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    Matt Williamson’s top 25 running backs in the NFL

    Pro Football Network's Senior NFL Analyst Matt Williamson ranks the top 25 running backs in the NFL heading into the 2020 season.

    There is a growing belief, most notably in the analytics sector of football analysis, that running backs don’t matter. Unlike in previous decades, this position isn’t drafted as often in the first round or routinely given large second contracts anymore. However, if you ask any NFL head coach or play caller if they think this position “matters” on game day when they are on the road in a dogfight of a game, they will all answer the same. That being said, without question, the ability for a running back to affect the passing game is now of extreme importance and such a skill is reflected in how these players are ranked below. Here is a list of the top 25 running backs in the NFL heading into the 2020 season.

    Top 25 running backs in the NFL

    25. Tevin Coleman, San Francisco 49ers

    Coleman is a smooth mover with a longer stride than most running backs and can eat up grass when he gets in the open field. He also has plenty of passing game acumen. Is he a tease or has he just not put it all together quite yet? With his high pad level and just average change of direction, Coleman is more likely a tease. But Kyle Shanahan sure likes him.

    24. Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts

    Mack doesn’t have special qualities, but he is solid in all areas (although it is a little startling that he only caught 14 passes last year). He certainly is aided by running behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. With the exception of his pass protection, Mack did improve last year, though. But this will be Jonathan Taylor’s backfield soon enough and Mack could be playing elsewhere next year.

    23. Raheem Mostert, San Francisco 49ers

    Mostert isn’t the biggest or most powerful, but he doesn’t mess around with the ball in his hands. He hits the hole hard and gets every inch he possibly can and has the ability to break off a long run. That is exactly what Kyle Shanahan wants in this system.

    22. Todd Gurley, Atlanta Falcons

    It is very easy to blame the Rams offensive line for their woes last year running the football, but the reality is that Gurley deserves a great deal of the blame. He just doesn’t have the explosion that we saw from him a few years ago. Hopefully, the Falcons can keep him fresh, but there is a real chance that Gurley falls off this top running backs list completely next year. Gurley has scored 54 touchdowns over the past three years, though. 54.

    21. Mark Ingram, Baltimore Ravens

    Ingram’s production on the ground indicates that he should be higher on this list, but the scheme he plays in with the Ravens and having quarterback Lamar Jackson in the backfield with him aids Ingram a great deal. Still, he is quick to get downhill, is decisive, and finishes runs with aggression. JK Dobbins might go past Ingram, the oldest player on this list, on Baltimore’s depth chart by midseason, though.

    20. Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles

    There is a lot of ability here with Sanders and there is a very strong chance that he is ranked far higher than this next year. But Sanders is still a work in progress and just isn’t all that proven compared to the other top backs in the league right now. We shall see, but his situation is very encouraging.

    19. David Johnson, Houston Texans

    Many like to rip into Bill O’Brien for taking on Johnson’s large contract while trading star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. And there is merit to such criticism. But Johnson was playing quite well for the Arizona Cardinals before his injury, especially as a receiver, and obviously Houston is confident that they can get quite a bit more two-way production from Johnson in his new home.

    18. Le’Veon Bell, New York Jets

    Bell and Johnson had to be ranked right next to each other. It wasn’t long ago that these were the best two running backs in the league with their rare combination of size, running and receiving skills. Bell certainly wasn’t aided by his situation at all last year with the New York Jets, but it is also safe to say that he doesn’t have the juice that he showed with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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    17. Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars

    Fournette caught 76 passes last year, but while that is great and certainly useful, the degree of difficulty on those receptions wasn’t particularly high. Still, this is a big and fast and powerful runner. It is shocking that Fournette could only find the end zone three times in 2019, but that is unlikely to be a trend. He is also a candidate to be traded during the season.

    16. James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers

    Conner fits the typical Steelers type of power back. He has also developed quite well in the passing game as both a pass protector and a receiver out of the backfield. When right, Conner is highly productive and a handful to get on the ground. But that is the rub — staying healthy is the biggest worry here, without question.

    15. Kenyan Drake, Arizona Cardinals

    Basically a part-time player for the Miami Dolphins and at Alabama, Drake took the Cardinals starting running back job by the throat last year and Arizona then paid him accordingly. Drake isn’t a bruiser, but in Arizona’s wide-open attack that spreads the field, his big-play ability is on full display. Drake is a game-changer.

    14. Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks

    Of the top 25 running backs in the NFL, Carson comes in ranked 14th. Not overly dynamic, he was the NFL’s fifth-leading rusher last year. He runs very hard with a no-nonsense style that head coach Pete Carroll adores. Although Carson isn’t very nifty, he has the fifth-most rushing yards in the league over the past two years. He does need to cut down on the fumbles and durability is a bit of a concern here, though.

    13. Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns

    Obviously Hunt would be the lead back for a high percentage of teams around the league. He has outstanding contact balance and is highly effective in the passing game. In fact, Hunt might assume the role of Cleveland’s third wide receiver and we shouldn’t be surprised if Hunt and Nick Chubb see the field at the same time quite a bit in 2020. Hunt is also outstanding in pass protection.

    12. Melvin Gordon, Denver Broncos

    With all respect to Phillip Lindsay, expect Gordon to take over Denver’s backfield. Gordon is a better receiver and better in protection than Lindsay, and has shown the ability to handle a large workload. This is just a high quality all-around running back that could really aid in Drew Lock’s development at the quarterback position.

    11. Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers

    Ekeler can compete with any player on this list from a receiving standpoint and is often asked to run wide receiver routes. Ekeler also showed last year that he is more than just a peripheral option and can be a focal point of an NFL offense. He’s a difference-maker.

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    10. Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers

    Jones is highly unlikely to reach 16 rushing touchdowns again and yes, Green Bay used an early pick on AJ Dillon, but he is still an excellent overall talent. Much like Alvin Kamara, Jones may never be a true bell cow at the running back position. That being said, does it really matter when he influences the game as much as Jones does in both the running and receiving game?

    9. Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders

    It is somewhat frustrating that Jacobs, a very good receiving back at the college level, wasn’t used more in the passing game during his rookie season. That could be on the horizon for Jacobs and if it occurs, he could rocket up this list.

    Jacobs played through injuries last year but has proven to be one of the league’s best pure runners already. Jacobs’ 88.5 rushing yards per game were amongst the very best in football last year. Now hopefully he can add to that resume as a pass-catcher.

    8. Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

    On their best days, Mixon is more talented than Gurley. And in Zac Taylor’s second season as a head coach, we could see Mixon flourish much as Gurley did with the Los Angeles Rams while Taylor was there. In fact, Mixon’s numbers really spiked to finish the year last season.

    You would like to see him catch more than 35 passes, but Mixon is the total package physically for the running back position and could be primed to advance even higher on this top NFL running backs list after the 2020 season. Just imagine if Mixon were, say, on the Dallas Cowboys these last few years.

    7. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns

    Derrick Henry and Ezekiel Elliott are the only two that ran for more yards than Chubb last year. Chubb is a somewhat limited receiver with the potential to improve in that area, but he is a rare ball carrier with a fantastic combination of balance, power, vision, burst, as well as long speed and elusiveness.

    6. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

    Henry isn’t for everyone. But he sure is for the Titans and Tennessee has not only built their offense around Henry, the NFL’s leading rusher in 2019, but just extended his contract. Expect Henry to get a little more involved in the Titans’ screen game going forward. And how about this – over Henry’s entire career, he averages 5.82 yards per carry when Tennessee is playing with a lead. He’s a closer, which is a reason why he’s ranked sixth in this top NFL running backs list.

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    5. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

    Over his three-year career, Cook has only played in 28 regular season games. That is a huge concern, but it is also really the only negative thing you can say about this guy. As a player and when out there between the lines, Cook is one of the very best in the business and is the focal point of Minnesota’s offense.

    4. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

    Kamara didn’t have quite the same amazing electricity, balance, burst, and power that he has shown throughout his career in 2019. But that was because of injuries. The Saints know that Kamara needs to be spelled, but he is an extremely special player nonetheless that opposing defenses have little to no answer for.

    3. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

    Only Henry rushed for more yards than Elliott last year. Elliott has been remarkably consistent in this area, averaging 96.5 yards per game on the ground for his outstanding career. He led the NFL in this metric his first three years in the league. What is a little frustrating though is that Dallas has yet to use Elliott to his full capacity as a receiving threat. Hopefully, that changes with Mike McCarthy now in charge.

    2. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

    There hasn’t been a better running back prospect coming out of college than Barkley, who is an absolute freak specimen. Many consider 2019 a down season for Barkley. But this gets overlooked – Barkley racked up 539 yards from scrimmage over his final three games in 2019 after finally getting healthy from his high ankle sprain. However, one area the Barkley simply must improve in that isn’t brought up enough is pass protection. He can be an all-time great and a top running back for years to come.

    1. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

    What an amazing season McCaffrey just had, racking up 1,387 rushing yards and over 1,000 yards as a receiver last year (and only Michael Thomas caught more passes). He found the end zone 19 times while logging more snaps than any running back in the NFL. This is a primary reason why McCaffrey is the top running back in the NFL heading into the 2020 NFL season.

    While that might go down as McCaffrey’s best year of his career, his fit with the Panthers’ new coaching staff is excellent. Joe Brady goes from Alvin Kamara in New Orleans to Clyde Edwards Helaire at LSU to McCaffrey at Carolina as amazing do-it-all weapons.

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