In today’s pass-happy NFL, it should come as no surprise that the role and status of the running back has changed. Consider that last season seven players rushed for at least 1,000 yards. Just five years ago that number was 17. Also, when Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott was taken with the fourth overall pick of this year’s draft he represented just the third running back taken in the first round in the past four drafts combined.
That doesn’t running backs are no longer valuable, but the skill set and job description certainly has changed. Even though Le’Veon Bell is recovering from a torn ACL, he still claims the top spot in Athlon Sports’ running back rankings, which were done in conjunction with Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services and appear in the 2016 NFL Preview magazine. The main reason? Bell is just a much a weapon in the passing game as he is taking the hand off with 107 receptions for nearly 1,000 yards over the last two seasons (22 games).
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services, which has been in the football talent evaluation business for more than three decades.
2016 NFL Running Back Rankings
1. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh
He missed the second half of the 2015 season with an MCL tear, but before the injury, the Pro Bowl-caliber back was averaging 4.9 yards per carry and 92.7 yards per game.
2. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota
The workhorse led the NFL with 1,485 yards with over 20 carries per game. He scored 11 times and averaged 4.5 yards per carry.
3. Doug Martin, Tampa Bay
Re-signed with the Bucs as an unrestricted free agent in 2016. Only Peterson rushed for than his 1,402 yards in 2015.
4. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City
The explosive back has rushed for 7,220 yards and caught 283 passes heading into the 2016 season. Suffered a season-ending knee injury for the second time in his career in ‘15.
5. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles
Voted the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, Gurley exploded on the field with 146 yards on 19 carries during the fourth week of the season and hasn’t looked back.
6. Matt Forté, N.Y. Jets
Signed by the Jets in the offseason as an unrestricted free agent. The 30-year-old back has been one of the most complete offensive players in the NFL the past eight years.
7. Jonathan Stewart, Carolina
Led the Super Bowl runner-up with a career-high 242 carries. Ranks second in franchise history with 1,283 rushing attempts and 5,814 rushing yards.
8. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta
Earned his first Pro Bowl selection after rushing for 1,056 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also caught 73 passes and tallied three more scores in 2015.
9. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo
Averaged 74.6 yards per game, fifth-best in the NFL in his first season in Buffalo. He added 32 catches for 292 yards and two touchdowns. McCoy has 332 receptions in six-year career.
10. Lamar Miller, Houston
Averaged 4.6 yards per carry in Miami and was signed by the Texans as an unrestricted free agent. Miller has a lot of tread left on those tires, getting only 12.1 carries per game last season.
11. Chris Ivory, Jacksonville
12. Eddie Lacy, Green Bay
13. Frank Gore, Indianapolis
14. Latavius Murray, Oakland
15. Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati
16. Darren McFadden, Dallas
17. C.J. Anderson, Denver
18. David Johnson, Arizona
19. Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati
20. DeMarco Murray, Tennessee
21. Ronnie Hillman, Denver
22. Alfred Morris, Dallas
23. DeAngelo Williams, Pittsburgh
24. T.J. Yeldon, Jacksonville
25. Dion Lewis, New England
26. Rashad Jennings, N.Y. Giants
27. Karlos Williams, Buffalo
28. Mark Ingram, New Orleans
29. Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland
30. Duke Johnson, Cleveland
2016 NFL Fullback Rankings
1. Mike Tolbert, Carolina
Was voted first-team All-Pro as the lead blocker for Jonathan Stewart and pass protector for Cam Newton. The utility back can do it all, including carry the ball and catch passes out of the backfield.
2. Patrick DiMarco, Atlanta
The second-team All Pro paved the way for Devonta Freeman’s success in 2015. He also caught 13 passes for 110 yards and scored twice.
3. Bruce Miller, San Francisco
Was a Pro Bowl-caliber player during the Jim Harbaugh era but was used only in spot duty in 2015. He excelled on special teams. Miller caught 10 passes for 135 yards last fall.
4. Marcel Reece, Oakland
Will start out the 2016 season on the suspension list for PEDs. When on the field, the ex-Washington Huskie catches the ball well and has good run-after-catch ability. He is a three-time Pro Bowl player.
5. John Kuhn, Free Agent
The road grader of a fullback has signed one-year deals with the Packers the last two years and has been an integral part of the special teams and Aaron Rodgers’ protector.