With free agency around the corner and the 2022 NFL Draft coming up in April, Kevin Patra assesses the running back situations of all 32 teams in the NFL. Teams are sorted into categories signifying the level of stability at the position, then listed in alphabetical order, with the top backs under contract for 2022 listed, as well as key players who are not under contract for 2022. Those RBs are denoted as unrestricted free agents (UFA), restricted free agents (RFA) or exclusive rights free agents (ERFA).
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Top RBs under contract for 2022: Eno Benjamin
Conner was a revelation in the desert, racking up 18 total TDs as the Cards' top back. Proving to be much more dynamic in the passing game than we saw during his time in Pittsburgh, Conner should be a priority for Arizona to re-sign. But with little cap space, can they strike a deal before another needy team pounces? Likewise, Edmonds also hits free agency, leaving the backfield barren. The Cards should re-sign one of their unrestricted free agents while the other likely walks. If Arizona is unable to retain either, the backfield would be a glaring hole come draft time.
Patterson was a revelation with coach Arthur Smith finally figuring out how to unlock the talent where others failed. Patterson proved to be a tackle-breaking runner and mismatch as a pass catcher out of the backfield, setting career highs in carries, catches and touchdowns. When his production flagged down the stretch, so too did the Falcons' offense. It would be a brutal blow to the unit if he moved on after the season he had under Smith. But the fact Atlanta is in cap hell could force a separation. Davis proved mostly ineffective as a starter, so there would be a hole in Atlanta's backfield if Patterson can't be retained.
Top RBs under contract for 2022: Rex Burkhead
Burkhead leading any team in rushing in 2021 had to be one of the more surprising outcomes in the NFL. Houston needs a drastic overhaul of the position after cycling through a bevy of players. The Texans moved on from Mark Ingram and Phillip Lindsay midseason and should let Johnson walk this offseason. General manager Nick Caserio went with a veteran-heavy approach in 2021, which didn't work out. This season, he needs to inject youth and speed into the position. Adding a dynamic rookie in the draft would seem a priority for the Texans.
Top RBs under contract for 2022: Myles Gaskin
The Dolphins' run game was ugly in 2021. Yes, the offensive line struggles didn't help, but until Johnson became a regular, none of Miami's backs could churn out yards. Gaskin struggled mightily to pick up consistent gains, generating -0.53 rush yards over expected this season, per Next Gen Stats. That's a recipe for long down-and-distances. Imagine how much more potent Tua Tagovailoa and the RPO game would be with a running back defenses actually fear. Miami could look to bring back the 28-year-old Johnson on a cheap deal, but finding a capable every-down runner is a necessity.
Top RBs under contract for 2022: Ke'Shawn Vaughn
Ummmm ... help? With the Bucs' top three backs headed for free agency, GM Jason Licht will have to rebuild the position. Tom Brady's retirement adds another layer to the question of who might return. Fournette shined with TB12. But without the G.O.A.T. QB returning, he could look for greener pastures on the open market rather than return for what could be a rebuild given all the Bucs' free agents. Expect a lot of new, young faces when the Bucs convene for offseason workouts this spring.
Key free agents: Matt Breida (UFA)
An upgraded backfield is necessary for Josh Allen and the Bills' offense to evolve. Singletary surged down the stretch but left yards on the field. A true workhorse isn't necessary in the Bills' offense, yet some semblance of a consistent ground game to punish defenses that sit back would make Buffalo much more dangerous. I'd like to see the Bills add a pass-catching speed back who can pick up chunk yards when Allen is forced to check down -- the type of back that Tom Brady killed defenses with for decades.
Key free agents: Dare Ogunbowale (RFA)
Injuries thrust question marks into the Jaguars' backfield (the main reason they're listed in this category). Robinson overcame a coaching staff who didn't see his obvious talent, but an Achilles injury in Week 16 puts his status for training camp in question. Will he be the same tackle-breaking weapon in 2022? If so, the Jags have their lead back. If not, things get murky. Etienne's rookie season was wiped out by foot surgery. The Jags' offense is in desperate need of speed, which the first-round pick provides if healthy. But will the new coaching staff have the same designs as Urban Meyer's for the all-purpose threat? Hyde shouldn't be guaranteed a roster spot with the new staff entering and after not flashing in plenty of opportunities.
Top RBs under contract for 2022: Clyde Edwards-Helaire
The Chiefs shuffled through backs before landing on the pairing of McKinnon and Edwards-Helaire in the postseason. CEH's injury issues and lack of consistent pop have necessitated a committee backfield in K.C. With the Chiefs budgeting money elsewhere, I expect a similar approach in 2022. McKinnon fits Andy Reid's offense well as a pass-catcher who can slice through holes without hesitation. If no other team plunks down more cash for the injury-prone back, a return to Kansas City makes perfect sense for both sides. The Chiefs' offense could use more ground-game consistency to help puncture defenses that sit back against Patrick Mahomes. But K.C. shouldn't throw significant assets at the position after using a first-round pick on CEH.
Jacobs provides new coach Josh McDaniels the power runner he desires in his offense. Even in a down year, Jacobs still proved he can be an every-down back, and caught a career-high 54 passes. Jon Gruden had designs on Drake playing a change-of-pace role, but it never clicked. Still, with it costing $5.5 million in dead money to move on, I'd expect Drake to stick around and play the pass-catching role. It will be interesting to see what type of veteran McDaniels brings to play the buffer. Both pass-catching vet James White and reserve sledgehammer Brandon Bolden are free agents who could bring a new dimension to the offense as McDaniels installs his vision in Vegas.
Like most of the Saints' offense in 2021, Kamara struggled to dig out of the hole. The shifty back ranked last in Next Gen Stats' rush yards over expected (-133) and first downs over expected (-14) among RBs with at least 100 carries this season. Still, he remains the Saints' most dangerous weapon, capable of hitting a home run from anywhere on the field. The big curiosity is what type of offense New Orleans will run without Sean Payton. Behind Kamara sits a question mark. Ingram didn't provide pop and could be released. Jones wasn't the answer. With the Saints still in a salary-cap black hole, I doubt money will be spent on Kamara's sidekick. It's more likely we see another round of roulette, including low-priced veterans and cheap rookies vying for the role.
Key free agents: N/A
Barkley's 2021 stat line: 162/593/2. Booker's 2021 stat line: 145/593/2. That's all you really need to know about the state of Barkley entering 2022. The former No. 2 overall pick didn't have juice on the second level, netting just three rushes of 20-plus yards and a measly nine of 10-plus yards (Booker: three and 14). Sure, the O-line didn't help, but Barkley couldn't make defenders miss and wasn't blowing through tackles. Perhaps being another year removed from his ACL tear will help, but the Giants can't presume the back will magically get back to looking like Barry Sanders in space. With no cap space and the installation of new brass that didn't target the RB position in Buffalo, I wouldn't expect a splash here, but adding a young power runner later in the draft should be on the table for Big Blue.
Key free agents: Tevin Coleman (UFA)
The Jets tossed everything at the wall to see what stuck in 2021. Not much did. Michael Carter, appearing in 14 games, showed brief flashes, but like much of the offense in New York, he struggled with consistency. Still, he's the best bet for the current committee to take a leap in 2022. He displayed good burst at times and is capable in the passing game. Flush with cap space, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Jets hunted the free-agent market for a reliable weapon -- even if their last foray into that space didn't work out. Pairing Carter with someone like Melvin Gordon or James Conner, if he leaves Arizona, would be an immediate upgrade for Gang Green.
Key free agents: Kalen Ballage (UFA)
Harris' rookie season proved he's the type of bell-cow back Mike Tomlin wants to employ. A bruising runner with room to grow as a pass-catcher, Harris will remain the engine of the Steelers' offense regardless of who is under center in 2022. But Pittsburgh needs to find a reliable backup to take some pressure off. Neither Snell nor Ballage fit the bill last season. McFarland projected as a shifty change-of-pace option coming out of college as a fourth-round pick but has yet to prove he has staying power. Finding a speed back to pair with Harris should be in play for Pittsburgh this offseason.
Penny made himself some money down the stretch, generating 135-plus rushing yards in four of the Seahawks' final five games. The gashing runs are what Seattle hoped it was getting when it took him with a first-round pick in 2018. Alas, the injury question marks could cap his market. Wanting to retain a ground-first attack under Pete Carroll, Seattle, which has plenty of cap space, is likely to attempt to keep Penny in town. If both he and Carson can remain healthy, they can make the kind of formidable duo Carroll has hoped to deploy the past handful of seasons.
Despite playing in just eight games, Henry finished ninth in the NFL in rushing with 937 yards on 219 attempts with 10 TDs. The King's return for the postseason didn't go as planned, but he should be back to his bulldozing ways in 2022. The question for the Tennessee backfield is where to go to find relief. Foreman proved a splendid replacement, and the Titans should work to bring him back to pair with Henry once again. I'd also like to see them add a third-down pass-catcher to give Ryan Tannehill some help. It's a position Tennessee has tried to fill in the past with little success.
Key free agents: J.D. McKissic (UFA)
Gibson was handed the lion's share of the workload, netting 258 carries for 1,037 yards and seven TDs, but much of it wasn't pretty. Gibson, running through nagging injuries, averaged 4.0 yards per carry, 3.1 yards after contact and was stuffed 45 times. He generated fewer than 55 rush yards in seven of 16 games and broke the century mark just twice. However, I'm willing to bet on Gibson turning the corner in 2022. Patterson should provide some spice between the tackles spice in an increased role after hardly touching the ball as a rookie. The question is whether McKissic, who played big change-of-pace and third-down roles as a pass-catcher, will return.
Upgrades would be a bonus
Key free agents: Ameer Abdullah (UFA)
What becomes of McCaffrey? Since signing his big-money contract extension in 2020, CMC has played in just 10 games. He still earned 785 scrimmage yards in seven games this season, but the injuries provide the latest cautionary tale in paying RBs. It's possible the Panthers explore trading McCaffrey, but with McCaffrey set to receive $8.1 million guaranteed in 2022, it could be tough to find a partner. The Panthers would also take an $18.5 million hit in dead money if they trade him before June 1. Carolina is likely to pray the injury issues are finally behind him. On paper, pairing CMC and Hubbard, who was inefficient during his rookie campaign, as an interior runner would be a solid foundation. But there are a lot of ifs attached.
Between Montgomery and Herbert, the Bears have two runners who can pound out yards and churn out first downs. If new OC Luke Getsy follows the model employed by the Packers, with whom he spent the past three seasons under Matt LaFleur, expect the duo to split time. Herbert showed flashes when Montgomery was out and deserves additional carries in his second season. A platoon backfield makes sense with their early-down skill sets. The big question is whether Cohen will return after missing the entire season on IR and whether he'll be the same shifty nuisance he was pre-injury if he does return. If not, the Bears should look to add a pass-catcher out of the backfield this offseason.
Key free agents: D’Ernest Johnson (RFA)
Injuries wreaked havoc on the Browns' backfield duo of Chubb and Hunt. Despite missing three games, Chubb finished second in the NFL with 1,258 rushing yards, proving once again he's one of the few difference-making RBs in the league. Hunt, meanwhile, played just eight games due to injury. His injury opened the door for Johnson to shine (100/534/3) in a reserve role -- No. 2 in the NFL in run percent earning 10-plus yards (16%) among backs with at least 100 carries, behind only Chubb (18%). With Hunt's $6.25 million not guaranteed in the final year of his contract, it's possible, if unlikely, the Browns could make him a surprise cut this offseason. Cleveland isn't in cap trouble, and given the offense Kevin Stefanski wants to run, it makes sense to keep the RB duo intact for another run. But moving on from an RB a year early shouldn't be ruled out.
Key free agents: Corey Clement (UFA)
Elliott produced another year of low-wattage output, needing all 17 games to eke over the 1,000-yard barrier (1,002 yards on 237 carries). Injuries held Zeke back, but it's the second straight season he's been inefficient and lacked big-play capability. Still, those clamoring to see more Pollard (raises handed) should expect to be disappointed. Zeke and his $30 million-in-dead-money-if-cut contract are going nowhere. And we know in Dallas, Jerry Jones doesn't pay big-money players to sit on the sideline. The albatross contract could keep the backfield underwater for at least two more seasons. With any luck, however, perhaps Mike McCarthy will insist on getting both backs on the field more often to get Pollard more touches. The speedster brings a home-run ability Zeke just doesn't have at this point, and he needs more snaps.
Key free agents: Melvin Gordon (UFA)
Williams proved he can be the workhorse during his rookie season. A powerful tackle-breaker with one-cut juke ability, Williams can as easily run over a linebacker and outrace defensive backs. He's the ideal back for new coach Nathaniel Hackett to ride. Gordon has expressed his desire to return to Denver, but the Broncos should spend their money elsewhere and let Williams carry the load. GM George Paton brought Boone in as a power back last season, and while he touched the ball just six times for 57 scrimmage yards in 2021, he should be slated as Williams' primary backup this season.
Key free agents: Justin Jackson (UFA)
Can we quit with the questions about whether Ekeler can handle a full-time workload? The Chargers back put up a career-high 911 rushing yards and 12 TDs on 206 carries while adding 70 catches for 647 yards and eight additional scores. He. Is. A. Workhorse. The Chargers should continue to ride him as such in 2022 -- size concerns be damned. Having said that, like all backfields, help is needed. And L.A. found little of that in its trio of Jackson, Kelley and Roundtree. Still, I don't expect a big addition to the backfield, with the Chargers willing to see if Rountree can grow into a more prominent role. With plenty of cap space, however, a slasher like Marlon Mack who won't break the bank might look nice in powder blue.
Key free agents: Wayne Gallman (UFA)
Cook was not the issue with the Minnesota Vikings in 2021. The runner ranked in the top five in runs over 10-plus yards and 20-plus yards and in the top 10 in rush yards over expected. But at this stage of every back's career, there are questions about whether the workload is begging to take its toll. He earned 249 carries in 2021 after 312 in 2020 and 250 in 2019. The load could be catching up soon for the Pro Bowler. Mattison has been a solid fill-in, doing his best Cook impersonation whenever the starter gets injured. But the new coaching staff could look to find a better change-of-pace back to pair with Cook and provide additional juice when Kirk Cousins gets into check-down mode.
Pairing Harris and Stevenson provides the Pats with two young runners who can break tackles and pound out yards in New England's run-first approach. The duo combined for 1,535 rush yards on 335 carries with 20 scores. Expect Stevenson's role to expand even more in 2022 as the rookie found his stride down the stretch. With a stellar top two, the Pats do have a need for a pass-catching back as White heads to free agency. Adding a speed element to the backfield would make life easier on QB Mac Jones and the quick pass-game. In an effort to get younger across the roster, the Pats could be ready to say goodbye to Bolden -- again.
I'm still stunned that Sanders touched the ball 163 times with 912 yards and didn't score a single touchdown -- fantasy football managers are still pulling their hair out. When healthy and fed, Sanders proved that he can knife through defenses. His 5.5 yards per carry average was tied for second-best among backs in the NFL. If healthy -- a big IF, given Sanders' career -- he could soar over the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career. Gainwell displayed promise down the stretch as a rusher who can get to the edge with explosive abilities. The duo should fit the Eagles' ground-first approach with Jalen Hurts returning under center. There is a need for a power back if they decide not to re-sign an aging Howard.
The Ravens entered 2021 with what looked like a deep backfield before injuries cleaned their clock. Dobbins, Edwards and Hill all suffered season-ending injuries before the first game. Woof. And still, with a patchwork group of aging backs, the Ravens managed to finish in the top three in rushing, thanks to QBs Lamar Jackson (767 rushing yards) and Tyler Huntley (294). If Dobbins, Edwards and Hill return healthy as expected, the backfield should be set. Dobbins was in for a huge workload before his ACL tear. If he's healthy -- a big if, as always -- he'd slide right back into that role alongside Jackson. The Ravens could keep one of their free-agent veterans around in case rehabs go sideways, but that would be merely as an insurance plan.
Key free agents: N/A
Mixon authored his first Pro Bowl season while carrying the load, netting 1,205 yards and 13 TDs on 292 carries. As defenses fretted over the Bengals' receiver weapons, Mixon feasted on light boxes, generating 424 yards after contact in such situations, third-most in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats. If the Bengals finally upgrade the offensive line, it would make life even easier on Mixon. Perine is a solid spot sub who made a couple of big plays in the postseason, but I expect Evans to play a more significant role in 2022. With pass-catching acumen, Evans would be the ideal third-down scatback in Cincy moving forward.
Key free agents: N/A
Swift has proven to be a boom-or-bust character. He generated two games of 130-plus rushing yards in 2021 but netted fewer than 35 rushing yards in six others. When healthy, Swift has the speed, elusiveness and dual-threat ability to be a game-breaker. We just haven't seen the consistency in his first two seasons. On paper, Williams is the ideal buffer to Swift; he's a reliable back who can churn out yards between the tackles and rip through linebackers, and he's a good pass-catcher. With the reserve roles filled out, including by Reynolds, who was called away from his Netflix binging to play a solid role, the Lions' RB room should be set. Detroit's roster has plenty of other holes it needs to fill before worrying about the backfield at this stage of the rebuild.
Key free agents: N/A
Jones and Dillion took the mantle of best RB duo in 2021, proving to be a challenge for all defenses. Jones is a dynamic dual threat who can toast linebackers on wheel-routes in his sleep. Dillion is a load to handle, particularly late in games, and the increased ability in the passing game that he showed should only improve. The pair combined for 2,306 scrimmage yards and 17 TDs in 2021. There isn't a need to belabor the point: Regardless of who is under center in 2022, the Packers' backfield has the power to keep the operation running. Fin.
Key free agents: Marlon Mack (UFA)
Taylor nearly lapped the field as the NFL's leading rusher, going for 1,811 yards and 18 TDs on 332 carries, proving unequivocally he's the motor of the Colts' offense. While there is a concern after any 300-plus carry season, the 23-year-old Taylor owns the power and speed to overcome the workload in back-to-back campaigns. Hines makes a good pair with Taylor as a pass-catching option with wiggle as a runner. The duo puts Indy's backfield in a good spot heading into 2022. Mack is likely gone this season after returning on a one-year deal. Indy could look to add young depth, but with Taylor in his prime, the Colts have more significant issues to tackle this offseason than the backfield.
Akers' postseason return provides relief out of the backfield moving forward, with Michel headed to free agency. Akers was slated for a massive role in the Rams' offense before tearing his Achilles last summer and missing the majority of the season. The fact that Sean McVay rode the back in the run to Super Bowl LVI indicates where this crew is headed in 2022: Akers away! Henderson is likely slated for a reserve role behind Akers next season. Unless he takes a short, low-level deal, it's difficult to see Michel returning to L.A., given the Rams' salary-cap situation. But we've seen GM Les Snead pull off bigger coups than that in the past.
It feels wrong not to list Deebo Samuel among the 49ers running backs after the "wideback" became a force out of the backfield down the stretch, propelling San Francisco to the NFC Championship Game. Nevertheless, the Niners are in good shape with the names above. Coming off a 963-yard rookie season, Mitchell proved ideal for Kyle Shanahan's scheme with his ability to get wide, make the correct cuts and run through arm tackles. What Sermon, a third-round pick out of Ohio State in 2021, will bring to the table in Year 2 is anyone's guess, but he has the size and talent to play a role if he stays out of the doghouse. Like every year, surely Shanahan will scoop up a random back off waivers and plug him in for a big game when injuries strike. But otherwise, the Niners' backfield is full-up.