Ground Index

Presented By

RB Index: Four of NFL's top 10 ball-carriers will be featured on Championship Sunday

It takes a special player to excel with the ball in his hands at the NFL level, to gain extra yardage when every defender is trying to bring him to the ground.

Below are my top 10 ball-carriers from the 2021 NFL season. Drum roll, please ...

Rank
1
Derrick Henry
Tennessee Titans · RB

I wouldn't be doing my job well if Henry weren't in this spot. The 6-foot-3, 247-pound running back gained almost 1,000 rushing yards in eight games (!) before a broken foot sidelined him for the remainder of the regular season. An injury feels like the only thing that can stop the Titans back, who would've shattered -- SHATTERED -- his 2,027-yard 2020 performance if he had stayed healthy. He still finished ninth in the league in rush yards. His size and physicality make him extremely tough to tackle, as evidenced by his 32 forced missed tackles on runs in just eight regular-season games, per Pro Football Focus. We should see him back at peak form next September. 

Rank
2
Jonathan Taylor
Indianapolis Colts · RB

Taylor was exceptional in his second NFL campaign, earning unanimous first-team All-Pro honors. His vision, explosiveness and confidence in his ability helped him easily win his first rushing title with 1,811 yards, 552 more than the next closest runner. Taylor forced 65 missed tackles on runs, earned 106 first downs on runs and piled up 1,272 rushing yards after contact (all tops in the NFL this season), per Pro Football Focus. That last figure is more yards after contact than any other player had in total rushing yards. 

Rank
3
Deebo Samuel
San Francisco 49ers · WR

Samuel was my most-trusted running back in the Divisional Round, and I think I was spot on in that assessment. In the 49ers' upset win over Green Bay in the Divisional Round, Samuel gained 9 yards to convert on third-and-7, setting up Robbie Gould's game-winning field goal. He had an equally impactful run in San Francisco's wild-card win over Dallas. He's a natural runner with the ball in his hands, and the 49ers wouldn't be in the conference championship if they hadn't tapped into this part of his game. San Francisco's power back and top wideout has great body control and contact balance when meeting defenders, whether out of the backfield or as a playmaker in the passing game. 

Rank
4
Cooper Kupp
Los Angeles Rams · WR

Kupp showcased everything you need to know about this game in one random play during this past Sunday's 30-27 win over the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers. On third-and-14 late in the second quarter, Matthew Stafford threw a quick pass to Kupp behind the line of scrimmage. Kupp juked a Tampa Bay defender to avoid a loss and gained 11 yards before dragging two more Bucs out of bounds, setting up a Matt Gay field goal. It was a routine play for the Kupp, who rarely gets tackled by just one guy. On top of being an exquisite route runner, he has a knack for making defenders miss and almost always falls forward when the ball is in his hands. Kupp, who captured the league's receiving triple crown in 2021, also ranked second in the NFL in receiving yards after contact (341, per PFF) and forced missed tackles on receptions (24). He also led the league in yards after the catch with 861, further illustrating how dangerous Kupp is when he has the ball (which is often). 

Rank
5
Josh Allen
Buffalo Bills · QB

What we saw from Lamar Jackson during his transcendent 2019 MVP season is similar to what Allen offered up this season. The Bills quarterback did it all for his squad, not only dazzling us with his big arm and passing accuracy but also taking on a huge role in the run game. The Bills averaged 18.4 RB carries per game in 2021 (fewest among playoff teams), while Allen's load increased throughout the regular season. He averaged 6.3 carries and 35.2 rushing yards per game in the first 13 contests of the season, and 9.1 carries and 67.9 rush yards per game in the last seven outings (playoffs included). Allen averaged 11 yards per carry in the wild-card win and posted a team-high 68 rush yards in the narrow Divisional Round loss. Allen's ability to evade defenders and regularly move the chains as a runner isn't normal for a man who stands 6-5, 237 pounds, but he makes it look easy.

Rank
6
Tyreek Hill
Kansas City Chiefs · WR

The Chiefs speedster might be the scariest player in the league with the ball in his hands, boasting footwork that's unparalleled. Just look at what he did late in the Divisional Round, turning a 15-yard reception from Patrick Mahomes into a 64-yard go-ahead touchdown, weaving through the entire Bills defense on the way. Y'all know it's a wrap when the Cheetah throws up the deuces.

Rank
7
Najee Harris
Pittsburgh Steelers · RB

The rookie running back was everything we could have hoped for in this Steelers offense. After being far too pass-heavy in 2020, Pittsburgh's attack found balance this past season with No. 22 in the backfield. Harris showed toughness, versatility and the ability to protect the football -- this was key, considering the waning play of Ben Roethlisberger. Harris recorded 307 carries and 74 receptions during the regular season and didn't fumble the ball once. What a campaign to kick off what should be a prolific career.

Rank
8
Nick Chubb
Cleveland Browns · RB

Chubb, who has averaged at least 5.0 yards per carry in each of his four NFL seasons, rumbled at 5.5 yards a pop in 2021, allowing him to finish second in rushing with 1,259 yards despite missing three games. Chubb currently ranks sixth all time in yards per carry in a career, with just two running backs ranked ahead of him (Jamaal Charles, 5.4; Marion Motley, 5.7). He regularly wears down opposing defenses because he's physical and built like a brick. He's been a bright spot in Cleveland since his arrival as a second-round pick in 2018, and we should expect more big gains for years to come.

Rank
9
Dalvin Cook
Minnesota Vikings · RB

While Cook failed to record double-digit touchdowns for the first time since the 2018 season, his greatness was still on display every time he stepped on the field -- and his skill set was sorely missed in the four games claimed by injury. The Vikings' fifth-year running back still accrued 1,159 rush yards -- he's gained over 1,100 in each of the last three seasons -- and added another 224 yards in the pass game. Exceptional footwork and explosiveness in space make Cook one of the most consistently productive players with the ball in his hands.

Rank
10
Ja'Marr Chase
Cincinnati Bengals · WR

You don't set multiple NFL rookie records without significant YAC. It's important to have great hands, yes, as well as the ability to high-point the ball and win the contested catches. But if you really want to take the league by storm, you must be a dynamic ball-carrier, and Chase has been just that for the Bengals. Of Chase's 1,455 receiving yards in 2021, 657 were gained after the catch -- third-most in the NFL, per PFF, behind just Kupp and Samuel. It's no coincidence that those three wideouts finished atop the YAC leaderboard and ranked in the top 10 in scrimmage yards this season, as they're all built like running backs. They aren't super-tall, lean players; they're solid and require multiple defenders to bring them down.

Follow Maurice Jones-Drew on Twitter.

The Ground Index presented by FedEx ranks NFL running back performances all season long. Cast your vote for the FedEx Ground Player of the Year.

Related Content

Gamepass_vert_web_r

Get exclusive access to the offseason for $9.99

Go behind the scenes and watch the offseason like never before.