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Top-10 Running Backs in the NFL Entering the 2019 Season

The league's best ball carriers
Source: Sports Illustrated

As part of my continuing top ten articles, I will be counting down the top ten running backs entering the 2019 season. The NFL has been flooded by a new wave of running backs over the past several years. All you need to do is look at the top ten and you’ll see plenty of youthful names dominating the list. There are also several young backs primed for breakout seasons this year. If all goes well, they could move into the lower spots on the list by the time the season ends.

*To qualify for statistical rankings from 2018, a running back must have a minimum of 50 carries

1. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams

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Gurley is the de facto top running back in the league until something happens that proves he’s no longer worthy of the title. Arthritis in his knee might limit his carries and performance in 2019. Until we see that though, Gurley sits atop the running back throne. In 14 games, Gurley produced the fourth-most yards from scrimmage in the league (1,831) and led the NFL in rushing and receiving touchdowns with 21. His 89.4 rushing yards per game was second only to Ezekiel Elliott.

2. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

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The second overall pick lived up to the billing as a rookie. He led the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 2,028. Barkley also displayed his ability as a dual-threat. He finished the year with 1,307 rushing yards and 721 receiving yards which came on 91 receptions. His 16 rushes of 20 or more yards and seven rushes of 40 or more yards both led the league. With his incredible speed, strength, and versatility, Barkley could be up for some major end-of-year awards this season.

3. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

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Elliott is the bell cow for the Cowboys. The team’s entire offense is centered around what he does on the ground. That’s why I think Jerry Jones will cave in and give him a big check. However, I don’t know when that will happen. Elliott has said he’s willing to holdout until a new deal is in place. That could mean that the 2018 rushing yards champ won’t be available for a chunk of the season. Regardless of his contract situation, Elliott is firmly cemented as a top-four running back in the NFL.

4. Le’Veon Bell, New York Jets

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Bell’s spot on this list is honorary, in a sense. He sat out the entire 2018 season because of a contract dispute with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but that doesn’t diminish what he has the potential to accomplish this season. Bell was a First Team All-Pro in 2014 and 2017. He’s thrown together three years with more than 1,800 yards from scrimmage and remains one of the premier dual-threat backs in the NFL. Still, this is a shaky and vulnerable position for Bell. If he comes out of the gate slow, he could plummet in the rankings.

5. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

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Kamara is a very interesting player because his rushing averages are normal. There’s nothing in his yards per carry or yards per game to suggest he’s a top ten running back. However, Kamara has a nose for the endzone and is a terrific threat out of the backfield. While he only ran for 883 yards in 2018, he also rushed for 14 touchdowns. He caught 81 passes for 709 yards and four more scores as well. His 1,592 yards from scrimmage ranked seventh in the NFL last season. He also finished second in rushing and receiving touchdowns (18).

6. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

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McCaffrey is another running back who relies heavily on his skills as a pass-catcher. The Stanford product finished with the sixth-most total rushing yards in the league last season (1,098). However, he also finished eighth in receptions with 107, beating players like Antonio Brown and Travis Kelce. McCaffrey finished the 2018 season with 1,965 yards from scrimmage (third-most) and 13 rushing and receiving touchdowns (tied for eighth-most). McCaffrey has continued to add muscle to add more of a punch to his running in 2019.

7. Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers

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Gordon was having a career year in 2018, but injuries limited him to 12 games. While he only finished with 885 rushing yards, Gordon ranked ninth in rushing yards per game (73.8). He also ran for ten touchdowns and caught four more, which tied him for the fifth-most rushing and receiving touchdowns in 2018. He finished the year with 1,375 yards from scrimmage. Currently. Gordon is holding out for a new contract. He could miss games if the situation does not improve.

8. James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers

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Conner was impressive in his first year as a full-time starter. His 74.8 rushing yards per game were the eighth-most in the NFL and his 12 rushing touchdowns were tied for third. Conner also displayed some versatility, hauling in 55 receptions for 497 yards and another score. His 1,470 yards from scrimmage were the tenth-most in the league. Unfortunately, injuries limited Conner to 13 games and 12 starts. Hopefully, he’ll stay healthy in 2018 and put together a full year.

9. Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

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Mixon ran for the third-most yards per game in the league last season. Because he only played in 14 games, Mixon finished fourth in total rushing yards with 1,168. While he’s a prolific rusher, in a league where versatility is highly valued, he needs to work on his involvement in the passing game. Mixon finished with just 296 receiving yards last season. It wouldn’t take much improvement for Mixon to go skyrocketing up this list though. He’s one of the brightest young running backs in the NFL.

10. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals

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Johnson is in danger of falling outside of the top ten permanently if he doesn’t have a strong season in 2019. His 58.8 rushing yards per game were mediocre, and he failed to regain his 2016 All-Pro form. What saved Johnson from falling out of the top ten was his role in the passing game. His 50 receptions for 446 yards and three touchdowns raised his yards from scrimmage and rushing and receiving touchdowns totals high enough to fend off Nick Chubb and Phillip Lindsay for now.

Honorable Mentions

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Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks

Carson was the workhorse for the team that led the NFL in rushing last season. In 14 games, Carson plowed his way to 1,151 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns. He’s not a very versatile running back, but he did produce 82.2 rushing yards per game. Last season, that average ranked fourth among backs with at least 50 carries. Only Elliott, Gurley, and Mixon finished above Carson in that category.

Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns

Chubb’s rookie season got off to a slow start. He didn’t start a game until Week 7 and wasn’t the full-time starter until Week 9. That tampered with his yards per game average and set the bar at 62.3. I fully expect Chubb will surpass that mark in 2019. He posted four 100-yard rushing performances, three of which came after Week 9. We’ll see a lot more of that side of Chubb this coming season. Ultimately, he finished his rookie season with 996 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns.

Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

A stellar four-week stretch to end 2018 saved Henry from an otherwise pedestrian season. During that time, he recorded 585 rushing yards, which equates to 146.25 rushing yards per game. Before those final four games, Henry had just 474 yards and an average of 39.5 rushing yards per game. He also scored seven rushing touchdowns in the final four weeks. He had just five in the first 12 games. Henry is wildly inconsistent and not worthy of a top ten spot.

Mark Ingram, Baltimore Ravens

Ingram rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2016 and 2017. His totals fell off last season when he endured a suspension. The Ravens are a very run-heavy offense, meaning Ingram could be looking at a bounce back season.

Phillip Lindsay, Denver Broncos

Lindsay exploded onto the scene as an undrafted free agent last season. In 15 games, he carried the ball 192 times for 1,037 yards and nine touchdowns. He added 35 receptions for 241 yards and another touchdown through the air. He finished his rookie season with the ninth-most rushing yards in the NFL and the 12th-most rushing yards per game.

Lamar Miller, Houston Texans

Miller made his first Pro Bowl last season. His 973 rushing yards tied for the eleventh-most in the NFL and his 69.5 rushing yards per game was 12th. Miller is a solid running back, but he isn’t irreplaceable.

Adrian Peterson, Washington Redskins

The old man still has some gas left in the tank. Peterson mustered 65.1 rushing yards per game on his way to a total of 1,042 last season. He finished the year with 1,250 yards from scrimmage and eight total touchdowns. I don’t anticipate Peterson forcing his way back into the top ten running backs. However, if anyone can do it, it would be Peterson.

What now?

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Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars

After posting 80 rushing yards per game as a rookie and finishing 2017 with 1,342 yards from scrimmage and ten total touchdowns, Fournette was awful last season. He played in eight games and averaged a measly 3.3 yards per carry. His production dropped to 54.9 rushing yards per game. Now, Fournette has to prove he’s still that Pro Bowl-hopeful player. 2019 needs to be a rebound year for him and the Jaguars in general.

Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons

Freeman made back to back Pro Bowls in 2015 and 2016 before being passed over in 2017 due to injuries and a drop in production. A severe injury last season limited Freeman to just two games. We’ll see if Freeman can return to Pro Bowl form in 2019.

Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns

In terms of talent, Hunt is still a top ten running back. In 2018, he averaged the seventh-most rushing yards per game among backs with at least 50 attempts. In 11 games, he ran for 824 yards and seven touchdowns. He was impactful through the air as well, catching 26 passes for 378 yards and seven touchdowns. He finished the season with 1,202 yards from scrimmage and 14 total touchdowns. That means he finished 13th in yards from scrimmage among running backs after missing more than a quarter of the season. His 14 rushing and receiving touchdowns tied for fourth among running backs.

However, Hunt’s off the field issues have led to him being suspended for the first eight games of the 2019 season. Even when he comes back, he will be playing behind Chubb on the depth chart. He’s playing to keep his stock high enough to cash in for a better contract next offseason.

Rising Stars

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Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

Cook always shows flashes of potential, but injuries have slowed the start of his career. In 11 games last year, Cook put up 920 yards from scrimmage. However, his rookie season was more impressive. Cook only played four games in 2017, but he averaged 88.5 rushing yards per game through that stretch.

Kerryon Johnson, Detroit Lions

As a rookie, Johnson became the first Lions running back to rush for 100 yards in a single game since Reggie Bush. Johnson had two 100-yard games as a rookie, but he wasn’t able to finish the season because of injuries. In his ten appearances and seven starts, the Auburn product amassed 641 rushing yards, three rushing touchdowns, 213 receiving yards, and a receiving touchdown. His 5.4 yards per carry was tied for second-most among qualified running backs in the top 20 for rushing yards per game. Only Aaron Jones (5.5) had a higher average.

Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts

The Colts didn’t envision they’d end up with a starting back when they drafted Mack in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Pleasantly, Mack excelled in his second year in the league. He ran for 908 yards on 195 carries and scored nine rushing touchdowns. His 75.7 rushing yards per game were the sixth-most among backs with at least 50 attempts.

Sony Michel, New England Patriots

Michel will only be limited by how the Patriots decide to rotate their plethora of running backs. Along with Michel, New England utilized Rex Burkhead and James White last season. The team also added Alabama product, Damien Harris in the 2019 NFL Draft. It’s a crowded backfield. In 2018, Michel’s 71.6 rushing yards per game ranked tenth among running backs with at least 50 attempts.

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