With the running back position continuing to evolve year after year, this was the hardest ranking I've done yet. As passing attacks continue to drive offenses, more and more teams are moving to a running back committee, rather than having one singular bell cow. With that being said, there are still some beasts who can run through defenses play after play. As long as they carried the rock at least 150 times and caught 15 passes, they'll be considered for the list. Let's dive into the top 12 running backs from the 2021 season in this edition of the NFL PRR!
Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
12. Elijah Mitchell (Last Season: Unranked)
PFF Grade - 76.3 (23rd)
Elijah who??? Elijah Mitchell, that's who, one of the least talked about rookies in the league. He's a perfect scheme fit in Shanahan's offense, and no other San Fran running back came close to his production. In just 11 games, Mitchell ran for 963 yards and 5 TDs on 207 attempts. In a 17 game span, this would have paced out to 1,488 yards and 8 TDs on 320 carries. In addition, he never fumbled the ball, and forced 74 total missed tackles, most among all backs on this list. He wasn't any special in the pass game, as he had 137 yards and 1 TD on 19 catches, but that had more so to do with Deebo Samuel being a menace out of the backfield than anything else. If Shanahan decides to move away from the running back committee that he made popular in the NFL, Mitchell will be the guy to look for to break out next season.
11. Josh Jacobs (Last Season: #9)
PFF Grade - 77.7 (19th)
Although some wouldn't consider Josh a top 12 running back this season, I'm willing to put him at #11 for multiple reasons. In 15 games, he rushed for 872 yards and 9 TDs on 217 carries. He did well receiving as well, as he tallied 348 yards on 54 receptions, despite splitting time with Kenyan Drake. Although these numbers don't pop off a stat sheet, the Raiders had the 5th worst offensive line in 2021. Despite this, he put up 1,220 total yards and average 4.5 yards per touch. It's tough to be optimistic as the Raiders OL looks worse now than it did at the end of last season, but the addition of Davante Adams should lighten the box for Jacobs to find space.
10. James Conner (Last Season: Unranked)
PFF Grade - 82.9 (6th)
What looked to be the end for James Conner after some uneventful and injury plagued years in Pittsburgh, turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the swiss army back. Despite only starting in 6 games and playing in 15, James put up 752 yards and 15 TDs on 202 carries, as well as 380 yards, which ranked 8th among all eligible running backs, and 3 TDs on 37 receptions. He also caught every catchable pass that came his way, and led the NFL among running backs with a 132.9 passer rating when targeted. Give Kliff credit where it's due, to turn a power back into one of the most dangerous receiving backs in the league, when you already have an elusive receiving back in Chase Edmonds, is a tall order that no one thought possible. As Conner looks to be the main back in Arizona next season, expect a much bigger season in the yardage department for the 6th year vet.
9. Derrick Henry (Last Season: #1)
PFF Grade - 75.3 (T-26th)
A historic season in the making was brought to a grinding halt after King Henry suffered a foot fracture. His season was so good, he was still in the top 5 for rushing yards heading into week 16, despite not playing since week 8. At the time of his injury, he was on pace to rush for 2,110 yards and 24 TDs (this isn't counting his Week 8 performance as he broke his foot on the second play of the game, and then continued to play through it). He also tallied 154 yards, which already cleared his season total from a season ago, on 18 receptions. This would have left him with nearly 2,500 total yards on the season, just shy of Chris Johnson's record of 2,509 total scrimmage yards. It was still a magnificent season, and Henry looks to come back stronger next year.
8. Leonard Fournette (Last Season: Unranked)
PFF Grade - 73.9 (32nd)
After a strong playoff campaign in 2020, Playoff Lenny looked better than ever this past season through 14 games. Despite rushing for just 812 yards and 8 TDs on 180 carries, he unlocked a new side of him in the pass game, as he tallied 454 yards and 2 TDs on 69 receptions. He averaged 5.08 yards a touch, posted a first down rate of 30.1%, totaled 75 first downs, and had a attempt per reception rate of 2.61, all ranking in the top 5 in the league. This was a part of Leonard we have yet to see, and with the Bucs offense being turned over to Byron Leftwich, expect Lenny to have a career year in 2022.
Photo: AP Photo/Matt Rourke
7. Alvin Kamara (Last Season: #3)
PFF Grade - 63.2 (88th)
Don't let his PFF grade fool you, Kamara was a threat anytime he toted the rock. Aside from his relatively low rushing numbers - 898 yards and 4 TDs on 240 carries - he was a demon when catching passes, totaling 439 yards and 5 TDs on 47 receptions, all in just 13 games. To boot, he recorded 1.62 yards per route ran, 2nd most among all eligible running backs. He also never fumbled the ball, despite playing behind a bottom half ranked offensive line and taking the ball from a carousel of QBs. He had the 7th most total yards of all eligible running backs at 1,337 yards, and averaged 102.85 per game, the 5th most yards among eligible running backs. With Jameis back as the starter, and some new weapons on offense, the gates have swung wide open for Kamara to have a career year.
6. Najee Harris (Last Season: Unranked)
PFF Grade - 70.7 (42nd)
Harris arguably had one of the best rookie campaigns in the NFL last season. He led the NFL with 381 touches, led all rookies with 1,667 total yards, and had the 4th most rushing yards with 1,200 to the tune of 7 rushing and 3 receiving TDs. Although his per touch and per game metrics don't stand out compared to some other names, it's pretty impressive for any player, especially a rookie, to never fumble throughout the year, and that's still not considering he played behind the 7th worst offensive line this past season. He also was one of only two backs on this list to play all 17 games. With Kenny Pickett looking to be the future leader of this offense, and being surrounded by a handful of playmakers, Harris should get better and better every season early in his career.
5. Dalvin Cook (Last Season: #2)
PFF Grade - 65.8 (72nd)
Dalvin didn't necessarily have a down season, but he still left something to be desired after a career year in 2020. Regardless, he did some solid damage through 13 games. On 250 carries, he amassed 1,159 yards and 6 TDs, to the tune of 34 receptions and 224 receiving yards. This put him at 106.38 total yards per game, ranking 3rd out of all eligible backs, despite playing behind a bottom 10 offensive line. With Kevin O'Connell running the offense next season, Cook could return to form in 2022.
4. Joe Mixon (Last Season: Unranked)
PFF Grade - 79.5 (14th)
After years of being one of the most up and down players in the league, Mixon broke out in style. In 16 games, he rushed for 1,205 yards and 13 TDs on 292 carries, while adding 314 yards and 3 TDs on 42 receptions. He tallied 72 1st downs, 903 yards after contact, and 326 yards after catch. His mix of open field agility and hard nose running is the deadly combination for any back, and this should allow Mixon to have a similar year in 2022.
3. Austin Ekeler (Last Season: Unranked)
PFF Grade - 75.3 (T-26th)
Ekeler made plenty of heads turn in 2021, as the former backup posted a career year. In 16 games, Ekeler ran for 911 yards and 12 TDs on 206 carries, and racked up 647 yards and 8 TDs through the air, both ranking 1st among running backs, on 70 receptions. He also led all running backs in receiving 1st downs with 31, yards after catch with 621, and receiving TD percentage at 11.4%. Additionally, his 1,558 total yards ranked 3rd among all eligible backs. He proved he's more than ready to be the main back in the Chargers offense, and should have a bigger year in 2022 with Herbert hitting his stride.
Photo: AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian
2. Nick Chubb (Last Season: #7)
PFF Grade - 81.7 (8th)
Nick Chubb has been one of the most impressive running backs since entering the league in 2018, and 2021 was no different. In 14 games, he totaled 1,259 rushing yards and 8 TDs on 228 carries, to go along with 967 yards after contact and 57 missed tackles forced. He also led the league with 5.52 yards per carry and 4.24 yards after contact per attempt, and averaged 2.93 rushes a game where he gained 10+ yards, 2nd most among eligible backs. Although he only posted 174 yards and 1 TD through the air on 20 receptions, he still finished in the top 5 in total yardage with 1,433. Chubb gets better every season, and I wouldn't be shocked if he's the top dog after 2022.
1. Jonathan Taylor (Last Season: #8)
PFF Grade - 87.0 (2nd)
JT is a force to be reckoned with. We have seen a back with his breakaway speed paired with his shiftiness and bulldozing power in a long time...besides Derrick Henry of course. With Henry sidelined, JT made sure to make himself known as the best back in 2021, as he posted 2,171 total yards, 20 total TDs, and 118 total 1st downs, all on 372 touches. With a large bulk of his stats coming from the rushing game, including 1,272 yards after contact, a rush TD rate of 5.4%, and 2.94 rushes of 10+ yards per game, JT proved he is one of the best pure rushers in the NFL today. Entering his third year, he looks to challenge Derrick Henry to break the rushing yards in a season record in 2022.
Photo: AP Photo/Adrian Kraus
There may be some salty Pats fans out there since I excluded Damien Harris from the list, even though a 87.8 PFF grade, the highest grade among running backs. My main reason for excluding him is that he didn't really stand out among the other running backs. Out of the 20 running backs I considered, he was near the bottom in yards after contact, 10+ yard runs, missed tackles forced, and almost every receiving metric. He is a fantastic power rusher with solid top end speed, but that's really all he brings to the table.
Some other notable names to miss the cut were Javonte Williams, Devin Singletary, David Montgomery, and Antonio Gibson. Similar to Damien, they didn't flash anything spectacular or extraordinary on the field. I would expect Javonte and Antonio to have bigger seasons next year, but the same can't be said for the other two; Damien is still up for debate given the Patriots reluctance to sticking with one lead back year over year (which isn't a bad thing).
Join me next time as I cover the best corner backs of 2021!