We are somewhat quietly in a golden age of running back play. Not so much in the sense of 1,800-yard rushers, MVPs and number one picks at the position, but more in the way that the position has effectively adapted to the new offensive mindset. Running backs on the whole are more versatile and creative than maybe ever before.
With that in mind, these are the ten backs I would label the best in the league entering 2018. To be clear, this has nothing to do with fantasy value. This is strictly based on their overall ability and the impact they have on the field.
The two honorable mentions are both guys I consider to have high upside, but without the requisite NFL history to back it up. Cook showed an explosive dual threat ability in his 3.5 games last season, but he will have to prove his ACL injury will not hamper him this year. As for Barkley, the sky is the limit. He could very well be a top-five back by season’s end. For now, it is only projection and frankly, not fair to these other backs who have proven more to place him high on the list. By week eight, that could all change. But I am giving it a little time before making a judgment on him.
10. Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears
Borderline dominant backs do not get much less flashy than Howard. He does not light up fantasy score sheets and he does not pull down big receiving numbers. What he does do, however, is provide a consistent four to five yards every carry and over 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons. It will be interesting to see how Matt Nagy utilizes Howard this year, as he is a more power-oriented runner. Nagy had great success last year with Kareem Hunt as his primary back, who has a more versatile style. As such, there is a good chance that Tarik Cohen becomes a bigger part of Nagy’s offense. That said, Howard’s aggressive running style has been and will continue to be a big part of the Bears’ offense.
9. Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars
Early returns on Fournette suggest the scouting reports hit the nail on the head with him. He is a physical marvel, a big bruising back with breakaway speed who is not yet a strong contributor in the passing game. Even without the major receiving threat, Fournette was one of the most important parts of Jacksonville’s run last year. 23.5 touches per game is nothing to sneeze at for a rookie running back, especially on a team as good as the Jaguars. Plus, reports are that Fournette came to camp this week skinnier than he has been since high school. So while the other two second-year backs may enter the season with a little more value, Fournette could still emerge as the best back of the group as early as this season. His development may be one of the more interesting training camp stories to follow.
8. Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
The best back no one talks about outside of fantasy. Gordon’s perception may be a touch hurt by the fact he went in the same draft as Todd Gurley, arguably the best back in football right now. And unlike Gurley, Gordon has taken some time to establish himself as a reliable top guy. But last year, along with the rest of the Chargers squad, Gordon took that next step. He recorded his first season of 1,000 rushing yards and 1,500 scrimmage yards while finishing second on his team in targets. The Charger defense has much of the hype right now and the L.A. offense in the other conference is the talk of the town. But Gordon’s dual threat ability has gone and will continue to go a long way to making the Chargers the favorites in the AFC West.
7. Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs
While Alvin Kamara stole the rookie headlines down the stretch, Hunt was the cat’s meow at the beginning of last season. His debut was one to remember, rushing for 148, receiving for 98 and scoring three total touchdowns. He capped off the season by leading the NFL in rushing and finishing third in yards from scrimmage. So why is Hunt so low on the list then? It is not a knock on the second-year back per se, but rather on the Kansas City offense in general. There was a lull in their production smack in the middle of the season, and Hunt’s production suffered from it. And while he and the offense picked it up again towards the end, that stretch hurt Hunt’s stock in the public eye. Now, with Matt Nagy gone as play-caller and Alex Smith in Washington, the Chiefs have some significant question marks at offense. But regardless of where they end up overall, Hunt will be a big piece of their success, if not the biggest.
6. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
Obviously, McCoy’s place on this list comes with a massive caveat. The specter of possible suspension looms over his head, due to the accusations levied against McCoy by his ex-girlfriend. It has been difficult to gauge where that case is headed, so for now, we will operate under the assumption that McCoy plays the full season.
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With Buffalo’s occasionally anemic passing game, McCoy was really the only light on the Bills’ offense in 2017. He finished fourth in the league in yards from scrimmage and rushing yards while finishing second on his team in receiving yards. And while it seems McCoy has been around forever, he still is only 30 and on the back end of his prime. A big question with him and the Bills, however, is how the murky quarterback situation will affect McCoy’s production. Truth be told, McCoy could put up even better receiving numbers if Josh Allen becomes starter this year. While Allen is renowned for his big arm, he had a surprisingly low average air yards per pass number at Wyoming. That could make McCoy an early favorite to lead in yards from scrimmage this season.
5. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
Kamara started the season as the third down, change-of-pace back behind Adrian Peterson and Mark Ingram, and still ended up being the star of the backfield. Ignore the 1,500-plus yards from scrimmage, the 13 touchdowns, the league-leading 6.1 yards per carry. Just watch a Kamara run. Watch him run a route. It is a combination of elusiveness, power and receiving ability that is matched by very few in the game today. I mean, how often do you see a 5-foot-10 running back have an end zone wheel route called for him in a postseason game?
And again, he did that as the number two back. He and Ingram split touches about 50-50 throughout the the 2017 season. Now, with Ingram out for four games and the secret of Kamara out in the open, the sky truly is the limit for him this year.
4. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
As far as a pure runner goes, Elliott may be the best in the league. He has led all backs in rushing yards per game in each of his two NFL seasons. Sure, one can argue until blue in the face how he benefits from a tremendous line in front of him. But the fact remains that the Cowboys were a significantly better offense with a full season of Elliott in 2016 than last season when he missed six games. Of course, that brings up Elliott’s major flaw: immaturity. He has several incidents under his belt that have drawn ire from the league and have even garnered suspension. As long as he stays on the field, however, Elliott remains one of the league’s most dangerous weapons.
3. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
How soon we forget. Johnson put up a truly remarkable season the last time we saw him fully healthy in 2016. He led the league in yards from scrimmage and total touchdowns, something that we were all annointing Todd Gurley for a few months ago. Alas, his team was not quite as enticing as last year’s Rams and thus, he was not the MVP candidate Gurley was last season.
Regardless, Johnson has shown the ability to put up numbers at a ridiculous level, particularly as a receiver. In that 2016 season, he amassed almost 900 receiving yards on 120 targets. That was on top of his 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground. The only thing keeping Johnson from climbing higher on this list is that pesky injury. It was a wrist, not a lower body injury, so he should come back the same as before. But season-long injuries, regardless of the body part, are nothing to overlook.
2. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
You would be hard-pressed to find a two way back who has been more consistently dynamic than Bell since 2014. True, he has never led the league in rushing or even in yards from scrimmage. But his scrimmage yards have eclipsed 1800 in three of the last four seasons. Plus, he was only 147 yards behind league-leader Gurley, who was lauded by many as an MVP candidate last year.
Sure, most of Bell’s press surrounds his constant conflicts with Pittsburgh management, his desire to get paid like a top back and his imminent departure. But to be fair, you cannot say he does not deserve top money. Pittsburgh’s offense has surged since he has been their bell cow, and they figure to flourish again in what his probably his final season with them.
1. Todd Gurley II, Los Angeles Rams
No one is as hot as Gurley is now. Few backs in football displayed his level of dual threat in 2017. He led the league in yards from scrimmage with over 2,000, touchdowns with 19 and finished second in the MVP vote (a distant second, but still). The only back with more receiving yards was Kamara and the only one with a higher yards per reception was Chris Thompson. And he did all this while finishing a close second in the league in rushing yards per game.
One can throw out numbers to point out Gurley’s greatness, but truth is that numbers do not tell the whole story. Fact is that Bell’s stats were only a hair behind Gurley’s. Johnson’s 2016 stat sheet is a little more impressive. Kamara had a more lucrative receiving season, despite taking a few weeks to be featured. No, Gurley’s status as top dog is due to his role in getting his team to the next level. The Rams’ offense had few expectations before last season. Then Sean McVay came along and essentially built an offense around Gurley, and suddenly they have the reputation as a powerhouse. Not all of that is Gurley’s doing, but there is no question he had the greatest role. And he will likely again have the greatest responsibility for his team’s success this year.
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