The best running backs in the NFL come in all shapes and sizes and offer varying skill sets. Some excellent RBs rely on power, while others win with speed. Of course, the elite players at the position offer a combination of both traits.
However, nothing trumps the ability to create explosive plays offensively.
Running backs come and go more frequently than any other position. The gladiatorial nature of the position makes injuries more prevalent. Unfortunately, that means there will be a ton of turnover on these lists from season to season.
Who’s the Best Running Back in the NFL?
Christian McCaffrey is the best running back in the NFL. San Francisco makes some … interesting … personnel decisions from time to time, and this was no exception. Still today, even with the evidence we’ve seen of McCaffrey in San Franciso’s offense, it’s a suspect move.
They traded four draft picks for an injury-riddled running back who is making the most money at the position in the entire league. But the trade comes with cap benefits in that area, and there’s no denying the difference he made for the 49ers offense, even in a league where the position largely does not matter.
McCaffrey is truly unique. He is the only back in the league that is a true No. 1 that can align out wide as a wide receiver and look like one. Even Tony Pollard, who played WR at Memphis, doesn’t have McCaffrey’s route-running chops.
And when specifically looking at the 49ers, who are devoid of an exorbitant QB contract on the roster, they’re more financially able to go heavy elsewhere until it comes time to pay Brock Purdy (if he remains the guy in San Francisco for the foreseeable future).
It’s fair to question McCaffrey’s durability, as injuries limited him to just 10 total games from 2020-2021. Yet, he’s a dynamic threat any time he’s available, and his peak is higher than any running back in the league.
2) Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
A few generations ago, we would look at Nick Chubb in absolute awe. He is easily the most dynamic runner in the NFL. In his five-year career in Cleveland, he has never averaged fewer than five yards per carry.
And while we know that yards per carry lacks crucial context, even in more advanced rushing metrics, Chubb is superior to almost everyone.
In every single one of his five seasons, Chubb has ranked either first or second in PFF’s elusiveness rating. While other runners that consistently force missed tackles are boom-or-bust runners, Chubb also provides consistently positive plays into the mix as well.
Chubb is not simply five yards and a cloud of dust, either. Few RBs in the league boast his acceleration and long speed, and when matched with his excellent vision, those traits allow him to break more big plays than almost anyone in the league.
Chubb’s horrific injury was a reminder of the violence in the NFL game. But Chubb has been through a similar injury in the past and knows the rehab. If anybody can return from this as strong as before, it’s him.
3) Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts
The Jonathan Taylor situation quickly went from bad to worse this offseason. Many national pundits had aimed at Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, but only because he’s a soft target.
Irsay is just the often head-scratching voice for the organization, much like the owner in Dallas.
The truth is that Indianapolis didn’t want to pay anybody on offense this offseason until they saw them in Shane Steichen’s offense. Taylor was among that group, but the timing of his contract’s expiration, a pushy agent, and the untimely demise of RB value created a PR mess.
Taylor fits in a similar mold to Chubb, although Taylor’s injury troubles have come at the NFL level instead of in college.
Taylor didn’t get worse last season. He’s simply the product of the offensive line and structure of the Indianapolis offense in front of him. That unit was underwhelming at best a season ago, and Taylor felt that impact.
4) Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
The Tennessee Titans deploy Derrick Henry as a blunt instrument whenever he’s on the field. They bludgeon teams with his 250+ pound frame until they cry for mercy.
The old adage of wearing out opposing defenses has been proven malarky by nerds far and wide, but anecdotally, it actually seems to work for Henry and the Titans.
Aside from 2021, Henry has been remarkably durable throughout his time in Tennessee. When his career ultimately comes to an end, he’ll be remembered as the sledgehammer that allowed the Titans’ offense to find consistent efficiency while they struggled to maintain any semblance of offensive talent.
Unfortunately, the “King” has finally hit a wall he couldn’t run through, thanks to an OL that you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy.
5) Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders
Josh Jacobs led the league with 1,653 rushing yards, 100+ yards ahead of second-place Henry last season. He generated more first downs (93) than any other rusher, and his 58% success rate was fourth among running backs.
Jacobs did all this while playing behind an offensive line that was below average. He’s an interesting case study for what the league values.
Jacobs is a back that will find a crease and find positive yards more often than not. Although his receiving production has improved in the past two seasons, he doesn’t strike fear in that arena.
And while Jacobs posted the league’s longest rush a season ago, he’s not a consistently dangerous threat to break long runs. He’s only cracked the top 10 once in breakaway rate (15+ yard designed runs).
6) Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints’ offensive structure collapsed after Sean Payton’s departure, and the struggles seemingly continued early in 2023. In Alvin Kamara’s first game back following a three-game suspension, he caught an astonishing 13 passes on 14 targets. But those receptions only amassed 33 yards.
Kamara himself cannot fix this offense. The organization might not be able to, despite having talent on the outside. Using Kamara as a pass catcher isn’t a bad idea, but his targets must be exponentially more efficient moving forward.
Kamara’s presence seems to be helping the Saints’ offense, even if his own efficiency remains poor. Yet, New Orleans may have found a better way to use him in the passing game.
7) Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
We’ll likely never get rookie-year Saquon Barkley back. But that doesn’t make the Penn State standout any less talented than when he first entered the league.
We simply won’t see an improved New York Giants offensive unit rely on Barkley in the passing game the way it did from him in 2018 when he was targeted 121 times.
In their pursuit to try and justify using the second overall pick on Barkley in 2018, New York’s misused him. His greatest trait is his unbelievable size-relative elusiveness and speed, but Barkley’s unable to maximize that explosiveness as a bell-cow RB.
However, New York has been unable to find a suitable complementary piece to take him off the field more often.
8) Bijan Robinson, Atlanta Falcons
If you squint hard at Bijan Robinson, his jersey changes color to Powder Blue, and “Tomlinson” races across his back. Some of the plays this young man makes are absurd. One-handed catches, forcing missed tackles, and exploding through rushing lanes that aren’t as wide as they were a season ago for Atlanta are all the rage for Robinson so far.
The overall impact of a running back is muted in the modern NFL, but Robinson is one of the few talents that can legitimately take over a game with his skill set. But the offense needs to maximize his effectiveness through alignment versatility. Tyler Allgeier should help facilitate that.
9) Breece Hall, New York Jets
Like Travis Etienne Jr., Breece Hall also missed time in his rookie season due to injuries. But the former Iowa State back managed 463 rushing yards and four touchdowns before tearing his ACL last October.
The Jets’ OL has been a revolving door in 2023, and the incredibly poor QB play has not lent itself to allowing for a stable rushing attack.
10) De’Von Achane, Miami Dolphins
Speed kills. The Miami Dolphins have assembled the NFL’s version of an Olympic track team on the roster, and they’ve taken the world by storm with it. De’Von Achane has been electric early in his rookie season.
His explosiveness and vision were evident in his tape from Texas A&M, but the runner has found a home in Mike McDaniel’s scheme. Averaging over 10 yards per carry is absurd. Those numbers aren’t easy to produce in rookie mode in Madden.
Unfortunately, Achane suffered a knee injury earlier in the year that landed him on short-term IR, and he hasn’t quite reproduced his outrageous production from the beginning of the season.
11) D’Andre Swift, Philadelphia Eagles
D’Andre Swift is incredibly talented and still not even 25 despite entering his fourth NFL season. However, Swift had struggled to remain healthy during his time in Detroit, starting only 16 games in three seasons and missing at least three contests in each campaign.
But Swift has the kind of big-play ability that Philadelphia was searching for, and the Eagles love exploring the trade market for impressive talents on expiring contracts.
With Jalen Hurts, Eagles OC Brian Johnson is able to maximize Swift’s efficiency and, if nothing else, secure him a sweeter payday next offseason in a different uniform. His vision has been questioned since entering the league, and rightfully so, but it matters far less behind the Eagles’ OL.
12) Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys
The call was coming from inside the house in Frisco, Texas, the past few seasons. Fans who know ball have known that Pollard is a supremely talented back for years. He’s one of the most dynamic players in the league with the ball in his hands.
Only Kenneth Walker III had a higher breakaway rate a season ago, and Pollard is much more consistent down-to-down. But somehow, the narrative that he’s some sort of scatback remains despite boasting a well-distributed 215-pound frame.
The former college receiver is no slouch as a pass catcher, either. Pollard’s efficiency tanked in 2023 as the feature back, but none of the Cowboys’ runners are having much success, while the passing attack has completely taken over.
13) Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers
In 2022, Austin Ekeler ranked fifth in the NFL in receptions. Not fifth among running backs. Fifth, period.
Joe Lombardi, for all his flaws, despises running the football at a high rate. He used designed passing concepts to Ekeler as an extension of the run game. Only Justin Jefferson, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and Stefon Diggs had more receptions than Ekeler in 2022.
He possesses excellent contact balance for his size, but like Jacobs, Ekeler is not a dynamic big-play threat like other backs. And in 2023, his rushing efficiency has taken a nose dive.
14) Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
Still one of the most efficient backs in the NFL, Aaron Jones crossed the 1,000-yard threshold last year for the third time in his career while ranking fourth in rushing DVOA and sixth in success rate.
He surrenders carries to AJ Dillon, but that one-two punch has likely helped prolong Jones’ career.
The Green Bay Packers have an insanely young roster, particularly at the skill positions. Unfortunately, Jones hasn’t remained healthy in 2023, and his production this season has suffered because of it.
15) Kenneth Walker III, Seattle Seahawks
Walker is an incredible talent who has a knack for picking up explosives on the ground. But although he firmly out-produced Hall last season because he remained healthy, there was a decent amount of boom-or-bust to his game that needs ironing out before he becomes a consistent runner at the NFL level.
MORE: Highest-Paid RBs in 2023
Additionally, Walker will likely never see the receiving volume or possess the receiving skill set of many other backs. RB targets are an afterthought in Seattle’s offense, and that only becomes more evident with the addition of Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
Despite his scattered efficiency, Walker ended up having the highest breakaway rate in the league, and he still rushed for over 1,000 yards as a rookie in Seattle.
16) Travis Etienne Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars
Etienne is a great fit in Doug Pederson’s offense, and his endless first- and second-level bursts are a perfect fit for the modern game as a whole.
A Lisfranc injury ended his rookie campaign before it began, but Etienne showed elusiveness and game-breaking speed in 2022 en route to 1,441 total yards, the 10th-most among running backs.
17) Raheem Mostert, Miami Dolphins
Raheem Mostert, who was a 49er with consistent injury issues in the backfield, went to Miami and played in 16 games in 2022 at 30 years of age. He started 14 of those contests and notched a career-high 181 carries, 891 yards, and 1,093 all-purpose yards.
His explosiveness melds well with McDaniel, his former run game coordinator in San Francisco turned head coach in Miami, and he’s scoring touchdowns in 2023 like Marshawn Lynch eats Skittles.
18) James Cook, Buffalo Bills
James Cook looks more like Dalvin Cook these days than Dalvin does. The Bills have been searching for a consistent rushing attack for a long time, and it appears they finally have one.
Cook is explosive and elusive. However, unlike his brother, James isn’t the outside zone phenom his brother was at his peak. Buffalo runs more gap than zone, and Cook’s quick decision-making elevates the rushing attack. He’s also proven to be an excellent receiver out of the backfield.
19) James Conner, Arizona Cardinals
James Conner has always struggled to remain on the field for a full NFL season, but he’s been incredibly valuable for the Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals, particularly when it concerns scoring touchdowns.
Some players have a knack for being allowed to score touchdowns in the red zone, and Conner has taken advantage of those in his career. And the one thing that Conner has over others is his ability to run angrier than anybody else on the planet. He runs like every defensive player on the field owes him money, and he’s coming to collect.
20) Jahmyr Gibbs, Detroit Lions
Jahmyr Gibbs makes fast people look… not fast. His explosiveness is eye-catching, much like the pop we see from Achane in Miami. That explosiveness is where the game is headed, but Gibbs was a first-round pick because he also added so much to the Crimson Tide’s passing attack.
In fact, Gibbs’ 44 receptions were the most on the team in 2022. He’s added that same element to the Lions’ passing attack, and despite seeing David Montgomery steal most of his deep red-zone snaps, he’s found the end zone well as a rookie.
21) Jaylen Warren, Pittsburgh Steelers
At this point, it’s nearly impossible to argue who the more efficient back is in Pittsburgh. Although Najee Harris remains the feature back, and maybe a heavier workload would negatively impact Warren’s efficiency, it’s hard not to wonder.
In fact, few backs in the NFL have been more impressive than Warren in 2023. His contact balance and creativity with the ball in his hands make him a tough tackle upon first contact, which shows consistently on film and the data clearly shows.
22) Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
Joe Mixon is a solid three-down back, but he’s never truly found peak efficiency at the NFL level, no matter who’s calling plays for the Bengals. He’s a solid pass catcher and pass protector in the backfield.
Mixon doesn’t have the sort of secondary burst and elusiveness to consistently be a big-play threat, but his contact balance and vision allow him to remain effective.
23) David Montgomery, Detroit Lions
Montgomery is a jack of all trades but a master of none. He’s a powerful back who can break tackles, but he wasn’t necessarily enough of a cutback runner for Chicago’s outside-zone scheme.
Montgomery shifted from one NFC North team to another by signing a three-year deal with the Lions in the offseason. Gibbs doesn’t seem ready for a full workload yet, so Montgomery has remained the lead back despite being less efficient overall.
24) Isiah Pacheco, Kansas City Chiefs
NOBODY in the NFL runs angrier than Isiah Pacheco. If John Wick were a football player, he would be Pacheco. He willingly seeks the punishment more often than not, and he’s not afraid to let you know about it afterward.
Pacheco’s style will almost certainly shorten his career lifespan, but fewer runners are more entertaining on a snap-by-snap basis than Pacheco, who wants nothing more than to run through your face.
25) Rhamondre Stevenson, New England Patriots
Rhamondre Stevenson might be one of the best backs in the NFL, but Bill Belichick’s need to play around with 1,000 different RBs throughout the course of a season doesn’t lend itself to properly showing off that talent.
Stevenson has been outstanding when used, finishing fourth in attempts per broken tackle in 2022 (8.8).
But the more surprising side of his game as a stout 230-pounder is how natural Stevenson is as a receiver out of the backfield, and how fluid he is in space despite lackluster testing speed at the NFL Combine.
Only Ekeler, McCaffrey, and Leonard Fournette caught more passes than Stevenson a year ago. Stevenson hasn’t been as efficient as we’d hoped, but the Patriots’ offense is an unmitigated disaster between an underwhelming offensive line, poor WR play, and abhorrent quarterbacking.
26) Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers
Speaking of running through faces, it feels like that’s all Harris has been able to do since joining the Pittsburgh Steelers. Harris was billed as a back with the size, athleticism, and skill set to do big things as an NFL runner, but the reality has been far more disappointing than that.
Pittsburgh’s offensive line and design certainly share some blame, but Harris simply may not have the requisite juice to be a difference-making back at the NFL level. That said, his decisive and physical running style fits in with the blue-collar culture of the city and its fans.
27) Tyler Allgeier, Atlanta Falcons
Allgeier is arguably the perfect example of why teams don’t have to waste premium draft capital on running backs. So the Atlanta Falcons … used the eighth pick in the NFL Draft on an RB.
Batman couldn’t solve this mystery. The only explanation is “Bijan better,” delivered in your best caveman voice.
As a rookie, Allgeier had one of the best after-contact and breakaway rates. He also caught 16 of the 17 targets coming his way out of the backfield.
28) Khalil Herbert, Chicago Bears
Justin Fields is one of the most dangerous entities in the league. The 230-pound QB can outrun many defensive backs, and he isn’t just fast in a straight line, either.
He also presents another gap to defend, which makes Khalil Herbert’s life on the ground easier. Among RBs with at least 100 carries last season, Herbert ranked second behind only Pollard in yards after contact per attempt (2.5).
The ability to generate your own rushing yardage is arguably the most important trait a running back can possess, and Herbert has it.
29) Brian Robinson, Washington Commanders
Recovering from a gunshot wound to post nearly 800 yards over 12 games is a pretty amazing way to begin your NFL career. Brian Robinson stole Washington’s starting RB job once he hit the field, relegating former starter Antonio Gibson to a backup role by season’s end.
Robinson may never be much of a receiver (just nine catches in 2022), but he’s a bruising back who continues to score touchdowns behind an improved Commanders offensive line.
30) Tyjae Spears, Tennessee Titans
He may not have any ACLs left, but Tyjae Spears has an abundance of ankles, some of which he’s snatched away from defenders as a professional runner spelling King Henry. The Titans, for the first time in the Henry tenure, appear to have a legitimately dynamic duo.
Spears is endlessly explosive and shifty, just what the NFL has come to covet.
31) Kyren Williams, Los Angeles Rams
Somehow, Sean McVay and the Rams offense have rekindled their love for the run game in 2023, and Kyren Williams has played a significant role in that. He’s one of the most efficient runners in the league, posting high marks in yards after contact and EPA.
32) Zack Moss, Indianapolis Colts
Zack Moss is not the most physically gifted runner on the planet. However, Steichen’s system seems to get the best out of runners, and Moss is no exception.
However, Moss possesses good second-level vision and can put his foot in the dirt and change direction quickly to explode through the hole.
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