NFL Medalists

Best NFL running backs heading into 2021 season? Analysts reveal gold, silver, bronze picks

In honor of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, we're highlighting the best of the best across the NFL. Heading into the 2021 season, who are the premium players in five marquee areas: quarterback, running back, wide receiver, pass rusher and cornerback? Twenty-five analysts individually ranked their top three in each category, and then we tallied all of the votes via this simple formula:

Each first-place vote: 3 points
Each second-place vote: 2 points
Each third-place vote: 1 point

Below, you'll find the running back podium -- highlighting the gold, silver and bronze medalists from our accumulated ballots -- as well as additional intel on the position. Check back all week as this series continues.

THE RUNNING BACK PODIUM

GOLD
Derrick Henry
Tennessee Titans · RB

Total points: 66 (1st: 18; 2nd: 6; 3rd: 0)


Maurice Jones-Drew: Henry is quite literally the gold standard at the running back position and has been for two seasons. He knocked his 2019 career-best performance (303 carries, 1,540 rushing yards, 16 rushing TDs) out of the water last season, racking up 2,027 yards and 17 TDs on 378 carries. There's not much the reigning Offensive Player of the Year can't do with the ball in his hands. 

SILVER
Dalvin Cook
Minnesota Vikings · RB

Total points: 26 (1st: 0; 2nd: 8; 3rd: 10)


LaDainian Tomlinson: There's no doubt Henry is the NFL's best right now, but I give Cook the slight edge over Alvin Kamara, because Cook is utilized more often and is the engine that makes the Vikings' offense go. Cook is coming off his best season to date, racking up just under 2,000 scrimmage yards and 17 total touchdowns. With the way the 25-year-old performed last season, I expect to see an equally productive 2021 campaign from a guy who looks like he's just getting started.

BRONZE
Nick Chubb
Cleveland Browns · RB

Total points: 23 (1st: 4; 2nd: 3; 3rd: 5)


Marc Ross: Despite his overall production being limited by the fact he shares carries with another top-10 caliber RB (Kareem Hunt), Chubb has posted very impressive numbers in his first three seasons. In 12 games last year, he was third in the NFL in rushing yards per game (88.9) and was second in yards per carry (5.6) among qualified RBs, per NFL Research. In 2019, his most recent fully healthy season, he had over 100 more carries than last year, and he ranked second in rushing yards behind Henry. Chubb is only 25 years old, and I view him as having the best combination of vision, balance and explosiveness of any RB -- which could catapult him to leading the NFL in rushing this season. 

Also receiving votes: Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers (19 total points); Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints (14); Saquon Barkley, New York Giants (2).

INSIGHTS INTO THE RB VOTING

RB RECORD HOLDERS

SINGLE SEASON

CAREER

  • Rushing yards: 18,355, Emmitt Smith
  • Rushing TDs: 164, Emmitt Smith

FASCINATING RB STATS FROM NFL RESEARCH

  • The 2020 season featured 532 rushing touchdowns among all positions (most in NFL history). RBs had 385 rushing TDs (third-most in a season in NFL history).
  • RBs combined for 486 scrimmage TDs in 2020 (most since 2008 and tied for the fifth-most in NFL history).
  • Derrick Henry (17), Alvin Kamara (16) and Dalvin Cook (16) each had more than 15 rushing TDs, marking the third time in NFL history that three RBs surpassed that mark in a season (it also happened in 2002, 2005).
  • The 2020 season was the first in which multiple RBs -- Henry (126.7) and Cook (111.2) -- averaged at least 110 rushing yards per game since 2006, when LaDainian Tomlinson (113.4) and Larry Johnson (111.8) did it.
  • NFL running backs combined for a yards-per-carry mark of 4.38 in 2020, second-most in a season, behind 1980's mark of 4.45. Baltimore's J.K. Dobbins led all RBs with 6.01 yards per carry (among those with a minimum of 125 carries), while 10 RBs averaged at least 5.0 yards per carry last season (tied for most such RBs in a season in NFL history, among those with a minimum of 100 carries).
  • All seven RBs who recorded 1,400-plus scrimmage yards in 2020 were drafted outside of the first round: Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, David Montgomery, Jonathan Taylor, Aaron Jones and James Robinson.
  • Each of the top five RBs in Next Gen Stats' rushing yards over expectation in 2020 was drafted in the second round: Derrick Henry (+412), Nick Chubb (+327), Dalvin Cook (+252), J.K. Dobbins (+222) and Ronald Jones (+219).
  • Top speed reached by a running back since 2018 (Next Gen Stats): 23.09 mph, Raheem Mostert (80-yard TD run vs. New York Jets in Week 2 of 2020)

INDIVIDUAL BALLOTS

Table inside Article
Voter Gold Silver Bronze
Judy Battista Derrick Henry Dalvin Cook Nick Chubb
Jeremy Bergman Nick Chubb Derrick Henry Dalvin Cook
Ali Bhanpuri Derrick Henry Dalvin Cook Christian McCaffrey
Tom Blair Derrick Henry Nick Chubb Christian McCaffrey
Gil Brandt Derrick Henry Dalvin Cook Christian McCaffrey
Kyle Brandt Derrick Henry Saquon Barkley Alvin Kamara
Nate Burleson Derrick Henry Alvin Kamara Dalvin Cook
David Carr Derrick Henry Dalvin Cook Christian McCaffrey
Brooke Cersosimo Christian McCaffrey Derrick Henry Alvin Kamara
Jeffri Chadiha Derrick Henry Christian McCaffrey Dalvin Cook
Gennaro Filice Derrick Henry Alvin Kamara Dalvin Cook
Cynthia Frelund Christian McCaffrey Nick Chubb Alvin Kamara
Chase Goodbread Derrick Henry Dalvin Cook Nick Chubb
Marcas Grant Derrick Henry Christian McCaffrey Dalvin Cook
Maurice Jones-Drew Derrick Henry Christian McCaffrey Alvin Kamara
Dan Parr Derrick Henry Dalvin Cook Nick Chubb
Kevin Patra Nick Chubb Derrick Henry Dalvin Cook
Adam Rank Christian McCaffrey Derrick Henry Dalvin Cook
Marc Ross Derrick Henry Alvin Kamara Nick Chubb
Marc Sessler Nick Chubb Derrick Henry Dalvin Cook
Nick Shook Derrick Henry Alvin Kamara Dalvin Cook
Joe Thomas Nick Chubb Derrick Henry Dalvin Cook
LaDainian Tomlinson Derrick Henry Dalvin Cook Alvin Kamara
Jim Trotter Derrick Henry Nick Chubb Alvin Kamara
Lance Zierlein Derrick Henry Dalvin Cook Nick Chubb

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