Not too long ago, putting a lot of stock into a running back was a criminal offense in many football circles. You’d get a better reception breaking a Remember the Titans Blu-Ray to play The Game Plan instead.
Today — Jerry Jones dialogue notwithstanding — the running back has worked his way back into the conversation of professional football relevance. They’re being taken in the high stages of the first round, and massive contracts are once again being offered.
So, with a rushing renaissance potentially looming…who stands out?
10. Derrick Henry, Tennessee
It was easy to think of Henry as a Nashville afterthought. He was splitting carries with Dion Lewis and went 10 consecutive weeks without breaking 60 yards. However, a historic run to glory perhaps allowed the Alabama alum to start changing the narrative of his young career. Tying a literally unbreakable record with a 99-yard scoring rush in prime against Jacksonville, Henry put up 585 yards over his final four games to break the 1,000-yard barrier for the first time in his career. Firmly entrenched in the Titans’ new offense, it’ll be interesting to see if he can carry the newfound momentum into 2018.
9. Sony Michel, New England
New England’s never-ending dynasty has had quite the roller coaster history when it comes to the rushing attack. It’s consisted of established veterans (Corey Dillon), flash-in-the-pan brilliance (Laurence Maroney), and countless one-hit wonders (Jonas Gray). The second-year man Michel has the tools to be a legitimate long-term option, if he can stay healthy. Despite missing three games, he earned 931 yards while receiving the lion’s share of carries from Tom Brady.
Conner entered the league with one of its most touching stories, going from cancer survivor to Heinz Field mainstay on both the collegiate and professional levels. Last season, he rose in the face of unforced adversity (the departure of Le’Veon Bell) and made sure the Pittsburgh offensive didn’t miss a beat. With Bell and Antonio Brown off to other endeavors, Conner will take on an even bigger role.
7: David Johnson, Arizona
Last season, we began to see glimpses of the electrifying running back we saw break out in 2016. A brutal wrist injury derailed Johnson’s 2017 campaign, but he recovered to earn 1,386 yards from scrimmage the year after. The key for the Cardinals will be avoiding excessive use of the Northern Iowa success story. He had 258 carries last season, good for third in the league, and that number could only increase with a rookie quarterback in tow.
6: Le’Veon Bell, NY Jets
Don’t let last season’s disappearance fool you. Bell remains among the league’s best multi-talented rushers, and that’s going to be huge as the Jets seek further weaponry to complement Sam Darnold. He departs Pittsburgh with numerous team rushing records under his belt and will make an instant difference in an offense that lacked supreme firepower. The Jets’ last-minute addition of Ryan Kalil could help Bell recover any mojo lost during his self-imposed exile.
It feels unusual to place a guy who was an undrafted rookie question mark this time last season ahead of numerous established talents, but that’s how special Lindsay’s introduction played out. He started just eight games, yet still placed ninth in league yardage with 1,037. Denver’s quarterback situation was anything but stable, but Lindsay also put up 241 yards through the air. His debut prowess allowed him to become the first undrafted rookie in NFL history to receive a Pro Bowl invite.
4. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina
McCaffrey could’ve well appeared on our list of the 10 best receivers. The Stanford alum did set an NFL running back record with 107 receptions, after all. Should he stay healthy, and step on a potentially scary fumble problem (he had four last season), asking McCaffrey to pick up 2,000 yards from scrimmage isn’t as ludicrous as it sounds. He came just 35 short of the astonishing landmark last season.
3. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas
It’ll be interesting who, if anyone, will blink first in the showdown between Elliott and America’s Team. After all, no rusher could be more valuable to his squad than Elliott, he of 4,048 yards over his first three years (including a league-best 1,434 yards last year). On paper, it’s hard to argue against his merits, but lingering character concerns and a struggle to hang on to the ball (six fumbles) prevent him from taking the top spot. His value was on full display during a six-game suspension in 2017 (it might’ve very well cost the Cowboys a playoff spot), Elliott is perhaps the biggest spark behind turning the rushing tide in the NFL. Will he be rewarded by a team that certainly needs his services?
2. Saquon Barkley, NY Giants
However long his New York tenure lasts, Barkley is going to be scrutinized and stalked for the entirety of it. Respected as rushers may now be in today’s NFL, the Giants continue to catch flack for passing (pun intended) on a plethora of talented throwers in the early stages of the 2018 NFL Draft. Barkley has shown he was well worth the second overall pick, averaging 5.0 yards per carry en route to 1,307 overall. He would also reach the end zone 11 times via the ground and eclipse the 2,000-yard plateau that McCaffrey narrowly missed by earning 721 receiving yards. It’s possible he might never fully satisfy everyone, but it certainly won’t be from a lack of production.
1. Todd Gurley, LA Rams
The Rams had several offensive weapons emerge in a California revolution, but the struggles of Super Bowl LIII made it clear that any success begins and ends with Gurley. He dealt with injuries in that brutal championship game, but no one in the NFL may be more adept at getting in the end zone. Through both the air and ground, Gurley has scored a whopping 40 touchdowns and his resume looks as accomplished as a 10-year veteran. The Rams’ fortunes rise as high and low as Gurley takes them. Most young rushers would cringe and make excuses when tasked with such a gargantuan athletic task, but Gurley has made it clear he isn’t like most rushers.