The NFL has been seeing a trend over the past decade or so at the running back position. No two years are alike, and every year sees a new rusher stick out from the rest of the pack. In 2021 we saw second year runner Jonathan Taylor burst onto the scene for the Colts and rush 332 times for 1,811 yards and 18 touchdowns, averaging 5.5 a carry, when the league’s average tends to hang around 4.3 yards per attempt. 2020 was the year of Derrick Henry, which saw the Titans power back rush for over 2,000 yards and 17 touchdowns with a yards per carry of 5.4. In 2019 we saw Christian McCaffrey post 1,387 rushing yards along with 1,005 receiving yards with 19 total touchdowns. Every year a new running back is wearing the crown of the league’s best, and with the running back positions being one of the most popular and entertaining in the league to watch, as well as playing such a huge role in fantasy football, the question everyone is always wondering is which running back will be the next to be deemed the league’s best.
When looking at which running back could be next, it’s important to know what running back could be next. Since 2016, the NFL’s total yards from scrimmage leader has been a running back and every year it has been a different running back, and the trend also applies to 2013 and 2014, but for right now we’ll look at from 2016 on. In 2016 it was David Johnson. 2017 was Todd Gurley, 2018 was Saquon Barkley, 2019 was Christian McCaffrey, 2020 was Derrick Henry, and 2021 was Jonathan Taylor. All of these players were under 26 years old in their respective year, with Derrick Henry being the only one older than 24. With the exception of Derrick Henry being in his fifth season in 2020 and Saquon Barkley being a rookie in 2018, all of these players were either playing in their second or third season when they led the league in scrimmage yards. All of these players were drafted in the first three rounds of the NFL draft, with Barkley, Gurley, and McCaffrey being first round picks, Henry and Taylor being second round picks, and Johnson being a third round selection. In 2019, 2020, and 2021, the player who led the league in scrimmage yards that year finished in the top five for total scrimmage yards in the previous season. Another thing to remember that carries and total touches is what earns these players the stats and the seasons they have. These were highly talented players still in their youth, before they began experiencing the injury burnout that plagues so many great NFL running backs. Since it is so easy for running backs to get hurt as they get deeper and deeper into their careers, experiencing season after season of getting hit between 300 and 500 times by some of the strongest humans on Earth, they play their best football while their young. So many top picks play so well so quickly in the league is because running back translates so easily to the NFL compared to other positions. Guys who have a nose for finding the hole and breaking off big plays tend to put together similar highlight reels during their first few years in the league. These young talents were put on teams that would good enough to give them opportunities to success, but not great enough to have so much talent that it overshadowed them. Typically teams with a young quarterback and a good offensive line. Think off Todd Gurley and Jared Goff, Saquon Barkley and Daniel Jones, Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott, or even Nick Chubb and Baker Mayfield. A talented bell cow running back paired with a young quarterback, or even a game manager under center, and a good offensive line can often be where running backs carry a team into the playoffs in December. Keeping all of these factors in mind there are about ten players who could be the running back that is the center of attention in December and the savior of fantasy leagues everywhere, and they can be separated into four tiers: The idea candidate, the likely challengers, the longshots, and the repeat contenders.
Tier one: The Ideal Candidate
Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers
Harris checks every single box. He was top five last year in scrimmage yards, having 1,667 total yards and ten total touchdowns in 2021 as a rookie. He will be 24 years old for his second season in 2022 with the Steelers. The Steelers are a good, but not great team. They squeezed into the playoffs with a 9-7-1 record that earned them the AFC’s seventh seed. Ben Roethlisberger retired. Juju Smith-Schuster left for Kansas City. Their offensive line did not improve. The Steelers did however, bring in Mitchell Trubisky and Kenny Pickett to likely split quarterbacking duties, as well as George Pickens, Calvin Austin III, and Myles Boykin to help sure up the receiving game. Pat Freiermuth will be going into his second year after a solid rookie campaign, and Diontae Johnson has proven to be capable of being a number one receiver. Najee Harris is listed at 232 pounds and 6’1″ and he appears to be incredibly muscular. He hasn’t missed a full game in the NFL or college due to injury, despite having over 300 carries for 3.9 yards per carry with the Steelers in 2021 and 638 carries over four season at Alabama, including over 200 carries in each of his final two seasons. Harris is primed to be the top back in fantasy in 2022 and possibly the league. Despite him not being known as a receiving back he did manage to have 70 catches for over 700 yards and 11 touchdowns in his final two years at Alabama, and he did have 94 targets in 2021 that he turned into 74 catches for 467 yards and three touchdowns. No matter if it’s for Trubisky or Pickett, Harris will be able to act as both a safety valve and a workhorse and make the quarterback’s life significantly easier, despite the Steelers holes at a few spots on the offensive line. Head coach Mike Tomlin has also been committed to running the football during his legendary tenure as the Steelers coach. The Steelers took Harris in the first round because they knew they could make the most of his talents, and if the Steelers are to return to the playoffs in 2021, it will likely be on the shoulders of Najee Harris.
Tier Two: The Likely Challengers
D’Andre Swift, Detroit Lions
Swift is, in my eyes, Harris’ biggest challenger to the top of the running back rankings. While some may see players like Nick Chubb or Dalvin Cook as the biggest rivals to Harris (spoiler alert: They still may be), remember both of those players are 26 years old already and will be 27 before the season ends. Chubb has already been in the league for four seasons and Cook has been in the NFL for five seasons, while Swift won’t even be 24 until December and the 2020 second round pick will be playing in his third season in 2022. Swift was average in 2021. He was 33rd in the league with 617 rushing yards and had an average of 4.1 yards per attempt which was 32nd. He was 24th in touchdowns with five, but also 29th in the league in total carries. Ultimately, Swift has spent his first two years in the league proving he is worthy of the chance to be a feature back, and he has proved he is ready. Swift deserves to be the focus of Dan Campbell’s offensive over Jared Goff or T.J. Hockenson. Detroit also has a very underrated offensive line, and players such as Penei Sewell and Jonah Jackson are only going to continue to get better with Swift.
Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos
Williams may seem like a longshot to be the NFL’s top dog in yardage and fantasy football’s top dog. In 2021 he was great with 903 rushing yards, four rushing touchdowns, 4.4 yards per carry, 203 carries, 43 receptions, 316 receiving yards, and three receiving touchdowns, but it seems like Williams’s name isn’t being thrown out with the other players on this tier, which may just be a product of the Broncos trade for Russell Wilson. Williams also came into 2021 behind Melvin Gordon III. Gordon is now 29 and Williams is the lead back in Denver. Russell Wilson has always loved leaning on his running back, no matter if it’s Marshawn Lynch, Chris Carson, or even Rashad Penny in December of last year. I would expect Wilson to help Williams develop even further as a receiver and Williams could even be in a position to have close to a third or a half of his yards in 2022 to come from the air. A good offense will need a good ground game, especially if they are leading, and Williams is the ideal back to pair with Russell Wilson in Denver.
Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
Nick Chubb is a stud, and absolutely has all the talent in the world to be the league’s best running backs. The only thing holding him back is the team around him. Part of the reason Chubb has been able to sustain NFL success is because he has split carries in Cleveland with Kareem Hunt since 2019. In the time Hunt and CHubb have played together, Chubb has seen 788 touches to Hunt’s 416, but that is still a lot of plays to give up considering players like Derrick Henry have had over 900 touches in the same span, while missing time due to injury. Couple sharing the backfield with Chubb likely seeing Deshaun Watson, Jacoby Brissett, and even possibly Josh Dobbs or Josh Rosen all spending at least some time playing quarterback for the Browns this season. Chubb is also 25, and will be 26 before the season ends, and will be playing in his fifth season in 2022, and while that isn’t old, it’s already outside the range what we’ve mostly seen over the past decade. Chubb averages over 1,000 yards and 9 touchdowns a season, with only between 20 and 30 catches. Chubb is spectacular but I don’t foresee his role in Cleveland getting bigger than what it is now, especially with running back injuries being so common and so many question marks around the quarterback position.
Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
Dalvin Cook is also a stud. Cook is also going to be 27 during the 2022 season, which will be his sixth in the NFL. Cook is talented, but if he is ever going to take the leap from top ten to the best of the best, he needs to do it now, and probably already missed his window. Cook saw his yards, touchdowns, and all of his averages drop from 2020 to 2021. Cook will also be playing under a new coach, with the average Kirk Cousins at quarterback, who has never been known for creating opportunities for running backs. Justin Jefferson is the blossoming star with all of the focus in Minnesota, and while Cook will likely be a top five running back this year, it appears as if his time to be the best has just simply passed him by already.
Tier Three: The Longshots
Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers
The main reason Ekeler finds himself as a longshot instead of a challenger is mainly his age. Age is the leading cause of the downfall of a running back. Derrick Henry was left off of this list simply because he’s 28 and missed nine games with a foot injury in 2021. Ekeler and the Chargers will be facing a similar dilemma as the back heads into his age 27 season. Age and injury. Ekeler has appeared on the injury report a few times, mostly for small injuries considered to just be bumps and bruises in the NFL, and has only missed more than two games in a row once, when he missed six in 2020. The issue is that these bumps and bruises will become more substantial with age, and Ekeler will likely miss a game or two in 2022. In fact it’s more probable than not every running back on this list, despite their talent and durability, will miss a game or two in 2022. Ekeler had over 1500 total yards and 20 total touchdowns, which tied Jonathan Taylor for most total touchdowns in the league. Ekeler is one of a select few backs who can be considered a legitimate threat in both the passing and running game, in one of the NFL best overall offenses. Ekeler has helped Justin Herbert grow into an elite NFL quarterback and Herbert will continue to rely on Ekeler as long as Ekeler can continue to carry a heavy workload. Austin Ekeler may never be viewed in the same light as a Derrick Henry or Jonathan Taylor, but there is no denying he has elite talent. The only thing that will slow Ekeler down in 2022 is father time. He will be entering his sixth season, but in a career that has gotten better with time, perhaps Ekeler can break the mold.
Kenneth Walker III, Seattle Seahawks
Can a rookie lead the NFL in scrimmage yards, be the best fantasy player at their position, and enter the conversation for best runningback in the league? Well to start, Walker will likely need to get 2,000 yards this season. The last time no NFL player had over 2,000 yards in a season was 2015, and the fact that only four rookies have ever had more than 2,000 scrimmage yards is what makes Walker a longshot, but keep your eyes on Walker. Chris Carson retiring has left Walker to compete with Rashaad Penny, DeeJay Dallas, and Travis Homer for carries, and Walker should be able to steal the starting job relatively easily given his talent. In just 12 games at Michigan State in 2021, Walker rushed 263 times, amassing 18 touchdowns and 1636 yards, giving him an average of 6.2 yards per attempt. Walker also had 13 catches for 89 yards and a touchdown. This gave Walker per game averages that we will never see in the NFL. Walker’s single game averages for 2021 was 21.9 carries, 143.8 total yards, 1.6 total touchdowns, and a catch to boot. To give this context, in a standard ppr ESPN fantasy football league, Walker would have averaged 25 points. A number that would be the best in just about any year. Walker’s ceiling is certainly the highest of any rookie running back, and since Seattle will be in a rebuild phase, with Drew Lock and Geno Smith currently competing for the starting quarterback job, Walker may see a significant workload and be the star of an offense that desperately needs a bell cow rusher.
Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles
Miles Sanders may have been the most unlucky running back in 2021. It seemed as if his new head coach, Nick Sirianni, would never run the ball in Philly. During the first six weeks of the year Miles Sanders was averaging 9.5 attempts per game, and still managing 4.7 yards per attempt. In week seven against the Las Vegas Raiders the Eagles ran the ball for 32 times, a season high at the time. The Eagles would run the ball 33 times or more for their reaming nine games. The only issue was that Sanders suffered an ankle injury on the first drive of the contest against the Raiders after receiving six carries on that drive alone. Sanders has missed a grand total of nine games in his three year career, missing four in 2020 and five in 2021. While Sanders is trending in the wrong direction with injury, everything else is trending in the right direction. He has new talent around him on offense, in a newly designed system to revolve around the running game, Jordan Howard is still not with the team after having 86 carries for 406 yards and three scores in 2021. Sanders will be healthy in 2022, his coach has publicly said he will be the lead back, and with Sanders averaging 813 yards per season and a career average of 5.1 yards per carry, as well as having over 100 receptions in his career, Sanders is a boom or bust candidate, and a fun dark horse to be the NFL’s top running back next year.
Tier Four: The Returning Contenders
Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts
Jonathan Taylor may be the first player to earn the most scrimmage yards in multiple seasons since Adrian Peterson did it in 2008 and 2012. He is still only 23 and also won’t be 24 until January. He has only played in two seasons in the NFL, and his offense is built to rely on him to carry the ball over 17 times a game, just as it did in 2021. Jonathan Taylor is still an elite rusher and will still be undoubtedly in his prime for 2022, but it is still incredibly difficult for a player to have repeat play at the level Jonathan Taylor was at in 2021.
Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
It somehow feels as if we have been waiting to see a healthy Saquon Barkley return to the field forever, but it also feels as if Barkley is still a young talent with better football in front of him. Barkley led the league in scrimmage yards in 2018, earning 2,028 total yards and 15 total touchdowns, since then Barkley has suffered a torn ACL and continued his trend of ankle issues that has bothered him since college. In 2019 Barkley played in 13 games, but still managed 1,441 total yards and eight total touchdowns, in 2020, Barkley played in just two games due to suffering a torn ACL. Barkley was suited up for week one to begin the 2021 season, but ultimately saw limited carries and didn’t seem his normal self. Just when Barkley was getting back to form, he sprained his ankle and suffered another setback that kept him looking off for the whole year. Barkley managed to appear in 13 games in 2021, but managed just 856 total yards and four total touchdowns. Can Barkley turn it around in 2022? Likely yes. Barkley may be entering his fourth NFL season, but he is still 25, and will be for the entire season. Barkley has had plenty of time to recover from his ACL tear, and with that came time to strengthen and condition. Barkley will have an offensive line now featuring Andrew Thomas, and will be in a Brian Daboll, who has served as an offensive coordinator for NFL and college teams that featured players such as Jamaal Charles, Josh Jacobs, Peyton Hillis, Najee Harris, Damien Harris, and Reggie Bush. Barkley should be the centerpiece of this Giants offense, and he still is unquestionably talented, which leaves Barkley only being held back by him seemingly have a habit of getting banged up. If Barkley can keep himself on the field and feeling comfortable rushing the ball 20 or more times a game, he could give the Giants a chance to shake up the NFC in 2022.