Ranking top-20 NFL running backs heading into 2018

NFL running backs, while at times underappreciated, are among the most dynamic and exciting players to watch in the league.

Some franchises devote their complete offensive schemes around their star running back. Meanwhile, other teams employ a combination of talents and use a running back committee to move the chains.

With NFL offseason practices winding down until training camp, we thought it would be fun to rank the top running backs in the league heading into the 2018 season.

20. Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks spent their first-round pick on Penny to bolster last year’s anemic rushing attack. Penny is listed No. 1 on the Seahawks’ depth chart after he rushed for an incredible 2,248 yards and 23 touchdowns at San Diego State in 2017. Look for Penny’s young, fresh legs to come to the rescue of quarterback Russell Wilson, who led the Seahawks with 586 rushing yards last year. Head coach Pete Carroll envisions Penny “as a three-down back” who can do it all.

19. Kenyan Drake, Miami Dolphins

Drake added some weight this offseason and should be on course for a breakout year after averaging 4.8 yards per carry in 2017. Though, the presence of veteran addition Frank Gore stands to throw a monkey wrench into Drake’s work load at times. Gore did not join the Dolphins to twiddle his thumbs on sidelines. Though realistically, the Dolphins should primarily focus on crafting Drake into their bell-cow back. Drake is 11 years Gore’s junior and proved he could handle a lead role when it was assigned last season.

18. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

Henry’s stock would be higher here if the Titans had not signed Dion Lewis to a lucrative contract in free agency. The third-year running back will open the season as the team’s lead back. But at the same time, offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur considers Henry and Lewis to be “1A and 1B backs.” We saw Lewis make some pretty big plays when he averaged 5.0 yards per carry as a New England Patriot. Though Henry, who is a big-bodied back at 6-foot-3 and 247 pounds, should still improve on last year’s 744 rushing yards.

17. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey

Utilized in so many ways, McCaffrey stands to rack up the touches both on the ground and through the air. Head coach Ron Rivera says McCaffrey is ready to handle a “big workload” despite the addition of C.J. Anderson. This would suggest that McCaffrey will build on the conservative 117 rushing attempts he received in his rookie year. More targets might also be on tap after McCaffrey tallied 80 receptions, for 651 yards and five touchdowns. Those 80 catches marked the third-most of any running back in 2017.

16. Jerick McKinnon, San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers did not generously open their pocketbooks to McKinnon to have him sit around. He will be the starter and evolve under head coach Kyle Shanahan, who expects McKinnon to take on “The Freeman Role.” Freeman as in Devonta, who thrived under Shanahan when he served as offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons. McKinnon’s versatility will see him playing a big role as a pass-catcher and as a three-down ball carrier. No wonder McKinnon said he would draft himself if he played fantasy football.

15. Carlos Hyde, Cleveland Browns

Hyde is on course to open the season as the starter, with rookie Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson as secondary backs. As long as Hyde stays healthy, he should put up numbers similar to the ones he produced when he worked with the San Francisco 49ers. Last season, Hyde played a full 16-game slate for the first time, recording a total of 1,288 yards and eight touchdowns. He is a natural three-down back who should benefit from one of the league’s better offensive lines.

14. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons

Freeman remains a little dinged-up after spraining both his MCL and PCL late in 2017. But there is still plenty of time for him to get healthy before the start of the season. The thing here preventing us from giving Freeman higher marks is the fact that Tevin Coleman is expected to receive a “bigger role” when it comes to the passing game. Freeman’s rushing touchdown count also dropped from 11 in 2016 to seven last year. This is a little concerning.

13. Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears

Not much of a pass-catcher, Howard should continue to receive the bulk of the carries this season. He has been consistent for the most part in his two years playing in Chicago after averaging 4.6 yards per carry and 1,217 rushing yards per campaign. Though, Howard is bound to lose some work to Tarik Cohen, who racked up 53 receptions compared to Howard’s 23 in 2017. Working with a new offensive-minded head coach, Matt Nagy, will help.

12. Jay Ajayi, Philadelphia Eagles

Jay Ajayi

Philly houses a lot of running backs, but Ajayi is the team’s clear-cut No. 1 guy approaching September. He will get a full season to build on the 499 yards and two touchdowns he put up after being traded to Philadelphia. It’s worth noting that Ajayi averaged 5.8 yards per carry as an Eagle to finish the regular season. More of the same should be in the plans for this young Super Bowl champ.

11. Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers

Gordon produced his highest total yardage (1,581) to date and scored 12 touchdowns last season. While this is impressive, Gordon has yet to average more than 3.9 yards per carry in his three seasons of playing as a pro. But, he does play for a pass-heavy offense that looks to feature him more as a receiver in 2018. This is a positive. However, second-year running back Austin Ekeler, who toted the rock at 5.5 yards per attempt last year, might steal some ground work.

10. Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars

The nice thing that we can boast about Fournette is that he owns the backfield. He’s a three-down back who did not disappoint in his rookie campaign, averaging 80 rushing yards per game, accompanied by nine rushing touchdowns on the season. More of the same is expected from the 23-year-old back this year. Though, Fournette finds himself ranked 10th here due to quarterback Blake Bortles’ struggles with consistency. Turnovers in the passing game can easily taint Fournette’s production.

9. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

Everyone is excited to see Barkley suit up as a Pro this season after the Giants earned an “A” grade for drafting him second overall. Barkley averaged 1,679 total yards per year during his three seasons at Penn State. He also scored 51 times and was the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in both 2016 and 2017. He will help catapult the Giants’ run game into a level fans have not witnessed in years. Anyone who picks Barkley in fantasy football should reap major rewards.

8. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills

McCoy turns 30 this July and is still contributing at a high level after drumming up 1,586 yards and eight touchdowns from scrimmage last year. Considering the quarterback situation in Buffalo, Shady will be heavily leaned upon to carry his offense. As long as he stays healthy, 1,000-plus yards rushing should easily come. Plus, McCoy will no longer lose rushing plays to his former quarterback, Tyrod Taylor.

7. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

Cook had a promising rookie season cut short after tearing his ACL in Week 4 last year. But at only 22 years old, Cook will make a healthy return. Prior to his injury, he averaged 88.5 rushing yards per game at 4.8 yards per attempt. A pass-catcher as well, Cook managed 11 catches for 90 yards. He’s just getting started on what looks to be a brilliant NFL career following a 1,765-rushing yard, 19-touchdown season at Florida State in 2016.

6. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

Ezekiel Elliott

Some may not love seeing Elliott fall from the top-five here. But, there are some red flags surrounding the Cowboys offense approaching the season. While Elliott’s personal efforts look to remain strong, other players’ performances might throw the entire offense off track. The Cowboys regressed last season, as did quarterback Dak Prescott. The signal caller recorded 16 turnovers in 2017 compared to just eight during his and Zeke’s rookie year. If this continues, Elliott will suffer the collateral damage.

5. Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs

Hunt took the fantasy football world by storm in his rookie year, finishing third in points. More of the same excellence should keep coming our way as he and the team’s new-look offense take flight. Hunt tallied a league-high 1,327 rushing yards, at a pace of 4.9 yards per attempt. He also added 455 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns to his stats. Now, Hunt is expected to see even more targets with head coach Andy Reid wanting him more involved in the passing game. He should be quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ go-to guy this fall.

4. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals

Johnson missing last season to a wrist injury does nothing to damage his preseason ranking. He is still the same guy who recorded a league-best 2,118 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2016. He is plenty capable of producing an abundance of yards and finding the end zone multiple times this year. Whether it is Sam Bradford, Josh Rosen or a combination of both under center, Johnson should receive the most action of any guy on the team’s offense. He’s an excellent runner, blocker and receiver — a player who can do it all.

3. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

Kamara had a gem of a rookie season as he and and fellow running back Mark Ingram combined to break a record last year. They were the first running back tandem in NFL history to each tally at least 1,500 scrimmage yards. With Ingram out of the picture the first four games, it will be the Kamara show all day long. Even before news of Ingram’s suspension broke, the Saints’ plan was to have Kamara be the featured back in 2018. The chances are huge that Kamara once again surpasses the 1,500-total yard mark, and then some.

2. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers

It was a tough choice, but Bell earns our No. 2 slot after attempting a league-high 321 carries in 2017. In all, Bell averaged an astounding, 27 total touches per tilt, and scored 11 times. He can really do no wrong when he is on the field and healthy. Even with him not participating in practices, which is likely the case for the whole summer, Bell should continue to produce at an elite level. He is a staple on an offense we rank as the best in the league.

1. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams

Like Bell, Gurley is a machine. He can block, run the ball, and catch passes as well as a select few elites in the league. But, the 2017 NFL Offensive Player of the Year’s touchdown production sets him apart from the rest. In a well-balanced offense, Gurley punched in 19 combined touchdowns as well as recorded 2,093 yards last year. After producing league-highs in both of these stats, we do not see Gurley’s production suddenly taking a cliff dive. He is the most valuable tool on the Rams’ offense, and another jaw-dropping season awaits him.