Ranking the NFL’s Top 10 Running Backs

Top Running Backs

The start of the NFL season is right around the corner, with training camps for some teams less than a week away. To commemorate the unofficial start of football season, Last Word on NFL is taking a look at the top 10 running backs heading into the season. Note that this list is based on actual NFL talent – this is not a fantasy football ranking. We have plenty of those already.

The NFL’s Top 10 Running Backs Entering 2021

10. Kareem Hunt

Through the first two years of his career, Kareem Hunt looked like he was on pace to be a perennial top-five running back. The Toledo product led the league in rushing as a rookie while demonstrating an ability to be a key part of the passing attack. However, after his release and subsequent signing by the Cleveland Browns, Hunt has been second-fiddle in the NFL’s best running back duo. While the volume stats aren’t what they used to be, there’s no doubt that Hunt is still one of the most talented all-around backs in the league.

9. Ezekiel Elliott

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott makes this list because of who he can be, rather than who he was in 2020. The former first-round pick had a disappointing season, fumbling the ball six times while averaging just four yards per carry. He lacked his usual burst, but hopefully, a full offseason to recover from COVID-19 combined with the return of Dak Prescott is all he needs to return to his old self.

8. Austin Ekeler

Austin Ekeler is not a top-10 runner, but his ability in the passing game earns him a spot on this list. Arguably the best route runner in the league (among running backs), Ekeler is one of the rare backs that can actually line up in the slot and get open against cornerbacks, safeties, and linebackers alike. He is absolutely unstoppable on screens and short routes and has the highest PFF receiving grade among running backs over the past two seasons by a comfortable margin. Additionally, while he doesn’t set the world on fire between the tackles, he is still a solid runner.

7. Aaron Jones

Aaron Jones looked like an absolute stud during the first two years of his career, but Mike McCarthy never gave him a full-time role. That changed when Matt LaFleur came to town, and Jones proved that he can still be efficient with a 200+ touch workload. Jones is simply impossible to bring down on first contact, and his ability as a receiver will make life a lot easier for whoever ends up starting in Green Bay. He’s dangerous in the red zone and does just about everything you’d want to see out of your starting running back.

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6. Saquon Barkley

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley has the raw ability to make me look like an idiot for putting him this low on the list. At his best, the former second-overall pick is the most explosive running back in the league and a top-three player at his position. However, we haven’t seen Barkley at his best since his rookie season. Following two consecutive injury-plagued campaigns, Barkley needs to prove that he still has that amazing burst and explosiveness.

5. Dalvin Cook

Running backs are largely a product of their offensive line, but Dalvin Cook somehow finds a way to consistently outperform his blocking. Minnesota isn’t exactly known for its elite blocking, yet Cook remains one of the most efficient runners in the league. Blessed with elite vision, the former second-round pick has the speed to blow past anyone in the open field and has some of the best hands at the position.

4. Derrick Henry

It’s hard to be a top-five running back in today’s NFL without catching the football. Derrick Henry is not a factor in the passing game, but he’s so good as a runner that it doesn’t matter. At 6’-3” and 247 pounds, Henry is perhaps the most ferocious runner in the league with the size and strength to knock over any poor soul trying to tackle him. Famous for his violent rushes and stiff arms, Henry has led the NFL in rushing in each of the past two seasons. As long as he stays healthy, he’s a good bet to do it again in 2021.

3. Nick Chubb

Based on rushing ability alone, Nick Chubb would probably be the first name on this list. The former second-round pick started his career behind Carlos Hyde but has been an absolutely unstoppable force of nature since earning the starting job. Literally nobody has broken more tackles than Chubb since 2019, and he also possesses the speed to make big plays in the open field. While Kareem Hunt is the better receiver, Chubb is still an above-average pass catcher.

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2. Christian McCaffrey

I wouldn’t argue too hard against anyone that wanted to put Christian McCaffrey at the top spot on this list. When on the field, McCaffrey IS the Carolina Panthers offense. Nobody else comes close to handling his type of workload in both the passing and running game, and not many running backs could do what he can with those opportunities. Carolina’s offensive line is one of the worst in the league, and McCaffrey’s quarterbacks haven’t exactly lit the world on fire. This inconsistent supporting cast only makes McCaffrey’s success all the more impressive.

1. Alvin Kamara

What Alvin Kamara does on a football field should not be possible. The New Orleans Saints running back is the most elusive running back in the NFL, as linebackers, defensive linemen, and defensive backs alike simply don’t have the lateral agility required to catch Kamara in the open field. Arguably the NFL’s best receiving back, Kamara kept New Orleans’ passing game alive last year when Michael Thomas went down. Running back targets are generally less efficient than targets to receivers and tight ends, but Kamara is literally the only back that breaks this trend. He currently averages over 2 yards per route throughout his career, which is simply unheard of from his position.

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