NFL 2023-24 Position Group Rankings: Running Backs

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We’re just over one month away from the 2023-24 NFL season, and the excitement is building as the preseason is almost underway. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be diving into each position group, from the quarterbacks to the kickers, and ranking them before the season kicks off in Kansas City on Sept. 7. Today, we’ll take a look at which running back rooms are ready to make an impact in 2023.

1. San Francisco 49ers

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It was a mistake to give Kyle Shanahan the luxury of the Swiss Army knife Christian McCaffrey. After acquiring McCaffrey before the deadline last season, their offense exploded. The do-it-all back excels as both a runner and a receiver, and Shanahan’s brilliant mind and creative schemes unlocked his full range of talents. Add in the underrated Elijah Mitchell as the second leg of the one-two punch in the Bay, and you have the best running back room in football.

2. Green Bay Packers

The Packers seemingly will have to rely more on the run game this season with new quarterback Jordan Love at the helm, and they are well-equipped to do so. The duo of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon have been going strong in green and yellow for a few years now, and the two complement each other perfectly. Jones is one of the elite receiving backs in the league, topping 50 receptions in each of the past two seasons. Additionally, he has been a 1,000 yard rusher in three of the previous four years. In short yardage and early down situations, however, expect the bug bruiser Dillon to come in and do some damage.

3. Tennessee Titans

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Derrick Henry is back and ready to do the heavy lifting in the Tennessee backfield again, looking for his third rushing title in the past five years. The 2020 AP Offensive Player of the Year already has one 2,000 yard campaign under his belt, and instilled fear into defenses every week with his battering-ram style inside and breakaway speed at the second level.  You don’t earn a ranking this high on the list without some depth, however. The Titans added the perfect compliment to Henry in this year’s draft with Tulane product Tyjae Spears, a twitchy and explosive back who can take some of the burden off of Henry while perfectly complementing his physical style.

4. Philadelphia Eagles

The Birds’ running game should be excellent once again despite the loss of Miles Sanders. A lot of that rests on quarterback Jalen Hurts’ shoulders, but general manager Howie Roseman did an admirable job replenishing his backfield as well. D’Andre Swift is getting a second chance in Philadelphia after flaming out in Detroit last season, but the former Georgia Bulldog certainly has plenty of talent. Behind him is former Seattle Seahawk Rashaad Penny, who is one of the best pure runners in football when healthy. The Eagles also bring back franchise mainstays Kenneth Gainwell and Boston Scott. There aren’t any superstars in this backfield, but it may be the deepest room in the NFL.

5. Indianapolis Colts

Assuming he’s out there for week one despite his current contract dispute, Jonathan Taylor is arguably the best back in the league and will have a massive workload in the Colts ofense once again. His production was down due to injury last season, but this is still a guy who led the NFL in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in 2021. Taylor’s combination of speed, strength, vision, contact balance, and ball security makes him one of the toughest to tackle in all of football, and that alone is enough to land the Colts in the top five on this list. Indianapolis also added bruiser Zack Moss from Buffalo to take some of the weight off of Taylor.

6. New York Jets

Even if the Dalvin Cook rumors don’t come to fruition, the Jets backfield is still in a very good spot. Breece Hall’s excellent rookie season was cut short due to a torn ACL, but showed that he can be a franchise back. Hall is a very patient runner with good burst through the hole, thriving in the Jets’ zone run schemes. Hall carried the ball just 80 times last season, but gained a stellar 5.8 yards per carry, and also flashed his receiving skills with 19 grabs in just seven games. Even if Hall isn’t ready for week one, Michael Carter, Zonovan Knight, and rookie Israel Abanikanda can share the load while he’s gone.

7. Atlanta Falcons

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Atlanta spent a top-10 pick on a running back, a move that would commonly be called a fatal mistake. But one look at Bijan Robinson’s college tape and he immediately pops off the screen. Robinson is a walking highlight reel with a unique combination of speed and power, allowing him to be effective both between the tackles and out on the perimeter, and at times seems to just bounce off of defenders. In the passing game, Robinson runs good routes and has shown soft hands, projecting as an immediate three-down back in the NFL. Atlanta has depth in the backfield as well, bringing back both Tyler Allgier and former wide receiver Cordarelle Patterson to form a formidable trio.

8. New York Giants

Now that Saquon Barkley’s contract holdout is behind him, he can turn his attention to terrorizing defenses in the same way that he did in 2022. Barkley was the engine of the surprise Giants last season, amassing 1650 scrimmage yards on 352 touches while playing 16 of the 17 games. He was a more consistent down-to-down runner last year, not taking as many losses by trying to create big plays, but was still good for plenty of highlights.

9. Las Vegas Raiders

There isn’t a ton of depth in the Las Vegas backfield, and they will need to figure Josh Jacobs’ holdout before the season to remain anywhere near this high on the list, but they still get a top ten spot because that’s how good Jacobs was last season. The 2022 rushing champ carried the ball 340 times for 1653 yards and 12 touchdowns a season ago on his way to over 2,000 scrimmage yards and First Team All-Pro honors. Jacobs is a physical runner who has evolved into a very well-rounded back since joining the NFL, seeing running lanes more clearly and accelerating through them with a newfound burst. If you have any more questions about Jacobs by himself earning a top-10 spot, I’ll simply direct you to his insane 303-yard performance against the Seahawks.

10. Kansas City Chiefs

Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid get a lot of the flowers, and rightfully so, but the Chiefs don’t make their run to the Super Bowl last season without their elevated running game. 2022 seventh-round pick Isiah Pacheco carved out a role for himself by running like a madman, showing great burst and physicality between the tackles. Alongside him, Jerick McKinnon has finally found a home in Kansas City, becoming a touchdown machine in 2022 out of the backfield with nine receiving scores. The passing game will get all the press, but the Chiefs’ evolution into a balanced offense is what makes them the scariest in the league.

11. Los Angeles Chargers

Running back zoom meetings aside, Austin Ekeler is still a dynamic threat for the Chargers in both the run game and the pass game. Over the past two seasons, Ekeler has totaled over 3,100 yards and 38 touchdowns from scrimmage. He is an elite route runner out of the backfield and a nightmare matchup for the linebackers and safeties who are often tasked with covering him. Ekeler gets three down work for the most part, but the Chargers also retained Joshua Kelly for short yardage situations.

12. Cleveland Browns

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There may not be a better pure runner of the football in the NFL than Nick Chubb. He has everything you want in a ball carrier: power, speed, a low center of gravity, elite contact balance, and great ball security. Give the ball to Chubb, and more often than not he’s going to get the job done. He is a bit of a one-dimensional back, however, and the Browns will miss the third-down presence of Kareem Hunt. Jerome Ford and Demetric Felton Jr. will get some receiving work, but none have the track record of Hunt.

13. Houston Texans

This ranking may come as a surprise, but it’s impossible not to love the way that Dameon Pierce runs the football. There’s only one way to describe it: Pierce runs angry. The former Florida Gator nearly hit 1,000 yards in just 13 games as a rookie in 2022, and should soar past that number if he stays healthy in his sophomore campaign. Pierce showed flashes as a receiver as a rookie as well, but the Texans also brought in former Bills back Devin Singletary to handle some of the third down duties.

14. Denver Broncos

The Broncos are hoping that Javonte Williams’ torn ACL in 2022 was just a bump in the road in his promising young career. After a strong rookie season that saw him emerge from a committee with Melvin Gordon, Williams made it only four games last year before going down. Gordon is gone, but Denver brought in Samaje Perine to help in pass protection and on third downs. With Williams back in the fold, the Broncos will need to lean on the third year back to take some of the pressure off of Russell Wilson.

15. Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks may have found a gem in Kenneth Walker III. The Michigan State product had a stellar rookie season in 2022, eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark on the ground and finishing second in Offensive Rookie of the Year voting despite splitting carries with Rashaad Penny for much of the year. Now, with Penny gone to Philadelphia, the backfield is all Walker’s. Pete Carroll and the Seahawks love to run the football, and they have the man for the job. Having little depth outside of rookie Zach Charbonnet knocks them down a bit on the list, but Walker could be in for a big year.

16. Baltimore Ravens

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The Ravens run game is always going to be a headache for opposing defenses with Lamar Jackson running the show, but they also have a diverse array of familiar faces to play alongside Jackson in 2023. J.K. Dobbins has had a complicated camp so far, with a contract holdout and an appearance on the PUP list, but if his knee can get healthy, he has looked good when in the lineup for Baltimore. If not, reliable veteran Gus Edwards is back healthy after a knee injury of his own derailed his 2021 season and hampered him last year, and has been a rock solid runner between the tackles for Baltimore. Justice Hill also returns and can handle third down and receiving duties out of the backfield.

17. Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jags finally leaned into the Clemson connection of Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne Jr. in the backfield over the second half of 2022, and it paid dividends for them. Etienne is explosive on the perimeter and effective in the passing game, and showed his mettle in between the tackles as he emerged as the Jags’ feature back last season. Overall, Etienne topped 1,100 yards on the ground for the year. He has some ball security questions, but the production is undeniable.

18. Dallas Cowboys

Dallas will have a different look in the backfield in 2023 with Ezekiel Elliott out of the picture, but Tony Pollard stepped into the spotlight last season and exploded. Pollard has rare home run ability, evidenced by his 131-yard outing against the Rams on just 12 carries. The depth behind Pollard remains a question, as Malik Davis and rookie Deuce Vaughn compete for the backup job, but Pollard is a must-see player and will be heavily featured for America’s Team in 2023.

19. Washington Commanders

Sometimes you don’t need to be flashy, but a solid one-two punch can get the job done. That’s exactly what the Commanders have in Brian Robinson Jr. and Antonio Gibson Jr. Gibson may not have turned into the feature back that he looked like at times in 2021, and he does fumble the ball too much, but he fills the need for third down work while Robinson can work between the tackles. With an uncertain quarterback situation in 2023, the Commanders will need both of their backs to carry the load.

20. Detroit Lions

Detroit shocked everyone when they traded up in the first round to take Alabama running back Jahmyr Gibbs at No. 12 in the 2023 Draft, but the move made one thing clear: they want to be more explosive. Gibbs does just that, providing big play ability with his elite explosiveness. Gibbs routinely left defenders in the dust with his great quickness, and was also one of the Crimson Tide’s top receiving options. It’s not a sure thing, but pairing Gibbs with the bruising David Montgomery in the Detroit backfield could give them some more pop from that position.

21. Cincinnati Bengals

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Losing Samaje Perine is a bigger deal for Cincinnati than it may seem. Perine was a great pass protector and a good receiver, something that helped him get a majority of the third down reps. Joe Mixon is still a talented runner, but has been fairly inefficient on a per-carry basis and now has no experienced backs to spell him. If Mixon goes down, the Bengals are extremely thin on options.

22. Pittsburgh Steelers

Najee Harris has been a bell cow for the Steelers since being drafted out of Alabama back in 2021, but the efficiency hasn’t quite popped yet. Sure, some of that comes back to his offensive line, which has been bad, but the Steelers are looking for Harris to become more of a playmaker in an offense that desperately needs one. Jaylen Warren is also back to take some of the carries as the backup after a strong finish to 2022.

23. Buffalo Bills

The question for the Bills remains the same: how do they take pressure off of Josh Allen in the running game? They’re hoping that 2022 second round pick James Cook can step into a bigger role, but they also signed Damian Harris away from the division rival Patriots. Cook has more big play potential, but Harris has proven himself as a solid runner who doesn’t mind taking what the defense gives him and banging in the middle.

24. Miami Dolphins

We know the Dolphins are ultra-explosive on the perimeter, but can they supplement that with a consistent running game? Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. are back to try to provide that; a solid but unspectacular duo. Both have yet to find their footing after excelling in San Francisco under Kyle Shanahan, but if anyone can bring that production out of them, it’s Mike McDaniel.

25. New England Patriots

The duo of Damian Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson was a good duo for the Pats last year, but now Harris is gone and Stevenson is left to carry the load all by himself. Can he do it? Maybe, but it’s certainly no sure thing. Stevenson is a great runner inside, but he will need to show some more explosiveness at the second level to become a true feature back.

26. Carolina Panthers

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The talented Miles Sanders is in Carolina in 2023 after spending the last few years in a  committee in Philadelphia. Despite sharing carries (especially on the goal line) last season, Sanders still finished with 1,269 yards and 11 scores on the ground. The problem: he doesn’t get to run behind the Eagles’ elite offensive line anymore. It’s a new era in Carolina under Frank Reich and with Bryce Young behind center, and Sanders will have to play a vital role on the ground.

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The new-look Buccaneers offense is without Leonard Fournette heading into 2023, as young guns Rachaad White and Ke’Shawn Vaughn are set to take over the running back duties. Vaughn got limited action last season while White showed strong signs as a third down back, but an overall lack of experience and track record lands them towards the bottom of the list.

28. Los Angeles Rams

Sean McVay’s offenses have always been the most successful when they’re running the football, no matter who’s behind center. However, the Rams have a serious depth problem in the backfield heading into the season. Cam Akers enters as the lead man, but comes with his share of durability concerns. Akers has been solid when healthy, but has played in just 29 games in three seasons. Behind him, it’s Kyren Williams and rookie Zach Evans, so here’s hoping that Akers can give the Rams consistent production out of the backfield.

29. New Orleans Saints

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Touchdown machine Jamaal Williams is in the lead role for the first time in 2023, after coming from a plethora of running back committees during his time in Green Bay and Detroit. Williams was excellent as a goal line back for the Lions last season, scoring 17 touchdowns on the ground in a career year in 2022. Now, he’s the feature man in New Orleans, but it remains to be seen if he’s the kind of complete runner who can carry a full workload.

30. Chicago Bears

The Bears running game is going to be just fine with Justin Fields playing quarterback, but he’s now without David Montgomery alongside him. Instead, it’s third year man Khalil Herbert who will be doing the heavy lifting in 2023. Herbert has taken advantage of his opportunities when they’ve come, averaging 5.7 yards per carry in a backup role last season. If he can keep that up over a larger sample, then the Bears running game can be a force.

31. Minnesota Vikings

With Dalvin Cook still a free agent, the Vikings are down to Alexander Mattison leading the charge in the backfield. While MAttison has had some bug games in Cook’s absence before, and I’m confident that Kevin O’Connell can salvage a solid run game with his zone schemes, the Vikings aren’t in the most ideal position at running back heading into the season.

32. Arizona Cardinals

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Spoiler alert: the Cardinals are going to find themselves near the bottom of plenty of these rankings. James Conner hasn’t reached 800 yards in a season since his breakout 2018 season in Pittsburgh, and has yet to play 16 games in a season. Behind Conner, it’s veteran backup Corey Clement, who’s never received a consistent workload, and second-year back Keontay Ingram, who barely played as a rookie. Let’s hope Conner is feeling like 2018 again.

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