There’s much to do about the top running backs in the NFL entering the 2021 season. There’s even more to do about whether or not running backs “matter” entering the year. The latter question aside, there are plenty of valuable assets in the backfield of every NFL team.
Top 32 running backs for the 2021 NFL season | 1-10
The top running backs in the NFL are big names, those that you must watch on Sunday. Though they do it in different ways, one thing is for sure about these top 10 — they’re a threat to take it to the house on every play.
1. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
The back-to-back reigning rushing champion tops the list of best running backs in the NFL. Derrick Henry is the undisputed workout king as well as the league’s top stiff-arm threat entering 2021. He makes mincemeat of defensive backs in space while possessing plenty of straight-line speed to outrun just about anyone on the field.
Henry will not go down on first contact and routinely churns out first down after first down if he’s not scoring touchdowns. The sixth-year running back has already recorded 5,860 rushing yards and 55 touchdowns, having produced at least 1,500 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns in each of the last two seasons.
2. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
We’re anxiously awaiting multiple returns to the field for some of the league’s top running backs, none more so than Christian McCaffrey. He barely played in three games a season ago and still scored 6 total touchdowns. McCaffrey is the only running back in NFL history to record back-to-back seasons with at least 100 catches from 2018 to 2019.
What separates McCaffrey from the other dual-threat running backs is his possession of elite-level ground skills. He has terrific vision, amazing balance, incredible speed, and plenty of elusiveness. Even with an injury-shortened season, McCaffrey has recorded 3,145 rushing yards, 29 rushing touchdowns, 2,672 receiving yards, and 16 receiving touchdowns in just four years.
3. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
Alvin Kamara is a ridiculously talented RB more than deserving of his place on the list of top running backs. He’s somehow managed to record at least 81 receptions in each of his first four seasons with the Saints while also rushing for 3,340 yards on the ground.
He’s recorded 43 scores on the ground and another 15 through the air, proving to be a touchdown machine in the Saints’ offense. A year without Drew Brees will ultimately be the telling chapter of Kamara’s career. Still, he’s certainly proven to be as valuable as any running back in any backfield across the league.
4. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
If it were purely up to on-field performance, Dalvin Cook would certainly find himself a bit higher than No. 4 on this list. However, he has yet to play a full 16 games for the Vikings and has missed 23 career games in his first four seasons with a variety of injuries.
Cook’s 2019-2020 stretch is among the best two-year stretch of RB performance we’ve seen in recent memory. He’s totaled 2,692 yards and a whopping 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons while also chipping in with 880 yards out of the backfield. An incredibly important aspect of Minnesota’s offensive game plan, as Cook goes, so will the Vikings in 2021.
5. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
Nick Chubb is arguably the NFL’s most elusive ball carrier. He’ll turn a routine carry into a long touchdown within the simplest crease in the offensive line. Chubb is no stranger to big plays and has scored 30 total touchdowns in just three seasons.
He was a mere 4 yards away from 1,000 yards in his rookie season, but more impressively, has averaged 5.2 yards per carry for his entire career. His work may be diminishing in the passing game with Kareem Hunt’s emergence, but that may play to his real strength of punishing first and second-level defenders on the ground.
6. Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
Despite splitting carries in the Packers’ backfield, Aaron Jones easily lands on any list of top running backs in the NFL. He’s recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and combined for 25 rushing touchdowns the past two seasons. With an added dynamic out of the backfield, the trend of top backs being well-rounded continues.
Jones is set to be the bell cow in the Green Bay backfield for what seems like the first time in his career. A surprisingly large player for his size at 5’9″, 208, Jones lowers the boom just the same as he’ll skirt by second-level defenders with speed. The sky is the limit for Jones as the clear No. 1 in Green Bay.
7. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
The highly-anticipated return of Saquon Barkley to the field in 2021 should refamiliarize the general fan with one of the most talented all-around backs in the league. Barkley is essentially a full season removed from participating in live contact. But if he’s healthy, he’s a rare breed of balance, strength, and elusiveness.
Barkley’s first two seasons of full health in New York saw him prove to be a home-run threat at every touch. At just 24 years old, Barkley is just getting started. With amazing contact balance and tremendous lower body strength, no defender is safe from Barkey’s highlight reel.
8. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
Though his days as an elite runner may be behind him, Zeke’s durability and well-rounded ability were on display in 2020. Though he narrowly missed 1,000 yards last year, he chipped in with 50+ receptions out of the backfield for the third straight season. Elliott has now hauled in multiple receiving touchdowns and at least 300 receiving yards in four of his five seasons.
He may never reach the level of success he saw in his rookie season, but Elliott proves that his place on the roster matters. For his career, the bruising back out of Ohio State now has 6,384 rushing yards and another 1,957 receiving yards with 56 total touchdowns.
9. Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders
Josh Jacobs has eclipsed the 1,000-yard plateau in each of his first two seasons with the Raiders. Though he took a step backward in terms of average yards per carry in Year 2, Jacobs added more dynamics to his game in 2020. He hauled in 33 receptions out of the backfield and scored 5 more touchdowns on the ground than his rookie season.
Jacobs is a skilled runner in space, losing very little speed through his breaks. He’ll consistently break through arm tackles the same as he’ll run around defenders with impressive elusiveness. With just 3 fumbles to his credit, he’s also a sure-handed first-down machine for Las Vegas.
10. Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns
The highest ‘non-starter’ on this list, Kareem Hunt packs half of the punch for the league’s top RB duo in Cleveland. Hunt was terrific in Kansas City for his first two seasons, totaling well over 2,100 yards on the ground and 16 touchdowns. He really found his groove as the complement to Nick Chubb in Cleveland a season ago, rushing for 921 yards and 9 touchdowns.
An elusive rusher, Hunt is perhaps even better through the air and after the catch. He’s recorded 16 total touchdowns on receptions in four seasons and has proven to be an incredibly difficult task to bring down in space.
Top 32 running backs for the 2021 NFL season | 11-32
It’s imperative to note that we haven’t seen enough from the rookies slated to see action this year. You can almost guarantee a youngster will step up this season that isn’t on our preseason list of top running backs. Names like Javonte Williams in Denver, Rhamondre Stevenson in New England, or Jaret Patterson in Washington are likely to surface before too long. Then there are RB-friendly systems that will likely see Trey Sermon, Michael Carter, and Kylin Hill as names to know.
Until then, however, we’ve only seen enough from one rookie running back to crack the top 32 in the NFL entering the season.
11. Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts
12. David Montgomery, Chicago Bears
13. Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks
14. D’Andre Swift, Detroit Lions
15. James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
16. Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers
17. Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
18. Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team
19. Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles
20. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs
21. Melvin Gordon, Denver Broncos
22. Raheem Mostert, San Francisco 49ers
23. Damien Harris, New England Patriots
24. Gus Edwards, Baltimore Ravens
25. Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams
26. Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills
27. Jamaal Williams, Detroit Lions
28. Chase Edmonds, Arizona Cardinals
29. Sony Michel, Los Angeles Rams
30. Leonard Fournette, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
31. Kenyan Drake, Las Vegas Raiders
32. Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers