Ranking the NFL's Top 5 RB Pairings Entering 2021 NFL DraftApril 23, 2021
Ranking the NFL's Top 5 RB Pairings Entering 2021 NFL Draft
In recent years, NFL teams have transitioned to running back committees. A solid backfield duo can establish the rushing attack while keeping each other fresh through a game and an entire season.
Now, tailbacks share duties in the backfield with early-down ball-carriers and third-down pass-catchers filling specific roles. Ideally, teams look to pair complementary players or employ an interchangeable tandem.
Looking at depth charts across the league, several teams will field productive pairings on the ground or a dynamic one-two combination for a dual-threat attack. We'll rank the top five duets based on recent production and the skill sets of the two players.
Before diving into the rankings, let's focus on three potent tandems that could emerge following the 2021 draft. These selections include rookie tailbacks who are considered high-end prospects, according to Nate Tice of Bleacher Report's NFL Scouting Department.
Potential Potent RB Pairings
Mike Davis and Travis Etienne, Atlanta Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons could put together a thunder-and-lightning package in the backfield. While Mike Davis (5'9", 220 lbs) grinds out the tough yardage between the tackles, Clemson's Travis Etienne can slither through gaps and then accelerate in the open field for big gains.
At 5'10", 215 pounds, Etienne is an average-sized ball-carrier. He's capable of handling 15 to 20 touches because of his pass-catching ability. He caught 48 passes for 588 yards and two touchdowns in 2020. Along with Davis, who's coming off a season with a career-high 1,015 scrimmage yards, the standout ACC prospect can provide balance to the Falcons offense.
The Falcons had contact with Memphis running back Kenneth Gainwell, per Jason Butt of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Assuming the club has some interest in pairing Davis with an incoming rookie, Etienne could be an option with the 35th overall pick.
Melvin Gordon III and Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos
In an interview with Denver 7's Troy Renck, Melvin Gordon III said he feels "so overlooked." He could garner some reverence in a tandem with North Carolina's Javonte Williams. The two tailbacks can split early-down touches with the veteran still heavily involved in the short passing game.
Gordon deserves praise for his ability to produce on all three downs, accumulating 5,226 rushing yards, 2,031 receiving yards and 57 total touchdowns through six seasons.
Williams will lower the boom and bounce off defenders. He forced the most missed tackles on carries (76) this past season, per Pro Football Focus. Smaller linebackers and safeties will struggle to stop him on early downs.
According to Jonathan Jones of CBS Sports, Denver sent running backs coach Curtis Modkins to North Carolina's pro day with Williams and Michael Carter as the prospects to watch.
Najee Harris and Benny Snell Jr., Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers had a Zoom call with Alabama's Najee Harris, and he talked glowingly about his interaction with the team on The Adam Schefter Podcast (h/t Allison Koehler of Steelers Wire).
With Harris in the featured role out of the backfield, the Steelers could see a dramatic improvement in their 32nd-ranked ground attack from the 2020 campaign.
This past season, Harris ranked third in the nation in rushing yards (1,466) and led the country in touchdowns on the ground (26). Over his last two collegiate terms, he made strides as a pass-catcher, logging 70 receptions for 729 yards and 11 touchdowns.
As two physical backs, Harris and Benny Snell Jr. can restore the Steelers' physical identity on the offensive side of the ball. The third-year veteran flashed in the 2020 season opener, rushing for a career-high 113 yards against the New York Giants.
5. Jonathan Taylor and Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts
Total Scrimmage Yards in 2020: 1,524
Baltimore Ravens running backs JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards garnered some consideration here, but Jonathan Taylor and Marlon Mack have done a little more in their respective careers.
In 2020, Taylor led all rookie running backs and ranked third across the league in rushing yards (1,169). He had a strong finish to the campaign, running for 150-plus yards in two of the final four regular-season contests. The Wisconsin product's performances down the stretch raise expectations for his second term.
As a first-year ball-carrier, Taylor proved he could carry the majority load, though Marlon Mack will return to action coming off a torn Achilles. The latter eclipsed 1,010 scrimmage yards during the 2018 and 2019 campaigns. The Indianapolis Colts have a legitimate 1A and 1B combination for the upcoming season.
The Colts duo must show more in the passing game to move up the list, but they're both high-level ball-carriers between the tackles. Taylor lost one fumble last season. Mack went through the 2019 campaign without turning the ball over.
4. Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Total Scrimmage Yards in 2020: 1,743
Leonard Fournette bought into the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive system late in the 2020 campaign after a candid conversation with head coach Bruce Arians. He played an instrumental role in the team's successful Super Bowl run, recording 448 yards and four touchdowns in playoff action.
Fournette re-signed with the Buccaneers, which indicates he'll continue to buy into his role alongside Ronald Jones II for the upcoming campaign.
In 2020, Jones handled the lion's share of the Buccaneers' rush attempts and proved himself in a featured role, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He finished with 978 rushing yards through 14 contests.
Although the Buccaneers signed pass-catching running back Giovani Bernard, Jones and Fournette should handle the bulk of the workload given their experience under Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich.
Indianapolis Colts running back Marlon Mack has a solid track record, but one has to wonder how he bounces back from an Achilles injury. The Buccaneers have a little more certainty with Jones and Leonard coming off a healthy season.
3. Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray, New Orleans Saints
Total Scrimmage Yards in 2020: 2,520
The New Orleans Saints have some flash and power in their backfield.
Alvin Kamara doesn't have a 1,000-yard rushing season on his resume, but he's one of the best pass-catching running backs among the pros, recording at least 81 receptions in all four of his campaigns.
Kamara is a dynamic offensive playmaker who's dangerous in space whether he's running or catching the ball. The four-time Pro Bowler has racked up 6,164 scrimmage yards for his career and led the league in offensive touchdowns this past season (21).
Latavius Murray doesn't produce highlight plays, but he's a top-notch No. 2 back who's averaged 4.1 or more yards per carry every year since 2018. The 6'3", 230-pounder has fumbled once (without losing possession) over the last three terms.
Murray has recorded 1,293 rushing yards over the last two seasons with the Saints, so the team doesn't need Kamara to reach the 1,000-yard mark on the ground for a potent attack. The club ranked sixth in rushing last season.
Without a doubt, Kamara is the most electric running back on the list up to this point because of his skill set as a receiver, which propels the Saints duo to the third slot.
2. Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake, Las Vegas Raiders
Total Scrimmage Yards in 2020: 2,395
On paper, the Las Vegas Raiders have two lead running backs in Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake.
For the 2020 term, Jacobs earned his first Pro Bowl nod with 1,303 scrimmage yards while Drake led the Arizona Cardinals ground attack, logging career highs in yards (955) and touchdowns (10).
Although Jacobs and Drake will join forces for the first time, their skill sets should mesh well in the Las Vegas Raiders backfield.
Through two seasons, Jacobs has shown the ability to attack the interior lanes with decisiveness and fight through contact, breaking 46 tackles. Drake doesn't run through as many defenders, but at 6'1", 211 pounds, he can make one cut and go downhill. The five-year veteran averages 4.5 yards per carry.
Furthermore, the Raiders plan to use Drake's pass-catching skills with him split out as a receiver. He revealed the plan to reporters:
"Well, with my abilities, just being a starter, quote on quote, isn't something that is a high priority. ... Coach Gruden said that he was going to use me ... in a multitude of ways, playing receiver, playing running back. Just having the ability to kind of use my versatility as a weapon in the open field is something that really spoke to me."
In any given week, the Raiders can feed either running back the majority touches, which separates this tandem from the previous three. Keep in mind that Jacobs and Drake each eclipsed 1,091 scrimmage yards last season. With the latter's prospective role in the passing game, they could do it again while on the same team.
1. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns
Total Scrimmage Yards in 2020: 2,362
The Cleveland Browns found their offensive identity through the ground attack, which helped lead them to the postseason for the first time since 2002.
Last season, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt spearheaded the Browns' third-ranked rushing offense, averaging 5.6 and 4.2 yards per carry, respectively. They're the only teammates on this list to each eclipse 1,144 scrimmage yards in the same backfield. Unlike Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake with the Las Vegas Raiders, we know the Browns have a complementary duo.
Hunt is a reliable pass-catcher out of the backfield, which allows the Browns to use both running backs simultaneously. He's hauled in 154 passes for 1,422 yards and 16 touchdowns through four seasons. With that said, Chubb is a capable receiver in his own right, recording 72 catches for 577 yards and two scores for his career.
The Browns tandem has achieved success as the engine of the offense, which suggests we'll see a heavy dose of Chubb and Hunt in 2021 for a team looking to build on last season's first-round playoff exit. Their continuity puts them over Jacobs and Drake for the No. 1 spot.