Running backs need help to dominate. And quantifying that help goes a long way toward identifying players who will outperform their talent baseline in any given season.
As PFF has previously shown, a running back's environment dictates a large percentage of their performance, particularly the blocking in front of them. How the offense operates also dictates things that move the needle a tremendous amount, such as the box count the defense uses on any given play, but looking at how good a team’s run blocking is and has been can help identify players who should stand to benefit with an easier job over the course of the season.
While using PFF run-blocking grades here will put the focus primarily on the offensive line, it also includes the work of receivers and tight ends — often forgotten in this type of analysis but of vital importance to the success of many plays.
Here are some of the best running back environments in the NFL for 2022:
Cleveland rosters arguably the best backfield in the NFL, and part of the reason anybody who carries the ball for the team has success is that they also have excellent blocking in front of them. That may suffer a little as the Browns move from J.C. Tretter to Nick Harris at center, but even Harris earned a solid PFF run-blocking grade of 67.2 across his 68 snaps last year.
Running backs Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and D’Ernest Johnson each gained at least 4.9 yards per carry and 3.45 yards after contact last season, and the Browns' running game should continue to be a dominant force with its combination of blocking and rushing talent.
The Cowboys' offensive line may not be quite what it used to be, but it’s still very good, particularly at run blocking. The unit endured some turnover this offseason, with Connor Williams at left guard and La’el Collins at right tackle departing in free agency, but the replacements for those players have a shot to maintain the baseline. Rookie Tyler Smith has a long way to go to be a complete player, but his PFF run-blocking grade in college last year was almost off the scale (93.9). Terence Steele was a better run blocker than pass protector last season, and Zack Martin and Tyron Smith still give Dallas a pair of All-Pros on the offensive line.
Ezekiel Elliott continues to occupy the majority of the workload in Dallas, but he is consistently outperformed by Tony Pollard, who is averaging 5.1 yards per carry for his career. The blocking environment is good enough in Dallas that Pollard could put up monster numbers if he is ever given the workload his performances have justified.
The Eagles have quietly assembled one of the NFL's top offensive lines, a unit better at run blocking than in pass protection. Injuries last season meant a lot of players gained valuable starting experience, leaving Philadelphia unusually well provisioned in terms of depth.
No team in the NFL averaged more rushing yards before contact than the 1.9 yards the Eagles did, and while having a rushing threat at quarterback certainly helps, they remain at the top spot looking at just carries by running backs. Miles Sanders was something of a fantasy football disappointment last season but still averaged 5.3 yards per carry behind this offensive line, with less than 3.0 of those yards coming after contact. The Eagles had 16 rushing touchdowns scored by running backs, and Sanders didn’t get any of them. Heading into a contract year, he could be an excellent candidate for a career season.
New England built an offense that looks like it was designed to run block, and PFF's grading backs that up. Losing Shaq Mason will hurt in that area especially, but getting Michael Onwenu into the starting lineup on a permanent basis could offset that and rookie Cole Strange posted good run-blocking grades in college, albeit against a much lower level of competition. Tight end Jonnu Smith earned the worst PFF run-blocking grade of his career in his first year in New England, so the team better understanding his role within the offense this year could also help.
Damien Harris put up elite PFF rushing grades of at least 84.7 in each of the past two seasons, and if he can stay healthy, he could excel behind that offensive line. Rhamondre Stevenson was right behind him (81.4) grade-wise in his rookie season and looked well capable of having similar production.
The Chiefs rebuilt an offensive line that was decimated and destroyed in the Super Bowl two seasons ago, and they’ve created one of the best such units in the league. The primary motivation for that was ensuring quarterback Patrick Mahomes doesn’t have another game like that Super Bowl loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the byproduct was assembling a dominant group of run blockers. Only the Eagles averaged more yards before contact than the Chiefs last season, and Kansas City doesn't have the rushing threat at quarterback to affect how defenses defend the run game.
Three of the Chiefs' top four rushers last season averaged less than 2.5 yards after contact, with the best PFF rushing grade of the group standing at 72.2. Kansas City has a rushing environment primed for a talented back to put up big numbers, but so far nobody has raised their hand. Maybe Ronald Jones could become that guy in 2022.
The Falcons pressed the reset button this offseason when they traded away longtime starting quarterback Matt Ryan, and while a declining offensive line was a feature of Ryan's last few years with the team, the unit has actually been far better when it comes to run blocking. Atlanta’s offensive line as a unit recorded just a 54.7 PFF pass-blocking grade last season, worse than all but three other teams, but ranked seventh with an 83.5 run-blocking grade.
It would be difficult for Jalen Mayfield to not improve to at least some degree at left guard, and Marcus Mariota brings a new rushing threat at quarterback that should help to open some space up for the running backs. Cordarrelle Patterson enjoyed a career year for the team last season at running back, and rookie Tyler Allgeier could be a major beneficiary of what is quietly a good run-blocking team.
The Bengals ranked just 20th as a team in PFF run-blocking grade last season, while the offensive line alone placed 19th. They added three new starters this offseason, each of whom should be an upgrade in that area. Right tackle La’el Collins, in particular, is one of the best run blockers in the league.
Only the Houston Texans averaged fewer rushing yards last season before first contact than Cincinnati, with Joe Mixon racking up 1,200 yards and 13 touchdowns through force of will and his own individual skill (not to mention 292 carries). Mixon averaged 4.1 yards per carry, but 3.1 of those were after contact. He has had a big workload in the NFL, but he will be running behind a far better offensive line in 2022 as one of the few true workhorse backs left in the league.
Detroit’s offensive line has developed into a good unit overall, and that was largely without Frank Ragnow, one of the best centers in the league, in the mix last year. Ragnow played just 223 snaps before being lost to injury, but in that time he earned a 90.2 run blocking grade, an area in which he has improved each year of his NFL career. Penei Sewell posted impressive grades as a rookie but was notably better in the run game than in pass protection.
With Ragnow back in the lineup, Detroit's line could easily rank in the top five in terms of run-blocking grades this season, providing an excellent opportunity for D’Andre Swift and others to put up big numbers.