The NFL might be considered a passing league now, but the best running backs still have incredible value to their teams. Beyond being dynamos in the rushing attack, the most talented players at the position are also key contributors as receivers and pass blockers.
In this year’s edition of Sporting News’ ratings, there are promising rising stars mixed in with those who have hit their career prime, with the right experience experience but without the wrong wear.
Leaning more toward 2022 upside than past performance, here’s Sporting News’ ranking of the top 30 running backs in the NFL, starting with the reigning rushing champion and including a double dose from several teams:
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NFL running back rankings 2022
1. Jonathan Taylor, Colts (5-10, 226 pounds)
Taylor has parlayed his prolific play at Wisconsin into the complete durable package in the NFL. He is smart and reliable with a good balance of steadiness and explosiveness. The rushing and scrimmage yardage leader from 2021 is a few notches above the field at only 23.
2021 stats: 332 carries, 1,811 rushing yards, 5.5 yards per carry, 40 receptions on 51 targets, 360 receiving yards, 20 total TDs
2. Najee Harris, Steelers (6-1, 232 pounds)
The Steelers didn’t waste time putting a lot on Harris as a first-round rookie workhorse and he showed off his versatility and durability right away. He handled a high volume and earned everything he could despite a limited downfield passing game and some blocking issues. He should be in for a big Year 2 to put an offense in transition on his back.
2021 stats: 307 carries, 1,200 rushing yards, 3.9 yards per carry, 74 receptions on 94 targets, 467 receiving yards, 10 total TDs
3. Derrick Henry, Titans (6-3, 247 pounds)
At 28, Henry is facing an important rebound year as the massive workload from 2019 and 2020 caught up to him last season. HIs major foot injury cost him nine games and the Titans need to be wary about overworking him. That said, he has some freakish physical qualities for his big frame. No would be surprised if he boosted his Hall of Fame credentials with another massive campaign as the centerpiece of his team’s offense.
2021 stats: 219 carries, 937 rushing yards, 4.3 yards per carry, 18 receptions on 20 targets, 154 receiving yards, 10 total TDs
4. Dalvin Cook, Vikings (5-11, 210 pounds)
Cook has all the talent to be No. 1 on this list and he should be headed to his biggest all-around season yet with his expanded role in a Kevin O’Connell offensive scheme tailored to his rushing and receiving strengths. Cook just needs to come through with full health for his Age-27 season.
2021 stats: 249 carries, 1,159 rushing yards, 4.7 yards per carry, 34 receptions on 49 targets, 224 receiving yards, 6 total TDs
5. Joe Mixon, Bengals (6-1, 220 pounds)
Mixon had teased of a big season early in his career. It finally came, thanks to durability and a top-flight passing game with Joe Burrow that opened things up for him to put it all together. At 26, MIxon should maintain that momentum of production.
2021 stats: 292 carries, 1,205 rushing yards, 4.1 yards per carry, 42 receptions on 48 targets, 314 receiving yards, 16 total TDs
6. Austin Ekeler, Chargers (5-10, 200 pounds)
Ekeler had been under-appreciated for his unique receiving-forward role for Philip Rivers and Justin Herbert. He’s not sneaking up on anyone anymore as one of the league’s most efficient backs with his quickness in the passing game and compact power in the running game.
2021 stats: 206 carries, 911 rushing yards, 4.4 yards per carry, 70 receptions on 94 targets, 647 receiving yards, 20 total TDs
7. Alvin Kamara, Saints (5-10, 215 pounds)
The Saints have had to lean more on Kamara’s rushing on top of his consistent receiving in the past two seasons and he’s proved to have the legs for it, even with some missed time. With some help from Michael Thomas and others to take pressure off him in the passing game again, he should see some familiar favorable running lanes.
2021 stats: 240 carries, 898 rushing yards, 3.7 yards per carry, 47 receptions on 67 targets, 439 receiving yards, 9 total TDs
NFL POWER RANKINGS: Bills look Super Bowl-serious at top; 49ers, Broncos, Eagles on the rise
8. Nick Chubb, Browns (5-11, 227 pounds)
Chubb is known for his chunk running and special burst that comes out of his powerful style. He is a good finisher in the red zone and can take any carry the distance. He also could handle a bigger role in the passing game if needed, which might be the case if the team moves Kareem Hunt. The Browns will lean on Chubb a lot again until Deshaun Watson can boost them at QB.
2021 stats: 228 carries, 1,259 rushing yards, 5.5 yards per carry, 20 receptions on 25 targets, 174 receiving yards, 9 total TDs
9. Aaron Jones, Packers (5-9, 208 pounds)
Jones is now sharing plenty with powerful A.J. Dillon in this backfield, but that’s also helped him stay fresh and kept him in an explosive groove in Matt LaFleur’s zone rushing attack. Expect Jones’ receiving prowess to take on critical importance given the remixed wideout corps around Aaron Rodgers.
2021 stats: 171 carries, 799 rushing yards, 4.7 yards per carry, 52 receptions on 65 targets, 391 receiving yards, 10 total TDs
10. Christian McCaffrey, Panthers (5-11, 205 pounds)
McCaffrey, now 26, had to be faded on this list given he’s played only 10 games over the past two seasons following his transcendent 2019 production. He’s still special as a complete receiving-leaning back when healthy and that’s why he remains in the top 10, but the lingering injury issues can’t be ignored in relation to those now ranked ahead of him.
2021 stats: 99 carries, 442 rushing yards, 4.5 yards per carry, 37 receptions on 41 targets, 343 receiving yards, 2 total TDs
11. James Conner, Cardinals (6-1, 233 pounds)
Conner landed with the right team to return to reliable production after some fading seasons in Pittsburgh. Conner has been a great power running fit with his size and quickness in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense, playing well off Kyler Murray. Conner should be treated as more of a workhorse with Chase Edmonds now playing for the Dolphins.
2021 stats: 202 carries, 752 rushing yards, 3.7 yards per carry, 37 receptions on 39 targets, 375 receiving yards, 18 total TDs
13. Javonte Williams, Broncos (5-10, 212 pounds)
Williams remains in a timeshare with the still effective Melvin Gordon, but there’s no doubt he will be the preferred dynamic lead in the new offense with his budding all-around explosiveness. Williams can be a reliable supporting cog for Russell Wilson in every capacity, taking the Jones role in the Packers-like system.
2021 stats: 203 carries, 903 rushing yards, 4.4 yards per carry, 43 receptions on 53 targets, 316 receiving yards, 7 total TDs.
13. D’Andre Swift, Lions (5-8, 212 pounds)
Swift, like Chubb and others, keeps the pipeline strong for Georgia running backs in the NFL. He is a different runner, based more on speed and quickness for the open field to live up to his last name. Swift has some good Kamara-like assets and is now helped by strong blocking and a better complementary passing game.
2021 stats: 151 carries, 541 rushing yards, 4.1 yards per carry, 62 receptions on 78 targets, 452 receiving yards, 7 total TDs
14. Leonard Fournette, Buccaneers (6-0, 228 pounds)
Fournette has reinvented himself in the transition from Jacksonville to Tampa Bay. He’s still a powerful runner with some pop to finish drives and reel off some long runs, but he also has developed into a reliable short-area receiver for Tom Brady. Durability and conditioning are mild concerns as he might start to cede some key work to rookie Rachaad White.
2021 stats: 180 carries, 812 rushing yards, 4.5 yards per carry, 69 receptions on 84 targets, 454 receiving yards, 10 total TDs
15. Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys (6-0, 228 pounds)
Elliott is polarizing in a different way at 27. Some think he’s faded and lost too many steps and believe his best is buried behind him. Some think he’s prime to return to some early-career form playing off a more explosive passing game with the blocking also reset to be more in his favor. The production and potential says to meet those outcomes somewhere in the middle, with lean toward the positive.
2021 stats: 237 carries, 1,002 rushing yards, 4.2 yards per carry, 47 receptions on 65 targets, 287 receiving yards, 12 total TDs
16. Antonio Gibson, Commanders (6-2, 220 pounds)
Gibson was disappointing as he didn’t deliver as the complete big back in Year 2 while playing through some injury and fumbling issues. He still can produce well, but the Commanders seem to be committed to more of a situational committee approach to keep him fresh vs. putting more on him as a workhorse. The inconsistency tied to his efficiency puts him right in the middle.
2021 stats: 258 carries, 1,037 rushing yards, 4.0 yards per carry, 42 receptions on 52 targets, 294 receiving yards, 10 total TDs.
17. Saquon Barkley, Giants (5-11, 233 pounds)
Like McCaffrey, Barkley’s early career boom has been derailed by injury woes, but he also never reached the same level of all-purpose dominance. Barkley hasn’t had much support from blocking and the passing game, but he’s still looked limited and worn at times. He’s this high because of talent and some hope that 2022 will be more “make” than “break” in a new offense with more explosive intentions.
2021 stats: 162 carries, 593 rushing yards, 3.7 yards per carry, 41 receptions on 57 targets, 263 receiving yards, 4 total TDs
18. A.J. Dillon, Packers (6-0, 247 pounds)
Dillon has gone from expected power complement to Jones to a well-rounded back in his own right. He also will be key in offsetting the passing game changes for Rodgers and the former Boston College runner has proved he can remain prolific in a favorable system.
2021 stats: 187 carries, 803 rushing yards, 4.3 yards per carry, 34 receptions on 37 targets, 313 receiving yards, 7 total TDs.
19. Cam Akers, Rams (5-11, 212 pounds)
Can Akers pick up his promise as a rookie following a season mostly lost to suffering a torn Achilles’ last summer? That’s the big question, but the Rams have confidence that he can deliver effective lead rushing production with the right dash of receiving pop. The upside is there to become a top-10 back.
2020 stats: 145 carries, 625 rushing yards, 4.3 yards per carry, 11 receptions on 14 targets, 123 receiving yards, 3 total TDs.
20. Josh Jacobs, Raiders (5-10, 220 pounds)
Jacobs seems to always need to deal with competition in both his steady rushing and receiving roles. Although 2022 is no different with Kenyan Drake and Georgia rookie Zamir White behind him in the new Josh McDaniels’ offense, his more steady than spectacular play may turn out to be the best complement for a more dangerous passing game featuring Davante Adams.
2021 stats: 217 carries, 872 rushing yards, 4.0 yards per carry, 54 receptions on 64 targets, 348 receiving yards, 9 total TDs
21. Damien Harris, Patriots (5-11, 213 pounds)
Harris has operated as a reliable power back for McDaniels and he will remain the early-down and red zone back of choice in New England behind some sturdy blocking, assuming he stays in New England. Without McDaniels, Harris’ role shouldn’t change much in a run-heavy attack, even if Rhamondre Stevenson cuts more into the overall backfield work.
2021 stats: 202 carries, 929 rushing yards, 4.6 yards per carry, 18 receptions on 21 targets, 132 receiving yards, 15 total TDs
22. Breece Hall, Jets (6-1, 220 pounds)
Hall is in the best position to be the rookie rushing leader in 2022, working ahead of Michael Carter. Hall is a great fit for the zone blocking scheme of Mike LaFleur and will benefit from a further upgraded offensive line and the downfield passing game getting more attention. He will be vital all-around in lifting Zach Wilson in Year 2, too.
2021 stats (at Iowa State): 253 carries, 1,472 rushing yards, 5.8 yards per carry, 36 receptions, 302 receiving yards, 23 total TDs
23. Elijah Mitchell, 49ers (5-10, 200 pounds)
Mitchell became the 49ers’ fifth leading rusher in as many seasons under Kyle Shanahan last season, taking advantage of injuries to veterans and the lacking reliability of higher drafted rookie Trey Sermon. He was a smooth fit in the system with his quick running and did fine as a receiver when needed there. He has a good shot to break the trend and make it two team titles in a row with 1,000-plus yards to boot.
2021 stats: 207 carries, 963 rushing yards, 4.7 yards per carry, 19 receptions on 20 targets, 137 receiving yards, 6 total TDs
24. Tony Pollard, Cowboys (6-0, 212 pounds)
Pollard has been the ideal change-of-pace back to support Elliott with his flashy running and fluid receiving. Although Elliott is still the lead in the Cowboys’ eyes, it’s become more of a 1-2 punch with the latter helping the former stay effective with less mid-career wear.
2021 stats: 130 carries, 719 rushing yards, 5.5 yards per carry, 39 receptions on 46 targets, 337 receiving yards, 2 total TDs
25. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Chiefs (5-7, 207 pounds)
Edwards-Helaire hasn’t lived up to being a first-rounder in 2020 for multiple reasons. First, he’s missed 10 games in his first two seasons. Second, he hasn’t build on being a top-flight receiving back at LSU, which what he was expected to do in the Chiefs’ pass-first offense. Now the Chiefs are caught between featuring and fading him into a complementary role. He needs a jolt in the passing game with more durability in the running game to re-establish himself as a lead, stat.
2021 stats: 119 carries, 517 rushing yards, 4.3 yards per carry, 19 receptions on 23 targets, 129 receiving yards, 6 total TDs
26. Devin Singletary, Bills (5-7, 203 pounds)
Singletary emerged as a reliable workhorse down the stretch to complement the high-volume passing game. He doesn’t offer much as a receiver but he gets the yards that are there with good burst. After holding off Zack Moss for key touches, he will need to do the same again vs. rookie James Cook.
2021 stats: 188 carries, 870 rushing yards, 4.6 yards per carry, 40 receptions on 50 targets, 228 receiving yards, 8 total TDs
27. Rhamondre Stevenson, Patriots (6-0, 227 pounds)
Stevenson was touted as a power back out of Oklahoma but showed he could be complete as a rookie, to the point he may pick up injured James White’s key receiving snaps in 2022 to split more of the work with Harris. It wouldn’t be surprising if Stevenson jumps into the top-20 with an expanded role.
2021 stats: 133 carries, 606 rushing yards, 4.6 yards per carry, 14 receptions on 18 targets, 5 total TDs
28. Rashaad Penny, Seahawks (5-11, 220 pounds)
Penny, who had been an injury-riddled disappointing first-rounder in 2018, exploded down the stretch as the sudden featured workhorse, shaking off plenty of past injury issues. He led the league in yards per rushing attempt and will start off leading what will be a much run-heavier attack without Russell Wilson. Expect Penny to be threatened, however, for key touches by rookie Ken Walker.
2021 stats: 119 carries, 749 rushing yards, 6.3 yards per carry, 6 receptions on 8 targets, 49 receiving yards, 6 total TDs
29. Travis Etienne, Jaguars (5-10, 215 pounds)
Etienne’s promising rookie season was wiped out before it began because of a torn ACL. It might have been a blessing for him not to be misused in that mess of an Urban Meyer-Darrell Bevell offense. Now with James Robinson recovering from a torn Achilles’, Etienne is flashing all his explosive college skills again to vie for key work to support long-time teammate Trevor Lawrence. The Doug Pederson-Press Taylor offense also caters well to Etienne’s versatility.
2020 stats (at Clemson): 168 carries, 914 rushing yards, 5.4 yards per carry, 48 receptions, 588 receiving yards, 16 total TDs
30. J.K. Dobbins, Ravens
Dobbins also saw his entire 2021 season wiped out by a torn ACL ahead of what felt like a potential big Year 2. Now he’s still in recovery mode in a much more crowded backfield and his receiving aspect is set to be curbed. He’s still a talented all-around back but his strength might be as a part-time version of Chubb.
2020 stats: 134 carries, 805 rushing yards, 6.0 yards per carry, 18 receptions on 24 targets, 120 receiving yards, 9 total TDs
31. Melvin Gordon, Broncos (6-1, 215 pounds)
Here is part of the last pair of teammates to make the cut. Williams might be the No. 1 now, but there’s a reason why Denver decided late to bring back Gordon as a savvy No. 2. He does a little of everything well and gives them what’s needed in the rushing and receiving game. He can be an older Dillon to Williams’ younger Jones.
2021 stats: 203 carries, 918 rushing yards, 4.5 yards per carry, 28 receptions on 38 targets, 213 receiving yards, 10 total TDs
32. David Montgomery, Bears (5-10, 222 pounds)
Montgomery makes this list based on his cumulative production vs. his limited efficiency as a runner and pass-catcher. With Chicago also turning to a Green Bay-like rushing attack for more explosiveness, Montgomery’s precarious lead role will be challenged by second-year man Khalil Herbert.
2021 stats: 225 carries, 849 rushing yards, 3.8 yards per carry, 42 receptions on 51 targets, 301 receiving yards, 7 total TDs