RANKING THE RUNNING BACKS
We usually get lists of QBs at this time of the year, but at NFL.com, former NFL RB Maurice Jones-Drew goes 1 to 32 on the players listed atop the current RB depth charts (comments are abridged):
With the major offseason player movement behind us and just over a month to go before training camp commences, now is the perfect time to assess every NFL backfield. (I know you’ve been waiting for this, so I’m going to give the people what they want.) Here is my ranking of all 32 RB1s heading into the 2019 season.
Note: If a team operates with a running back committee, I simply chose the player who I think will have the most production in 2019.
1 – Saquon Barkley
Barkley’s rookie campaign speaks for itself. He totaled a league-high 2,028 scrimmage yards and topped off his first season with the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Barkley is the undisputed focal point of the offense now that Odell Beckham Jr. is in Cleveland. The uber-talented second-year pro should have another tremendous year with an improved offensive line blocking for him.
2 – Alvin Kamara
Kamara’s dynamic ability was on full display in 2018, particularly while Mark Ingram served a suspension during the first four games of last season. No. 41 averaged an NFL-best 152.8 scrimmage yards per game and tied for a league-high six scrimmage TDs during that span. I’m excited to see how Sean Payton will utilize the versatile back now that Kamara will be the Saints’ full-time RB1 (free-agent addition Latavius Murray will be the RB2) for a full season.
3 – Le’Veon Bell
Looking forward to seeing Bell back on the field after a year off. With positive reports on Bell coming out of Jets’ minicamp earlier this month, I’m expecting the fresh veteran back to be a nightmare for defenses. The last time Bell played a full season (2017), he was an absolute game-wrecker: 321 carries, 1,291 rush yards, nine rush TDs; 85 receptions, 655 receiving yards and two receiving TDs. Adam Gase should be licking his chops as we speak.
4 – Ezekiel Elliott
Entering Year 4, Zeke will do what he’s always done: eat, eat and eat some more. The Cowboys’ offense runs through the two-time Pro Bowl selectee, who had a career- and league-high 381 touches in 2018. Elliott has been wildly productive, posting the fifth-highest average for rushing yards per game (101.2) by a player in his first three seasons in NFL history. He also became more of an asset in the pass game last season (career-high 77 catches) and should continue to improve this part of his game moving forward.
5 – Christian McCaffrey
The Panthers ranked fourth in rushing in 2018 thanks to McCaffrey’s monster Year 2. He led the team in most offensive categories, including carries, rushing yards, rushing TDs, receptions, receiving yards, receiving TDs, offensive touches, scrimmage yards and scrimmage TDs. He did it all, and I expect more of the same from the home-run hitter in 2019.
6 – Todd Gurley
Gurley was one of the most productive backs in the league last season, ranking second among RBs in touches per game (22.5), rushing yards per game (89.4) and scrimmage yards per game (130.8). He also scored a league-high 21 touchdowns. A knee injury sidelined Gurley for the last two weeks of the regular season, and he wasn’t the same in his return in the postseason. Looking ahead to 2019, less is more in his situation — as I explained on “NFL Total Access” earlier this month. Of course, the knee issue will be something to continue to monitor, but the Rams will get carries from Malcolm Brown and third-round draft pick Darrell Henderson, which will allow Gurley to be fresher and more explosive when he is on the field. Don’t get it twisted, though; Gurley’s production will still be among the best in the league. Just on fewer touches.
7 – Melvin Gordon
Gordon has played in all 16 games of the regular season only once (2017) since entering the league in 2015, and we’ve seen what he can do when he’s healthy. He was a huge asset for the offense a year ago, scoring 14 touchdowns in 12 games, even though hamstring and knee injuries limited him at times. If Gordon can stay on the field, expect a career season from a guy who’s looking for a new deal.
8 – Joe Mixon
Mixon racked up nearly 1,500 scrimmage yards and nine touchdowns in 2018, but a lot of folks didn’t hear about it, because the Bengals struggled in the second half.
9 – Nick Chubb
Chubb burst onto the scene last year with some big runs and strong performances, while averaging 84.2 rushing yards in his nine starts. He’ll get the bulk of the team’s carries through the first half of the season, with free-agent addition Kareem Hunt serving an eight-game suspension.
10 – Dalvin Cook
The hiring of Gary Kubiak in Minnesota bodes well for Cook. Throughout the years, Kubiak has turned unheralded backs into 1,000-yard rushers…Look for the third-year veteran to be maximized in this year’s offense — IF he can stay healthy.
11 – Sony Michel
Michel showed he can be a bell cow during the postseason, with 71 carries for 336 yards and a rookie-record six rushing TDs in three games. He underwent a minor knee procedure in June, but Michel should still be the effective rusher he was in the postseason starting in September. Plus, I think Patriots OC Josh McDaniels will be more creative with the running game now that Rob Gronkowski is no longer on the team.
12 – Kerryon Johnson
Johnson showed promise as a rookie, earning the starting job from Week 3 to Week 11, before a knee injury sidelined him for the final six games of the season. Expect this Lions’ rushing attack to improve immensely with new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who has spent 12 seasons as an NFL OC (in Minnesota and Seattle).
13 – Aaron Jones
I’ve been high on Jones since he was drafted in 2017 (fifth round), and he’s proven to be a valuable asset for the Packers’ offense. He split carries with Jamaal Williams last season, but Jones was the far more effective back (Jones: 133 carries, 728 rush yards, eight rush TDs; Williams: 121 carries, 464 rush yards, three rush TDs).
14 – James Conner
Ben Roethlisberger is another year older, and Antonio Brown is in Oakland. The Steelers must run the ball early and often, and Conner is their guy, even though recent reports suggest that there will be a committee of backs getting in on the action.
15 – Derrick Henry
Henry transformed from a caterpillar early in the 2018 season to a butterfly by Week 17. He went from averaging 10.7 carries per game through 12 contests to averaging 21.8 carries and establishing himself as one of the biggest threats in the final quarter of the season.
16 – Leonard Fournette
Bringing in Nick Foles will definitely help the Jaguars offensively, but the team is also going to need a bounce-back year from Fournette. He was about half as productive as he was in 2017, the season in which the team was a win away from the Super Bowl. He must return to rookie form.
17 – Jordan Howard
Something had to change in Philly after last year’s team rushed for a measly 98.1 yards per game (28th in the league), the fewest rushing yards per game by the team since 2005. Trading for former Bears back Jordan Howard was a great move, as he should provide the physical presence the offense has searched for since the departure of LeGarrette Blount last offseason. Being traded should light a fire under Howard, who’s in a contract year. This quality Eagles offensive line will only help him.
18 – Chris Carson
Carson had 1,151 rushing yards last season, becoming the first Seahawks player with more than 1,000 rushing yards in a season since Marshawn Lynch in 2014. He should have ample opportunities to run the ball again, considering OC Brian Schottenheimer said during OTAs earlier this month that the Seahawks will stick with a run-first approach, despite signing quarterback Russell Wilson to a HUGE extension this offseason.
19 – Adrian Peterson
Coming off his first 1,000-yard rushing season since 2015, Peterson has found the fountain of youth and once again looked great in minicamp this month.
20 – Damien Williams
Williams appeared in all 16 games, with three starts to close out the 2018 regular season, totaling 256 yards and four touchdowns on 50 carries. A contributor in the ground game and as a pass catcher, Williams really stepped up when the Chiefs appeared to be in a tough spot at the position following the release of Kareem Hunt. After proving to be an asset, Williams signed a two-year extension late in the year. I’m interested to see how Williams handles the pressure of being a starting back for an entire regular season.
21 – Josh Jacobs
Jacobs, one of the Raiders’ three first-round draft picks this year, is the first rookie running back on this list. The Alabama product is set up for success thanks to the additions the team made at wide receiver and on the offensive line in the offseason.
22 – LeSean McCoy
The Bills did address their offensive line in the offseason, but they’ve had issues up front in recent years, which is part of the reason why their RB1 isn’t higher on this list. Shady should see some wider running lanes this time around, but entering his age-31 season, he and the running game (which added Frank Gore and rookie Devin Singletary in the offseason) must be better in order to help second-year quarterback Josh Allen.
23 – Phillip Lindsay
There’s been talk that Royce Freeman could get more carries than Lindsay in 2019, but that’s not my forecast here. Lindsay had a great first season, recording the second-most rushing yards (1,037) by an undrafted rookie in the Super Bowl era. Lindsay is recovering from a wrist injury he suffered last last season, but it’s hard to be down on a guy who accomplished such a feat.
24 – Marlon Mack
I know Andrew Luck returned to Pro Bowl form and helped the Colts reach the postseason in 2018, but Mack played a big role in the team’s resurgence, as well. The third-year back is coming off a breakout year that saw him tote the rock 195 times for 908 yards (4.7 yards per carry) and nine rushing touchdowns in 12 games (10 starts). He’ll have a chance to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards in 2019 behind a stellar offensive line.
25 – David Johnson
Johnson, an All-Pro in 2016, hasn’t been the same since suffering a season-ending wrist injury in Week 1 of the 2017 season. The Cardinals had the worst offense in the NFL last season and look to be much better under first-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury. The only issue is that Kingsbury’s track record shows he won’t be running the ball much in his “Air Raid” offense.
26 – Mark Ingram
There’s no doubt Ingram will spearhead the Ravens’ running back room, but with the ninth-year veteran turning 30 in December, expect John Harbaugh to use a committee of backs. Not to mention, second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson is the most explosive runner on this team.
27 – David Montgomery
The rookie should fill the void left by Jordan Howard, who was traded to the Eagles this offseason, as a physical runner who forced 99 missed tackles last season at Iowa State (leading FBS RBs), according to Pro Football Focus. He may also have a role in the Bears’ pass game. Reigning Coach of the Year Matt Nagy has been impressed with Montgomery this offseason.
I can see Montgomery beating out Tarik Cohen for the RB1 spot and serving as the team’s first- and second-down back.
28 – Tevin Coleman
In a deep backfield, I expect free-agent acquisition Tevin Coleman to emerge as the RB1 for the Niners. He thrived in Atlanta under Kyle Shanahan and should find more success with him in San Francisco. The reason Coleman sits so low on this list is he’s part of a committee that also features Matt Breida (1,075 scrimmage yards and five TDs in 2018) and Jerick McKinnon ( signed a four-year deal prior to his season-ending ACL injury in 2018). There are just too many mouths to feed for Coleman to be ranked higher.
29 – Devonta Freeman
There are a few things to point out here. Freeman was sidelined for 14 games last season with knee, foot and groin injuries (he missed a total of three games in the previous four seasons). That said, Freeman was one of the most productive backs in the league in the three seasons leading up to his injury-riddled 2018, ranking fourth in rushing yards (3,000) and tied for first in rushing TDs (29) from 2015 to ’17. He’s fully capable of once again becoming the player who helped the Falcons reach Super Bowl LI, but you just don’t know how somebody will recover from injuries.
However, I’m concerned that the return of Dirk Koetter as offensive coordinator, who held the same post for Atlanta from 2012 to ’14, doesn’t bode well for Freeman getting back to producing at such a high level. Over the last seven seasons — Koetter’s been either an OC or head coach in each — he’s had a running back surpass the 1,000-yard mark only once ( Doug Martin in 2015).
30 – Lamar Miller
There are several factors working against Miller here. He’s another year older, D’Onta Foreman is returning from injury, the O-line has been porous — and could continue to be, despite the additions made in the offseason — and the team’s most effective running threat is its quarterback, Deshaun Watson.
31 – Kenyan Drake
Drake is an explosive player and eclipsed 1,000 yards from scrimmage last season, but he’s never been a consistent, every-down back, which is why he doesn’t rate higher here.
32 – Ronald Jones
The Bucs’ ground game struggled in 2018, ranking 29th in the league, and was led by Peyton Barber. Barber was re-signed to a one-year deal this offseason, but I expect Jones to emerge as the team’s top back in 2019 because, well, he wasn’t drafted 38th overall in ’18 for no reason.