NFL Backfield Rankings 2023
Fantasy players understand that the best running back scorers are not always the best running backs. Volume is a bigger driver of fantasy success than efficiency. And while points lead to wins, the backs that contribute the most to those points do not always score the touchdowns that serve as the public credit. What follows are my rankings of the best backfields in football for 2023. And as you read them, I ask that you set aside the typical fantasy mindset and consider those backfields separately from the offensive context that makes their jobs easier or harder.
The team backfield rankings are an exercise sure to enrage a few fan bases, but rest assured that I put a lot of thought into this list. And I expect at least half of the complaints will miss the major nuance of the effort, which is to rank backfields by their skill players — including quarterbacks and wide receivers as rushers — independently of their run-blocking. Yes, I am aware the Eagles and Cowboys had top tier rushing offenses in 2022. Are you aware of how much their offensive lines contributed to their success?
As a starting place, I calculated what I have labeled as Created YPA for every team from 2022. That metric combines quarterback scramble yards with all ball-carrier yards after broken tackles and yards after contact on non-scrambles — all FTN charting elements — and divides the sum by total rushing attempts. It is my attempt to measure runners by the productivity for which they are most responsible. From there, I made subjective adjustments to capture additions and subtractions from the offseason, elements the metric fails to measure, and a bit of my personal expectation.
(Check out our whole position group rankings series so far: Offensive Line | Defensive Line | Linebackers)
2023 NFL Backfield Rankings
Below is every team ranked 1-32 by how their backfield unit shapes up for 2023.
1. Cleveland Browns
Created YPA: 3.92 (2)
Incumbents: Nick Chubb, Jerome Ford, Deshaun Watson
Losses: Kareem Hunt, D'Ernest Johnson, Jacoby Brissett
Kareem Hunt may sound like a major loss. But the Browns reportedly believe he lost a step last season. And even as Hunt set career lows of a 16.3% broken tackle rate and 3.8 yards per attempt in 2022, the Browns still finished second with 3.92 created yards per attempt. That’s the power of Nick Chubb, who has finished top two in yards after contact per attempt and top seven in explosive run rate in all five of his professional seasons. As a fifth-round draft pick from 2022 without an offensive touch to his credit, presumed backup Jerome Ford spurs modest expectations. But quarterback Deshaun Watson matched his early-Texans rushing standard after he returned from his suspension late last year. And a healthy Chubb with any backup could earn the Browns their No. 1 backfield ranking.
2. Chicago Bears
Created YPA: 3.93 (1)
Incumbents: Khalil Herbert, Velus Jones, Chase Claypool, Justin Fields
Additions: D'Onta Foreman, Roschon Johnson (4.115), Travis Homer, DJ Moore
Losses: David Montgomery
David Montgomery is one of the most underrated backs in football. He has finished in the top 15 in broken tackle rate in three of his four professional seasons and performed near-miracles to average even his unsexy 3.9 career yards per carry behind a consistently porous offensive line. But the Bears are as prepared to move on from their once-featured back as a team can be. Khalil Herbert was a Day 3 draft pick. But he’s ranked in the top 15 in broken tackle rate the last two seasons, as well. And rookie Roschon Johnson is a compelling candidate to outperform his own Day 3 draft status after seeing limited opportunities to showcase his skills in a Texas backfield behind eventual top-eight pick Bijan Robinson. Meanwhile, quarterback Justin Fields could carry a running back room with even my 6.0-second speed in it to the top of the backfield rankings. His 643 scramble yards were 137 more than Josh Allen in second place in 2022, and he does not have to share credit for any of those yards with his offensive line or playcaller.
3. Green Bay Packers
Created YPA: 3.53 (6)
Incumbents: Aaron Jones, AJ Dillon, Christian Watson, Jordan Love
Additions: Lew Nichols (7.235)
Losses: Aaron Rodgers
The Packers are poised to lose some passing efficiency after trading the 2020 and 2021 MVP Aaron Rodgers. But their backfield is as prepared as it could be to pick up some slack. Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon were already the best 1-2 punch at their position. The slighter Jones had a 27.7% broken tackle rate, and the bigger Dillon averaged 2.59 yards after contact per attempt in 2022. Those ranked highest and sixth highest among backs with 100 or more carries. And then the team added a size/speed freak at receiver in Christian Watson who ran for 80 yards and two touchdowns on seven carries in his rookie 2022 season and produced highlights like this:
And now they will transition from Rodgers to Jordan Love who, while has enormous passing shoes to fill, should more easily add a new dimension to the Packers offense as a mobile quarterback.
4. Las Vegas Raiders
Created YPA: 3.90 (3)
Incumbents: Josh Jacobs, Zamir White, Ameer Abdullah, Brandon Bolden
Additions: Jimmy Garoppolo
Losses: Derek Carr
Traditional running back stats paint 2022 as his breakout season. But Josh Jacobs has now ranked top 10 in broken tackle rate in three of his four professional seasons. He does not hit home runs like Nick Chubb does. But Jacobs could reasonably have 90% of Chubb’s track record and reputation if he played behind the Browns’ standout offensive line — the Raiders ranked a modest 11th in run block win rate even in 2022. Jacobs and the Raiders mirror Chubb and the Browns another way in their lack of running back depth. Zamir White was a fourth-round pick and saw just 17 touches in his rookie 2022 season. And the team somehow got less mobile at quarterback in moving from Derek Carr to Jimmy Garoppolo. But Jacobs makes a top-five backfield all by himself.
5. Indianapolis Colts
Created YPA: 3.15 (18)
Incumbents: Jonathan Taylor, Deon Jackson, Zack Moss
Additions: Evan Hull (5.176), Isaiah McKenzie, Anthony Richardson (1.04), Gardner Minshew
Losses: Matt Ryan
Jonathan Taylor suffered a precipitous rushing fall from 1,811 yards, 18 touchdowns and 5.5 yards per carry in 2021 to 861, 4 and 4.5 in 2022. And while the former All-Pro can likely blame some of his statistical decline on a persistent ankle injury, I blame the bulk of it on a washed Matt Ryan and an offensive line that slipped from seventh to 23rd in run block win rate. So much of rushing success and failure depends on context. That’s how Josh Jacobs went from a declined fifth-year option to the perceived best back in football in half a year. And it could spur a similar renaissance for Taylor if the Colts see better health up front and hit on their high quarterback and lineman draft picks, Anthony Richardson and Blake Freeland. Taylor could hardly have had more disparate rushing results the last two seasons. But his broken tackle rate remained fairly consistent at 19.3% and 17.2%. I would still take Taylor first if I were drafting from scratch — and accounting for ages and not contracts. And if Richardson is a quick study, the Colts could easily find themselves at the top of the backfield rankings in 2024.
6. New York Jets
Created YPA: 3.55 (5)
Incumbents: Breece Hall, Zonovan Knight, Michael Carter
Additions: Israel Abanikanda (5.143), Aaron Rodgers
Losses: James Robinson, Ty Johnson, Braxton Berrios, Mike White
Breece Hall was the first running back taken in the 2022 NFL Draft. And while his early-second-round selection implies a lesser prospect status than the No. 8 pick this year, Bijan Robinson, Hall bested Robinson with a 116.9 versus a 108.7 Speed Score and validated that advantage with a 10.0% explosive run rate in 2022 that was second best among backs with 75 or more carries. Of course, Hall barely hit that benchmark before a torn ACL ended his debut season prematurely. But all indications are that he will fully recover and be ready for the start of 2023. Meanwhile, the Jets may have the most depth at the position in football if they need it. Zonovan Knight and Michael Carter have broken 31.8% and 22.2% of potential tackles in their one- and two-year careers, first and 12th among backs with 75 or more carries since 2021. And fifth-round rookie Israel Abanikanda excelled at his Pro Day after a hamstring injury sidelined him for the combine. The Jets may have more capable running backs than they can fit on their final 53-man roster.
7. Atlanta Falcons
Created YPA: 3.21 (16)
Incumbents: Tyler Allgeier, Cordarrelle Patterson, Caleb Huntley, Avery Williams, Desmond Ridder
Additions: Bijan Robinson (1.08), Taylor Heinicke
Losses: Marcus Mariota
I had an optimistic view of the Falcons backfield even before the draft. Presumed starter Tyler Allgeier may have been a fifth-round draft pick. But he finished his rookie season in the top 10 at the position with 2.43 yards after contact per attempt. And his powerful, north-south running style seemed like the perfect fit for head coach Arthur Smith’s preferred play-action passing offense. But the draft rendered my optimism for fit obsolete because the Falcons spent a top eight pick on running back Bijan Robinson. And while I am skeptical that Robinson is the generational prospect he’s been labeled — his 108.7 Speed Score falls a bit short of the typical benchmark of excellence — he can pair Allgeier’s after-contact skills with incredible elusiveness and versatility as a receiver. The potential ROI of a running back lottery pick is likely lower than for other positions. But even if Robinson represents a modest 25% backfield enhancement, that should spur a top-seven unit for one of the handful of schemers that can translate such a gain into tangible offensive improvement.
8. New England Patriots
Created YPA: 3.81 (4)
Incumbents: Rhamondre Stevenson, Pierre Strong, Kevin Harris, Ty Montgomery, Mac Jones
Additions: James Robinson
Losses: Damien Harris
Rhamondre Stevenson seemed like a fourth-round depth play as Damien Harris exploded for 19 touchdowns in a breakout 2021 season. But as strong a runner as Harris has been, Stevenson was stronger in his first two Patriots seasons. At 6-foot-0 and 227 pounds, Stevenson has the size to score his own bunch of touchdowns. But like Nick Chubb and few others, Stevenson pairs his power with explosiveness. He, Chubb, Tony Pollard and Rashaad Penny are the only four backs with at least 3.0 yards after contact per attempt and a 6.0% explosive run rate over 100 or more carries since 2021. James Robinson’s surprise 1,000-yard rookie 2020 season is a distant memory after a bottom-10 13.6% broken tackle rate split over a couple of teams in 2022. But he and sophomore backs Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris give Bill Belichick a handful of shots to replace the departed Harris in what will clearly be a backup role behind a featured Stevenson.
9. Buffalo Bills
Created YPA: 3.51 (8)
Incumbents: James Cook, Nyheim Hines, Josh Allen
Additions: Damien Harris, Latavius Murray
Losses: Devin Singletary, Isaiah McKenzie
It is easy to assume that second-round sophomore James Cook will take the lead rushing baton from unheralded, departed free agent Devin Singletary. But Singletary outplayed his reputation with a 20.0% broken tackle rate in three of his four Bills seasons. And Cook is undersized for a typical lead back at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds (26.5 BMI). Cook paced the position with a 12.4% explosive run rate albeit over a small sample of 89 rookie carries. And he has potential as a pass-catcher. But Cook may need his pairing with former Patriots power back Damien Harris. And a pairing of somewhat specialized players might leave the Bills backfield predictable and with a modest ceiling. Fortunately, the team has Josh Allen at quarterback. I very much hope the Bills limit Allen’s battering-ram carries in 2023 in an effort to extend his career. But beyond the touchdowns, Allen ranked second among quarterbacks with 506 scramble yards in 2022. And similar to Justin Fields, Allen can make a top-10 backfield all by himself.
10. New York Giants
Created YPA: 3.52 (7)
Incumbents: Saquon Barkley, Matt Breida, Daniel Jones
Additions: Eric Gray (5.172)
You may not be surprised to see the Giants in my top-10 backfield rankings. But you may be surprised to read why. Saquon Barkley enjoyed a healthy 2022 season finally, two years removed from his torn ACL. But his 15.9% broken tackle rate landed him just 21st of the 39 backs with 100 or more carries. Barkley may never return to his generational pre-injury standard as a positional leader in broken tackle rate (21.5%, ninth), explosive run rate (7.7%, 10th), and yards after contact per attempt (3.2, fourth). But even 75% of the rookie Barkley standard is pretty good. And the Giants elevate from there because of their quarterback Daniel Jones. Jones may not be as physically gifted as his head coach Brian Daboll’s former star pupil Josh Allen. But Jones lapped his previous career high with 404 scramble yards in 2022 and finished third at the position. And he does enough as an athlete to facilitate the Daboll offense despite the team’s modest wide receiver room.
11. Tennessee Titans
Created YPA: 3.39 (11)
Incumbents: Derrick Henry, Hassan Haskins, Julius Chestnut, Treylon Burks, Ryan Tannehill
Additions: Tyjae Spears (3.81), Will Levis (2.33)
Derrick Henry has carried the Titans to a top-five backfield for the better part of the past decade. And while that reign teased its end when he slipped to a career-worst 19.2% broken tackle rate and broke a bone in his foot in 2021, Henry took back his throne with a 22.1% rate in 2022 that was sixth best at the position. He is 29 years old, but I’m not sure normal aging rules apply to a freak athlete like Henry. If the Titans finally fall from the top half of the backfield rankings, it may be because they trade their star back and kick off a full rebuild. But even that now seems unlikely to derail the team after they added a mobile quarterback in Will Levis and a prolific running back prospect in Tyjae Spears on Day 2 of the draft. The Titans may lean on the run for their next decade, as well. They’ll just need Spears to last after a medical report revealed he does not have an ACL in one of his knees.
12. San Francisco 49ers
Created YPA: 3.10 (19)
Incumbents: Christian McCaffrey, Elijah Mitchell, Jordan Mason, Tyrion Davis-Price, Kyle Juszczyk, Deebo Samuel, Trey Lance, Brock Purdy
Additions: Sam Darnold
Losses: Tevin Coleman, Jimmy Garoppolo
I knew the 49ers would be a difficult backfield to rank with consideration of their playcalling savant Kyle Shanahan. But I never suspected the confusion I feel after my research. The 49ers actually decreased from 3.33 created yards per attempt in Weeks 1-7 to 2.95 created yards per attempt in Weeks 8-18 after they traded for Christian McCaffrey. And McCaffrey broke a career low 15.4% of his potential tackles in 2022. But the team also improved from 0.164 to 0.357 EPA per dropback after the trade and were the most efficient passing offense in the league in the second half with a seventh-round rookie in Brock Purdy as their primary quarterback. McCaffrey had a direct hand in that ascension with 1.93 yards per route run with his new team, the fourth-highest rate among backs with 100 or more routes (he was first with 2.37 YPRR with the Panthers). But I think it’s fair to suspect McCaffrey also had an indirect hand in the 49ers’ passing success even when he wasn’t the target. He — and wide receiver Deebo Samuel and fullback Kyle Juszczyk — stress defenses with their role flexibility. And while it might not work without Shanahan, the 49ers make a compelling if very weird case to be the best backfield in football.
13. Jacksonville Jaguars
Created YPA: 3.46 (9)
Incumbents: Travis Etienne, JaMycal Hasty, Snoop Conner, Jamal Agnew, Trevor Lawrence
Additions: Tank Bigsby (3.88), D'Ernest Johnson
The Dalvin Cook-to-Jacksonville trade rumors suggest a public dissatisfaction with former first-round pick Travis Etienne’s redshirt freshman season. But any dissatisfaction must stem from his fantasy productivity, not his real-life productivity. Etienne ranked second among regular 2022 running backs with both a 26.8% broken tackle rate and with 10.1 average yards after the catch. His only shortfall was in the red zone where he scored just five touchdowns on 49 touches, four fewer than any of his fellow backs in the top 10 in red zone touches. History tells us Etienne will likely enjoy positive regression from his 5.2 expected touchdown shortfall in 2023. But the Jaguars also hedged that bet with their Day 2 addition of Tank Bigsby. Bigsby belies his nickname with a modest 6-foot-0 and 210-pound frame (28.5 BMI). But he did score 10 touchdowns each of the last two seasons at Auburn. And his jump-cutting prowess evokes LeSean McCoy and with Etienne should spur one of the most elusive backfields in football. The Jaguars don’t need Cook to earn an upper-half backfield ranking.
14. Kansas City Chiefs
Created YPA: 3.42 (10)
Incumbents: Isiah Pacheco, Jerick McKinnon, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kadarius Toney, Patrick Mahomes
Losses: Ronald Jones
The Chiefs seem to have learned a lesson from their over-investment in first-round running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who underachieved with a middling 2.47 yards after contact per attempt the last two years and faded to a minimal snap share before a high-ankle sprain effectively ended his 2022 season in mid-November. The team spent just a seventh-round draft pick on their presumed new early-down starter, Isiah Pacheco. And they committed just over $1 million in guaranteed money to their preferred third-down option, Jerick McKinnon. A team with Patrick Mahomes would be fine with replacement-level running backs. Of course, the Chiefs being the Chiefs, they can expect more from Pacheco and McKinnon. The former runs at maximum effort on every carry and showed it with 2.73 yards after contact per attempt in his rookie season. And the latter was top 10 at the position with 1.68 yards per route run. They might be a bit predictable with their specialized roles. But the Chiefs have extra dimensions in their versatile, ankle-breaking receiver Kadarius Toney and in Mahomes, himself, who ranked fourth in 2022 with 346 scramble yards. All told, the Chiefs have a top-15 backfield and may have the best one relative to dollars spent.
15. Miami Dolphins
Created YPA: 3.38 (12)
Incumbents: Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson, Salvon Ahmed, Myles Gaskin, Tyreek Hill, Tua Tagovailoa
Additions: Devon Achane (3.84)
Losses: Teddy Bridgewater
The Dolphins may not have brand names at running back the way they do at wide receiver. And rookie runner Devon Achane may not become one, either, after a draft-day fall to the middle of the third round. But the Dolphins have a definite type at the position. And it complements coach Mike McDaniel’s wide zone scheme perfectly. With their matching 4.32-second 40 times, Raheem Mostert and Achane are two of the fastest runners in football. The former has translated that speed into a 6.9% explosive run rate that is fourth highest among backs with 300 or more carries since 2019. And he, Achane and receiver Tyreek Hill can all use their speed to stretch the field horizontally and create space for the yards after the catch that make the Dolphins one of the best offenses in the NFL.
16. Pittsburgh Steelers
Created YPA: 3.27 (13)
Incumbents: Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren, Anthony McFarland, Kenny Pickett
Losses: Benny Snell, Steven Sims
The public may have soured on former first-round draft pick Najee Harris after he averaged just 3.9 yards per attempt in his first two seasons. But Harris is a perfect illustration of the importance of rushing context. The Steelers have ranked 30th and 14th in run block win rate the last two seasons, and Harris has suffered 1.26 average yards before contact, the lowest rate among backs with 300 or more carries in that time. Measured by the aspects a back can best control himself, Harris has lived up to his early draft status with a 22.3% broken tackle rate and 2.60 yards after contact per attempt, fourth and 10th of those qualified runners. The Steelers have little proven depth behind him and a likely below average rushing quarterback in sophomore Kenny Pickett — at least by modern standards — but Harris could easily follow the Josh Jacobs model and “break out” with improved traditional statistics if the Steelers around him can improve.
17. Seattle Seahawks
Created YPA: 3.23 (15)
Incumbents: Kenneth Walker, DeeJay Dallas, Geno Smith
Additions: Zach Charbonnet (2.52), Kenny McIntosh (7.237)
Losses: Rashaad Penny, Travis Homer
The Seahawks may have made a few Kenneth Walker dynasty-rosterers cry this offseason. But their second-round Zach Charbonnet selection undoubtedly improved their backfield ranking — just maybe not as much as they believe. Walker answered his biggest pre-draft concern with a decent 0.81 yards per route run and teased his star potential with an 18.9% rookie broken tackle rate and a 7.5% explosive run rate that were 12th and fourth best among backs with 100 or more carries. The backfield competition shouldn’t hurt, but I’m not sure it helps the Seahawks to split Walker’s workload, especially since Charbonnet underwhelmed with a 4.53-second 40 time, a 10-foot-2-inch broad jump, and 18 bench reps at the combine. I think there is a moderate risk that Charbonnet ends up an overpriced short-yardage back. Seahawks fans may gladly take that risk over one for their former starter Rashaad Penny to stay healthy, something the first-rounder failed to do in all five of his seasons with the team. But Penny did share Walker’s explosiveness and even leads the position with a 9.8% explosive run rate since he entered the league in 2018. The Seahawks may feel that loss a bit more than they imagine.
18. Philadelphia Eagles
Created YPA: 3.01 (21)
Incumbents: Kenneth Gainwell, Boston Scott, Jalen Hurts
Additions: D'Andre Swift, Rashaad Penny
Losses: Miles Sanders
With an astounding 1,544 rushing yards and 23 rushing touchdowns the last two seasons, quarterback Jalen Hurts is the public face of the league’s best rushing offense. But in truth, the Eagles may owe the bulk of their rushing success to an offensive line that ranked second in run block win rate each of the last two seasons and to a tremendous and complementary offensive scheme. Hurts ranked a surprisingly low fifth with 317 scramble yards in 2022. He did the bulk of his rushing damage (442 yards) on designed runs. And while Hurts deserves a lot of that credit, too, he also owes some to his arm, some to what are effectively play-fakes, and some to his line since he produced 304 of those 442 yards before contact. A transition from departing free agent Miles Sanders to D'Andre Swift and Rashaad Penny may hurt less than their reputations would suggest. Sanders benefited from that excellent Eagles offensive line with 2.73 yards before contact per attempt in 2022, the third highest rate among backs with 150 or more carries. And Swift more than tripled Sanders with 1.50 versus 0.44 yards per route run in 2022, and Penny has nearly doubled Sanders with a 9.5% versus a 4.9% explosive run rate over the last four seasons. The problem is both Swift and Penny have missed a lot of time in their careers. The Eagles have the infrastructure to survive any absences they have in 2023. But that says more about their team as a whole than it does specifically their backfield.
19. Baltimore Ravens
Created YPA: 2.95 (24)
Incumbents: J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, Justice Hill, Patrick Ricard, Devin Duvernay, Lamar Jackson
Losses: Kenyan Drake
The Ravens had the Eagles’ rushing offense in 2022 but with dramatically worse health. Lamar Jackson nipped Jalen Hurts in rushing yards 764 to 760, and in three fewer starts. But he has to split some credit for that rushing success with his arm, his scheme and the No. 1 offensive line in run block win rate since he skewed so heavily toward designed runs (559 yards) over scrambles (205). J.K. Dobbins led backs with 75 or more carries with a 28.6% rushing DVOA rate. But he also led them with 3.77 yards before contact per attempt and missed more than half the season with multiple knee injuries. Even without an offseason addition, the Ravens have the talent to lead the league in rushing offense. But they need to stay healthy, and their backfield is only a piece of that potential.
20. Detroit Lions
Created YPA: 2.62 (30)
Incumbents: Craig Reynolds, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jared Goff
Additions: Jahmyr Gibbs (1.14), David Montgomery
Losses: D'Andre Swift, Jamaal Williams, Justin Jackson
Count me among the front-line questioners of the Lions’ decision to draft a running back with a front-half-of-the-first-round draft pick. The “Prospect X is also a slot receiver” and “is an offensive weapon” refrains are common justifications that I simply do not buy. Even the best receiving backs tend to provide relatively inefficient receiving productivity relative to wide receivers. But these are not asset management rankings. They are backfield rankings. And the Lions likely improved their backfield this offseason even more than most expect. My sim score model is bullish on Gibbs’ relative versatility thanks to his excellent 22.6% college receiving ratio. And I see the Jamaal Williams-to-David Montgomery exchange as a rushing upgrade despite the former player’s league-leading 17 rushing touchdowns last season. Montgomery doubled Williams up with a 17.9% versus a 7.7% broken tackle rate in 2022, and the new Lions early-down back has finished top 15 in broken tackle rate in three of his four seasons. Quarterback Jared Goff’s non-contributions as a runner stand out more starkly in 2023 when versatility is more norm than exception at the position. But even with that handicap, the Lions look like a top-20 backfield this season.
21. New Orleans Saints
Created YPA: 2.93 (26)
Incumbents: Alvin Kamara, Taysom Hill, Rashid Shaheed
Additions: Jamaal Williams, Kendre Miller (3.71), Derek Carr
Losses: Mark Ingram, David Johnson, Andy Dalton
The Saints are among the most exciting backfields at first glance. Alvin Kamara has been one of the most efficient runners and receivers at the position since he entered the league in 2017 and performed to that standard, again, at 27 years old with an 18.8% broken tackle rate (12th) and 1.99 yards per route run (third) in 2022. Free agent addition Jamaal Williams lapped the field at the position with 17 rushing touchdowns last season. And Taysom Hill proved he didn’t need Sean Payton with a career- and position-high 575 designed rushing yards. But the Saints’ hold of even my moderated No. 21 backfield ranking could be tenuous. Kamara faces a potential suspension for an off-field incident in 2022. And Williams was at least somewhat a product of circumstances with 32 attempts inside the 5-yard line, 13 more than the running back silver medalist. The team mitigated their risk with a third-round selection of breakout TCU star Kendre Miller. It’s just difficult to not read that pick as a plan to replace Kamara rather than complement him in what would be the most loaded backfield in football if circumstances were different.
22. Minnesota Vikings
Created YPA: 3.26 (14)
Incumbents: Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, Kene Nwangwu, Ty Chandler, Kirk Cousins
Additions: DeWayne McBride (7.222), Brandon Powell
The Vikings could render even their modest 22nd-place backfield ranking quickly obsolete if they trade Dalvin Cook or cut him after June 1, when his $9 million salary cap relief would nearly double the team’s total cap space. Because, even at 27 years old, Cook beat the league averages with a 15.9% broken tackle rate and with 2.30 yards after contact per attempt in 2022. And while Alexander Mattison has proven himself an overqualified pure backup with a 22.3% broken tackle rate the last four seasons that is fifth best of backs with 300 or more carries, he may not share Cook’s complete skill set. Mattison has just five explosive carries of 15 or more yards the last two seasons on more than 200 total attempts. And he averaged a modest 0.75 yards per route run in 2022, a rate that wedged him between non-receiving threats Damien Harris (0.82) and Nick Chubb (0.73). The team may have bolstered its depth with an early-down BackCAST and Scouts Inc. favorite, DeWayne McBride. But his seventh-round draft status paints a pessimistic picture of his likely short-term impact, with or without Cook on the team.
23. Los Angeles Chargers
Created YPA: 3.19 (17)
Incumbents: Austin Ekeler, Joshua Kelley, Isaiah Spiller, Larry Rountree, Justin Herbert
Losses: Sony Michel
Austin Ekeler has been the most prolific receiving back in football since 2018, pacing the position with 362 catches, 3,169 yards, and 26 touchdowns through the air. That matters, especially in the uncertainty it creates in defenses on downs and distances when other offenses often tip their play-calls with more specialized backs. But it matters less than many think since even the best receiving backs frequently fall behind the sticks on their catches. Ekeler, himself, has a modest 50.3% receiving success rate the last five years, just between middling slot receivers K.J. Osborn (50.6%) and Adam Humphries (50.0%). With little proven depth behind him and a pocket passer in Justin Herbert beside him, Ekeler pushes the Chargers to the top of the bottom 10 in my backfield rankings by himself. But that may not earn Ekeler the long-term contract he believes he deserves, from the Chargers or any other team.
24. Dallas Cowboys
Created YPA: 2.94 (25)
Incumbents: Tony Pollard, Malik Davis, CeeDee Lamb, Dak Prescott
Additions: Deuce Vaughn (6.212), Ronald Jones
Losses: Ezekiel Elliott
Counter to many expectations, the Cowboys waited until the sixth round to add to their backfield with Kansas State product Deuce Vaughn. The rookie may not contribute much in 2022. But the Cowboys can still improve from their bottom-10 backfield efficiency with a major addition by subtraction. Ezekiel Elliott peaked as one of the best backs in football. But seven years of 250 or more touches seem to have caught up to the former No. 4 draft pick. Elliott had his two worst professional seasons in 2021 and 2022 with 11.8% and 15.2% broken tackle rates and 2.57 and 1.91 yards after contact per attempt. He may have moved the needle as a run-blocker. But Elliott could not touch Tony Pollard’s efficiency (2.64 yards after contact per attempt, 10th) or explosiveness (8.8% explosive run rate, first). A former prolific scrambler, Dak Prescott dramatically cut back his rushing — understandably so — after his devastating 2020 ankle injury. But Pollard has the talent to make the Cowboys a top 10 backfield by himself. I’m just not sure he can survive the workload that would require. Former Dallas running backs coach Skip Peete may have been overly pessimistic in capping Pollard at 30 snaps per week. But at 6-foot-0 and 209 pounds (28.3 BMI), Pollard is much smaller than a typical bell-cow NFL back. And any inclination that he might carry the load in 2023 may have ended in the team’s divisional round loss in San Francisco when Pollard fractured a fibula.
25. Denver Broncos
Created YPA: 3.02 (20)
Incumbents: Javonte Williams, Russell Wilson
Additions: Samaje Perine, Tony Jones
Losses: Latavius Murray, Chase Edmonds, Mike Boone, Marlon Mack
Russell Wilson led quarterbacks with 510 scramble yards in 2020. But in two years and 30 games since, he has scrambled for just 385 yards. And now set to turn 35 in late November, Wilson will be hard-pressed to reverse that downward trend. The Broncos backfield will likely excel or falter on the strength of their running backs in 2023. And while that may sound discouraging with former Bengals third-down back Samaje Perine and a post-surgery Javonte Williams as their best two options, Williams at least offers an exciting upside to balance his health risk. The former second-round draft pick had a 26.1% broken tackle rate in his rookie 2021 season, the best among backs with 150 or more carries.
26. Houston Texans
Created YPA: 2.60 (31)
Incumbents: Dameon Pierce, Dare Ogunbowale, Davis Mills
Additions: Devin Singletary, Mike Boone, Steven Sims, C.J. Stroud (1.02)
Losses: Rex Burkhead, Royce Freeman
The Texans tipped their intention to rebuild with their selection of quarterback C.J. Stroud with the No. 2 pick in the 2023 draft. And their backfield spending seems to complement a plan to next compete in 2024 or 2025. Dameon Pierce is a modest investment as a fourth-round draft pick. And free agent addition Devin Singletary cost the team just $2.5 guaranteed million. I think it was the right choice for a team on their timeline. But I also think Pierce and Singletary were the right bargain hunts and spur a surprisingly decent No. 26 backfield ranking. The former ranked 16th among backs with 100 or more carries with a 17.7% broken tackle rate in his rookie season. And the latter has finished top 10 in broken tackle rate in three of his four professional seasons. The Texans had the sixth worst run block win rate in 2022 and need time and reps to develop an offensive line with rookie and sophomore starters in Juice Scruggs and Kenyon Green. It should help Stroud tremendously to have a pair of backs behind him that can make things happen even in imperfect circumstances.
27. Carolina Panthers
Created YPA: 3.00 (22)
Incumbents: Chuba Hubbard, Raheem Blackshear
Additions: Miles Sanders, Bryce Young (1.01), Andy Dalton
Losses: D'Onta Foreman, DJ Moore, Sam Darnold
The Panthers fared remarkably well after the Christian McCaffrey trade and even improved from 0.050 to 0.127 EPA per rushing attempt, the latter which ranked fifth best in football. But I think it’s fair to attribute the bulk of that success to left tackle and No. 6 draft pick Ikem Ekwonu — who blew just 1.8% of his rookie run blocks — and a maturing offensive line. Incumbent back Chuba Hubbard had a middling 16.3% broken tackle rate despite an exceptional 4.9 yards per attempt. Miles Sanders is a definite upgrade. But even he owes a lot of his 2022 success to a standout Eagles offensive line. Sanders averaged 2.73 yards before contact, the third highest rate among backs with 150 or more carries. He is a better receiver than the Eagles offense let him show the last few seasons, and he should take some pressure off of rookie quarterback Bryce Young. But the Panthers have clearly rebuilt their roster from the inside out and seem content to suffer a small backfield disadvantage relative to the rest of the league this season.
28. Los Angeles Rams
Created YPA: 2.98 (23)
Incumbents: Cam Akers, Kyren Williams, Tutu Atwell, Cooper Kupp, Matthew Stafford
Additions: Zach Evans (6.215)
Losses: Malcolm Brown, Brandon Powell, Baker Mayfield
When he missed Weeks 6 and 7 for an undisclosed conflict with Sean McVay, Cam Akers seemed like the longer shot to make it through the Rams season than the back the team eventually did release, Darrell Henderson. Akers deserves a lot of credit for rebounding from that low point — and the Achilles injury that cost him the bulk of his 2021 season — and climbing to fourth at the position with a 24.5% broken tackle rate. The former second-round draft pick is undoubtedly talented. But Akers cannot spur an upper-half Rams backfield rating by himself — not with one half season of efficient rushing and just 365 touches in a three-year career. Fifth-round sophomore Kyren Williams is small at 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds and is more likely to peak as a complementary receiving back than see a heavy workload. And while rookie Zach Evans has typical early-down size (5-foot-11 and 202 pounds) and a history of efficient rushing at both TCU and Ole Miss, his late-sixth-round draft selection tempers his professional expectations.
29. Arizona Cardinals
Created YPA: 2.93 (26)
Incumbents: James Conner, Keaontay Ingram, Corey Clement, Kyler Murray, Colt McCoy
Losses: Darrel Williams
If you asked me late in any October, I would have a higher opinion of the Cardinals backfield. Top-tier quarterback athlete Kyler Murray has finished the first two months in the top 10 in scramble yards each of the last three seasons. But he has also run less in the second half of those three seasons and missed time in the second half of the last two seasons. And Murray is small for the position at 5-foot-10 and 207 pounds. Those declines seemed more trend than luck even before he tore his ACL last December. Meanwhile, if Murray misses half or more of the 2023 season, the Cardinals will be hard-pressed to pick up the slack in their backfield. James Conner has survived moderate workloads of 225 touches each of the last two seasons. But his 13.7% broken tackle rate in 2022 was barely half of his 20.0%-plus rates from the previous two seasons. And now 28 years old, Conner is a long short to reverse course, and the Cardinals lack either experience or pedigree behind him. Presumed No. 2 back Keaontay Ingram was a sixth-round draft selection and saw just 31 touches in his rookie season.
30. Washington Commanders
Created YPA: 2.76 (28)
Incumbents: Brian Robinson, Antonio Gibson, Jonathan Williams, Jaret Patterson, Curtis Samuel, Sam Howell
Additions: Chris Rodriguez (6.193), Jacoby Brissett
Losses: J.D. McKissic, Taylor Heinicke
Brian Robinson was one of the brightest stories of the 2022 season, recovering from an August attempted-robbery shooting to lead the Commanders with 205 carries and 797 rushing yards. But as much as I want to, I cannot conflate the story with my evaluation of the team’s backfield. Robinson played behind a below-average run-blocking unit (71% run block win rate, 19th) and outperformed his modest 3.9 yards per attempt with a barely below average 2.09 yards after contact per attempt. But Robinson is also a one-note power rusher. That may have been the expectation when Washington drafted him late in the third round in 2022. But the team likely expected more from the more versatile Antonio Gibson. He has dramatically declined from a 22.4% broken tackle rate in 2020 to 15.1% and 10.1% rate the last two seasons. The Commanders added a lottery ticket in sixth-round rookie Chris Rodriguez. But their best chance to jump up the backfield rankings is likely with Day 3 sophomore quarterback Sam Howell who was an unexpected zone-read rushing star with 828 yards and 11 touchdowns in his final North Carolina season in 2021. But Howell will need more than to beat out his new veteran teammate Jacoby Brissett to fulfill that rushing potential. He will also need to prove he can withstand a dual-threat NFL role at an undersized 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds.
31. Cincinnati Bengals
Created YPA: 2.67 (29)
Incumbents: Joe Mixon, Chris Evans, Trayveon Williams, Joe Burrow
Additions: Chase Brown (5.163)
Losses: Samaje Perine
The Bengals demonstrated their faith in long-term starter Joe Mixon by delaying a running back draft selection to the fifth round. And head coach Zac Taylor confirmed it when he told reporters in late April that Mixon’s future “is here with the team.” I choose to read some optimism in those affirmations that Mixon will avoid major legal trouble from his unresolved misdemeanor menacing charge. But I still have concerns for Mixon the player after he finished 2022 with a 10.0% broken tackle rate and with 2.01 yards after contact per attempt, fourth and eighth worst among backs with 100 or more carries. I suspect Mixon owes a healthy share of that inefficiency to an offensive scheme that tips its run and pass play-calls by skewing run under center and pass from shotgun — a suboptimal split for the backfield that pays off for the offense as a whole if it makes Joe Burrow more comfortable. But it is still difficult to make the case that Mixon is the above average back that he was at his peak. And he will be an old 27 in 2023 with 1,545 career touches, sixth most among active running backs. Samaje Perine was helpful depth in 2022. But after losing him to free agency, the Bengals seem set to rely on some combination of Chris Evans and Trayveon Williams, two former sixth-round draft picks with fewer than 100 combined offensive touches in six combined NFL seasons.
32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Created YPA: 2.22 (32)
Incumbents: Rachaad White, Ke'Shawn Vaughn
Additions: Chase Edmonds, Sean Tucker (undrafted), Baker Mayfield
Losses: Leonard Fournette, Giovani Bernard, Tom Brady
The Bucs did well to see the 28-year-old Leonard Fournette’s decline coming. The veteran cratered from a 15.6% broken tackle rate in 2021 to a 9.5% rate in 2022 that was third lowest of regular runners. But the team made a moderate third-round investment in Rachaad White so he could develop in tandem with Fournette in his rookie season. And White at least teased an every-down potential handling 179 touches without an injury and pacing rookie backs with 232 pass routes. But the rookie’s standout total of 50 catches may have said more about former quarterback Tom Brady’s passing approach than it did White’s capacity to handle third downs. Even at a heavy target volume, White contributed a middling 1.17 yards per route run. Meanwhile, White barely bested Fournette with an 11.6% broken tackle rate that was sixth worst among regular rushers. The Bucs offensive line did him few favors with the second worst run block win rate. But White is far from a lock to become an above average starter, and the team made a minimal hedge of that risk in signing receiving back Chase Edmonds for the veteran minimum and Syracuse product Sean Tucker as an undrafted free agent. I’m not sure I would handle an apparent Bucs rebuild any differently if I were making their personnel decisions. But those decisions still earn the team a last-place backfield ranking for 2023.