Ranking Every NFL Backfield Heading into the 2018 Season

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistMay 22, 2018

Ranking Every NFL Backfield Heading into the 2018 Season

0 of 32

    Gary McCullough/Associated Press

    Today's NFL is pass-driven. Quarterbacks and pass-catchers have become the offensive stars, while defensive backs and pass-rushers have become the most in-demand players on the other side of the ball.

    The ground game still has an important place in modern football, but it doesn't look like it once did. Though young running backs such as Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette and Todd Gurley have recently brought back the concept of the dominant rusher, every-down backs are few and far between.

    Most teams employ a committee, each back with his own specialization. During the course of a game, we'll see bruising early-down rushers, pass-catching backs, blocking specialists and even the occasional fullback. 

    The defending champion Philadelphia Eagles, for example, used six different running backs during the regular season. Three of them rushed for at least 300 yards, but only one, LeGarrette Blount, logged more than 100 carries.

    Because of the style of the modern game, we're going to rank the projected backfields of 2018 rather than individuals. We'll look at each team, its projected depth chart and the role each back can play this season.

32. Indianapolis Colts

1 of 32

    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Starter: Marlon Mack

    Depth: Nyheim Hines, Jordan Wilkins, Robert Turbin

    Fullback: N/A

    The Indianapolis Colts have a lot riding on Hines and Wilkins (2018 fourth- and fifth-round picks, respectively). If the pair can't make immediate contributions, the team could have the worst backfield we've seen in some time.

    Last year's was bad enough. It ranked 22nd in yards per game (103.8) and averaged just 3.7 yards per carry. Only four teams averaged fewer yards per carry. No one running back reached 4.0 yards per tote, and Gore, the starter in 2017, left in free agency.

    Mack should head into camp as the starter, but he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry last season and led all returning backs with a mere 21 receptions. The Colts should hope either Hines or Wilkins is able to unseat him.

    Hines has the kind of speed (4.38-second 40-yard dash) to be a difference-maker as a change-of-pace back. However, he is undersized (5'8", 198 lbs). Wilkins has more traditional size (6'1", 216 lbs) but doesn't possess the skill set of a future starter. Robert Turbin is an experienced but often unproductive 28-year-old veteran who should round out the depth chart.

    Expect the Colts to utilize a committee backfield this season, but don't expect it to be a strong one. The running game should get a boost from Andrew Luck's pending return, as his downfield passing should back opposing defenses off the line. However, the backfield is full of unknowns and unproven talent.

31. Cincinnati Bengals

2 of 32

    Todd Olszewski/Getty Images

    Starter: Joe Mixon

    Depth: Giovani Bernard, Brian Hill, Mark Walton, Quinton Flowers

    Fullback: Ryan Hewitt

    The Cincinnati Bengals had the second-worst ground game in 2017, with an average of just 85.4 yards per game. While some of the blame is on Cincinnati's shoddy offensive line, backs like Jeremy Hill and Mixon struggled to create their own space.

    Hill is gone to the New England Patriots, and Mixon looks like he'll be taking over the starting gig full-time. However, Cincinnati's best back last season was Giovani Bernard. He averaged 4.4 yards per carry and caught 43 passes for 389 yards.

    Mixon averaged a subpar 3.5 yards per carry, but he is the bigger back at 6'1" and 228 pounds. The 5'9", 205-pound Bernard is more of a change-of-pace back and a pass-catcher. Mixon is built better for a heavy early-down workload, though Bernard may again be the superior back when he gets his opportunities.

    Brian Hill is purely a depth player who had just 11 carries in 2017. Fourth-round pick Mark Walton and undrafted free agent Quinton Flowers should compete for playing time and may push Hill out of the backfield. Flowers, who played quarterback at South Florida, could carve out a role as a Wildcat player in sub-packages.

    Ryan Hewitt is a 2014 undrafted free agent who will block in certain situations but won't see many touches on offense.

    The additions of Cordy Glenn via a trade and rookie Billy Price should improve Cincinnati's blocking up front. If Mixon doesn't take a big step forward in his second year, however, the Bengals could have the worst running game in the NFL. Bernard brings some versatility to the backfield, but there is virtually no proven depth behind him.

30. Oakland Raiders

3 of 32

    Harry How/Getty Images

    Starter: Marshawn Lynch

    Depth: Jalen Richard, DeAndre Washington, Doug Martin

    Fullback: Keith Smith

    Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch ran hard in 2017 and continues to be a load for opposing defenses to handle. However, he isn't the same workhorse he once was with the Seattle Seahawks. While he did average 4.3 yards per carry, he only logged 207 totes last season.

    Lynch could get an even smaller workload in 2018. A lot will depend on how new head coach Jon Gruden decides to split his backfield. The Raiders have a quality change-of-pace back in Jalen Richard, who averaged 4.9 yards per carry last campaign. However, Gruden and the Raiders brought in Doug Martin on a one-year, $1.48 million deal this offseason.

    If the Gruden tries to force Martin into a role, Richard could lose opportunities. Most likely, though, Martin and DeAndre Washington will compete for a depth role. Martin and Washington averaged just 2.9 and 2.7 yards per carry last season, respectively.

    The Raiders signed former Dallas Cowboys fullback Keith Smith in free agency. He appeared in all 16 games in each of the past two seasons.

    Oakland didn't add a running back in the draft, so if Martin doesn't regain his Pro Bowl form and help improve the Raiders backfield, the ground game is likely to look a whole lot like it did in 2017. That's not good, as Oakland averaged just 97.1 yards per game last season, 25th in the NFL.

29. Denver Broncos

4 of 32

    Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

    Starter: Royce Freeman

    Depth: Devontae Booker, David Williams, De'Angelo Henderson

    Fullback: Andy Janovich

    The Denver Broncos have to hope rookie third-round pick Royce Freeman is the same back he was three years ago. Yes, he did rush for 1,475 yards last season with the Oregon Ducks, but in 2015, he rushed for 1,836 yards and caught 26 passes. A knee injury in 2016 robbed him of some of his playmaking ability. A struggling Ducks team didn't help.

    If the Broncos are getting the same player Freeman was in 2015, they may have landed the steal of the draft.

    "With better blocking in front of him, I'm not so sure that he's not still that same kid we saw as a sophomore," an AFC personnel director said of Freeman, per NFL Media's Lance Zierlein.

    If Freeman isn't that guy, the Broncos could have an underwhelming backfield. 2017 starter C.J. Anderson is gone to the Carolina Panthers, and there isn't quality depth. Booker did rush for 299 yards last season, but he only averaged 3.8 yards per carry. Henderson saw just seven carries. Janovich started nine games over two years.

    Williams, a seventh-round pick, is a bit of a wild card. The former Arkansas running back averaged 5.6 yards per carry in 2017 and averaged more than 17 yards per reception. He should have a legitimate shot at making the roster.

    If Freeman struggles this offseason, the Broncos may want to bring back free agent Jamaal Charles, who averaged 4.3 yards per carry last season.

28. San Francisco 49ers

5 of 32

    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Starter: Jerick McKinnon

    Depth: Joe Williams, Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert

    Fullback: Kyle Juszczyk

    The San Francisco 49ers have their franchise quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo. What they don't have is a franchise running back. The team added Jerick McKinnon in the offseason, and while he's a versatile back, he isn't a workhorse.

    McKinnon produced 570 rushing yards and 421 receiving yards last season. Those are solid numbers, but they aren't starting-back caliber. He's going to make some explosive plays in head coach Kyle Shanahan's offense, but he isn't likely to dominate games.

    Expect the 49ers to rely on a committee in 2018. McKinnon should split time with Matt Breida, who rushed for 465 yards as a backup last season. They will also be counting on 2017 fourth-round pick Williams, who missed all of last season with an ankle injury. The former Utah standout rushed for 1,407 yards with the Utes in 2016 and will be an offseason wild card.

    Raheem Mostert has spent three years in the NFL but has just seven career carries. He'll likely be a backup and special teams player. Juszczyk should round out the backfield. He is an experienced veteran who joined the 49ers last year and went on to start 10 games and appear in 14.

    There are many unknowns in the backfield, and a lot will depend on how McKinnon performs in a larger role. It looks, though, like the 49ers are going to have to rely heavily on Garoppolo and the passing game in 2018.

27. Green Bay Packers

6 of 32

    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Starter: Aaron Jones

    Depth: Ty Montgomery, Jamaal Williams, Devante Mays

    Fullback: Aaron Ripkowski

    The Green Bay Packers averaged a solid 4.5 yards per carry last season. However, quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Brett Hundley helped that number tremendously.

    Jones was the only running back to average more than 4.0 yards per carry, and the Packers averaged just 107.8 yards rushing per game (17th in the NFL). Though Jones did average 5.5 yards per tote, the Packers largely employed a committee backfield, and that may be the case again this season.

    Jones is dealing with legal issues after pleading no-contest to a marijuana-related charge. He'll need to regain the organization's trust if he hopes to earn a full-time starting role.

    For now, Jones will be sharing carries with Montgomery, who converted from receiver, and Williams. They averaged 3.8 and 3.6 yards per carry last season, respectively. Williams led the team with 153 carries and added 25 receptions. Montgomery had 23 receptions.

    Ripkowski has been Green Bay's primary fullback since 2016, and he'll stay in that role. Just don't expect him to contribute much as a runner or receiver. Mays was a seventh-round pick and saw just four carries as a rookie in 2017. Barring a massive jump, he'll be a depth back and a possible special teamer.

    The Packers should have better luck running the ball with Rodgers healthy and able to stretch the field this season. It remains to be seen, however, if their committee backfield is talented enough to be even an average unit.

26. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

7 of 32

    Steve Nesius/Associated Press

    Starter: Ronald Jones

    Depth: Jacquizz Rodgers, Charles Sims, Peyton Barber

    Fullback: Austin Johnson

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will likely go with a committee backfield in 2018. Its success will depend on how rookie second-round pick Ronald Jones adapts to the pro game. 

    Jones was a star at USC—he rushed for 1,550 yards just last season—but he doesn't have the best measurables. He ran the 40 in 4.65 seconds at 5'11" and 205 pounds. While he has enough agility to make defenders miss, Jones isn't a burner or a bruiser.

    "I love his juice," one NFC executive said, per Zierlein. "You have to have some of that to become a good back in the pros, and he has a lot of it. He may be a little too light to give it to him more than 12-14 times per game though. I worry if he can hold up."

    Tampa is bringing back Rodgers and Barber, who rushed for 244 and 423 yards last season, respectively. However, neither averaged more than 3.9 yards per carry. They will provide running depth behind Jones.

    Sims, who caught 35 passes last season, should be the primary receiving back. Johnson, who didn't appear in any games last season, will have a shot at earning the starting fullback job.

    If Jones manages to be as productive with the Buccaneers as he was with the Trojans, Tampa Bay should have an improved backfield. If he struggles, though, it may be as disappointing as the 27th-ranked unit last season.

25. Seattle Seahawks

8 of 32

    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Starter: Rashaad Penny

    Depth: Chris Carson, C.J. Prosise, Mike Davis

    Fullback: Jalston Fowler

    If the Seattle Seahawks are going to have a high-end backfield, Penny is going to have to live up to his status as a first-round pick this April.

    The team's backfield was largely a joke last season, as was the offensive line's run blocking. Seattle averaged 101.8 yards per game on the ground, 23rd in the league. However, many of those yards came from quarterback Russell Wilson, who led the team in rushing by a large margin with 586 yards. Davis was second with 240 rushing yards. Carson had just 208.

    While Prosise showed promise as a runner and receiver as a rookie, he had just 49 carries and seven receptions before landing on injured reserve with an ankle injury. Thomas Rawls and Eddie Lacy are both gone.

    Fowler, who spent the last three seasons with the Tennessee Titans, should be the starting fullback.

    It's going to be up to Penny to return the Seahawks ground game to its former glory, and he's going to have to do so behind a questionable offensive line.

    At least the rookie is ready for the challenge.

    "I'm not nervous. I'm ready to ball," Penny said, per Kirk Kenney of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

24. Houston Texans

9 of 32

    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Starter: Lamar Miller

    Depth: D'Onta Foreman, Alfred Blue, Tyler Ervin

    Fullback: Jay Prosch

    The Houston Texans struggled to run the ball often in 2017. They can't blame everything on losing quarterback Deshaun Watson to a torn ACL either.

    Miller was a 1,000-yard back in 2016 but rushed for just 888 yards and a career-low 3.7 yards per carry last season. He did add 36 receptions but didn't look like the same player.

    Foreman proved to be a quality back as a rookie, but he's unlikely to challenge for the starting role. He averaged 4.2 yards per carry last season, but Houston lost him for the year after 10 games because of a torn Achilles. He's still recovering, but the Texans believe he'll be ready for training camp.

    "We are hoping that he will be back here when we get ready to put the pads back on," general manager Brian Gaine said, per Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle. "So, we will manage that and massage that as we go forward."

    Houston brought back Blue on a one-year deal this offseason. He's spent four campaigns with the Texans and should be the team's No. 3 back. Ervin will provide depth behind him, while Prosch, a four-year veteran, will lock down the fullback spot.

    If Miller can bounce back from a poor season and Foreman proves healthy, Houston's backfield could be solid. If these things don't happen, however, it could be one of the league's most disappointing.

23. Detroit Lions

10 of 32

    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Starter: LeGarrette Blount

    Depth: Kerryon Johnson, Theo Riddick, Ameer Abdullah, Zach Zenner

    Fullback: Nick Bawden

    The Detroit Lions have had a laughable rushing attack for some time. They haven't had a runner reach 100 yards in a game since 2013, and they ranked dead last in rushing last season (76.3 yards per game). However, they have talent in the backfield, especially after a productive offseason.

    Detroit added Blount in free agency. He rushed for 766 yards and 4.4 yards per carry last season with the Philadelphia Eagles. He will likely take over for 2015 second-round pick Abdullah, who has averaged a mere 3.8 yards per carry for his career (3.3 last season).

    Abdullah may find himself behind both Blount and second-round pick Johnson, if he's on the roster at all. Johnson was a productive player at Auburn, rushing for 1,391 yards last season and adding 24 receptions.

    Let's not forget about Riddick, one of the league's best receiving backs. While he may not add a lot to the ground attack, he's a valuable member of the backfield as a receiver. He caught 53 passes last season for 444 yards.

    Zenner, a regular preseason standout, should provide depth, while rookie seventh-round pick Bawden should lock down the fullback spot.

    Blount will need to prove he's still a high-level starter, and Johnson will have to show he has what it takes to succeed in the NFL. Still, it's looking like the Lions will no longer be laughingstocks in the running game and will have a deep, talented backfield this season.

22. Miami Dolphins

11 of 32

    Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

    Starter: Kenyan Drake

    Depth: Frank Gore, Kalen Ballage, Gregory Howell

    Fullback: N/A

    The success of the Miami Dolphins backfield will hinge largely on the success of Drake as a full-time starter. He didn't get many opportunities last season until the team parted with Jay Ajayi at the end of October. However, he did average 4.8 yards per carry and rush for 75 yards or more in four of the final five games.

    The Dolphins brought in Gore this offseason to complement Drake. While the veteran does still run hard between the tackles, he is 35 years old and hasn't averaged at least 4.0 yards per carry since 2014. He'll see some early-down and short-yardage work, but he isn't the playmaker he once was.

    The good news is that Gore can handle a large workload, and the Dolphins can count on him to start if Drake goes down with an injury.

    Ballage, a rookie fourth-rounder, has good speed (4.46 40-yard dash) and can be a versatile change-of-pace player.

    "I am a running back, but I consider myself a football player. I feel like I'm somebody that can do everything pretty well," Ballage explained, per Alain Poupart the team's official website.

    The Dolphins added former Florida Atlantic running back Gregory Howell as an undrafted free agent. He has good size at 6'1" and 215 pounds and could make the roster as a short-yardage back. Head coach Adam Gase doesn't feature a tradition fullback in his spread offense, and the Dolphins may not even carry one this season.

    Miami had the fourth-worst rushing offense in 2017 (86.8 yards per game). It has the potential to improve this season, but there remain a lot of unknowns.

21. New York Jets

12 of 32

    Al Pereira/Getty Images

    Starter: Isaiah Crowell

    Depth: Bilal Powell, Thomas Rawls, Trenton Cannon

    Fullback: Dimitri Flowers

    The New York Jets are going to command a lot of attention because of the presence of rookie quarterback Sam Darnold, especially if he earns the starting job over Josh McCown. However, the Jets should be getting attention for their backfield.

    New York averaged just 106.4 yards per game last season, 19th in the league. However, this was largely due to the ineffectiveness of Matt Forte and the limited use of Powell. While Powell did start 10 games, he only logged 20 or more carries once. He finished the season with 772 rushing yards, 4.3 yards per carry, 23 receptions and a host of huge plays.

    Powell ranked fourth in the NFL with nine plays of at least 20 yards. A league-leading four of those went for more than 40 yards.

    To complement Powell, the Jets added former Cleveland Browns starter Crowell. The 5'11", 225-pound back is a powerful between-the-tackles runner who has averaged 4.2 yards per carry throughout his career to go with 21 rushing touchdowns.

    Crowell and Powell will give the Jets a powerful backfield duo. Former Virginia State back Cannon, a player with 4.4 40-yard-dash speed, will further complement them. Rawls will provide veteran depth, while undrafted free agent Flowers could snag the fullback job.

    New York is going to have a good backfield in 2018, though the stats may not show it if Darnold earns the starting job and opposing defenses refuse to respect him.

20. Los Angeles Chargers

13 of 32

    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Starter: Melvin Gordon

    Depth: Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson, Russell Hansbrough

    Fullback: Derek Watt

    Gordon, a first-round pick in 2015, was finally a 1,000-yard back last season. In fact, he rushed for 1,105 yards, added an impressive 58 receptions and produced 476 yards receiving. Though he is more of a grinder than a playmaker—he averaged 3.9 yards per carry in each of the last two seasons—he is a legitimate workhorse.

    The Chargers have a solid backup in Ekeler. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry on 47 attempts and added 27 receptions and 279 receiving yards. He showed he can be an explosive player who deserves a few more opportunities in 2018.

    The Chargers grabbed former Northwestern running back Jackson in the seventh round of the draft. He rushed for 1,311 yards and 11 touchdowns and added 44 receptions last season with the Wildcats. He should provide great situational depth and could even steal some reps from Gordon and Ekeler in passing situations.

    Hansbrough is a third-year player who spent the majority of 2017 on L.A's practice squad. Derek Watt, the brother of defensive star J.J. Watt, has spent the last two years as the team's fullback.

    The Chargers should hope that Gordon can be a more consistent and explosive runner in 2018. However, he can handle a huge workload, and there's some decent depth behind him. The team will have a good group this season.

19. Washington Redskins

14 of 32

    Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

    Starter: Derrius Guice

    Depth: Chris Thompson, Rob Kelley, Samaje Perine

    Fullback: Elijah Wellman

    The Washington Redskins had the league's 28th-ranked rushing attack in 2017 (90.5 yards per game) but could have one of the league's most improved backfields this season. It's all going to depend on how rookie second-round pick Guice performs.

    He is a dynamic runner who can break tackles and make defenders miss. He rushed for 1,251 yards at LSU last season and has the kind of motor teams want in a starter.

    "He's just a ball of energy," head coach Jay Gruden said, per John Keim of ESPN.com. "He's really excited to be here. He's willing to learn. He's first in the meeting, got his playbook open and just soaking in all the knowledge."

    Thompson will likely be backing up Guice, assuming he's the same player he was before last year's broken fibula. The 27-year-old is a tremendous receiving back (510 yards on 39 catches in 10 games) and an underrated runner. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry in 2017.

    Perine and Kelley were often inefficient runners last season—nether averaged 3.5 yards per carry—but will add experience and depth to the backfield. Wellman, an undrafted free agent, could stick as Washington's fullback.

    If Guice is the same kind of player he was at LSU and Thompson is back to 100 percent, the Redskins could have one of the league's better running back duos this season.

18. Baltimore Ravens

15 of 32

    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Starter: Alex Collins

    Depth: Javorius Allen, Kenneth Dixon, Gus Edwards

    Fullback: Patrick Ricard

    The Baltimore Ravens found themselves a starting-caliber back in Collins, whom they scooped up after Seattle cut him in September. Though he only made 12 starts, Collins rushed for 973 yards and averaged 4.6 per carry. He also added 187 yards on 23 receptions.

    The rest of the backfield was a bit disappointing. While the team ranked 11th in yards per game (116.0), it only averaged 4.0 yards per carry (19th).

    Allen will be a solid backup behind Collins—he rushed for 591 yards last season—but his biggest value may be as a receiving back. He logged 46 receptions in 2017. Dixon will try to bounce back after a season lost to suspension and a meniscus injury. He'll provide depth along with undrafted rookie and former Rutgers standout Edwards.

    Ricard, who also plays defensive tackle, will likely serve as Baltimore's fullback when the offense decides to use one.

    A lot will depend on how Collins responds to being the team's unquestioned starter. Baltimore didn't draft a running back and parted with Terrance West in the offseason.

    "I know I'm durable. I can handle the load, and I can do whatever it takes," Collins said recently, per Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com.

17. Philadelphia Eagles

16 of 32

    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Starter: Jay Ajayi

    Depth: Corey Clement, Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood, Donnel Pumphrey

    Fullback: N/A

    Ajayi appears likely to take over for Blount as the Eagles' starter. He rushed for 408 yards in seven games for Philadelphia last season and averaged an impressive 5.8 yards per carry. He has the size (6'0", 233 lbs) and the skill set to be a workhorse back, as he proved with the Dolphins in 2016 (260 carries, 1,272 yards).

    Second-year player Clement, who rushed for 321 yards last season, should serve as Philadelphia's backup rusher. Sproles has decided to return for another season on a one-year $1.4 million deal, and the veteran, who will turn 35 in June, should be the primary receiving back.

    Sproles has logged 532 receptions over his 13-year career (missed all of 2006). While Philly lost him to injury after just three games last season, he had at least 50 receptions in both 2015 and 2016.

    Smallwood and Pumphrey will provide depth behind Ajayi, Clement and Sproles. The Eagles rarely use a fullback and typically place other position players into the role when they do line up with one.

    If Ajayi can be the same guy he was in 2016 and if Sproles still has anything left in the tank, the Eagles backfield can be even more talented than it was in 2017. While there's no clear-cut star in this group, it's the sum of its parts and creative offensive design from head coach Doug Pederson that give it upside. 

16. Minnesota Vikings

17 of 32

    Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

    Starter: Dalvin Cook

    Depth: Latavius Murray, Mack Brown, Roc Thomas

    Fullback: C.J. Ham

    The success of the Minnesota Vikings backfield will depend on second-year back Dalvin Cook's health. As a rookie, Cook looked like a future star before suffering a torn ACL. He rushed for 354 yards and caught 11 passes in his four appearances.

    Fortunately, it appears Cook is on schedule to start in Week 1.

    "He's done really well," head coach Mike Zimmer told NFL Network earlier this month. "He's ahead of schedule. We're excited about where he's at."

    The Vikings also have depth behind Cook in the form of Latavius Murray. He led the Vikings with 842 yards rushing last season. He and Cook should form an even better duo than Minnesota had in Murray and Jerick McKinnon last season. Those two helped give the Vikings the league's seventh-ranked rushing attack (122.3 yards per game).

    Mack Brown and undrafted free agent Roc Thomas will provide further depth in the backfield. C.J. Ham is entering his second season as Minnesota's fullback.

    If Cook is the same player he was before the injury, the Vikings should have one of the top backfields in the league. Even if he isn't back to 100 percent right away, Minnesota's backfield will be more than serviceable.

15. Carolina Panthers

18 of 32

    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Starter: C.J. Anderson

    Depth: Christian McCaffrey, Cameron Artis-Payne, Kenjon Barner, Elijah Hood

    Fullback: Alex Armah

    The Carolina Panthers had the league's fourth-ranked rushing attack last year (131.4 yards per game), but 754 rushing yards came from quarterback Cam Newton. Starting back Jonathan Stewart wasn't all that effective (3.4 yards per carry).

    To replace Stewart, the Panthers brought in former Broncos back C.J. Anderson, who rushed for 1,007 yards on 4.1 yards per carry last season. They also have Christian McCaffrey, who established himself as one of the league's most versatile backs as a rookie.

    McCaffrey rushed for 435 yards, caught 80 passes and produced 651 receiving yards. Anderson and McCaffrey should provide a similar one-two punch as Stewart-McCaffrey provided last year. 

    The Panthers lost depth back Fozzy Whittaker to a torn ACL this offseason, but they have Cameron Artis-Payne. The former Auburn standout has never carved out a large role in Carolina's offense, but he does have a solid 4.3 yards-per-carry average for his career.

    Artis-Payne and former Raiders back Elijah Hood will provide depth behind Anderson and McCaffrey. Second-year man Alex Armah should hold down the fullback spot.

    A lot is going to depend whether Anderson can be a 1,000-yard back for the Panthers. However, there is a ton of versatility with this group.

    Do the Panthers have an elite backfield? No, but they will have a good one in 2018 and should have one of the league's best rushing attacks thanks to Newton.

14. Buffalo Bills

19 of 32

    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Starter: LeSean McCoy

    Depth: Chris Ivory, Taiwan Jones, Travaris Cadet, Marcus Murphy

    Fullback: Patrick DiMarco

    Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy is closing in on his 30th birthday (July 12), but he's still one of the most explosive backs in the NFL. Though he only averaged 4.0 yards per carry last season, he tied for first in the NFL with 12 carries of at least 20 yards. He also caught 59 passes for 448 yards.

    In 2017, McCoy essentially was Buffalo's offense outside of quarterback Tyrod Taylor. He'll likely be the main guy supporting either AJ McCarron or rookie Josh Allen this season. However, the Bills at least brought in Chris Ivory to help provide depth.

    Ivory is an experienced back, but he averaged just 3.4 yards per carry with the Jaguars last year. He'll likely be Buffalo's primary backup, but he may no longer be one of the best backups in the league. Taiwan Jones, Travaris Cadet and Marcus Murphy are strictly depth players who combined for just 29 carries in 2017.

    Fullback Patrick DiMarco is a solid seven-year veteran.

    Buffalo would have been wise to add a running back in the draft this year. There isn't much talent outside of McCoy. He's going to face a lot of stacked boxes until/unless opposing defenses start respecting McCarron or Allen at quarterback.

13. Arizona Cardinals

20 of 32

    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Starter: David Johnson

    Depth: Chase Edmonds, Elijhaa Penny, D.J. Foster

    Fullback: Derrick Coleman

    Running back David Johnson missed 15 games with a wrist injury last year, and the Arizona Cardinals offense plummeted. How we view the Cardinals' backfield this season will depend entirely on whether he is the same back he was before the injury. So far, it appears he is on the right track.

    "He looked outstanding today," head coach Steve Wilks recently told NFL Network. "It's good to have him back out there. Just flying around and the things that he's doing right now is pretty exciting."

    There isn't a whole lot of proven depth behind Johnson, though. Elijhaa Penny rushed for just 124 yards last season with the Cardinals, while D.J. Foster saw just six carries.

    Chase Edmonds is a rookie fourth-round pick out of Fordham. While he was a quality collegiate runner, he didn't face a high level of competition. He did have nearly 1,800 rushing yards two seasons ago, but he isn't likely ready for a heavy workload at the NFL level.

    Johnson is also going to have to get used to running behind a fullback. The Cardinals almost never used one under Bruce Arians but will be using one under Wilks. Derrick Coleman, who started seven games for the Atlanta Falcons last season, will almost certainly earn the starting job.

    Two years ago, Johnson produced more than 2,000 combined rushing and receiving yards. If he does so again, Arizona's backfield would deserve to be higher on this list—even if Johnson does all the heavy lifting. 

12. Atlanta Falcons

21 of 32

    Harry How/Getty Images

    Starter: Devonta Freeman

    Depth: Tevin Coleman, Ito Smith, Justin Crawford

    Fullback: Daniel Marx

    The Falcons have a pair of quality running backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. However, the duo didn't see as much production in Steve Sarkisian's offense as it did in Kyle Shanahan's. 

    It has to be noted that Freeman missed two games last season and Coleman missed one. Still, Freeman went from 1,541 combined rushing and receiving yards to 1,182 combined yards. His yards-per-carry average fell from 4.8 to 4.4.

    Coleman was roughly the same back. He had 941 combined yards in 2016 (in 13 games) and 927 combined yards in 2017.

    Freeman and Coleman can still be one of the league's better duos, especially if Sarkisian's offense takes a big step forward in his second season as offensive coordinator. There isn't proven depth behind the two, though. Ito Smith was added in the fourth round, and Justin Crawford was signed as an undrafted free agent.

    Fullback Daniel Marx was also added as an undrafted free agent.

    We know what Freeman and Coleman can do, and they'll be the primary contributors to an above-average backfield in 2018. We don't know what the rookies will add, and they could be the pieces needed to make it one of the best units in the league.

11. New York Giants

22 of 32

    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Starter: Saquon Barkley

    Depth: Jonathan Stewart, Wayne Gallman, Robert Martin

    Fullback: Shane Smith

    The New York Giants had a dismal rushing attack in 2017. They didn't have the kind of running back opposing defenses would worry about and averaged just 96.8 yards rushing per game (26th in the NFL).

    Things should be completely different this year.

    New York selected former Penn State running back Saquon Barkley with the second overall pick in the draft. Barkley is a do-it-all back who can change the course of a game all by himself.

    "You don't screw up the special ones when you are a talent evaluator. This guy is special. Any concerns you file on him just feels like nitpicking to fill out the report," one general manager said of Barkley heading into the draft, per NFL Media's Lance Zierlein.

    The Giants also brought in Stewart in free agency. He amassed 640 yards rushing with the Panthers in 2017. In addition, New York has Wayne Gallman, who accumulated 476 yards rushing and 34 receptions last season. Undrafted Rutgers product Robert Martin should provide depth, while tight end-fullback hybrid Shane Smith will also see some time in the backfield.

    If Barkley is everything he's expected to be as a player, the Giants could have an elite backfield. They have a potential superstar, good veteran depth and Odell Beckham Jr. to keep defenders honest. 

10. Cleveland Browns

23 of 32

    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Starter: Carlos Hyde

    Depth: Duke Johnson, Nick Chubb, Matt Dayes

    Fullback: Dan Vitale

    The Cleveland Browns offense was bad in 2017. Cleveland averaged a league-low 14.6 points per game and had a rotation of folly at the quarterback position. However, the Browns were actually very good at running the ball.

    Cleveland averaged just 107.1 yards per game on the ground (18th in the NFL), but this was largely due to the team trailing in games and Hue Jackson's refusal to stick with the run. As a team, the Browns averaged 4.5 yards per carry. Only the Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints averaged more in 2017.

    The Browns replaced Crowell with former 49ers back Carlos Hyde, who many consider a superior back. Hyde was recently named the 97th-best player on NFL Network's NFL 100 list. Hyde rushed for 940 yards and caught 59 passes last season.

    Hyde will likely split carries with rookie second-round pick Nick Chubb, who was one of the draft's most productive backs. Last season at Georgia, Chubb racked up 1,345 yards rushing.

    Cleveland features one of the NFL's best pass-catching backs. Duke Johnson caught 74 passes for 693 yards last season. He's caught at least 50 passes in each of his three NFL seasons and has averaged 4.2 yards per carry. He, Hyde and Chubb should form one of the league's most dangerous three-headed backfield attacks this season. Matt Dayes will provide depth and Dan Vitale will serve as fullback. 

    With Todd Haley now running the offense in Cleveland, the backfield could be one of the league's most productive. 

9. Jacksonville Jaguars

24 of 32

    Gary McCullough/Associated Press

    Starter: Leonard Fournette

    Depth: T.J. Yeldon, Corey Grant, Tim Cook, Brandon Wilds

    Fullback: Tommy Bohanon

    Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette wasn't the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2017, but he had an even bigger impact on his team than winner Alvin Kamara. The 6'1", 228-pound bruiser became the player to stop on Jacksonville's offense, and he helped turn the Jaguars into a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

    Fournette rushed for 1,040 yards in just 13 games last season. Expect him to compete for the NFL rushing title in 2018.

    Former second-round pick T.J. Yeldon is one of the better backups in the league, and he can definitely start in a pinch. He averaged an impressive 5.2 yards per carry last season. Corey Grant is an explosive depth back (8.3 yards per carry in 2017) who provides a nice change of pace.

    Tim Cook hasn't seen regular-season action, but at 6'0", 242 pounds, he has the size to be a bulldozer between the tackles. Brandon Wilds has spent time with the Jets and Browns and brings experience to the bottom of the depth chart.

    Fullback Tommy Bohanon is a quality lead blocker and pass protector, but he doesn't add much as a runner. He's averaged fewer than three yards per carry over the course of his career.

    The ground game is the identity of the Jaguars offense. As a team, the Jaguars averaged 141.4 yards per game last season, most in the NFL. If a player like Grant or Cook can replace the production of the departed Chris Ivory, Jacksonville should again have one of the top rushing attacks in the league.

8. Dallas Cowboys

25 of 32

    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Starter: Ezekiel Elliott

    Depth: Bo Scarbrough, Rod Smith, Trey Williams

    Fullback: Jamize Olawale

    The Dallas Cowboys have one of the league's best running backs in Ezekiel Elliott. He only appeared in 10 games because of suspension last season but still managed to rush for 983 yards and 4.1 yards per carry. He's also a quality pass-catcher who has racked up 58 receptions in less than two full seasons.

    The problem with Dallas' backfield is that it lacks proven depth. The Cowboys haven't re-signed Alfred Morris, who rushed for 547 yards last season. That leaves Rod Smith as the veteran backup behind Elliott. He rushed for 4.2 yards per carry last season but has 57 total NFL carries.

    The Cowboys drafted former Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough in the seventh round. He is a 6'1", 228-pound bruiser who should see some work in short-yardage situations. The Cowboys also have Trey Williams, who has also spent time with the Colts and Steelers.

    Fullback Jamize Olawale is a six-year veteran who has spent his entire career with the Raiders.

    While Dallas' backfield is mainly a one-man show, the quality of the team's offensive line suggests guys like Scarbrough and Smith can succeed if thrust into a starting role for a short stretch. Even with Elliott absent for six games, the Cowboys still finished the season ranked second in rushing, with an average of 135.6 yards per game.

7. Pittsburgh Steelers

26 of 32

    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Starter: Le'Veon Bell

    Depth: James Conner, Fiztgerald Toussaint, Stevan Ridley, Jaylen Samuels

    Fullback: Roosevelt Nix

    You may expect to see the Pittsburgh Steelers higher on this list because they feature three-time Pro Bowler Le'Veon Bell. While it's true Bell is one of the most talented backs in the NFL, the Steelers just don't have much behind him.

    Bell rushed for 1,291 yards and caught 85 passes last season. James Conner was second on the team with just 144 yards rushing. Fitzgerald Toussaint and fullback Roosevelt Nix tied for second among backs with just two receptions apiece.

    Veteran Stevan Ridley is purely a situational backup at this point in his career. Rookie fifth-round pick Jaylen Samuels is a hybrid back who may push for Nix's job.

    Pittsburgh still has a good backfield because it has Bell; however, it's top-heavy and could be undone if he suffers an injury, sees his play decline or isn't in football shape early in the season due to again avoiding the offseason.

    Bell avoided the team until just before the start of the 2017 season, missed the opener and struggled over the first month of the season.

    Even with him on the field, the Steelers ranked just 20th in rushing (104.2 yards per game) and had almost no receiving production in the backfield.

6. New England Patriots

27 of 32

    Tim Warner/Getty Images

    Starter: Sony Michel

    Depth: James White, Rex Burkhead, Brandon Bolden, Jeremy Hill

    Fullback: James Develin

    The Patriots used a committee approach last season. New England ranked 10th in the NFL in rushing (188.1 yards per game). Backs like James White and Lewis—who combined for 88 receptions—were also big-time contributors to the passing game.

    New England could again utilize a committee approach, but it also drafted a potential workhorse back in Sony Michel. The former Georgia Bulldog has a good combination of size (5'11", 214 lbs) and speed (4.54) and can excel both inside the tackles and on the edge. He rushed for 1,227 yards on 7.9 yards per carry last season.

    Lewis is gone, but White will return as the team's primary receiving back. Rex Burkhead is a versatile rusher and receiver who will provide depth behind Michel and White. Hill will likely compete with Mike Gillislee for a roster spot, though Gillislee may be the odd man out because of his contract.

    He is due $2.1 million this season, but none of that money is guaranteed.

    Brandon Bolden has become a special teams staple for the Patriots, and he could earn a roster spot based on that alone. James Develin is coming off a Pro Bowl campaign and is a virtual lock to make the team. Though not technically a back, we could see a lot of offseason acquisition Cordarrelle Patterson in the backfield this year.

    New England may not lean on the ground game like some teams—at least as long as Tom Brady is under center. However, the Patriots have a great collection of talent in their backfield and may have the league's most versatility.

5. Tennessee Titans

28 of 32

    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Starter: Derrick Henry

    Depth: Dion Lewis, David Fluellen, Akrum Wadley

    Fullback: Anthony Firkser

    Former Heisman-winner Derrick Henry emerged as the Tennessee Titans' best back during the second half of the 2017 season. While he still shared with DeMarco Murray, he managed to finish the year with 744 yards and an average of 4.2 yards per carry. With Murray gone, Henry is in position to be one of the most dominant runners in the league.

    This offseason, the Titans added former New England Patriot Dion Lewis, one of the most versatile backs in the NFL. The explosive playmaker rushed for 896 yards and 5.0 yards per carry last season. He also caught 32 passes for 214 yards. He and Henry should forge one of the best backfield duos in the league.

    “I am definitely excited he is on our side now," Henry said of Lewis, via the team's official website.

    Taiwan Taylor is a solid receiving back who can help the passing game in a situational role He caught 16 passes for 231 yards last season. David Fluellen is purely a depth player with limited experience in an NFL offense.

    The wildcard here is former Iowa running back Akrum Wadley. The undrafted free agent is a shifty runner who can create his own space even in a crowd. He rushed for 1,109 yards last season and produced 353 receiving yards. He has a chance to become Tennessee's change-of-pace back behind Henry and Lewis.

    Anthony Firkser is a tight-end fullback hybrid who was signed after a recent tryout. If the Titans choose to carry a traditional fullback this season, he could be the guy.

    Tennessee's backfield will largely be defined by the tandem of Henry and Lewis. IF healthy, though, these two will combine to give the Titans one of the best and most versatile backfields in the league.

4. Chicago Bears

29 of 32

    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    Starter: Jordan Howard

    Depth: Tarik Cohen, Benny Cunningham, Taquan Mizzell, Ryan Nall

    Fullback: Michael Burton

    The Chicago Bears' Jordan Howard has emerged as one of the NFL's top rushers. He finished his rookie season with 1,313 yards, second-most in the NFL. Last season, he rushed for 1,122 yards and 4.1 yards per carry even though Chicago had the league's least threatening passing attack (175.7 yards per game).

    Howard isn't the only standout back on the roster, though. Tarik Cohen is a supremely talented runner and receiver and a perfect complement to Howard. Last season, he amassed 370 rushing yards, 53 receptions and 353 receiving yards.

    Benny Cunningham is the No. 3 back behind Howard and Cohen, but he's a quality contributor when he gets on the field. He caught 20 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns in 2017. Taquan Mizzell appeared in three games as a rookie last season but didn't record any statistics. He is purely depth.

    Michael Burton served as fullback last season, and he is a good lead blocker. He could, however, be pushed for the starting job by fullback-running back hybrid Ryan Nall.

    Chicago is going to have one of the best backfields in the NFL this season, and it's going to get a boost. The addition of pass-catchers like Allen Robinson II, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller should ensure the Bears offense isn't again hamstrung by the league's worst passing attack.

3. Los Angeles Rams

30 of 32

    Harry How/Getty Images

    Starter: Todd Gurley II

    Depth: Malcolm Brown, Justin Davis, John Kelly

    Fullback: N/A

    Running back Todd Gurley was a difference-maker for the Los Angeles Rams last season. He rushed for 1,305 yards, caught 64 passes and produced 788 receiving yards. He also commanded the attention of opposing defenses and took a ton of pressure off second-year quarterback Jared Goff.

    The Rams have a solid backup in former Texas standout Malcolm Brown. He rushed for 246 yards in limited action last season and added nine receptions. He isn't likely to see the field often in 2018, however, according to head coach Sean McVay.

    "What Todd did was he showed why he's a complete back, and to take him off the field, he better be pretty tired," McVay said, via the team's official website. "You want to be smart about that, but there's a reason why he was able to have all that success."

    While Gurley is a bona fide star, and Brown is a quality backup, keep an eye on rookie sixth-round pick John Kelly. The Tennessee product racked up 778 rushing yards and 37 receptions last season and could be a situational player.

    Justin Davis appeared in four games for the Rams but logged just one carry. He'll be purely a depth player and special teamer. Los Angeles waived fullback Sam Rogers last week and may not carry a player at the position.

    If Gurley misses extended time, the Rams backfield will take a major hit. There is enough depth, however, for it to keep rolling for a short stretch without him.

2. New Orleans Saints

31 of 32

    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Starter: Alvin Kamara

    Depth: Mark Ingram II, Boston Scott, Daniel Lasco, Trey Edmunds

    Fullback: Zach Line

    Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram II formed the NFL's best backfield duo in 2017. The pair helped the Saints to the league's fifth-ranked rushing attack (129.4 yards per game) and combined for a whopping 139 receptions and 1,242 receiving yards.

    The Saints backfield may take a slight step back, as Ingram was handed a four-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drugs policy. Ingram appealed the suspension, but it was upheld in arbitration.

    This means the Saints will be without their leading rusher from 2017 for a month. But Kamara has the talent needed to start in Ingram's stead. The bad news is there isn't much depth behind Kamara.

    Daniel Lasco was primarily a special-teamer and had his season cut short by a spinal injury in 2017. Trey Edmunds is another special-teamer who had just nine carries last season. Boston Scott is a rookie sixth-rounder out of Louisiana Tech. Zach Line is a blocking fullback who had just seven carries and two receptions in 2017.

    New Orleans should be fine as long as Kamara stays healthy over the first month. Statistically, the Saints backfield might not be what it was in 2017, but it should still be one of the best groups in the NFL.

1. Kansas City Chiefs

32 of 32

    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    Starter: Kareem Hunt

    Depth: Spencer Ware, Charcandrick West, Kerwynn Williams

    Fullback: Anthony Sherman

    Kansas City's Kareem Hunt was the league's most explosive back in 2017. He led the NFL with 1,327 yards rushing and also tied for the league lead with 12 rushes of 20 yards or more. And he tied for second with three rushes of at least 40 yards.

    Hunt was also a tremendous pass-catcher, finishing with 53 receptions for 455 yards and three scores.

    Unlike teams like the Steelers and the Rams, though, the Chiefs don't have just a one-man backfield. They have a tremendous backup in Charcandrick West, who averaged 4.0 yards per carry last season while catching 27 passes. They also have Spencer Ware, who missed all of last season with a torn PCL.

    Before the injury, though, Ware was a budding star. In 2016, he rushed for 921 yards, averaged 4.3 yards per carry and caught 33 passes. If he's back to 100 percent, Kansas City will essentially have two starting-caliber backs and one of the better backups in the league.

    Oh, and the Chiefs also have former Cardinals back Kerwynn Williams, who signed a one-year, $790,000 deal this offseason. He made six starts and rushed for 426 yards last season.

    With veteran Anthony Sherman also in the backfield, the Chiefs should have the best group in the league. They can run the ball with multiple guys, keep their backs fresh and also provide first-year starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes with quality receiving outlets.


    All contract information via Spotrac.com.

slash iconYour sports. Delivered.

Enjoy our content? Join our newsletter to get the latest in sports news delivered straight to your inbox!