Adrian Peterson is on the Saints. Jamaal Charles signed with the Broncos. And in a shocker, Marshawn Lynch unretired and will be wearing the Silver and Black this upcoming season. A lot has changed around the league, as the top running backs of the last few seasons are being shuffled around from team to team while talented young stars are emerging.
The position of running back itself has been evolving lately. For a while, it seemed like the running back by committee system was the new way to go, but lately the importance of having a top running back has been re-established with the emergence of Ezekiel Elliott and Le’Veon Bell.
Will all the backfield moves lately, it seems like a good time to re-evaluate where we stand around the league as far as running backs go. This list will look at the best overall backfields around the league, with a focus on depth, backups, and third down backs like Darren Sproles that, while not being huge stars on their own, can change the game with only a few touches. Obviously, having a talented number one guy is still important, and this list will reflect that.
But more than ever, the guys behind your star are important. What if Bell gets injured? Who comes in for a few snaps when Elliott is gassed after a long game? Having solid depth in place will make a difference in where your team lands in this list, Ranking All 32 Backfields in the NFL.
32 Washington Redskins: Rob Kelley, Chris Thompson
We start with the worst, and the Washington Redskins current situation currently qualifies. The Redskins have spent the last several seasons without a true number one back, and are continuing to experiment with plugging in different players to their offense. This year it’s Rob Kelley’s turn to give it a go, as the former undrafted player is penciled in as the Redskins starter.
Chris Thompson will get touches as a solid yet unspectacular pass-catcher out of the backfield. On the whole, though, the Redskins do not look like a team that has a game-breaking threat in their backfield, which will make things difficult for Kirk Cousins (or whoever ends up under center).
31 Indianapolis Colts: Frank Gore, Robert Turbin
Frank Gore is one of those guys who it feels like has been around forever. The former 49ers workhorse back has enjoyed a very solid NFL career, but there’s no denying it’s near its end. The 34-year-old back is several years past the date that most runners hit the wall, and it’s doubtful the Colts will be able to squeeze much more production out of him.
Turbin has shown flashes at times, but the 27-year-old seems to be again set to be a role player this season. The Colts missed out on some of the bigger name backs in this years draft, but did grab a promising prospect in Marlon Mack in the fourth round of this year’s draft.
30 San Francisco 49ers: Carlos Hyde, Joe Williams
While he’s a pretty good running back who can break tackles and make plays, Hyde has proved to be fragile in recent years and unfortunately just isn’t good enough to hold down the backfield on his own. The 49ers were rumored to be looking for a compliment for Hyde in the draft, and new general manager John Lynch will hope fourth round prospect Joe Williams turns into something at the next level.
While he’ll need to prove himself in training camp and preseason snaps if he hopes to get touches this season, Williams is a speedy back with good cutting ability. If he develops, San Francisco’s backfield has some potential. Until then, however, they can’t call themselves one of the better units in the league.
29 Green Bay Packers: Ty Montgomery
The running back situation in Green Bay is anything but certain, and it will be an interesting story to follow through training camp. Currently, former wide receiver Ty Montgomery, is slated to be the starter. Montgomery has shown promise in some starts for the Packers, but has yet to prove he can be the guy over the course of an NFL season.
The Packers showed a level of trust in Montgomery by not taking a running back early in the draft, but ended up with an assortment of projects as they picked three backs on day three of the draft. They nabbed Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones, and Devante Mays, and are hoping at least one of them will develop into a workhorse down the road.
28 28: Detroit Lions: Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick
Ameer Abdullah was a very promising back that had fans excited when he was picked in the second round of the 2015 draft, however he has proven to be fragile, perhaps one of the worst qualities for a running back to have. While he looks to be rebounding well from foot surgery last year, he’s no sure thing in Detroit.
Also getting touches is receiving specialist Theo Riddick. Also an injury-prone back, he excels when given the ball in space, but is not a guy the Lions can count on to grind out yards between the tackles. The Lions have a lot of potential for the upcoming season if both backs are able to stay healthy and play complimentary roles. If they can’t, the Lions could well find themselves at the bottom of this list next year.
27 Baltimore Ravens: Lorenzo Taliaferro, Terrance West
The Ravens are heading towards training camp with a very cloudy situation in their backfield. The team has not had a true workhorse back in several seasons, and this year will be no different for the team. Lorenzo Taliaferro and Terrance West have both had some success in different roles at different times, but in the NFL and especially at running back it is very difficult to predict how a promising prospect will look over the grind of a 200+ carry season.
That’s why, in a reversal of previous trends, true number one backs are back in style, and having a proven commodity in the backfield is still a valuable asset despite today’s pass-first offensive styles. The Ravens as a team are trending the wrong way, and without a workhorse to take the pressure of Joe Flacco, that could continue.
26 New York Giants: Paul Perkins, Shane Vereen
Paul Perkins is unproven, yes, but in his only start last season—a week 17 game against Washington—he became the only Giants back to put up a 100 yard game for the entire season. With the Giants parting ways with now free agent Rashad Jennings, it looks like Paul Perkins’ job to lose this upcoming season.
Shane Vereen is a bonus for New York, he is an ideal third down back, but missed a lot of games last season with injury and is a role player at best. New York also took a rookie prospect in Wayne Gallman in the fourth round of this year’s draft, hoping he’ll develop into a bruising short yardage back.
25 Philadelphia Eagles: Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood
Things are far from settled in the Philadelphia backfield, with rumors of an impending release for Ryan Mathews and other moves potentially still to come. However, as it stands right now, the oft-injured Ryan Mathews leads a group of talented but inconsistent backs.
While Mathews is the starter, Darren Sproles is the most explosive back on the team. The 5’6” running back has done it all for the Eagles, whether running, pass catching, or returning kicks. The Eagle’s strategy seems to be to give the soon-to-be 34-year-old 8-10 touches per game in space and give him a chance to break a big play. Outside of Mathews, who is likely not to be on the team, and Sproles, who is too small to be a workhorse, there is no one proven on the Eagles roster. Expect some more moves to come out of Philadelphia before the dust settles.
24 Miami Dolphins: Jay Ajayi
Jay Ajayi burst out in 2016 with two straight 200+ yard games, cementing his status as the Dolphins starter, a role he took from Arian Foster, en route to a 1,200 yard season. He’ll enter the 2017 season as the Dolphin’s unquestioned starter, and another solid season could push him into the conversation as a top-ten back in the league. However, while Ajayi while look to prove himself as the Dolphin’s running back of the future, there is no one else in Miami that shows any particular promise outside of a backup role. Damien Williams and Kenyan Drake look to be the other two backs on the roster, barring Miami making a move.
23 Denver Broncos: CJ Anderson, Jamaal Charles
Jamaal Charles made waves recently when he chose to sign with the Denver Broncos, arch-rivals of his former team the Kansas City Chiefs. The 30-year-old enjoyed several seasons as one of the top running backs in the league, but injuries and age have slowed him and he doesn’t figure to be capable of handling a full-season workload.
He’ll likely be splitting carries with CJ Anderson a small yet powerful back who has put together some solid numbers with the Broncos. The two will first decide who is number one heading into the season, but expect both to get a healthy amount of touches. If Charles somehow manages to show some of the ability he had in his prime, this backfield could be dangerous.
22 New York Jets: Matt Forte, Bilal Powell
Matt Forte has had a great career, primarily starring as the Chicago Bear’s top back for almost a decade. He moved to New York last season, and while he put up some decent numbers, he needed surgery this offseason to repair a torn meniscus in his knee. At 31 and with a history of knee issues, it doesn’t look like the former second-round pick will be able to return to form in the coming year.
The team is clearly hoping Bilal Powell will step up in 2017, as they did not take a running back before the sixth round in this year’s draft. The career backup showed promise last season, including a 145 yard, two touchdown performance in a late season game.
21 Kansas City Chiefs: Spencer Ware, Kareem Hunt, Charcandrick West
The Chiefs RB battle will be furious, and an entertaining camp story to follow. The competitors? Starter Spencer Ware, who was tabbed to be the next big thing in KC after taking over for Jamaal Charles but struggled last season, Charcandrick West, a role player who did not do much in 2016 after a strong 2015, and Kareem Hunt, a third round pick that the Chiefs clearly expect to come in and light a spark in the backfield, ensuring whoever comes out as the starter is tough and ready to play hard in 2017, knowing the other two are right behind him breathing down his neck. Expect some kind of committee setup in KC when it’s all said and done, but Hunt, who has drawn comparisons to Le’Veon Bell, looks like a favorite to eventual rise to the top for the Chiefs.
20 New England Patriots: James White, Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee
Bill Belichick has never been big on running backs. During Tom Brady’s career, there has been a revolving door in the backfield, and it doesn’t seem to matter. The Pats have success no matter who’s carrying the ball. This season, however, the Patriots rewarded Super Bowl hero James White with a nice contract, while retaining Dion Lewis, getting rid of LeGarrette Blount, and signing Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee.
Good luck picking a winner from that race. Every back fills a slightly different role, but all are capable receivers and all enticing prospects with breakout potential. Expect a crowded committee in New England. Tom Brady will have no shortage of fresh legs to hand off to or to catch passes out of the backfield whenever he needs.
19 Los Angeles Chargers: Melvin Gordon, Branden Oliver
After a disappointing rookie season, Gordon bounced back last season, putting up over 1,400 yards from scrimmage in a campaign the Chargers expected from him when they took him in the first round in 2015.
LA will have a lot of depth at the position this year, with backup Branden Oliver in the mix and veteran free agent Kenjon Barner coming over from the Eagles. Barner flashed some ability during his time in Philadelphia but is more of a backup than number one guy at this point in his career. Barner and Oliver should see some touches, but unless something happens to Gordon, he’s the main guy in the backfield taking handoffs from Philip Rivers.
18 Minnesota Vikings: Latavius Murray, Dalvin Cook, Jerick McKinnon
After almost a decade of stability at the running back position, the Vikings are moving on from Adrian Peterson, one of the greatest backs of his generation. Suspension and injuries slowed down the 32-year-old in recent years, and the Vikings are moving on this season. Free agent Latavius Murray, a former Oakland Raider, will battle with second round pick Dalvin Cook and veteran Jerrick McKinnon, who backed up Peterson the last few years through injury and suspension.
Murray had some good years in Oakland, but will need to prove himself to Vikings coaches in order to fend off Cook, who the Vikings clearly think it the future of their backfield. If Cook stays out of trouble off the field, he has potential to be the Vikings starter for years to come.
17 Los Angeles Rams: Todd Gurley, Malcom Brown
Todd Gurley is continuing to improve at running back, but hasn’t quite broken into the top tier of runners in the NFL after taking a step back in 2016. The Ram’s 2015 first round pick has a chance to bounce back this year, as the Rams will likely lean heavily on him in the backfield as they try to develop quarterback Jared Goff into a star in this league.
Many called Gurley’s 2016 campaign a sophomore slump, as the entire Rams team looked pretty disfunctional for much of the year. Gurley has tons of physical tools, but often lacks the patience and vision top NFL backs such as Le’Veon Bell demonstrate. With better coaching, better blocking, and more stability at quarterback, Gurely has every chance to rip off a great 2017.
16 Carolina Panthers: Jonathan Stewart, Christian McCaffrey
It feels like Jonathan Stewart has been around for forever. The bruising back spent much of his NFL career splitting time with DeAngelo Williams in Carolina, but without as much wear and tear on his body as most backs have at this point in their careers, Stewart looks like he’ll be The Man this year in Carolina.
Meanwhile, Carolina nabbed one of the best fits in the draft for their offense in Christian McCaffrey. Criticized for being too small to be an every down running back at the NFL level, McCaffrey won’t have to. While Stewart pounds the interior of the defense, McCaffrey will be free to get his touches in space, or even split out as a receiver. McCaffrey’s athleticism will make an immediate impact for Carolina’s offense.
15 Cleveland Browns: Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson
Could this be the year the Browns start to pull themselves out of the cellar? The team had a good draft by all accounts, grabbing solid pieces to build a team around. And an improved offensive line bodes well for the two-headed monster of Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson in the Cleveland backfield.
Neither of the two are top-tier running backs, but are proving that two mid-tier running backs might just be enough, as the two are able to spell each other out, and, last season, combined for over 1,300 yards on the ground. They’ll need a powerful rushing attack if they want to compete in what is a solid defensive division in the AFC North.
14 Houston Texans: Lamar Miller, Alfred Blue, D’Onta Foreman
The Texans are another team with a complicated backfield situation, and it only got murkier when the team picked up D’Onta Foreman in the third round of this year’s draft. Free agent signing Lamar Miller was the clear leader of the Texan’s run-first backfield last season, with Alfred Blue chipping in some carries from his role as a backup.
Foreman is a downhill runner who excels between the tackles, and will look to push Alfred Blue out of the backup spot. It’s a win-win situation for the Texans, who will look to rely on three solid runners to help out rookie first-round QB Deshaun Watson this coming season.
13 Oakland Raiders: Marshawn Lynch
One of the big surprises of this offseason was Marshawn Lynch coming out of retirement to join the Raiders. Once thought to be a baseless rumor that was more wishful thinking, due to Lynch’s ties with Oakland, it actually happened, and the former Seahawk will be wearing the silver and black this coming season.
The quiet running back clearly has something left in the tank and something to prove this coming season. The five time Pro Bowler turned 31 this offseason, but should be motivated to spearhead the Raider’s rushing attack. Having a veteran moving the chains on the ground will be huge for quarterback Derek Carr and a talented Oakland squad that hopes to compete with Pittsburgh and New England this season for the AFC crown.
12 Jacksonville Jaguars: Leonard Fournette, T.J. Yeldon
The Jaguars got an instant boost in their backfield during this year’s draft that skyrocketed them up the list of best in the league. Jacksonville was thrilled to grab Leonard Fournette with the fourth overall pick, and the LSU star was immediately slipped into the top spot on the team’s RB depth chart. Fournette is a burly, angry, powerful runner who’s style brings to mind a young Adrian Peterson.
T.J. Yeldon, who disappointed when given a chance to start last season, is still a talented back who should get touches behind Fournette this upcoming season, especially if Fourenette ends up coming out of the game on third and long situations.
11 Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Doug Martin, Jacquizz Rogers
Word out of Tampa Bay is that Doug Martin is in great shape heading into camp, and ready to return to form as a top back in the league. Martin has had an up and down career after exploding onto the scene in his rookie season with almost 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Injuries have kept the Buccaneers star off the field, but when healthy, he’s in the conversation as one of the top backs in the league.
Backing Martin up is Jacquizz Rodgers, a poor man’s Darren Sproles who rushed for 560 yards last years in Martin’s absence. If the two stay healthy, they can be a frightening pair out of Tampa Bay’s backfield.
10 Chicago Bears: Jordan Howard, Jeremy Langford
Jordan Howard is more proof that you don’t need to take a running back in the first round to land a good one. Although, to be fair, not many people saw Howard’s success coming, as he ended up being the tenth running back off the board in the 2016 NFL draft, going in the fifth round to the Bears.
Coming into last season as a third-stringer, Howard quickly rose up the depth charts due to injuries. Once given his shot as a starter, he didn’t look back, and piled up the numbers with 252 carries for 1,313 yards and six touchdowns.
Howard is the unquestioned starter going into this season, but Langford serves as a capable backup for a Chicago team that will need a strong season from their backs in order to be competitive.
9 New Orleans Saints: Adrian Peterson, Mark Ingram
After months of rumors and speculation, Adrian Peterson finally landed in New Orleans. After a few tough years near the end of his Vikings career, it will be a welcome new home for one of the NFL’s all-time greats, who believes he still has another year or two in him.
It remains a mystery how the backfield will be managed and how Mark Ingram will feature. Both backs possess a similar style, and there are rumors that Ingram could be on the move before the start of the season. Alvin Kamara is also a new face in the mix after being taken in the third round by the Saints. Kamara looks to potentially slide in as a third-down back, as a great pass catcher out of the backfield.
8 Cincinnati Bengals: Jeremy Hill, Joe Mixon, Giovanni Bernard
The current three-headed-monster setup in the Bengal’s backfield might not look the same when the season gets underway. It currently features Jeremy Hill as the “starter”, although Gio Bernard gets a healthy amount of touches in both the run and pass game. Breathing down both of their necks is second round pick Joe Mixon.
Not a fan favorite after video surfaced of him punching a woman in the face, Mixon has undeniable talent, which is why the Bengals drafted him. If he keeps out of trouble, he has the talent to be a star and compete to be the best running back from this year’s class. If not, he won’t be the first talented yet troubled player the Bengals have seen come through their system.
7 Seattle Seahawks: Eddie Lacy, Thomas Rawls
After Marshawn Lynch’s retirement, unretirement, and trade to the Raiders, the Seahawks were left not too badly off at running back. Eddie Lacy comes over from Green Bay to join Thomas Rawls, initially thought to be Lynch’s replacement.
Lacy gives the Seahawks a proven bruiser at running back. He started his career off in Green Bay with two straight 1,000 yard seasons, however, problems with his weight and injury derailed the next two years. He has the undeniable talent to return to form, and a competitive backfield situation with the hungry Thomas Rawls means Pete Carroll should be able to get the best out of the former Packer.
6 Buffalo Bills: LeSean McCoy
The Bill’s backfield is exclusively Shady McCoy’s show to run, and that’s how he likes it. The former Eagle returned to his dominant form in 2016 with an impressive 1,267 rushing yards and 13 TD’s, to go along with 50 catches for 356 yards and a touchdown.
McCoy’s elusive, explosive running style has drawn comparisons with Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, one of the best backs ever. Turning 29 this season, the Bills hope that McCoy still has a few good years left in the tank. His backup, Jonathan Williams, was a sixth round pick last year who has yet to show anything at the next level, meaning it’s up to McCoy to power the Bill’s ground game this coming season.
5 Atlanta Falcons: Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman
While neither are in the conversation for best pure running back in the league, the Falcon’s unique backfield duo are a threat to any defense and a big reason why the team won the NFC last season. At just 24 and 23, respectively, the explosive young duo combined for almost 2,500 yards from scrimmage and totalled 24 touchdowns during the regular season.
Neither is a traditional downhill bruiser, both excel when given room to work. And despite their similarity, there is no bad blood between the two, who could both excel on their own. The pair actively root for each other’s success and are more than willing to share carries, which is how the Falcon’s have seen success in such an unorthodox way.
4 Arizona Cardinals: David Johnson, Andre Ellington
David Johnson placed himself squarely in the top tier of running backs in the National Football League in 2016, when the former third round pick ran all over teams en route to over 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 20 total touchdowns. Johnson is clearly top dog in Arizona heading into 2017, and will look to carry the load offensively again for the Cardinals as a dual threat runner and receiver.
Andre Ellington is a serviceable veteran backup who is a skilled blocker and receiver and will be able to spell out Johnson whenever necessary. The Cardinals also picked up a project in the fifth round, grabbing TJ Logan, a shifty runner and returner out of North Carolina.
3 Tennessee Titans: DeMarco Murray, Derrick Henry
After an off year with Philadelphia, DeMarco Murray has returned to form as one of the top backs in the league in Tennessee. Playing in an offense that compliments his bruising, downhill style, Murray racked up almost 1,300 rushing yards last season to go along with nine touchdowns.
And it’s not just Murray in Tennessee. The Titans are stacked with big, powerful backs, as they also have former Alabama star Derrick Henry. Henry picked up almost 500 yards and five touchdowns as DeMarco Murray’s backup. While it’s unclear how they will split carries in 2017, Marcus Mariota’s life is made much easier by the ferocious one-two punch the Titans have in the backfield.
2 Pittsburgh Steelers: Le’Veon Bell, James Conner
Watching Le’Veon Bell run the ball is like watching a master musician perform. Bell’s running is an art form unlike any other back in the league, and it makes him one of the best in the game. He can charge toward a hole, stop completely, let his blockers do their job, and then pick the best path into the secondary. Once he’s there, he has the power to truck defensive backs and the speed to run past linebackers.
The only knock on Bell is that he’s not always on the field, having missed time with injuries and suspension. Without reliable backup DeAngelo Williams in the mix this season, the Steelers targeted local boy James Conner, who looks to be a great fit for the Steelers as a versatile back ready to spell out Bell at any time.
1 Dallas Cowboys: Ezekiel Elliott, Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris
A mix of young talent and veteran experience highlight’s the Dallas Cowboys backfield that currently stands as the best in the NFL. While many analysts might put Le’Veon Bell over Ezekiel Elliott as the best back in the league, there’s no doubt Elliott is a close second and only getting better. When you combine that with Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris, two big, veteran backs both capable of stepping in and starting for a few games, you get a scary backfield.
After Dak Prescott shocked everyone with his incredible 2016 campaign, the Rookie of the Year will face heightened pressure in his sophomore season. For a Dallas team with the offensive pieces to make a Super Bowl run, Elliott will need to maintain his superstar form in order to take some pressure of Prescott for this team to be playing football deep into the playoffs.
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