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 hang their hat on speed. Of course, the elite players at the position offer a combination of both traits.
Running backs come and go more frequently than any other position. That’s just the nature of playing a role where you’re essentially involved in a car crash 20 times per game. Through all that turnover, one RB has remained dominant for years.
Who’s the Best Running Back in the NFL?
Derrick Henry is the best running back in the NFL. In both 2019 and 2020, Henry led the league in carries, yards, and touchdowns. A foot injury cost him nine games in 2021, but he’s on pace to rank first in attempts again this season.
The Titans deploy Henry as a blunt instrument whenever he’s on the field. Facing the Texans without Ryan Tannehill in Week 8, Tennessee handed the ball to Henry a whopping 32 times while asking rookie quarterback Malik Willis to attempt only 10 passes. Henry’s brute force is astounding, and his ability to take over a game is unrivaled among running backs.
Henry’s production capacity is especially remarkable given that he faces heavy boxes (eight-plus defenders) on a league-leading 37.82% of his carries, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Even when opposing defenses know what’s coming, they still can’t stop Henry.
No one knows what the future holds for Henry. Not only does he have that massive workload under his belt, but he’ll be 29 years old in January. He’s also entering the final year of his contract. Success is fleeting and temporary for running backs, and not even Henry can evade the passage of time or the effect of wear and tear.
But for now, the King reigns supreme.
Rest of Top 10 Running Backs Ranked
Henry is the best running back in the NFL, but there isn’t a massive gap between the Titans’ stalwart and the rest of the top 10.
2) Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
As a pure runner, Nick Chubb is the only NFL running back close to Henry’s level. Among active RBs with at least 100 attempts since 2018, Chubb ranks first with 2.9 yards after contact per rush. He exhibits tenacity with each carry, and it’s rare to see the three-time Pro Bowler go down without taking a few defenders with him.
Chubb, who this season has stayed injury-free for the first time since 2019, is a perfect fit for the Browns’ zone-running scheme. He’s a master of the cutback, and when he finds a lane, there are few with his acceleration ability.
Cleveland’s offensive line hasn’t been quite as elite as they’ve been in years past, and they’re on their third center thanks to multiple injuries. But Chubb is an excellent creator, and he’s routinely capable of turning what should have been a loss into positive yardage.
3) Christian McCaffrey, San Francisco 49ers
While neither Henry nor Chubb are much of a factor in the passing game, Christian McCaffrey is the best receiving running back in the NFL. In 2019, CMC received 142 targets in Carolina’s offense, the highest total for an RB in league history.
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 resurgence has continued following his midseason trade to the 49ers.
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Now that he’s playing in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, McCaffrey has become the platonic ideal of a pass-catching running back. He’s averaging nearly seven targets and 50 receiving yards per game since Week 8.
Against the Buccaneers in Week 14, McCaffrey lined up wide as the No. 1 receiver and made a beautiful catch on a back-shoulder throw for a 27-yard touchdown pass. Later in the game, he stiff-armed a Tampa Bay defender, then turned on the afterburners for a 38-yard TD run. He’s a one of one among NFL backs.
4) Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts
Jonathan Taylor was widely viewed as the NFL’s best running back heading into this season, but his production has taken a step backward after his outstanding 2021 campaign.
It was always going to be difficult for Taylor to match his output from last year, when he led the league with 1,811 yards and 18 touchdowns while earning a first-team All-Pro nod. Still, most didn’t expect Taylor’s numbers to drop as far as they have (861 yards, four touchdowns through Week 14).
Of course, several factors have led to Taylor’s diminishing stats. Although the Colts recently fielded one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, the unit is now among the league’s worst. With no push up front, Taylor has had nowhere to go. He also dealt with an ankle injury that cost him three games.
Indy’s putrid offense has also meant Taylor hasn’t had the opportunity for scoring chances. Last year, Taylor received 87 red-zone carries, 39 more than second-place Austin Ekeler. But this season, he’s handled just 32 carries inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
Taylor hasn’t become a worse player all of a sudden, but the structure around him has crumbled. If the Colts can figure things out for 2023, Taylor should post a rebound season.
5) Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders
No running back has made himself more money in 2022 than Josh Jacobs. Given that the Raiders declined his fifth-year option in May, Jacobs is now poised to hit the open market next spring coming off the best season of his career.
Jacobs leads the league in rushing yardage by a wide margin. Through 14 weeks, he’s picked up 1,402 yards on the ground, 200+ more than second-place Henry. He’s generated more first downs (77) than any other rusher, and his 59% success rate is third among running backs.
Jacobs is doing all this while playing behind an offensive line that’s below average, to put it kindly. Yet, his excellent vision allows him to find a crease when the blocking isn’t perfect. He’s perfectly capable of grinding out yardage as a sustaining runner, but when Jacobs sees a hole, he’s not afraid to hit it with speed.
6) Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers
Through 14 weeks, Ekeler ranks fourth in the NFL in receptions. Not fourth among running backs. Fourth, period.
His 93 catches are second to only Tyreek Hill, Justin Jefferson, and Stefon Diggs, all of whom — as you may be aware — are elite wide receivers.
While Ekeler doesn’t create as many big plays in the passing game as McCaffrey can, he’s become an incredibly valuable checkdown weapon for Justin Herbert, especially when LA’s receivers and offensive line being injured forced the Chargers to work the short game.
Ekeler isn’t a pounder, but he’s a tough runner. He took the most carries of his career in 2021 (206) and remained effective, but Los Angeles had been adamant that they want to keep Ekeler’s usage rates in check.
7) Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
The Saquon Barkley resurgence is officially upon us. We always knew Saquon was one of the most talented backs in the league, but injuries have sapped his on-field availability.
An ACL tear cost Barkley nearly the entire 2020 season, and while he played 13 games in both 2019 and 2020, he was hobbled by ankle injuries in both campaigns and never looked like his old self.
With health on his side again, Barkley is thriving in a new offensive scheme. He’s on pace to receive the most touches of his career, and he looks reborn under Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka. Barkley is third in the NFL with 1,083 rushing yards, and he’s reached the end zone eight times.
Barkley, still only 25, is scheduled to hit the open market next offseason, and it will be interesting to see what kind of value the Giants’ new regime places on him.
8) Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys
As with Barkley, everyone already knew Tony Pollard was highly talented. But it wasn’t injuries preventing Pollard from seeing the field — it was the Cowboys staff’s undying belief in Ezekiel Elliott.
Pollard had popped off for some big games in the past, but a two-game injury absence by Elliott this season allowed Pollard to finally prove he’s one of the most explosive players in the NFL. With Elliott sidelined in Weeks 8 and 9, Pollard totaled 246 and four touchdowns on the ground, cementing his status as a vital member of the Dallas offense.
Since Zeke returned, the two have largely split carries, although Elliott has retained a slight edge. Elliott can still be effective, especially as a short-yardage back. But as the season wears on and the playoffs begin, the Cowboys will hopefully turn the backfield over to Pollard.
9) Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
It’s easy to view Joe Mixon in the same class as Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook — highly-paid veteran running backs who have disappointed with their 2022 production.
However, Mixon is a year younger than both of those backs, and he’s also been more effective. While Kamara and Cook have averaged negative yards over expectation on their rushing attempts, Mixon is at 0.32 RYOE per attempt — not great, but not terrible, either.
Mixon, who lost two games to a concussion, has had to contend with a revamped Bengals offensive line that’s only recently starting to figure things out. Cincinnati rarely goes under center, and they field one of the pass-happiest offenses in the league. Mixon just hasn’t received as many opportunities as in seasons past.
But we only have to look back to 2021 to find Mixon, whom Bill Belichick called “the best back in the league” as recently as 2019, finishing third in attempts, third in yardage, and fourth in rushing TDs. While he may still lose some receiving work to backup Samaje Perine, Mixon could be exceedingly valuable for the Bengals down the stretch.
10) Rhamondre Stevenson, New England Patriots
Rhamondre Stevenson can’t match the track record of any other running back in the top 10, even Pollard. He’s been in the NFL for fewer than two full seasons and has primarily split time in New England with Damien Harris.
The Patriots never invest much in running backs and always seem to use a committee approach, but Belichick may have found his next workhorse. Stevenson leads the league in attempts per broken tackle (7.5), a stable metric that quantifies one of the few things a running back can control. He’s also tied for fourth in yards after contact per attempt.
Additionally, Stevenson is a reliable receiver in the passing game. Through Week 14, the former fourth-round pick has 58 receptions on 70 targets for 433 yards. Only Ekeler and McCaffrey have posted more catches or yardage.
Stevenson still has a lot more to prove, and his ranking is something of a projection. But he’ll be an exciting player to watch for the rest of this season and into next year and could become the centerpiece of the Patriots’ offense by 2023 (if he isn’t there already).
Running Back Rankings | 11-32
11) Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
12) Travis Etienne Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars
13) Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
14) Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
15) Breece Hall, New York Jets
16) Kenneth Walker III, Seattle Seahawks
17) James Conner, Arizona Cardinals
18) Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles
19) Dameon Pierce, Houston Texans
20) David Montgomery, Chicago Bears
21) Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers
22) Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
23) Brian Robinson, Washington Commanders
24) D’Onta Foreman, Carolina Panthers
25) Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos
26) Elijah Mitchell, San Francisco 49ers
27) Cordarrelle Patterson, Atlanta Falcons
28) D’Andre Swift, Detroit Lions
29) Jamaal Williams, Detroit Lions
30) Isiah Pacheco, Kansas City Chiefs
31) AJ Dillon, Green Bay Packers
32) J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens