Over the years, football has evolved from being a run-heavy sport to a pass-heavy sport. What used to be a ground-and-pound game has turned into a passing attack. Wide receivers have become some of the highest paid players, while running backs are lucky to get a second contract. Some teams still play old fashioned football with a bell cow back, but most rely on a quarterback who can air it out to his speedy, athletic receivers. However, no matter how much the game changes, you have to be able to run the ball.
I’m not saying teams must run the ball 30+ times a game, but they have to be able to run effectively when they can. If the defense covers the pass and leaves the middle of the field open, you have to be able to pick up five to seven yards on the ground.
I love what the Buffalo Bills did this offseason. Knowing they didn’t have one of the top running backs in the league, they acquired RBs who can compliment him. Yes, Devin Singletary had a really impressive end to the season last year, but he’s still not in that upper tier of RBs. With that said, the Bills rushing attack will be much more balanced with James Cook and Duke Johnson in the picture.
Since the NFL is so pass happy, I think we’re going to see more teams draft running backs like Cook — someone who is quick, elusive, shifty and has pass-catching abilities. I think running backs by committee will also become more popular. The Browns (Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt), Packers (Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon), Cowboys (Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard), and Broncos (Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams) are all examples of teams who rely on RB duos. Yes, each of these teams’ starters are in the upper tier of RBs (with the exception of Gordon). But, no matter how good your RB1 is, it’s always nice to have good depth and balance.
So, with that, here are my top running backs heading into the 2022 NFL season.
Honorable Mention: Christian McCaffrey (Carolina Panthers)
We all know how talented Christian McCaffrey is when he’s on the field. But that’s the thing… when he is on the field. McCaffrey has spent more time off the field than on it the past two seasons. He played in seven games last season and only three in 2020. Before that though, the former eighth overall pick put together back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons. In 2019, he had 1,387 rushing yards and 15 rushing TDs to go along with 1,005 receiving yards and four receiving TDs.
When he is healthy, McCaffrey is definitely one of the top running backs in the league. I just don’t think it would be fair to put him in the top 10 right now since he’s only played 10 games over the last two seasons. Not to mention, from the fantasy perspective, where do you draft him this year? Is he a top fantasy running back? I would be very cautious drafting CMC solely because he could be back on the IR before the season even starts.
10. Najee Harris (Pittsburgh Steelers)
Cracking the top 10 for me is Steelers running back Najee Harris. The Alabama product put together an impressive rookie season, rushing for 1,200 yards and seven TDs and catching 74 passes for 467 yards and three TDs in 2021. The Steelers always play a tough, physical brand of football, but a lot of Harris’ yards came from Ben Roethlisberger not being able to throw like he used to. Now, with Mitch Trubisky as their projected starting QB, I would expect them to take a few more shots downfield. But, given that Trubisky’s physical traits are nowhere near guys like Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes, I think Harris is still going to be the focal point in their offense and will have a huge second season.
9. Austin Ekeler (Los Angeles Chargers)
Austin Ekeler reminds me a lot of McCaffrey between their style of play and their durability. Luckily for Ekeler though, 2020 was the only season in which he was really injury-riddled. He rebounded last year, recording his best statistical season to date with 1,558 yards from scrimmage (911 rushing, 647 receiving) and 20 total touchdowns (12 rushing, eight receiving). In his five NFL seasons, Ekeler has 2,812 rushing yards and 21 rushing TDs to go with 2,726 receiving yards and 24 receiving TDs.
The Chargers drafted RB Isaiah Spiller in the fourth round this year, so Ekeler’s rushing workload may decrease, but I still expect him to put up some big numbers, especially as a receiver.
8. Aaron Jones (Green Bay Packers)
After rushing for over 1,000 yards in 2019 and 2020, Aaron Jones only rushed for 799 yards last season. In addition, the now 27-year old only had four rushing touchdowns in 2021 after having 25 over the previous two seasons combined. He did have six receiving touchdowns last year though, the most in his career. However, I think Jones is going to have a huge year in 2022.
Losing Davante Adams totally changes the dynamic of the Packers offense. As long as they still have Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, they are not going to be a run-first team. But I think they will definitely look to run more than they have in the past now that they don’t have a bonified #1 receiver. And that’s the thing — who will be getting most of the targets this year? Allen Lazard? Sammy Watkins? Christian Watson? Robert Tonyan? I’ve heard some people say that Jones could end up leading the Packers in targets this season. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but either way, I think Jones is in for a big year.
7. Ezekiel Elliott (Dallas Cowboys)
Ezekiel Elliott has been one of the most consistent backs since coming into the NFL. However, he’s been on a downward trend over the past couple of seasons as it appears he may have lost a step. With that said, Elliot has seen his snaps decrease and Tony Pollard has seen his increase. However, I still think Zeke is one of the best backs in the league. He has rushed for over 1,000 yards in four out of his six seasons in the league, and the two years he didn’t he was just 17 and 21 yards short after missing games due to injury. One of those years was 2020, when he ran 244 times for 979 yards and six touchdowns. He bounced back last year, finishing 2021 with 237 rushes, 1,002 yards, and 10 TDs.
With Amari Cooper now in Cleveland and Michael Gallup recovering from his torn ACL, the Cowboys may look to pound the rock to get things going. Elliott could be in for another big workload this season.
6. Alvin Kamara (New Orleans Saints)
Alvin Kamara is another running back whose numbers have been down as of late. Contrarily to Elliott, Kamara had a great 2020 season, but then a down year in 2021. In 2020, Kamara had 187 carries for 932 yards (5.0 yards per carry) and 16 TDs to go with 756 receiving yards and five TDs. Last year, however, he had just 898 rushing yards and four TDs on 240 carries (3.7 YPC) and 437 receiving yards and five receiving TDs in 13 games played.
Kamara battled injuries all of last year and also had to deal with a revolving door at quarterback. But now that he and Jameis Winston are healthy, and with the additions the Saints have made this offseason, I think Kamara will regain his form and re-establish himself as one of the premier running backs in the league. (An important note though, Kamara is expected to receive a six game suspension for a physical altercation he got into on Pro Bowl weekend in Las Vegas.)
5. Joe Mixon (Cincinnati Bengals)
Joe Mixon had his best season last year, as he was a key part in the Bengals’ Super Bowl run. He had 1,205 rushing yards and 13 rushing TDs. It was Mixon’s third 1,000+ yard season and the first time he recorded double-digit touchdowns. He recorded a PFF rushing grade of 82.1, the highest in his career. He also added 314 receiving yards and three TDs, but that’s the one thing holding him back. Mixon needs to improve his pass protection and receiving abilities if he wants to stay on the field, specifically on third down.
Having Mixon in my top five may be a bit generous. If it were any other year, McCaffrey and Kamara would probably each be in the top five, bumping Mixon down. But again, I can’t put them that high as they each had a down season (multiple down seasons for CMC) while Mixon and Bengals were in the Super Bowl.
4. Dalvin Cook (Minnesota Vikings)
Dalvin Cook is another very talented back who has been plagued by injuries his entire career. Since coming into league in 2017, Cook has never played a full season. He missed four games last year but still managed to rush for 1,159 yards; it was his third straight 1,000+ rushing yard season. His best year came in 2020, when he ran for 1,557 yards and 16 TDs in 14 games.
Cook also has 1,499 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns in his five seasons with the Vikings. That could be an area that new head coach Kevin O’Connell looks to exploit. O’Connell seems to be one of the bright, young offensive minds in the league, so the Vikings may look to pass more than they have in the past. So, even if Cook loses production in the running game, he should make up for it in the passing game. Good coaches know how to use good talent. As long as he can stay healthy, Cook should have another big season.
3. Nick Chubb (Cleveland Browns)
Nick Chubb has been one of the best running backs since coming into the league in 2018. After ending his rookie season just four yards shy of 1,000, Chubb has topped the feat every year since (even though he missed seven games between 2020 and 2021). He already has over 4,800 yards and 36 TDs in his four-year career. With a likely Deshaun Watson suspension coming, Jacoby Brissett is expected to start the season under center. In that scenario, Chubb would be the focal point of the Browns offense yet again. Cleveland has done a nice job adding depth to their backfield though (Kareem Hunt, D’Ernest Johnson, and rookie Jerome Ford) to take the pressure off of Chubb and limit the wear and tear on his body.
2. Derrick Henry (Tennessee Titans)
Coming in at number two is Derrick Henry. Henry is probably one of the scariest runners I have ever seen. It’s insane how strong he is. He can fling defenders off like it’s nothing. Not only that, he is extremely fast and light on his feet. It’s a size-speed combination that you can’t replicate. After recording 1,234 yards and 10 TDs in his first two seasons (‘16 and ‘17), Henry has recorded 5,563 yards and 55 TDs over the last four seasons combined. And after suffering a foot fracture in Week 8, 2021, Henry still managed to rush for 937 yards and 10 TDs and make it back in time for the playoffs.
We’ll see how he responds this year, as the Titans have a new-look offense and a quarterback who is getting closer and closer to the end of the line. Being 28 years old now, Henry’s usage will eventually catch up with him. But, given his build, I don’t think his decline will start just yet. The Titans? I can see them declining from here on out. But, as long as they have Henry healthy, he will keep them relevant and afloat in the AFC.
1. Jonathan Taylor (Indianapolis Colts)
My top overall running back heading into the 2022 season is Jonathan Taylor. As much as I thought about keeping Henry at number one, I think Taylor has taken over. After getting drafted in the second round in the 2020 NFL Draft, Taylor had 1,169 yards and 11 TDs on 232 carries his rookie year. He absolutely exploded in his second season, running for 1,811 yards and 18 TDs on 332 carries. So, in two seasons, Taylor already has almost 3,000 rushing yards and 29 rushing TDs. Not to mention, he’s recorded an additional 659 yards and three touchdowns as a pass catcher. Given these numbers, and the fact that he is five years younger than Henry, I think Jonathan Taylor is the top RB in the NFL and may be the top fantasy pick this year as well.
Stay tuned for next week’s article as I will be ranking the top NFL wide receivers heading into the 2022 season.