The NFL is seeing a resurgence in elite running back talent. Coordinators are working backs into their passing games and are game-planning to get the ball in their top athletes’ hands. From ground-and-pound workhorses like Nick Chubb and Derrick Henry, to receiving threats like Austin Ekeler and Alvin Kamara, who are the top 10 NFL RBs for 2021?
We’ll lay out the top 10 running backs based on a number of factors (below) for this coming season. All stats were pulled from Sports Reference.
How we determined the Best NFL RBs
For the rankings below, I took value into the most account; how valuable is the running back to their team? That takes several factors into account– namely production, versatility, durability, and how strong their team is around them. This isn’t a fantasy rankings list, though fantasy finishes are a good indicator of how productive backs are.
It’s a subjective matter. Think a workhorse ground-and-pound back is better than having a low-carry but highly-targeted back? Then your list is going to look a bit different than ours.
Ultimately, this is meant to be a snapshot of the 2021 field and a projection of how each player will finish at the end of 2021.
ALSO READ: Top 10 NFL QBs for the 2021 season
Best NFL RBs for 2021
10. Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers
What Ekeler lacks in rushing volume, he makes up in target volume. He placed second in 2019 in targets and receptions among running backs and was on pace for 104 targets in 2020 (would be second). He’s got a career 81.2% catch rate and 8.0 yards per target, making him an elite receiving option. Ekeler is one of about five backs in the NFL capable of averaging 100 scrimmage yards per game.
Ekeler is so valuable to the Los Angeles Chargers, that he’s one of three backs in the NFL to be among the top two targets on his team. Upon his return from injury, Justin Herbert targeted him 16 times– tied for the eighth-most in an NFL game in 2020 (most among running backs). A greatly improved offensive line is on tap for Ekeler this coming season, as well: the Chargers ranked last in run blocking in 2020, per PFF.
Despite being a longshot, Ekeler is one of just a few running backs showing up on odds tables to lead the league in receiving yards (he’s projected for ).
9. Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
Talk about under appreciated. Aaron Jones would top the list of “underrated running backs” any day of the week. The truth is, he’s an efficiency monster and a perfect complement to Aaron Rodgers. Jones tied for the league lead in rushing touchdowns in 2019 and finished fourth in rushing yards in 2020. He has a career yards per carry average of 5.2 (fourth all-time among running backs with at least 600 carries).
While Jones’ role can be diminished in Rodgers’ most dominant games, his ceiling is among the highest in the NFL. In each of the past two seasons, Jones recorded a three-touchdown game (four in 2019). Sportsbooks list Jones’ 2021 projected rushing total at , while he stands to lead the NFL in rushing touchdowns.
It’s time to start considering the Green Bay Packers an ultra-efficient offense in both facets of the game.
8. Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts
About one rookie running back per year enters the league with expectations as high as Jonathan Taylor. Behind a strong Colts offensive line, Taylor fell into the perfect situation. He’s fast, productive, and presents a receiving threat when necessary. The one knock on Taylor, though, is his small sample size; from Week 11 on, Taylor averaged 123.5 yards per game (second-most) and scored seven touchdowns.
Taylor’s ceiling might be the highest in the league, but crowning him a top-five back would be fairly presumptuous. He’s surrounded by immense talent on both sides of the ball; the defense allows Indianapolis to nurse leads (which leads to increased rushing) and the offensive lines gives Taylor clean lanes to run through.
Many expect Taylor (projected for yards) to take a serious leap forward this season despite injuries to both Carson Wentz and Quenton Nelson.
7. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
Saquon Barkley may be the most talented running back in the NFL. Physically, he may also be the most gifted. So, what gives with him falling so far down the list? Durability. Availability is the best ability and unfortunately, Barkley hasn’t shown the ability to play without the fear of injury. It’s a tough rub, but a reality of Saquon Barkley.
When he’s on the field, Barkley presents one of the biggest dual-threat abilities in the NFL. In his rookie season, he amassed over 2,000 yards from scrimmage (126.8 per game) and 15 total touchdowns. Since then, his per-game production dropped by 15.7% and he’s posted gamed with 1.8, 1.25, and 0.08 yards per carry. He’s an extremely talented player with no ceiling, albeit inconsistent at times.
Battling injury yet again, Barkley’s rushing total is set at . However, the New York Giants will lean heavily on Barkley when he is available this season.
6. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
Don’t let an inefficient 2020 deceive your thoughts on Ezekiel Elliott. The Dallas Cowboys star is still one of the top backs in the NFL. Tony Pollard eats into some of Zeke’s third-down and receiving work, but Elliott is the go-to goalline back. His 26 carries inside the five yard line tied for the league lead in 2020 (Dalvin Cook), though injuries to the offensive line kept Zeke to just five touchdowns in that same zone.
Elliott also presents a threat in the receiving game that most backs don’t. In his first two seasons, Zeke averaged more than 10 yards per reception on the back of an extremely effective screen game. Since then, he’s been targeted 95, 71, and 71 times per season.
He falls behind exciting players like Jonathan Taylor and Nick Chubb in odds to lead the NFL in rushing yards () and touchdowns () this season. However, expect an increase in efficiency with the return of Dak Prescott.
5. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
Nick Chubb is such a good pure runner that he’s able to overcome not being a true three-down back. Chubb’s elusiveness makes him a threat to take it to the house nearly any carry. He ranks top-six in attempts per broken tackle (9.0) and average yards after contact (2.7). Having the best offensive line in the NFL certainly helps Chubb’s production, but the previous metrics show he can do it on his own, too. To round it out, Chubb was PFF’s top-graded pass blocker among backs in 2020 (91.4).
He rushed for the seventh-most yards (1,067) and the fourth-most rushing touchdowns (12) despite missing four games with an injury this past season. Thanks to his per-game rate, Chubb is third on odds tables for the 2021 rushing leader () and fourth to rush for the most touchdowns this year ().
As the Browns continue to be a high-scoring offense with a credible passing game, expect Chubb to be a rushing monster this coming season. A bonus is that his legs are kept fresher than most other feature backs, with Kareem Hunt allowing Chubb to rest more than usual.
4. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
Fantasy football players are clamoring to get stock in Dalvin Cook this season. He’s rushed for at least 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns in two straight seasons. Gone are the days of assuming injury for Cook. He’s played 14 games in each of the last two seasons (standard for a running back). He’s also a weapon in the receiving game, where he’s been targeted an average of 55.3 times per season since 2018.
True three-down running backs are running thin, but Cook maintains to be the workhorse for the Minnesota Vikings. Cook received 300 carries, one of just two backs to do so in 2020 and just five in the past three seasons. Sportsbooks place him second to Derrick Henry to rush for the most yards in the NFL in 2021 ().
Cook makes the short list of truly elite running backs, and for good reason. His projected rushing total is this coming season.
3. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
Back-to-back rushing champ, 2020 leader in rushing attempts, eighth 2,000-yard rusher all-time. The resume is ridiculous. While he lacks the receiving usage that other backs have on this list, Derrick Henry is an unstoppable force. His greatest strength is potentially how he finishes seasons. Over the past two seasons, Henry averaged 137.2 yards per game in the month of November on, including four 200-yard outings.
Henry is enormous (6-foot-3, 238 pounds), fast (4.54 40-time), strong (22 bench reps of 225), and runs with an anger. He leads odds boards to three-peat as the rushing champ (). While a per-game touch and rushing yard rate seems imminent (he’s slated for rush yards), Henry is one of the most feared backs in the NFL, for good reason.
2. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
Almost no player was more valuable to their offense in crunch time than Alvin Kamara. There’s no other player in the NFL capable of scoring six touchdowns in a single game, which Kamara achieved against the Vikings last season. He also does more with the ball than almost anyone in the league; his career average of 5.0 yards per carry ties for fifth all-time among running backs with players like Gale Sayers and Barry Sanders.
Where Kamara really adds value and dimension to the Saints is his receiving ability, and not just behind the line of scrimmage. He’s one of very few backs that can catch the ball down the field; his Average Depth of Target (aDOT) is ninth among running backs (min. 50 targets). In 2020, he was one of just two backs to be targeted 100 times (J.D. McKissic).
The bottom line is Alvin Kamara is one of the most well-balanced running backs in the NFL. For 2021, he’s slated for rushing yards and receiving yards.
1. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
Let’s not forget how seriously dominant McCaffrey has been for his entire career. Despite being derailed by injury for most of 2020, CMC recorded six total touchdowns in three games. Coming off a ridiculously productive 2019 (over 2,200 scrimmage yards and 19 total touchdowns), he was on pace to set career-highs in carries per game (19.7) and total touches per game (25.4).
Any back that can log 1,000 receiving yards in a single season while also landing in the top three in rush yards and rushing touchdowns deserves the top spot. He’s been the most valuable running back to his team for three years running. And despite the Carolina Panthers having a talented receiving tandem in D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson, McCaffrey maintains the top target crown of his team year-in and year-out.
Sportsbooks have CMC listed for rushing yards and receiving yards this season. Well balanced? Absolutely.