The NFL is going through its midlife crisis on the overall importance of running backs. The reduced shelf life and devaluation in the draft are evident and committees have become the norm. However, a stout run game not only opens more opportunities on offense, but it travels well on the road in less-than-ideal late-season conditions. Who are the top running backs heading into the 2021 season that move the chains and set the tone for their club?
Top 25 running backs in the NFL for the 2021 season | 25-16
Running backs can be asked to do everything from running on a direct snap to catching over the middle to blocking behemoths on a blitz — who is the best at doing it all?
25. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs
Picking the final member of the top 25 running back club wasn’t easy; many players had a case to make the final cut. The first running back selected a year ago, Clyde Edwards-Helaire earned a hefty workload right off the bat, dissimilar to most rookie backs in 2020. During the second half of the season, his touches were more rationed.
Pass protection and short-yardage running proved challenging for the rookie. But, as advertised, Edwards-Helaire showed excellent make-you-miss ability as a runner and receiver. His second season in the NFL could be his breakout.
24. Damien Harris, New England Patriots
Harris averaged five yards per carry in his rookie year without much of a passing threat from New England’s offense overall. He is powerful and well-balanced. Harris isn’t bashful about dishing out punishment but isn’t overly dynamic. The Patriot also excels in pass protection. Still, he’s not used as a receiver and didn’t touch the ball once on third down last year.
23. Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team
Gibson is a work in progress — there is no question about that. He is immensely talented and could be primed for a massive sophomore campaign in a much-improved Washington offense, but that is a projection. While Gibson needs to work on his pass-blocking prowess, his upside as a receiver is through the roof. Hopefully, he is used more in passing situations this year. If he is, Gibson would shoot up this list.
22. Raheem Mostert, San Francisco 49ers
Kyle Shanahan’s scheme is incredibly running back-friendly, and San Francisco is an excellent run-blocking offense. But wow, does Mostert fit his offense perfectly.
Mostert is super aggressive to get downhill. He puts his foot in the ground and attacks the hole. He also has great long speed to run away from defenders when given that crease. Mostert’s durability does give pause — missing eight games last year –, hence why San Francisco drafted two running backs and signed Wayne Gallman.
21. James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
Robinson came out of nowhere to dominate the Jaguars’ backfield last year in quite impressive fashion. He is a no-nonsense downhill runner. Robinson ran behind an average offensive line at best and many defenses keyed on him. He still produced to the tune of over 1,400 yards while also catching 49 passes.
Just because Urban Meyer drafted Travis Etienne in the first round this year doesn’t mean that Robinson isn’t one of the NFL’s top 25 running backs.
20. Melvin Gordon, Denver Broncos
Gordon produced juicy numbers last season when Phillip Lindsay suffered an injury. On the other hand, Gordon is probably best suited to share touches at this stage of his career. Therefore, Denver traded up to acquire Javonte Williams, who also projects as Gordon’s successor.
Gordon is still a solid back and churns out yardage when given the opportunity. Denver’s run blocking was far from great last year. Gordon didn’t bring enough to the table as a receiver but has a decent track record over his career in this regard.
19. D’Andre Swift, Detroit Lions
Like many of the rookie running backs last year, the second half of the season was much kinder to Swift than the early portion. Yet, even from the start, Swift flashed. He has immense potential in the receiving game but might not ever forecast as a heavy-workload runner.
18. J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens
Dobbins’ 5.8 yards per carry is the best of anyone on this list. The Ravens’ run scheme certainly helped, but he is a well-rounded runner that can do excellent work outside the tackles or up the middle. Dobbins did an impressive job in protection last year, especially for a rookie. It would be great if Dobbins could get more involved as a receiver, but Lamar Jackson rarely throws to his running backs.
17. David Montgomery, Chicago Bears
Montgomery blew up down the stretch last season and finished the year with over 1,500 yards. He is difficult to bring to the ground and excels after contact. Montgomery is also an underrated receiving back — only four running backs caught more passes than Montgomery in 2020. This is a guy that doesn’t receive the credit he truly deserves.
16. Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns
Hunt plays second fiddle to Nick Chubb, but there is no shame in that. These two also benefitted from one of the league’s best offensive lines in Cleveland. Hunt is only 25 years old but showed early in his career with Kansas City that he can handle a massive workload as a runner and receiver. Hunt’s contact balance is about as good as anyone’s in the NFL.