The NFL may be a passing league these days, but having an elite rushing attack as opposed to a serviceable one can be the difference between a wild card bid and a title run. The question is, do you need an elite running back to dominate the ground game? Or just an elite rotation? Everyone can agree on the biggest names at the position, from Derrick Henry to Dalvin Cook, but which teams have the best backfields as a whole?
Here’s one pecking order, identifying the 10 best entering 2022:
RBs: Christian McCaffrey, Chuba Hubbard, D’Onta Foreman
Wear and tear is a major concern here, with McCaffrey playing just 10 games the last two years. When healthy, however, he’s a dual-purpose, chain-moving machine. Hubbard showed in 2021 he can be a decent traditional fill-in, and Foreman had some burst replacing Henry in Tennessee.
RBs: Derrick Henry, Dontrell Hilliard, Hassan Haskins
This is all about King Henry, a true freak of nature whose monstrous combo of imposing size, brutish power and top-end speed make him a weekly matchup nightmare. Neither Hilliard nor Haskins have extensive experience, and Henry’s heavy workload is bound to take a further toll. Until then, Tennessee’s group just has the makeup to wear down opponents.
RBs: Javonte Williams, Melvin Gordon III, Mike Boone
Williams may well be able to carry the backfield on his own, topping 1,300 total yards in just one official start as a rookie. But Gordon is savvy and efficient, especially on a pitch count. All eyes are on Russell Wilson and the passing game, but the QB’s greatest complements are probably right here, at the same position Pete Carroll so valued in Seattle.
RBs: Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram II, Malcolm Brown
They’d be higher, solely because of Kamara and his big-play pass-catching, if not for the possibility of No. 41 facing a significant suspension due to off-field conduct. And, perhaps, if Ingram wasn’t slowing at age 32. Still, when Kamara is on the field, he’s usually the most dynamic one out there, single-handedly carrying New Orleans before.
RBs: Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, Rico Dowdle
Zeke gets a lot of flak these days for failing to match Pollard’s explosiveness, but he’s still an above-average do-everything starter for a top-10 offense. If Dallas wisely keeps increasing Pollard’s role as both a runner and receiver to speed up their attack, the one-two punch could be lethal. Can the O-line stay upright to keep them moving?
RBs: J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, Mike Davis, Justice Hill
Three of the top four backs here are coming off season-ending injuries, so their early-season explosion could be slightly reduced. But there’s a reason Baltimore has long been a model for run-first offense. Dobbins is built like a workhorse, Edwards is highly efficient as a change of pace, and Davis has lots of experience as a physical, pass-catching substitute.
RBs: Aaron Jones, A.J. Dillon, Kylin Hill
The high marks stem exclusively from their top duo. Jones has all the tools you want in a contemporary starter despite an injury history, whereas Dillon’s size and physicality enable Green Bay to play old-school ball. Aaron Rodgers figures to lean on them even more now that Davante Adams is gone, and that might not be a bad thing.
RBs: Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, Kene Nwangwu
There are maybe one or two backs who command more attention than Cook when fully healthy. Even if he’s a safe bet to miss a week or three each season, the Vikings star is one of the most gifted natural runners in football. His top speed is unreal. Mattison, meanwhile, is practically a clone in terms of size, and has been an underrated No. 2 for years.
RBs: Jonathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines, Phillip Lindsay
Star power helps, and Taylor has exactly that, giving Indy maybe the most complete back in the entire NFL. Matt Ryan will be content every time he hands the ball to No. 28. Hines, meanwhile, remains a reliable safety valve as a receiver, and Lindsay at least offers plenty of grit and starting experience. If the Colts return to the playoffs, their run game will surely power them.
RBs: Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, D’Ernest Johnson
Kareem Hunt, left, and Nick Chubb
It’s a close call with the Colts, but all three of the Browns’ top backs have done serious damage when given RB1 duties. Yes, Cleveland’s line has something to do with this, but Chubb and Hunt are undeniable talents on their own. The former has averaged over 5 yards per carry in all four NFL seasons as a smooth, traditional ball-carrier. Hunt, meanwhile, is even shiftier with good hands, making him the 1B in Kevin Stefanski’s ground attack.
Honorable mentionsKenneth Gainwell
Eagles (Miles Sanders, Kenneth Gainwell, Boston Scott): Sanders still has home-run potential, Gainwell is on the rise as a utility man, and Scott retains shades of Darren Sproles as a smaller guy who packs a punch.Commanders (Antonio Gibson, Brian Robinson Jr., J.D. McKissic): Gibson is underrated after a quiet sophomore season, and McKissic is a target machine, but what will Robinson offer as a rookie?
Bills (Devin Singletary, James Cook, Zack Moss): Buffalo is all about throwing the ball with Josh Allen, but if Cook can make an early impact as a receiving option, this group will look pretty balanced.Dolphins (Chase Edmonds, Raheem Mostert, Sony Michel, Myles Gaskin): At what point do you actually own too many solid, if unspectacular, ball-carriers?Bears (David Montgomery, Khalil Herbert, Darrynton Evans): The top two backs are both starting material, but you wonder just how high their ceilings can be in Chicago’s rebuilding setup.Jaguars (James Robinson, Travis Etienne Jr., Snoop Conner): Robinson has been a steady hand, and Etienne apparently gives off Deebo Samuel vibes, but both guys are coming off serious injuries.Chargers (Austin Ekeler, Isaiah Spiller, Joshua Kelley): Ekeler is an offensive centerpiece because of how much he contributes as a receiver, but the depth behind him remains unproven.