rusher, which, unfortunately, wasn’t the case in 2021.
The Saints’ run-blocking unit (24th in PFF run-block grade) didn’t help matters, yet, as you’d expect for someone who only averaged 3.7 yards/carry, his peripheral numbers all suffered:
- PFF Rushing Grade: 65.9 (41st of 50 RBs w/100+ Carries)
- Yards After Contact/Attempt: 2.8 (28th)
- Explosive Rush Rate: 8.75% (34th)
While still elite forcing missed tackles, in terms of the main metrics that help us project future rushing performance, Kamara certainly doesn’t come out looking good as a runner. For someone entering the decline phase of the running back position, that is not ideal, and he’s also coming off of arguably his worst year as a receiver (65.8 PFF receiving grade) as well. The receiving floor is enough to keep Kamara afloat moving forward, but can he get back any juice as a rusher before it’s too late? Please let the answer be yes.
#11: Elijah Mitchell, San Francisco 49ers
- Overall Rating: 74.29 (8th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 7th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 21st
- Main Strength: High Quality Runner
- Main Weakness: Work To Do As Receiver
If you’ve noticed a theme by now, it’s that a lot of the game’s best running backs weren’t drafted in the first round, and many weren’t taken until the final day of the draft. In a draft that featured three running backs in the top-35 picks, who would’ve guessed that sixth-round pick Elijah Mitchell would have a chance to emerge as the best of the group?
Now, there were plenty of signs that Mitchell had the potential to become just that, as we highlighted prior to the 2021 NFL Draft:
“What am I missing with Mitchell? In his three seasons with legitimate playing time, his PFF grades are: 83.8, 86.9, and 85.8. Furthermore, he averaged 4.14 yards after contact per attempt, has made an impact as a receiver, and even dominated in most traditional metrics- 6.2 yards/attempt. To top it off, his athletic testing numbers (4.38 40-yard dash, 38-inch vertical jump, 6.94 three-cone) were the best of any running back in this class!
From what I can tell, the main concern with Mitchell is that he never had a large workload in college. However, this might be playing to his benefit. Having less tread on his tires is great news in terms of him remaining productive longer than other running backs who had more carries in college, and with three elite seasons on his resume, sample size shouldn’t be an issue. Gone are the days are bell-cow running backs, which is why efficiency metrics are much more predictive.
Why is Mitchell any different than D’Andre Swift from a year ago? Neither had great volume numbers, but performed well in terms of creating yardage after contact, receiving ability, and performed well in terms of athletic testing. Yet, Swift went at the top of the second round while Mitchell is a relative unknown. If anything, Mitchell actually has a higher projection than Swift did! It’s so hard to find value at the running back position, but in the fifth or sixth round, a team can get a productive starter with the Louisiana product. There is one lowly-drafted running back that bursts onto the scene every year, and Mitchell appears likely to keep that trend going this year in the right situation”
Fast forward to Mitchell’s rookie season, and that held up. Not only did he end up vaulting past third-round rookie Trey Sermon on the depth chart, but found himself as the lead back in Week 1 following an injury to Raheem Mostert, and shined from there. Sure, he continued to showcase breakaway ability, yet what was very encouraging was his ability to continue to yards after contact (3.42 YCO/A, 6th) at an extremely high level, while he had to take on a serious rushing workload (24.2 carries/game) from Week 10 through the wildcard round of the postseason. Remember, he was a sixth-round pick!
Now, it’s up to Mitchell to refine his abilities as a receiver, something the coaching staff is reportedly focusing on with him. Considering it was never something he did much off in college, the chances of him becoming a high-end receiver are small, though he was more than competent (65.7 PFF receiving grade, 1.05 yards/route run) in the opportunities he got. At the end of the day, though, the value lies with his rushing skillset, which clearly stands out. Paired with Trey Lance, let’s just say the 49ers rushing attack is going to provide some quality entertainment.
#12: Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
- Overall Rating: 73.69 (9th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 5th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 31st
- Main Strength: Extremely Explosive Runner
- Main Weakness: Lack of Receiving Impact, Concern About Decline
Wow, that 2017 draft class was truly special; McCaffrey, Hunt, Ekeler, Jones, Kamara, and, now, Dalvin Cook. Under former head coach Mike Zimmer, the Vikings established a run-heavy mindset, which, when healthy, meant quite the hefty workload for Cook; in 2020, he totaled 312 carries despite playing just 14 games! In spite of that, he still performed as one of the most efficient running backs in the NFL, and while his efficiency did come down in 2021, he took on a major load with 250 carries in 13 games. In a new offense under head coach Kevin O’Connell, it is likely Cook doesn’t take on such a toll, but can he continue to perform at a peak level? This is the unfortunate question that gets asked with all running backs.
Cook’s rushing efficiency (33rd in PFF rushing grade, 34th in yards after contact/attempt) was certainly not at an optimal level in 2021, which, for someone now 27-years-old, is a concern. On the bright side, though, he continue to be one of the league’s most explosive runners (7th), which is a sign that the decline phase may not have gotten to him, and that’s generally been where he’d made his mark. Of course, that is also the exact type of profile you’d expect to get hit harder by the aging curve, particularly since his usage as a receiver all stems on passes behind the line of scrimmage. Consequently, it’s certainly time for the Vikings to seriously consider not using him in such a taxing role, and with a potential out in his contract following this year, who knows what his future with the franchise is. Regardless, for this year, Minnesota is definitely counting on him as a source of explosiveness in their offense, which, for now, still appears to be something he can provide at a high level. If so, perhaps they’ll be cooking up a storm in 2022. How’s that for a pun?
Tier 3: Very Talented Players Who May Not Be As Reliable
#13: Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
- Overall Rating: 55.95 (37th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 17th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: T-60th
- Main Strength: Everything He Did Prior To 2020
- Main Weakness: Everything Since
How special of a player did many believe Saquon Barkley could be? When there are articles being written calling you the greatest running back prospect of all time, and then you proceed to be the #2 overall pick, you’re naturally going to be expected to be a generational-type of talent, especially in a big market like New York.
While Barkley had about as productive of a rookie season as one could have hoped for, we saw a slight downward tick in that efficiency the following year, but he still was clearly one of the game’s top running back talents before tearing his ACL in Week 2 of 2020. Then, right when he started to receive a larger role in 2021, he rolled his ankle when he inadvertently stepped on Cowboys defensive back Jourdan Lewis’ foot, keeping him out of the lineup another four games. From there, things just weren’t the same. Among running backs with 100+ carries, only AJ Dillon had a lower explosive rush rate (5.56%) than Barkley, who also was near the bottom of the league in PFF rushing grade (65.7), yards after contact/attempt (2.69), and PFF receiving grade (49.2). All told, it was a disastrous season for him, and he’ll look to turn things around in a contract season.
After all, we’re still talking about a player that, pre-injury, was considered one of the elite running backs in the NFL. It’s hard for me to believe that Barkley is essentially half as explosive as he was in the past, while he has plenty of receiving acumen as well. Historically, running backs struggle in their first season back from a torn ACL, and when you factor in the ankle injury as well, the odds were stacked as much against Barkley as it gets. Simply being in a functional offense with head coach Brian Daboll taking over is a tremendous bonus, though, to be frank, it all comes down to Barkley’s physical capabilities. Can he still be the elite player that was making waves on every highlight reel. I’m cautiously optimistic, though it’s all a guessing game at this point.
#14: Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
- Overall Rating: 60.12 (28th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 11th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 53rd
- Main Strength: All-Around Quality
- Main Weakness: No High-End Strength
Hey, remember that 2017 NFL Draft running back class? We’d be remiss to forget about Joe Mixon, who, since being drafted in the second round by the Bengals, has been the one of the only remaining offensive staples from their rebuilding times. After years of racking up yardage for a subpar offense, Mixon got to see the tides change by getting to be a part of one of the game’s top offenses, something that will remain true in 2022.
Through the first half of the 2021 season, Mixon (85.2 PFF rushing grade, 3.25 YCO/Attempt) was about as prolific as the Bengals could have hoped for. Yet, with the Bengals relying on him so much with Joe Burrow coming back from his ACL tear, perhaps the toll got the most of him; from Week 13 on, his production (60 PFF rushing grade, 2.37 YCO/attempt) fell off a cliff. Regardless, as a rusher, he’s not someone who necessarily “pops out” in terms of creating yards after contact or explosiveness, yet his well-rounded profile makes him better than the sum of his proverbial parts in that regard. Are you expecting a 50+ yard gain from him? Most likely not, though he’s a physical player who rarely is getting stuffed behind the line of scrimmage, and his versatility as a runner is certainly a plus. Even if he’s not someone you’re specifically crafting a way to get him involved, he’s one of the few running backs that could work seamlessly in any style of offense.
If you watched the Super Bowl, you’re likely well familiar with the Bengals’ reluctance to play Mixon on all passing downs, which is a bit odd considering he’s performed adequately there and even lines up out wide in empty sets, though it’s likely not something that will change. If anything, it would be wise to find a way to not work Mixon as hard as they did last season – touching the ball nearly 420 times in a season is quite brutal – which would also help him be efficient as he enters the uncomfortable stage of any running back’s career. Hey, if that goes poorly, a change to quarterback could be in order!
#15: Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars
- Overall Rating: N/A
- Projected Volume Rank: N/A
- Projected Yards Added Rank: N/A
- Main Strength: Extremely Dynamic + Explosive Runner w/Receiving Upside
- Main Weakness: Complete Unknown
It’s one thing to project a player coming out of college at any position, but to try to figure out how a running back who hasn’t played an NFL game AND is coming off of a lisfranc injury is about as difficult as it gets. That being said, it’s hard to deny the talent of Travis Etienne.
Any running back who averaged 7.2 yards/carry in college is going to stand out, but, mind you, Etienne was not a player simply benefitting from a strong offensive line. Rather, his average PFF rushing grade (87.6) and yards after contact/attempt (4.51) ranked in the 93rd percentile or better for recent college prospects, while he was one of the sport’s most explosive runners as well. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, he progressed enough as a receiver to become one of the country’s top weapons in the passing game out of the backfield (90.9 PFF receiving grade, 2.26 yards/route run), making him a true dual-threat player.
The “upside” with Etienne is right up there with the game’s best running backs, though it’s impossible to know how he’ll fare coming off the injury, particularly with no previous NFL experience. If all goes well, he’s creating explosive plays either as a receiver or finding a hole as a runner, and it will be interesting to see how much faith the Jaguars show in him early on. Dream big, as they say.
#16: Rhamondre Stevenson, New England Patriots
- Overall Rating: 67.86 (18th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 30th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 10th
- Main Strength: Explosive Power Runner
- Main Weakness: Needs More Work In The Receiving Game
As it turns out, the 2021 NFL Draft has been quite successful so far in terms of producing high-end running back talent. Between starting out in junior college and then a suspension for a failed drug test, a lot of factors got in the way of a proper evaluation of Rhamondre Stevenson. In spite of that, though, all signs pointed him to being a special prospect, and that has turned out to be true so far.
It’s not common for a Patriots running back to carve out a meaningful role as a rookie, and that was the case for Stevenson early on. As the season progressed, though, New England continued to give him chances in a way they rarely do, and he more than delivered. I mean, find a rushing statistic in which Stevenson doesn’t stand out:
- PFF rushing grade: 81.4 (13th among 50 RBs with 100+ carries)
- Yards After Contact/Attempt: 3.15 (12th)
- Explosive Rush Rate: 14.18% (8th)
- Missed Tackles Forced/Attempt: 0.23 (7th)
As a fourth-round rookie who wasn’t expected to receive any sort of playing time, those numbers are remarkably impressive. In New England’s gap rushing scheme, Stevenson’s blend of power and explosiveness made him an ideal fit, and we’ve already seen him take on a hefty load when needed to. That’s significant, as Damien Harris is in the last year of his contract, and with no clear passing-down back on the roster, we could see Stevenson receive more opportunities there- he averaged a hefty 1.66 yards/route run in his limited opportunities last year and was productive as a receiver in college. So far, between college and the pros, all Stevenson has done is consistently produce at a high level, and there’s no reason to expect that to change anytime soon. Heck, if Bill Belichick shows faith in you as a rookie and then sings your praises after that, you’re probably doing something right.
#17: Kenneth Walker III, Seattle Seahawks
- Overall Rating: N/A
- Projected Volume Rank: N/A
- Projected Yards Added Rank: N/A
- Main Strength: Absurdly Dominant As a Runner
- Main Weakness: Very Little Passing Game Impact
Welcome to the show, rook! With the 2021 rookie running back class already thriving at a high level, will this year’s group of rookie running backs keep up the trend? If so, Kenneth Walker III is likely to play a major role in that.
During his first two college seasons, Walker III showed plenty of flashes based on his peripheral metrics, yet, at Wake Forrest, didn’t get the opportunities he desired. Thus, he transferred to Michigan State, where he immediately ran for 264 yards in the first game of the season, and, from there, was arguably the best running back in the country. Whether it was his PFF rushing grade (90.3), production after contact (4.46 yards after contact/attempt), or the ability to miss tackles (0.34), he stood out as not only the best pure rusher in this class, yet one of the best in the past decade. Of course, when you then also run a sub 4.40 40-yard dash, that’s only going to help your case.
Heading into the pros, the major question regarding Walker is ability to make an impact in the passing game. Throughout his three seasons in college, he garnered just 25 targets, averaging just 0.45 yards/route run in that span. Simply put, those are very poor numbers, and it’s very unclear if he will ever be able to be counted on in obvious passing situations. That being said, if you can be one of the game’s best runners, something well within Walker III’s range of outcomes, that becomes less significant. Now, he just needs to get healthy as he recovers from a sports hernia.
#18: JK Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens
- Overall Rating: 36th
- Projected Volume Rank: 34th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 35th
- Main Strength: Elite Rushing Talent
- Main Weakness: Very Little Passing Game Impact
Want to find the Kenneth Walker III of the NFL? JK Dobbins is a great start. In fact, in many ways, the two were extremely similar as prospects, and that’d be a fantastic outcome for Walker III in his rookie year. After all, we’re talking about one of the game’s up-and-coming pure runners.
With Gus Edwards and Mark Ingram in the fold, the Ravens didn’t need Dobbins to play a meaningful role right away as a rookie, yet, at some point, even they couldn’t keep him waiting in the wings any longer. When you rank in the top-12 in PFF rushing grade (82.1), yards after contact/attempt (3.35), and explosive rush rate (14.38%), that’s a remarkable development as a rookie, and voided quite well for what he’d be able to accomplish running the football moving forward. Think about this; the Ravens have gotten superb rushing production in spite of not having a high-impact running back in the past, and, now, they have the type of explosive player that take things to another level.
Even if Dobbins hasn’t proven much as a receiver between the college and pro game, the Ravens offense doesn’t rely on targets to running backs at all, and he’s consistently held up in pass protection. Now, after missing all of 2021 with a torn ACL, he’ll be looking to come back as good as ever, though all indications is that he might be limited to start the season. At some point, can the injuries just please stop? Here’s hoping Dobbins is able to put that behind him this year.
#19: Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks
Projected Volume Rank: 22nd
Projected Yards Added Rank: 11th
Main Strength: Dynamic Runner
Main Weakness: Not Asked To Do Much In Receiving Game and Has Dealt With Plenty of Injuries
Think Pete Carroll wants to establish the run this season? Not only did they spend a second-round pick on Kenneth Walker III, yet they also made sure to re-sign Rashaad Penny, creating an incredibly explosive running back tandem. Well, that’s if they actually play together for a full season.
See, not only is Walker III already injured, but Penny comes with quite the lengthy injury history. Over his four-year career, he’s played in just 37 games, and has carried the ball 280 times. I mean, this is quite the run of health issues:
- Preseason 2018: Pointer Finger Fracture
- December 2018: Grade 1 Knee Strain
- September 2019: Hamstring Strain
- December 2019: Torn ACL (Also Kept Him Out For 13 Games in 2020)
- September 2021: Calf Strain
- November 2021: Pulled Hamstring
Yikes! Now, injuries are volatile, but, at some point, there is something to be said here, and it’s likely the Seahawks limit his workload as a result. Still, it’s impossible deny what he brings to the table when on the field. From Week 14 on last season, Seattle entrusted him as their clear lead back, and he responded by leading the NFL in that span in PFF rushing grade (91.1), yards after contact/attempt (5.27), and explosive rush rate (17.3%). Small sample. or not, very few players are capable of performing at that type of level, and it goes back to what we knew about him in college; he was one of the most efficient rushers in the country back then, and has consistently been both explosive and elusive. That’s quite the combination!
What makes the tandem of Penny and Walker III so fascinating is that, like Walker III, Penny has never played a significant role as a receiver. That likely means we’ll see an independent third-down back (Travis Homer) take those responsibilities on, which could be unideal for Penny considering how often Seattle likely will have to play from behind still. At the same time, it’s rare for a fifth-year player to have “most efficient running back in the NFL” in their range of outcomes, and that’s the case with Penny. Now, let’s just get a full season of that!
#20: Cordarrelle Patterson, Atlanta Falcons
- Overall Rating: 17th
- Projected Volume Rank: 35th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 5th
- Main Strength: Versatility + Explosiveness
- Main Weakness: Efficiency Declined Dramatically Down Stretch
Is Cordarelle Patterson the greatest kick returner of all time? Well, he just needs one more kick return touchdown to have the most in NFL history, though, at this point, that may be difficult for him to get. Why? Well, the Falcons may have stumbled into a legitimate running back.
Drafted in the first round in the 2013 NFL Draft, Patterson was was pigeon-holed into being a wide receiver for a majority of his career, but it wasn’t until 2020 where a team (the Bears) starting having him split time as a running back. After signing with the Falcons, he was expected to be a change-of-pace player to provide some explosiveness, but, desperate for any sort off offensive boost, Atlanta started giving him significant playing time, and he took off from there.
Through the first 13 weeks of the season, Patterson shined in all aspects, performing as one of the most receivers in the NFL (92.7 PFF receiving grade, 2.89 yards/route run), while he was also one of the league’s better rushers (3.41 YCO/A, 16% Explosive) as well. For someone with only 170 career rush attempts through nine years, however, it was only a matter of time before his large workload got the best of him, and that’s exactly what happened over the final five weeks of the season; he was the least efficient runner (46.9 PFF rushing grade, 2.00 YCO/A, 6.3% Explosive) and was no longer thriving as a receiver (0.45 yards/route run) as well. In fact, by the end of the year, the Falcons realized that and cut his workload significantly- a positive sign this will be avoided this season.
All together, though, the combination of explosiveness, versatility, and dynamic receiving ability makes Patterson the perfect chess piece for an offensive coordinator. Now, his role may naturally need to be limited, yet it’s so rare to have someone who can beat a cornerback out wide and be a productive running back; from a pure value added per play standpoint, he’s right up there with the premier running backs in the NFL. Now, let’s just hope that can continue to be the case this season. Oh, and one more kick return touchdown, please?
Tier 4: They Have Limitations, But Are Still “Starting” Players
#21: Michael Carter, New York Jets
- Overall Rating: 66.44 (20th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 20th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 23rd
- Main Strength: Very Elusive with Receiving Acumen
- Main Weakness: Lack of Explosiveness
In a league where draft capital can often dictate opportunity, being a day-three pick is never an easy task. Due to a clear opening in the Jets’ backfield last year, Michael Carter received a chance to shine, yet, now, is back clawing for any chance he can get with the team trading up in the second round to draft a running back (more on him later). In spite of all of that, this is not a player to overlooked.
We’ll get to Carter’s impressive rookie season, but let me start off by saying that he, in many ways, didn’t profile as your standard fourth-round pick. The only qualified running back to average more yards/carry than Carter?That’d be his college teammate Javonte Williams, who, as you may have heard, is quite good at this football thing. To top it off, he also ranked in the top-six in the country in PFF rushing grade (91.1), yards after contact/attempt (4.47), and PFF receiving grade (88.6). If you ask me, that’s quite the impressive senior season, and it carried over into his rookie season.
In fact, the only running back in football to miss more tackles per rush attempt was none other than Javonte Williams, but, fret not; Carter actually bested William in PFF rushing grade (77.5), and ranked in the top-ten in the NFL in terms of creating yardage after contact per rush attempt. Yet, what holds Carter back for now is the overall lack of explosiveness; his 8.84% explosive rush rate was well below-average, and it doesn’t help matters that he came in the league running just a 4.59 40-yard dash at 201 pounds. Naturally, a smaller, less explosive back is going to not be a favorite of offensive coordinators, even if they are very productive players.
Thus, making waves as a receiver would be beneficial, and Carter has the college pedigree to back him up there. Now, considering that his receiving production was boosted mainly by three games with Mike White (0.70 yards/route run otherwise), we’ll see if that takes a bump up, though the mere fact the team clearly believes in him on third downs is a positive. He may not be the type of running back you craft in a lab, but he’s only going to continue to get the job done; perhaps running back isn’t where the Jets should have been looking to upgrade.
#22: Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders
- Overall Rating: 60.66 (25th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 16th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 39th
- Main Strength: Above-Average Runner With The Ability To Contribute as a Receiver
- Main Weakness: Perhaps Not Elite Enough Anywhere To Move The Needle
Being a running back is a contract year is always difficult, considering it’s a de-valued position that comes with significant injury risk/overall variance in any given season. Now, imagine the difficulty when having to prove yourself to a new regime that took no part in drafting you in the first place. By this point in his career, Josh Jacobs has established himself as an above-average running back, yet still did not get his fifth-year option picked up by the Raiders, and it appears very unlikely he’ll be in Las Vegas next season. Thus, if there was a time to break at any trick of the box, it’s now.
Since he was drafted in the first round in 2019, the book on Jacobs during his three-year career has been very stable; he’s ranked 2nd, 18th, and 10th in PFF rushing grade, and is one of the best running backs in terms of forcing missed tackles. Furthermore, he’s also demonstrated more than a sufficient amount of explosiveness, has been a quality pass protector, and, while not a stellar receiver, has at least produced at an average there. All together, the final product is a very reliable running back, though, at the same time, what can truly make him stand out? Without elite explosiveness, production after contact, or receiving skills, Jacobs wouldn’t appear the be the type of running back who legitimately helps elevate a rushing attack in any way, which, when you’re talking about a second-contract running back, isn’t ideal. It doesn’t appear he’ll get the chance to prove himself as a receiver under head coach Josh McDaniels this season, though, given his first-round pedigree, I’d bet a team would sign him to the multi-year contract that indicates confidence in him being an impact player. Regardless, though, this is definitely a player you’d be extremely happy with being your starting running back.
#23: Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers
- Overall Rating: 61.38 (24th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 10th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 48th
- Main Strength: Strong College Prospect With Clear Three-Down Abilities
- Main Weakness: Subpar Rookie Season From an Efficiency Standpoint
Once upon a time, a running back may have been seen as a potential savior for an offense. Of course, with how the game has changed, that is no longer the case, and the Steelers may have learned the hard way. In spite of massive needs on the offensive line and a non-productive passing attack heading into the 2021 NFL Draft, they ultimately decided that a first-round running back was what they needed to transcend their offense, leading to them selecting Najee Harris with the 24th overall pick. Instead, they finished as a bottom-ten offense in expected points added/play, and had the sixth-lowest rush success rate in all of football. As it turns out, positional value is alive and well!
Although Harris had quite the season in terms of total yardage and fantasy football production, the fact of the matter was that his efficiency left a lot to be desired:
- PFF Rushing Grade: 71.5 (28th out of 50 running backs with 100+ carries)
- Yards After Contact/Attempt: 2.96 (22nd)
- Explosive Rush Rate: 8.78% (33rd)
- PFF Receiving Grade: 62.5 (T-41st of 67 running backs with 20+ targets)
- Yards/Route Run: 0.97 (53rd)
For a first-round running back, that is quite disappointing. Sure, being able to handle a large workload is a benefit, yet if it’s coming with poor efficiency, that volume accumulation almost becomes a detriment for the offense. Thus, if you’re shining a bright light here, you’re going back to Harris’ days at Alabama, where he established himself as a very intriguing running back prospect, posting an 89.8+ PFF rushing grade with decorated ability to force miss tackles, be an explosive runner, and make a notable impact in the receiving game. After all, there’s a reason he was drafted in the first round.
Sure, a poor offensive line didn’t do Harris any favors, yet that didn’t stop players like Josh Jacobs and James Robinson, players with worse-graded run-blocking units from PFF. A poor offensive line can help explain the poor explosiveness numbers, yet that isn’t as true when looking at his ability to create yardage after contact and produce as a receiver, neither of which he was able to do. A player with his size (6’2″ 230 pounds), athleticism, and the type of refinement he showed in college should lead to a productive running back, and perhaps a changed offense will do him wonders. For now, though, it’s unclear what to expect.
#24: Rachaad White, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Overall Rating: N/A
- Projected Volume Rank: N/A
- Projected Yards Added Rank: N/A
- Main Strength: Dual-Threat Weapon
- Main Weakness: Old For Rookie/Not Extremely Explosive
Not all players fall the same trajectory to the NFL. After all, just ask Rachaad White, who had quite the college experience. After starting his college career at a Kansas junior college, White transferred to Arizona State for his senior year, only for 2020 to happen. Alas, he entered 2021 as a fifth-year senior with 42 career carries, and, a year later, was a third-round pick in the NFL Draft. That’s quite the turnaround!
Of course, it’s pretty easy to understand why White was able to work his way into strong draft capital; he was about as productive as any running back during his final year in college. In fact, he was the only running back to earn a 90+ PFF grade as a rusher AND as a receiver, and, if that wasn’t enough, was one of the stars of the combine with a 4.48 40-yard dash at 214 pounds with a strong performance in the agility drills as well. Really, outside of age, what was there to worry about?
If there’s anything, White wasn’t overly explosive in college, though the athleticism is there for that to change. Regardless, though, any player who can be an above-average rusher and then also dominate in the passing game is going to be extremely valuable, especially if teams don’t typecast him as a traditional third-down back. It’s unlikely he’ll see much immediate playing time in Tampa Bay immediately, but I am personally begging Tom Brady and co. to change that.
#25: Dameon Pierce, Houston Texans
- Overall Rating: N/A
- Projected Volume Rank: N/A
- Projected Yards Added Rank: N/A
- Main Strength: Elusive Runner
- Main Weakness: Not Extremely Explosive with Questions In Passing Game
Any time a fourth-round rookie does enough to be an immediate starter, to the point he’s resting in the preseason, it’s remarkably impressive, regardless of the team they’re on. By now, fantasy football managers are well familiar with Dameon Pierce, who certainly has been the star of the preseason, and, now, will face very high expectations in his rookie season.
On on end, Pierce never had more than 106 carries in a season and played a limited role in the passing game. On the other end, he certainly has the size (224 pounds) to do so at the next level, and those carries were quite special; he was the highest graded rusher (93.5) from PFF in the entire country last season, standing out in all facets of play. Really, it’s hard to grasp why the University of Florida’s coaching staff was so reluctant to let him shine, though, then again, perhaps there’s a reason they’re no longer at the helm there.
Plus, Pierce (1.8 yards/route run) flashes serious upside as both a receiver and pass protector this season, so although he likely won’t be asked to be more than a two-down player, he’s more than capable of that. If there’s one concern, he wasn’t a standout athletic tester nor particularly explosive, though what he does after contact helps make up for that. It’s hard to see him winning the offensive rookie of the year as a two-down back on the Texans, yet, as a pure talent, there is plenty of reason to buy into the hype.
#26: Breece Hall, New York Jets
- Overall Rating: N/A
- Projected Volume Rank: N/A
- Projected Yards Added Rank: N/A
- Main Strength: Exceptional Athlete and Eludes Tackles
- Main Weakness: Production In College Indicates a Runner Who Can’t Create Solely On His Own
When you’re the first-drafted running back in any draft, expectations are going to be quite high for you to come in and be an immediate front-runner for the offensive rookie of the year award. Is Breece Hall up to the task? That depends on who you ask.
The appeal with Hall is obvious- he’s as athletic as it gets. To run a 4.39 40-yard dash at 217 pounds is remarkably impressive, yet he also added onto it a 40-inch vertical jump and 10’06” broad jump, the best of the notable running back prospects. Thus, not only is he a tremendous straight-line runner, yet he has plenty of burst as well; he’s the prototype of the perfect running back in terms of athleticism.
Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Hall was an accomplished three-year starter at Iowa State, assuming a three-down role in each of those seasons as well. At the same time, his production after contact (2.83 YCO/A) and lack of explosive rushes left a lot to be desired during his final year at Iowa State, and he wasn’t particularly efficient as a receiver. All told, the athletic tools are there, yet we’re still perhaps waiting for it to be completely realized at this point. Fortunately, he’s a perfect fit in Jets offensive coordinator Mike LeFleur’s zone-blocking scheme, and theoretically adds the explosiveness that Michael Carter may lack. Together, it can be a very exciting pairing, but should Hall immediately be an every-down. Right now, it’s hard to say that’s the case.
#27: James Conner, Arizona Cardinals
- Overall Rating: 58.8 (31st)
- Projected Volume Rank: 28th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 32nd
- Main Strength: Size + Receiving Ability
- Main Weakness: Not Very Explosive and Struggles To Create On His Own
Anytime you score 19 touchdowns in a season, you’re going to be in the spotlight, and, for James Conner, that meant parlaying that year into a new three-year, $21 million contract. For a player who has gone through as much overall adversity as he has, it’s a tremendous accomplishment, and, now, it’s time for him to continue to deliver for the Cardinals.
That being said, while Conner’s touchdown production made him a gem for fantasy football purposes, his overall efficiency as a runner left a lot to be desired:
- PFF rushing grade: 72 (25th of 50 running backs with 100+ carries)
- Yards After Contact/Attempt: 2.8 (28th)
- Explosive Rush Rate: 7.8% (42nd)
The Cardinals were the second-lowest graded run-blocking offensive line last year by PFF, yet you would have hoped Conner would have been able to create more on his own. Still, there is reason to be optimistic; Conner has had an explosive rush rate in the double digits in every other season of his career, and simply based on natural regression, you wouldn’t expect him to average just 3.7 yards/carry again. Of course, he’s also now 27-years-old without decorated ability to produce after contact, and you wonder if the explosiveness will actually come back. Consequently, his best ability as a rusher is mainly for short-yardage situations, which, for what its worth, has its fair share of value.
Plus, we’re also talking about one of the better receiving backs in the NFL. Conner’s PFF receiving grade (84.8) was third-best among all running backs, while he was also the highest-graded pass protector. As such, he’ll consistently find himself on the field on third downs, which, combined with his short-yardage ability, makes him more than well-rounded enough to provide the Cardinals with what they want. His journey has been an incredibly story up to this point, and, hopefully, we’ll see more of the same in 2021.
#28: Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles
- Overall Rating: 58.32 (32nd)
- Projected Volume Rank: 23rd
- Projected Yards Added Rank: T-41st
- Main Strength: Explosive Runner
- Main Weakness: Still Earning Trust In Passing Game and Still Room To Grow as a Rusher
In a day and age where college football transfers are happening more than a typical waiver-wire claim, we have to give credit to the fact that Miles Sanders was willing to wait behind Saquon Barkley for multiple years at Penn State, before getting his chance to shine and become a second-round pick. Sometimes, patience truly is a virtue.
Whether it’s been issues with fumbles or drops, Sanders’ first two seasons in Philadelphia were mixed with a lot of negatives, albeit with some flashes of excellence. On the bright side, those things tightened up in his third year as a pro, while the reasons for intrigue remained intact. Finally, he translated his into explosiveness (14.58%) on the ground, which is significant for a running back who has demonstrated productivity after contact in the past, making him an ideal fit in an opened-up rushing attack with Jalen Hurts. The main key, though, was Sanders’ receiving skills.
In 2020, Sanders only caught 56% of the passes thrown his way, good for a paltry 33.9 PFF receiving grade. Now, considering he was very productive as a rookie and drops are unstable, it was easy to write this off, though, of course, it wasn’t clear how this would affect him getting chances with a new coaching staff. Ultimately, that mainly turned out to be a non-issue, with Sanders getting opportunities in the passing game and performing well (66.9 PFF receiving grade) in those chances. Now, a mobile quarterback like Jalen Hurts is simply going to scramble rather than check it down, which hurts Sanders’ overall output, but make no mistake; he’s certainly more than capable there.
It’s been a very interesting to start to Sanders’ career, and he nows enters 2022 looking to prove himself in a contract year. Paired with Hurts, that explosive rushing ability should stick, which, assuming ideal health, could mean quite the season overall. I think it’s safe to say he shouldn’t go two full seasons without finding the end zone.
#29: AJ Dillon, Green Bay Packers
- Overall Rating: 54.88 (40th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 40th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: T-32nd
- Main Strength: Powerful Runner Who’ll Surprise You as a Receiver
- Main Weakness: Not Explosive
In a day and age where offenses are more opened up than ever, we continue to see teams shift towards more explosive, smaller running backs. Thus, for those who miss the days of pure “ground and pound” football, players like AJ Dillon certainly ought to please them. At 6’0″ and 250 pounds, Dillon is a unicorn in today’s game, yet has more than found his place, and, now, will be asked to play a key role for the Packers this season.
As a rusher, Dillon is exactly what you’d expect. As Nate Tice of The Athletic Football Show recently pointed out, he was right near the top of the league in the percentage of his rush attempts that went for over five years, yet had the lowest rate of carries going for 10+ yards (explosive rushes). Essentially, if you want to keep your offense on schedule, he’s not going to get stuffed at the line of scrimmage. Yet, if you’re looking for any explosive element to your rushing attack, you’ll need to complement him with another back, as is the case in Green Bay with Aaron Jones.
Where Dillon perhaps doesn’t receive enough credit, however, is what he brings to the table in the passing game. In games Aaron Jones missed, he was able to handle a three-down role, and finished the season ranked 15th among running backs with at least 100 routes in yards/route run (1.51). The ability to combine power with receiving ability is extremely sufficient even without the explosive element, particularly at a time where backfields are being built in a way to complement one another; the Jonathan Stewart/DeAngelo Williams tandem in Carolina will always be the blueprint of this. A year after finishing as PFF‘s third-best graded running back, expect another strong showing from the “quadzilla” in 2022.
#30: Gus Edwards, Baltimore Ravens
- Overall Rating: 54.76 (41st)
- Projected Volume Rank: 45th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 28th
- Main Strength: A Stellar Rusher
- Main Weakness: Net Zero In Passing Game and Coming Off Torn ACL
If losing one running back was bad enough, how about losing both in a matter of one week? That’s what the Ravens had to deal with last season. Once an undrafted free agent, we’ve seen Gus Edwards overcome the odds to become a very productive NFL running back, to the point the team even signed him to a three-year extension ahead of the 2021 season. Now, things get much dicier.
Let me start off by saying that, when healthy, Edwards may one of the most unrecognized running backs in the NFL. After all, in 2020, he was PFF‘s fifth highest-graded rusher, combining explosiveness (career 12.6% explosive rush rate) with the ability to produce after contact. As a power gap runner, you can’t do much better; there’s a reason the Ravens gave him the contract extension they did. Of course, with limited production as a receiver, that rushing skillset is all he truly can feature, but, for a Ravens team that doesn’t pass to their running backs much anyways, that’s perfectly fine.
Unfortunately, as Edwards still recovers from the torn ACL he suffered prior to Week 1 last year, he was placed on the physical unable to perform list (PUP), keeping him out for at least four games. The fact the team felt obligated to sign Mike Davis and Kenyan Drake isn’t exactly a positive sign, and, at this point, it’s impossible to know what to expect from Edwards this season. When healthy, though, the “Gus Bus” is going to ride along; here’s to healthier days ahead.
#31: James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
- Overall Rating: 62.71 (21st)
- Projected Volume Rank: 15th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: T-32nd
- Main Strength: Extremely Productive Rusher
- Main Weakness: Limited Receiving Capabilities, Torn Achilles in Week 17 Last Season
Back-to-back former undrafted free agents! Heading into the 2020 season, the Jaguars were clearly rebuilding, giving opportunities to young players and positioning themselves for a top pick in the upcoming draft. Alas, when they decided to part ways with Leonard Fournette, it was an undrafted rookie who got the chance to lead their backfield.
Two years later, and Robinson has established himself as of the game’s better pure rushers, ranking near the top of the league in yards after contact/attempt (3.23), explosive rush rate (12.38%), and PFF rushing grade (77.8). Remember, he’s done that while playing for two different offensive systems, bottom-ten graded run-blocking units, and what can best be described as a questionable method of backfield management by former head coach Urban Meyer. That’s quite remarkable, to say the least.
Although Robinson’s production as a receiver took a step back in 2021, he should strong capabilities there in 2020. The main concern, though, is with him coming off a torn Achilles he suffered in late December last year. The track record of running backs succeeding following this injury is next to none, and, sadly, it’s hard to make an exception for Robinson this year. Now, if there’s someone used to defeating the odds, it’s him, yet this is sadly an unfortunate aspect of the running back position. There’s a strong chance he’s on the field in Week 1, which, if so, is an incredible feat. Let’s just hope the odds are conquered once again.
#32: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs
- Overall Rating: 49.69 (49th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 37th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: T-60th
- Main Strength: Production in His First Season
- Main Weakness: Lack of Production In His Second Season
Want to know the randomness of drafting a running back? Clyde Edwards-Helaire was the only running back taken in the first round in 2020, yet, before Robinson’s injury, a survey conducted between NFL executive almost certainly would have taken the undrafted free agent over the high-pedigree player. When selected by the Chiefs with the 32nd overall pick in said draft, the expectation, not the hope, was that Edwards-Helaire would be the missing piece to a powerhouse offense, leading him to even being a top-five pick in fantasy football drafts as a rookie. Well, as they say, expectations minus results does not equal happiness.
To be fair, as a rookie, Edwards-Helaire actually demonstrated strong production, ranking 14th in overall PFF grade among running backs with at least 100 carries. That’s about what you could have expected, and the team was able to rely on him to take a notable role as a rusher when needed; he was creating yardage both after contact and with enough explosive rushes, and was able to play a true three-down role. In his second season, the ceiling was supposed to be through the roof in terms of the types of numbers he’d put up.
Instead, Edwards-Helaire finished as one of the least-productive running backs in the NFL:
- PFF rushing grade (39th out of 50 running backs with at least 100 carries)
- Yards after contact/attempt: 2.47 (45th)
- Explosive Rush Rate: 9.1% (29th)
- Yards/Route Run: 0.73 (63rd of 67 running backs with at least 20 targets)
That’s not what you’re looking for from a first-round pick, and is quite puzzling considering Edwards-Helaire’s promising rookie season. By the end of the season, he was struggling to get playing time from Jerrick McKinnon and Darrel Williams, who perhaps didn’t have the same level of investment from the team. Now, it’s time for him to once again become the lead back, and whether he can do it may depends on how much you believe in a specific narrative.
See, prior to the 2021 season, Edwards-Helaire had to undergo gallblader surgery, which led to him losing 50 pounds. Of course, for a running back, that is quite brutal, and it din’t help he also suffered an ankle injury in the preseason, followed by a sprained MCL in Week 5 hat led to him missing five games. At some point, there is too much going on here to not simply look past last season to a certain point, especially when his rookie season was as promising as it was. At a position like running back, where underlying production doesn’t generally have much swings in either direction, it would be very puzzling to be if Edwards-Helaire’s struggles last season weren’t due to his body dealing with far too much. As such, a healthier version could look a lot more like what we saw in 2020.
It’s unclear how much work Edwards-Helaire will see on passing downs, which is a bit disappointing, yet he still has all the capabilities to thrive against light boxes in a way Darrel Williams and co. couldn’t last season. If so, it adds a nice twist to Kansas City’s offense, which doesn’t justify the draft cost, though still would be beneficial. We’ll learn a lot about him this season, but it’s hard to not give him the benefit of the doubt.
#33: Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts
- Overall Rating: 60.23 (27th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 58th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 9th
- Main Strength: Tremendous Receiver and Explosive Player
- Main Weakness: Not Carrying Much of a Load As a Rusher
It’d be one thing if the Colts simply had Jonathan Taylor in their backfield, but, instead, they have another player that likely gives them the top running back room in the sport. That’d be Nyheim Hines, who may be one the premier “X Factors” for Indianapolis this season, and it’s all thanks to what he brings as a receiver.
Few running backs are legitimate receiving weapons, yet Hines would qualify as such. As recently as 2020, he finished second on the team in targets (78), leading the league comfortably with a 91.7 PFF receiving grade while spending plenty of time in the slot or out wide. Even as that took a step back in 2021, Carson Wentz isn’t exactly conducive to running back receiving production, and it’s easy to imagine a world where his exploits are put to greater use with Matt Ryan in town- all indications are in favor of that.
Considering he didn’t have double-digit carries in one game last season and weighs under 200 pounds, it’s unlikely Hines is asked to do much on the ground, though he’s also proven to be an explosive player in the past who can take advantage of an open hole, making him competent in that area as a change-of-pace option. Mainly, though, his value comes in the receiving game, which, considering how limited the Colts’ receiving corps is, could be extremely significant for them. The role of the traditional “third-down back” may be slowly declining, but don’t expect that to be the only time he’s make an impact in Indy this year.
#34: Chase Edmonds, Miami Dolphins
- Overall Rating: 56.77 (33rd)
- Projected Volume Rank: 38th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 29th
- Main Strength: Explosive Player with Receiving Upside
- Main Weakness: Zero Power
When a team signs you to a multi-year contract on the first day of free agency, and then proceeds to let the world know that you’re going to be a critical part of the offense, it’s probably a good sign. That’s precisely what’s taken place with Chase Edmonds in Miami.
Initially a fourth-round pick in 2018, Edmonds has seen his role increase in every season as a pro, which, in 2021, led to him playing a pivotal role alongside James Conner in Arizona. In fact, among running backs with at least 100 carries, Edmonds ranked fourth in the NFL in explosive run rate (15.32%), thriving specially on zone runs by averaging 5.3 yards/carry; Arizona’s opened-up offense, which is designed to spread out the defensive line and open up holes on the ground, was a tremendous fit for him. Add in his receiving acumen – he’s spent a lot of time in the slot in the past and has more than held his own there – and there is a lot of reason to be excited about him as part of a committee.
How will it fit in Miami, however? On the bright side, he’s going to in the prototypical Shanahan zone-blocking scheme that is going to allow him to thrive outside the tackles and get out in open space, while the team dramatically improved their offensive line this offseason. At the same time, he’s not paired with a player who can help compensate for some of the deficiencies he showed in terms of power running, and it’s unclear how much Arizona’s offensive system benefitted him. How much of a workload will Edmonds take on? How will he adjust to a new offense? Questions remain, though the upside is tremendous.
#35: D’Andre Swift, Detroit Lions
- Overall Rating: 56.74 (34th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 31st
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 38th
- Main Strength: Explosive Player with Receiving Upside
- Main Weakness: Zero Power
Ironically, it’s very hard to find a difference between Edmonds and D’Andre Swift, who has emerged as a fantasy football star, yet is still waiting to actualize his talent into more overall efficiency.
There’s a lot Swift brings to the table, yet something that has been completely missing is the ability to produce after contact. Overall, he’s ranked at the bottom of the league in yards after contact/attempt (2.41), nor has he been successful alluding tacklers- he finished with the sixth-lowest missed tackle rate (11.25%) last season as well. When you’re not particularly elusive or powerful, it’s hard to succeed as a running back, even if you can be as explosive (9th in explosive rush rate) as Swift has been. In fact, we’re talking about the second-lowest graded rusher from PFF, which certainly is not ideal.
Considering Swift was quite productive in college in terms of performing well after contact, one can shine a bright light here; he was one of the worst rushers in gap concepts (3.4 yards/carry), and succeeded in a zone-blocking scheme at Georgia. Thus, the shift to offensive coordinator Ben Johnson could seemingly be beneficial, though it’s unclear if Swift will be able to succeed where he’s best- getting to the outside and breaking away from there. If not, most of his value may come as a receiver, which to be fair, has been a strength of his based on his yards/route run (1.48), though tightening on drops will be a key. Regardless, we’re looking at a player who, like Edmonds, has showcased a lot as an explosive receiving option, yet is still trying to find the “running” in running back. Color me intrigued to see how the Lions utilize him this season.
#36: Leonard Fournette, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Overall Rating: 59.38 (30th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 19th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: T-41st
- Main Strength: Coming off Strong Season with Three-Down Skillset
- Main Weakness: No Explosiveness and Aging Curve Could Hit Hard
How a player is perceived can change so drastically in a hurry, and, for Leonard Fournette, that has been a never-ending cycle. From being an extremely well-regarded college prospect and the 4th overall pick to rushing for over 1000 yards as a rookie to falling out of favor in Jacksonville and being cut to winning a Super Bowl to earning a three-year contact extension, it’s been quite the road of turbulence for the Louisiana native. Now, though, coming off a career year, he’s in a stable situation, and will look to continue this surge into 2022.
Although Forunette rushed for 1000 yards as a rookie, it took 268 carries to get there, and, in fact, through the first four years of his career, he was averaging under four yards/carry and had never had a season with a PFF rushing grade of 70 or higher. In 2022, though, his efficiency soared, earning an 80 PFF rushing grade, good for 15th in the NFL, while also ranking in the upper half of the league in terms of production after contact. Notably, he averaged 5.5 yards/carry on gap runs last year (3.2 zone), and perhaps finally be in the right offensive system led him to this surge.
On top of that, Fournette has certainly earned Tom Brady’s trust as a receiver, finishing second in the NFL with 92 targets, only behind Najee Harris (96), who played three extra games. All of a sudden, he had become a three-down back in one of the most productive offenses in football, and given the team’s investment in him, will do so again in 2022.
Now, Fournette does come with notable limitations. For starters, his 8.5% explosive rush rate is well below average, and this year was a mainly an outlier compared to previous years. Plus, he’s historically struggled in pass protection, has gotten most of his receiving production through sheer volume rather than efficiency, and, at 27-years-old, does face the running back age cliff at some point. In many ways, the best path to the Bucs winning games would be to work Fournette in tandem with rookie Rachaad White, though, of course, that most likely will not be the case. For now, somewhere in the middle between 2021 and his previous career norms should be the expectation moving forward, though some may say to never discount “Lombardi Lenny”.
#37: David Montgomery, Chicago Bears
- Overall Rating: 60.46 (26th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 12th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: T-46th
- Main Strength: Has Plenty of Size and Is Reliable On Passing Downs
- Main Weakness: No Explosiveness, Inconsistent Production After Contact
Once upon a time, David Montgomery was compared to Saquon Barkley, Le’Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, and Sony Michel at the same time in a college broadcast. Few players have had to carry the load that he has in his first three years in the NFL, but, entering 2022, he’ll be looking for more efficiency to go along with the volume accumulation.
When I say that Montgomery had to handle a major load last season, that’s not to be taken lightly; in his past 39 games, he’s had double-digit carries in all of them, good for 16.3 rush attempts per appearance. Simply put, when he’s healthy, he’s never leaving the field, which is certainly beneficial, though more production on those carries will also be needed. As someone who was clocked in with a 4.63 40-time, it’s not surprising that he’s struggled to produce explosive rushes, yet he also has ranked below average in terms of producing yardage after contact, which may perhaps explain why he’s averaged under four yards/carry throughout his NFL career. In a contract year, that’s something he’s going to need to change.
On the bright side, Montgomery has consistently rated as an above-average pass protector, while his PFF receiving grades (69.2 in 2021) indicate someone who’d catch even more passes had it not been for playing with more mobile quarterbacks (Justin Fields, Mitch Trubisky) so far in his career. Now, he’ll once again be paired with Fields this season, though, from a capability standpoint, you can trust him in clear passing situations. Still, without enough explosiveness or contact balance, how far can you get? It’s going to be a tough year for the Bears offense, which also could hold true for Montgomery. I mean, if he truly breaks out given the offensive line he’s running behind and the offense as a whole, just give the man the keys to the city at that point.
Tier 5: Intriguing, Yet Perhaps Unproven Running Backs
#38: Justin Jackson, Detroit Lions (Practice Squad)
- Overall Rating: 61.93 (23rd)
- Projected Volume Rank: 46th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 12th
- Main Strength: Has Been a Very Productive All-Purpose Back When Given The Chance
- Main Weakness: Career 209 Carries Over Four Seasons
Okay, I am just going to come out and say it: can we please get Justin Jackson some playing time? Please and thank you.
I mean, at some point, what else does a player have to do to get a chance? In his 209 career carries, this is a player that has demonstrated explosiveness (12.9% explosive rush rate), production after contact (3.23 YCO/A), has consistently graded out well from PFF, and is averaging five yards/carry despite being behind a subpar Chargers offensive line for a significant portion of those rush attempts. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, he’s served as an impactful player as a receiver (career 1.59 yards/route run) as well. Gee, I wonder how many teams could use a player like that!
Alas, likely due to his size (6’0″, 199 pounds) and previous draft capital (7th round), it appears as though Jackson will continue to fly under the radar; he recently had to sign with the Lions’ practice squad, which, frankly, is extremely perplexing. Right now, there are plenty of teams (Giants, Cardinals, Steelers, Chiefs, Colts) that would benefit tremendously from his services, and it’s about time we finally get to see if his consistent efficiency is “the real deal” or not. At this point, there is no reason not to buy into it, but will a team? That remains to be seen.
39: James Cook, Buffalo Bills
- Overall Rating: N/A
- Projected Volume Rank: N/A
- Projected Yards Added Rank: N/A
- Main Strength: Tons of Receiving Ability and Explosiveness
- Main Weakness: Lack of Size
Usually, in free agency, there are one or two contracts that are agreed upon, only for the player or team to walk back on it. This year, that feat belonged to JD McKissic, who, after initially agreeing to a contract with the Bills, decided to sign back with the Washington Commanders. So, what did the Bills do? They used a second-round pick on James Cook to be their new “receiving back”. Think they had a mission this offseason?
It may have cost a second-round pick to do so, but the Bills may have simply landed a better all-around player. As a receiver, there’s no doubting what Cook brings to the table; not only did he average 1.95 yards/route run through his college career, but he did so at a higher-than-expected target depth (3.8 average depth of target last year). Of course, when Josh Allen is your quarterback, that’s beneficial; he’s not going to merely check the ball down, but on wheel routes or a simple Texas route, he’s going to be a tremendous asset in the passing game. For a Bills team that passes as much as NFL team in the league and got zero receiving production from their running backs, that’s very notable.
Plus, from an efficiency standpoint, Cook was fantastic as a rusher in college, combining explosiveness with surprising production after contact, leading to him averaging a healthy 6.5 yards/carry. Compound that with a 4.42 40-yard dash time at the combine, and it’s clear he’s going to be an explosive playmaker in the NFL. Now, how much will that be put to the test? The Bills’ official website lists Cook at 190 pounds, which would be quite low for someone to play a featured role on the ground, and, most likely, we’re looking at him being used in a change-of-pace setting. Considering how much Buffalo moves the ball through the air, that’ll lead to Cook playing a significant role, though there would be some teams (Ravens, Titans, Bears) where Cook wouldn’t be as useful. Thus, it all comes down to the offense he’s a part of, and he couldn’t have asked for a better pairing here. Between him and Dalvin, it’s going to be a fun year for the Cook family in 2022.
#40: Kenneth Gainwell, Philadelphia Eagles
- Overall Rating: 54.72 (42nd)
- Projected Volume Rank: 64th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 22nd
- Main Strength: Legitimate Pass-Catching Weapon
- Main Weakness: Lack of Size/Power
I don’t know what they’re putting in the water at Memphis, but they’ve had a lot of success producing running back talent as of late, and have had multiple wide receivers convert to the backfield (see Tony Pollard). Now, it’s Kenneth Gainwell’s time to keep the trend going.
Listed at just 5’11” and 195 pounds, Gainwell isn’t someone who is going to wow you with a lot of power, and a head coach isn’t likely to use him as a true workhorse. That being said, when he touches the ball, he’s going to make an impact. As you would expect from a converted wide receiver, he’s quite proficient in the passing game, ranking in the top-ten in the NFL in PFF receiving grade (75.9), with the third-lowest percentage of targets (28%) behind the line of scrimmage as well; he wasn’t simply being schemed easy touches. While his role did vary week-to-week, he definitely is the team’s best option in all passing situations.
We’ll see what Gainwell can bring on the ground moving forward, though he did receive double-digit carries on three different occasions, and was actually above average in terms of producing yardage after contact. Still, though, I’m not sure there is even been a more clear-cut comparison than him developing into a Nyheim Hines-esque player, providing yet another weapon on an ascending offense. Not all running backs can pull off the number “14”, but, hey, maybe it’s perfect; he’s a wide receiver in a running back’s body.
#41: D’Ernest Johnson, Cleveland Browns
- Overall Rating: 56.31 (35th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 49th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 25th
- Main Strength: Dynamic Rusher Last Season
- Main Weakness: Limited Sample Size and Not Much Production As a Receiver
It’s always fun to look at a statistical leaderboard, where you’ll see plenty of the top players at any position, but, always, there will be one player that raises some serious eyebrows. Well, this year’s version of that is definitely D’Ernest Johnson. After all, when you go from an undrafted free agent in 2019 with only 37 career carries to being PFF‘s highest-graded rusher, that’s quite the unexpected turn of events. As such, it’s clear the Browns may have something special here.
How elite was Johnson last season. Let’s let the numbers do the talking here:
- PFF rushing grade: 90.6 (1st among running backs with 100+ carries)
- Yards After Contact/Attempt: 3.47 (5th)
- Explosive Rush Rate: 16% (2nd)
- Missed Tackle Forced Rate: 26% (4th)
Not too shabby! Plus, this efficiency didn’t come through scattered, limited touches in every game, but, rather, him serving as a true workhorse in games where the team’s other running backs weren’t available. After testing extremely poorly athletically, Johnson never stood much of a stance of an immediate role, yet now that we know what he’s capable of, teams would be silly to still look back on what they thought of him as a prospect. You’re not likely getting much of an impact from his as a receiver, but with what he brings on the ground, he deserves to be thriving in a committee situation right now. Instead, he’s stuck third on the Browns depth chart, so who knows how much he’ll even play this year. Nevertheless, if called upon, expect nothing but high-end production.
#42: Damien Harris, New England Patriots
- Overall Rating: 59.47 (29th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 32nd
- Projected Yards Added Rank: T-29th
- Main Strength: Explosive Gap Runner
- Main Weakness: Limited Track Record as Receiver and Doesn’t Thrive After Contact As You’d Hope
Speaking of statistical leaderboards, the only running back to earn a higher overall PFF grade than Damien Harris (86.6) last season was Jonathan Taylor, which, as you’d surmise, is quite impressive. Yet, is that number slightly misleading?
When it comes to projecting future yards/carry, PFF rushing grade is an important variable, but not in the same way as yards after contact/attempt and explosive rush rate. Thus, the fact that Harris actually rated below average in the former (2.73), and saw his explosiveness (10.9%) come down significantly is a bit concerning. Now, for a pure gap runner, he’s got more than enough demonstrated breakaway ability and is able to take advantage of the holes that are available, though what happens when the offensive line isn’t as favorable? In a contract year, that’s a notable question.
For what it’s worth, Harris (1.16 yards/route run, 69.9 PFF receiving grade) was competent as a receiver when called upon. The problem? He was rarely asked to do much there, nor was he in college. Who ends up earning playing time on the passing downs between him and Rhamondre Stevenson will be quite telling when it comes to his future as a pass-catcher, and something that could end up having a massive effect on his future. For now, though, he’ll form a very strong pairing with Stevenson in New England, and, perhaps he sees notable improvement in a more-healthy season. Regardless, it’s hard to not imagining him continuing to be efficient given his fit in the Patriots offense.
#43: Raheem Mostert, Miami Dolphins
- Overall Rating: 71.57 (13th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 13th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: 14th
- Main Strength: Explosive Runner
- Main Weakness: Is 30-Years-Old and Coming off of a Season-Ending Knee Injury, Less Productive In 2020
By now, it’s quite clear that running back, unlike any other position, features players with very interesting career trajectories. An undrafted free agent in 2015, Raheem Mostert carried the ball just 41 times in the first four seasons of his career, and then, all of a sudden, scored four touchdowns in the NFC Championship Game a year later. Wait, what? Running backs, man.
2019 truly was a special year for Mostert, who averaged an absurd 5.8 yards/carry, finished as PFF‘s fourth-highest graded rusher (83.3), and led the NFL in explosive rush rate (17.37%). In 2020, those numbers came down notably, particularly when it comes to producing yards after contact, though, then again, it was a seven-game sample in which he dealt with three different injuries. Thus, a rebound was on the horizon in 2021, right? You would assume that would be the case, yet after just two carries, suffered a season-ending knee injury. Alas, he’s essentially only played one full season and is 30-years-old, which is a bizarre combination.
For Mostert, his success has come mainly via explosive rushes, which would expect given he’s a phenomenal athlete, and he uses that to create yardage after contact; if he stays on his feet, he’s got the burst to take advantage of the smallest of holes. Now, coming off a notable knee injury an at 30-years-old, will that still be there for him, especially after the downtick in productivity in 2020? That’s very unclear, which is why he was available on a very modest one-year, $2.125 million deal.
In Miami, Mostert will be reunited with new head coach Mike McDaniel, formerly the offensive coordinator in San Francisco. Thus, he’ll stay in the perfect offensive system for him, and can be utilized as more of a change-of-pace player to keep him fresh and efficient. If so, things could work out very well here, though, at this point, the role for him is limited. At the same time, that’s better than bringing nothing unique to the table, and between him and Chase Edmonds, the Dolphins could have quite the explosive rushing attack. At the very least, that’s the dream for Raheem!
Tier 6: Best as High-End Backups
#44: Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams
- Overall Rating: 53.9 (44th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 33rd
- Projected Yards Added Rank: T-49th
- Main Strength: Athletic Player and Well-Regarded Prospect
- Main Weakness: Wasn’t Explosive At All In 2020 and Is Now Coming Off of Torn Achilles
How difficult is it for a running back to come back strong from a torn Achilles? Let’s just say the track record isn’t ideal:
You can now also add the fact that Marlon Mack played close to zero role with the Colts and recently could not make the Texans’ 53-man roster, and we just saw Akers (2.2% explosive rush rate, 39.6 PFF rushing grade, 2.4 yards/carry) not be able to come back from it as hoped for in the preseason. To be fair, the fact he was on the field at all in just six months is absolutely ridiculous, so there’s not much one should actually take away from those 72 carries.
That being said, there were already reasons to be concerned during Akers’ first season in the league. While he tested strongly at the combine, that explosiveness did not translate (8.4% explosive rush rate) onto the field, nor did it for the most part in college. Plus, it wasn’t as though he was particularly strong after contact, and this was all while playing behind the fourth-best run-blocking unit in the NFL, per PFF. Now, you factor in the Achilles injury, and it’s unclear what he can provide on the ground.
For what it’s worth, Akers has made a quality impact as a receiver, and is someone head coach Sean McVay trusts a lot on third downs. That’s enough to compensate potential limitations on the ground, though, which is strange considering that was supposed to be his strength coming out of Florida State. Perhaps a breakout is on the horizon, yet it’s also hard to expect Akers to do something that essentially no other running back has been able to accomplish. Hey, there’s never a better time to re-write history than now!
#45: Antonio Gibson, Washington Commanders
- Overall Rating: 55.27 (39th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 25th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: T-51st
- Main Strength: Showed Flashes as a Rookie
- Main Weakness: Clear Struggles and Starting To Fall Out of Favor With Coaching Staff
If Tony Pollard and Kenneth Gainwell weren’t enough, the Memphis Tigers have had one other recent example of a wide receiver being converted to running back. That would be Antonio Gibson, who is certainly a player who has garnered an extreme amount of excitement as a potential three-down back. So far, that hasn’t come to fruition, and, now, it appears Gibson is heading into a make-or-break year.
As a rookie, Gibson showed why many believed he was capable of becoming one of the league’s better running backs; he finished as PFF‘s seventh-highest graded rusher, and ranked above average both in terms of producing explosive rushes and forcing missed tackles. Sure, he wasn’t creating after contact, but for someone with such limited running back experience, it was so easy to see further development in year two.
On the bright side, Gibson did, in fact, produce more yards after contact in 2021. The problem? Everything else. With six lost fumbles, he was a bottom-ten graded rusher by PFF, yet, now, also regressed significantly in terms of explosive rush attempts and missed tackles forced. Then, you factor in deficiencies on passing downs and worse receiving production (57.8 PFF receiving grade) than you may have expected, and it truly was not an ideal year for him. Considering JD McKissic was brought back to participate in passing situations and we got to the point where Gibson was demoted to special teams duties this preseason, it’s clear to see he’s falling out of favor in Washington, and, honestly, that is to be expected at this point. To be fair, he may have been playing through a shin injury last season, which isn’t ideal for a running back, and may explain the decrease in explosiveness. Still, to this point, it’s been a strange start to his NFL career, and now, it’s unclear if he’ll be able to retain the coaching staff’s faith in him for a final year. A strong showing against Jacksonville in Week 1, a prime opportunity for him, would surely go a long way.
#46: Duke Johnson Jr., Buffalo Bills (Practice Squad)
- Overall Rating: 49.58 (55th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 41st
- Projected Yards Added Rank: T-53rd
- Main Strength: Reliable In Passing Situations and Explosive
- Main Weakness: Very Strange Past Few Seasons/Struggling To Stick With an NFL Team
Okay, why isn’t Duke Johnson Jr. on an active roster?
At 5’9″ and 210 pounds, Johnson Jr. has never been a running back to handle a large load. That being said, with so many teams searching for someone to provide value on passing downs, wouldn’t you want a player who has consistently been productive as a receiver (1.53 yards/route run), and also is able to boast one of the highest average depth of targets among running backs as well? How about a running back who has ranked near the top of the league in explosive rush rate in nearly every season and has since improved his production after contact? How about a running back who was able to be extremely efficient in a four-game stretch last year while taking on a notable workload (16.75 carries per game) and playing behind PFF‘s third-lowest graded run-blocking offensive line?
To me, that seems like the exact type of running back a team should be looking to add to their backfield. It’s one thing if Johnson’s rough 2020 season (59.8 PFF rushing grade, 2.25 YCO/attempt, 5.19% explosive rush rate) was the last image we saw of him, but after seeing him produce (73.7 PFF rushing grade, 3.28 YCO/attempt, 15.49% explosive rush rate) similar to 2018 and 2019, should we still be holding 2020 against him? It’s unlikely Johnson Jr. plays much of a role even if activated by the Bills, yet there are plenty of teams (Chiefs, Cardinals, Bengals, Raiders, Vikings) where he would be an absolutely fantastic fit. It’s been quite an interesting past few years for the former Miami Hurricane, but here’s hoping he gets the opportunity to prove himself once again. Pretty please?
#47: Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills
- Overall Rating: 48.97 (51st)
- Projected Volume Rank: 39th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: T-63rd
- Main Strength: Can Create After Contact and Is Explosive Enough
- Main Weakness: There’s a Reason The Bills Drafted James Cook
In case you haven’t heard, the Bills don’t particularly like to run the football, and, when they do, Josh Allen factors into that strategy significantly. At the same time, this is a team that plays with a lot of leading game scripts, and, though Allen factored into this, ranked sixth in rushing yards/game. In other words, in an ideal scenario, you’d have some sort of running back talent just to pose a threat to the defense.
That’s where Devin Singletary comes into play. The former FAU Eagle may only stand in at 5’7″ and 203 pounds, but you couldn’t tell that simply by how he plays. This is a player who has ranked in the top-20 in all three seasons in the amount of yardage he’s creating after contact per attempt (3.08), and has also been extremely efficient on power-running concepts, forming a very strong pairing with Allen in short-yardage situations. Meanwhile, you wouldn’t expect this from someone who didn’t showcase straight-line running ability at the combine (4.66 40 time), but he’s also posted a double-digit explosive rush rate in every season of his career, making him an extremely well-rounded rusher.
On the down side, although the Bills gave him a three-down role at the end of last year, Singletary is not a player you want on the field in obvious passing situations. Not only has he not been stellar in pass protection, yet only James Robinson finished with a lower PFF receiving grade (42.3) last year, while his yards/route run (0.61) was only ahead of Sony Michel. Want to know why Buffalo tried to sign JD McKissic, and then drafted James Cook? They understand what Singletary can and cannot do, and, this year, will likely be magnifying his strengths a lot more.
That being said, this makes Singletary a limited player that can’t hold a backfield on his own, though how many running backs can at this point? For what the Bills need, which is mere competence when they decide to run the ball, Singletary more than provides that, and the team understands his limitations. He’s another player in a contract year and an unknown future, though, for now, he’s in the perfect spot.
#48: Melvin Gordon III, Denver Broncos
- Overall Rating: 53.71 (45th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 27th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: T-58th
- Main Strength: Has Been Very Productive On The Ground
- Main Weakness: Shouldn’t Be On The Field On Passing Situations
With how popular fantasy football has become, it can be very easy to want every team to play their top running back on every down, while dismissing older players who people are naturally fatigued by. Yet, there are two faults in these demands. For starters, outside of Christian McCaffrey, Najee Harris, and Derrick Henry, there truly isn’t another running back that you can expect to be on the field for 90% of the team’s snaps. Plus, even if a running back is slightly more productive than the player ahead of them, in order to keep both as efficient as possible, teams are going to have some sort of rotation.
Why do I bring this up? Well, there appears to be a lot of frustration over Melvin Gordon III’s presence in Denver, as it’s seen as a detriment to Javonte Williams. Still, there is a reason the Broncos decided to bring Gordon III back- he still has plenty to provide for them this season. Over the past two seasons in Denver, Gordon III has had an 83+ PFF rushing grade in each of them, has improved significant in terms of production after contact (3.11 YCO/attempt), and has provided more than enough explosiveness (11.7% explosive rush rate) as well. When you factor in his ability to handle a considerable amount of volume, he’s quietly been one of the best pure runners in the NFL, and should continue to play some role for the Broncos on early downs.
Still, don’t expect much in passing situations. One year after finishing in the bottom-three in PFF receiving grade (36.4) and yards/route run (0.54), Gordon III didn’t fare much better in 2021 (52.9 PFF receiving grade, 0.86 yards/route run), and started to see his role cut down significantly as the season went on. On the bright side, considering that’s an area where Williams is quite strong, he won’t need to stand out there, but, rather, can complement him on early downs to take some of the load off. Now 29-years-old with 1503 career carries under his belt, that role best suits him anyways, and allows the Broncos to have one of the better rushing attacks in the NFL. Sure, it’d be cool if Javonte Williams was leading the league in yards from scrimmage, yet is that what’s best for the Broncos and Williams’ long-term efficiency? Don’t discount what Gordon III, pending a notable decline, will be able to bring to the table.
#49: Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams
- Overall Rating: 47.33 (T-56th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 48th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: T-61st
- Main Strength: Explosiveness
- Main Weakness: Won’t Create Much After Contact
My goodness; another Memphis running back! Now, unlike the other recent Memphis prodigies, Darrell Henderson actually was a running back in college, and was a very productive one indeed. So far, between him, Cam Akers, and, in 2021, Sony Michel, there has been an extensive amount of week-to-week variance with regards to the Rams’ backfield usage. With Henderson pairing with Cam Akers, that will likely continue to be the case, though who knows at this point?
With Henderson, it’s clear why the Rams have continue to make sure to involve him in their offense; he’s a big play waiting to happen. He’s ranked in the top-ten in explosive rush rate in back-to-back seasons, and is clearly at his best when he can work outside the tackles. That’s what Sean McVay wants from his running backs, and is what will continue to be his calling card moving forward.
That’s a positive, because Henderson isn’t providing much in the way of power. Last season, he was the seventh-least efficient running back producing yardage after contact, which ties back to his lack of ability to elude tacklers (eight-lowest rate). As such, when a hole isn’t open, he’s not the right man for the job, though the upside of what can happen when that occurs is why he remains so tantalizing. As a receiver, he’s also coming off a rough year (49.8 PFF receiving grade, 0.74 yards/route run), but since he’s been so strong in pass protection, that is mitigated somewhat.
Ideally, Henderson isn’t serving as your workhorse, as was the case at times with the Rams last season. At the same time, he’s a perfect change-of-pack back that truly does bring something special to the table, and that can’t be discounted. How he and Akers are mixed next season will be very fascinating to monitor, and is an underrated storyline to monitor with Los Angeles’ offense. Now, we just need some open lanes!
#50: Jamaal Williams, Detroit Lions
- Overall Rating: 50.61 (48th)
- Projected Volume Rank: 44th
- Projected Yards Added Rank: T-43rd
- Main Strength: Notable Asset On Passing Downs
- Main Weakness: Very Little Explosiveness
If you haven’t watched Hard Knocks by now, do so right away. Of course, you’ll be likely infatuated with head coach Dan Campbell, who simply makes you want to run through a brick wall. Then, there is Jamaal Williams, who is definitely one of the more colorful personalities in the NFL. In many ways, he’s a head coach’s favorite player, and will continue to serve a purpose for the Lions this season.
Why is Williams a “head coach’s favorite player”? Well, he simply rarely makes mistakes. Among running backs with 100+ carries last year, he ranked 14th in successful run rate, is extremely reliable in pass protection, and has been productive as a receiver (1.37 yards/route run in 2021); he does all the “little things” well. Now, that is also coming with a lack of explosiveness (7.8% career explosive rush rate), nor does he produce much after contact compared to average. Alas, if you need four-to-five yards, he’s your guy. Need a breakaway carry? That’s where a more explosive back will be needed. There’s something to be said about being someone who can play in several key situations, and while he’s not a particularly exciting player, he’s still the type of running back every team could use in their backfield. That, and the speeches on Hard Knocks, of course!
Christian McCaffrey: Cat Crave
Javonte Williams: CBS Sports
Saquon Barkley: MSG Networks
Najee Harris: Still Curtain
Kenneth Gainwell: Section 215
Darrell Henderson and Cam Akers: Yahoo! Sports