Top 15 NFL backfields heading into 2018 season

Nov 5, 2017; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) and running back Alvin Kamara (41) celebrate a score against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints won, 30-10. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY

It’s not simply enough to have an elite quarterback in today’s NFL. One of the products of success around the league is building up a complete backfield to take some onus off the signal caller in what has become a pass-first league.

That includes finding running backs who can both carry the ball and catch it out of the backfield. It’s the new norm. That certainly includes the likes of Le’Veon Bell and Ezekiel Elliott.

In taking a look at this and a whole lot more, we check in on the top-15 NFL backfields heading into the 2018 season.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Roosevelt Nix

Two future Hall of Famers in Big Ben and Bell coupled with one of the best blocking fullbacks in the game today. Pittsburgh might have issues elsewhere on its roster and could very well be reaching the end of its championship window. That’s fine. This is still the most dynamic backfield in the entire NFL.

Even at the age of 36, Big Ben is going strong. He’s put up an average of 28 touchdowns compared to 14 interceptions and north of 8,000 passing yards over the past two seasons. Meanwhile, Bell has proven himself to be the best all-around back in the game today. Still looking for a long-term deal, the 26-year-old ball carrier has gained 3,380 total yards and 20 touchdowns over the past two seasons.

2. New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram 

What Kamara and Ingram did for the Saints during a surprising NFC South-winning 2017 campaign can’t be overstated. The two combined for nearly 3,100 yards with 25 touchdowns last season. It resulted in Kamara earning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and Ingram picking up his second career Pro Bowl nod.

If it weren’t for the four-game ban Ingram received to start the 2018 campaign, New Orleans would rank No. 1 on this list. That’s primarily due to the otherworldly excellence of a quarterback in Drew Brees who broke the NFL record with a 72 percent completion mark last season and is averaging an absurd 4,841 yards to go with 34 touchdowns in his dozen seasons with the Saints.

3. Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman

Despite down 2017 seasons from all three members of this elite backfield, it remains one of the best in the entire game. Sure Matt Ryan put up one of the worst performances of his career in tallying 20 touchdowns compared to 12 picks. But that’s on offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian than anyone else. Freeman and Coleman seeing their combined yardage total drop from 2,482 in 2016 to just over 2,000 last season was also a product of Sark.

None of that means Atlanta’s backfield can’t rebound in a big way this coming season. Ryan is a former NFL MVP. Freeman and Coleman had in the past been considered the best one-two punch in the league. There’s just too much talent for this trio to repeat what we saw last season.

4. Minnesota Vikings: Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray

Let’s get this straight. Case Keenum might have surpassed expectations en route to leading Minnesota to the NFC Championship Game last season. In no way does that mean Cousins isn’t a massive upgrade over the veteran journeyman. After all, the former Redskins Pro Bowler is averaging 4,392 yards to go with 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions over the past three seasons.

He’ll be joined in the backfield with a second-year ball carrier in Dalvin Cook who impressed to the tune of 444 total yards in parts of four games prior to going down with a season-ending injury as a rookie. Add in a former 1,000-yard rusher in Latavius Murray as his primary backup, and the Vikings’ backfield is legit.

5. Tennessee Titans: Marcus Mariota, Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis

Despite seeing his Titans earn a surprising playoff appearance last season, Mariota regressed a great deal from a breakout sophomore campaign. The former Heisman winner put up just 13 touchdowns compared to 15 interceptions. That’s simply not going to cut it moving forward.

The good news here is that Super Mario has the best running back tandem in the AFC to back him up. In taking over primary ball-carrier duties from the recently departed DeMarco Murray, Henry tallied 880 total yards and averaged 4.4 yards per attempt as a sophomore last season. Meanwhile, Lewis comes over from the Patriots on a lucrative long-term deal after putting up a career-best 1,110 total yards while averaging five yards per tote last season.

6. Los Angeles Chargers: Philip Rivers, Melvin Gordon and Derek Watt

It’s hard to gauge just how good this backfield could be in 2018. For all of his success throughout a borderline Hall of Fame worthy career, Rivers is coming off the best performance of his career. He tallied 28 touchdowns compared to a near-decade low 10 interceptions en route to helping the Chargers into playoff contention following an 0-4 start to their Los Angeles tenure.

Joining Rivers in the backfield after being a first-round pick back in 2015, Gordon put up nearly 1,600 total yards to go with 12 touchdowns. Having gained 2,997 total yards over the past two seasons, Gordon is now among the most underrated backs in the game. Add in a top-end blocker in Watt at fullback, and this could be one of the better backfields in 2018.

7. Los Angeles Rams: Jared Goff and Todd Gurley

The Rams are different than other teams on this list in that they don’t rely on a fullback and aren’t necessarily deep in the backfield. Should something happen to reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley, the Rams’ entire offense could be in trouble. But when healthy, the combination of Goff and Gurley represent one of the most-talented young backfields in the game.

After struggling under Jeff Fisher as a rookie in 2016, Goff broke out big time in Sean McVay’s first season calling the shots in Southern California. In leading Los Angeles to a surprising NFC West title, Goff threw 28 touchdowns compared to just seven picks as a sophomore. He was helped out by a running back in Gurley who led the NFL in total yards (2,093) and total touchdowns (19). This is a dynamic duo.

8. Dallas Cowboys: Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and Rod Smith 

Dak Prescott Ezekiel Elliott Jason Garrett Dallas Cowboys

It goes without saying that Prescott relies heavily on Elliott to do his thing in the backfield. In the six games Elliott was suspended last season, the former mid-round quarterback threw five touchdowns compared to seven interceptions. In the other 25 games Elliott has played throughout his career with Prescott in Dallas, the young quarterback has tallied 40 touchdowns and just 10 picks.

Now that Elliott is in the clear off the field and ready to dominate, we fully expect Prescott to rebound from a down sophomore campaign. All Elliott has done in 25 career games is record 3,246 total yards and 25 touchdowns. That’s some absurd stuff right there. Also helping matters here is the fact that Smith averaged 4.2 yards per attempt in spelling Elliott last season.

9. New England Patriots: Tom Brady, Sony Michel and James White 

Brady might now finally have that workhorse back to rely on after New England made Michel a first-round pick in April’s draft. Biting a bullet on a running back that high was a necessity after New England lost last year’s top rusher, Dion Lewis, in free agency. At 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds, Michel is a true workhorse back. And while he might struggle catching the ball out of the backfield, New England returns a running back in James White who is among the best at catching passes at his position in the NFL.

There’s not much more we can add about Brady. As long as he’s on an NFL field and playing at a high level, the Patriots’ backfield will be set. Even entering his age-41 season, Brady continues to amaze. He put up an NFL high 4,577 yards with 32 touchdowns compared to eight interceptions en route to leading New England to a second consecutive AFC title last season.

10. Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes, Kareem Hunt, Spencer Ware and Anthony Sherman

Kansas City might be a tad lower on this list than most would first imagine. That’s primarily because 2017 first-round pick Patrick Mahomes has started a grand total of one career regular season game. His talent is obviously well documented. But until we see it translate through multiple games, projection can only take us so far.

The rest of this backfield is pure dynamite. Hunt is coming off a rookie campaign that saw him average nearly five yards per rush while putting up 1,782 total yards en route to earning a Pro Bowl appearance. He’s joined in the backfield by a veteran in Spencer Ware who gained nearly 1,400 total yards in 2016 prior to missing all of last year to injury. This could be the best one-two punch at running back in the AFC.

11. Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams and Ty Montgomery 

Coming off an injury-plagued 2017 campaign in which he missed nine games, Rodgers finally has that balance on offense he’s been lacking. Jones and Williams — both rookies last season — combined to put up 1,288 total yards while averaging 4.3 yards per rush. A wide receiver-turned-running back, Montgomery gained north of 400 yards while catching 71 percent of his targets.

Should we see natural progression from these three youngsters, Rodgers’ job will be much easier in 2018. For a guy that’s put up a 36-19 record while tallying 125 touchdowns and just 26 picks since the start of the 2014 season, that has to be a scary proposition for opposing NFC North squads.

12. San Francisco 49ers: Jimmy Garoppolo, Jerick McKinnon, Matt Breida and Kyle Juszczyk

This group has a chance to be ranked much higher as the 2018 season progresses. Undefeated in seven career starts, Garoppolo led the 49ers to nearly 30 points per game in his five starts with the team last season. That earned him what was at that time the richest contract for a quarterback in the NFL earlier in the spring. Garoppolo is seen as a true franchise quarterback with All Pro upside.

He’ll be joined in the backfield by an expensive Jerick McKinnon who comes to San Francisco from Minnesota. McKinnon is a perfect fit as a run blocker, pass catcher and ball carrier in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. He provides 1,500-yard upside. If that weren’t enough, Breida came on strong as an undrafted rookie free agent last season, averaging 4.4 yards per rush. Add in the best all-around fullback in the NFL in the form of Kyle Juszczyk, and this unit is absolutely stacked.

13. Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson, Lamar Miller, D’Onta Foreman and Jay Prosch

It’s all about Mr. Watson. When healthy as a rookie last season, the former top-10 pick completely changed the dynamic of Houston’s offense. The team averaged a whopping 34.7 points per game in his six starts. In the 10 games Watson didn’t start or was sidelined to a torn ACL, Houston averaged 13 points per game. Not only that, Watson accounted 21 total touchdowns in his seven appearances.

Watson’s presence also changes what Miller is tasked to do as the lead ball carrier. He averaged well north of four yards per rush in Watson’s starts compared to less than three when the dynamic quarterback was sidelined. If Watson is healthy this coming season, the Texans’ backfield will truly be electric.

14. Cleveland Browns: Tyrod Taylor, Carlos Hyde, Duke Johnson, Nick Chubb and Dan Vitale

With the exception of a catch-first running back in Duke Johnson, the Browns’ backfield is going to look completely different from last season. In a vacuum, that’s certainly not a bad thing. After all, he caught 74 passes and put up an absurd 79.6 reception percentage last season. Joining him at running back are two true three-down players in former San Francisco 49ers starter Carlos Hyde and rookie second-round pick Nick Chubb. They will help offset what Johnson does in the passing game.

Though, for the Browns, it’s all about the quarterback position. After having put up 65 total touchdowns compared to 16 interceptions in three years with the Bills, Taylor will start the season under center in Cleveland. He’ll be backed up by reigning Heisman Winner and No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield. The talent is here. It’s now all about Cleveland seeing it pay dividends on the field.

15. Oakland Raiders: Derek Carr, Marshawn Lynch, Doug Martin and Keith Smith

Will first-year head coach Jon Gruden be able to get the most out of this group after Oakland struggled horribly last season? That’s the $100 million question (literally). While Carr put up elite-level performances in the previous two seasons, he was a shell of his former self in 2017. Can he round back into form?

The same question can be asked of two former Pro Bowl running backs in Marshawn Lynch and Doug Martin. Both have tremendous track records of success. Both are up there in age. Neither performed well last season. This unit is certainly a wildcard. It could be among the bottom 10 or the top 10 in the NFL. It all depends on rebound performances and coaching.