In the third installment of this year’s Top Five Series, we take a look at the best running backs in the NFL. Be sure to check out prior lists highlighting the best coaches and receivers in the game as well.
A special thank you goes out to the 2017 NFL draft, which provided four of the five entries on this list as well as Kareem Hunt, Leonard Fournette, Joe Mixon, James Conner, Marlon Mack and Chris Carson. That is one heck of a return on a single class of running backs.
5. Aaron Jones
Team: Green Bay Packers
3,364 rush yards, 37 TD; 131 receptions, 1,057 receiving yards, six TD (four seasons)
Aaron Jones would be higher on this list if not for Mike McCarthy.
Jones, an immensely talented running back, was pushed to the brink of anonymity under McCarthy. Jones was on the sideline for more than 65 percent of Green Bay’s offensive snaps in each of his first two pro seasons, averaging fewer than 50 rushing yards and 10 receiving yards per game.
Once current Packers head coach Matt LaFleur took over, Jones flourished. In LaFleur’s offense, Jones’ per-game rushing totals have mirrored Derrick Henry’s while his receiving output compares to that of Dalvin Cook. Jones has broken the 1,000-yard mark in each campaign since McCarthy’s departure and has seen his usage skyrocket.
McCarthy failed on multiple fronts in his final years as Packers head coach. Keeping Aaron Jones on the sideline, while instead featuring running backs clearly inferior to the former Texas-El Paso star, is among McCarthy’s most inexplicable errors.
4. Dalvin Cook
Team: Minnesota Vikings
3,661 rush yards, 33 TD; 148 receptions, 1,275 receiving yards, three TD (four seasons)
Dalvin Cook would be higher on this list if not for his checkered health record.
Cook has yet to play a full season in four years with the Vikings, suiting up for only 43 of a possible 64 regular-season contests. The best ability is availability, and Cook has been unavailable more than a star running back should be.
When he is on the field, Cook is stellar. The former Florida State star outrushes everyone on this list on a per-game basis while also chipping in 3.5 receptions and 30 yards per game as a receiver. Most importantly, Cook’s dynamism buoys a Vikings offense anchored by Kirk Cousins’ decidedly limited ceiling as a passer.
3. Derrick Henry
Team: Tennessee Titans
5,860 rush yards, 55 TD; 76 receptions, 692 receiving yards, three TD (five seasons)
Derrick Henry would be higher on this list if it were 2001.
Henry is a throwback to the days of Larry Johnson, Eddie George and Jamal Lewis, running backs who literally carried their teams’ offenses by way of toting the rock nearly 400 times a season. Like Lewis, Henry is a downhill bruiser who is one of only eight men in NFL history to run for more than 2,000 yards in a single season.
Although Henry may be the best pure running back in the league today, he checks in at no. 3 due to his irrelevance in Tennessee’s passing game. Henry’s career total of 76 receptions would be single-season lows for both the men ahead of him on this list. Averaging less than a catch per game over the course of a five-year career limits the ceiling of any running back in the modern NFL, no matter how much value he adds as a rusher.
2. Alvin Kamara
Team: New Orleans Saints
3,340 rush yards, 43 TD; 326 receptions, 2,824 receiving yards, 15 TD (four seasons)
Team: Carolina Panthers
3,145 rush yards, 29 TD; 320 receptions, 2,672 receiving yards, 16 TD (four seasons)
Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey are kindred spirits of sorts.
Taken 59 picks apart in the loaded 2017 draft, Kamara and McCaffrey made an immediate impact on their teams — McCaffrey’s expected, Kamara’s not — and have been terrorizing opposing defenses, in the NFC South and beyond, ever since. Both pose threats in the run and pass game, moving around New Orleans’ and Carolina’s formations to create mismatches all over the field.
When two players are this similar, how does one separate them?
The accolades favor Kamara, but McCaffrey does more with less in Carolina. Until 2021, Kamara benefited from a Hall-of-Fame quarterback in addition to an All-Pro wide receiver and one of the best coaches in the NFL. By the time McCaffrey arrived in Charlotte, Cam Newton was on the decline, Greg Olsen was a non-factor and the Panthers were devoid of game-changers at wide receiver. McCaffrey’s supporting cast has failed to support him in any meaningful way since then.
2021 will be a real test for Kamara, who no longer has Drew Brees under center and will likely be without Michael Thomas for the foreseeable future. Another breakout campaign, however, could vault Kamara over McCaffrey for the title of Best Running Back Alive.