Being a running back in the National Football League is one of the toughest jobs in the game. After all, RBs end up taking a ton of big hits from massive defensive tackles and linebackers, every time they step on the field. The hits these guys take tend to add up, which is why most players at the position usually retire in their early-30s, if not sooner.
A top back can go from a superstar to backup in seemingly no time; it happens just about every year. Moreover, we are also seeing more teams use two running backs. There are multiple reasons that teams are beginning to use the two-RB approach. Firstly, some players tend to be better pass catchers, while others excel at running between the tackles. Having skill position players that specialize in one area gives offensive coordinators a great deal of flexibility. Moreover, the other advantage to using multiple backs is that one player isn’t tacking all the damage from being tackled repeatedly, as was mentioned earlier.
Given that so many teams use two, or in some cases even three backs, sometimes it’s difficult to determine who the starting RB is. However, for our purposes, we are going to focus on the players who are on top of their respective team's depth charts.
With that in mind, it's time to take a look at 20 of the NFL’s top running backs. Some of these stars will likely be going strong for years to come, while others may lose their jobs (or retire) in the very near future.
20 Out of the League: Jordan Howard
In his first two seasons in the National Football League, Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard rushed for over 1,000 yards and was the team’s biggest weapons on offense. However, this year, his third, in the league, Howard has ceded a significant portion of his playing time to teammate Tarik Cohen. Cohen is a more elusive back and better pass catcher than Howard and seems to be new head coach Matt Nagy’s preferred option in the backfield.
Howard still gets a decent number of carries, but his role has clearly diminished under Nagy. It’s possible that Cohen eventually takes over as the lead back – in truth – one could argue that he already has.
19 Going Strong: Sony Michel
It’s been years since the New England Patriots have had a true featured running back. However, it appears that rookie Sony Michel has become the man in New England. The first-round pick out of Georgia has gotten off to a hot start in 2018 and appears to have a strong hold on the starting gig.
Sure, the team still uses James White on passing downs, but Michel is getting the lion’s share of the carries. Moreover, the rookie’s role could increase as he gains more experience and continues to become familiar with the team’s offense. Michel should be standout for years to come.
18 Out of the League: Dalvin Cook
After missing the majority of his 2017 rookie campaign with a torn ACL, Dalvin Cook has struggled with injuries this season as well. A hamstring issue caused the Vikings back to miss several games in 2018. Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that Cook hasn’t been particularly effective when he has played. The former second-round pick has yet to rush for 100 yards this season and doesn’t have a rushing touchdown heading into Week 14.
After shelling out big buck for quarterback Kirk Cousins, the Vikings are in "win now" mode and aren’t going to wait for Cook to figure it out. Given his health issues and lack of production, Minnesota may be looking for a new lead back in 2019.
17 Going Strong: Phillip Lindsay
Heading into the season, there was a ton of hype surrounding Denver Broncos running back Royce Freeman. However, it was Phillip Lindsay who has ended up, quite literally, running away with the starting job. The two backs began the year splitting carries. However, in recent weeks, it’s become increasingly clear that Lindsay is the star of the show in Denver.
Freeman remains the bigger, stronger RB and will likely maintain a role in the offense. That being said, Lindsay appears to be the more explosive back at this point and should continue to get the majority of the carries in 2018 and beyond.
16 Out of the League: Chris Carson
Given that the Seahawks spent a first-round draft pick on running back Rashaad Penny this offseason, it’s fair to assume he’ll get a crack at the starting job sooner or later. In the meantime, Chris Carson has played fairly well this as the teams lead back in 2018.
Carson seems to be an average NFL running back, who’s capable of having some big games here and there. However, it’s likely the Seahawks want more, and management needs to try and justify spending an early pick on Penny, who recently had a big game against the Rams in Week 10 ( 12 carries, 108 yards, and a touchdown).
15 Going Strong: Matt Breida
Running back Matt Breida was an undrafted free agent who signed with the San Francisco 49ers in 2017. He began the season as the second RB on the depth chart, behind Alfred Morris. However, over the course of the year, Breida proved to be the more effective back and secured the starting role.
In truth, Matt Breida’s grasp on the starting job might be the shakiest of all the players on the “going strong” portion of our list. Still, the 49ers have a lot of areas that need to be addressed – so they may be content to leave well enough alone at the running back position – if the undrafted standout finishes the season on a high note.
14 Out of the League: Marshawn Lynch
32-year-old Marshawn Lynch was one of the league's top running backs during his tenure with the Seattle Seahawks – where the five-time Pro Bowler helped his team win Super Bowl XLVIII. Following a brief retirement, “Beast Mode” decided to make a comeback and signed with the Oakland Raiders in 2017. In his first season as a Raider, Lynch rushed for 891 yards and seven touchdowns. Unfortunately, in 2018, he suffered a season-ending groin injury in Week 4.
His contract with the Raiders expires at the end of this season and, if he decided to continue playing, he'd be 33 heading into 2019. Given his age and the fact that he’s coming off a season-ending injury, it would be surprising to see Lynch land a starting gig next season.
13 Going Strong: Todd Gurley
Predicting that Todd Gurley will still be a force come 2020, isn't exactly bold. The 24-year-old Los Angeles Ram is arguably the best running back in all of football and shows no signs of slowing down. The fact that Gurley is a member of young, talented Rams offense also bodes well for his prospects.
Barring some sort of freak injury, fans can expect Gurley to be entering his prime in 2020 and be one of the league’s most dangerous offensive weapons. Moreover, he will likely still be one of the first players off the board in most fantasy drafts as well.
12 Out of the League: Adrian Peterson
When it’s all said and done, Adrian Peterson will most likely wind up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A long-time Vikings hero, the running back is a seven-time Pro Bowler and was the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2012. These days, he is starting running back for the Washington Redskins.
To say Peterson has had a resurgence in Washington is probably overstating it, but he has been better than most folks expected. That being said, the aging back turns 34 next March and is clearly in the twilight of his career. In all likelihood, come 2020, Adrian Peterson will be enjoying the NFL season from the comfort of his couch, as a retiree.
11 Going Strong: Joe Mixon
If he manages to stay healthy, 22-year-old Joe Mixon has a decent chance to rush for over 1,000 yards in 2018 (he has 755 rushing yards heading into week 14). The controversial running back has been a solid contributor for the Bengals this year – his first full season as the team’s featured back.
Assuming he’s able to avoid any off-field issues, Mixon should remain the starter in Cincinnati for the foreseeable future. The former second-round pick still has plenty of room to grow, but he’s young and hasn’t given the Bengals any reason to look for another RB – at least not yet.
10 Out of the League: Marlon Mack
Outside of Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton, the Colts don’t have a lot to work with on offense. The team’s starting running back, Marlon Mack, missed several games this season due to injury. He has had a couple of good games this year but has otherwise looked like an average NFL running back.
The Colts will probably try and upgrade their skill position players on offense throughout the next couple drafts. Expect Indy to bring in some new receivers and running backs, sooner rather than later. Mack may remain on the team, but it wouldn’t be surprising if a young back or high-profile free agent came in and stole his starting gig.
9 Going Strong: Leonard Fournette
After breaking out with over 1,300 all-purpose yards in 2017, running back Leonard Fournette has had a hard time staying on the field this year, between injuries and disciplinary issues. That being said, when healthy, he is probably the best weapon Jacksonville has on offense – not that that’s saying much these days.
Fournette is a 23-year-old, talented running back with a lot of treads still left on his tires. Moreover, Jacksonville doesn’t have a solid quarterback at the moment, so they will likely need a versatile back like Fournette to carry the offense for the foreseeable future, especially if they decide to draft and develop a young QB.
8 Out of the League: LeSean McCoy
For nearly a decade, running back LeSean McCoy has been one of the best offensive players in the game. The six-time Pro Bowler and 2013 NFL rushing yards leader previously played for the Philadelphia Eagles and is currently the starting RB for the Buffalo Bills.
As good as McCoy has been, he is now 30-years-old, the age most backs begin to decline, and his numbers are trending downwards. In fact, there has only been one game this year, against the Jets in Week 10, where he has rushed for over 100 yards. While McCoy may still be playing in 2020, it will likely be as a change-of-pace back.
7 Going Strong: Nick Chubb
At the beginning of the year, it looked like rookie Nick Chubb would have a hard time getting carries as part of a crowded Browns backfield, which also featured Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson. However, Hyde has been traded to Jacksonville and Johnson is used primarily as a pass catcher, making Chubb the primary ball carrier in Cleveland.
Chubb has been one of the bright spots on a Browns team that, once again, failed to live up to expectations. That being said, if quarterback Baker Mayfield continues to improve, the Browns could have some interesting weapons on offense, including Chubb, in the future.
6 Out of the League: Frank Gore
Frank Gore has, somewhat quietly had an outstanding career as running back. He spent his best years (2005-2014) as a member of the San Fransisco 49ers. The five-time Pro Bowler also played for the Indianapolis Colts and his current team, the Miami Dolphins. In 2014, the power back became just the 29th player to rush for more than 10,000 yards throughout his career. While he’s not a lock, Gore will be given serious Hall of Fame consideration someday.
The fact that Gore is still starting at age 35 is a very impressive feat in of itself. Of course, one would have to assume he’ll be retired by 2020, right?
5 Going Strong: Aaron Jones
Most people expected the Green Bay Packers to contend for another NFC North division title in 2018. However, barring a minor miracle, the 4-7-1 Packers won’t be making a postseason appearance this year. In fact, things have gotten so bad that the team recently fired longtime head coach Mike McCarthy.
In truth, 2018 is shaping up to be a rough season for Packers fans. However, on the plus side, running back Aaron Jones appears to have emerged as a viable starting RB – so at least there’s that. Jones doesn’t get a ton of carries, as Green Bay doesn’t run the ball much, but he has still managed to score at least one TD in five of his last six games.
4 Out of the League: James Conner
James Conner is native of Millcreek Township, Pennsylvania who ended up being drafted by his home team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, in the third round of the 2017 draft. While the Steelers star running back Le’Veon Bell has missed the entire season due to a contract dispute, Conner has filled in admirably, though he recently suffered a lower leg contusion.
Assuming he’s able to recover from the injury, Conner should easily eclipse 1,000 yards rushing this season. However, it should be noted that the new Steelers star is scheduled to make less than $1 million this season, per for the remainder of his contract, which doesn’t expire until 2021. It’s possible that Pittsburgh could have another RB holdout situation on their hands – and we just saw how the last one ended.
3 Going Strong: Melvin Gordon
Melvin Gordon is a member of the Los Angeles Chargers high-powered offense. The 25-year-old is on pace to have his second consecutive 1,000+ yard rushing season and could wind up playing in the postseason. Gordon is arguably one the five best backs in the league and has still yet to enter his prime.
The first-round pick and 2016 Pro Bowl selection should be a big part of the Chargers offense for the remainder of the season and beyond. His contract expires in 2020. That being said, assuming he stays healthy, it would be something a surprise if San Diego didn’t re-sign him.
2 Out of the League: Spencer Ware
In light of the recent events involving former Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt, Spener Ware finds himself with the starting job in Kansas City, yet again. Ware has been on the Chiefs since 2015 and was the starter for most of the 2016 season – after Jamaal Charles suffered an injury.
Given that the team decided to draft Hunt after Ware’s 2016 campaign, it’s safe to assume that the Chief’s don’t believe Ware is an effective every-down back. Now that Hunt is no longer a member of the team, expect KC to once again draft (or sign) another running back this coming offseason.
1 Going Strong: Saquon Barkley
If Todd Gurley is indeed the best running back in the league, the man most likely to challenge him for that title is New York Giants superstar Saquon Barkley. Barkley already has over 1,000 all-purpose yards heading into Week 14 – as a rookie – who is part of a below average Giants offense. He will certainly warrant serious consideration for Rookie of the Year honors and has a bright future ahead of him.
The Giants probably aren’t going to the playoffs this year, but they do have some talented players on offense to build around in Saquon Barkley and Odell Beckham Jr.