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NFL Playoff rankings: Top-16 running backs, including Christian McCaffrey

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Our NFL Playoff rankings series continues heading into Wild Card Weekend with a look at the all-important running back position.

It might not be as important as quarterback, but the ability of teams to get balance on offense can go a long way in determining what happens during the postseason.

On the other hand, an offense that lacks balance can be exposed by some of the best defenses in the NFL as the trenches start to take over in January and February. With that as a backdrop, we rank the top-16 running backs heading into the NFL Playoffs.

NFL Playoff rankings: A look at every starting QB

16. Leonard Fournette, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

nfl playoff rankings: leonard fournette, tampa bay buccaneers
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  • Leonard Fournette stats (2022): 189 attempts, 668 rushing yards, 3.5 average, 73 receptions, 523 yards, 1,191 total yards, 6 TD

Fournette spearheaded the NFL’s worst rushing attack during the regular season at 76.9 yard per game. It put up some historically bad performances with the former Jacksonville Jaguars top-five pick leading the charge.

For his part, Fournette averaged a mere 3.5 yards per attempt. That included a career-low 1.5 yards after contact. Of the 16 games Fournette played in, he put up less than 30 rushing yards six times. While his receiving ability is great, Tom Brady will need more production from Fournette and the Bucs’ rushing attack if they hope to go far in the playoffs.

15. J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens

nfl playoff rankings: j.k. dobbins
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  • J.K Dobbins stats (2022): 92 attempts, 520 rushing yards, 5.7 average, 7 receptions, 42 yards, 572 total yards, 3 TD

A second-round pick out of Ohio State back in 2020, Dobbins missed his entire sophomore season after suffering a torn ACL in the preseason. He did not return to action until Week 3 of this past regular season, only to miss another seven games to injury.

This is what impacts Dobbins in our NFL Playoff rankings for running backs heading into NFL Wild Card Weekend. But when Dobbins is on the field, he’s proven to be great. Consecutive 100-yard rushing games on Weeks 13 and 14 proves that. Depending on the status of star quarterback Lamar Jackson heading into Sunday’s game against the Bengals, Baltimore is going to need similar production.

14. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

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  • Ezekiel Elliott stats (2022): 231 attempts, 876 rushing yards, 3.8 average, 17 receptions, 92 yards, 968 total yards, 12 TD

The regression we’ve seen from Elliott over the past three seasons is eye-opening. And it impacts him big time in our latest NFL Playoff rankings installment. Elliott averaged a career-low 3.8 yards per rush during the regular season. He also gained a mere 1.5 yards after contact per tote. This just isn’t going to cut it.

Likely in the final days of his tenure in Big D, Elliott has taken a back seat to Tony Pollard (more on him below). The only saving grace is the 12 touchdowns he scored on 231 rush attempts. He can still be a valuable short-yardage option.

13. Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills

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  • Devin Singletary stats (2022): 177 attempts, 819 rushing yards, 4.6 average, 38 receptions, 1,099 total yards, 6 TD

Inconsistency has defined Singletary’s career since Buffalo made him a third-round pick out of Florida Atlantic back in 2019. He’s yet to reach the 1,000 rushing yard plateau and actually put up fewer rushing yards in 2021 than the previous season.

Singletary put up a mere 62 rushing yards in 22 attempts during the Bills’ two regular-season games against Miami. They will need him to perform at a higher level come Sunday afternoon if Singletary and Co. are to avoid a massive home upset.

Related: NFL Playoff rankings, a look at the defenses

12. Jeff Wilson, Miami Dolphins

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  • Jeff Wilson stats (2022): 176 attempts, 860 rushing yards, 4.9 average, 22 receptions, 185 yards, 1,045 total yards, 6 TD

Acquired from the San Francisco 49ers ahead of November’s NFL trade deadline, Wilson is among the most-underrated running backs in the league. He was leading the 49ers in rushing with 468 while averaging 5.1 yards per tote before heading to Miami.

Joining his former teammate in that of Raheem Mostert in South Beach, Wilson continues to play at a high level. He gained 486 total yards with four touchdowns in eight games for the Fins. If Miami is to pull off a major upset against Buffalo, its rushing attack will be one of the primary reasons why.

11. Isiah Pacheco, Kansas City Chiefs

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  • Isiah Pacheco stats (2022): 170 attempts, 830 rushing yards, 4.9 average, 13 receptions, 130 yards, 960 total yards, 5 TD

A rookie seventh-round pick oout of Rutgers, Pacheco took the Chiefs’ lead ball-carrier role back in Week 10 and has run with it. Over the course of his final nine regular-season games, the youngster put up 750 total yards and four touchdowns. That equates to north of 1,400 total yards during a 17-game slate.

As Kansas City prepares for its unnamed AFC Divisional Playoff opponent, it’s clear that Pacheco is important to its success. Sure the focus is on Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce for the No. 1 seed. But this youngster’s ability to provide balance could be the difference between playoff failure and another trip to the Super Bowl for Andy Reid’s squad.

10. Raheem Mostert, Miami Dolphins

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  • Raheem Mostert stats (2022): 181 attempts, 891 rushing yards, 4.9 average, 31 receptions, 202 yards, 1,093 total yards, 5 TD

Speaking of Miami, it’s unclear if Mostert will be able to go against the Bills. He suffered a broken thumb during the Dolphins’ season finale in Week 18 and is questionable to go in this one.

For their part, the Dolphins better hope that the electric former undrafted free agent is able to suit up. He joins Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle in being an explosive playmaker for head coach Mike McDaniel. That included a brilliant 136-yard outing against Buffalo back in Week 15.

Related: Ranking the 14 NFL Playoff teams

9. Kenneth Walker, Seattle Seahawks

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  • Kenneth Walker stats (2022): 228 attempts, 1,050 rushing yards, 4.6 average, 27 receptions, 165 yards, 1,215 total yards, 9 TD

This former Heisman finalist found himself on an absolute roll after replacing an injured Rashaad Penny as RB1 back in Week 6. The Michigan State product tallied 424 rushing yards at a clip of 4.8 yards per tote in his first four games. After some struggles, he concluded the regular season with three consecutive 100-yard performances.

Walker finds himself in the top 10 of these NFL Playoff rankings for numerous reasons. But the way he upped his game en route to helping Seattle make a late-season playoff push is tops among them.

8. Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

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  • Joe Mixon stats (2022): 210 attempts, 814 rushing yards, 3.9 average, 60 receptions, 441 yards, 1,255 total yards, 9 TD

Dating back to his days with Oklahoma, Mixon has been underrated. It’s one of the several reasons he fell to the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft to Cincinnati. Since then, he’s produced at an extremely high level.

This past regular season saw Mixon tally north of 1,200 total yards for the fourth time in six seasons. He averaged 4.6 yards per touch and caught a career-high 60 passes. The Baltimroe Ravens will certainly focus a lot of their attention on the Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase connection come Sunday. But Mixon could play a huge role.

Related: Top 2023 NFL free agents

7. Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles

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  • Miles Sanders stats (2022): 259 attempts, 1,269 rushing yards, 4.9 average, 20 receptions, 78 yards, 1,347 total yards, 11 TD

Whether it’s NFL free agent rankings or NFL Playoff rankings, Sanders finds himself as one of the top figures. Set to hit the open market in roughly two months, he can prove himself as a franchise back with a solid postseason performance.

There’s two issues here. Sanders saw inconsistent touches with Philadelphia during the regular season. He’s also not a receiving threat out of the backfield (124 catches in 57 career games). If Philly is to advance to Super Bowl LVII, it will need more consistency from Sanders.

6. Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers

nfl playoff rankings: austin ekeler
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  • Austin Ekeler stats (2022): 204 attempts, 915 rushing yards, 4.5 average, 107 receptions, 722 yards, 1,637 total yards, 18 TD

Speaking of inconsistencies, Ekeler put up less than 40 rushing yards in nine games during the regular season. It’s not a coincidence that Los Angeles boasted a 3-6 record in those nine outings. It was 7-1 when he hit 40 yards on the ground.

The good news for Justin Herbert and Co.? Ekeler is the second-best receiving running back in the NFL Playoffs behind Christian McCaffrey. He caught 107-of-127 targets (84.3%) for 722 yards during the regular year.

Related: Sportsnaut’s NFL Playoff and Super Bowl predictions

NFL Playoff rankings: Top five running backs

5. Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars

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  • Travis Etienne stats (2022): 220 attempts, 1,125 rushing yards, 5.1 average, 35 receptions, 316 yards, 1,441 total yards, 5 TD

After missing his entire rookie season to injury, Etienne played a major role in Jacksonville earning a surprising playoff appearance. That included the former first-round pick from Clemson tallying five 100-yard rushing performances.

If Jacksonville is going to defeat Los Angeles at home Saturday night, it will need production from Etienne, both on the ground and through the air. The numbers speak for themselves. In games that Etienne put up north of 80 yards, the Jags were 5-3. They were just 4-5 when he didn’t hit that plateau.

4. Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys

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  • Tony Pollard stats (2022): 193 attempts, 1,007 rushing yards, 5.2 average, 39 receptions, 1,378 total yards, 12 TD

The Cowboys have a new RB1 and he’s not looking back. A fourth-round pick out of Memphis back in 2019, Pollard proved himself as a part-time player in his first two seasons (4.8 yards per rush). But it’s been since the start of the 2021 campaign that he’s flashed an ability to be a major part of the Cowboys’ offense.

Back in 2021, Pollard put up north of 1,000 total yards at a clip of 6.2 yards per tote. He took on a larger role this past regular season by leading Dallas in rushing yards and matching Elliott for the team lead in touchdowns (12). During a four-game span in October and November, the impending free agent tallied 573 total yards and six touchdowns. He’ll be a major part of what Dallas does come Monday night against Tampa Bay.

3. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

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  • Dalvin Cook stats (2022): 264 attempts, 1,173 rushing yards, 4.4 average, 39 receptions, 295 yards, 1,468 total yards, 10 TD

Consistently good. That’s what has defined Cook’s career since he entered the league back in 2017. It also has him No. 3 in our NFL Playoff rankings for running backs. For the third consecutive season, Cook put up north of 1,400 total yards. He tallied double-digit touchdowns for the third time during that span.

What makes Cook so darn good is not only his running and receiving ability, but his blocking in front of Kirk Cousins. That type of all-around ability will need to be on display against a stiff New York Giants defense come Sunday in Minneapolis.

2. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

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  • Saquon Barkley stats (2022): 295 attempts, 1,312 rushing yards, 4.4 average, 57 receptions, 338 yards, 1,650 total yards, 10 TD

New York will need the explosive version of Barkley if the team is going to pull off an upset during Wild Card Weekend against the Minnesota Vikings. Returning from two injury-plagued seasons, this Penn State product was as dynamic as ever during the regular year.

Barkley put up north of 100 total yards seven times in 16 regular-season games. That included tallying 133 total yards in a narrow Week 16 loss to the Vikings. If Barkley provides Daniel Jones the necessary balance, we wouldn’t be surprised if New York pulled off an upset.

1. Christian McCaffrey, San Francisco 49ers

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Las Vegas Raiders
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  • Christian McCaffrey stats (2022): 244 attempts, 1,139 rushing yards, 4.7 average, 85 receptions, 741 yards, 1,880 total yards, 13 TD

Absolutely brilliant. Dynamic. A freak. Whatever expletive we want to use to describe CMC since he was acquired by San Francisco back in October, it wouldn’t be enough. He tallied north of 100 total yards in six regular-season games with the 49ers. That included an historical Week 8 outing against the Los Angeles Rams in which McCaffrey threw for a touchdown, run for another and caught a pass for six.

All said, McCaffrey registered 1,210 total yards at a clip of 5.7 yards per touch in 11 games with San Francisco. He also caught a resounding 52-of-65 targets in a 49ers uniform. San Francisco will certainly be relying on him to avoid a home upset against the Seattle Seahawks come Saturday afternoon.