Ranking The NFL’s Starting Running Backs Ahead Of The 2019 Season
Football season will be here before you know it!
Football season is already almost here again, and we’re finally getting a good idea of what all 32 NFL teams will look like come the start of the 2019 schedule. We’re helping you get ready for it by checking out some of the most important cogs in every team’s machine and figuring out who could end up holding the Lombardi Trophy come February 2020.
We’ve already ranked every team’s starting quarterback heading into 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. Who will top the list this year?
32. 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 alleged assault of a woman last year.
We had Hunt ranked third overall heading into the 2018 season, and now we’ve got the team dead last with Damien Williams filling the void. 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.
31. Mike Davis — Chicago Bears
Another new face on the list who is mostly unproven as a starter is new Bears rusher Mike Davis. He’s been in the league for four seasons, starting just nine games total for Seattle and San Francisco.
In 15 games played in 2018, Davis averaged 34.3 yards per game and punched in five total touchdowns. It appears he’ll be splitting touches three ways with David Montgomery and Tarik Cohen, so don’t expect massive numbers from Davis unless someone gets hurt or he seriously separates himself from the pack early on.
30. Peyton Barber — Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Bucs rusher Peyton Barber finds himself moving up — just a single notch, 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.
29. Tevin Coleman — San Francisco 49ers
When Devonta Freeman went down last season in Atlanta, Tevin Coleman benefited most by getting to step into the spotlight. Coleman started 14 games for the Falcons last season, averaging 50 rushing yards and 17.3 receiving yards per game. Coleman proved to be a dangerous scoring threat through the air, contributing five touchdowns via pass plays, which was more than the four he gave the Falcons on the ground.
Now in San Francisco, Coleman will be the top starter, but he’s expected to split touches with Matt Breida, who also had a solid 2018 season.
28. Dalvin Cook — Minnesota Vikings
Vikings rusher Dalvin Cook slips quite 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.
27. Adrian Peterson — Washington Redskins
The future Hall of Famer continues to defy all logic simply by remaining a viable starting running back at 34 years old. He racked up more than 1,000 yards on the ground for Washington in 2018, but A.P. appears ready to pass the torch, especially given reports that he’ll likely split carries with rookie Derrius Guice this season.
For the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Peterson averaged 60.4 yards per game on just 3.9 yards per attempt, likely meaning the insane number of miles on his body are finally starting to add up. We’ll see if the former MVP has another pleasantly surprising season left in him.
26. Jordan Howard — Philadelphia Eagles
Former Pro Bowler Jordan Howard lands in Philadelphia after a decent year starting for the Chicago Bears in 2018. He was a 935-yard rusher for the season, which saw him start in 15 games, averaging just 64.3 yards per game on 3.9 yards per attempt.
The biggest upside to Howard is his ability to stay healthy, as he’s only missed a single start in the past two seasons, which is remarkable for a starting rusher. Eagles fans are hoping he’ll have better numbers to show for that clean bill of health — or they’ll be clamoring for rookie Miles Sanders to take his job.
25. LeSean McCoy — Buffalo Bills
Up until last season, you could pretty much always count on 100 all-purpose yards per game from LeSean McCoy, which is what helped make him a Pro Bowler in five straight seasons. But 2018 saw him turn a career low in rushing yards by far, earning only 514 rushing yards in 14 games played (that’s a brutal 37 yards per game). When you average his numbers for the 2017 and 2018 seasons, the story isn’t much better, with McCoy averaging 77 all-purpose yards a game on 3.7 yards per carry.
If these numbers keep up, McCoy’s days as a guaranteed starter might be winding down.
24. Kenyan Drake — Miami Dolphins
With Frank Gore now playing in Buffalo, Kenyan Drake should get plenty of chances to show his skills as the top running back in Miami in 2019.
He’s got plenty to prove because his numbers have been pretty weak so far. In seven games started for the Dolphins in 2018, Drake contributed 33.4 rushing yards per game to go with 29.8 receiving yards. Those numbers are comparable to his 2017 stats as well, but he didn’t bump his touchdown numbers up a lot, scoring a career-high nine total times.
Can he steal the show and prove himself as a top starter in 2019?
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.
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 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. 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, and Jacobs could prove to be the key to their entire season. No pressure!
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.
Disgraced 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 his services by that point.
18. 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?
17. Lamar Miller — Houston Texans
After a Pro Bowl season in 2018, Texans rusher Lamar Miller moves up a spot in our pre-season rankings this year. Miller’s averages really weren’t off the charts — 69.5 rushing yards and 11.6 receiving yards per game — but he fell just 27 yards shy of his third 1,000-yard season.
Miller is reliable and he takes care of the football, even if he’s not going to torch the record books or contribute a ton of touchdowns. Speaking of which, he only chipped in five rushing touchdowns in 14 games, which isn’t going to land him in elite territory anytime soon.
16. 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.
15. 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 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 absolute best.
14. 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 Tom Brady’s offense.
13. 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.
12. 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.
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 he doesn’t hog the ball too much!
10. 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.
9. 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.
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 quickly be among the game’s elites.
7. 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.
6. Melvin Gordon — Los Angeles Chargers
Melvin Gordon climbs one spot on our 2019 list, following a Pro Bowl season in 2018 despite missing four games. 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.
5. 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.
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 before the 2019 season, which is why he dipped a bit, but if he stays healthy it wouldn’t be shocking to see him finish the year as the best rusher in football.
3. 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.
2. 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 one guy will have his number in 2019.
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 compliment 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.