An Exciting Time for Running Backs: Who's at the Top?

A few months back, I wrote about how the best time of the year was coming for sports fans, right before the NCAA tournament, when the NBA, NCAA basketball, MLB and the PGA tour were all amid exciting times. Now, a few short months later, with the NBA and NCAA seasons concluded, we begin what is often seen as a down time for sports.

Sure, there are still exciting PGA events just about every weekend and the NBA offseason is sure to be compelling. But even hardcore MLB fans would tell you we are approaching the dog days of summer, slowly counting down the weeks until the NFL comes back into the picture in August. 

This has been an exciting NFL summer that will lead to an interesting upcoming season where it seems like there is no clear team that is expected to dominate.

In general, the NFL’s league image is going through a refreshing transformation, led by a crowd of young and talented players. While there have been off-field controversies surrounding the NFL for a couple years now, the product on the field has never been more entertaining and explosive. The household names that dominated the last twenty years or so are phasing/been phased out (Peyton Manning, Adrian Peterson, Larry Fitzgerald. I would say Brady but that would just guarantee him winning the next five super bowls), while last year saw new names burst onto the scene.

As we look at the best and most dominant players in the NFL, many of them, including Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack and Saquan Barkley, were not well known or even in the league 3-4 years ago. Now, all those men can be argued as potential top 10 players in the league. Led by Barkley, the running back position is perhaps the most evolving position in the NFL right now. For almost 8 years, Adrian Peterson was the unquestioned leader of the pack. As his Hall of Fame career winds down, he has placed the baton down and no running back has firmly snatched it up. 

For a couple years, it seemed like it was surely going to be Le’Veon Bell, until he decided to sit out last year. As we all anticipate the coming NFL and fantasy football seasons, many people will be debating who is the top running back in the league. The cases laid out below are brief. I want to let the debate do the talking on this one since there is no clear or obvious answer. So, who is the best running back in the NFL right now.

Ezekiel Elliott

Elliott is the model of consistency. He may not have the flash or overwhelming skill or finesse of some other backs on this list, but he simply cranks out yards and consistently moves the ball. Astoundingly, he has led the NFL in rushing yards in two of his first three years. In the other year, he missed 6 games due to suspension. He has not even played 16 games in a year yet in his short career. Elliott has the second highest rushing yards per game average in NFL HISTORY, behind only Eric Dickerson. 

He does not possess the receiving threat of some of these other guys, but you can count on him to move the ball all day up the middle behind one of the best offensive lines in the league. Elliott should continue to see a high usage rate this year and is the staple of the Cowboys talented roster. Perhaps his greatest ability is his ability to close out games by pounding the rock right up the middle for consistent yardage when the Cowboys are trying to run the clock at the end of the game. At only 23 years old right now, he has the potential to get even stronger in pass protection and continue to develop soft hands to help young Dak Prescott.

Todd Gurley

Due to the weird situations surrounding him a couple of months ago in the postseason, it seems like people have forgotten how dominant Gurley has been the last two years, including winning the 2017 AP Offensive Player of the Year award. Prior to losing touches to CJ Anderson in the postseason due to a questionable injury he might have had, Gurley had a stellar regular season. Like Zeke, he has been a productive running back since entering the league in 2015. Gurley amassed a league-leading 21 total touchdowns last year, despite missing two games. 

He anchors the high-powered Rams offense. He has an excellent combination of speed and power and has caught 123 passes in the last two years. 

Saquon Barkley

Last year, Barkley produced one of the best rookie years we’ve ever seen from a running back. Stuck within a stagnant Giants offense, Barkley made the most of his opportunities, cranking out over 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns while averaging almost 6 yards per touch. Barkley has proved that he can make it happen anywhere. He had a legendary career at Penn State and then got drafted into a less-than-ideal Giants offense. Whereas the other players on this list are, for the most part, members of productive offensive systems with good blocking and skilled offensive players, Saquon produced from the start without much offensive help.

Barkley is the youngest of an incredibly exciting fresh group of playmaking running backs that should be fun to watch for years to come. While he might need to produce at a high level for a couple more years to be in the conversation of the best running back in the NFL, his ceiling is sky high, especially if the Giants can continue to develop the offensive talent around him. 

Christian McCaffrey

Another incredibly young star, McCaffrey is without question the most underrated player on this list. As a rookie two years ago, McCaffrey proved his potential as a playmaker, but he really burst onto the scene this past year. He is without a doubt the best pass catching back in the NFL, but also proved he can be a reliable three-down back by rushing for over 1,000 yards while averaging 5 yards per carry.

McCaffrey also set the NFL record for most receptions by a running back in a season, surpassing the previous mark held by one of my personal favorite players of all time, Matt Forte. I expect Christian to have an even bigger role in the Panthers offense this season and he very well might be the first running back taken in fantasy this year.

My Take

As I mentioned above, there is no wrong answer here because there is no obvious choice. In fact, you can even make arguments for running backs that I did not even include on this list, such as Le’Veon Bell or Alvin Kamara.

The best part about this debate is that everyone that we talked about above is 24 years of age or younger. Perhaps never before has the league seen such an incredible collection of young talent and athleticism at the position. 

Right now, it’s a toss-up for me between Gurley and Elliott. I am going to say Todd Gurley is the best running back in the league, until someone proves me wrong. While the talent is undeniable, there are questions about all of the other running backs. How will Le’Veon return after taking a whole year off and entering a new system with the Jets? Can Barkley continue to stay healthy and produce? Afterall, he’s only done it for one year so far and it did not produce wins for the Giants (although this is obviously not his fault).  While McCaffrey is one of the best receiving threats in the game, can he continue to get stronger and develop his between-the-tackles power running? Can Elliott stay clear of off-field issues?

Another name that could have been thrown around would be Kareem Hunt, another star that is heavily troubled with off-field issues. He will be suiting up for the Browns this year in what looks like a talented offense. Can he bury his controversy by returning to the field and challenging for “best running back in the league status”? Even Gurley, my pick for best running back, has questions to address after disappearing last postseason with an apparent injury. There are many questions surrounding a lot of the best running backs in the league. However, one thing is certain: the talent and potential is elite. Who, among this outstanding collection of young talent, will produce consistently for the next few years and cement their place among the all-time greats?

What do YOU think? Who is the best running back in the league right now and why do you think so? Sound off below!

NBA expert and IU grad. '96 Bulls > Warriors. #FireGarPax

Twitter: @realdmill