Ranking the 10 Best Running Backs in the NFL in 2021

By Nick Sterling in NFL
| June 25, 2021 8:35 am PDT

The running back position in the NFL has become undervalued over the past few seasons. There are a lot of people that say a team can switch out running backs if they have an elite offensive line.

While we’ve seen that in some cases, it still makes a difference having one of the elite running backs in the league. Those guys can mask a less than stellar offensive line, and they can spring explosive plays that completely change games.

Regardless of your stance on the value of the running back position, the best running backs are usually plain to see. The ranking just might change, depending on the person.

With that, here’s my crack at ranking the 10 best running backs in the NFL in 2021.

10. Josh Jacobs – Las Vegas Raiders

In ranking the top-10 running backs in the NFL, Jacobs is a good option to start with, as he has had a strong start to his NFL career.

He rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons. He even upped his rushing touchdown (TD) total to 12 from seven in his rookie season.

The Raiders even got Jacobs more involved in the receiving game this season. He had 33 receptions and 238 receiving yards.

The issue for Jacobs this season was his efficiency. He carried the ball 273 times in 2020. That number ranked third in the NFL. Here is where it gets bad. Those 273 carries yielded a 3.9 yards per rushing attempt. That’s 43rd in the league.

It’s interesting the number dropped so low because he averaged 4.8 yards per carry in his rookie season. That number was ninth-best in the NFL.

There are two big moves the Raiders made in the offseason that will impact Jacobs’ stock. The first being the signing of RB Kenyan Drake.

Drake comes over from the Arizona Cardinals after rushing for 955 yards and 10 TDs.

Last season was truly Drake’s first as a full-time starter, so he doesn’t have as much wear and tear as other five-year veterans. I believe the Raiders want to take some of the load off Jacobs as they try and keep him fresh throughout the season.

The other big change was the offensive line. The Raiders traded starting lineman Trent Brown, Rodney Hudson, and Gabe Jackson. They drafted guard Alex Leatherwood in the first round, but many questioned the decision.

We’ll see if the moves can help Jacobs stay fresh, or close up running lanes. That said, it’s tough to deny his talent, and his place among the top-10 running backs in the NFL.

9. Jonathan Taylor – Indianapolis Colts

Every year, it seems like there is at least one rookie running back that looks like one of the best in the league. This past year, that was Indianapolis Colts RB Jonathan Taylor.

Coming into the 2020 season, Taylor expected to split time with Marlon Mack, while Nyheim Hines would get most of the receiving work. Those plans went out the window when Mack went down in week 1 with a season-ending Achilles injury.

It appeared the Colts would hand Taylor the keys to the backfield. That seemed even more evident after he rushed for 101 yards and one TD on 26 carries in week 2.

But that changed over the next seven weeks. Taylor had just one game with more than 14 carries. In fact, he had back-to-back games with seven or less carries.

The thing was, he wasn’t performing badly in that stretch. Five of those seven games saw Taylor rush for at least four yards a carry.

The final seven games of the season are when the Colts really unleashed Taylor. Look at his game logs to close out the year.

Week Rushing Attempts Rushing Yards Rushing TDs
11 22 90 0
13 13 91 0
14 20 150 2
15 16 83 1
16 18 74 2
17 30 253 2
Wild Card Round 21 78 1

After just one game over 70 rushing yards in the first nine games of the season, Taylor cleared that mark in each of his final six regular season games.

By far the best game of his young career came in the regular-season finale. Taylor exploded for 253 yards and two TDs.

His strong close to the season gave him 1,169 rushing yards and 11 rushing TDs. Both marks were among the top 10 in the league.

Taylor isn’t a huge component in the receiving game, but he did have 299 receiving yards last season. The Colts have an elite offensive line, so there’s no reason to believe Taylor will slow down anytime soon.

8. Aaron Jones – Green Bay Packers

No list debating the NFL’s best running backs is complete for 2021 without touching on Green Bay’s top rusher.

Aaron Jones consistently got better and better in his first four seasons in the league. In 2020, he rushed for a career-high 1,104 yards on just 201 carries.

He averaged 5.5 yards per carry for the third time in four seasons. That was the third-best average among RBs this season.

With Jones being a free agent after the 2020 season, many people thought his strong play would price him out of Green Bay. The Packers didn’t let that happen though, as Jones resigned on a 4-year, $48 million contract.

Jones didn’t get much attention this season with Aaron Rodgers MVP performance, and Davante Adams putting up the best wide receiver numbers. Judging by Jones’ stats, he deserves some praise.

Including the postseason, the Packers lost just four games last season. Jones played in three of those losses and struggled big time.

He rushed for 15 yards against the Buccaneers and 41 against the Colts. Both defenses are strong against the run, but it shows how important Jones’ success is to the Packers as a whole.

He had just 27 yards in their NFL Championship game loss to the Buccaneers.

One reason I believe the Packers chose to give Jones a big deal was his usage over the past few seasons.

The Packers have employed a committee with Jones and Jamaal Williams each getting their fair share of carries. Jones has never ranked higher than 10th in carries in a season. 

He’ll be 30 years old once his contract is up. If the Packers can continue to manage his usage, he should be successful through the duration of his deal.

7. Saquon Barkley – New York Giants

Injuries aside, it’d be unfair to leave Saquon Barkley out of any top-10 running backs list for 2021.

Barkley came into the NFL with high expectations as the number two overall pick in 2018. He took those expectations and literally ran with them.

Barkley finished his rookie season second in rushing yards with 1,307. He finished fifth with 11 rushing TDs, and had five yards per carry.

He took a small step back in 2019 as he dealt with injuries. Still, his 77.2 rushing yards per game was good enough for 10th in the league. Barkley came into the 2020 season hoping to regain his 2018 form. Unfortunately, the exact opposite happened.

It was an absolute disaster of a game to start the 2020 season. Barkley rushed for just six yards on 15 carries against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now, the Steelers do have a good defense, but Barkley is good enough to get more than six yards no matter who the opponent is. He did chip in 60 receiving yards.

Barkley came out strong in week 2 with 28 yards on his first four carries. That fourth carry though would end Barkley’s season. He tore his ACL just two weeks into the 2020 season.

My main concern with Barkley is how will he respond from that injury? Arguably his best skill is his shiftiness and juking ability. I just hope he’ll be able to make those same cuts coming off a major injury.

The ACL tear happened last September, but Barkley is still rehabbing. I wonder if the recovery will linger into the season and slow him down.

At full strength, Barkley is in the conversation for best RB in the league, but my doubts with his recovery have him down to seven on this list.

6. Ezekiel Elliott – Dallas Cowboys

Ezekiel Elliott is another player who came into the league and immediately hit the ground running. Elliott led the league in rushing yards with 1,631 in 2016. He also finished top five in both TDs and yards per carry.

Elliott missed time in 2017 due to suspension, but his average yards per game that season was 98.3. Over a full season, that would’ve been 1,573 yards. The rushing leader that season was Kareem Hunt with 1,327 yards.

Elliott continued his spectacular play with two straight seasons over 1,300 rushing yards. In 2019, he contributed a career-high 567 receiving yards.

The Cowboys dominant offensive line combined with Elliott’s elite running ability made the RB as dangerous as anyone.

The 2020 season was less than stellar for the Cowboys as a whole, but especially Elliott. He rushed for a career-low 979 yards, six TDs, and four yards per carry.

Former Cowboys OL Brian Baldinger pointed out that Zeke could be in decline.

“You just don’t see the burst from Zeke that you once did. It used to be if you got Zeke 20 carries, he was what Derrick Henry is. I don’t know if he’s going to get it back, to be honest with you.”

In Elliott’s defense, he had a lot of things going against him.

Long time center Travis Frederick retired before the season, tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins combined for just two games this season, and guard Zack Martin missed six games.

Once Dak Prescott went down in week 5, teams knew they could stack the box against Elliott.

Elliott ended the season with just two games over 100 rushing yards.

Even if the Cowboys’ offensive gets back to elite form, there’s something that still worries me about Elliott. He had over five fumbles in three of his five seasons in the league. Last season alone, he lost four fumbles. It’s something that isn’t getting any better.

Elliott’s 6-year, $90 million contract begins this season. The Cowboys better hope Elliott can get back to his early career form or it’s going to be a long six years.

5. Nick Chubb – Cleveland Browns

When it comes to downhill runners using their power to gain extra yards, Nick Chubb may be the best running back in the NFL.

Chubb has been as consistent as anyone since he entered the league in 2018. He started the season with limited appearances before being handed the keys to the backfield in week 7 of the 2018 season.

Chubb rushed for 823 yards and six TDs over the final 10 games of the season. Had he kept that pace through a full season, he would’ve finished fourth in the league with 82.3 rushing yards per game.

In his first full-time season as the starting back, he rushed for 1,494 yards, eight TDs, and five yards a carry. His rushing yards total was second best in 2019.

A lot of people were concerned Chubb’s rushing totals would go down with the arrival of Kareem Hunt. Hunt joined the team at the end of the 2019 season. In the final five games of the 2019 season, Chubb did not have a game with more than 17 carries.

Chubb’s yards and carries went down in 2020, but that had more to do with an ankle injury that kept him out for four games than Hunt’s presence.

Chubb rushed for a career-high 12 TDs and 5.6 yards per carry. He also surpassed expectations more frequently compared to his positional counterparts.

He averaged 88.9 yards per game, which was third-most in the league. He only had 190 attempts in 12 games, but that number would’ve been just over 250 in a full season.

Chubb showed last season he can still be an effective RB even if he’s sharing the backfield. It probably wouldn’t hurt the Browns to limit Chubb’s carries just a little bit in an attempt to keep in fresh for a possible playoff run.

4. Alvin Kamara – New Orleans Saints

If you’re compiling a list of the best NFL running backs in 2021, Alvin Kamara better be in the top portion of it.

It’s fair to say Kamara is not your prototypical workhorse RB. He’s never going to be a guy that challenges for the league lead in rushing yards or attempts.

But don’t let those stats fool you; he’s one of the best in the game.

Kamara rushed for a career-high 932 yards last season. That number was only 14th best in the league, but again, he’s not going to be among the league leaders in that stat.

The big thing with Kamara is his dual-threat ability. Since entering the league in 2017, Kamara has 2,824 receiving yards. That’s the most in the league for an RB in that span.

His 326 receptions also top all RBs in that span. Kamara had exactly 81 receptions in each of his first three seasons in the league. He almost made it four seasons in a row but had 83 receptions in 2020.

Kamara did rush for a career-high 16 TDs in 2020. Kamara tied an NFL record with six rushing TDs in a game on Christmas Day against the Minnesota Vikings.

One thing people wonder is how will Kamara do without Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

Brees announced his retirement this offseason, giving Kamara a new full-time quarterback for the first time in his career. Brees has missed games in his career, so it won’t be the first time Kamara has played without him.

In the four games that Brees missed in 2020, Kamara had just 51 receiving yards, but 44 of those came in one game.

Whether it’s Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill, the new Saints quarterback will have to fully maximize Kamara’s skillset.

3. Dalvin Cook – Minnesota Vikings

Dalvin Cook is just one of many great running backs that came out of the iconic 2017 NFL Draft. Cook entered the league as a second-round pick out of Florida State. He had the difficult job of replacing one of the greatest RBs all-time in Adrian Peterson.

Cook got off to an excellent start in his rookie season. He averaged 88.5 rushing yards per game in his first four games. Unfortunately, he only played in four games his rookie season after suffering a torn ACL.

Cook struggled through injuries in 2018 before breaking out in 2019. Despite missing two games, he finished top five in rushing TDs with 13 and top 10 in averaging yards per game with 81.1.

He also set career highs in receptions and receiving yards in 2019.

Cook signed a 5-year, $63 million contract extension with the Vikings before the 2020 season.

That contract must have ignited a switch in Cook because he set career highs across the board in 2020. He rushed for 1,557 yards and 16 TDs. That, along with 312 carries, was second-most in the league. He did all that despite missing two games.

Cook rushed for a career-high 206 yards on just 22 carries against the Detroit Lions in week 9. He also hung 163 yards and three touchdowns on the Packers in a win at Lambeau Field.

That sparked this “duh” quote from Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer.

“We’re going to have to ride this guy.”

My one concern with Cook would be his injury history. He missed at least two games in each of his first four seasons. The Vikings may want to be careful, especially with his workload next season.

His backup, Alexander Mattison, has proved capable of handling the workload when Cook is out. Maybe they try and implement a little bit more of him to spell Cook.

2. Derrick Henry – Tennessee Titans

Derrick Henry is the cream of the crop when you think about pure runners, and there is a very real argument for him taking the top spot in these 2021 NFL running back rankings.

Henry has truly been out of this world since taking over as the lead back for the Tennessee Titans.

Henry struggled most of the 2018 season but broke out in the final four weeks. His best game that season came in week 14 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Henry rushed for 238 yards and four TDs.

He backed it up the next week with 170 yards and two TDs. The strong close to the season gave him 1,000+ rushing yards for the first time in his career.

Henry had a similar slow start in 2019. He rushed for over 95 yards just once in his first nine games.

Henry averaged 149 rushing yards per game over the final six games of the season. His 211 rushing yards in the regular-season finale won him the rushing title.

Maybe the most impressive performance of Henry’s career came in the 2019 postseason. He rushed for 182 yards against the defending champion New England Patriots.

He backed that up with 195 yards the following week against the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens were the best team in the league, and on a 12-game win streak.

So, how would Henry top 1,540 yards and 16 TDs from 2019? Just casually become the eighth player in NFL history to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season.

Henry was virtually unstoppable in 2020. He had three games over 200 rushing yards. For the second straight season, he closed the regular season with a 200+ rushing yard game. In fact, he rushed for a career-high 250 yards.

He also led the league with 17 rushing TDs.

With the Titans adding wide receiver Julio Jones, there’s a chance Henry could have more room to run with teams focusing more on defending the passing game.

1. Christian McCaffrey – Carolina Panthers

We talked about the iconic 2017 NFL Draft for RBs, and Christian McCaffrey was the top RB from that draft. It’s also quite arguable he’s the rightful owner of the top spot in these 2021 NFL running back rankings.

McCaffrey is the perfect dual-threat RB. He can put up over 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in a season. Most guys can only do one or the other.

McCaffrey served as a complementary back in his rookie season. That didn’t stop him from putting up over 1,000+ all-purpose yards and seven total TDs.

McCaffrey took over as the lead back in 2018 and put together his first 1,000+ rushing yard season.

The 2019 season is where McCaffrey really took off as both an RB and wide receiver. He rushed for 1,387 yards and 15 TDs.

On the receiving side, he put together one of the best campaigns for an RB ever. His 1,005 receiving yards were the fifth most for an RB in a single season. His 116 receptions broke the record for most in a season by an RB.

The great season earned McCaffrey Offensive Player of the Year honors. It’s that type of play that puts him in play as a viable 2021 NFL MVP sleeper.

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McCaffrey was off to a great start in 2020 before he suffered a high ankle sprain in week 2. He returned in week 9 against the Kansas City Chiefs but suffered a shoulder injury. He played in just three games in 2020.

The ability to be elite in both running and receiving really sets McCaffrey apart from the other elite backs in the league. 

The only thing that may hold McCaffrey back is the Carolina Panthers are on their third starting quarterback in as many seasons. Sam Darnold takes the reins after three disappointing seasons with the New York Jets.

The plus for McCaffrey is a lot of his catches are near the line of scrimmage, so it’s not like Darnold will need to make tight downfield throws to McCaffrey.

Players Who Just Missed the Cut

  • Joe Mixon – Bengals
  • James Robinson – Jaguars
  • Cam Akers – Rams
  • Antonio Gibson – Washington

You already know who my top-10 running backs in the NFL for 2021 are, but this list above details a few names to watch going forward.

Joe Mixon is someone who would’ve likely been on this list if he didn’t have a down year in 2020. After back-to-back 1,100+ rushing yard seasons, Mixon had just 428 through six games before a foot injury ended his season.

The 428 yards through six games doesn’t seem terrible, but that number is inflated thanks to a 151-yard outburst in week 4. That was his only game of the season over 70 rushing yards.

James Robinson, Cam Akers, and Antonio Gibson are guys entering their second season that could take the next step.

I seriously considered putting Robinson on this list. However, the Jacksonville Jaguars drafted RB Travis Etienne in the first round. The decision makes me wonder if Robinson will have the same workhorse role that allowed him to run for over 1,000 yards.

Akers and Gibson both came on in the second half of the season. They could up their game with improved offenses around them.

Think we left someone out of the top-10 NFL running backs list for 2021, or got the order wrong? Let us know in the comments below. For more NFL content and advice for betting on pro football, bookmark our NFL betting blog.

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