Analysis

Ranking all 32 RB1s heading into 2021: Ezekiel Elliott just misses top five

I'm no stranger to ranking running backs, but I found that the 32 RB1s entering the 2021 NFL season are particularly challenging to rank. Why, you ask?

You'll soon realize -- like I did -- that this year's crop of running backs is especially deep. In past years, it seemed like the position was top-heavy, but not this year. There is so much running back talent across the league, and even the players at the bottom of this list have a decent chance at proving they deserved a higher spot.

Let's dive into the rankings.

Note: If a team operates with a running back committee, I simply chose the player who I think will have the most production in 2021.

Rank
1
Derrick Henry
Tennessee Titans · Sixth season

2020 stats: 16 games | 378 att | 2,027 rush yds | 5.4 ypc | 17 rush TDs | 19 rec | 114 rec yds | 0 rec TDs


Do I really need to make a case for why Derrick Henry deserves to hold this spot? King Henry is the reigning Offensive Player of the Year after rushing for 2,027 yards and 17 touchdowns. He's one of the main reasons the Titans won the AFC South for the first time since 2008. Henry is the cream of the crop.

Rank
2
Christian McCaffrey
Carolina Panthers · Fifth season

2020 stats: 3 games | 59 att | 225 rush yds | 3.8 ypc | 5 rush TDs | 17 rec | 149 rec yds | 1 rec TD


Coming off a 2020 season that was derailed by high ankle, shoulder and quad injuries, McCaffrey should be ready to go this fall with a full offseason to get healthy and right. In Matt Rhule's offense, the most dynamic weapon in football has a real chance to duplicate his 1,000/1,000 campaign of 2019. I can't wait to see McCaffrey back on the field.

Rank
3
Alvin Kamara
New Orleans Saints · Fifth season

2020 stats: 15 games | 187 att | 932 rush yds | 5.0 ypc | 16 rush TDs | 83 rec | 756 rec yds | 5 rec TDs


I expect the Saints to really lean on their stud running back in both the passing and rushing attacks. I mean, they'll have to now that turnover-friendly quarterback Jameis Winston looks likely to take over a starting spot future Hall of Famer Drew Brees held for 15 years. I envision Kamara nearing the 2,000-scrimmage-yards mark, but even a monster season from him might not get New Orleans into the playoffs for a fifth straight season in a loaded NFC South.

Rank
4
Dalvin Cook
Minnesota Vikings · Fifth season

2020 stats: 14 games | 312 att | 1,557 rush yds | 5.0 ypc | 16 rush TDs | 44 rec | 361 rec yds | 1 rec TD


Cook has continued to get better each year, with his greatest performance coming last season when he logged 1,918 scrimmage yards and 17 total touchdowns. His explosiveness is a problem for any defense, and the more the Vikings utilize him in the passing game, the better the offensive attack will be.

Rank
5
Nick Chubb
Cleveland Browns · Fourth season

2020 stats: 12 games | 190 att | 1,067 rush yds | 5.6 ypc | 12 rush TDs | 16 rec | 150 rec yds | 0 rec TDs


Even when considering everything Kareem Hunt brings to the Browns' offense, the unit's success hinges on Nick Chubb's legs and playmaking ability. I firmly believe that if it weren't for Chubb, who averages 5.2 yards per carry for his career, the Browns wouldn't have become the contender they now are. 

Rank
6
Ezekiel Elliott
Dallas Cowboys · Sixth season

2020 stats: 15 games | 244 att | 979 rush yds | 4.0 ypc | 6 rush TDs | 52 rec | 338 rec yds | 2 rec TDs


The Cowboys had all sorts of issues last season from a porous defense to Dak Prescott's season-ending injury to more injuries wiping out the once-dominant offensive line. And it showed in Ezekiel Elliott's performance. The two-time rushing champ averaged a career-low 4.0 yards per carry in 2020 and shared touches with RB2 Tony Pollard. That's why this season feels like a make-or-break year for Zeke. The line is healthy, Dak is back and patience is wearing thin around Dallas. Based on Zeke's social media accounts, he'll be ready.

Rank
7
Saquon Barkley
New York Giants · Third season

2020 stats: 2 games | 19 att | 34 rush yds | 1.8 ypc | 0 rush TDs | 6 rec | 60 rec yds | 0 rec TDs


Saquon Barkley enters Year 3 with high expectations after a knee injury sidelined him for all but two games in the 2020 season. The Giants need him in a big way as the organization figures out whether this young team is heading in the right direction or if they need to rebuild ... again. Saquon can absolutely take this rejuvenated Joe Judge-led team far. We just need to see it.

Rank
8
Aaron Jones
Green Bay Packers · Fifth season

2020 stats: 14 games | 201 att | 1,104 rush yds | 5.5 ypc | 9 rush TDs | 47 rec | 355 rec yds | 2 rec TDs


Jones has solidified himself as a top-tier running back in this league after scoring 30 touchdowns over the last two seasons. His emergence has opened up Matt LaFleur's offense and, along with Aaron Rodgers' MVP performance, helped the unit earn top billing in 2020. Fresh off signing a four-year, $48 million deal, Jones will have much more on his plate if Rodgers and the Packers can't figure things out.

Rank
9
Joe Mixon
Cincinnati Bengals · Fifth season

2020 stats: 6 games | 119 att | 428 rush yds | 3.6 ypc | 3 rush TDs | 21 rec | 138 rec yds | 1 rec TD


After missing 10 games in 2020 due to a foot injury, Mixon is in a good position to thrive as the Bengals' featured three-down back with the departure of Giovani Bernard. I truly believe he is the best receiving threat out of the backfield -- yes, even better than Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara -- and we'll finally get to see his ability on full display. Having a healthy Joe Burrow, a revamped offensive line under the direction of new OL coach Frank Pollack and a loaded receiving corps only helps Mixon's cause. 

Rank
10
Josh Jacobs
Las Vegas Raiders · Third season

2020 stats: 15 games | 273 att | 1,065 rush yds | 3.9 ypc | 12 rush TDs | 33 rec | 238 rec yds | 0 rec TDs


Jacobs has been tremendous in Jon Gruden's offense in his first two pro seasons. Even with Kenyan Drake joining in the fun, Jacobs looks to be the centerpiece of the offense as the Raiders' passing attack aims to do more with less -- this is assuming Davante Adams doesn't jump ship. Either way, Raiders fans should expect to see third-year back's explosive, powerful running style on full display as they're welcomed into Allegiant Stadium.

Rank
11
Jonathan Taylor
Indianapolis Colts · Second season

2020 stats: 15 games | 232 att | 1,169 rush yds | 5.0 ypc | 11 rush TDs | 36 rec | 299 rec yds | 1 rec TD


Indy proved to be a perfect landing spot for Taylor as he took the league by storm down the stretch last season. He'll be the reason the Colts produce a steady, consistent rushing attack -- something that will no doubt benefit quarterback Carson Wentz. I'm putting the Colts in the playoffs right now, all thanks to what Taylor brings to Frank Reich's offense.

Rank
12
J.K. Dobbins
Baltimore Ravens · Second season

2020 stats: 15 games | 134 att | 805 rush yds | 6.0 ypc | 9 rush TDs | 18 rec | 120 rec yds | 0 rec TDs


Dobbins averaged 6.0 yards per carry while sharing the backfield with Mark Ingram (now in Houston) and Gus Edwards last season, showing great burst and flashing big-play ability. Now it's time to see what he's got as the Ravens' featured back for a full season. He'll obviously benefit from having Lamar Jackson in front of him and should be a productive back in Baltimore for years to come.

Rank
13
David Montgomery
Chicago Bears · Third season

2020 stats: 15 games | 247 att | 1,070 rush yds | 4.3 ypc | 8 rush TDs | 54 rec | 438 rec yds | 2 rec TDs


Montgomery came on strong late last season, rushing for nearly 600 yards and seven touchdowns over the final six games to finish fifth in the league in rushing yards. If the Bears are to return to the playoffs in 2021, they'll need a strong running game to help the quarterback (whoever that may be) and the defense. Montgomery has all the tools to pick up right where he left off and prove he's one of the better young runners in the league.

Rank
14
Cam Akers
Los Angeles Rams · Second season

2020 stats: 13 games | 145 att | 625 rush yds | 4.3 ypc | 2 rush TDs | 11 rec | 123 rec yds | 1 rec TD


The Rams have been searching for their next Todd Gurley and I believe they've found the answer in Cam Akers. As a rookie in 2020, he displayed versatility and toughness, helping the Rams, who went 4-1 in games when Akers started, make the postseason. With Akers solidifying himself as the RB1, the run game is poised to provide a nice balance to Matthew Stafford's passing attack.

Rank
15
Austin Ekeler
Los Angeles Chargers · Fifth season

2020 stats: 10 games | 116 att | 530 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 1 rush TD | 54 rec | 403 rec yds | 2 rec TD


Ekeler, who battled a nagging hamstring injury for much of 2020, is going to get an opportunity to prove he can be a top-10 back. I expect new Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, formerly of the Saints, to use Ekeler as a physical, slippery weapon in both the run and pass games, much like New Orleans utilizes Alvin Kamara

Rank
16
Najee Harris
Alabama · Pittsburgh Steelers · First season

The Steelers have finally found a new bell cow in Harris, who has a similar skill set to Le'Veon Bell. One of the best backs to come out of the draft in quite some time, Harris will be at the center of the Steelers' offense as a versatile weapon who'll take a ton of pressure off an aging Ben Roethlisberger If the Steelers do make one final Lombardi Trophy push with Big Ben under center, the rookie will play a huge role in their success.

Rank
17
Clyde Edwards-Helaire
Kansas City Chiefs · Second season

2020 stats: 13 games | 181 att | 803 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 4 rush TDs | 36 rec | 297 rec yds | 1 rec TD


CEH's ranking has a lot to do with the fact that he plays alongside Patrick Mahomes. The second-year back doesn't get the same opportunities as others; however, he does make the most of them with his short-area quickness and ability to make defenders miss in the phone booth. CEH can provide more balance to the Chiefs' offense.

Rank
18
James Robinson
Jacksonville Jaguars · Second season

2020 stats: 14 games | 240 att | 1,070 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 7 rush TDs | 49 rec | 344 rec yds | 3 rec TDs


An undrafted rookie in 2020, James Robinson has an explosive game and no shortage of creativity in the open field. If he were the clear RB1 in the Jags' backfield this fall, I'd place him in the top 12, easy. But I have to consider that Jacksonville selected running back Travis Etienne in the first round. Who will end up getting the most touches? I'm afraid we'll have to wait until September to get our answer.

Rank
19
Chris Carson
Seattle Seahawks · Fifth season

2020 stats: 12 games | 141 att | 681 rush yds | 4.8 ypc | 5 rush TDs | 37 rec | 287 rec yds | 4 rec TD


The Seahawks adopt the Rams' offense with the arrival of new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, who was an assistant for Sean McVay in L.A. for the past four years. That bodes well for Carson because the running lanes will be there for him. The thing is, Carson has to be available. It's great that he's averaged 4.6 yards per carry for his career, but what good does it do if you're not on the field? He missed 19 games in first four NFL seasons. Can Carson stay healthy in 2021?

Rank
20
Antonio Gibson
Washington Football Team · Second season

2020 stats: 14 games | 170 att | 795 rush yds | 4.7 ypc | 11 rush TDs | 36 rec | 247 rec yds | 0 rec TDs


Gibson is another guy who jumped on the NFL scene as a rookie last season, highlighted by his Thanksgiving Day performance when he rushed for 115 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries in Washington's victory over Dallas. Gibson showed he can be an every-down back and a mismatch on linebackers before a turf toe injury derailed his impressive campaign down the stretch. Gibson has a real chance to build on his rookie numbers with the WFT trotting out veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2021.

Rank
21
Leonard Fournette
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · Fifth season

2020 stats: 13 games | 97 att | 367 rush yds | 3.8 ypc | 6 rush TDs | 36 rec | 233 rec yds | 0 rec TDs


Tampa Bay's starting RB spot feels like a coin flip between Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones II. Jones had a career year in the regular season but Fournette flourished in the Bucs' postseason run. So, Fournette gets the nod here. When the former No. 4 overall pick has his shoulders square, he's better than most. The question is: Can Fournette stay on track and keep hold of the position?

Rank
22
D'Andre Swift
Detroit Lions · Second season

2020 stats: 13 games | 114 att | 521 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 8 rush TDs | 46 rec | 357 rec yds | 2 rec TDs


Swift's rookie season was a mixed bag with a few big performances but more subpar outings. The Lions can't afford for their rushing attack to have a lull that stretches on for a while. Swift, a talented and versatile weapon out of the backfield, must find consistency and make a major Year 2 leap in Anthony Lynn's offense.

Rank
23
Mike Davis
Atlanta Falcons · Seventh season

2020 stats: 15 games | 165 att | 642 rush yds | 3.9 ypc | 6 rush TDs | 59 rec | 373 rec yds | 2 rec TD


Davis did a tremendous job with the opportunity he was given last year in Carolina, earning a well-deserved new deal with coach Arthur Smith down in Atlanta. Davis' downhill running style should provide some balance to the Falcons' offense but a lot of his success weighs on the offensive line. If the Falcons hope to keep pace with the rest of the NFC South, Davis must step up.

Rank
24
Melvin Gordon
Denver Broncos · Seventh season

2020 stats: 15 games | 215 att | 986 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 9 rush TDs | 32 rec | 158 rec yds | 1 rec TD


Even with Phillip Lindsay's offseason departure, the Broncos have a deep backfield with Melvin Gordon, Royce Freeman, Mike Boone and second-round pick Javonte Williams all vying for snaps. Gordon will likely emerge as the starter come Week 1, but he'll need to run well to keep the job. He's improved as the game has slowed down for him over the last few years.

Rank
25
Raheem Mostert
San Francisco 49ers · Seventh season

2020 stats: 8 games | 104 att | 521 rush yds | 5.0 ypc | 2 rush TDs | 16 rec | 156 rec yds | 1 rec TD


Mostert has been outstanding in Kyle Shanahan's offense, averaging 5.6 yards per carry with the 49ers. He exited after eight games in 2020 with an injury but all signs point to a healthy return in 2021. I realize the 49ers have about 1,000 running backs on the roster. (OK, slight exaggeration.) Can Mostert stay healthy? Will Jeff Wilson or rookie Trey Sermon earn some carries? Time will tell.


Rank
26
Chase Edmonds
Arizona Cardinals · Fourth season

2020 stats: 16 games | 97 att | 448 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 1 rush TD | 53 rec | 402 rec yds | 4 rec TDs


Edmonds' carries were limited last season by Kenyan Drake's presence in Arizona's backfield, but Edmonds got plenty of play in the passing game with 53 catches -- third-most receptions on the team behind DeAndre Hopkins (115) and Larry Fitzgerald (54). Even with Arizona swapping Drake out this offseason for James Conner, I think Edmonds is going to be the guy. He's going to have to show he's durable and explosive enough to hold the RB1 spot. I haven't seen him do that just yet but I believe he can.

Rank
27
Miles Sanders
Philadelphia Eagles · Third season

2020 stats: 12 games | 164 att | 867 rush yds | 5.3 ypc | 6 rush TDs | 28 rec | 197 rec yds | 0 rec TDs


Sanders has shown flashes of being a really good player in both the run and pass games over his first two seasons. He was more productive as a runner in 2020, averaging 5.3 yards per carry, but wasn't the pass-catching threat he was in his rookie season. Sanders must show up and have a Saquon Barkley-esque impact on the offense to help alleviate pressure from second-year QB Jalen Hurts. I'm looking for more consistency here.

Rank
28
Tevin Coleman
New York Jets · Seventh season

2020 stats: 8 games | 28 att | 53 rush yds | 1.9 ypc | 0 rush TDs | 4 rec | 34 rec yds | 0 rec TDs


Coleman knows this offense so well, having been in Kyle Shanahan's system since their days in Atlanta. Now with Mike LaFleur, a former Shanahan assistant, in New York, Coleman should step right in and ease the transition for rookie QB Zach Wilson, but his injury history is concerning. The veteran, who's played 16 games in only one of his six pro seasons, could end up taking a backseat to rookie Michael Carter if he can't stay healthy.

Rank
29
Damien Harris
New England Patriots · Third season

2020 stats: 10 games | 137 att | 691 rush yds | 5.0 ypc | 2 rush TDs | 5 rec | 52 rec yds | 0 rec TDs


The Patriots' offense will be as good as its run game. While Sony Michel was efficient in 2020 (79 carries for 449 rush yards -- 5.7 yards per attempt -- and one TD; seven catches for 114 yards and a TD), injuries hampered his third season and he ultimately lost the RB1 job to Damien Harris, who provided the Patriots a solid run game in 10 starts. Harris has been productive at every level and should pick up where he left off as the Pats' starter. He could see his first 1,000-yard season if he wins the starting job outright, but the possibility that he splits carries with Michel, whose fifth-year option was declined, is what has him low on my list.

Rank
30
Mark Ingram
Houston Texans · 11th season

2020 stats: 11 games | 72 att | 299 rush yds | 4.2 ypc | 2 rush TDs | 6 rec | 50 rec yds | 0 rec TDs


I believe Mark Ingram will be the Texans' starting running back come Week 1, but I can't put anything past Phillip Lindsay. To keep Lindsay off the field (I'm not actually convinced this will happen), Ingram needs to provide a physical, punishing run game for a Texans offense that has myriad question marks heading into training camp. Given Ingram's familiarity with David Culley, who coached Ingram in Baltimore, the veteran has a real opportunity to bounce back from a down 2020 performance and have one of his best seasons as a seasoned back who thrives at the goal line.

Rank
31
Devin Singletary
Buffalo Bills · Third season

2020 stats: 16 games | 156 att | 687 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 2 rush TDs | 38 rec | 269 rec yds | 0 rec TDs


The Bills have had a real problem with their run game and they need a reliable player at the position. Devin Singletary and Zack Moss have each had their moments but neither player has shown any consistency. Right now, Josh Allen is the best rusher on the team. That really bothers me as a former running back. The Bills' backfield really needs to step it up, and Singletary has the most experience. The time is now.

Rank
32
Myles Gaskin
Miami Dolphins · Third season

2020 stats: 10 games | 142 att | 584 rush yds | 4.1 ypc | 3 rush TDs | 41 rec | 388 rec yds | 2 rec TDs


Gaskin was a solid back for the Dolphins last season, averaging 4.1 yards per attempt on 142 carries. But I need to see more. He has a real opportunity to be the bell cow and help Tua Tagovailoa in his first season as the full-time starter. Miami's run game must be better than the 22nd-ranked outfit it was a year ago. It starts with Gaskin but that could change quickly if he can't handle the load.

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