The last two draft classes have been loaded with running backs. The entire NFL is getting a makeover with the next generation of running backs. Because of this I started to think about the older generation of rushers from earlier in the 2000’s. I wrote this to pick out the best running back from each draft class since the turn of the century. Some years it was close, other years it was obvious who won. But one thing is for sure, we’ve gotten to see a lot of great running backs over the last two decades.
2018- Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
Obviously we can’t know who will be the best, we aren’t even at the regular season yet, but Barkley seems like the real deal. He can run, catch, return, and pass. There might not be a more complete running back since Walter Payton. That’s high praise, now Barkley needs to go out and back it all up.
2017- Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs
This is the case for Barkley possibly not being the top running back in the 2018 class. Leonard Fournette was viewed as a once in a decade type back and yet he was outperformed by several backs in his own class. Both Hunt and Alvin Kamara outperformed Fournette and I put Hunt here because he carried a bigger workload as a runner and led the league in rushing. Kamara was great, but it’s hard to judge him when he was only running the ball sporadically. I also wanted to mention Dalvin Cook who looked great before getting injured very early last season. I don’t know if Hunt will retain this title when all is said and done, this is just how I see things right now.
2016- Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
Elliott is one of the big four running backs in the NFL right now. Out of all of them he seems to glide and run the smoothest. He’s led the league in rushing yards per game in both of his seasons in the NFL but is suffering from off the field incidents. If he cleans his act up he will become one of the greatest rushers in recent history.
2015- David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
You know a running back class is loaded when Todd Gurley is the second best back. I picked Johnson here but the way things are going Gurley could replace him if his injuries persist. Really this decision is a toss up and either player could go here, it’s just a matter of personal preference. Both of these guys are in the big four running backs in the NFL along with Elliott and Bell, but Johnson needs to rebound and stay healthy to maintain his elite status in the group.
2014- Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
In his short four-year career Freeman has already rushed for 1,000 yards twice and recorded 11 rushing touchdowns during both of those seasons. He made the Pro Bowl in both of those seasons. While he’s a far cry from being one of the top tier backs in the league, he gives the Falcons a great triple threat along with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.
2013- Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Remember when people were debating whether Eddie Lacy or Bell would have the better career? That feels like a long time ago. Bell is now constantly ranked among the top running backs in the league along with Elliott, Gurley, and Johnson. Through five years in the league he has averaged over 1,000 yards per seasons despite missing 18 games. He’s also become a premier pass catcher out of the backfield, recording over 600 receiving yards three times.
2012- Alfred Morris, Washington Redskins
As a sixth round pick, Morris burst onto the scene in 2012 with a 1,613 rushing yard performance. He followed up his rookie campaign with two more 1,000 yard campaigns, both of which resulted in Pro Bowl selections. Since then his play has fallen off and he was relegated to a backup role in Dallas for the past two seasons. Doug Martin was a high draft selection in 2012 but has only had two good years in the league. His rookie season and 2015 both resulted in Pro Bowls and over 1,400 rushing yards. His other four seasons have all resulted in fewer than 500 rushing yards.
2011- DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys
Murray recently retired from the NFL, but he had a great deal of success during his seven-year career. He ran for over 1,000 yards three times in his career and led the league in 2014 with 1,845 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. Those numbers were good enough to earn him Offensive Player of the Year honors. Mark Ingram is another capable rusher from the 2011 draft class.
2010- Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers
The 2010 draft wasn’t exactly good for running backs. Matthews did make the Pro Bowl in 2011, but injuries ultimately brought about his downfall. 2013 was his last complete season as a starter and he set a personal best for rushing yards at 1,255. The only other running back who could’ve earned this spot is C.J. Spiller.
2009- LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles
Shady McCoy is probably going to be a Hall of Famer, barring any off the field issues. After nine seasons he’s crossed the 10,000 rushing yard plateau and has 13,470 yards from scrimmage. His receiving ability never gets enough credit. McCoy’s patented shifty running style is another standout part of his game. His best season came in 2013 when he led the league in rushing and recorded 2,146 yards from scrimmage. Arian Foster went undrafted in 2009 and spent his eight-year career making teams regret it. In 2010 he led the NFL in rushing and twice led it in rushing touchdowns. Unfortuantly, he only had four quality seasons before injuries robbed him of a promising career.
2008- Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans and Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Cheifs
CJ2K’s career fell off after his first six seasons in the NFL, all of which were 1,000 yard rushing performances. He earned his nickname in 2009 when he ran for 2,009 yards joining an elite club. His speed was a huge difference maker and was probably why he had the league’s longest rushing attempt in 2009 and 2012. 2008 also brought super stars Jamaal Charles and Matt Forte into the NFL. Forte was the league’s best receiving back for a while and many people even though he’d eventually record 1,000 receiving and rushing yards in a single season. He ran for over 1,000 yards five times and over 900 yards seven times. Charles, who I think ties with Johnson on this one (it’s just too close to pick), has had five great seasons in the league and is known for his high average years per carry. If it wasn’t for injuries this dynamic runner would probably be Canton bound when his career ends. Even after all of his injuries, he still has over 10,000 yards from scrimmage.
2007- Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
This running back class has two Hall of Fame caliber rushers, Peterson and Marshawn Lynch. While Lynch is an all-time great, Peterson has always been the man. Peterson rebounded from injuries and relentlessly worked his way back to lead the league in rushing twice after significant injuries. He also had that outstanding 2012 MVP season where he just missed usurping Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record.
2006- Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars
2006 also produced Reggie Bush and DeAngelo Williams, but Jones-Drew takes the cake here. MJD had a great run from 2009 to 2011, rushing for over 1,300 yards in all three seasons. He actually led the league in rushing in 2011, his third and final 1,000 yard rushing season. Jones-Drew was also a deceptively good receiving back, which helped him record over 1,000 yards from scrimmage in seven of his nine NFL seasons. He is the Jacksonville Jaguars all-time leader in rushing touchdowns.
2005- Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers
Gore has surpassed any expectations set for him when he entered the NFL. He’s currently fifth all-time in rushing yards and is less than 100 yards away from moving into fourth place, past Curtis Martin. He may not have had the peak that other players on this list did, but he’s been more consistent than all of them. Out of his 13 seasons in the NFL Gore has rushed for 1,000 yards or more nine times, 960 yards or more 11 times, and 850 yards or more 12 times. The only time he didn’t hit the 850 mark was his rookie season, which is also the only year of his career where he didn’t have at least 1,200 yards from scrimmage.
2004- Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams
Similarly to Gore, Jackson had great longevity but not an extremely high peak. From 2005 to 2012 he had at least 1,000 rushing yards, that’s an eight-year run! During that time he never had fewer than 1,200 yards from scrimmage in a season and even led the league in that category in 2006. Jackson finished his career with 11,438 rushing yards (eighteenth all-time) and 15,121 yards from scrimmage (twenty-second all-time).
2003- Larry Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs
Johnson just edges out Willis McGahee for this spot in my book. McGahee had a longer career which resulted in him having higher career totals than Johnson who had a shorter career but higher peak. In 2005 and 2006 Johnson had at least 2,000 yards from scrimmage, 17 rushing touchdowns, 19 total touchdowns, and 1,700 rushing yards. It’s safe to say he was one of the best backs in the league during this two-year span but injuries downgraded him after that.
2002- Clinton Portis, Denver Broncos
Portis started his career hot out of the gate, winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award for his 1,508 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns. During his nine NFL seasons, he had more than 1,200 rushing yards six times and actually had three seasons with 1,500 rushing yards or more! Portis finished his career less than 100 yards shy of the 10,000 mark and with an impressive 75 rushing touchdowns.
2001- LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego Chargers
Well this was an easy selection. Tomlinson is already a Hall of Famer and it’s easy to see why. He won an MVP for his incredible performance in 2006, when he recorded 1,815 rushing yards, and NFL record 28 rushing touchdowns, 508 receiving yards, three receiving touchdowns, and two passing touchdowns. Oh yeah, he threw for seven touchdowns during his career. Tomlinson led the NFL in rushing twice and rushing touchdowns three times. That’s how he managed to get 145 rushing touchdowns (second all-time) in just 11 seasons. Counting his passing and receiving touchdowns he has 169 on his career. His 18,456 yards from scrimmage is fifth all-time.
2000- Shaun Alexander, Seattle Seahawks
A lot of great running backs came out in 2000, including: Jamal Lewis, Thomas Jones, and Alexander. Like Tomlinson, Alexander was an NFL MVP. He set a then NFL record with 27 rushing touchdowns in 2005 to claim the honor. That record was then broken by Tomlinson the following season. Alexander rushed for 1,000 yards five out of his nine seasons in the league and only didn’t have more because of injuries. He led the NFL in rushing touchdowns twice and finished his career with 100 to go along with 9,453 rushing yards.