Running backs have never lost their great value to NFL offenses. They have just started to dominate in modern ways.
Whether a power running game to set up favorable downfield play-action opportunities or dynamic receiving roles, the NFL’s best backs do plenty to facilitate the current league-wide passing boom. The old adage goes “pass to score, run to win”, but when it comes to the top players at the position, they also are major factors in the vice versa.
From a reality football perspective while considering recent stats and performance along with upcoming season upside, here are our top 30 running backs, ranked for the 2021 NFL season.
NFL running back rankings 2021
1. Christian McCaffrey, Panthers (5-11, 205 pounds)
CMC keeps his top spot going into his fifth season at age 25, despite a 2020 in which he played only 3 games thanks to a brutal combination of ankle, quad and shoulder injuries. But back to full health in 2021, there should be high expectations for him to dominate as a Marshall Faulk-like dual threat again given Joe Brady has big plans for him to remain the centerpiece of the offense. He should be considered more position-less as the NFL’s ultimate offensive weapon.
2019 stats: 287 carries, 1,387 rushing yards, 4.8 yards per carry, 116 receptions on 142 targets, 1,005 receiving yards, 19 total TDs
2. Dalvin Cook, Vikings (5-11, 210 pounds)
Cook is also 25, having gone in the second round in the same 2017 draft in which McCaffrey was selected No. 8 overall. The former Florida State standout has thrived more as a runner in Minnesota’s premier zone blocking scheme. Cook is a top-notch receiver when not pounding between the tackles and finishing drives. He has fought off some early injury issues to be a durable workhorse. Cook is the cog who makes everything go in the Vikings offense, helping Kirk Cousins deliver his most efficient downfield passing.
2020 stats: 312 carries, 1,557 rushing yards, 5.0 yards per carry, 44 receptions on 54 targets, 361 receiving yards, 17 total TDS
3. Derrick Henry, Titans (6-3, 247 pounds)
Henry, at 27, is a throwback to the days of dominant big-framed backs. He has won two straight rushing titles with the highest volume in the league. The Titans’ explosive offense is predicated on him rumbling for chunks of yardage, down to Ryan Tannehill’s resurgence via play-action passing. Henry is a little behind McCaffrey and Cook for the limited receiving element, but in terms of pure running he’s the unquestioned No. 1.
2020 stats: 378 carries, 2,027 rushing yards, 5.4 yards per carry, 19 receptions on 31 targets, 114 receiving yards, 17 total TDs
4. Alvin Kamara, Saints (5-10, 215 pounds)
Kamara entered the league as a special receiver for the position in 2017, but he’s kept that dynamic part of his game while also improving as power runner, getting the right volume to keep him fresh in a New Orleans offense built for his skill set. The Saints should lean even more on the 26-year-old post Drew Brees. Kamara does more gliding than running when he’s shooting out of the backfield or catching passes.
2020 stats: 187 carries, 932 rushing yards, 5.0 yards per carry, 83 receptions on 107 targets, 756 receiving yards, 21 total TDs
5. Aaron Jones, Packers (5-9, 208 pounds)
The 26-year-old has gone from potential change-of-pace back to chunk-running workhorse. With big new contract in hand, Jones should build on his explosiveness when either running inside or outside and remain a key target for Aaron Rodgers. Jones maximizes his multiple gears with Kamara-like smoothness that translates well to the passing game.
2020 stats: 201 carries, 1,104 rushing yards, 5.5 yards per carry, 47 receptions on 63 targets, 355 receiving yards, 11 total TDs
6. Nick Chubb, Browns (5-11, 227 pounds)
Chubb and receiving-heavy back Kareem Hunt are the catalysts for the Browns’ more balanced attack under Kevin Stefanski. Chubb has a good combination of burst and power, capable of both reeling off long runs and getting the tough extra yards inside. He would have had a monster 2020 had he not missed four games because of a knee sprain. Chubb should be more relaxed to be healthier and more productive in 2021 now that he no longer needs to worry about a contract extension.
2020 stats: 190 carries, 1,067 rushing yards, 5.6 yards per carry, 16 receptions on 18 targets, 150 receiving yards, 12 total TDs
7. Saquon Barkley, Giants (5-11, 233 pounds)
Barkley, at only 24, is already facing a key crossroads season. The No. 2 overall pick from 2018 still has the massive elite potential he showed as a workhorse rookie, but with big past mileage from Penn State, he must prove he’s durable enough to carry the load. Barkley was hampered for a good part of 2019, but 2020 was totally wiped out by a torn ACL suffered in the second game against the Bears. The Giants did add plenty of receiving help to try to lift Daniel Jones, but Barkley needs to find his best self again for the offense to meet turnaround expectations.
2019 stats: 217 carries, 1,003 rushing yards, 4.6 yards per carry, 52 receptions on 73 targets, 438 receiving yards, 8 total TDs
8. Austin Ekeler, Chargers (5-10, 200 pounds)
Ekeler ranked this high at age 26 is a reminder of how much a back’s receiving prowess should be factored into his overall value. He was limited to only 10 games with a hamstring injury last season, but he remained highly efficient as a runner and a trusted receiver for Justin Herbert. While former coach Anthony Lynn was smart to recognize Ekeler’s versatile skill set, new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi can push Ekeler to a Kamara-like all-around level in 2021.
2020 stats: 116 carries, 530 rushing yards, 4.6 yards per carry, 54 receptions on 65 targets, 403 receiving yards, 3 total TDs
9. Jonathan Taylor, Colts (5-10, 226 pounds)
Taylor, 22, took off as a workhorse down the stretch of his rookie season after the Colts took a while to trust him with the all-out feature role he had during his stellar career at Wisconsin. He can do a little bit of everything well with his power and shiftiness. Taylor also benefits from a good offensive system fronted by a sturdy line. Look for him to build on his second half for his second season under Frank Reich, key to helping taking pressure off the QB, who may not be Carson Wentz for a while.
2020 stats: 232 carries, 1,169 rushing yards, 5.0 yards per carry, 36 receptions on 39 targets, 299 receiving yards, 12 total TDs
10. Josh Jacobs, Raiders (5-10, 220 pounds)
The Raiders don’t seem to know exactly what they have in the 23-year-old going into his third season as the No. 24 overall pick in 2019. They have been reluctant to use Jacobs’ all-around game like they should and he has gotten limited line support while trying to squeeze every available rushing yard. He’s been underused as a receiver, too, to the point Las Vegas officials felt like they needed to spend good free-agent money on another Alabama back, Kenyan Drake. Jacobs remains well above solid despite his team limiting him, worthy enough to round out the top 10.
2020 stats: 273 carries, 1,065 rushing yards, 3.9 yards per carry, 33 receptions on 45 targets, 238 receiving yards, 12 total TDs
11. David Montgomery, Bears (5-10, 222 pounds)
The 24-year-old was a bit over-hyped as a rookie in 2019 because there were still little things he needed to do to round out his game, including quicker hitting of holes and better shape for workhorse duty. With help from improved line play, Montgomery found his groove as a sophomore for an offense that desperately needed him to carry it on its back toward the NFC playoffs. Compared early to a new Kareem Hunt on the field for Matt Nagy, Montgomery also lived up to his big potential in the passing game.
2020 stats: 247 carries, 1,070 rushing yards, 4.3 yards per carry, 54 receptions on 68 targets, 438 receiving yards, 10 total TDs
12. Antonio Gibson, Washington (6-2, 220 pounds)
Gibson is set up for a big second season at age 23. Ron Rivera and Scott Turner have teased that they want to use Gibson like they did McCaffrey in Carolina because of his special combination of power running and dynamic receiving. He should see more of a featured role, shaking off a late toe injury as a rookie. Gibson has a fighting chance to crack the top 10 ahead of 2022.
2020 stats: 170 carries, 790 rushing yards, 4.7 yards per carry, 36 receptions on 44 targets, 247 receiving yards, 11 total TDs.
13. Najee Harris, Steelers (6-1, 232 pounds)
This might be a conservative ranking for what the first-round 23-year-old can do as a rookie. He was a much-needed durable workhorse for the Steelers as they also needed to make the rushing attack the centerpiece of the new-look offense with Ben Roethlisberger wearing down. Harris has a strong upper body and tree trunks for legs to handle between the tackles pounding, but he also is super shifty to be an impact receiver. The eye-popping numbers in college hint at crazy upside, into which Harris will immediately tap..
2020 stats (at Alabama): 251 carries, 1,466 rushing yards, 5.8 yards per carry, 26 receptions on 43 targets, 425 receiving yards, 30 total TDs
14. Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys (6-0, 228 pounds)
Why is Elliott, still only 26, this far outside of the top 10 despite his strong body of work? First, consider how stacked that above group of young and prime backs talent-wise. Second, when Elliott was needed to lift the offense sans Dak Prescott in 2020, he faded, and the offensive line wasn’t as big of a culprit. The past volume has gotten to him a bit and he had less impact as the same busy pass-catcher. That said, Elliott with his consistent positive yardage push, can rebound closer to familiar form with Prescott back. No one should be surprised, however, if his best remains in the past.
2020 stats: 244 carries, 979 rushing yards, 4.0 yards per carry, 52 receptions on 71 targets, 338 receiving yards, 8 total TDs
15. Chris Carson, Seahawks (5-11, 222 pounds)
Carson, who turns 27 in September, has one key thing missing from his game: Reliable availability. In three seasons of solid production, he has yet to play all 16 games. But when he’s on the field in what has been a run-heavy Seahawks approach to set up Russell Wilson well in the downfield passing game, Carson has been a chunk runner, good finisher and improving receiver. Carson was re-signed because he can mask some of the continued line issues. He also become a bigger factor catching passes for new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron.
2020 stats: 141 carries, 681 rushing yards, 4.8 yards per carry, 37 receptions on 46 targets, 287 receiving yards, 9 total TDs
16. Kareem Hunt, Browns (5-11, 216 pounds)
Hunt became more than the receiving complement to Chubb with the arrival of Stefanski last season, increasing the overall success of the offense given Chubb had to miss time. The former Chiefs young feature back, who turns 26 in August, has made the most of his second chance on the field, giving Cleveland the NFL’s best backfield duo. Hunt has a good blend of quickness, power and patience when running along with his standout receiving skills.
2020 stats: 198 carries, 841 rushing yards, 4.2 yards per carry, 38 receptions on 51 targets, 304 receiving yards, 11 total TDs
17. J.K. Dobbins, Ravens (5-9, 209 pounds)
Dobbins was a bit of a luxury second-rounder in the 2020 draft, but now the 22-year-old is an essential part of Baltimore’s offense, leading a two-man committee in front of sturdy power back Gus Edwards. The Ravens slow-played Dobbins as a rookie when Mark Ingram was still in the mix, but Greg Roman had no choice but to embrace Dobbins’ dynamic running late. Dobbins’ rushing style also plays well off Lamar Jackson’s super athleticism. Expect Dobbins do a lot more damage with 250-plus touches.
2020 stats: 134 carries, 805 rushing yards, 6.0 yards per carry, 18 receptions on 24 targets, 120 receiving yards, 9 total TDs.
18. Miles Sanders, Eagles (5-11, 211 pounds)
Sanders is a curious case, because his limited usage in his second season didn’t match his production potential. The 24-year-old will hope a change in offense with Nick Sirianni (Colts) and Shane Steichen (Chargers) will get him to tap into a winning featured combination of Taylor and Ekeler. Look for Sanders’ receiving role to be more dedicated, but the team has intriguing depth behind him to think he won’t completely dominate rushing and passing down work.
2020 stats: 164 carries, 867 rushing yards, 5.3 yards per carry, 28 receptions on 52 targets, 197 receiving yards, 6 total TDs
19. Joe Mixon, Bengals (6-1, 220 pounds)
Mixon didn’t get a lot of breaks last season on top of him being limited to 6 games because of a foot injury, adding to the knee and ankle injuries in the past of his four-year career. The offensive line didn’t deliver strong run blocking and Joe Burrow going down dragged down the entire offense further. Mixon, who just turned 25, did have a spike in 2018 to suggest he could leap into the upper echelon, but his other three seasons have been inefficient. He has the classic well-rounded talent to put it all together again, but there are some mixed messages about his usage in a higher-volume passing offense when considering his past durability issues. As the clear top option, he needs to make the most of his big touches.
2020 stats: 119 carries, 428 rushing yards, 3.6 yards per carry, 21 receptions on 26 targets, 138 receiving yards, 4 total TDs
20. James Robinson, Jaguars (5-10, 220 pounds)
Robinson’s reward for a historic season as an undrafted rookie was the team using a first-round draft pick on Clemson’s Travis Etienne. Robinson, who turns 23 in August, still deserves to be a big part of the offense under Urban Meyer, Darrell Bevell and Brian Schottenhiemer. All signs point to the Jaguars trying to be run-heavy to take pressure off rookie No. 1 overall pick QB Trevor Lawrence and a rebuilding defense. That would make sense, with Robinson getting the key early-down work and Etienne starting as a Kamara-like change of pace. Bevell shouldn’t shy away from trusting Robinson’s combination of power and inside shiftiness often.
2020 stats: 240 carries, 1,070 rushing yards, 4.5 yards per carry, 49 receptions on 60 targets, 344 receiving yards, 10 total TDs
21. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Chiefs (5-7, 207 pounds)
Edwards-Helaire fell short of high expectations as a rookie because of limited early usage and a late ankle injury. Look for the Chiefs to trust the 22-year-old more in passing situations in Year 2 to maximize his receiving strengths as an outlet for Patrick Mahomes. Even though want to keep him fresh with his smaller frame, revamping the run blocking should help Edwards-Helaire also be more efficient inside and outside with closer to 20 touches per game.
2020 stats: 181 carries, 803 rushing yards, 4.4 yards per carry, 36 receptions on 54 targets, 297 receiving yards, 5 total TDs
22. D’Andre Swift, Lions (5-8, 212 pounds)
Swift, like Taylor had to wait a little before taking over a backfield as second-round rookie with power and burst. With the influence of new offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, the latest successful Georgia back in the NFL will also get to show off more of his Ekeler- and Kamara-ness. The Lions also need to lean on him running more to support Jared Goff. Consider Swift, also 22, to be in a virtual tie with Edwards-Heiaire in terms of second-year boost.
2020 stats: 114 carries, 541 rushing yards, 4.6 yards per carry, 46 receptions on 57 targets, 357 receiving yards, 10 total TDs
23. Ronald Jones, Buccaneers (5-11, 208 pounds)
Leonard Fournette is the big-name headliner in Tampa Bay’s backfield, but Jones, who turns 24 in August, is the one who revved up its running game most for Tom Brady in 2020. Jones ran with aggressive and explosiveness, rising to the challenge of Bruce Arians’ coaching staff. He deserves more attention for being a Chubb-like lead committee back.
2020 stats: 192 carries, 978 rushing yards, 5.1 yards per carry, 28 receptions on 42 targets, 165 receiving yards, 8 total TDs
24. Melvin Gordon, Broncos (6-1, 215 pounds)
Gordon had seemed to be slowing down with the Chargers but was rejuvenated a bit by a good running scheme with division rival Denver. The 28-year-old first-rounder from 2015 goes into his seventh season with uncertainty about his role, however, with the second-round drafting of Javonte Williams. Gordon still will be valuable with his passing down work as a blocker and receiver, but Williams looks primed to usurp his true feature duties.
2020 stats: 215 carries, 986 rushing yards, 4.6 yards per carry, 32 receptions on 44 targets, 158 receiving yards, 10 total TDs
25. Kenyan Drake, Raiders (6-1, 211 pounds)
Drake, 27, has an identity crisis from his time in Miami and Arizona as he transitions to Las Vegas, his third team in only six seasons. He’s gotten some feature back work, stood out as a pure power runner and excelled as a change-of-pace receiver. He is looking at a hybrid role behind Jacobs earmarked more for the passing game, throwing back to his start with the Dolphins. Versatility in doing whatever his team wants remains his calling card.
2020 stats (with Cardinals): 239 carries, 955 rushing yards, 4.0 yards per carry, 25 receptions on 31 targets, 137 receiving yards, 10 total TDs.
26. Javonte Williams, Broncos (5-10, 212 pounds)
The 21-year-old provided a great one-two punch with Jets rookie Michael Carter at North Carolina. He’s a rock of a power back to get the tough yards between the tackles but his burst and speed are underrated and his receiving skills are still developing. Williams is more of a steady chunk back than home-run hitter, setting up him to be a strong, heavier-usage complement to Gordon.
2020 stats (at North Carolina): 157 carries, 1,140 rushing yards, 7.3 yards per carry, 25 receptions, 305 receiving yards, 22 total TDs.
27. Travis Etienne, Jaguars (5-10, 215 pounds)
This 22-year-old first-rounder was a surprise first-round pick for Jacksonville, but the team envisioned him picking up where he left off as a versatile cog for Lawrence, his college QB. He saw a lot of work with three big finishing seasons for Clemson, emerging as a complete back with special receiving skills. The Kamara types have been a theme of these rankings, and Etienne can form a formidable duo with Robinson.
2020 stats (at Clemson): 168 carries, 914 rushing yards, 5.4 yards per carry, 48 receptions, 588 receiving yards, 16 total TDs.
28. Chase Edmonds, Cardinals (5-9, 210 pounds)
The Cardinals saw a little bit of David Johnson when they drafted Edmonds and he quickly become the preferred receiving back of choice for Kliff Kingsbury over Johnson and Drake. There’s faith Edmonds can also stay effective running with around 20 touches per game. His dynamic versatility better complements Kyler Murray than newcomer James Conner. Edmonds, 25, has high upside if he can stay durable with more than double the work.
2020 stats: 97 carries, 448 rushing yards, 4.6 yards per carry, 53 receptions on 67 targets, 402 receiving yards, 5 total TDs
29. Raheem Mostert, 49ers (5-10, 197 pounds)
When on the field the past two seasons, the 29-year old journeyman who played for four teams before the 49ers, has been a savior for their running game with his pure speed and quickness made to thrive in Kyle Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme. Although Mostert has proved to the team he could be a lot more than core special teamer, the durability issues have been significant to the point of keeping this efficient runner from being higher on the list. Mostert is bound to further cede work to Jeff Wilson Jr. and rookie Trey Sermon this season.
2020 stats: 104 carries, 521 rushing yards, 5.0 yards per carry, 16 receptions on 19 targets, 156 receiving yards, 3 total TDs.
30. Myles Gaskin, Dolphins (5-10, 200 pounds)
Had the Rams’ Cam Akers not ruptured his Achilles’ ahead of a promising second season, he would have been in the mid-teens on these rankings. But Akers’ injury-related exclusion allowed Gaskin to make the cut. Gaskin, a 24-year-old seventh-rounder from 2019, has produced enough in only 17 games to convince the Dolphins to give him a crack as the feature back. He will handle all of the receiving work and provides more a lot more versatile juice than new power backup Malcolm Brown.
2020 stats: 142 carries, 584 rushing yards, 4.1 yards per carry, 41 receptions on 47 targets, 388 receiving yards, 5 total TDs