Many people nowadays declare the NFL to be a passing league, given the rule changes and offensive schemes that tend to reward throwing the ball down field. But the running back position is still one of the most crucial positions on the field because a solid running game can open so many more options in the passing game. While it's true that finding a franchise quarterback can mask many running game deficiencies (just look at Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers this season), there is no substitute for a truly talented runner who can carry the team and control the pace of the game.
This list looks at the current starting running backs for each NFL roster (these are the running backs that either started the most games in 2016 or finished the season as #1 on the depth chart). It takes into account their statistics, both career and what they achieved in 2016, to determine the true rank of each team's starting running back. Fortunately for many of the lower ranked teams, running back appears to be a position in which it is possible to find late round gems. In fact, many of the names listed in the top 15 of this list were not first round draft picks.
This ranking also considers the fact that the league has transitioned to more of a passing league and boost players who have the dual threat (rushing/receiving) ability that allows them to be a true three down back in today's NFL. Without further ado, here is the current ranking of each NFL team's starting running back.
32 32. Zach Zenner - Detroit Lions
While it is highly likely that Ameer Abdullah is given the opportunity to regain his starting running back position once his regains his health during the offseason, he’s going to face stiff competition from current starter Zach Zenner. Zenner was recently declared to be the “best white running back in the NFL” by the Seattle Seahawks outspoken defensive linemen Michael Bennett. As entertaining, or insulting, as that statement may be, it does have some truth to it.
31 31. Terrance West - Baltimore Ravens
Sometimes teams just need a player to run the ball just to keep a defense honest. That was the case in Baltimore in 2016, when Terrance West was appointed as the starting running back for the Ravens despite never showing much production in his career. West was solid, albeit uninspiring, as he finished the season with 774 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns. In fairness to West, the Ravens offensive line failed to consistently open-up any running lanes for 5’10”, 225-pound bowling ball.
30 30. Devontae Booker - Denver Broncos
The Broncos running back situation was a mess in 2016, reaching such a low point that they were forced to start over-the-hill veteran Justin Forsett as they fought for a playoff spot down the stretch. Devontae Booker, the Broncos' rookie second round draft selection, came into the season with a lot of hype and for good reason. Booker was a stud while in college, rushing for over 2,700 yards and 22 touchdowns during his two seasons at Utah.
29 29. Ty Montgomery, Green Bay Packers
This season was supposed to be Eddie Lacy's redemption year. In 2015, Lacy failed to live up to expectations because of serious weight gain/stamina issues. Entering 2016, Lacey had shed his excess weight and was back to his ideal size that allows him to bully opposing defenders, while also having quick feet to jet through small holes in the offensive line. Lacy was dependable to start the season but unfortunately suffered a season ending injury.
28 28. Rashad Jennings - New York Giants
Rashad Jennings has been a dependable running back in the NFL for many years and is now considered one of the veteran leaders on the New York Giants. He did a commendable job in 2016, but stayed within his career statistical range by rushing for almost 600 yards and adding another 200 yards receiving. What dropped considerably was his yards per carry average. Jennings has a career average of 4.1 yards per carry, but that number dropped to an embarrassing 3.1 in 2016.
27 27. T.J. Yeldon - Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville Jaguars haven't had a true running back since the days of Fred Taylor, who manned the position for nearly a decade for the franchise. Since then, it has been miss after miss at potential long-term replacements for the Jaguars. The team drafted T.J. Yeldon out of Alabama in the second round of the 2015 draft with hopes that he would develop into the bell-cow style back that the Jaguars offense so desperately craves. Yeldon, who was a beast at Alabama, showed promise in his rookie season when he rushed for over 700 yards in only 12 games.
26 26. Ryan Mathews - Philadelphia Eagles
Ryan Matthews was a solid running back during his time with the
San Diego Los Angeles Chargers (it's going to take a while for the L.A. Chargers to sound normal), but injuries always seemed to stifle his production. After the Chargers released Mathews, he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles to create a two headed-monster with then Eagles running back DeMarco Murray. That project never truly panned out and Murray eventually landed in Tennessee, making Mathews the de facto starting running back entering this season.
25 25. Robert Kelley - Washington Redskins
The Washington Redskins entered the 2016 season with the hopes that opening day starter Matt Jones would continue his rise in production and become one of the go-to options behind quarterback Kirk Cousins. Jones was inconsistent in the first seven weeks and showed ball-security issues that caused head coach Jay Gruden to lose trust. An apparent knee injury opened the door for Robert Kelley, an undrafted rookie running back out of Tulane.
24 24. Thomas Rawls - Seattle Seahawks
There was a lot of talk last offseason about Rawls becoming the next Beastmode, referencing former Seahawks great Marshawn Lynch, but that never played out in 2016. Blame it on injuries or the shoddy Seahawks offensive line, but regardless it is clear that the expectations on Rawls need to be lowered going forward. He's not, nor will he ever be Beastmode 2.0. Stop fooling yourselves 12th man, it will only make it more difficult in the long run.
23 23. Frank Gore - Indianapolis Colts
If this list were created five years ago, Gore would have found himself ranked well within the top 10. Gore is one of the all-time greats at the running back position despite hanging below the radar most of his career, but father time has begun to take its toll on Gore's skill set. Incredibly, Gore rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2016 and in doing so earned the distinction of being the oldest running back (Gore is 33 years old) to ever reach that milestone in a season.
22 22. Matt Forte - New York Jets
Matt Forte is in a similar boat as the previously mentioned Gore. Both players are former superstars who are now playing past their primes for franchises that they have no real connection with. Forte, who played his entire career with the Chicago Bears before joining the New York Jets in 2016, was expected to add a solid ground game to complement the Jets high performance air attack led by Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brandon Marshall, and Eric Decker.
21 21. Jeremy Hill - Cincinnati Bengals
The Cincinnati Bengals had a rough year in 2016, as they fell far below their high expectations. Most people viewed the Bengals as a potential playoff team entering the season but it was apparent by mid-season that the team was just missing their mojo in 2016. With an offense led by Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, Hill is often a secondary option who is primarily used to control the tempo of the game and keep opposing defenses honest.
20 20. Jonathan Stewart - Carolina Panthers
Jonathan Stewart has the skills to be a 1,000 yard back every season, but because of injuries he has only reached that milestone once in his 9-year career. Between himself and DeAngelo Williams, Carolina once had an amazing two back system working late in the last decade. Now with the evolution of Cam Newton, Stewart is tasked with ball security and gaining positive yardage more so than carrying the Panthers on his back.
19 19. Latavius Murray - Oakland Raiders
Coming off an impressive 1,000-yard season in 2015, expectations were very high for Latavius Murray entering the 2016 season. Murray struggled through injuries for much of the season but was still able to rush for over 800 yards in only 12 starts. Also, due to the high success of Oakland's offense, Murray benefited from many red-zone opportunities by adding 12 rushing touchdowns.
18 18. Isaiah Crowell - Cleveland Browns
It might shock some of you to hear that the Cleveland Browns actually have some decent players on their roster; Isaiah Crowell is one of them. The Browns, who managed to only win one game, started three different quarterbacks this season and often found themselves playing from behind early in most games, which makes what Crowell did in 2016 that much more impressive. Crowell started all 16 games for the Browns and finished with just under 1,000 yards on the season.
17 17. Melvin Gordon - Los Angeles Chargers
Melvin Gordon was a stud in 2016. Labeled by many as a draft bust after his poor rookie season, Gordon put the nay-sayers to rest with his performance this past season in which he ran for 997 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also caught 41 passes for 410 yards and another two touchdowns. Gordon was able to provide the team with the rushing spark they needed, but unfortunately got injured early in their week 14 game.
16 16. Todd Gurley - Los Angeles Rams
That "other Los Angeles running back" referred to the Los Angeles Rams lead back Todd Gurley. Gurley was a remarkable story last season as he busted onto the NFL scene being out of football for an entire year due to an excruciating knee injury he suffered at the University of Georgia. Gurley showed explosiveness and speed that drew early comparisons to Adrian Peterson.
15 15. Carlos Hyde - San Francisco 49ers
Nobody will benefit more from the firing of Chip Kelly more than Carlos Hyde. While the quarterback situation in San Francisco dominated the headlines most of the season, Hyde continued his normal dominance of opposing defenses. Granted, Hyde wasn't spectacular in 2016 but the inability of his quarterbacks hindered his ability to be fed consistent carries.
14 14. Spencer Ware - Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs have one of the most dynamic, game-changing running backs in the NFL. Unfortunately for them, he can't stay healthy. This is referring, of course, to the Chiefs' former starting running back Jamaal Charles. Charles has groundbreaking speed and elusiveness, but his recent injuries appear to have derailed his career. Spencer Ware has been the main beneficiary of his teammate's poor luck and is well deserving of the full-time starting role in for the Chiefs.
13 13. Mark Ingram - New Orleans Saints
For some running backs it takes a few years to adjust from the college game to the NFL, but when they do the league better look out! This appears to be the case with Mark Ingram. Although the former Heisman Trophy winner was named to the NFC Pro Bowl roster in 2014, his true breakthrough season happened this past season.
12 12. Doug Martin - Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Doug Martin quickly made a name for himself as a rookie in 2012 when he rushed for over 1,400 yards and was named to the NFC Pro Bowl roster. He then had several injury riddled seasons before making his second Pro Bowl appearance in 2015, after again rushing for over 1,400 yards in the season. Martin experienced another injury induced drop-off in production in 2016, when he missed most of the season with a hamstring injury.
11 11. Lamar Miller - Houston Texans
Originally drafted by the Miami Dolphins, Lamar Miller had a slow start to his career but eventually began garnering serious attention in 2014 when he rushed for 1,099 yards. His speed and elusiveness makes him a big-play threat every time he touches the ball. Although he's not a huge running back, he's very effective as a bell-cow back because he continues to get stronger as the game goes on.
10 10. Jay Ajayi - Miami Dolphins
One of the main reasons that the Miami Dolphins felt comfortable letting the previously mentioned Lamar Miller go in the offseason was because of the promise that Jay Ajayi showed in his rookie year in Miami. Although the Dolphins signed Arian Foster in free agency, it was apparent that they wanted to see what exactly Ajayi could do as a featured back. Surely many Dolphins fans were questioning that decision in the first five weeks of the season, but then the floodgates opened in Week 6.
9 9. Jordan Howard - Chicago Bears
After cutting Matt Forte in the offseason, the Chicago Bears were looking to find a potential replacement for the former face of the franchise. While Bears fans remained irate about losing Forte, the Bears were busy creating a contingency plan that included naming Jeremy Langford the full-time starter and drafting Jordan Howard in the fifth round. While many experts picked Langford to be a potential fantasy sleeper, nobody could have foreseen the season Howard had in 2016.
8 8. LeGarrette Blount - New England Patriots
LeGarrette Blount is a baaaaad man! This 6'1", 245-pound bruiser brings an old school rushing mentality to the Patriots in the sense that he is going to hurt whatever defender is trying to tackle him. Blount has been known as a trouble-maker in his career but has been stellar under the tutelage of the great Bill Belichick. In previous years, Blount would share rushing duties in the Patriots backfield but in 2016 the Patriots wisely made him the lead-back.
7 7. Devonta Freeman - Atlanta Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons have one of the most prolific scoring offenses in the NFL and much of the praise goes to quarterback, and MVP candidate, Matt Ryan. But this offense would not nearly be as powerful or efficient if it didn't include Devonta Freeman. Measuring at only 5'8", Freeman is not the most intimidating player on the field but his speed and footwork certainly strike fear into opposing defenders who must try and tackle him in the open-field.
6 6. DeMarco Murray - Tennessee Titans
Sometimes a change of scenery is all it takes to revive a superstar career. Or perhaps it's as simple as escaping Chip Kelly's running back torture chamber. Whatever it was, DeMarco Murray certainly bounced back in a big way with the Tennessee Titans in 2016, after spending one forgettable season with the Philadelphia Eagles.
5 5. LeSean McCoy - Buffalo Bills
Including 2016, LeSean McCoy has rushed for over 1,000 yards in five of his eight seasons in the NFL, and two of his seasons were cut short because of injury. The guy is a true star at the running back position and can break a highlight, Madden-esque run at any moment in a game. McCoy, who was traded from the Eagles to Buffalo in 2015, had a turbulent first season with the Bills despite rushing for over 800 yards. Something just felt off and he never looked comfortable that season.
4 4. Adrian Peterson - Minnesota Vikings
After watching Adrian Peterson for nearly a decade, it's tough to not rank him #1 overall until the day he retires. Incredibly, Peterson still ranks in the top 5 of this list even though he has essentially missed two of the last three seasons due to injury. While it's safe to assume that Peterson's best days are behind him, it's also safe to assume that he will be as dedicated and passionate as ever when he returns in 2017.
3 3. Ezekiel Elliott - Dallas Cowboys
To all the Dallas Cowboys fans reading this to make sure Ezekiel Elliott was ranked #1, it will be okay. Take a deep breath. Zeke had an outstanding rookie season for the Cowboys, rushing for a league-leading 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns. He, along with fellow-rookie Dak Prescott, completely revived and re-energized the Cowboy fan base that had become demoralized after yet another season ending injury to Tony Romo. Between Zeke, Dak, and Dez Bryant, the Boys are well on their way to forming another three-headed monster similar to the 90s unit that featured Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin.
2 2. Le'Veon Bell - Pittsburgh Steelers
Every once in a while, a running back comes around that creates a whole new style of running that takes the league by storm. Barry Sanders comes to mind with his willingness to retreat and run sideline to sideline. Emmitt Smith with his patented jump-cut. Le'Veon Bell is that type of running back... and he knows it. Bell's style is patience, followed up with explosiveness.
1 1. David Johnson - Arizona Cardinals
Did you know, that David Johnson was the Arizona Cardinals back-up plan in the 2015 NFL draft? Thankfully for Cardinals fans, that back-up plan now looks genius. Johnson proved some draft critics wrong in his rookie season once he took over the starting job from the injured Chris Johnson, but nobody expected Johnson to turn into a potential MVP candidate in only his second season. In 2016, Johnson rushed for 1,232 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Johnson was originally a receiver in college and uses those skills to give opposing defenses headaches week in and week out. In 2016, he also caught 80 passes for 879 yards and 4 touchdowns. Most impressively, Johnson became the first running back in NFL history to start the season with 15 consecutive games in which he earned over 100 yards from scrimmage (Johnson was injured in the first quarter of week 16). Even crazier, head coach Bruce Arians stated after the season that he honestly believes that Johnson could get over 200 yards from scrimmage in every game next season. Look out NFL and fantasy football land, you have a new king and his name is David Johnson.
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