NFL News & Analysis

2022 NFL RB unit rankings: Cleveland Browns lead the way while Dallas Cowboys land in top 10

Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb (24) runs with the ball against Cincinnati Bengals free safety Jessie Bates III (30) in the first half at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this offseason, I ranked the top-20 starting running backs in the NFL. There’s going to be some similarity between these rankings and that list, but the league is shifting more and more toward a running-back-by-committee approach, as just one running back — Najee Harris — played on over 70% of his team’s offensive snaps in 2021. That makes running back units a better way of evaluating a team’s backfield contributions than merely looking at where its starters stack up. 

For the purposes of this exercise, fullbacks weren’t included. Teams with quality options at fullback, such as the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens, would receive slight bumps if they were taken into account. 

Tier 1: Elite backfield (Very good starter and good depth)

1.  Cleveland Browns

Nick Chubb is arguably the best pure runner in the NFL. Over the last four seasons, Chubb ranks first among all qualifying running backs in PFF rushing grade (93.1), yards after contact per rushing attempt (4.1) and forced missed tackles per rushing attempt (0.25). Add in a second quality starting option such as Kareem Hunt behind him to go along with D’Ernest Johnson (90.6 PFF rushing grade in 2021) and the Browns have the most talented backfield in the league.


2. Indianapolis Colts

After a strong close to his rookie season in 2020, Jonathan Taylor staked his claim last year as the NFL's top running back with an 87.0 PFF grade that led all players at the position. He’s the type of running back who Indianapolis doesn’t necessarily want to take off the field, but the Colts have the depth to feel comfortable giving him a rest here and there. 

2022 Colts Running Backs 2021 Rushing Grade 2021 Missed Tackles Forced 2021 Receiving Grade
Jonathan Taylor 90.0 66 62.5
Nyheim Hines 71.8 14 74.3
Phillip Lindsay 56.6 6 52.7

Nyheim Hines is one of the better receiving threats out of the backfield in the NFL while still posing a threat as a runner. And offseason acquisition Phillip Lindsay will be looking for a bounceback after a down season in Houston last year. Lindsay earned PFF rushing grades above 75.0 in three consecutive seasons with the Broncos from 2018 to 2020.


3. Green Bay Packers

Last season, Aaron Jones logged 578 regular-season snaps on offense compared to A.J. Dillon‘s 476, and that split could be even closer to 50-50 in 2022. Jones is the fifth-most valuable running back in the league over the past five seasons, per PFF’s wins above replacement (WAR) metric, but Dillon has warranted more opportunity with his play since he was drafted in 2020, as his 90.7 PFF rushing grade over the last two seasons ranks fourth among running backs with at least 200 carries.


4. Minnesota Vikings

The biggest question with Dalvin Cook heading into the 2022 season is the same it’s been for the entirety of his NFL career: Can he stay healthy?

Injuries took their toll in 2021 and were reflected in a career-low 65.8 PFF grade. However, Cook is one of the best zone runners in the league when healthy. His 90.3 rushing grade in zone schemes since 2017 leads all running backs. Alexander Mattison, a fourth-year running back out of Boise State, provides quality depth behind Cook and is capable of stepping into the lead role if needed.


Tier 2: Good backfield (very good starter or very good depth)

5. New Orleans Saints

Alvin Kamara not only dealt with injury in 2021 but also with a Taysom Hill, Jameis Winston, Trevor Siemian and Ian Book quarterback rotation. The result was a career-low 63.2 PFF grade and his lowest output as a receiver (47 receptions for 439 yards) in five NFL seasons. The Saints need him to bounce back to his 2017-20 form, where he ranked first in PFF’s wins above replacement metric at the position. 

The 2021 addition of Mark Ingram behind Kamara on the depth chart gives the Saints someone to mix in on their downhill run concepts. Ingram is also one of the better pass-protecting backs in the NFL.


6. Tennessee Titans

When ranking individual running backs, I pointed out that there’s some evidence to suggest that running backs start to take a step back after recording 1,500 NFL carries. At nearly 250 pounds and with roughly 4,500 rushing yards in the last two-and-a-half seasons, Derrick Henry isn’t your typical running back. Still, his workload is worth noting as he returns from injury. 

The Titans still would have landed in Tier 1 with more proven depth behind Henry. Fourth-round rookie Hassan Haskins will have a good chance to earn the No. 2 role behind Henry after recording a 91.2 PFF grade in his final season at Michigan last year.


7. Dallas Cowboys

This isn’t a space to get into the Ezekiel Elliott versus Tony Pollard debates. This is a space to appreciate what they offer as a backfield tandem. 

2022 Cowboys' RB Duo 2021 Rushing Grade 2021 Missed Tackles Forced 2021 Receiving Grade
Ezekiel Elliot 76.3 21 55.3
Tony Pollard 90.3 27 64.9

The pre-injury Elliott from last season — who picked up a first down or touchdown on 30% of his runs through the first four weeks —  is still a valuable between-the-tackles runner. Pollard provides the juice that Elliott doesn’t in his complementary role. The fourth-year back out of Memphis has been one of the more efficient runners in the league over the last three seasons. Only Chubb and Henry have averaged more yards after contact per attempt than Pollard since 2019.


8. Carolina Panthers

Christian McCaffrey earned an 86.5 PFF grade in 2019 — third among qualifying running backs — on over 1,000 snaps. He almost never left the field and was integral to everything Carolina did on offense, ranking eighth in the league in rushing conversions (56) and ninth in receiving conversions (58) across players at all positions. The issue with moving Carolina any higher is that McCaffrey hasn’t played more than 300 offensive snaps in either of the two seasons since that 2019 campaign. 

Chuba Hubbard and D’Onta Foreman have both proven themselves to be adequate fill-ins if injury strikes again, but the Panthers need a healthy McCaffrey in 2022.


9. Denver Broncos

Melvin Gordon III‘s return this offseason in free agency maintains one of the more evenly split one-two punches in the league at the running back position. Last season, there was a clamoring for more Javonte Williams snaps after Williams maintained his status as a tackle-breaking extraordinaire, ranking first in missed tackles forced per carry in 2021 just as he did in his final season at North Carolina in 2020. 

However, Gordon still profiles as an efficient runner entering his eighth season, as he’s earned PFF rushing grades above 83.0 in each of his two seasons with the Broncos.


10. Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens’ entire roster was hit hard by injuries in 2021, and their backfield was one of the units hit hardest. They don’t have an elite back at the top of the depth chart, but J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards‘ return from injury along with the Mike Davis and Tyler Badie additions give the Ravens one of the deeper groups in the NFL that will take advantage of the attention that Lamar Jackson draws in the run game. Baltimore is the only team in the NFL that's averaged over 2.0 rushing yards before contact per attempt (2.2) over the last three seasons.


11.  Los Angeles Chargers

Austin Ekeler is known primarily for his ability to impact the game as a receiver, but he’s one of the better all-around backs in the league. He joins Kamara and McCaffrey as one of just three running backs that have recorded at least 75 rushing and receiving conversions over the last three seasons. The Chargers’ problem has been finding reliable depth behind Ekeler. They likely hope that 2022 fourth-round pick Isaiah Spiller changes that.


12.  Las Vegas Raiders

Las Vegas’ decision not to pick up Josh Jacobs’ fifth-year option is more of an indictment of the process that went into making him a first-round selection in 2019 rather than Jacobs' on-field performance. The Alabama product has been one of the most elusive backs on the ground since entering the NFL three seasons ago, recording 177 forced missed tackles as a runner since 2019.

Behind Jacobs, Kenyan Drake’s first season was cut short by a broken ankle, but he was an effective outlet in the passing game prior to his injury (82.0 PFF receiving grade).


13.  Seattle Seahawks

Chris Carson’s status remains a major question mark as he works his way back from a neck injury. However, the Seahawks bolstered the group with Kenneth Walker III in the 2022 NFL Draft. Walker’s 89 missed tackles forced on the ground were more than any other FBS running back last season, as were his 1,168 rushing yards after contact. Even if Carson doesn’t return, Walker and the returning Rashaad Penny — who led the league in PFF rushing grade over the last five weeks of last season — form a nice tandem at the position.


14.  Cincinnati Bengals

Joe Mixon had the best season of his career last year in Cincinnati, ending the year ranked second among all running backs in offensive snaps (886) to go along with a career-high 82.1 PFF rushing grade. Samaje Perine fills in behind him as a middle-of-the-road No. 2 option who notably took an important third-and-1 carry in the Super Bowl. This past year's draft selection Chris Evans did show some promise as a receiver (82.3 PFF receiving grade) in limited action in 2021.


Tier 3: Gets the job done (Good starter or good depth)

Oct 31, 2021; Inglewood, California, USA; New England Patriots running back Damien Harris (37) carries the ball against the Los Angeles Chargers in the second half at SoFi Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Chargers 27-24. Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

15.  New England Patriots

Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson have both proven themselves to be effective runners in New England’s gap-heavy rushing attack. They were one of three running back duos to both clear 30 missed tackles forced on the ground during the 2021 season. The Patriots also brought back James White on a one-year deal in free agency, and he should serve as the team’s top receiving back if he’s able to get close to full health after a season-ending hip injury in 2021.


16.  Chicago Bears

This is the strength of Chicago’s offensive roster, which doesn’t speak super well to the talent put in place around Justin Fields

David Montgomery ranks in the 76th percentile among all qualifying backs in missed tackles forced per rushing attempt and the 85th percentile in missed tackles forced per reception across his first three NFL seasons. The Bears will be looking for him to get back to his 2020 level of play (80.2 PFF grade) next year. This past year's draft selection Khalil Herbert showed some promise as a rookie behind Montgomery. His 84.4 rushing grade led all rookies with at least 100 carries.


17. New York Giants

In terms of talent, Saquon Barkley alone warrants a higher spot on this list for the Giants backfield. Unfortunately, that talent has spent a lot of time on the sideline and been dampened by injury over the last three years. New York will be looking for a healthy Barkley to return to rookie form, when he posted PFF grades above 83.0 as a rusher and receiver on over 800 offensive snaps. 

Matt Breida stands out as the No. 1 option behind Barkley on the depth chart. He's a nice No. 2 option with some speed but not someone the team necessarily wants stepping into a lead role if injuries limit Barkley again.


18.  Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers have leaned heavily on one running back for years, whether that was Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams or James Conner. Now, it’s Najee Harris. The rookie back out of Alabama ranked third at the position in PFF WAR and forced more combined missed tackles as a rusher and receiver (92) than any other player in the NFL in 2021. A lot of that was due to how much volume he saw in Pittsburgh’s offense as the only back in the league to play over 70% of his team’s offensive snaps (83%). 

Benny Snell Jr. and Anthony McFarland Jr. isn’t an overly exciting group behind him, but they’re probably not going to see much of the field in 2022 barring a Harris injury.


19.  Buffalo Bills

The Bills have now invested three Day 2 picks into the running back position over the last four offseasons — Devin Singletary in 2019, Zack Moss in 2020 and James Cook in this year’s draft. 

2022 Bills Running Back Trio 2021 Rushing Grade 2021 Missed Tackles Forced 2021 Receiving Grade
Devin Singletary 82.5 51 42.3
Zack Moss 75.4 18 51.6
James Cook 83.2 25 83.2

Singletary ranks fifth in rushing yards over expected over the last three seasons to go along with a 86.2 PFF rushing grade (11th among running backs with at least 300 carries). He should stay in place as the lead back, but Cook provides the speed and receiving ability that this backfield was missing. He should have an immediate role.


20. Detroit Lions

D’Andre Swift is someone viewed better by the fantasy community than his PFF grades would suggest. Swift ranks just 61st out of 73 qualifying running backs in overall grade over the last two seasons. He’s more talented than that ranking, though. Swift should be able to capitalize on one of the better offensive lines in the league as a runner and can provide value in the passing game in 2022. Behind him, Jamaal Williams has also proven to be a valuable No. 2 option across his time in Detroit and Green Bay. 


21. Philadelphia Eagles

Philadelphia’s running backs benefit from a couple of factors. The first is that Jalen Hurts is a legitimate threat in the run game, which creates more space for the running backs to attack. The Eagles also have one of the better run-blocking offensive lines in the league. Both of those together help explain the disconnect between Miles Sanders’ rushing production (5.4 yards per carry since 2020) and his middle-of-the-road PFF grade over the last two years (68.1).

Sanders, Boston Scott and Kenneth Gainwell is still a nice collection of talent at the position, even if they don’t crack the top half of this list.


22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Leonard Fournette has done a nice job of salvaging a career that looked like it was heading in the wrong direction following his release in Jacksonville. Fournette’s 75.1 PFF grade in 2021 was the highest of his NFL career, but it’s difficult to tell how much of that should be attributed to his situation with one of the best offensive lines in the league and Tom Brady throwing Fournette passes out of the backfield. 

Rookie running back Rachaad White profiles as a nice complement to Fournette as a player who wins in space and could have an immediate role as a third-down, change of pace back.


23.  Arizona Cardinals

A Chase Edmonds injury early last season opened the door for James Conner to take over a larger role, and he took full advantage of that opportunity with over 1,000 all-purpose yards and 18 touchdowns. Conner excels in short-yardage situations and has developed into a solid receiving option out of the backfield, but he’s struggled to stay healthy throughout his career. 

Arizona added Darrel Williams as a veteran option behind him this offseason and Keaontay Ingram out of USC in the draft. The Cardinals will be hoping they don’t have to lean too heavily on either.


24.  New York Jets

This could end up being much too low for New York’s backfield. Breece Hall has the size, speed and all-around skill set that teams are looking for in a bell-cow running back. That’s what he was the past three seasons for Iowa State, earning PFF grades above 75.0 in all three years. He’s joined by 2021 fourth-round pick Michael Carter, who earned a very respectable 77.3 PFF rushing grade during his rookie campaign. 

Both are capable rushers and receivers out of the backfield, but Hall has the measurables advantage that will likely earn him the lead role.


25. Jacksonville Jaguars

Each of Jacksonville’s top two options at running back will be returning from a significant injury in 2022, as James Robinson is working his way back from a torn Achille while Travis Etienne missed the entirety of his rookie campaign with a preseason foot injury. Based on the timelines of the injuries, Etienne should be ready to start the season while there's no definite timeline of return  for Robinson. That uncertainty drops the Jaguars a bit on this list. 

Etienne figures to provide the big-play ability — both as a runner and as a receiver — that Jacksonville’s offense was missing last year. His burst and contact balance were both strengths coming out of Clemson.


26. Washington Commanders

Washington running backs collectively ranked 23rd in yards per carry (4.1) despite its offensive line ranking ninth in PFF run-blocking grade among 32 units. Lead back Antonio Gibson played through injuries for much of the year, and it showed, as his PFF grade fell from 78.6 as a rookie to 63.3 in 2021. The Commanders likely hope that he bounces back and is complemented by 2022 draft selection Brian Robinson Jr. alongside the (controversially) returning J.D. McKissic.


27. San Francisco 49ers

Similar to teams with a rushing threat at quarterback or an elite offensive line, it’s difficult to separate rushing production in Kyle Shanahan’s scheme from the rushing talent. A number of unheralded backs have put up strong numbers under Shanahan, which includes sixth-round rookie Elijah Mitchell in 2021. Mitchell has plenty of speed (4.38-second 40-yard dash), which plays in a 49ers’ rushing attack that hunts for big plays on the perimeter. 

Mitchell will be backed up by Jeff Wilson, Trey Sermon and 2022 draft selection Tyrion Davis-Price — a third-round pick who ranked 172nd on PFF’s big board.


28.  Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins are certainly more talented at running back than they were in 2021, but it’s a hodgepodge collection of talent that will have to settle into order over the course of the offseason. 

Raheem Mostert has the familiarity with new head coach Mike McDaniel’s offensive scheme and the speed that works well in it, but he’s struggled to stay healthy. Chase Edmonds was Miami’s most expensive offseason acquisition at running back, but he has yet to hold down a lead role over the course of his career. Sony Michel and Myles Gaskin round out the group, ranking 52nd and 49th respectively in PFF grade last season out of 62 qualifiers.


29.  Atlanta Falcons

Cordarrelle Patterson was a revelation last season as an offensive weapon, as 294 of his offensive snaps came in the backfield compared to 162 at some variety of wide receiver. Despite that shift to more playing time in running back alignments, Patterson was still much more dangerous as a receiver with a 91.4 PFF receiving grade compared to 64.7 rushing grade. 

Atlanta will be leaning on Damien Williams and rookie Tyler Allgeier to pick up some of the slack on the ground following Mike Davis departure. Allgeier could find a role early as a guy who always picks up what’s blocked for him with good vision and a no-nonsense running style.


Tier 4: Potential weakness (Starter and depth both have questions)

30. Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs were another team that struggled to capitalize on favorable rushing situations — light boxes and quality run blocking — in 2021. Clyde Edwards-Helaire has earned a first down or touchdown on just 20% of his rushing attempts since he was drafted in 2020, ranking 28th among 32 running backs with at least 250 carries. His impact as a receiver (426 total receiving yards in two years) hasn’t been what was anticipated coming out of LSU, either. 

2022 Chiefs' RB Duo 2021 Rushing Grade 2021 Missed Tackles Forced 2021 Receiving Grade
Clyde Edwards-Helaire 66.5  19 65.4
Ronald Jones 67.6 13 55.3

The Ronald Jones addition gives the Chiefs another option to turn to on the ground, but Jones saw his role diminish in Tampa Bay due largely to his receiving ability and putting the ball on the ground.


31.  Los Angeles Rams

Los Angeles ranked 30th in EPA per run play during the 2021 season including the postseason, beating out only the Houston Texans and Miami Dolphins. The Rams ranked in the top half of the league in PFF run-blocking grade and had one of the better passing offenses in the NFL. That leaves the lack of success at the running back position as a major driver in their struggles to move the ball efficiently on the ground. 

Cam Akers’ struggles after returning from injury in the postseason (43.7 PFF grade) contributed to those numbers. The Rams will be looking for a bounceback in 2022 from the third-year back out of Florida State.


32. Houston Texans

The Texans have made an effort to improve on the ground with offseason additions of Kenyon Green, A.J. Cann, Dameon Pierce and Marlon Mack. Nonetheless, it’s still difficult to see them being leaps and bounds better running the football than they were a season ago. 

Pierce, a fourth-round rookie out of Florida, could step in immediately as the lead back. He runs with great pad level and was one of the better running backs in this draft class when it came to pass protection. However, he never played more than 23 snaps in a game at Florida. Pierce will likely split time with Mack, Rex Burkhead and Royce Freeman while the Texans continue their rebuild.

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