There are narratives out there, that if someone follows the NFL long enough they are bound to hear, with some pushed more frequently than others. One of the most common cliches that even non-football fans might have heard is: the NFL is a PASSING LEAGUE. With more passes being thrown every season, this has directly led to a further narrative about the devaluation of the running-back position.
Look, we’re not about to tell you that running-backs serve the exact same role that they did even just twenty years ago. They can however, still provide significant value, just in different ways.
In modern football, there is no denying that positional versatility has become KING. The running-back position is no different, with today’s players having to be more effective as blockers and receivers than ever before, in addition to providing an impact on the ground. The best running-backs in today’s NFL can typically do all three. Some of the most successful teams in the NFL last season, such as the Baltimore Ravens and the NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers, deployed extensive running-games, showing that backs still have significant value as it relates to winning games.
Today, we present another edition of our Tier-Maker series! Prior to the NFL Draft, we ranked the NFL’s Starting Quarterbacks in this format. Today, we look at running-backs, only, we can’t justify selecting a single starter from each team for this exercise. Most NFL teams in recent memory use a combination of running-backs in their scheme, rather than one featured player. Relying on one player too much can make a team vulnerable when injuries hit (as they often do), so in this sense its vital for NFL teams to have capable depth and balance at the position to be the most effective.
So, the way we have conducted today’s set of rankings is as follows. We have picked the top four ranked players under every team’s depth chart on ESPN.com for consistency sake. From this, we consider: (1) how talented the backfield is, with a higher weight placed on the top listed players on each team; and, (2) how well-rounded the backfield is, considering the skill-set of every player involved. Tier-gaps and justifications will be explained as we go!
The teams that have been chosen here are ones that not only have high-level backs, but also have good, well-proven complimentary options on the depth-chart.
- 1st: Mark Ingram
- 2nd: J.K Dobbins
- 3rd: Gus Edwards
- 4th: Justice Hill
Let’s begin with one of the true outliers on the list. The Ravens’ backfield goes four legit-contributors deep, a rarity in the NFL even today.
Ingram was a Pro-Bowler last season with 15 touchdowns at the age of 30, with a rugged-style that played perfected alongside quarterback Lamar Jackson. Dobbins was the Ravens’ 2nd-Round pick in last month’s draft, and reminds me a bit of a younger Mark Ingram. As one of the better running-backs in college football last season at Ohio State, I expect him to figure into Baltimore’s rotation.
Meanwhile, Edwards has been an excellent back-up running-back in his first two seasons, notching 700 rushing yards in both campaigns to the tone of 5.3 Yards Per Carry (YPC). Hill rounds out the group as a young back who flashed upside in limited playing time last season.
The group may not have one of the Top-5 backs in football, but the sheer depth and potential of this unit is remarkable, with a high-level starter, a premium prospect and a proven back-up.
- 1st: Nick Chubb
- 2nd: Kareem Hunt
- 3rd: Dontrell Hilliard
- 4th: D’Ernest Johnson
Make room for Nick Chubb in your Top-5 running-backs, people. The former Georgia star rushed for nearly 1500 yards in a spectacular sophomore season, while improving as a receiver with 36 receptions.
You hate to say anything positive about Kareem Hunt, but during his first two seasons with the Chiefs, he was a top-tier starter who was tremendous in the receiving game, while bringing power on the ground. In his first season in Cleveland, he was suspended for the first eight games and never quite got into the flow. Expect that to change in year two with a clean-slate, giving the Browns two elite, versatile talents at the running-back position from the get-go.
- 1st: Phillip Lindsay
- 2nd: Melvin Gordon
- 3rd: Royce Freeman
- 4th: Khalfani Muhammad
If there is one team that people would unanimously say had a great offseason is Denver, and plenty of that has to do with the addition of Gordon.
Gordon is a two-time Pro-Bowler and has proven to be one of the best receivers at the running-back position, in addition to his strong work on the ground as a big-play threat. AND, he might not be the best runner on the roster with Lindsay around. Undrafted two years ago, he has produced back-to-back 1000-yard seasons while posting identical 35 reception campaigns.
Meanwhile the 3rd-stringer Royce Freeman, though being slightly disappointing, has still developed into a nice player and a great 3rd-guy on this depth-chart.
You’d be hard pressed to find a better three-man combo than the one assembled in Denver.
New Orleans Saints
- 1st: Alvin Kamara
- 2nd: Latavius Murray
- 3rd: Dwayne Washington
- 4th: Tony Jones Jr.
The Saints have two starting-caliber running-backs, including one of the league’s best in Kamara. However, some may be wondering about Murray.
While never being the flashiest player, the physical back is now six-year NFL veteran and has proven to be a remarkably consistent rusher on a good yards per carry average year after year. He was the perfect replacement for the departed Mark Ingram last season, bringing some power between the tackles and racking up 637 rushing yards at a good 4.4 YPC.
Add that to Kamara, a dynamic three-year-pro who is both an incredible rusher and receiver. Fun fact about Kamara: in his first three seasons, he has posted exactly 81 receptions in each! Pretty wacky.
This combo compliments each other so well, with two players that have been so reliable.
Backfields appearing in this tier often have high-level players on the roster, but one way or the other, there is a missing component that makes the running-back room feel incomplete. Whether it be a lack of depth behind one exceptional-back, or not having a player on the roster capable of adding a punch in the receiving game, each team has a noted justification below.
San Francisco 49ers
- 1st: Raheem Mostart
- 2nd: Tevin Coleman
- 3rd: Jerick McKinnon
- 4th: Jeff Wilson Jr.
The 49ers were one of the more difficult teams to place on this list given how productive they were as an offense last season.
Mostart, in his 5th NFL season in 2019, was one of the major breakout players in all of the NFL, racking up 772 rushing yards on a sharp 5.6 YPC.
Coleman is another productive back, who has never eclipsed 1000 rushing yards but has been remarkably steady, typically good for 600 yards and 5 touchdowns any given year. He has also now been a part of two Super Bowl participants with the Atlanta Falcons and this past season with the 49ers.
The question mark among this group is McKinnon, who was once a productive player but has had season-ending injuries preventing him from seeing the field since 2017.
The thing keeping this group out of the Top-Shelf Tier is they lack one truly great running-back with a proven track record. Mostart could very-well prove to be that guy, but for now, he just doesn’t have the consistency considering how long he has been in the league. Otherwise, the combination of him and Coleman have been a perfect fit for Coach Kyle Shanahan’s outside-zone blocking scheme.
- 1st: Dalvin Cook
- 2nd: Alexander Mattison
- 3rd: Mike Boone
- 4th: Ameer Abdullah
Minnesota was a team I was close to putting in the above-tier, but there are concerns.
Cook became a true-star back last year both as a rusher (1135 yards) and receiver (519 yards), becoming the focal point of a potent Vikings offense.
Mattison was an effective back-up in relief as a rookie, perhaps signally this could become a legit one-two punch going forward. Boone, the third back in the rotation, found a decent role last season too, averaging 5.6 YPC on his 47 attempts.
The concerns for this group all rest on Cook’s health, something that has become an unfortunate reoccurring question mark for his career. After missing 16 games over his first two seasons, it looked like Cook had finally left his poor luck behind last year, only to get banged up again at the end of the season, missing two games. When he returned for the playoffs, though he did receive plenty of action, he just didn’t run with the same efficiency we had been accustomed to, becoming a non-factor in the Vikings’ second playoff game against the 49ers.
Another year of development for Mattison, along with an additional healthy year for Cook would see the Vikings higher on this list, but for now this feels right.
New York Giants
- 1st: Saquon Barkley
- 2nd: Dion Lewis
- 3rd: Wayne Gallman
- 4th: Jonathan Hillman
The Giants are one example of a team that has one elite player in their backfield but not much else.
Many would argue that Barkley is, all things considered, the most talented running-back in all of football. The numbers, as well as the lore of his famous workouts, back that up over his first two seasons, possessing power, break-away speed and great hands. There is no denying his prowess.
However, the rest of the backfield raises major questions. Dion Lewis is a name many football fans will recognize from his time with the Patriots, but has has struggled in Tennessee over the past two years in a role behind Derrick Henry. At best, the Giants will get good receiving production from Lewis and likely not much on the ground.
Gallman has been with the team in a reserve role for three seasons, seeing tidbits of action here and there that is difficult to draw a conclusion on.
Ultimately, this group doesn’t have a great candidate to step in as a spot-starter in the event of a Barkley injury.
- 1st: Christian McCaffrey
- 2nd: Reggie Bonnafon
- 3rd: Mike Davis
- 4th: Jordan Scarlett
Another case of over-reliance on a star player here in Carolina.
McCaffrey had one of the all-time great seasons by a running-back in 2019, becoming just the third player ever to eclipse both 1000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. Theres no denying that he is the centerpiece of the Panthers’ offense, proving to be perhaps the league’s best swiss-army knife.
But, in today’s NFL you cannot just have ONE running-back. The most recognizable name here behind CMC is projected 3rd-stringer Mike Davis, who has an injury history while also sparingly seeing recent action. Unfortunately, I didn’t know who Bonnafon was before researching for this blurb, and after one NFL season, he only has 16 carries to his name.
Still, McCaffrey, like Barkley with the Giants, is enough to carry his team into the second-highest tier.
Green Bay Packers
- 1st: Aaron Jones
- 2nd: Jamaal Williams
- 3rd: A.J Dillon
- 4th: Tyler Ervin
Talk about a difficult selection. Though they may lack receivers, the Packers have plenty of talent at running-back.
Jones reached star status in 2019, contributing 1558 total yards to go along with an NFL-leading 19 total touchdowns.
Back-up Jamaal Williams also became a solid contributor in 2019, becoming a short-yardage threat.
The big question I have here surrounds A.J Dillon, who some think was over-drafted in the 2nd-Round. He has drawn comparisons to the Titans’ Derrick Henry due to his big frame, but isn’t as explosive, according to scouts I follow. The Packers know from experience about managing a bigger back from their time with Eddie Lacy, and sometimes players of this kind struggle to adjust to the league long-term. If Dillon pans out, the Packers have one of the best backfield’s in all of football, but I’m putting them here due to the tempering of our expectations.
- 1st: Ezekiel Elliott
- 2nd: Tony Pollard
- 3rd: Jordan Chunn
- 4th: Rico Dowdle
With Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys have one of the best backs in the entire NFL, with a four-year proven track-record. They also have Tony Pollard, who is coming off a good rookie season with 455 yards at 5.3 YPC.
The problem is, that I just don’t feel Pollard is on the same level as some of the depth runners in the Top-Shelf Tier, at least not yet. Like Green Bay, there is a big chance I look like fool if Elliott and Pollard become an elite 1-2 punch in 2020.
- 1st: Derrick Henry
- 2nd: Darrynton Evans
- 3rd: Dalyn Dawkins
- 4th: Senorise Perry
Some might be surprised, after watching Derrick Henry steamroll AFC playoff teams in January, that Tennessee isn’t in the top-tier. The truth is, I was actually closer to putting them in the third tier.
Derrick Henry gives the Titans a ton on the ground, but he’s nearly a complete non-factor in the passing game. I mentioned earlier in the Giants blurb that Dion Lewis had underachieved the past few seasons in Tennessee, but he did provide the team with a legitimate pass-catching option out of the back-field. With him gone, that leaves no proven option in the passing game from the position.
The Titans drafted Evans in the 3rd-round last month, and perhaps he could fill the receiving-void, but it wasn’t a feature of his game in college.
Still, this group belongs in this tier on the strength of Henry, who has been playing like a man-possessed the past season and a half, leading the league in both rushing yards and touchdowns last season.
Las Vegas Raiders
- 1st: Josh Jacobs
- 2nd: Jalen Richard
- 3rd: Lynn Bowden Jr.
- 4th: Rod Smith
Like most of the teams in this tier, the Raiders have a top-level running-back, this time in the form of now-sophomore Josh Jacobs. The 2019 1st-round pick translated incredibly to the league in his debut season, eclipsing 1100 rushing yards and adding a not-too-shabby 7 touchdowns. He has room to work as a receiver (20 REC in 2019), but the floor is still so high.
Backing him up is a guy people don’t talk about a lot in Richard, a four-year pro who specializes as a receiving-back. He adds a significant presence to Vegas’ passing game, particularly on 3rd-down.
Bowden, a 2020 draft pick, is a fascinating prospect being a former college quarterback, so watch how the Raiders deploy him next season.
This is an interesting group and one I look forward to watching in 2020.
- 1st: Joe Mixon
- 2nd: Giovani Bernard
- 3rd: Trayveon Williams
- 4th: Rodney Anderson
The last member of this tier is Cincinnati, a team with plenty of experience in their two main backfield options.
Mixon has proven to be one of the better backs in the NFL over the past two seasons, despite playing behind an offensive-line considered to be among the league’s worst. He is an all-around contributor too, chipping in 35 receptions last year.
His back-up, Bernard, has been with the Bengals for seven seasons, carving out a nice career as 3rd-down back and occasional spot-starter. He won’t be able to carry your ground attack long-term but he has shown he can step-in and start when the Bengals need it.
Beyond this, the rest of the roster is unproven but Mixon and Bernard compliment each other so well that they belong in this tier.
It says something about the depth of the running-back position that these teams land this far down the list. These are teams that I don’t necessarily think have top-level talent but like the composition of the depth-chart as a whole. These are teams that generally have put well put-together, complimentary backfields that possess the all-around skills needed to succeed in the NFL.
- 1st: Jonathan Taylor
- 2nd: Marlon Mack
- 3rd: Nyheim Hines
- 4th: Jordan Wilkins
Indianapolis is a team I fully expect to rank higher when we inevitably revisit this article, but for now I consider them just in the solid category.
Ultimately, since we can’t just assume 2nd-round pick Jonathan Taylor will become one of the upper-echelon backs before even taking a snap (though most are confident he will succeed), it comes down to what you think of Marlon Mack. To me, Mack is an NFL Starting caliber running-back but not necessarily a star. He simply is not enough of dominant force on the ground to make up for his relative lack of presence in the pass-game (averages 20 receptions per year over 3 seasons).
Otherwise, the depth players at the position are as good as you can ask for, with a receiving-back in Hines and an effective back-up in Wilkens.
It is a talented group that has plenty of potential.
- 1st: Devin Singletary
- 2nd: Zack Moss
- 3rd: T.J Yeldon
- 4th: Taiwan Jones
Buffalo might not have a star in their current group, but they should be comfortable with their backfield as it stands.
Singletary had a surprising rookie season, becoming the team’s starter by season’s end, displaying shiftiness to go along with receiving ability. He doesn’t really possess the break-away speed or dominant-power needed to join the elite but he is a nice player and capable starter going forward for the Bills.
The team is hoping to compliment him with Moss, a 3rd-round pick this spring who runs with a bit more power than his Buffalo teammate.
Lingering as the veteran in the room is Yeldon, a player who was sparely used last season but has had a decent career as a back that is a better receiver than runner. He could potentially play a bigger role in 2020.
- 1st: D’Andre Swift
- 2nd: Kerryon Johnson
- 3rd: Bo Scarbrough
- 4th: Jason Huntley
I love the Lions selection of Swift in this year’s 2nd-Round, with the Georgia product drawing comparisons to Saints Star Alvin Kamara. The problem is the same here as it is for Indianapolis, as we must place realistic expectations on rookie runners before we see them play. Therefore, we should consider the Lions’ rookie as an elite prospect, and add it to what they have in their proven options.
Johnson looked great at times during his first two seasons but durability is a serious concern with 14 out of 32 games missed over that span. Talent-wise, he could realistically ascend to a player of Joe Mixon’s caliber, but doesn’t yet have the health track-record.
The Lions do have a talented group on paper, but the results aren’t there to place them higher until we either see Swift or Johnson take a big-step.
- 1st: Leonard Fournette
- 2nd: Chris Thompson
- 3rd: Ryquell Armstead
- 4th: Devine Ozigbo
Jacksonville is one I struggled with, to tell you the truth.
Their lead-back, Fournette, quietly had the best season of his career in 2019, producing highs in rush (1152) and receiving yards (522). What really pops out is his huge spike in receptions, going from 22 in 2018, to 76 in 2019.
They also added Chris Thompson in Free Agency, a veteran receiving-back that spent his whole career previously in Washington. However, beyond Thompson, who has never truly been used as a rusher, the options to provide an impact in the run game are limited. They have a very similar backfield to Cincinnati, but the difference to me is that Giovani Bernard has a better track record as a rusher than Thompson, with both players being primarily receiving backs.
Fournette is perhaps the best back in this tier, but as a whole, Jacksonville lands here due to depth concerns.
- 1st: James Conner
- 2nd: Jaylen Samuels
- 3rd: Benny Snell Jr.
- 4th: Anthony McFarland Jr.
Pittsburgh has a good group that holds plenty of potential, but there are a few things that pull me back.
Conner is a productive player, when on the field. He battled injuries last season, missing six games, but when he was present, he was a difference-maker for the Steelers, who had terrible luck injury-wise overall in 2019. Still, Conner is not really the star some make him out to be after his breakout 2018 season, but rather a very solid starter with upside in the pass-game.
This leaves me to question if there is an elite talent in this group.
Samuels saw some action as a rusher last season but is primarily used as a receiver, while Snell wasn’t very efficient in his small sample size as a rookie.
A breakout could happen from anywhere in this group, including recent 4th-Round pick Anthony McFarland, who some were quite high on as a sleeper.
New York Jets
- 1st: Le’Veon Bell
- 2nd: Frank Gore
- 3rd: Josh Adams
- 4th: Kenneth Dixon
- *4th-Round Pick LaMichael Perine wasn’t included in this depth-chart for some reason
The Jets at a glance are one of those teams with one star running-back and question marks elsewhere.
Only, their star running-back in Bell struggled in his first season with the Jets after taking a year-off due to a contract dispute in Pittsburgh. When on top of his game–which was most recently 2017–Bell is one of the absolute-best backs in football, a game-changer for an offense as both an elite rusher and receiver. Last year, in a rough season, the running-back played behind a terrible offensive-line that has since been retooled. If he returns to that level, the Jets will unquestionably rise-up a tier.
The team also recently brought in the ageless Gore, who started off last season strong in Buffalo but drastically tailed off towards the end, finishing with a career-low 3.6 yards per carry. Still, he should be a good presence in the locker room in New York at the very least.
Adams, the listed 3rd-stringer, was once a popular waiver-wire pick-up in fantasy two years ago with the Eagles but disappeared last season in New York.
Dixon brings some experience to the table after spending some time in Baltimore while the Jets’ 4th-Round pick Perine, was surprisingly not listed among the top 4 backfield options on ESPN. He had plenty of production during his time at Florida, so he might be a dark-horse candidate to work his way into the rotation as a rookie.
New England Patriots
- 1st: Sony Michel
- 2nd: James White
- 3rd: Rex Burkhead
- 4th: Damien Harris
This isn’t the most talented group in the world but I love the chemistry of the Patriots’ backfield.
Michel leads the ground attack as an NFL caliber-starter over his first two seasons, though his lack of receiving-ability limits his ceiling.
Meanwhile, White is the complete opposite, becoming one of the NFL’s best receiving running-backs during his career while rarely being used as a rusher aside from the occasional change-up. Speaking of White, he has perhaps the most unheralded great performance in recent memory, with 14 receptions and 3 total touchdowns in Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons.
Adding a good compliment to White and Michel is Burkhead, who has always seemed to come up with key plays for the Patriots in recent years as both a rusher and receiver.
Ultimately, there isn’t a huge ceiling here with this group but all the components are there for consistent all-around production.
Los Angeles Chargers
- 1st: Austin Ekeler
- 2nd: Joshua Kelley
- 3rd: Justin Jackson
- 4th: Darius Bradwell
The Chargers have potentially three backs that could contribute in a significant way in 2020, but there isn’t enough proof to place them any higher.
It is hard not to love Ekeler, one of the best receivers playing the running-back position in today’s league, but he has rarely been asked to anchor the ground game for the Chargers, something he will have to do after the departure of Melvin Gordon. I believe he can do it, but for now we just don’t know if he can produce on the ground as the #1 option full-time.
That leads us to Kelley, the team’s 4th-Round pick out of UCLA who scouts were divided on, with some arguing he has no true elite skills and lacks the ability to make defenders miss.
Jackson has been a productive player when given the opportunity and could be this backfield’s answer in complimenting Ekeler. Don’t be surprised if Jackson ends up playing more than Kelley this season.
Overall, we are in wait-and-see mode for this group and it will be interesting to see if Ekeler succeeds as this offense’s unquestioned lead-back.
- 1st: Matt Breida
- 2nd: Jordan Howard
- 3rd: Patrick Laird
- 4th: Kalen Ballage
Miami underwent a complete overhaul this offseason of their depth-chart at running-back after finishing dead-last in rushing in 2019. To fix this, they opted for experienced options in Breida and Howard.
Breida, the third-member of the 49ers three-headed rushing attack in 2019, gets a great opportunity to become “the guy” after being very productive in a rotational role the past few seasons. It will be interesting to see if Breida, who averages 5 yards per carry for his career, can become a legitimate full-time starting-back.
He won’t be alone with the veteran Howard joining him. A down-hill, physical runner, Howard spent his fourth NFL season in Philadelphia, where he added over 500 rushing yards and 7 total touchdowns. Howard isn’t a threat to hit long-runs–his longest carry last season was 20 yards–but he’s been incredibly consistent and is a good runner to have in the red-zone, as evidence by his 32 career touchdowns.
Laird and Bellage are holdovers from last season, when they saw little playing time.
Overall, I feel very comfortable about the floor of this group but I have questions about their ceiling, so this tier feels about right for now.
Kansas City Chiefs
- 1st: Clyde Edwards-Helaire
- 2nd: Damien Williams
- 3rd: Darwin Thompson
- 4th: Darrel Williams
Production wise, Kansas City has the worst group in this tier, but hear me out.
Edwards-Helaire, the Chiefs 1st-Round pick, is a player with an extremely versatile skill-set showcased at LSU, and Coach Andy Reid should be able to find a healthy role for him right away to have some success in his rookie season.
Incumbent starter Damien Williams didn’t produce eye-popping rushing numbers last season but that is largely due to Kansas City’s pass-heavy style of play, as he was efficient when he did receive carries (4.5 YPC). Additionally, he played a significant role during the team’s playoff run this past winter, especially in the Super Bowl.
Ultimately, it may be up to these two backs to carry the load, but I think Edwards-Helaire and Williams will have very productive seasons, enough to earn Kansas City a spot in this tier.
- 1st: Chris Carson
- 2nd: Rashaad Penny
- 3rd: Travis Homer
- 4th: DeeJay Dallas
- UPDATE: Seattle has signed Carlos Hyde
A last minute change during the editing for this one, with Seattle moving up a tier after the signing of Hyde, who gives the Seahawks a day-one starter for next season.
Everyone has players they value higher than most people, and Hyde has always been one of those players for me. I’ve always thought he was an extremely consistent running-back when given opportunities and he sure was that for Houston in 2019, where he broke the 1000-yard plateau for the first time. He isn’t an explosive runner by any means but a steady one this offense needs given their serious questions elsewhere following a rash of injuries at the position last season. He anchored a Houston rushing-attack that finished first in converting short yardage situations last season (runs a yard or less to the first down).
Carson, who had become one of the better starters in the league, suffered a hip fracture near the end of last season, leaving the outlook of his career in doubt.
Similar story with Penny, a former 1st-rounder in 2018 who was trending towards bust-territory before having a series of breakout games in 2019. Unfortunately, in the midst of this breakout, he suffered a torn ACL, which can still seriously alter the careers of NFL running-backs despite tremendous improvements in medicine over the years.
Homer was forced into action after the injuries to Carson and Perry last year, and just never had the feel of a legitimate NFL contributor, despite some gutty performances.
There are more questions here than with other teams in the tier but the addition of Hyde gives the team a starting runner for next season with other options up in the air.
Some teams simply have too many questions to join the above tiers. The main reason that teams find themselves this low is that there isn’t a clear-cut starting caliber back on their roster. Often, they don’t have proven complimentary options, either.
- 1st: Todd Gurley
- 2nd: Ito Smith
- 3rd: Brian Hill
- 4th: Qadree Ollison
Atlanta’s backfield has plenty of question marks.
I have written previously about the mystery that surrounds Gurley heading into next season–check that one out here: https://husseyshuddle.xyz/?p=58–as the question needs to be asked about whether or not he still is an NFL starting-caliber running-back, considering his “decline” due to health reasons in 2019. When he is on, which was as recently as 2018, Gurley is one of the true game-changing backs in football in all facets. Here’s hoping he rebounds from a rough 2019.
Atlanta however, has other concerns. Smith hasn’t been able to steal carries from a declining Devonta Freeman the past few seasons, something that worries me. Hill was slightly more productive than Smith last season, but is still an unproven option at the NFL-level.
Ultimately, there are too many questions to justify ranking higher.
- 1st: David Montgomery
- 2nd: Tarik Cohen
- 3rd: Ryan Nall
- 4th: N/A
I’ll be honest, the Bears could have been placed lower.
What saves them is Cohen, listed as the 2nd-string on ESPN. While not a good rusher in any sense, he is vital to Chicago’s passing game as one of the best receivers in the league at the position.
The listed starter, Montgomery, is coming off an inconsistent rookie season where he rushed for a good amount of yards (889) but on not-so-good efficiency (3.7 YPC). We have seen plenty of backs breakout in their second NFL season, and this very well could be Montgomery this year. However, at the moment, it is hard to say he’s a plug-and-play every-down back, which is concerning considering the team’s limited depth at the position.
- 1st: Miles Sanders
- 2nd: Boston Scott
- 3rd: Corey Clement
- 4th: Elijah Holyfield
Philadelphia has a similar backfield to Buffalo, with a talented second-year back in Sanders, but has more questionable complimentary options.
Let’s start with Sanders, who is coming off a very good rookie season in both the rushing and receiving game. He surged towards the end of last season, and added a much-needed explosive element to an otherwise-slow Philly offense. The question with Sanders is, like his fellow sophomore Devin Singletary, if there was enough consistency displayed to declare him a viable every-down option now that Jordan Howard is playing elsewhere.
I actually like Sanders’ potential more than Singletary, but I don’t believe that the Eagle’s back-ups give the team much room for error. Back-up Boston Scott had a few nice moments last year and even found the end-zone 5 times, but on a very limited sample size.
I don’t know what happened to Clement, who once played a role in Philadelphia’s Super Bowl LII victory two seasons ago and didn’t even receive a single touch last season.
While I like Sanders, I don’t like the rest of the team’s options to spell him when he needs the breather that he might need from time to time.
- 1st: David Johnson
- 2nd: Duke Johnson
- 3rd: Buddy Howell
- 4th: Karan Higdon
Texans Coach Bill O’Brien brought it back to 2016 when he traded star wide-out DeAndre Hopkins for David Johnson this offseason, a move that shocked the football world.
David Johnson was once one of the best the league as a do-it-all weapon for the Cardinals but has declined rapidly, perhaps due to injuries suffered in 2017 and 2018. Last year in Arizona, David Johnson had dropped to a level so low that he was eventually relegated to distant-back-up duty behind mid-season addition Kenyan Drake. Clearly, the Texans think David Johnson still has some of that elite ability, as he is currently the best every-down option on the depth-chart.
His projected back-up, Duke Johnson, saw a role increase last season after coming over from Cleveland, but is still best deployed in a receiving role.
Beyond that, the rest of the depth-chart is anyone’s guess. I avoid putting Houston in the last tier as David Johnson is still 28 and could still re-emerge in a new setting, and because I like what Duke Johnson brings to the table as a receiver. Still, there are legitimate doubts.
- 1st: Kenyan Drake
- 2nd: Chase Edmonds
- 3rd: Eno Benjamin
- 4th: D.J Foster
Arizona has an intriguing group, but I do have questions.
Drake is a good player that has always produced at a good yards per carry average, but has never truly had the volume of a #1 running-back until he hit Arizona mid-way through last season. Arizona wisely placed the franchise tag on Drake this offseason to see if he can replicate his strong play following last season’s trade. It is the make-or-break season of his career in 2020.
Elsewhere, Edmonds has been in Arizona for two seasons in which he has provided good bang-for-buck on limited carries (60 attempts last season).
Many scouts liked Benjamin going into the draft and were surprised he fell all the way to the 7th-Round, so he is a player to keep an eye on if nothing else.
This one comes down to what you think of Drake as a #1 option. To me, the sample size of last season is so far too small to consider him an all-around starter in the NFL, given how we have three-plus seasons of prior data of him failing to take a stranglehold of Miami’s backfield situation. This is where I remind everyone that the teams within a tier are not listed in order, as I do think Arizona’s group has more potential than others listed under questionable.
For some teams, there just seems to be something wrong with how their whole running-back room is put together. On these teams, there simply doesn’t seem to be much hope for potential growth for the existing options.
Los Angeles Rams
- 1st: Darrell Henderson
- 2nd: Cam Akers
- 3rd: Malcolm Brown
- 4th: John Kelly
There isn’t much positive to say about this group as it currently stands.
Henderson really struggled to get into the running-back rotation last season behind a struggling Todd Gurley, receiving only 39 carries to go along with 4 receptions. If he has talent to play a significant role, we have yet to see it.
Akers was selected in the 2nd-Round, which I thought was a tad too-high since that is usually reserved for can’t miss-RB prospects. Still, he has talent, and is probably the day-one starter for this group despite being listed as the back-up here. Since we are tempering expectations for rookies, that doesn’t help the Rams drastically on this list.
The veteran option here is Brown, a five-year player who has been the Rams primary back-up to Todd Gurley. He isn’t a terrible back-up option, but provides no versatility (20 career receptions).
Overall, if we aren’t making wild predictions about Akers’ rookie season, there isn’t enough tangible evidence to push the Rams farther up this list.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- 1st: Ronald Jones III
- 2nd: Ke’Shawn Vaughan
- 3rd: Dare Ogunbowale
- 4th: Raymond Calais
I’ve spoke at lengths during this article about the need for versatility in a team’s running-back group but it cannot be understated in the case of Tampa Bay, who brought in Tom Brady this offseason at quarterback.
Name any Patriots team Brady was a part of and you will always find a running-back who was an above-average receiver, whether that be the days of Kevin Faulk, the early 2010s with Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead, and most recently with James White, the legend has always had a more than capable receiver to check the ball down to. In Tampa, there doesn’t look there is one, at least not yet.
Jones had a decent second season after a dreadful opening campaign, but even though he produced 30 receptions last season, to me he just doesn’t have the wiggle in and out of his cuts to be a go-to receiving back for Brady. In addition, there are serious questions if he can anchor the ground game.
Next up is Vaughan, a player the Bucs recently selected in the 3rd-Round out of Vanderbilt. Some scouts describe him as a player that is strong running down-hill but struggles with elusiveness, which is typically a trait of NFL pass-catching backs. Still, he should be in line for a significant role behind the questionable Jones.
Ogunbowale was used in a receiving role last season but is hard to use in a consistent role due to his limitations as a runner. It is a tad too predictable when he is in the game.
Overall, this group would concern me in terms of their versatility needed to play alongside Brady.
- 1st: Derrius Guice
- 2nd: Adrian Peterson
- 3rd: Antonio Gibson
- 4th: J.D McKissic
Washington has one of the most unique backfield situations in the league.
Guice, a former 2nd-Round pick in 2018, has had one of the more unfortunate NFL careers thus far, missing all of his rookie season with an ACL tear suffered in his first preseason game, then returning last season for 5 games before suffering another season-ending injury in the same knee. We hope the best for his career, but it is probably best to throw all expectations out the window for now.
Peterson, the “back-up”, is an NFL legend still doing his thing at 34 years-old, having another season of solid production on the ground in 2019. Despite this, it is fair to wonder if the future Hall of Famer will drop-off anytime now given he is at an ancient age for an NFL running-back. Even still, Peterson has never really been much of a pass-game contributor, another thing this offense is seriously lacking after the offseason departure of Chris Thompson.
Perhaps Gibson, a 3rd-Round pick out of Memphis, will fill that role, but he also featured as a wide-receiver in college so we aren’t even sure if he will become a running-back full-time.
On the whole, with all due respect to Peterson, Washington’s backfield has concerns that range from health to age to versatility, placing them in our bottom-tier.
Thanks for reading!
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