A vast majority of fans believe the misconception that running backs are significantly devalued now and aren’t important in today’s game. “RBs are a dime a dozen and easily replaceable.” I hear that all the time. But even though the position is drastically different now than it was decades ago as the majority of teams have shifted from utilizing featured backs to now going with a running-back-by-committee approach, getting high end production out of the RB position can still have a phenomenal impact on your team.
It’s a passing league now, but the difference makers and the truly special RBs are the ones that are just as valuable through the air as they are on the ground. RBs can’t carry a team by themselves. It’s not one of the premium positions in the league (QB, offensive line, and pass rushers are). But if you have great talent at RB, whether it be from one guy or from a group of guys, that can be that extra push or spark your offense needs.
So before I keep going and end up on a long and annoying rant, I shall present to you my Top 20 RB Rankings heading into the 2018 NFL Season.
I looked at each player’s individual talent based on their performance in 2017 but also factored in my projection for 2018. In other words, my rankings are based on a combination of what the player has done lately and what I see them doing in the future. So as a result, you might see guys that are ranked higher than others even though they don’t have better statistics.
It’s also always important to keep in mind the important of context. Production and stats are always factors, but they never tell the whole story. A more talented RB might be struggling to put up numbers on a bad team while a less talented RB is flourishing behind a great offensive line and coaching staff.
The last thing to keep in mind when it comes to my evaluations: I put a lot of emphasis on a RB’s skillset in the passing game as a receiver and a pass blocker. To me, versatility is key for a RB in today’s game.
I did not include rookies simply for the fact that we haven’t seen them perform at the pro level yet. However, you can check out my NFL Draft RB Rankings article to see how ranked this rookie class.
Bell, Gurley, Elliott, & Johnson are the usual 4 that people mention in the top tier. You can make a legitimate argument to put those 4 in any order.
Bell’s skills as a receiver along with his unique patience on his runs keep him at the top.
Gurley should have been the league MVP last season, and under Sean McVay has proven to be an elite dual threat. He might be the most physically gifted RB in the league.
Elliott had a tough season in 2017 with the looming suspension, but all reports say that he’s in phenomenal shape in training camp and I expect a bounce back year from him.
And speaking of bounce back years, David Johnson could possibly have the biggest comeback season of anyone. The Cardinals will certainly be leaning on him a lot this season.
I, however, am definitely including Hunt in this group. Just like the other RBs here, Hunt is the complete package with his only glaring weakness being a lack of top-end speed. People will argue that his numbers dropped off and were inconsistent the 2nd half of the season, but to that I say this: it’s difficult to be consistent when you’re not getting the ball.
It was tough for me to decide between Kamara and Freeman. They’re as close to even right now as anyone else on this list, but Kamara does get the slight nod. His ability to force missed tackles and elude defenders is as good as any of the top tier guys, and he’s an incredible receiver already. The only thing left I need to see from him is being able to carry more of a workload.
Freeman has split time with Tevin Coleman the past couple of seasons, but he has proven to be one of the more talented RBs in the league by himself. I love how he runs; aggressive and fearless. He might have already hit his ceiling, but splitting carries with Coleman might be extending his career to the point where he’ll be able to sustain this level of play for years to come.
Fournette is the focal point of that Jaguars offense. He’s a big RB with a lethal combination of power, vision, and straight line speed. Plus he’s not that bad of a receiver either, he just hasn’t been used much in that area. He’s every bit as capable of moving up to Tier 1 as Kamara is.
McCoy is definitely past the prime of his career, and one has to wonder just how much he has left in the tank. But as of right now, he’s still one of the top RBs until proven otherwise.
Some people might scoff at my Ajayi ranking, but I still strongly believe that people are forgetting, or they don’t realize, just how talented of a runner this guy is. He is now the lead back in the high powered Eagles offense, and with it being a contract year for him he’ll be determined to put up big numbers.
Ingram might be suspended for the 1st 4 games of the season, but we shouldn’t ignore how consistent he’s been for the Saints in recent years. He has incredible vision in a compact and tough frame. Him and Kamara make up the best RB tandem in the league.
Hunt, Kamara, and Fournette were great rookie RBs last year, but we can’t forget about Cook. He was also off to an incredible start to his career before getting hurt. The Vikings’ explosive weapon has the potential and skillset to make a big jump in the rankings.
Gordon seems to be one of the more divisive RBs amongst talent evaluators. Some believe his success is mainly due to volume and that he’s just an above average talent. I don’t agree though. He might not be an elite talent, but he’s still very good and has proven to be reliable and versatile. He’s a key piece to that Chargers offense.
I will admit, I didn’t pay as much attention to Mixon last season as I did with other guys on my rankings. But after looking at more of his tape, he was actually better than I had thought. The Bengals offensive line just didn’t do him any favors whatsoever. Mixon is so physically gifted, and he’s entering this season lighter and in great shape compared to before.
Some might be surprised that I ranked Howard this low. I can’t deny Howard’s talent as a runner, he’s very good. But I can’t put him above the other guys I have listed and one of the reasons is his lack of receiving skills. If he can improve significantly in that area he’ll make a good case to crack my Top 10.
Blount leads off Tier 4. I never realized before last season how good Blount’s agility was. He obviously has a reputation for being one of the best power runners there is, but he also has surprisingly impressive footwork as well. The Lions have been in desperate need for a talented runner for years, and they finally got one in Blount.
Tevin Coleman could be a starting and lead RB for many other teams, but I don’t think people realize that because he’s had to play behind Freeman his whole career so far. In the 3 games he had to start last year, he played very well in 2 of them. He’s blessed with tremendous speed and is a good zone runner.
The Seahawks just continue to screw up their RB corps after the departure of Marshawn Lynch. They somehow didn’t see Collins’ potential and lost out by simply letting him go. Collins is a physical runner with outstanding agility. He’s a good overall talent and a great pickup by the Ravens.
The Ajayi trade worked out wonderfully for the Eagles, there’s no denying that. But at the same time, the Dolphins knew they had another great young talent at the position still in Drake. Athletically gifted with great elusiveness, Drake started to make a name for himself last season. He just has to keep improving his vision and stop fumbling the football.
Kenyan Drake and Frank Gore were listed as co-starters, I think Drake wins that job eventually.
Sweet feet, power to jump cut gap-to-gap, balance to chain moves/absorb contact, burst to run through smoke & away from safeties on two-way gos, & gets after it in the pass game – pic.twitter.com/BSQMpDe2k7
— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) August 6, 2018
I was screaming for Henry to be the starter of Murray since the beginning of the 2017 season, and when he finally got his chance he didn’t disappoint. Overwhelming size with breakaway speed like he has isn’t common. His burst and agility aren’t too great though, and he’s more suited for outside zone schemes than interior gap schemes, but he’s still a nightmare to bring down once he’s able to get to top speed in open space.