When you think about how much Christian McCaffrey and Derrick Henry have spoiled us (and their fantasy football owners) with their historic efforts over the last two years, the running backs of the 2021 NFL season have a lot to live up to.
In 2019, the Panthers back become just the third player in NFL history to register 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in a season. In 2020, Henry became the eighth player all time to rush for at least 2,000 in a season. Who will steal the show this fall?
To kick off this year’s RB Index, I’ve decided to simply project the top 10 rushing leaders for 2021. Remember, the league added a 17th regular-season game to the schedule, so we could be in for jaw-dropping production on the ground, especially with this year’s crop of backs.
Note: Following Week 1’s slate, I will begin my weekly ranking of my top 15 running backs. I know you want them now, but you’ve already patiently waited all offseason. So what’s one more week?
More history is on the line for Henry this fall, as he can become the first player to lead the league in rushing yards in three straight seasons since Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith (1991-93). If I’m being honest, I will actually be kinda shocked if he isn’t the rushing champion come January. The cherry on top? He could become the first player with 2,000 rushing yards in multiple seasons. (17 games!) I’m here for it.
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I have to put Cook higher than everyone but Henry because Cook touches the ball more than any other back. In 2020, he averaged 25.4 offensive touches (most in the NFL), 111.2 rushing yards (second) and 137.0 scrimmage yards (most) per game. First-year OC Klint Kubiak would be wise to copy dad’s blueprint and lean heavily on the two-time Pro Bowler; even then, Minnesota might struggle to go toe to toe with the NFC’s best.
The Cowboys’ offense screams pass, given the weapons at Dak Prescott‘s disposal, but this unit must get back to running the ball. I mean, it’s no coincidence that the Cowboys made the playoffs in both seasons in which Zeke was the rushing champion (2016, 2018), and if the Cowboys are intentional about getting the ball into his hands, he’s got a real shot at reclaiming the crown from King Henry.
Chubb is an absolute force behind one of the best lines in the NFL. Despite missing four games last season, he rushed for over 1,000 yards, including 12 runs of 20-plus yards (second-most in NFL), and averaged 88.9 yards per game and 5.6 yards per carry. That said, I can’t put Chubb in my top three because he’s splitting carries with Kareem Hunt. The quality of his touches are as good as it gets, but the quantity of them drops him to fourth.
The banged-up state of the Colts’ offense suggests a slow start for that unit, but that’s not such a bad thing for the second-year running back. After struggling to string together good performances early in 2020, Taylor went on a tear in Weeks 11-17, averaging 123.5 rushing yards per game and 6.2 yards per carry with seven rushing TDs in that span. Taylor’s figured it out and now offers the Colts a consistent run game, one that should again land him among the top rushers.
Look for McCaffrey to hit the ground running after missing 13 games in 2020 with ankle and shoulder injuries. As mentioned in the intro, the last time he was healthy for a full season, we witnessed something special. Another special performance could be just around the corner as the Panthers’ offense adjusts to having a different starting QB for the fourth straight season.
The Steelers watched their offense sputter down the stretch last season without an efficient run game. Don’t expect that to be the case with a bulldozer in the backfield like Harris, who forced 71 missed tackles on rushes and gained 821 rushing yards after contact in 2020 (both second-most in the FBS). A dominant defense and an aging quarterback is a recipe for Harris to get 300-plus carries in his first pro season.
The Saints’ offense will be almost unrecognizable when it takes the field Sunday, with Jameis Winston under center and without three of the team’s top four reception leaders from last season in Emmanuel Sanders (now with Bills), Jared Cook (Chargers) and Michael Thomas (PUP list). That said, we have every reason to believe Sean Payton will lean on his best player and run the heck out of the ball to move the chains while attempting to limit the damage from a historically turnover-prone Winston. Kamara should log 1,000 rushing yards in a season for the first time in his career — and then some.
The Giants aren’t rushing Barkley back from the ACL injury he suffered in Week 2 of last season. In fact, they are still limiting him in practice just days before the season opener, which indicates the Pro Bowler will start slow. I’m OK with that. You shouldn’t rush the recovery process to ensure Barkley feels 100 percent and ready to rock whenever he takes the field. Even if he ends up with fewer touches (or games) than other backs around the league, Barkley’s career scrimmage yards per game figure (114.9) suggests he’ll make up for it in a hurry.
Montgomery’s biggest issue early in 2020 was the lack of opportunities. He went bananas over the final six games — averaging 99.7 rushing yards per game and scoring eight times (seven rushing) — a stint in which he averaged nearly five carries more per game than in his first nine games of the year. Montgomery has proven he can handle the load. Just give him the ball.
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