While the value of the running back has gone down overall in a pass-happy league, the value of a star running back has arguably gone up as teams look to diversify their offense and control the tempo of the game. Not every team has been lucky enough to strike gold and draft a Leonard Fournette, but versatile backs can often make or break an offense.
Just seven players rushed for 1,000 yards in 2015, followed by only 12 last season. Factoring in age and cost, let's deterimine which teams have the best backs in the league.
1. Kareem Hunt, Chiefs
The rookie has 87 yards on the ground (117 yards total) on Thursday night in a Kansas City loss to the Oakland Raiders, and still leads the league in rushing. Hunt is on pace for more than 1,680 yards, which would be the second-most for a rookie ever behind Eric Dickerson's mark of 1,808 yards in 1983. Dickerson averaged just 4.64 YPC that year, well below the output of the Chiefs' latest backfield supernova. But Hunt also has 285 receiving yards, putting him on pace for more than 2,360 yards from scrimmage, the fifth-highest total ever.
Kareem Hunt is just a bad dude. Really should be a focal point of the offense every week. Just flattened 98. pic.twitter.com/gC83G7Fqy6- Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) October 16, 2017
2. Le'Veon Bell, Steelers
Bell is third in rushing yards in the league (550) and he's on pace for 80 catches and 1,882 yards from scrimmage. He's also willing to be the workhorse in spite of his one-year deal, carrying the ball 35 times against the Ravens and 32 times against Pittsburgh. He's been surpassed by Hunt as an all-around featured back who is much cheaper, but Bell's a proven entity with a lot of miles left on the tread.
3. Leonard Fournette, Jaguars
Aforementioned for a reason. Fournette, not Ezekiel Elliott, is the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson in 2007. He was arguably even a better prospect than Peterson and could be traced back to the Barry Sanders hype or as far back as Dickerson. Fournette is second in rushing (596 yards), first in rushing touchdowns (6), and over the past two weeks has 311 yards with three touchdowns. He's doing this all in a backfield that has zero threat at quarterback. Fournette is the type of player you build an offense around, which is rare for any back these days.
4. Devonta Freeman, Falcons
Though he's 13th in rushing yards this season, I think it's much more encouraging to see what Freeman has done over his career than what Todd Gurley or Jordan Howard have done. Freeman has five touchdowns this year, adding to his total of 32 touchdowns since 2015, soon to surpass David Johnson (33) as the most in the NFL during that time.
5. Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys
For the moment we still don't know if Elliott will serve a suspension this year, so keeping that in mind, he still deserves credit as a football player for being among the best at the position. His numbers are down, but that should have been expected with the loss of some offensive line talent and his workload as a rookie last year. Also, Elliott has yet to fumble this season, an underrated quality for any player who touches the ball as much as he does.
6. Jordan Howard, Bears
A heavy assignment over the past four games (96 carries including 36 against Baltimore) hasn't worn down Howard, who has 436 yards in that span with three touchdowns. His rookie numbers (1,313 yards, 5.2 YPC) were a little inflated because of the line in front of him but he's actually having a very nice sophomore season in spite of the dip in his YPC to 4.2 so far.
7. Todd Gurley, Rams
He has seven touchdowns and was the Offensive Player of the Month for September, so why not much higher? Well, why is Gurley just 29th in DYAR and DVOA per FootballOutsiders? Those are certainly not elite rankings. A huge problem is the opposite of what's helping Elliott so far: Gurley has five fumbles in six games.
8. LeGarrette Blount, Eagles
Last year, Blount's value with the Patriots came in the form of 18 touchdowns. This season with the Eagles he only has one touchdown, but is averaging a career-high 5.6 YPC. Over his last four games, Blount has 344 yards. He can't do anything except run between the tackles, and that works so well with the Eagles because they have two of the best tackles in the league. Blount has a broken or missed tackle on more than half of his touches this year, by far the best mark in football.
9. Derrick Henry, Titans
In Tennessee's three wins, Henry has 46 carries for 277 yards. In their three losses, he has 16 carries for 41 yards. He's also averaging a full yard per carry more at home than he is on the road. Henry's overtaken DeMarco Murray as the best back on the roster and it might not be long before it's just his show every year.
10. Mark Ingram, Saints
Ingram makes the top 10 because he's reliable and now, playing without Adrian Peterson behind him, potentially more effective; Ingram had 114 yards and two touchdowns against the Lions last week.
11. Melvin Gordon, Chargers
He didn't score at all as a rookie and now has 19 touchdowns since the start of 2016, but Gordon disappears for long stretches and may need a change of scenery before he really starts to realize his full potential, which I think is better than Gurley's full potential.
12. DeMarco Murray, Titans
It's not as though he's far behind Henry, but Murray is much more expensive and a little less effective. Consider that his YPC is almost the same as it was when he led the NFL in rushing yards and touchdowns in 2014, but it's all coming on a small fraction of the attempts.
13. LeSean McCoy, Bills
Though Buffalo is off to an encouraging 3-2 start, there's not much to be hopeful about based on McCoy's slow start. He had 110 yards in Week 1, but 65 carries for 2.6 YPC ever since with zero touchdowns on the year.
14. Jay Ajayi, Dolphins
A propensity for big games (122 yards in Week 2, 130 yards in Week 6) doesn't overrule his blank space box score moments (48 carries and 2.9 yards per attempt in the three games in between) or that he's a non-factor in the passing game. Ajayi also has yet to score this season.
15. Carlos Hyde, 49ers
It kind of feels like Hyde has been a very good running back for awhile, but he's never had a 1,000-yard season, he only has four career 100-yard games, he doesn't score that often and more than half of his career games are under 4.0 YPC.
16. Alex Collins, Ravens
I'd say it's too early to make any grand overtures, but not too soon to be intrigued. Collins was the odd man out in Seattle, got picked up by Baltimore and has earned more playing time thanks to an NFL-best 6.4 YPC. He's ninth in DYAR and third in DVOA, but also has yet to score and fumbled twice with zero catches to his season so far.
Runs Over 20 Yards Leaders- Breaking Football (@Breaking_FB) October 17, 2017
Kareem Hunt (7)
C.J. Anderson (4)
Ameer Abdullah (4)
Tevin Coleman (4)
Marlon Mack (4)
Alex Collins (4) pic.twitter.com/Z8QiiPvYwJ
Up next: Doug Martin, Adrian Peterson, C.J. Anderson, Lamar Miller, Marshawn Lynch, Ameer Abdullah, Mike Gillislee, Frank Gore, Jerick McKinnon, Orleans Darkwa, Thomas Rawls, Isaiah Crowell, Aaron Jones, D'Onta Foreman, Bilal Powell, Christian McCaffrey, Tevin Coleman, Joe Mixon