With so much uncertainty in the world right now, the return of pro football couldn’t be any more welcome. We’re just a matter of weeks away from the kickoff of the 2020-21 NFL season and while some big-name players have decided to sit out due to concerns over their health, most of the game’s top stars will be on the field.
We’ve already given you our rankings of the league’s starting quarterbacks and the teams themselves, as well as some fantasy football draft options, and now it’s time to look in the backfield. Using figures pulled from Pro Football Reference, here’s how we’re ranking the NFL’s starting running backs ahead of the upcoming season.
32. Jordan Howard — Miami Dolphins
After bouncing around recently, Jordan Howard is starting for his third different team in as many seasons this year. In 2019-2020 with the Eagles, the former Pro Bowler saw his output shrink to career lows in his fourth season. He missed six games with a shoulder injury last season and ended up averaging 52.5 rushing yards per game when healthy, a far cry from the 87.5 yards he averaged during his rookie season with the Bears in 2016.
We aren’t expecting a ton from Howard in Miami, as he’ll be splitting touches with Matt Breida in an offense that struggled to gain any yardage on the ground last year.
31. Chris Thompson — Jacksonville Jaguars
After the Jaguars suddenly cut their starting running back, Leonard Fournette, just weeks before the regular season started, the job fell to Chris Thompson. He’s been a backup his entire career to this point, which has included seven seasons in Washington, so this will be a big opportunity for Thompson. Over the past four seasons, he’s played in 47 games and has averaged just 329 rushing yards per 16 games in that stretch. He’s been much more effective as a receiving threat, averaging 512 receiving yards per 16 games in the same span and scoring 12 total touchdowns.
We haven’t seen anything to make us think Thompson will be an elite rusher and certainly not one on the level of his predecessor in Jacksonville.
30. David Montgomery — Chicago Bears
The Bears tried a three-headed rushing attack for much of last season and it resulted in one of the weakest rushing attacks in the NFL. As a rookie, David Montgomery was one of the trio and he’s now listed as the team’s featured back heading into his second season. His numbers were below par in 2019-20, as he averaged 55.6 rushing yards per game on a weak 3.7 yards per carry in 16 appearances. Montgomery is going to have to step it way up if he hopes to help Chicago earn back its reputation as a rushing powerhouse.
29. James White — New England Patriots
The starting running back job in New England should belong to Sony Michel but he’s out indefinitely after offseason foot surgery, meaning James White will likely have the job at the start of the year. White has been with the Patriots since 2014, winning three Super Bowls with them, and he’s had virtually no injury issues in his role as a backup since then. White has only averaged 22.2 rushing yards per game during the past two seasons but he’s been much more active as a pass-catcher, averaging 45.0 receiving yards per game in that same stretch.
We honestly have no clue what to expect from this offense with Cam Newton under center but the Patriots haven’t been huge on the running game for a while.
28. Kerryon Johnson — Detroit Lions
To be honest, we’re not sure who the starting running back for the Lions will be this season — because the team isn’t either. Rookie D’Andre Swift will probably get some chances and Bo Scarbrough is also in the mix after an impressive five-game stint as their starter last year but Kerryon Johnson is the most likely choice. In two seasons so far, Johnson has been simply decent, averaging 58 rushing yards per game on 4.5 per carry with just six rushing scores in 18 games, with all of his numbers last year taking a dip from his rookie campaign.
Johnson also missed the last half of 2019-20 with a knee injury, so his explosiveness and durability are in question.
27. Adrian Peterson — Washington Football Team
One of the NFL’s elder statesmen continues to defy the laws of aging in sports as a starting rusher at the age of 35. Adrian Peterson isn’t putting up mind-boggling numbers anymore but he’s still outpacing guys that are 10 years his junior. In the last two seasons, the future Hall of Famer has missed just one game and has given Washington 62.6 rushing yards per game. He missed the 1,000-yard threshold last season and it’s tough to imagine him getting there this year but you know you’ll get about 4.2 yards per carry with Peterson as long as he stays healthy.
26. David Johnson — Houston Texans
The deal the Texans made to get David Johnson from the Cardinals was frankly baffling, especially considering where the running back’s numbers have gone since his All-Pro breakout season in 2016-17. Over the last two years, Johnson has averaged just over 44 rushing yards and 28 receiving yards per game. He finished last season with just 345 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns in 13 starts, by far the worst tallies of any full season of his NFL tenure so far. Houston is counting on him to be a major spark for their offense in 2020-21 but we’ve seen no evidence that he’s reliable for it.
25. Clyde Edwards-Helaire — Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs spent their first-round pick on Clyde Edwards-Helaire this year and he’ll get to start sooner than expected because of Damien Williams’ decision to opt out of the 2020-21 season. The rookie has the makings of a potential star, given his pedigree as LSU’s featured back during their championship season last year. As a junior there, Edwards-Helaire averaged more than 125 all-purpose yards per game, including 94 rushing yards per game, and scored 17 touchdowns in 15 games.
24. Todd Gurley — Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta had a miserable running game last season, which led them to make a move for Todd Gurley — but he had a pretty miserable one as well. The three-time Pro Bowler stumbled last season, though the Falcons have to be praying that was just a fluke. He rushed for a career-low 857 yards in 2019-20 with the Rams, averaging just 57.1 rushing yards per game, which was more than 30 yards below his average from the previous season. Still, Gurley is a touchdown machine. He scored 14 total times last year, which again ranked him among the leaders at the position.
23. Raheem Mostert — San Francisco 49ers
Raheem Mostert has been bouncing around the NFL since 2015 but many football fans had never heard of him until last season. He played in all 16 games in a backup role for the 49ers, who happened to have the best pure rushing attack in the league last year. Matt Breida is going and Tevin Coleman is listed as the backup, giving Mostert his first chance to be a starter in his career. Last year, Mostert averaged about 60 all-purpose yards per game and gave the 49ers 10 total touchdowns on a position-best 5.6 yards per carry.
Mostert will benefit greatly from the run-heavy offense of the 49ers, even if he’s not the most impressive individual back in the league.
22. James Conner — Pittsburgh Steelers
Former Pro Bowler James Conner had a very disappointing season in 2019-20 after dazzling football fans the previous year. Conner’s numbers shriveled to 46.4 rushing yards per game and 25.1 receiving yards per game, way down from 74.8 and 38.2, respectively. But to be fair, the entire Pittsburgh offense took a hit last year when Ben Roethlisberger went down. Conner also battled injuries at the end of the season, forcing him to miss six games, which we hope won’t be a pattern.
21. Cam Akers — Los Angeles Rams
After sending longtime featured back Todd Gurley to Atlanta this offseason, there will likely be a competition in the Rams backfield this year but we like Cam Akers’ chances to stand out. The incoming rookie was a beast at Florida State for three seasons, finishing his tenure with a junior year where he averaged 104 rushing yards per game and found the end zone 14 times in 11 games. Akers averaged 4.9 yards per carry for his entire career at FSU and while he’ll meet much tougher defenses at this level, he’s got the makings of a punishing runner.
20. Devin Singletary — Buffalo Bills
Devin Singletary impressed many Bills fans with his explosiveness in an abbreviated stint as the team’s starting rusher last season. In 12 games, eight of which he started, the rookie averaged 5.1 yards per carry, which was tied with Pro Bowler Derrick Henry for the best mark among starting running backs. That resulted in 64.6 rushing yards per game but a measly two rushing touchdowns on the year. Singletary still has plenty to prove as his team tries to become the top dog in the AFC East.
19. Miles Sanders — Philadelphia Eagles
Miles Sanders showed some real promise as a rookie rusher last season. He appeared in all 16 games for the Eagles, starting in 11 of them, and averaged more than 82 all-purpose yards per outing. His average pickup of 4.6 yards per carry was particularly impressive and it jumped even higher, to 4.9 yards per carry, when he got the start in the team’s playoff game. The Eagles led the NFL in rushing fumbles in 2019-20, with Sanders coughing it up twice in 179 touches, but he’s an exciting young back that will be fun to watch as a full-time starter this season.
18. Le’Veon Bell — New York Jets
The great Le’Veon Bell comeback tour was a bust last season. After sitting out the entire 2018-19 slate during a contract dispute with the Steelers, Bell took his talents to East Rutherford and joined the Jets. The team’s entire offense was dismal but Bell was particularly disappointing, given the All-Pro figures he’d routinely put up in Pittsburgh. In 15 starts, Bell finished the year with just three rushing touchdowns and the lowest yardage total he’d earned since the 2015-16 season, when he missed 10 games after a knee injury. His average of 3.2 yards per carry was also easily the worst of his career.
17. Austin Ekeler — Los Angeles Chargers
When the Chargers star rusher, Melvin Gordon, sat out the start of last season, backup Austin Ekeler made the most of his opportunity. Now that Gordon has been shipped to Denver, Ekeler is the team’s starter and expectations are high after he proved himself to be one of the best pass-catching running backs in the game last year. The 25-year-old averaged 62.1 receiving yards per game, plus another 34.8 yards on the ground, finishing with 11 total touchdowns for a career-best season. Ekeler won’t have the considerable talents of Philip Rivers throwing to him anymore but he also won’t be handcuffed to Gordon, so his production could go either way.
16. Kenyan Drake — Arizona Cardinals
Kenyan Drake was traded to Arizona from Miami in the middle of last season and he blew expectations away with his new team. In eight starts with the Cardinals, Drake averaged more than 100 all-purpose yards per game, including a career-best 80.4 rushing yards per game. Arizona has one of the most exciting offenses on paper heading into 2020-21, which is why we were high on them in our preseason predictions, and Drake is a major complement to their passing game.
15. Melvin Gordon — Denver Broncos
Last season was a disappointment for Melvin Gordon, who sat out the first four games of the year while awaiting a big contract from the Chargers. After three straight seasons of top-tier production, he saw his figures dip to their lowest points since his rookie year in 2015-16. He averaged 51 rushing yards and 24.7 receiving yards per game last year and was arguably outworked by his backup, Austin Ekeler, who is now the starting back for the Chargers since Gordon was shipped to Denver.
If he gets back to the kind of numbers that made him a two-time Pro Bowler, Gordon will be back among the elites. We are being optimistic since the Broncos look pretty strong coming into the season.
14. Marlon Mack — Indianapolis Colts
Marlon Mack rumbled to his first 1,000-yard rushing season in 2019-20 and has developed into one of the most reliable pure running backs in the game over the past three years. The Colts starter averaged 77.9 rushing yards per game and scored eight times in 14 appearances last season. Indianapolis fans also appreciated the fact that Mack didn’t fumble once, despite 261 total touches during the year. Even with that production, he will surely face a backfield challenge from incoming rookie Jonathan Taylor, who was outstanding at Wisconsin and has NFL pundits raving about his potential.
13. Joe Mixon — Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals had a miserable rushing game last season but, to be fair, they were pretty much miserable across the board. Joe Mixon was the best part of the team’s offense, giving them nearly 90 all-purpose yards per game, including 71.1 rushing yards per game. He played in all 16 games for the first time in his three-year career and picked up his second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season. One of the best parts of Mixon’s game is that he protects the ball better than just about any rusher in the NFL, not fumbling once over the past two seasons.
12. Mark Ingram — Baltimore Ravens
Mark Ingram’s production was largely overshadowed by that of his quarterback, NFL most valuable player Lamar Jackson, but the Ravens rusher had a stellar year. He put together his third 1,000-yard rushing season of the last four years on figures that were all near his career highs. No team in the NFL ran the ball more than Baltimore and Ingram benefited greatly from that energy, picking up 5.0 yards per carry and netting 15 total touchdowns on the season and making his third Pro Bowl. With Jackson getting even more attention from defenses this year, Ingram’s numbers could creep even higher.
11. Chris Carson — Seattle Seahawks
Chris Carson had a brilliant season for the Seahawks last year, putting together his second straight 1,000-yard rushing season and finishing in the top five for total rushing yards. He was behind only Derrick Henry for total first downs earned among running backs, showing how much the team leaned on him when they really needed a few yards. He averaged nearly 100 all-purpose yards per game but his combined touchdown total was meager at nine. Carson would be ranked a bit higher if he hadn’t fumbled seven times in 15 games, which was the highest tally at the running back position.
10. Leonard Fournette — Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Perhaps the biggest shock of the 2020 NFL training camp period came when the Jaguars suddenly decided to cut ties with their star rusher, Leonard Fournette. He was quickly scooped up by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he’s initially backing up Ronald Jones II but should end up topping the depth chart. He tallied a career-high 1,152 rushing yards and 1,674 total yards last season, in a return to form after a shaky 2018-19 campaign.
But even with all that yardage, Fournette only scored three touchdowns in 15 games last season, which was the lowest tally among starting running backs. The Bucs look to have a much more potent offense this year than he was used to in Jacksonville, so hopefully he’ll have a lot more chances to sprint into the end zone.
9. Alvin Kamara — New Orleans Saints
Three seasons into his NFL career, Alvin Kamara has made the Pro Bowl three times and has been reliable for at least 1,300 all-purpose yards every year. The Saints stud is about as good a pass-catching rusher as there is today, averaging 42.8 receiving yards to go along with 57.9 rushing yards per game over the past two seasons. However, Kamara saw his touchdown tally slip significantly in 2019-20, finishing with just six total scores in 14 games, and he fumbled four times, which was twice as many drops as he’d had in the previous two years combined.
With Drew Brees back at full power, we’ve got high expectations for the Saints in 2020-21 and that includes Kamara’s output.
8. Aaron Jones — Green Bay Packers
In his third season, Aaron Jones proved himself as a reliable offensive weapon every week for the Packers. He was one of the few starting running backs who didn’t miss a start and he found the end zone more than once a game on average. Jones’ 16 rushing touchdowns stat was tied for the most in the league last season although his average of 67.8 rushing yards per game barely cracked the top 15 at the position. However, his 29.6 receiving yards per game put him near 100 all-purpose yards every week and it seems like he could only go up from there.
7. Saquon Barkley — New York Giants
After he had a breakout rookie season in 2018-19, last year was seen as a slight disappointment for Saquon Barkley, though his production was still among the best at the position. The 23-year-old star rusher averaged more than 110 all-purpose yards per game — down just a tick from the 119 he averaged the previous year — but his touchdown total was nearly cut in half. Barkley should still be ranked among the top-tier running backs because there aren’t many guys who can give you 1,400 yards from the scrimmage in just 13 games, which is exactly what he did for the Giants last season.
6. Nick Chubb — Cleveland Browns
While the Browns were a major disappointment last season overall, Nick Chubb surpassed all expectations. In his second year in the league, the young rusher didn’t miss a start and landed in his first Pro Bowl. His average of 93.4 rushing yards per game was the second best in the NFL, as was his tally of 1,494 rushing yards. The only two guys who ran the ball more times than him in 2019-20 were Derrick Henry and Ezekiel Elliott and he only fumbled three times despite 298 carries.
Chubb reportedly suffered a concussion during training camp but here’s hoping he remains one of the game’s most durable and dependable powerhouses.
5. Dalvin Cook — Minnesota Vikings
Dalvin Cook bounced back from a disappointing season in 2018-19 to make his first Pro Bowl last season. He more than earned that distinction by rushing for 1,135 yards and contributing nearly 120 total yards per game to the Vikings offense. It was the type of output that Minnesota fans crossed their fingers for after he showed flashes of brilliance during a brief rookie season three years ago. A potential contract holdout has tempered our expectations for 2020-21 but Cook’s production when he’s active has earned him a place among the elites.
4. Josh Jacobs — Las Vegas Raiders
Despite missing three games with a broken shoulder, Josh Jacobs finished his rookie season with 1,150 rushing yards, establishing himself a star on the rise. He missed out on a Pro Bowl selection but certainly had the figures for it, averaging more than 100 total yards per game, including 88.5 on the ground. The 22-year-old was the only running back to finish in the top 10 for yardage last season with less than 14 games of work and the fact that he only fumbled once all season only made him look more impressive.
Expect Jacobs to be even better this time in carrying the Raiders to a playoff berth.
3. Ezekiel Elliott — Dallas Cowboys
Last season marked the first time in his storied, four-year career that Ezekiel Elliott didn’t lead the league in some major rushing category. With that said, he still had a great season and remains arguably the biggest star at the position. His average of 84.8 rushing yards per game was the lowest of his career so far but he still managed to gain more than 110 total yards per game, which landed him in his third Pro Bowl. It was also the third season in which Elliott surpassed 300 carries, which makes you wonder how long the 25-year-old phenom can keep that workload up.
2. Christian McCaffrey — Carolina Panthers
We had Christian McCaffrey atop this list last season and he rewarded us with a remarkable year where he earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections. His production has been truly freakish over the past couple seasons but he took it to another level in 2019-20, picking up more than 1,300 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving to lead the league with 2,392 yards from scrimmage. His 403 total touches were also the most in the NFL and he only fumbled once despite that Herculean workload.
McCaffrey’s 19 combined touchdowns were also the most of any player, making him virtually a one-man show for Carolina. He could’ve easily topped the rankings again but we felt one rusher did enough to put himself out front last season.
1. Derrick Henry — Tennessee Titans
If we could re-draft the entire NFL right now, there’s no running back we’d rather have in the backfield than Derrick Henry. The Titans wisely reached a $50 million deal with him this offseason following a 2019-20 season that was MVP-caliber. Henry led all rushers in all the major stat categories, including rushing yards (1,540), rushing attempts (303) and rushing touchdowns (16) — all while playing in only 15 games. He averaged 102.7 rushing yards per game, nearly 10 yards per game ahead of second place. We honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see him match that production this year.