The 2022 season is just around the corner and what better way to get your NFL fix than to talk running backs?
It's arguably the most exciting position on the field. Year in and year out, we witness running backs do the impossible: find ways to run between five very large men, with a lot more very large men on the other side waiting to hit the snot out of the guy with the ball.
It seems like it shouldn't work, but it does. And some of these guys could put anyone on a highlight reel. Jonathan Taylor of the Indianapolis Colts put on a clinic all last season, as his 1,811 rushing yards led the league. Nick Chubb was a bright spot for the Cleveland Browns in 2021 and the Georgia rusher will look to keep that roll going in 2022. Other ground-attack studs like Austin Ekeler of the Los Angeles Chargers, Melvin Gordon of the Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh Steelers back Najee Harris and Cincinnati Bengals rusher Joe Mixon also sit atop the league's best running back rankings for 2021.
However, while big seasons are always fun to witness, some rushers are in a make-or-break situation heading into 2022. So strap in, because we're looking at the five running backs primed and ready to break some ankles in the 2022 NFL Season.
5. Josh Jacobs
Josh Jacobs had a breakout rookie season in 2019, rushing for over 1100 yards in 13 games, and finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting for the Las Vegas Raiders. The following year, Jacobs played 15 games, ran for over 1000 yards, reached the end zone 12 times and made the Pro Bowl. Jacobs was a top 10 running back in the league heading into the 2021 season. Then the Raiders signed former Miami Dolphin and Arizona Cardinals rusher Kenyan Drake in the 2021 offseason, likely for his receiving abilities in the hopes of elevating their passing game. This led to fewer touches for Jacobs in the 2021 season.
Why the Raiders wanted to take the ball out of the hands of their Pro Bowl running back I'm not sure. But this signing, on top of the nagging foot and ankle injuries, led to a less productive 2021 season for Jacobs. The Raiders are a better team when Jacobs gets 20+ carries a game. If the Raiders give him the ball, and Jacobs can stay healthy and productive, he can be one of the best backs in the league. Add in a dash of new head coach Josh McDaniels at the helm and there are a lot more questions than answers in Las Vegas.
4. Miles Sanders
Miles Sanders was supposed to be the breakout running back of the 2021 season. He has been one of the most productive running backs since entering the league in 2019, with a career 5.1 yards per carry. He is an explosive playmaker when healthy and can potentially be a dangerous 1-2 punch with Jalen Hurts. But Sanders didn't reach the end zone in 2021. He rushed for a career-low 754 yards on a career-low 137 attempts.
The running back duties for Philly were split four ways, five if you include Jalen Hurts, and Sanders was the only Eagles rusher to not reach the end zone. Sanders is the most talented running back the Philadelphia Eagles have on their roster. Can he stay healthy in 2022 and turn into the true RB1 that we all know he has the potential to be? Only time will tell.
3. Ezekiel Elliott
Seldom has a player made a bigger splash entering the league than Ezekiel Elliott. His 2016 season was a fairytale, leading the league in rushing as a rookie, reaching the end zone 15 times, averaging over 100 yards per game and over five yards per attempt. Elliott's 2017 season started late due to a six-game suspension, but he still put up 983 yards and seven touchdowns in the ten games he played. Ezekiel Elliott played all 17 games in 2021 and 15 games in 2020. His numbers over the last two seasons are comparable to his 2017 season.
At 26 years old, it feels like we are seeing the fall of Ezekiel Elliott. He is still a capable runner, but since the rise of Tony Pollard, Elliott's production has decreased, while Pollard has only improved. Over the last three seasons, Pollard's touches have not only multiplied, but they've also been consistently more productive than Elliott's, granted it's a smaller sample size. As Elliott's touches continue to decline, it will be on him this season to prove that he is still the guy. If not, it might finally be Tony Pollard's time to shine for the Dallas Cowboys.
2. Saquon Barkley
The legend of Saquon Barkley is known league-wide. His strength, his elusiveness, his quads. It's like someone built the perfect running back in a lab. But since his second year in the league, that is all Barkley has been: a legend and a myth. After two 1000-yard rushing seasons to start Barkley's career, injuries have derailed him. An ACL injury in early 2020 has forced Barkley to slow down and regain trust in his body, a process that stunted his 2021 season, and has left the Giants and the NFL wondering if Saquon can ever truly return to the level he reached in his Pro Bowl rookie year. Part of this will be based on the performance of a putrid offensive line.
Barkley is in the last year of his rookie contract, so everything is on the line. If he can stay on the field and produce at a high level in 2022, the Giants will likely re-sign him to a new, heftier deal. But if not, he will be an injury-prone unrestricted free agent who may not get another chance. It's all there on paper for Saquon. We'll see if he can turn the myth into reality.
1. Christian McCaffrey
Christian McCaffrey is one of the league's biggest mysteries heading into the 2022 season. His talent and skill are no mystery. It's his durability that is in question. After an All-Pro 2019 season, McCaffrey has played ten games over the last two seasons. At his best, he is a generational talent, a swiss army knife and the motor of the Panthers' offense.
But after losing two years of his career to injury, McCaffrey's health is his biggest hurdle. On paper, McCaffrey has the potential to be one of the next great running backs the league has seen. But if he can't stay on the field, that doesn't matter. Carolina has been shopping McCaffrey, but if they don't find a suitable trade for him, CMC will be tasked with staying on the field in 2022 and leading the Panthers' offense again. An offense that sputtered in his absence.
- Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
- Damien Harris, New England Patriots
- Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos
- Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
- Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars
- Chase Edmonds, Miami Dolphins
- Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
- Elijah Mitchell, San Francisco 49ers
- Literally anyone on the New York Jets
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