NFL News & Analysis

Tantillo: Superlatives for NFL running backs ahead of the 2021 season

Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb (24) looks across the field during warmups before the game against the Houston Texans at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Running backs are often asked to perform a plethora of tasks on any given snap. From blocking to receiving to getting the ball in the red zone near the goal line. The argument against running backs is that the average one can do most of those things, so the best of the best must possess elite traits to truly thrive in a position with the NFL’s shortest shelf life.

So, let's look at exactly who those players are by handing out superlatives to the NFL’s best running backs.

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Power: Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

Henry is one of the biggest anomalies in the NFL today. The former Heisman Trophy winner and reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year stands at 6-foot-3, weighs 247 pounds and runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash.

His rare blend of size, strength and speed makes him arguably the hardest player to bring down in the NFL — especially when he hits a defender with his signature stiff arm. 

The eye test is enough to cement Henry’s ranking as the NFL’s best power rusher. But that’s not good enough. He has more yards after contact (2,758) since 2019 than any other running back has total rushing yards.

Receiving: Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

McCaffrey narrowly edges out Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt and Austin Ekeler as the best receiving back in the league. Voting against one of the few backs to ever eclipse 1,000 receiving yards in a season — let alone 1,000 yards on the ground in the same year — was just too questionable a decision.

McCaffrey started his career with 80-plus receptions in three straight seasons before missing the majority of 2020 while battling injuries.

Despite playing only three games last year, McCaffrey’s sheer dominance still reigns true. Since 2018, he leads the NFL in yards after the catch (1,983) and has just a 2.6% career drop rate — the lowest among running backs with 100 targets since 2017. 

Elusive: Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns

PFF’s Sam Monson said it best when he described Chubb as the top “pure ball carrier” in the NFL. The data backs it up, as Chubb is the highest-graded running back since entering the league (92.9). 

The title as the most elusive running back in the NFL might puzzle a few people; Chubb isn’t the fastest nor the most shifty, but if any player tries to tackle him one on one in the open field … good luck.

Chubb has forced .25 missed tackles per attempt since 2018, the highest rate among running backs in the NFL.  He has simply made a career of making defenders miss — whether it’s with a stiff arm, a juke or just running by them.

Home-run hitter: Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

The old saying “go big or go home” does not register with Barkley’s running style. It can better be described as “go big or go big.”

Barkley has been the definition of a home-run threat since his days at Penn State. During his three college seasons, he racked up 67 rushes of 15-plus yards (second in the nation).

A similar trend continued once he entered the NFL. In his lone full season of action, Barkley picked up 706 of his 1,307 rushing yards on 15-plus-yard runs — the highest rate in the league. 

Barkley ranked in the top five again in 2019, with over one-third of his yardage coming from 15-plus-yard runs. Unfortunately, a torn ACL in Week 2 of 2020 ended his campaign after only 19 carries.

Expect a fully healthy, bounce-back 2021 season with him resuming his highlight-reel tendencies.

Red-zone threat: Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

Let's be clear: Cook is not being pigeonholed as just a red-zone threat. He is arguably Derrick Henry’s closest competition for the title of NFL’s best running back. Cook provides game-breaking speed, quickness and elite vision that makes him a threat to score on every carry.

That said, his efficiency and ability to find paydirt and extend drives sets him apart from the rest. 

Cook ranks first among running backs in rushing grade (84.1) and first down/touchdown percentage (36.9%) in the red zone since 2019. 

Dalvin Cook in Red Zone Since 2019
Yds after contact 1st down/TD runs Missed tackles forced Stuff rate
243 (1st) 66 (1st) 22 (2nd) 9.0% (9th-lowest)

Speed: Raheem Mostert, San Francisco 49ers

If there’s one thing players need in today’s NFL, it's speed. And Mostert has a ton of it.

Only one running back recorded a 60-yard touchdown reception and rush last season, and it was Mostert. He did that despite missing half the year while battling an MCL sprain.

On those two touchdowns, Mostert reached the top two speeds recorded among all NFL players, per NFL’s Next Gen Stats

He reached a max speed of 23.09 miles per hour on this 80-yard touchdown run. 

And he reached 22.73 mph on this 76-yard catch and run. 

Since breaking out in 2019, Mostert ranks seventh in PFF grade among running backs (87.3).

Breakout player: Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team

As previously stated in a Year 2 breakout article, Gibson can cement himself as a top-10 running back in the NFL next season if given a proper workload (18th in attempts and 24th in targets in 2020).

He was as green as they came last season, with only 77 career college touches to his name. But that did not stop him from ranking as the top rookie rusher in 2020 (85.3) and scampering for the most 10-plus-yard touchdowns runs among rookies.

He also showed elite efficiency that should translate to future success. Last season, he ran for a positive gain at the highest rate in the NFL (95.9%) and forced 37 missed tackles (second among rookie running backs).

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