For a very long time, having the best running back meant having the best offensive weapon in the league. Now, the position has changed. The importance of a running game began to diminish. Nevertheless, there are backs in the NFL that simply change the game. Whether you believe in the value of having a playmaker in the backfield or not, the guys on this list could mean the difference between a win or loss on any given Sunday. Here are the top 10 running backs in the NFL heading into the 2017 season.
Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints
2016 Stats: 205 car, 1,043 rush yds, 6 TD, 46 rec, 341 rec yds, 4 TD
This may be a surprise for some of you, especially when you realize that Adrian Peterson didn’t make the list. The truth is Mark Ingram has been pretty consistent when he is healthy. In an offense that focuses almost all of its attention on the passing game, Ingram is coming off his first career 1,000-yard season. In fact, Ingram finished fifth in the NFL in yards per attempt, racking up 5.09 yards per carry.
Of course, this season, he will have one of the greatest running backs in NFL history joining him in the New Orleans backfield, which could mean one of two things. One, after getting rid of Brandin Cooks and adding AP, the Saints could be shifting more attention to the run game. As a result, more opportunity to shine would be eminent. Or two, Ingram is going to suffer from the addition of Peterson, ultimately surrendering the starting position. Only time will tell.
Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
2016 Stats: 278 car, 885 rush yds, 6 TD, 43 rec, 327 rec yds
Last season was not a good one for anyone in a Rams uniform, especially Todd Gurley. After exploding onto the scene in 2015, Gurley’s sophomore season was a bust. He did have to deal with his fair share of distractions between moving to L.A., Hard Knocks, and All Or Nothing. On top of that, there was plenty of drama surrounding rookie quarterback and number one overall pick Jared Goff, not to mention the firing of head coach Jeff Fisher.
Innovative, offensive coach Sean McVay is in charge now, and I suspect Gurley will be put into a position to shine in this offense. I’m calling it now, Todd Gurley will be off the honorable mention and back onto this list next season.
10. Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins
2016 Stats: 260 car, 1,272 rush yds, 8 TD, 27 rec, 151 rec yds
Jay Ajayi burst onto the scene in 2016 with a flurry of 200-yard games in the middle of the season. He helped rookie head coach Adam Gase and the Miami Dolphins secure a playoff spot for the first time since 2008. Ajayi finished fourth in the NFL in rushing yards in 2016.
This season was looking promising for Miami before Ryan Tannehill went down in training camp. The Dolphins quarterback is now forced to have season-ending knee surgery. Miami’s solution? Smokin’ Jay Cutler. I do have to say that Cutler looked pretty impressive in his lone season under Gase. Nevertheless, Cutler will need to ease his way into the starting role, so Ajayi will most likely be the focal point this season.
9. Marshawn Lynch, Oakland Raiders
2014 Stats (Last full season w/ SEA): 280 car, 1,306 rush yds, 13 TD, 37 rec, 367 rec yds, 4 TD
Breaking news, the Raiders are moving to Las Vegas. Somebody tell Marshawn Lynch that because the Oakland native is back in the game and ready to light the Bay on fire. After a year off of football, Lynch decided to come back for another shot at a ring.
Lynch completes an already stacked offense led by star quarterback Derek Carr. Lynch joins a dominant receiving core that includes Pro Bowlers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. Most people have high expectations for Marshawn, but realistically, it will be an uphill climb for a guy whose been out of the game an entire season. Regardless, Oakland is stacked and poised for a Super Bowl run in 2017.
8. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
2016 Stats: 227 car, 1,079 rush yds, 11 TD, 54 rec, 462 rec yds, 2 TD
The NFL’s highest paid running back is coming off an impressive 2016 season that he almost capped off with a Super Bowl win. After making back-to-back Pro Bowls, it’s about time people stop acting surprised about Freeman’s skills on the field.
The only thing holding Freeman back from putting up the kind of stats that the top guys on this list put up is the fact that he is a part of the most lethal backfield in football. It’s a blessing and a curse, but it is most certainly one of the reasons Atlanta made a Super Bowl run last season. As long as Tevin Coleman continues to take touchdowns away from Freeman, he will remain low on this list.
7. Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears
2016 Stats: 252 car, 1,313 rush yds, 6 TD, 29 rec, 298 rec yds, 1 TD
The one shining spot in an otherwise disappointing season for the Bears was their rookie running back Jordan Howard. He finished second in the NFL in rushing, despite not starting until week 4 of the season. A change at quarterback and an extreme weakness at wide receiver means that Howard is going to be the bell cow this season.
Chicago could be in for another long season, but with Pro Bowlers Kyle Long and Josh Sitton on the offensive line, I expect Howard to put some more ridiculous numbers in 2017. Although after looking at their schedule, I see a possible 2-14 season on the horizon.
6. Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
2016 Stats: 254 car, 997 rush yds, 10 TD, 41 rec, 419 rec yds, 2 TD
Melvin Gordon continues to battle injuries early in his career, but when he is heathy, he looks like an All-Pro caliber back. His season was cut short in 2016, preventing him from reaching 1,000 yards for the first time in his career, coming up just three yards short.
The Chargers are moving to Los Angeles this season, and Danny Woodhead is no longer in town, so Gordon will be the feature back for all of 2017. With former college teammate and fullback Derek Watt leading the way, I expect Gordon to return to form this year.
5. DeMarco Murray, Tennessee Titans
2016 Stats: 293 car, 1,287 rush yds, 9 TD, 53 rec, 377 rec yds, 3 TD
Murray has steadily become one of the best backs in the NFL on a yearly basis. After a historic season in Dallas, he had a rough follow up in Philadelphia under Chip Kelly. He has since rebounded in Tennessee with phenom quarterback Marcus Mariota.
The Titans are hoping to challenge for the AFC South this year, and Murray will have to continue putting up monster numbers in order for that to happen. One thing is for sure, he is an animal. Mark him down for 300+ touches again in 2017.
4. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
2016 Stats: 234 car, 1,267 rush yds, 13 TD, 50 rec, 356 rec yds, 1 TD
“Shady” McCoy has been a top-5 running back since his second year in the league in 2010. After an injury-ridden 2015, McCoy was back to form in 2016, notching his fifth Pro Bowl appearance. With fellow speedster Tyrod Taylor in the Bills backfield, there should be more fireworks to come in Buffalo.
Although surprisingly, Buffalo traded Sammy Watkins to the Rams, and then in a separate trade, received Shady’s former teammate Jordan Matthews. McCoy’s shiftiness and versatility makes him one of most elite weapons in football year-in and year-out.
3. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
2016 Stats: 322 car, 1,631 rush yds, 15 TD, 32 rec, 363 rec yds, 1 TD
First, I’d like to start out by saying I do not condone or support this young man’s actions whatsoever. Nevertheless, he is an elite footballer and his absence will certainly hurt the Dallas Cowboys. In those first six games that Zeke will miss, the Cowboys play the Giants, Broncos, Cardinals, and Packers.
If the Cowboys can weather the storm, then I fully expect Elliott to bring the thunder when he returns to the field in week 8. He led the NFL in rushing yards as a rookie in 2016, and he finished third in rushing touchdowns for the 13-3 Cowboys.
2. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
2016 Stats: 261 car, 1,268 rush yds, 7 TD, 75 rec, 616 rec yds, 2 TD
Bell wants to be paid as an elite running back AND a number two wide receiver. To be honest, he deserves it. Bell has over 4,000 rushing yards and over 2,000 receiving yards in four seasons in the NFL, despite missing extended time due to injuries and suspensions. He has caught 75+ passes in two of those four seasons and finished with more than 1,200 yards from scrimmage in three of four seasons.
The Killer B’s are set for another big season, assuming Bell signs the franchise tag and suits up for the Steelers in 2017. If he finishes in the top-3 on the team in receptions again, Pittsburgh is going to have a hard time not breaking out the check books next offseason.
1. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
2016 Stats: 293 car, 1,239 rush yds, 16 TD, 80 rec, 879 rec yds, 4 TD
The most elite weapon in the NFL is David Johnson, third year back out of Northern Iowa. He can run it, he can catch it, and best of all, he can score it. Over 2,000 yards from scrimmage, just shy of 400 touches, and 20 total touchdowns is an absolutely ridiculous statline. Johnson finished with 100+ yards from scrimmage in every single regular season game besides week 1, on his way to his first Pro Bowl and First Team All-Pro selection in 2016.
An aging Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald means that Johnson is going to be leaned on even more heavily in 2017. Not to mention, there isn’t much in the receiving core behind Fitz. Head coach Bruce Arians has already said that he plans on giving DJ 30+ touches a game this season. I expect him to finish with the best numbers among running backs. Dude is a beast.