Christian McCaffrey broke his own record for receptions by a running back last season
The running back position in the NFL continues to evolve. No longer just a bruising ball carrier, some of the best backs are just as dangerous as a receiver.
For the second straight year, Christian McCaffrey set a record for receptions by a running back. His 116 catches ranked second only to DeAndre Hopkins (149). McCaffrey also posted 1,007 receiving yards to go with his 1,387 (third in the NFL) on the ground and 19 total touchdowns. McCaffrey's versatility and ability to make something happen whenever he has the ball in his hands are two reasons why he leads Athlon Sports' list of the top 10 running backs entering the 2020 season.
That doesn't mean that there's not room near the top of this list for the guys who prefer to take the handoff and run over and through defenders, as rushing champions Ezekiel Elliott (2016, '18) and Derrick Henry (2019) both land in the top five.
But the emergence of the Chargers' Austin Ekeler (93 rec. in 2019), as well as the pass-catching production of a Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Leonard Fournette or James White, not to mention previous monster campaigns from someone like Le'Veon Bell or David Johnson show that the best backs in the league in today's game are those that do more than just run the ball.
Athlon's player rankings are just one of the features that appear in the 2020 Pro Football magazine.
2020 NFL Running Back Rankings
1. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
With a mish-mash of quarterbacks, McCaffrey was still able to catch 116 passes on 142 targets for 1,005 yards and four touchdowns. Add in his 1,387 yards and 15 rushing TDs on 287 carries, and McCaffrey became the third back in NFL history after Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk to top 1,000 yards in both rushing and receiving in the same season. He also finished third in NFL history behind Chris Johnson in 2009 and Faulk in 1999 with 2,392 yards from scrimmage. He has become the very model of the modern running back.
2. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
Injuries limited Barkley’s production in 2019 — after leading the league with 2,028 yards from scrimmage in 2018, he saw that total drop to 1,441 as he tried to work through ankle issues. He did gain 393 yards on 63 carries (6.2 yards per carry) with four rushing touchdowns in the Giants’ last three games of the season, which augurs well for his 2020 campaign.
3. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
One season after he led the league in carries and rushing yards, Elliott was even more productive in some ways in 2019, with 12 rushing touchdowns to six the year before, 78 first downs (only Derrick Henry had more) and 972 yards after contact (fourth most in the league). Where he didn’t quite measure up was in explosive plays — he had 28 carries of 15 yards or more in 2018, and only 12 in 2019.
4. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
Not only did Henry lead the NFL in yards after contact in the regular season with 1,268, but he also led the NFL in postseason yards after contact with 337. One wonders how long any back can last deploying Henry’s extremely physical style, but as long as he’s able to bash into defenses, he’ll be the epicenter of the Titans offense. Adding enormous right tackle Isaiah Wilson, whom the Titans drafted with the 29th overall pick, should make defenses even more hesitant about taking Henry on in the box.
5. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
Chubb’s excellence gets lost in the shuffle of Cleveland’s mess, but when you combine speed, quickness, power and explosive ability, he’s as good as anyone right now. Chubb led the league last season with 20 carries of 15 yards or more for 574 total yards, and only Josh Jacobs of the Raiders had more missed rushing tackles created than Chubb’s 66.
6. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
Everyone has been waiting to see what Cook can do since he was taken in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Unfortunately, injuries limited him to a total of 15 games in his first two seasons. But Cook broke through in a big way in 2019, posting three straight 100-yard games to start the season. He did tail off down the stretch as once again injuries took their toll, but he still finished 10th in the league with 1,135 rushing yards and fourth with 13 touchdowns on the ground.
7. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
Kamara is one of the most dynamic backs in the league. Not only did he average 4.7 yards per carry last season, but his 81 receptions also ranked him third among running backs and 21st in the entire league. After scoring a total of 18 touchdowns in 2018, he managed just six scores this past season, but he missed two games and was limited in several others due to ankle and knee issues. Even though he was not at 100 percent for the duration of the season, Kamara was still a threat defenses had to account for and he was named to his third straight Pro Bowl.
8. Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
Running backs played a far more important part in Matt LaFleur’s offense than they did under Mike McCarthy in Green Bay’s offense, and Jones was the primary beneficiary. His 1,558 yards from scrimmage ranked eighth in the league, and he tied with Christian McCaffrey for the NFL’s most total touchdowns with 19.
9. Leonard Fournette, Free Agent
Lost in the mess that was Jacksonville's offense was a banner year for Fournette, who set career highs in rushing (1,152) and receiving (552) yards even as he struggled to find the end zone with just three total touchdowns. Look under the hood and you’ll see a back who averaged 3.34 yards after contact per attempt (fifth best in the NFL) and broke a combined 66 tackles as a runner and receiver. Whoever Fournette plays for this year, it won't be the Jaguars, as they released him on Aug. 31, deciding to officially cut ties with the fourth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
10. Mark Ingram II, Baltimore Ravens
It certainly helped Ingram in his first year with the Ravens that he had Lamar Jackson for a quarterback, but it was Ingram who worked his smooth and powerful style for 1,265 yards from scrimmage and a career-high 15 touchdowns in 2019. He should be a goal-line and fantasy star for the next few seasons.
11. James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers
12. Le’Veon Bell, New York Jets
13. Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
14. Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders
15. Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers
16. Melvin Gordon III, Denver Broncos
17. Kenyan Drake, Arizona Cardinals
18. Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks
19. Todd Gurley II, Atlanta Falcons
20. Raheem Mostert, San Francisco 49ers
21. Phillip Lindsay, Denver Broncos
22. Adrian Peterson, Washington
23. Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns
24. Sony Michel, New England Patriots
25. David Johnson, Houston Texans
26. James White, New England Patriots
27. Jamaal Williams, Green Bay Packers
28. Matt Breida, Miami Dolphins
29. Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts
30. Frank Gore, New York Jets