Ranking the NFL's Top 7 Backfields of 2020 Season
For the NFL, it's not enough to examine the standings or the Super Bowl odds—fans and media members alike love to debate the top players at every position.
While ranking quarterbacks and pass-rushers can be straightforward, ranking backfields is trickier. There is usually more than one player carrying the load, and oftentimes, three or more guys are in the mix.
Factors like coaching, play-calling trends and player health also have to be considered, as the top-ranked teams in rushing don't necessarily have the best backfields.
So which teams have the best backfields six games into the season? We'll rank the top seven backfields based on the aforementioned factors along with productivity and depth.
The Cleveland Browns and Carolina Panthers would have been at the top of the list in Week 1, but with Nick Chubb and Christian McCaffrey both on injured reserve, they're off for now, even though both should return this season.
Chubb has partnered with Kareem Hunt and D'Ernest Johnson to give the Browns the NFL's top-ranked rushing attack. While McCaffrey was arguably the best back in football last season, Carolina's offense has barely missed a beat with Mike Davis over the last four weeks (32 catches, 405 scrimmage yards, four touchdowns during that span).
The New England Patriots also miss out despite ranking second in the NFL in rushing. They have some solid role players in pass-catching back James White and utility man Rex Burkhead. However, Week 1 starter Sony Michel is on injured reserve, and quarterback Cam Newton leads the team in rushing.
7. Tennessee Titans
Notable Backs: Derrick Henry, Jeremy McNichols
The Tennessee Titans crack the list despite getting almost all of their production from Derrick Henry. The reigning rushing leader already has 588 rushing yards, 84 receiving yards and six touchdowns through five games.
While it's unlikely a non-quarterback will win MVP, Henry should warrant consideration.
"It's really astounding that a back his size is capable of going to the house just about every time he touches it," Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said, per NFL Media's Aditi Kinkhabwala.
The Titans haven't utilized other backs often, but Jeremy McNichols showed he could be a fine change-of-pace option in Week 6, carrying the ball five times for 51 yards against the Houston Texans. He has four receptions and 105 scrimmage yards on the season.
While Tennessee's backfield is heavily dependent on Henry, it's probably the one opposing defenses want to see the least on game days.
6. Dallas Cowboys
Notable Backs: Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard
As we mentioned in the intro, coaching and play-calling tendencies are being considered here. Therefore, we have to include the Dallas Cowboys, even though they rank just 23rd in rushing and 20th in yards per attempt. Under Mike McCarthy, Dallas also ranks just 23rd in rushing attempts and is operating with multiple backups along the offensive line.
In a different situation, Dallas could have a top-five rushing attack.
Ezekiel Elliott may no longer be an All-Pro talent—he's averaging 4.1 yards per carry and has fumbled five times—but he's still a tremendous dual-threat option. He has 32 receptions on the season to go with 617 scrimmage yards and six touchdowns.
Backup Tony Pollard is also a quality runner, though he's only seen occasional opportunities this season. Pollard is under 100 rushing yards in 2020, but he averaged 5.3 yards per carry and topped 450 yards as a rookie last season.
Though it may require a shift in play-calling philosophy—and a lot of getting healthy along the line—the Cowboys still have the foundation for a dominant backfield.
5. Kansas City Chiefs
Notable Backs: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Le'Veon Bell, Darrel Williams
On paper, the Kansas City Chiefs could have one of the best backfields in the NFL. However, games aren't won on paper, and there's no telling which version of recent addition Le'Veon Bell the Chiefs are getting.
Even without Bell, though, the Kansas City backfield has been productive. Rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire has already racked up 21 receptions, 682 scrimmage yards and a touchdown through six games. He's backed up by solid depth players in pass-catching back Darrel Williams and Darwin Thompson.
Any semi-productive version of Bell is going to catapult this group up the rankings. "He's going to be another weapon," quarterback Patrick Mahomes said of Bell, per ESPN's Adam Teicher.
If we revisit backfield rankings in a month or two, Kansas City could well be at the top. And that's all without Super Bowl hero Damien Williams, who opted out before the season.
4. Baltimore Ravens
Notable Backs: Mark Ingram II, Gus Edwards, J.K. Dobbins
If we were including dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson here, the Baltimore Ravens would likely be at the top of the rankings. However, even with only running backs considered, the Ravens have one of the most impressive groups in the NFL.
While there isn't a true elite back, the trio of Mark Ingram II, Gus Edwards and rookie J.K. Dobbins has been phenomenal, combining for 696 scrimmage yards and five touchdowns.
Ingram and Edwards are each averaging 4.5 yards per carry, while Dobbins is averaging 6.2 yards per rush. While Ingram got banged up in Week 6, his ankle injury isn't considered serious.
The Ravens backfield should be in full force versus the rival Pittsburgh Steelers after the bye.
3. Minnesota Vikings
Notable Backs: Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison
We're getting into the backfields that both feature an elite starter and have strong depth.
Though Dalvin Cook missed Week 6 with a groin injury, he has racked up 489 rushing yards, 64 receiving yards and seven touchdowns so far this season. Considering he missed the majority of the second half of Week 5, he's played fewer than five full games.
When healthy, Cook is an elite runner. While he obviously isn't healthy at the moment, his injury isn't expected to be a long-term issue, and there's a good chance he'll be back following this week's bye.
Cook isn't the only capable player in Minnesota's backfield, as Alexander Mattison is a high-end backup and a fine spot starter. He has 306 scrimmage yards and a touchdown while averaging 4.5 yards per carry this season.
While the season hasn't been pretty for the 1-5 Vikings, their backfield has been one of the best in the NFL.
2. New Orleans Saints
Notable Backs: Alvin Kamara, Latavius Murray
Alvin Kamara is the preeminent dual-threat back. He's averaging 4.6 yards per carry, has caught 38 passes and has racked up 676 scrimmage yards and seven touchdowns through five games. One could argue that he has been the most valuable non-quarterback on an NFL offense through the first five weeks.
He is on pace for 2,163 scrimmage yards and 22 touchdowns.
The Saints would probably still make this list if Kamara was the only noteworthy back on the roster—much like Tennessee and Derrick Henry—but he isn't. New Orleans has one of the league's better backups in Latavius Murray.
Murray has produced 218 rushing yards (on 4.2 yards per carry), 68 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He ranks 35th in the NFL in rushing yards.
New Orleans' strong backfield duo has helped the Saints survive a tough stretch without No. 1 receiver Michael Thomas. Of course, his pending return could open up even more running room for Kamara and Murray.
1. Green Bay Packers
Notable Backs: Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams, A.J. Dillon
The Green Bay Packers narrowly edge New Orleans for the top spot for two key reasons. The first is the versatility the top two backs on the depth chart provide.
Starter Aaron Jones is an elite back in the mold of Dalvin Cook or Alvin Kamara, and he has amassed 550 scrimmage yards and seven touchdowns through five games. However, backup Jamaal Williams isn't a one-dimensional change of pace.
Williams has rushed for 142 yards (4.3 yards per carry) while adding 13 catches for 119 yards. He is a quality change-of-pace back, but he can also be a dual-threat option if called upon. Last year, he had more than 700 scrimmage yards and six touchdowns.
The Packers also have a promising third back in second-round rookie A.J. Dillon. While the Boston College product has only seen limited action, he's averaging 5.0 yards per carry and has the potential to be a high-end No. 2 if he is forced up the depth chart.
Green Bay can go three-deep at running back, and it has an All-Pro-caliber back leading the way. The Packers backfield isn't likely to receive a ton of recognition as long as Aaron Rodgers is the centerpiece of the offense, but the group ranks No. 1 here.