Everyone who paid close attention to the 2017 NFL Draft knew that the RB class that year was going to be a special one. It was littered with talent from top to bottom, and 2 years later that talent is making waves throughout the league. With each of them entering their 3rd season as a pro, we’re starting to see them hit the prime of their careers. A few of them have been just as good as anticipated, while others have developed surprisingly well and are exceeding expectations. Ranking them wasn’t an easy task, but it was also a lot of fun to do. Just take note that I ranked them in tiers to further distinguish the talent from one set of players to another.

Christian McCaffrey
Kareem Hunt*
Alvin Kamara

I can say with confidence that Christian McCaffrey is the best RB in this draft class. The interesting thing about me ranking him #1 is that I didn’t have him ranked this high before the season started. However, what I’ve seen from him this season has been nothing short of amazing. He added more muscle in the offseason to help him handle his increased workload, but he doesn’t look any slower as a result. He looks even more flexible and dynamic than he ever has. Right now, he’s carrying the Carolina Panthers offense in ways we haven’t seen a running back do in a while and is on pace to break the single-season yards from scrimmage record. McCaffery is the best dual-threat RB the league has seen since Brian Westbrook.

I’m sure people will take issue with me having Kareem Hunt ranked this high considering his suspension (and what he did to warrant it), but that’s why there’s an asterisk next to his name. If I’m considering his off-the-field issues, he drops significantly on this list. But if I’m basing this on talent and durability alone, Hunt belongs this high. He was a top 5 RB already before everything happened, and I don’t see his skills diminishing upon his return. Hunt has the most well-rounded skill set as a runner when you talk about vision, agility, power, balance, and burst. His ability to force missed tackles was tops amongst running backs last season, and that’s one of the skills that truly separates the elite runners from ordinary ones. It’s easy to forget just how good he is since he hasn’t been on the field in a while, but for this article, it can’t be ignored.

I love watching Alvin Kamara when he has the ball in his hands. His contact balance is unparalleled. The way he’s able to slip through tackles and keep on moving makes for plenty of breathtaking runs. And like McCaffery, Kamara is a phenomenal receiver and can impact the game in multiple ways. That versatility shines in Sean Payton’s offense, which has always made the most out of pass-catching running backs in the past (Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles). With Mark Ingram gone, many have questioned if Kamara can carry the load as a featured RB. But even though he hasn’t been able to produce at the level we’re used to seeing from him yet this season, I believe that’s more so attributed to the offense adjusting to not having Drew Brees. His level of play will pick up at some point.

Dalvin Cook
Matt Breida
Joe Mixon
Aaron Jones

Dalvin Cook has been an absolute monster so far in 2019 and has a legitimate chance to win the rushing title this season. He’s struggled to stay healthy since his season-ending injury in 2017, but now that he’s 100% he’s looking like the player we saw before he got hurt. Cook has been a perfect fit for the new zone run scheme in Minnesota, running for at least 110 yards or more in 4 of his 5 games. The way his footwork and vision are in sync with each other is a thing of beauty to see, and there aren’t a lot of running backs in the league who are as explosive in space as he is. The only reason I can’t put him in the elite tier just yet is because I need to see him sustain this type of success throughout at least one season.

The fact that Matt Breida went undrafted and is this high on my rankings is remarkable. Unfortunately, he’s part of a rotation under Kyle Shanahan, and that probably won’t change. But Breida is without question the most talented player of that RB corps. He’s the fastest RB in the league, and his improved ability to force missed tackles since his rookie season makes him a legitimate threat to take it to the house on any given play. People may overlook him, but there’s no doubt in my mind he has elite talent. It’s only a matter of him staying healthy and sustaining this level of play throughout a season, just like the situation with Cook.

I feel sorry for Joe Mixon the same way I do for AJ Green. His talent is being wasted there in Cincinnati. A good number of fans won’t recognize how good he is because they’ll only look at his stats, but it’s tough for any RB to put up consistent numbers when the offensive line is that bad and you can only get so much from Andy Dalton. Mixon was able to run for over 1,000 yards in 2018 because the line was solid, but it’s declined once again and Mixon’s numbers have gone down with it. Make no mistake though, Mixon’s talent hasn’t.

Is Aaron Jones the best RB that’s played alongside Aaron Rodgers? I believe he is. Despite consistently splitting time with Jamaal Williams, it’s clear that Jones is the better runner of the two and that’s why Green Bay Packers fans have been begging for him to be the featured back. It’s obvious that he’s explosive, but he also possesses a compact frame that gives him good contact balance making him a tough runner to not only get a hand on but also bring down. And he’s a good receiver out of the backfield too. Green Bay Packers new Head Coach Matt LaFleur has installed a new zone run scheme in that offense and Jones is benefiting from it. Just look at what he was able to do against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 5.

= TIER 3: GOOD =
Marlon Mack
Leonard Fournette
Chris Carson
James Conner
Tarik Cohen
Austin Ekeler

Philadelphia Eagles rookie Miles Sanders should look at the development of Marlon Mack as an example to model his development from going forward. Like Sanders, Mack was a player who had very good explosiveness as a runner but would try to bounce so many of his runs outside. But now it’s like night and day. Just watch his performance against the Kansas City Chiefs. He’s become much more patient and smarter with his decision making. Does he benefit from arguably the best offensive line in football? Absolutely. But he does deserve credit for knowing how to trust that line and take advantage of what’s given to him.

As the first RB taken there were a lot of expectations put on Leonard Fournette. He was expected to be the featured guy and focal point of the Jacksonville Jaguars offense. After having a solid rookie season, Fournette struggled mightily in 2018. He entered this season determined to have a bounce-back year, and so far, he’s delivered. Fournette is a volume runner, and the more touches he gets the more he gets into a rhythm. He may not be the most efficient runner, but he remains a very powerful runner with some big-play ability.

I don’t know if there’s a running back in the league that’s a more physical runner than Chris Carson. It’s fitting that he plays for the Seattle Seahawks because there are times when he looks like Marshawn Lynch. Carson has gotten better at making cuts behind the line of scrimmage and through traffic with improved agility and flexibility, which has helped him take his game to the next level. That’s why he remains the starting RB over Rashaad Penny. But if he keeps coughing up the football, he won’t have that starting job for very long.

With Antonio Brown no longer part of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the young stars in the offense are quickly finding out how tough it is to be the focus of the defense. James Conner had an incredible 2018 season, stepping up in the absence of Le’Veon Bell. But his 2019 season has been much different as he’s facing more and more loaded boxes and less space to run with. Conner is still a good player though, and a chunk of his development is attributed to him becoming a more dynamic runner than he was in college.

Since entering the league I’ve referred to Tarik Cohen as the next Darren Sproles. They’re both short in stature but have a thick build and are stronger than you would think. They’re both all-purpose backs who can contribute as a ball carrier, run routes, and return punts/kicks. And they’re both incredibly elusive. Many people may write off Cohen as one of the better running backs in the league simply because he’s not the traditional type of RB that gets a ton of carries. But as Sproles has shown throughout his career, a weapon like Cohen is still a very dangerous weapon that can alter a game with just one play.

Austin Ekeler is also someone who’s built similarly to Cohen and Sproles, but unlike them, he’s a little less dynamic and a little more powerful. He wasn’t known for being a good receiver coming out of college, but he’s developed into a solid one. Ekeler stepped up well in the absence of Melvin Gordon the first few weeks of the season, and he’ll likely still play a significant role in that offense even with Gordon back. He’s too good not to be on the field.

Donnel Pumphrey