You’re currently viewing positional rankings from the 2021 season. For the 2022 season, please visit this article: 2022 NFL running back rankings, by positional unit.
As a new feature in the 2021 Sharp Football Preview Book, the Sharp Football Analysis team ranked positional units across the league for the 2021 season. The ranking guidelines were up to the specific voter with the only requirement that the focus is on the upcoming season only, not the future outlook.
With a combination of numbers, film, and projections, the rankings were averaged for quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers/tight ends, defensive front seven, defensive secondary, and head coach.
We’ll be running each position separately. For running backs, the entire unit was considered, not just the starter.
2021 NFL Running Back Rankings, by Unit
32. New York Jets
The Jets own the 32nd-ranked backfield, but GM Joe Douglas deserves credit for taking a smart approach to team building in how he’s addressed this unit. Douglas has drafted a running back in the fourth round in consecutive years (La’Mical Perine and Michael Carter) while supporting them with a cheap veteran (Tevin Coleman).
31. Houston Texans
The best thing that can be said about the backfield is there’s some depth, with David Johnson backed up by Phillip Lindsay, Mark Ingram, and Rex Burkhead. However, only Lindsay is under the age of 29, so it’s likely much-needed depth to keep everyone fresh and healthy.
30. Miami Dolphins
Starting RB Myles Gaskin ranked 32nd out of 34 running backs in EPA per attempt last season, and the depth behind him (Malcolm Brown, Salvon Ahmed, and seventh-round rookie Gerrid Doaks) is among the worst in the league.
29. Atlanta Falcons
Led by newcomer Mike Davis, the backfield ranks 29th, but was listed as low as 32nd on some ballots. When contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage in Carolina last year, Davis averaged 2.0 yards per carry, trailing only Nick Chubb and Derrick Henry. So Davis should be fine behind this weak offensive line, but the depth is as bad as it gets, and played a significant role in this unit’s poor ranking.
28. Arizona Cardinals
We’ve seen enough of Chase Edmonds and James Connor to know they’re unspectacular but capable of performing in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense. In 2020, Arizona’s scheme allowed its backfield to run into a box of six or fewer men 48% of the time, the highest rate in the league. So the lack of backfield talent is likely by design, knowing their scheme will allow for enhanced production.
27. Philadelphia Eagles
Miles Sanders and Boston Scott return to lead Philly’s backfield. The continuity isn’t necessarily a strength, as both players earned negative EPA per attempt in 2020.
26. Buffalo Bills
Buffalo’s backfield ranked in the bottom half of the league on every ballot, but with a wide range (18th to 29th). Though the backfield lacks a star, the depth of Zack Moss, Devin Singletary, and Matt Breida is strong.
25. Los Angeles Rams
In our initial rankings, the Rams ranked 11th, but with the loss of Cam Akers, the decent depth behind a solid starter is now going to play a much bigger role.
24. New England Patriots
New England’s backfield has depth but, as is usually the case, it’s unclear how the touches will be divided. Damien Harris is an adequate starter, but his inability to make defenders miss limited his upside. In 2020, Harris forced 2.7 missed or broken tackles per 25 carries, ranked 45th out of 63 running backs (minimum 75 attempts).
23. Chicago Bears
David Montgomery is a steady downhill runner, but he lacks the explosive ability to make this a dangerous backfield. When running outside the tackles, Montgomery picked up just 4.1 yards per carry (ranked 26th).
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa’s only unit ranked outside the top 10 is the backfield, which landed in the bottom 10. Though even this unit has some upside, if 2020 third-round pick Ke’Shawn Vaughn can elevate his game and take on a larger role.
21. Detroit Lions
D’Andre Swift is the most dynamic runner in Detroit’s 22nd-ranked backfield, but newcomer Jamaal Williams will likely play a role as the more physical downhill runner. If Swift can take a step forward in his second year, perhaps we’ve undervalued this unit.
20. Pittsburgh Steelers
The run game certainly improved with the selection of Najee Harris, but due to his inexperience and mediocre depth (Benny Snell Jr. and Anthony McFarland Jr.), this unit did not rank higher than 19th on anyone’s ballot.
19. Kansas City Chiefs
Running back was the worst-ranked unit on the Kansas City offense. For this unit to improve, Clyde Edwards-Helaire needs to become a more reliable weapon in the passing game. Edwards-Helaire ranked a disappointing 28th among running backs with -0.8 EPA per target.
18. San Francisco 49ers
Opinions on the 49ers backfield varied greatly, with votes ranging from 10th to 29th and everywhere in between. If you believe in the peaks we’ve seen from Raheem Mostert and rookie Trey Sermon, the high end of that spectrum is realistic. But no one in this backfield has ever demonstrated any consistency, except maybe fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
17. Washington Football Team
Washington appeared to still be figuring out the best way to utilize Antonio Gibson during his rookie year, which likely contributed to our wide range of votes for their backfield (12th to 25th). Clearly his ceiling is high, but mediocre depth at the position also draws their ranking down.
16. Denver Broncos
There was no consensus on our view of Denver’s backfield, with votes ranging from 10th to 29th. Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams appear to have excellent complementary skill sets. But if you’re expecting the 28-year-old Gordon to show signs of aging, it’s reasonable to have doubts about this unit due to a lack of depth beyond those two.
15. Seattle Seahawks
Chris Carson is among the most reliable starting running backs, but you need depth at the position and Seattle didn’t have it last year. Former first-round pick Rashaad Penny showed flashes in 2019一he averaged 5.7 yards per carry with 2.6 yards after contact一but then missed almost the entire 2020 campaign due to a torn ACL.
14. Cincinnati Bengals
With Gio Bernard gone, expect Joe Mixon to dominate touches in the Bengals backfield. Samaje Perine, Trayveon Williams, and rookie Chris Evans will provide depth, but likely won’t challenge Mixon for serious playing time.
13. Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville’s top-ranked unit is running back, though only because they over-invested in the position by drafting Travis Etienne in the first round. Between Etienne and James Robinson, they have an excellent one-two punch. Robinson excels as a downhill runner (5.0 yards per attempt between the tackles), while Etienne’s speed makes him more of a big-play threat on the edge.
12. Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers’ backfield benefits from its depth, but no one is capable of carrying the load at an elite level. When Chargers running backs were contacted within two yards of the line of scrimmage, they averaged just 1.9 yards per carry (29th in the league). So while there’s some talent here, it isn’t a unit that can make up for deficiencies elsewhere.
11. Las Vegas Raiders
Josh Jacobs has failed to fully live up to first-round expectations, but that may not entirely be his fault. In 2020, he ran into a box with 8+ defenders 37% of the time, the fifth-highest rate among backs with at least 150 carries. So while Las Vegas’s run-game production doesn’t match our ranking of the backfield, that’s on the coaching staff一there’s talent here if they choose to use it correctly.
10. New York Giants
Saquon Barkley leads the Giants only top-10 unit, but his talent is wasted behind our 31st-ranked offensive line. Prior to his injury last year, Barkley averaged 0.3 yards before contact per attempt一an incredible failure on the part of the offensive line, even in a small sample size.
9. Dallas Cowboys
The backfield took a step backward in 2020, but still ranks ninth overall. Ezekiel Elliott averaged a career-low 1.4 yards before contact per attempt, but much of that can likely be attributed to the injury-plagued offensive line.
8. Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore’s backfield received votes ranging from fifth to 17th. The difference of opinions likely stems from difficulty separating the backfield talent from the benefit of playing with Lamar Jackson and the run scheme. Defenses have to approach the Ravens’ run game differently, and the running backs benefit from the confusion Jackson creates.
7. Green Bay Packers
Though the team has arguably over-invested in the position, it’s led to a strong running back room. Aaron Jones is a rare ball carrier who excels even versus a stacked box. Over the last two seasons, Jones averaged 5.1 yards per attempt versus 8+ men in the box, which has accounted for 49% of his carries.
6. Tennessee Titans
If the backfield unit ranks lower than you were expecting, it’s likely because we’re valuing depth more than you. Though Derrick Henry has maintained almost perfect health to this point, typically you can’t lean on someone for 300 carries year after year, and the depth of Jeremy McNichols, Darrynton Evans, and Brian Hill is questionable at best.
5. Indianapolis Colts
The backfield should be the strength of the Colts offense, as the unit cracked the top eight on every ballot. While Jonathan Taylor looks like the workhorse, having three backups with proven production certainly contributes to our positive outlook for this unit.
4. Carolina Panthers
The backfield ranks fourth, but would likely be even higher if Christian McCaffrey weren’t coming off an injury-plagued year. The loss of backup Mike Davis is also significant, as this unit has arguably the worst depth in the league.
3. New Orleans Saints
Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray landed the Saints backfield in the top four on every ballot. Kamara is now likely to be the lead back and the team’s WR1 with Michael Thomas out. The 31-year-old Murray hasn’t shown signs of slowing down yet, but he’ll need to remain productive, as the depth behind these two is unimpressive.
2. Minnesota Vikings
The backfield is ranked second due entirely to Dalvin Cook, who accounted for 74% of the team’s handoffs in 2020. Hopefully, he stays healthy with such an extreme usage rate, because the depth is weak. Backup Alexander Mattison generated -3.1 EPA last season, though rookie Kene Nwangwu could challenge him for that role.
1. Cleveland Browns
The Browns were a unanimous selection for our top backfield. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are each great in their own right, and complement each other extremely well.
Ranking each NFL Unit for 2021: