Like it or not, the days of the workhorse running back in the NFL are over. It now takes two running backs to do the job of one player.
With only a few exceptions, nowadays, the best rushing teams have at least two backs who can carry the ball and rack up yards. That means that having one of the best running backs in the league doesn’t mean as much as it used to. NFL teams now need to devote resources to a top-notch running back duo, or perhaps even a trio.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the 10 teams that have a top-notch running back duo heading into the 2021 season.
10. Melvin Gordon & Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos
While he’s fallen off a little bit in recent years, Melvin Gordon was just 14 yards shy of 1,000 rushing yards last season and would have gotten there if he had played in all 16 games. At 28, he should have plenty left in the tank. Don’t forget that he was also an excellent pass-catcher when he was at his best.
Instead of pairing up with Philip Lindsay this season, Gordon will share the Denver backfield with rookie Javonte Williams. The second-round pick was part of a dynamic duo at North Carolina with Michael Carter and should have a similar setup with Gordon.
Over the last two seasons, Williams rushed combined for over 2,000 yards rushing and could end up being the starter for the Broncos, making Gordon one of the best backups in the league.
9. James Robinson & Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars
Nobody saw James Robinson coming last year, going from undrafted rookie to 1,000-yard rusher. Obviously, a change in scheme and offensive philosophy with Urban Meyer as the new head coach could considerably change his role. But keep in mind that Robinson caught 49 passes last season, so he can be productive in a variety of roles.
Speaking of filling a variety of roles, that appears to be Jacksonville’s plan for Travis Etienne. He’ll spend some time at wide receiver, but it’d be foolish for the Jaguars not to put him in the backfield and let Clemson teammate Trevor Lawrence hand the ball to him like in the old days. In college, Etienne was a home-run threat every time he touched the ball, so even if he gets five to 10 carries per game, he’ll be a key part of the Jacksonville backfield and a great complement to Robinson.
8. Christian McCaffrey & Chuba Hubbard, Carolina Panthers
Frankly, if Christian McCaffrey is healthy, you can put anyone else in the Carolina backfield and have a dynamic tandem. Keep in mind that he’s just two years removed from having both 1,000 yards rushing and receiving before being limited to just three games last year because of injury. Obviously, we shouldn’t expect McCaffrey to replicate his 2019 season, but if healthy, he’s a lock to rush for 1,000 yards and rack up plenty of receiving yards.
Meanwhile, Chuba Hubbard is an intriguing backfield partner for McCaffrey. In 2019, he was the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, outshining all of the quarterbacks in a pass-happy league by rushing for over 2,000 yards. Even though he wasn’t a top draft pick, falling to the fourth round, Hubbard won’t need a lot of touches to make in impact as McCaffrey’s backup.
7. David Montgomery & Tarik Cohen, Chicago Bears
The Bears might not know their quarterback heading into the season, but they’ll have an ideal thunder-and-lightning pairing in the backfield. David Montgomery didn’t flourish as a rookie the way some expected, although he became entrenched as the starter last year, surpassing 1,000 yards rushing. He also surprised many by catching 54 passes and gaining over eight yards per reception.
Of course, Tarik Cohen is usually the guy catching balls out of the backfield, racking up over 70 catches in both 2018 and 2019. His 2020 season was over quickly after tearing his ACL in Week 3. But getting hurt early in the season means he’ll be good to go in 2021. If Cohen returns to the form he had before the injury and Montgomery can carry over his success from last year, the Bears will feel great about the production coming out of their backfield this season.
6. Alvin Kamara & Latavius Murray, New Orleans Saints
Despite four years of experience under his belt, Alvin Kamara is just 26 heading into the 2021 season. A Pro Bowler in all four seasons despite never reaching 1,000 yards rushing in a season. Kamara's one of the most versatile backs in the league and could almost fill the role of two running backs by himself.
Of course, durability is a little bit of a question with Kamara, and so the Saints have to manage his reps. This is where Latavius Murray enters the equation to serve as the backup. While he’s not the flashiest back in the league, Murray is consistent, reliable, and durable. In many ways, he’s the perfect complement to Kamara, which is why they make such a good tandem.
5. Josh Jacobs & Kenyan Drake, Las Vegas Raiders
Josh Jacobs had an impressive rookie season and was nearly as good in 2020, proving that it was no fluke. He averaged over 18 carries per game last year, proving that he could be a workhorse back when needed. However, it’s hard not to think that Jacobs could be more productive if he had a little more help around him and another ball carrier to share the load.
The Raiders must have had similar thoughts because they signed Kenyan Drake during the offseason. While he’s spent most of his career being overlooked, Drake racked up 955 rushing yards in Arizona last year. When he got regular carries, he proved that he could be a productive back. Frankly, either Jacobs or Drake could take the lead in any given game this season, making this a tandem we didn’t see last season but one that will be fascinating to watch in 2021.
4. Ezekiel Elliott & Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys
It’s tempting to think of Ezekiel Elliot as a true feature back. After all, he’s averaging just under 20 rush attempts per game in his career and nearly 25 touches per game. His 979 rushing yards last season were the fewest in his five NFL seasons. That’s not so much a sign that he’s slowing down but rather proof of his consistency. Of course, as he gets older, the Cowboys would be wise to manage his workload a little more.
That’s what Tony Pollard so intriguing. He saw his role in the Dallas offense increase from 2019 to 2020, so the Cowboys are starting to trust him a little more. He should be in line for a larger role in 2021. Pollard has proven that there isn’t a huge drop-off when Elliott leaves the field, giving Dallas a rock-solid tandem.
3. J.K. Dobbins & Gus Edwards, Baltimore Ravens
Mark Ingram has left Baltimore, which means the team’s backfield will take on a new look. J.K. Dobbins showed some serious explosiveness last season in a limited role, averaging six yards per carry despite starting just one game. The future for him is bright, especially since teams have to respect Lamar Jackson’s ability to run the ball. With just a little bit of daylight, Dobbins is capable of getting to the second level.
At the same time, Edwards is the perfect complement. He’s rushed for over 700 yards in each of his first three seasons and is averaging over five yards per carry in his career. He probably doesn’t fall into the category of being a star or even a regular star. Together, the two create one of the more intriguing backfields in the NFL.
2. Dalvin Cook & Alexander Mattison, Minnesota Vikings
When he’s been healthy, Dalvin Cook gets as close to being a true workhorse back as there is in the NFL. He finally had a true breakout season last year, racking up over 1,500 rushing yards in just 14 games. The Vikings may not expect him to match that total moving forward, but if he can come close, it won’t take much from his backup to form one of the best tandems in the league.
As for Alexander Mattison, he’s given the Vikings just what they’ve needed out of a backup during the past two years. He hasn’t gotten as many opportunities as he’s perhaps deserved in two seasons, finding the end zone just three times. But Mattison has been productive when called upon. Surely, he’s earned the right to receive more touches, but even if that doesn’t happen, the Vikings know they’ll get production when Cook isn’t on the field.
1. Nick Chubb & Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns
There was no better tandem in the NFL last year than Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, and there’s no reason to think that will change in 2021. Chubb was slowed by an injury and missed four games last season, yet he was still able to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards. He’s very much in his prime right now, which means that if he can stay healthy all year, he’s a candidate to lead the NFL in rushing with 1,500-plus yards.
Of course, the injury to Chubb allowed Hunt to get more consistent touches and start to regain the form he had with the Chiefs early in his career. With both operating at full speed, there could be no stopping the Cleveland backfield this season. If the Browns are able to rotate Chubb and Hunt all year, keeping both of them fresh, the pair could run circles around almost any defense in the league.
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