Do running backs matter? It's a question that's been thrown around a lot lately.
The running back position clearly isn’t as vital to success in the NFL as it used to be, sure, but there’s still a correlation between the teams that can run the ball effectively and the teams that win.
While the NFL has transformed into a pass-happy league, bell-cow running backs are becoming a rare commodity for teams. Star runners — such as Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott — seem to matter a lot more in fantasy football than in real life.
But just because running back values are dropping, doesn't mean there aren't quality backs in the NFL today. In fact, there is no shortage of outstanding backs around the league.
Heading into the 2020 season, here is our ranking of the 20 best running backs in the NFL.
20. Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts
Even after rushing for over 1,000 yards last season, Mack remains one of the most underrated running backs in football. When Andrew Luck retired right before the season, the Colts put a lot on Mack’s shoulders and he did his best to keep them in the hunt inside the AFC South.
Unfortunately for Mack, he caught just 14 passes last season, so he’s not yet developed into a well-rounded back. He’s also missed six games over the last two seasons. However, between the tackles, Mack gets the job done and deserves more recognition than he deserves.
Mack is teetering on the edge of this list because the Colts decided to draft his potential replacement in Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor.
19. Raheem Mostert, San Francisco 49ers
Let’s be honest, there are a dozen running backs who could have made a case for one of the last few spots in the top-20. However, Mostert stands out from the pack because of his per rush average. He gained 7.7 yards per carry in limited duty in 2018 and 5.6 yards per carry in a more expansive role last season.
The downside for Mostert is that he’ll be 28 at the start of the 2020 season. He’s also likely to split carries with Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon if he's healthy. However, the 49ers know that he’ll be productive when he gets the ball, making him an important part of the dynamic Niners offense.
18. Mark Ingram, Baltimore Ravens
As he heads into his 10th NFL season, Ingram is still going strong. He’s coming off the third 1,000-yard season of his career, all of which have come in the last four years. Ingram clearly benefited from teams worrying about Lamar Jackson running the ball. But 1,018 rushing yards at five yards per carry is impressive under any circumstances.
His age will be a question mark moving forward after Ingram turned 30 last December. But he was selected to the Pro Bowl last year and hasn’t shown too many signs of slowing down just yet.
17. Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars
Fournette had a lot of questions to answer after a disappointing, injury-plagued 2018 season, but he answered many of them in 2019. Most people don’t realize that he had more rushing yards and a better per rush average last season than he did as a rookie. The difference is that he didn’t find the end zone as frequently or carry his team to as many wins.
Three years into his pro career, Fournette is still capable of being one of the best running backs in football. He also had 76 catches for 522 yards last year, showing improvement as a pass-catcher and making him more than just a bruising, between-the-tackles runner.
He's reportedly on the outs in Jacksonville, which hurts his 2020 outlook.
16. Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles
It turns out Saquon Barkley wasn't the only supremely talented running back at Penn State. Sanders, a second-round pick by the Eagles in the 2019 NFL Draft, looked like a future top-ten running back toward the end of his rookie campaign.
Sanders excels in the areas where the future of football is heading. He's an incredibly athletic player who can be a weapon in the passing game. And he's improving as a runner between the tackles, too.
Don't be surprised if Sanders finished as a top-ten scorer at the running back position in fantasy football, especially if you're in a league that rewards catching passes.
Will he ever surpass Barkley on this ranking? Probably not. But Sanders' future is bright.
15. Todd Gurley, Atlanta Falcons
It’s been a long fall from grace for Gurley, who won Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2017 and led the NFL in rushing touchdowns in both 2017 and 2018. However, it was clear this past season that his knees are a problem and he’s just not the same player he was a few years ago.
In his defense, rushing for 857 yards and 12 touchdowns in 15 games is nothing to scoff at, either. But he averaged less than four yards per carry and his receiving numbers cratered.
The Falcons are getting a decent back as Gurley returns home, but they’re not getting the elite player he was a few short years ago.
14. Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks
Despite rushing for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, Carson might be one of the most underrated backs in the NFL. Russell Wilson typically gets the praise when Seattle wins, but Carson has been a huge part of the offense over the past two seasons.
Like a few others, Carson's pass-catching stats are pretty pedestrian, which limits his value to some extent. However, Carson is as good a bet as any running back to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in 2020.
We'll see how well Carson bounces back from a season-ending hip injury.
13. Melvin Gordon, Denver Broncos
The 2019 season obviously didn’t go the way Gordon wanted. He’s partly to blame for his struggles after holding out and being ill-prepared for the start of the season. In the end, Gordon managed 612 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in 12 games, but he clearly didn’t have the kind of season he was hoping for heading into free agency.
However, one subpar season isn’t enough to ruin Gordon’s stock completely. He’s still a two-time Pro Bowler who can be a factor in the passing game.
At 27, Gordon should still have some tread on his tires. The Broncos clearly agree.
12. Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers
As a pure rusher, Ekeler is a nice change-of-pace back but not someone who’s going to carry the load. However, he proved in 2019 that he might be the most dangerous pass-catching running back in the NFL. Last season, Ekeler hauled in 92 catches, coming up seven yards shy of 1,000 receiving yards while averaging 10.8 yards per catch.
As mentioned, he has some shortcomings and needs to have a suitable running mate with him in the backfield. But Ekeler is a dangerous playmaker and deserves to be mentioned among the top-20 running backs in the NFL.
11. Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders
Among rookie running backs last season, Jacobs was undoubtedly the cream of the crop. It took him just eight games to break Marcus Allen’s franchise rushing record for a rookie. Despite missing three games late in the year, Jacob finished with 1,150 rushing yards at a nice clip of 4.7 yards per carry.
Some players experience sophomore slumps, but there’s no reason to expect a significant dip in production from Jacobs in 2020. His ceiling isn’t as high as some other backs — due to a limited opportunity in the passing game — but he'll be a reliable workhorse for the foreseeable future.
10. Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
Jones was a little too inconsistent in 2019 to make his case for being in the elite class of running backs. But he finally played a full 16-game season, scoring a league-high 16 rushing touchdowns. Jones also was a factor in the passing game, catching 49 passes.
Jones took a big leap a year ago, but it seems the Packers' coaches still don't trust him. The team added A.J. Dillon on the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. He should pair nicely with Jones in the Packers' backfield.
Dillon could be the Williams replacement on the Packers' offense, but it doesn't bode well for Jones' future fantasy outlook.
9. Kenyan Drake, Cardinals
A year ago, few people would have bet that Drake would be a top-10 running back heading into 2020. However, getting traded from the Dolphins to the Cardinals turned out to be just what the doctor ordered.
After David Johnson struggled mightily with injuries, Drake arrived in the desert and simply took over the Cardinals' backfield.
Presumably, an improved Cardinals squad can expect more of the same out of Drake in 2020. He was an underrated pass catcher during his time with the Dolphins and if he continues as Arizona’s feature back, Drake has a good chance to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving next season.
8. Joe Mixon, Bengals
For large stretches of the 2019 season, the Bengals struggled to get Mixon going. He was stifled more times than not during the first half of the year. However, it’s a testament to Mixon’s talent that he ended up with over 1,100 rushing yards.
The 2019 season will be an interesting one for Mixon, as he’ll team up with No. 1 pick Joe Burrow. Mixon will likely be a featured part of the offense, putting a lot of pressure on him. But based on the way he ran during the second half of 2019, he should be up for the challenge.
If Burrow plays anything like he did at LSU, Mixon might have a lot more room to operate in the running game in 2020.
7. Nick Chubb, Browns
Statistically, there weren’t many running backs better than Chubb in 2019. He fell just shy of 1,500 rushing yards while averaging five yards per carry. Keep in mind that Chubb did that for a team with an atrocious offensive line and a turnover-prone quarterback, so the Browns ended up putting a lot on Chubb’s shoulders.
Unfortunately for the Browns back, Chubb doesn’t have the same receiving skills as some of the other top backs in the NFL. However, two seasons into his career, he has nearly 2,500 rushing yards. In other words, he’s doing just fine in his role as a workhorse back.
6. Dalvin Cook, Vikings
If there’s one thing we learned in 2019 it’s that Cook is a difference-maker when he stays healthy. We suspected as much based on his first two seasons, but he left no doubt about it after rushing for 1,135 yards and 13 touchdowns while racking up over 500 receiving yards.
While the Vikings are good, they reach another level when Cook is healthy. He’s not far behind the five other running backs ranked ahead of him.
5. Alvin Kamara, Saints
Health was an issue for Kamara last season, as he’s still yet to reach 1,000 rushing yards in a season three years into his pro career. That being said, he’s still one of the most versatile backs in the league. Despite only one receiving touchdown in 2019, Kamara caught exactly 81 passes for the third consecutive year.
In 2020, look for the Saints to lean on Kamara as much as possible, whether it’s as a runner or receiver. If he can stay healthy for 16 games and not have to battle through nagging injuries, Kamara is capable of putting up numbers that are comparable to any of the backs ranked ahead of him.
4. Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys
Elliott’s biggest problem is that he was too good as a rookie and set the bar too high for himself. At this point, the 1,357 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns he had last season don’t seem like that big of a deal, even with 420 yards and two more touchdowns as a receiver.
The truth is that he’s miles ahead of the average NFL running back. Elliott remains the best player on an offense that was one of the deadliest in the league. Even with four years of wear and tear on his body, Elliott has a lot left in the tank and he should be a force to be reckoned with in 2020.
3. Derrick Henry, Titans
You could call Henry a late-bloomer, but keep in mind that he won the Heisman at Alabama, so the talent has been there all along. Over the past two seasons, the Titans have discovered that Henry must carry this team to success.
After eclipsing 1,000 yards in 2018, Henry led the NFL with 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns last season, ultimately taking the Titans to the AFC Championship Game.
There’s a strong argument that Henry deserves to be No. 1 on our list. But he lacks elite speed and doesn’t have the same kind of shake-and-bake ability as some other backs. Despite those shortcomings, he’s an absolute nightmare for opposing defenses.
2. Saquon Barkley, Giants
Even after missing three games and playing on a terrible team, Barkley was able to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards. He also caught 52 passes for 438 yards. Quite frankly, the numbers don't matter all that much because Barkley is a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball.
The former Rookie of the Year should start moving into his prime this season at the ripe old age of 23. If the Giants can put a better offensive line in front of him and have a passing game that’s more of a threat, Barkley will have a chance to truly emerge as one of the NFL’s elite playmakers.
1. Christian McCaffrey, Panthers
Until his team tanked during the second half of the season, McCaffrey was an MVP candidate and arguably the NFL’s best player in 2019. We’ve seen dual-threat running backs in the past, but few have rushed for over 1,000 yards and racked up 1,000 yards receiving in the same season. That puts McCaffrey in a different class.
During the 2020 season, he’ll be just 24 years old, so there’s no reason to expect any kind of drop-off this year. On the contrary, if Teddy Bridgewater can make Carolina’s passing game more of a threat than Kyle Allen, it should give McCaffrey even more room to operate.
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