Picking the NFL’s best running backs: Execs, coaches and scouts rank the top 10, starting with …

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We all love “best-of” lists, but what if people around the NFL created their own? To preview the 2022 NFL season, we surveyed more than 50 league executives, coaches, scouts and players to help us stack the top 10 players at 11 different positions, from edge rusher to interior offensive lineman. This is the third edition of these rankings, and there are several players who moved up or dropped from last year’s lists. Today, we focus on the running backs.

Here’s how our process worked: Voters gave us their best 10 players at a position, then we compiled the results and ranked candidates based on number of top-10 votes, composite average, hundreds of interviews, research and film-study help from ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen. In total, more than 50 voters submitted a ballot on at least one position, and in many cases all positions. We had several ties, so we broke them with the help of additional voting and follow-up calls with our rankers. Each section is packed with quotes and nuggets from the voters on every guy — even the honorable mentions.

The objective is to identify the best players right now for 2022. This is not a five-year projection or an achievement award. Who are the best players today? Pretty simple.

We’ll roll out a position per day over 11 days. Here’s the schedule: edge rushers (July 5), defensive tackles (July 6), off-ball linebackers (July 7), cornerbacks (July 8), safeties (July 9), interior offensive linemen (July 10), quarterbacks (July 11), running backs (July 12), wide receivers (July 13), tight ends (July 14) and offensive tackles (July 15).

Running backs continue to be great despite facing eight-man boxes, on and off the field.

Career length is getting shorter, even for quality players. Backs who made their NFL debuts in the 2010s — and are now retired — averaged 7.1 years of tenure, compared to at least nine years from the 1970s to the 2000s. The pay scale remains flat while salaries at other positions skyrocket. And in the draft, a running back hasn’t been selected in the top 20 since Saquon Barkley went No. 2 overall in 2018. Teams employ committee backfields with higher frequency than ever.

Yet their importance to an NFL offense remains paramount. The best at the position can be a workhorse back, a wideout and a wildly good blocker each Sunday. This year’s top-10 list features many usual suspects but also three new faces — including two rookies and a brilliant playmaker out of the AFC South. Let’s look at some of the game’s top ball carriers as ranked by execs, coaches, scouts and players around the NFL.

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 6
Age: 28 | Last year’s ranking: 1

Henry and Jonathan Taylor tied for the most first-place votes this year, but Henry won out on composite scoring. He was pacing for a 1,900-plus-yard season in 2021 before a foot injury cost him nine regular-season games.

“I’d still give him one more year at the top,” an NFL coordinator said. “He’s the constant for that offense no matter who’s around him. I still trust him to make it happen above anyone else. You can give him the ball 30 times and he won’t disappoint.”

Over the past four years, Henry has averaged more than one rushing touchdown per game (55 scores in 51 games). His 10 touchdowns tied for sixth last season, despite playing less than half the year. And despite averaging 4.3 yards per carry in 2021 — his lowest since 2017 — the totals dipped because of a sluggish last two games before the foot injury. Through the first six games, his 783 yards on 162 carries produced a 4.8-yard average.

“I go Henry because everyone knows he is running the ball and their offensive line has been injured and it largely doesn’t matter,” an NFC exec said.

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 7
Age: 23 | Last year’s ranking: Honorable mention

Last year, Taylor lost a tiebreaker with Josh Jacobs for the 10th spot, which seems silly now. Taylor exploded in Year 2 with 1,811 yards — leading all running backs by 500-plus yards — and 18 touchdowns on 332 carries.

“You go into the game with the Colts and say, ‘Don’t let him kill you. Make the quarterback beat you,'” an NFC exec said. “He’s No. 1, 2 and 3 on the game plan.”

A scout in the AFC added that Taylor is the total package for the Colts, a humble player and an incredibly hard worker to match the on-field explosion. Taylor had seven more rushing touchdowns and 700 more yards in 2021 than he did his rookie year.

“He’s only going to get better,” the scout said. “And his breakaway speed can change the game at any time.”

Indeed, he is a threat to score from anywhere on the field. His five runs of 40 or more yards led the league last year, and no other back had more than two. But conversely, one NFC exec calls Taylor a “compiler,” racking up yards in a favorable setup in Indy’s offensive system and top-shelf offensive line play.

“I like him a lot, I just think he’s set up for success more than most,” the exec said.

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 7
Age: 26 | Last year’s ranking: 5

Chubb’s game only seems to improve with time. Over the past two seasons, he has averaged 5.6 and 5.5 yards per carry, up from his first two seasons in the league. His 3.0 yards per rush after contact led the league for players with at least 120 attempts. And he broke off a run of at least 70 yards for the third time in four years.

One veteran AFC defensive player who voted Chubb No. 1 overall said what separates him from the rest is: “Contact balance, explosion through the line and usually his tape gets better throughout the year.”

Chubb ranked second in the NFL in runs of 20-plus yards with 12, behind Taylor (14). He was also a road-game closer, averaging 6.3 yards per carry on the road.

“He was born to run the football,” an NFC exec said.

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 8
Age: 26 | Last year’s ranking: 3

Some around the league still have no problem putting Cook in their top three based on his explosion, vision and toughness. With a full season, he could put up historic numbers. But that is sort of the problem — Cook never has played more than 14 games in any of his five NFL seasons.

“He needs to stay on the field. The whole team is different when he’s in there,” a veteran NFL offensive coach said. “He’s great and can get even better with discipline as a runner and growing as a third-down receiver. I think he’ll show a more all-around game in a new offense.”

The Vikings will implement new head coach Kevin O’Connell’s scheme, with shades of the Rams’ run-heavy attack but also reps for Cook as a receiver — a theme out of OTAs.

Despite playing 13 games last year, Cook still produced 779 yards before first contact, second best in the NFL. And he recorded north of 1,100 rushing yards for the third straight season.

“I love Cook. Give me Cook all day,” one NFC front-office member said. “That burst is impressive.”

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 10
Age: 26 | Last year’s ranking: 2

In 2021, Kamara had his least-productive season as a five-year pro, due in part to a foot injury. Losing Drew Brees (retirement) and Jameis Winston (torn ACL) affected New Orleans’ overall offensive attack, resulting in 1,337 total offensive yards and a career-worst 3.7 yards per carry for the five-time Pro Bowler. But Kamara still scares opponents more than just about any other back. He ranked fifth in the NFL with 22 broken tackles off rushes. And that’s before he gets the ball in space as a pass-catcher.

“You can put a really good safety on him, and he’ll still come back to the sideline and say, ‘Uh, we’ve got a problem,'” a veteran AFC coach said.

Kamara hasn’t lost the contact balance that makes him elite, too. That’s why two NFC execs voted him as the No. 1 overall back.

“Two-phase, three-down back. Contact balance is rare. What he does in the passing game separates him,” an NFC exec said. But after four straight seasons of 80 or more catches, Kamara slipped to 47 catches last year.

“He’s a nightmare for us,” a high-ranking NFL personnel evaluator said. “Not having Brees getting him the ball in the short area like he used to, behind a great offensive line all those years, has affected him a bit. And he’ll probably lose a step eventually. But there are a lot of top backs we’d rather face than him.”

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 25 | Last year’s ranking: 9

Mixon had a banner fifth NFL season, setting career highs in just about every category while anchoring the running game for the AFC champion Bengals. He was trusted with more volume (292 carries) and produced with 1,205 yards and 13 touchdowns, up five from his career high of eight. He also finished with his first 300-yard receiving season despite Cincinnati’s crowded playmaking group.

What separates Mixon is his all-around game.

“He improved a lot as far as pass protection, his detail in his work,” an AFC coordinator said. “He’s definitely a complete back. He always had the explosive component. The Bengals are better, so he’s no longer an underrated player.”

Mixon has three years left on a four-year, $48 million extension, which looks like good value now, even for a running back.

“[Mixon] produces regardless of O-line play. He will be key for them this year because they can’t let Burrow get hit as much,” an NFC offensive coach said.

Highest ranking: 5 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 26 | Last year’s ranking: 5

Voters aren’t sure what to make of McCaffrey, who has proved brittle since signing a four-year, $64 million extension in the 2020 offseason.

“Not as dynamic as some others, can’t stay healthy,” said an NFC exec of McCaffrey, who has missed 23 games the past two seasons. “I’m guessing Carolina will give him less touches in efforts to preserve him.”

Others aren’t ignoring the brilliant playmaking, even in spurts. McCaffrey averaged 112.1 scrimmage yards per game last year, fourth best in the NFL.

“Did you see Carolina’s offense after he went down?” an AFC scout said. “He makes the game easier for everyone when he’s in there. He draws attention from the defense that you can’t duplicate.”

That proved true with quarterback Sam Darnold, who was solid through three games with McCaffrey in the lineup. Darnold had five total touchdowns (two rushing) to one interception during the Panthers’ 3-0 start but finished the year with 13 interceptions in 12 games and now has cloudy outlook with the team in 2022.

“[McCaffrey will] be higher on this list next year,” an NFL offensive coach said. “He’s still young.”

Highest ranking: 3 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 24 | Last year’s ranking: Unranked (rookie)

The Steelers wasted little time getting Harris acclimated to the NFL, handing him the ball nearly 400 times (307 rushes, 74 catches) despite a suspect offensive line and an aging Ben Roethlisberger under center. Harris responded with a Pro Bowl performance, rushing for 1,200 yards and scoring 10 total touchdowns with zero rushing fumbles.

Some voters knocked Harris’ lack of speed or explosion. One NFL defensive coach said, “Not for me. He had 1,200 yards when everyone knew he was going to run it. They knew the Steelers weren’t throwing deep and their offensive line was terrible.”

But one front-office executive said Harris is great in space because he’s a “big person” at 6-foot-1, 232 pounds with broad shoulders and is a “handful in the open field.” Harris’ 62 rushes for a first down ranked third in the NFL. The exec explained the problem lies when a play isn’t blocked up well at the line because defenders get good shots on Harris’ big frame, and he is not sudden or fast enough to evade those hits.

“He doesn’t have quite the juice as some of the other backs, but he’s a really good all-around player, really good in space … and has great hands,” the exec said.

Highest ranking: 6 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 27 | Last year’s ranking: 8

Jones remains one of the NFL’s most underrated backs, with one Pro Bowl appearance in five seasons despite back-to-back appearances on this top-10 list. His production in 2021 was modest, with 1,190 total yards (799 rushing) for 10 total touchdowns and a career-high 52 receptions. His 4.7 yards per carry was respectable.

“Versatility — he does a lot of stuff for [the Packers],” an NFC exec said. “The offense is better when he is in there. He really boosts their passing game and is really good getting out on the edge or making something happen with screens.”

Jones’ pass-game prowess was on display last year against San Francisco, when Jones broke free on a wheel route, then made an off-balance catch for a 75-yard gain.

The arguments working against Jones are that he is a byproduct of a Green Bay scheme that helps elevate running backs, that he’s not a blazer (4.56-second 40-yard dash) and that the presence of AJ Dillon (187 rushes, 803 yards) will limit his production.

Highest ranking: 2 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 27 | Last year’s ranking: Unranked (rookie)

Williams won a tight tiebreaker here with Chargers running back Austin Ekeler, who had a fantastic 20-touchdown season. Ekeler is probably the better all-around player right now, and many voters agree. But as a pure runner, Williams is poised for big things.

“You can’t get him on the ground, can’t tackle him,” an NFL personnel official said. “That kid is really good. Depends which offense you’re running in that [Ekeler vs. Williams] discussion, and Ekeler is really, really good. But with Williams you just can see defenses feeling like, ‘I’m tired of tackling him.’ He’s not as fast as Taylor but has everything else.”

Williams produced 903 yards with four touchdowns on 203 rushes as a rookie, which is no small feat while sharing a backfield with established back Melvin Gordon III. Williams tied for ninth in the NFL with 460 rushing yards after contact.

But a few scouts believe he is more than capable as a pass-catcher, too, despite modest numbers there (43 receptions for 316 yards). Expect those totals to rise.

“He’s a guy you build an offense around.” an NFL offensive coach added. “He does stuff other guys can’t do. Such great balance, strong. Can turn a loss into a 10-yard gain.”

Honorable mentions

Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers: Ekeler appeared on several top-10 ballots thanks to a career-high 911 rushing yards to complement his always stout passing-game presence. An AFC coach describes Ekeler as an all-purpose back who has a feel for the passing game. “Huge asset to Justin Herbert,” the coach says.

Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys: Elliott’s fall outside the top 10 is still a bit surprising considering he just produced his third career 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown season. But his rushing yards per game have dipped in each of his six NFL seasons, from 108.7 in 2016 to 58.9 last year. “He’s still a good player, but that burst he once had just doesn’t seem to be there,” an NFC exec said.

Saquon Barkley, New York Giants: Barkley was No. 1 on this list two years ago, but his decline has been precipitous. Injuries have cost him 22 games over four seasons, but that’s hardly the only issue with his game. In 2021, he produced just 593 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 162 carries. “I’m down on him — he still doesn’t know how to play running back enough,” a veteran NFL offensive coach said. “He’s a bouncer. He wants every run to be a home run. He’s going to have to learn that 4-yard runs in this league are good, instead of stopping, cutting it back and losing 2. And he gets his ass kicked in protection.”

Also receiving votes: Josh Jacobs (Las Vegas Raiders), Miles Sanders (Philadelphia Eagles), Antonio Gibson (Washington Commanders)

Source: ESPN

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