Ranking The NFL’s Starting Running Backs For The 2019 Season
Football season is finally here!
Football season is finally here, and we’ve got a good idea of what all 32 NFL teams will be capable of during the 2019 schedule. Speaking of which, if you want to see our prediction for every team’s season, read those here.
We’ve also already ranked every team’s starting quarterback ahead of the 2019 season, and now we’re turning our attention to the men standing behind them in the backfield. Plenty of faces have changed since last year’s rankings, but the guy we picked as the league’s best in 2018 ended up leading the NFL in rushing touchdowns and helping his team make it to the Super Bowl.
All NFL stats used in our rankings come from Pro Football Reference. Which running back tops the list this year?
32. Kalen Ballage — Miami Dolphins
Second-year back Kalen Ballage hardly got any touches in 2018, rushing for less than 200 total yards over the span of 12 games. But he’s listed as Miami’s starting running back as the 2019 season gets underway. The departure of Frank Gore opened up more opportunities and Ballage was able to jump Kenyan Drake on the team’s depth chart during the preseason.
Ballage’s numbers at Arizona State weren’t anything too spectacular, so he’s going to have to prove himself at the top level because expectations aren’t very high right now. Can he prove himself as a top starter in 2019 or will he surrender his starting job to Drake after just a few games?
31. Damien Williams — Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs take quite a tumble this year in terms of the shape of their running attack, after cutting Kareem Hunt following his assault of a woman last year. We had Hunt ranked third overall heading into the 2018 season, and now we’ve got the Chiefs nearly last heading into 2019 with Damien Williams filling the void.
The team also added LeSean McCoy during the preseason but he’s listed as a backup on the depth chart. Until now, Williams has been a career backup with only seven starts in the past five seasons, so there’s not much to review. In 2018, he averaged just 16.2 yards per game on 4.6 yards per rushing attempt. Could he be this year’s James Conner? Chiefs fans are hoping so.
30. David Montgomery — Chicago Bears
The Bears have a solid team in most phases but their rushing game is still a work in progress. The team has three primary backs, with David Montgomery listed as the starter while Mike Davis and Tarik Cohen are also getting touches. Montgomery is a rookie who was drafted by Chicago in the third round of the 2019 draft, so expectations for him aren’t sky-high.
Montgomery was a 1,000-yard rusher in each of his final two seasons at Iowa State and averaged at least 4.4 yards per carry in all three of his college seasons. He’s capable of being a solid NFL rusher but the rushing game doesn’t seem to be the biggest priority for the Bears at the moment.
29. Peyton Barber — Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Bucs rusher Peyton Barber finds himself moving up — just two spots, but still — on this year’s list.
He started all 16 games in 2018, which itself is worth celebrating at running back, but his numbers were pretty lackluster. He managed to rack up less than 900 rushing yards, managing 54.4 yards per game and 3.7 yards per carry, the latter of which was one of the lower marks in the league among starting running backs. The fact that he only contributed six total touchdowns also didn’t help his standing.
Expect to see young backup Ronald Jones getting some more action if Barber’s numbers don’t improve.
28. Frank Gore — Buffalo Bills
After the Bills surprised many by releasing LeSean McCoy before the 2019 season, veteran Frank Gore stepped up as the team’s starter. He’s basically an ageless wonder at 36 years old, especially playing a position that typically burns guys out before they hit 30.
Buffalo is Gore’s third different team in the past three years and he’s only had a single 1,000-yard season since 2015, with his 722 yards in 2018 being his lowest total since his rookie season. Gore clearly still has some gas in the tank but he didn’t score a single rushing touchdown last season and if the Bills are going to put up any fight in 2019, they’re going to need some serious production from the backfield.
27. Miles Sanders — Philadelphia Eagles
Rookie rusher Miles Sanders is another guy we don’t know much about yet but he’s listed as the starter for the Eagles at the start of the 2019 season. He vaulted past Pro Bowlers Jordan Howard and Darren Sproles on the depth chart in a move that probably stunned some Eagles fans.
Sanders was impressive in his final season at Penn State in 2018, rushing for nearly 1,300 yards and contributing nine touchdowns. Howard will be his primary competition for that starting job, as he rushed for 935 yards in Chicago last season, and we’d expect the touches to be spread around for the early part of the year, at least.
26. Derrius Guice — Washington Redskins
After tearing his ACL in the 2018 preseason, Derrius Guice is finally ready to start his NFL career as a second-year rookie. He’s listed as the starting rusher for the Redskins, surpassing the injured veteran Adrian Peterson. Guice’s potential is almost completely unknown because of that devastating injury but a look at his college stats shows why the team picked him as a second-rounder
In three years at LSU, Guice racked up more than 3,000 rushing yards, somehow averaging more than seven yards per carry in that span. If Guice is able to fully bounce back from his knee injury and get back to what he was doing in college, he will vault up this list in a hurry.
25. Duke Johnson — Houston Texans
After Texans starter Lamar Miller tore his ACL during the preseason, former Browns rusher Duke Johnson was brought in to be the team’s 2019 starter. Despite being an absolute beast in college at Miami, Johnson hasn’t lived up to his capabilities in four NFL seasons thus far.
He’s only scored five total rushing touchdowns despite never missing a game and has never surpassed 400 rushing yards in a season. Maybe in an offense led by a quarterback as explosive as Deshaun Watson, Johnson will be able to explode but he just hasn’t shown he’s capable of it at the highest level to this point.
24. Matt Breida — San Francisco 49ers
Entering his third NFL season, Matt Breida landed the starting job for the 49ers over backup Tevin Coleman, who proved himself with the Falcons in 2018. Breida was no slouch last season, rushing for 814 yards in 14 games, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Breida’s touchdown numbers were dismal, with him only scoring three rushing touchdowns last season, so that hurts his standing on this list. We expect to see Breida and Coleman splitting touches this season, as long as they both stay healthy, so neither man will likely get the chance to shatter many records.
23. Kerryon Johnson — Detroit Lions
In addition to having probably the most fitting name for an NFL rusher ever, Kerryon Johnson put up some solid numbers in limited action as a starter in 2018.
He played in just 10 games but put together an average of more than 85 total yards per game, including 64.1 rushing yards on 5.4 yards per carry. Those numbers are fine for a starter, but the sample size was so small, it’s hard to say what Johnson is really capable of for an entire season. The Lions also signed veteran back C.J. Anderson this offseason, who’s with his fourth team in three years, but the starting job is Johnson’s to lose.
22. Aaron Jones — Green Bay Packers
For a truly dull Packers offense in 2018, Aaron Jones started eight games, and he’s hoping to prove himself even further under a new coaching staff in 2019.
Last season, Jones averaged 60.7 rushing yards per game on a respectable 5.5 yards per attempt. His scoring numbers were solid — with him giving the Packers eight rushing touchdowns — so it’s tough to say he didn’t earn this chance to start full time. Jones has reportedly cut his body fat in half, to just 5.3 percent, ahead of the 2019 season, so we’ll see if that slimmer figure translates to more yards.
21. Phillip Lindsay — Denver Broncos
Yet another running back whose numbers will probably be diminished a bit by a tandem backfield, Phillip Lindsay started eight games and played a total of 15 in 2018. He ended the year with averages of 69.1 rushing yards per game, 16.1 receiving yards per game and 5.4 yards per rush, all of which are solid for a limited time but aren’t going to get him into the top half of this list.
Lindsay will probably split duties with Royce Freeman, but we’ll see if he’s able to make the most of his chances and finish with another 1,000-yard season.
20. Dalvin Cook — Minnesota Vikings
Vikings rusher Dalvin Cook slips a bit in this year’s ranking after placing 16th in our 2018 list. He only saw action in 11 games, managing to average just 55.9 rushing yards per game on 4.6 yards per carry. His scoring numbers were also dismal, scoring only twice on the ground and twice through the air in those games.
Cook’s poor showing was one of the main reasons Minnesota had the third-worst rushing attack in the NFL last season. If things don’t improve this season, plenty of Vikings fans will want him off the top of the depth chart and replaced by rookie Alexander Mattison, who had a great career at Boise State. But we bet Cook rises to the occasion following his disappointing 2018 campaign.
19. Nick Chubb — Cleveland Browns
In his rookie season, Nick Chubb played in all 16 games but only got to start in nine. He clearly proved himself to the Browns staff, because he’s the team’s starter for 2019. In that limited action on a pass-heavy offense, Chubb averaged just 62.3 rushing yards per game on 5.2 yards per carry. He fell just four yards shy of a 1,000-yard season and proved to be a careful carrier, not fumbling once.
Former Chiefs rusher Kareem Hunt will be eligible to play for the Browns after eight games, so it’ll be up to Chubb to prove they won’t need to rely on Hunt’s services by that point.
18. James Conner — Pittsburgh Steelers
Like many in the media, we buried James Conner last year, and he proved us wrong. We ranked him dead last in our 2018 list, which was largely due to him being unproven and having to step up in the wake of star Le’Veon Bell’s abrupt departure from Pittsburgh.
Conner more than rose to the occasion, contributing 74.8 rushing yards per game and another 38.2 receiving yards per game on top at a time when Steelers fans needed some positive news. He finished with 973 total rushing yards in 13 games played, also averaging a touchdown per game. If Conner keeps that production up in 2019, he’ll be setting himself up to be considered among the league’s best in a town that loves its running backs.
17. Mark Ingram — Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens had the second-best rushing attack in the NFL in 2018, but much of that was due to quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Veteran rusher Mark Ingram is new in Baltimore this season and will look to bolster their prowess even more. In his time as a full-time starter with New Orleans, from 2016 to 2017, Ingram averaged a little more than 90 all-purpose yards per game and around 11 total touchdowns a season.
It’ll be interesting to see how this two-time Pro Bowler is able to fit into an offense that’s as unique as Baltimore’s. Will we see the Ingram of old, or an Ingram that just looks old?
16. Sony Michel — New England Patriots
Look, Sony Michel’s numbers from 2018 aren’t going to light the world on fire, but he more than proved himself on the biggest stages in football.
After averaging less than 75 all-purpose yards per game during the regular season, Michel was huge in New England’s run to winning another Super Bowl, finishing with 94 yards and a touchdown in the big game. During the team’s playoff run, Michel averaged 112 yards and two touchdowns a game while committing no fumbles. He more than proved he was capable of greatness and could provide plenty of relief for when Tom Brady’s arm is tired of throwing to Antonio Brown, Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon.
15. Josh Jacobs — Oakland Raiders
Hopes are high for rookie Josh Jacobs, who is stepping up in place of the retired legend Marshawn Lynch in 2019.
Jacobs showed what he’s capable of during his three-year college career at Alabama — and it’s plenty to get Raiders fans excited. In 2018, Jacobs played 15 games for the Crimson Tide, averaging 5.3 yards per touch and racking up a monstrous 14 touchdowns.
The entire Raiders organization has plenty to prove in 2019, especially with the sudden departure of Antonio Brown, and Jacobs could prove to be the key to their entire final season in Oakland. No pressure!
14. Devonta Freeman — Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons were abysmal when it came to running the ball in 2018, finishing with the league’s sixth-worst total on the ground. If anything, that proves how valuable Devonta Freeman is to that team since knee and groin issues forced him to miss all but two games.
Before last year’s injuries, Freeman had been completely reliable in the backfield, averaging better than 90 all-purpose yards per game for the 2016 and 2017 seasons combined. When you play with a quarterback as gifted as Matt Ryan, the rushing opportunities are limited, but Freeman has already shown he can make the most of them, provided his injuries have fully healed.
13. Leonard Fournette — Jacksonville Jaguars
As is the case with many starting running backs, injuries caught up with Leonard Fournette in 2018, causing him to miss half the season.
In the eight games he did play, Fournette averaged just 54.9 rushing yards per game, which was 25 yards fewer than he averaged as a rookie in 2017. He was averaging a touchdown per game, but there’s no doubt that Fournette’s injuries helped make the Jaguars the second-worst scoring offense in the NFL last season.
The team — and its fans — are hoping he gets back to what made him legendary in college and as a standout as a rookie. We’re betting he does.
12. Derrick Henry — Tennessee Titans
If anyone is hoping what they did at the end of 2018 will carry over into this season, it’s Derrick Henry.
He finished last season on a big high, leading the league in rushing for December 2018 and being named the AFC’s offensive player of the month. That month included a single, record-tying 99-yard rush, which contributed to his season total of 1,059 yards. Henry also contributed 12 rushing touchdowns for the Titans last season, which is a monster number considering the team only started him in 12 games. Now it’s time to see if he can keep those numbers up for a whole season.
11. David Johnson — Arizona Cardinals
The 2018 season was one that saw David Johnson bouncing back from injuries that kept him at bay during 2017. He put together a decent year, but it was nowhere near the monster season he had in 2016 that made him into a fantasy football favorite.
The Cardinals were just awful all around last season, putting up the fewest points per game in the league, but the fact they were the NFL’s worst rushing team falls more on Johnson’s shoulders. Kyler Murray joining the Cardinals should help bump Johnson’s numbers back to what’s he’s really capable of — as long as the rookie passer doesn’t hog the ball too much!
10. Chris Carson — Seattle Seahawks
In his first season as a full-time NFL starter, Chris Carson helped make the Seahawks the best rushing team in the NFL. He started 14 games last year, coming up with 1,151 rushing yards on 82.2 per game.
After low expectations in 2018 — we had him ranked 28th on last year’s list — it’ll be interesting to see how Carson plays now that he has everyone’s attention. If he wants to vault even higher on this list, he’ll try to get even more catches and get into the end zone a little more often, as he only scored nine times last year.
9. Marlon Mack — Indianapolis Colts
In his first season as a starter, Marlon Mack proved to be a pleasant surprise for the Colts, helping the team earn a playoff berth. In the 12 games he played in 2018 — 10 of which he started — Mack contributed more than 75 yards per game on the ground on 4.7 yards per carry.
If he’s able to start every game in 2019, there’s no reason to think Mack won’t have his first 1,000-yard season. The 10 touchdowns he contributed to the team’s bottom line last year were also much appreciated and the team will likely need him to pick up even more slack in 2019 with the sudden retirement of quarterback Andrew Luck.
8. Joe Mixon — Cincinnati Bengals
Joe Mixon is honestly one of the few bright spots keeping Bengals fans excited for the 2019 season. He had an outstanding season in 2018, proving he’s capable of being one of the game’s best.
In 14 games played, he put up 1,168 rushing yards to go with nearly 300 receiving yards. He averaged better than 100 all-purpose yards per game, making him a hot pick to be one of the game’s top rushers in 2019. If he can bump his touchdown numbers up, he’ll easily stand among the game’s elites.
7. Melvin Gordon — Los Angeles Chargers
This is a tough one because Melvin Gordon is currently in the middle of a nasty contract disagreement with the Chargers, meaning he’s holding out until he can get more money or a trade. But, as of the opening of the 2019 season, he’s still listed as the team’s starting running back, so we’re counting him on the list.
He had a Pro Bowl season in 2018, despite missing four games, due to his impressive numbers on the gridiron. His average of 5.1 yards per carry was by far the best mark of his career, and the 1,375 total yards from scrimmage he contributed was just below his career high.
During the 2018 season, Gordon averaged more than 110 all-purpose yards per game and accounted for 13 total touchdowns. He was a major reason the Chargers were one of the league’s best teams last season and is a major reason we’ve picked them to win the Super Bowl this season … provided he can come to an agreement with the team.
6. Christian McCaffrey — Carolina Panthers
Christian McCaffrey’s numbers in 2018 were nearly identical to Melvin Gordon’s, but the fact that he hasn’t missed a game in two seasons gives him an edge that few rushers hold.
McCaffrey was this close to putting up 2,000 all-purpose yards in 2018, averaging 68.6 rushing yards and 54.2 receiving yards per game all season. He also scored 13 times for the Panthers and always takes some of the immense pressure off of Cam Newton in lugging that offense along. With Newton again suffering injuries in 2018, McCaffrey could be leaned on even further, seeing his numbers boosted again in 2019.
5. Alvin Kamara — New Orleans Saints
Saints fans are not only lucky enough to have arguably the best quarterback in the league leading their team, they also have one of its best all-around offensive threats in Alvin Kamara. In another Pro Bowl season — he’s made it in both years of his career so far — Kamara again proved his greatness, averaging more than 106 all-purpose yards per game.
Despite only starting 13 games in 2018, Kamara finished the year with 18 total touchdowns, which was second best among all rushers. Kamara is easily capable of 2,000 all-purpose yards in a season and 2019 may finally be the year he crosses that line.
4. Todd Gurley — Los Angeles Rams
We ranked Todd Gurley at the top of this list last season and he had another brilliant season, winding up a Pro Bowler and All-Pro selection.
Gurley was a massive reason the Rams were able to score the league’s second most points and make it to the Super Bowl, as he led all running backs in rushing touchdowns (15) and total touchdowns (20) — stats he’s led the league in for the past two years.
Injury questions nagged Gurley late in the season and are still lingering heading into the 2019 season, which is why he dipped a bit on our list, but if he stays healthy it wouldn’t be shocking to see him finish the year as the best rusher in football.
3. Ezekiel Elliott — Dallas Cowboys
It’s tough to argue against Ezekiel Elliott as the NFL’s best pure rusher, especially since he’s led the league in rushing yards per game during all three of his career seasons so far. Last year, he finished with an outstanding 1,434 rushing yards alone.
If you take the 2017 and 2018 campaigns combined, Elliott has averaged 96.7 rushing yards and 33.4 receiving yards per game. The Cowboys are virtually guaranteed to get 1,000 rushing yards from Elliott every season, putting him in elite territory.
But we think two guys will have his number in 2019.
2. Saquon Barkley — New York Giants
The breakout star of 2018, Giants rusher Saquon Barkley was named the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year for his heroics in the Giants backfield.
Barkley got it done all over the field, contributing 81.7 rushing yards and 45.1 receiving yards per game in a full, 16-game season as the starter in New York. He also gave the team 11 rushing touchdowns and 15 touchdowns overall on top of committing no fumbles.
Honestly, it’s hard to imagine a better rookie season for a running back than what Barkley put together in 2018. We’re banking on him repeating that success this season, playing for a team that will be relying heavily on him to have any success.
1. Le’Veon Bell — New York Jets
Don’t call it a comeback. After voluntarily sitting out the 2018 season due to a contract dispute with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Le’Veon Bell landed with the New York Jets, where he will be completely unleashed as the focus of the team’s offense.
He’s already proven himself to be a once-in-a-generation type of rusher, averaging more than 140 all-purpose yards per game during the 2016 and 2017 seasons combined. He’s got all the numbers of Ezekiel Elliott but with more receiving yards and more touchdowns.
It remains to be seen how the Jets offense will complement his style but, after a year of sitting by and watching other guys play, we’re expecting Bell to have his third All-Pro season of his young career.