While the evolution of NFL offenses has certainly impacted how teams employ their running backs but that doesn't mean the old-school approach is no longer effective.
Take Derrick Henry, for example. The reigning two-time NFL rushing champion is literally running away from both opposing defenders and his peers. Henry has run for 3,567 yards the past two seasons. Next on this list is Dalvin Cook with 2,692.
Despite taking on a heavy workload (681 carries), Henry has remained productive as a workhorse ball carrier, which is somewhat of an endangered species in the NFL. In fact, only six other running backs even eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards in 2020. Cook and Nick Chubb were among them, so it's no surprise they join Henry in the top five at their position entering the 2021 season.
Injuries also played a huge part in the lack of 1,000-yard rushers as Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, and Joe Mixon were among those to miss at least six games. McCaffrey is still considered one of the best at the position while Barkley hopes to rediscover his 2019 form in his return from a torn ACL.
The 2020 season also saw the debut of several promising young backs, as rookies like Jonathan Taylor, Antonio Gibson, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, J.K. Dobbins, Cam Akers, and D'Andre Swift all flashed their talent and potential for their respective teams.
Athlon's player rankings are just one of the features that appear in the 2021 Pro Football magazine.
2021 NFL Running Back Rankings
1. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
In 2019, Henry ran for more yards after contact than any other NFL back gained in total. In 2020, he nearly did it again, gaining 1,525 yards after contact; only Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook gained more total rushing yards with 1,557. Last year, Henry also led the NFL in runs of 10 yards or more and 15 yards or more. If you want to argue that there’s a more complete runner in the NFL today, good luck.
2. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
Last season, in committee with Kareem Hunt, Chubb gained 1,212 yards and scored 12 TDs on just 221 carries (including playoffs), despite missing four games with an MCL sprain. Among backs with at least 20 percent of their teams’ offensive snaps last season, Chubb led everyone in yards per carry after contact, averaging 4.06. With less of a committee situation, Chubb could win a rushing title.
3. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
Those who believe that “running backs don’t matter” probably vilified the Panthers for giving McCaffrey a four-year, $64 million extension only to see him miss all but three games in 2020. The Panthers will expect that the McCaffrey they get in 2021 and beyond is the same tough runner and versatile receiver who led the NFL in touches (403), yards from scrimmage (2,392) and total TDs (19, tied with Green Bay’s Aaron Jones) in 2019.
4. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
Last season, Cook ranked second in the league with 1,557 rushing yards, second in the league in rushing touchdowns (tied with Alvin Kamara) with 16 and in the top 10 with 5.0 yards per carry. Cook also forced 68 missed tackles last season, also second, and when you keep ranking second in the league in all these categories to Derrick Henry, that’s no small feat.
5. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
Kamara has been known as more of a versatile runner/receiver than a true bell-cow back, but the Minnesota game (155 rushing yards, six rushing TDs) showed what can happen when he’s asked to define the offense. Sean Payton will rely on Kamara in all facets more than ever in 2021.
6. Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
In 2020, on just 201 carries, Jones gained 1,104 yards and scored nine TDs while adding a ton of value in the passing game. It didn’t hurt his productivity that he faced stacked boxes on just 19.4 percent of his carries out of fear of Aaron Rodgers.
7. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
Barkley’s mounting injury history is obviously troubling, but reports about his recovery from last year’s torn ACL are positive, and if he’s healthy, he’s one of the NFL’s best backs. He proved that during his 2018 rookie season with 2,028 yards from scrimmage and 15 total TDs.
8. Ronald Jones II, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
In Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl season, Jones gained 1,117 yards and seven touchdowns on 227 carries, excelling in both zone and gap concepts, and 802 of his rushing yards came after contact. Jones’ breakout should elevate him to RB1 in 2021, spelled by power back Leonard Fournette.
9. David Montgomery, Chicago Bears
Montgomery was effective last year despite a weak passing game. He had 1,101 yards and scored eight rushing touchdowns on 259 carries, plus 54 catches for 438 yards. He had six carries of 15 yards or more for 243 yards and 800 of his rushing yards came after contact.
10. Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders
In 2020, Jacobs gained 1,065 yards and scored 12 rushing TDs, with 770 yards after contact. Over the last two seasons, only Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, Nick Chubb and Ezekiel Elliott have more rushing yards than Jacobs’ 2,215.
11. Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts
12. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
13. Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
14. James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
15. Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks
16. Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns
17. Gus Edwards, Baltimore Ravens
18. Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team
19. Latavius Murray, New Orleans Saints
20. Kenyan Drake, Las Vegas Raiders
21. Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers
22. Damien Harris, New England Patriots
23. Melvin Gordon III, Denver Broncos
24. Darrell Henderson Jr., Los Angeles Rams
25. Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles
26. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs
27. Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers
28. J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens
29. Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams
30. D’Andre Swift, Detroit Lions