Ground Work: In-depth look at NFL's top 10 running backs ahead of 2021 season

Jaylon Thompson
USA TODAY Sports Plus

The NFL has changed over the years. Gone are the days where the proverbial “three yards and a cloud of dust” dominated the morning headlines. Now, highlight reels are filled with one-handed catches and 10-second Tik Tok  dance videos.

Much like Major League Baseball, where everyone loves home runs, the NFL generates mainstream appeal with the passing game. Patrick Mahomes throwing for 500 yards and putting up video game numbers is in vogue for casual fans.

As a result, the NFL is shifting to a more aerial attack. The NFL is now coined a “passing league” by several evaluators and fans alike. It is the reason three quarterbacks were selected in within the first three picks during the 2021 NFL Draft.

With the NFL elevating quarterback play, the running back position has lingered behind in its past glory. The names that once defined the sport – Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders – are now just iconic figures. The ability to log 25 carries every week has all but evaporated.

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So, what have running backs done to adapt?

Simply put, they had to find a way to contribute to the passing game. It is now more about “touches” than the number of carries. Guys like Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara are dynamic in their ability to make an impact on the field. Both are likely to find the open running lane or beat a linebacker in open space. The versatility places both players among the best NFL running backs today.

Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) runs the ball while Indianapolis Colts cornerback Rock Ya-Sin (26) defends during a Nov. 29, 2020 game.

USA TODAY Sports+ took it a step further to outline the league’s best. Here is a list of the 10 running backs that continue to withstand the changing NFL landscape.

10.  Joe Mixon (Cincinnati Bengals)

As one of the more underrated running backs, Mixon is relatively unknown among casual NFL fans around the league. This perception is likely to change as Mixon is staring at a sizeable workload with the Bengals. In his career, Mixon has two 1,100-yard seasons (2018 and '19). Despite missing time with injuries in 2020, Mixon is the engine for the revamped Bengals’ offense. It could lead to a true breakout campaign for the fifth-year back.  

9. Josh Jacobs (Las Vegas Raiders)

Jacobs enters his third NFL season with a lot of confidence. The former Alabama standout has eclipsed all expectations with the Raiders. He recorded 1,065 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns last season en route to his first Pro Bowl honor. The 23-year-old is a powerful downhill runner, and that bodes well for the Raiders offense. Jacobs could be the key reaching the playoffs.

8. Ezekiel Elliott (Dallas Cowboys)

Elliott is coming off a disappointing campaign last season, registering just 979 yards and six touchdowns for a high-powered Cowboys offense. He also averaged just 65.3 yards per game and fumbled six times. Expect Elliott to bounce back this season. He should see light tackle boxes with star quarterback Dak Prescott returning. The presence of three top-tier receivers should alleviate pressure as well. If Elliott can feast against opposing defenses, his top NFL running back standing will be restored.

7. Nick Chubb (Cleveland Browns)

Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb (24) runs for a touchdown during a Jan. 3, 2021 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Chubb is a model of consistency. Despite missing time on injured reserve, Chubb still posted 1,067 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, finding the end zone in nine of his 12 starts last season. The Browns clearly favor his production on early downs despite having a backfield tandem with Kareem Hunt. However, Chubb is just the player to ensure the Browns maintain their offensive balance.

6. Aaron Jones (Green Bay Packers)

 Jones returned to the Packers with a brand-new four-year deal worth $48 million. Jones is essential to the offense as he can thrive within the running and passing game. Last season, he recorded 1,104 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. He also added 47 receptions for 355 yards and an additional two scores. This season, Jones will share the workload with AJ Dillon. The backfield combo will have a lot of opportunities, but Jones is the home run threat that gives the Packers a jolt on the field.  

Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones celebrates a touchdown during an Oct. 5, 2020 game against the Atlanta Falcons.

5. Saquon Barkley (New York Giants)

The New York Giants felt Barkley’s absence last season. There is no questioning the significance he adds when healthy. Barkley missed 14 games with a torn ACL, and the Giants’ offense waned as a result. The Giants hope he can return ahead of the season-opener against the Denver Broncos on September 12. Barkley will start training camp on the Giants' active/physically unable to perform list. Should he log a full season, Bark can potentially return to his 2018 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and Pro Bowl levels. He has two 1,000-yard campaigns in his career and the stage is set for a nice comeback story.

4. Alvin Kamara (New Orleans Saints)

Kamara is a key pillar among versatile NFL running backs, and the Saints use Kamara in a variety of ways on the field. He finished the 2020 season with 932 rushing yards, 83 receptions, 756 receiving yards and 21 total touchdowns. It is hard to ignore his presence within the lineup. In Week 16, Kamara dismantled the Minnesota Vikings defense with 155 rushing yards and six touchdowns. With Drew Brees retiring, Kamara will likely have an even bigger workload in 2021.

3. Dalvin Cook (Minnesota Vikings)

It is time for Cook to become a household name, especially after his eye-popping 29 touchdowns in his last 28 games. Last season, Cook rushed for 1,557 yards and 16 touchdowns with the Vikings en route to his second Pro Bowl season. Cook has a rare blend of speed and power. He can slip through tackles and pile rushing yards in bunches. Look for that to continue as he pilots the Vikings towards a potential run in the NFC North.

2. Christian McCaffrey (Carolina Panthers)

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) celebrates a touchdown with wide receiver Jarius Wright (13) durng a Nov. 3, 2019 game.

McCaffrey embodies the term versatility. The Carolina Panthers star is dynamic in his ability to create explosive plays across the formation. Injuries hindered his 2020 season, but one look at the 2019 season proves why McCaffrey is rated highly on this list. McCaffrey posted 2,392 total yards (1,387 rushing, 1,005 receiving) in 2019. He added 116 receptions and scored 19 total touchdowns. He became one of only three NFL players to reach the 1,000 milestones in multiple categories. How McCaffrey bounces back will determine a lot for an upstart Panthers team.

1. Derrick Henry (Tennessee Titans)

What Henry has done in recent seasons is beyond remarkable. He became the eighth player to eclipse 2,000 rushing yards in a single season. His 2,027 yards in 2020 placed him fifth all-time behind record-holder Eric Dickerson, Adrian Peterson, Jamal Lewis and Barry Sanders. Henry is the focal point of the Titans offense, and that will continue next season. What’s scary is that he could face light tackle boxes as well. The Titans added NFL All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones to pair next to emerging star A.J. Brown. If both receivers attract safety coverage, Henry could provide a real threat to Dickerson’s longstanding NFL record.