As we wait for football to start back up again, and with NFL training camps scheduled to open at the end of July, let’s take a look at how each team ranks at the running back position heading into the 2021 season.
1. Indianapolis Colts– This team is first in the rankings, and is a pretty easy choice to be at the top of the list. The Colts’ top running back, Jonathan Taylor, enters his second season after an impressive 2020 rookie year, especially towards the end of the season. Taylor had one of the most productive rookie seasons ever for a running back, despite starting off slow. Heading into this year, he has the potential to be the NFL’s leading rusher.
Looking at the talent the Colts have at running back, this could be a very explosive and scary backfield for opposing defenses. Marlon Mack is back from a torn Achilles injury, and although he may not be the same, he has shown improvement over the past two seasons by being able to learn and grow. This is why he is one of the best running backs that Indy has had in quite some time.
Nyheim Hines is another solid running back who provides a combination of speed and pass catching ability that is rare and hard to deal with. He’s small but can be a really tough guy to tackle in the open field. Expect him to be productive, even if he’s not one of the better running backs to own on your fantasy team.
The last running back, of note, for the Colts is Jordan Wilkins. He’s a decent running back, and has exceeded expectations since coming into the league. His running style is able to help him gain positive yards when needed, but he doesn’t have that burst of speed like Indy’s other running backs do. It’s possible that he doesn’t make the team once the season starts, and he is a candidate to be traded or released. Indy may be good with just three running backs on the roster, but Wilkins definitely has the inside track at RB4, if they do opt for a 4th RB.
The rest of the running back room, as of June 4th, 2021, consists of: Darius Anderson (2020 UDFA), Deon Jackson (2021 UDFA), and Benny LeMay (2020 UDFA). One or two of these backs could end up on the practice squad, with Jackson’s chances being higher than the rest. This is because he was handed the largest guarantee that GM Chris Ballard has ever handed out to UDFA, at $45,000. Due to this, there is a possibility that he could be pushing Wilkins for the RB4 spot as well (should Indy go for 4 backs).
2. Jacksonville Jaguars– It may come as a surprise that this team is number two on the list. James Robinson had a breakout rookie season, and should be in for another good one this year. Along with him, first round draft pick Travis Etienne was added, and he could make for a talented backup behind Robinson. Together, this running back tandem could be quite formidable, which is why I have them higher on the list.
One of the better running backs and biggest surprises in the 2020 season was James Robinson. As an undrafted free agent, he came into the NFL looking like a first round back, finishing with 1,414 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns. His elusiveness, balance, and cutting ability are the reasons why he’ll be the primary workhorse back in the Jags offense this year.
His counterpart, Travis Etienne, will be used mostly as a pass catcher either out of the backfield or while lining up as a wide receiver. This rookie has breakaway speed, which alone makes him useful in any offense. He’ll have an important role and will be used a lot, since he already has experience playing with Quarterback Trevor Lawrence while they were at Clemson together. In addition, Jacksonville also signed and brought back Carlos Hyde, who last played for the Jaguars in 2018 for half a season (8 games) after being traded by the Cleveland Browns. Hyde is a veteran running back who adds depth at the position, and will probably only be used sparingly unless there are injuries to either Robinson or Etienne. Robinson, Etienne, and Hyde will be the main three backs at the start of the season, and I would be quite fine with this group.
The rest of the running back room, as of June 4th, 2021, consists of: Nathan Cottrell (2020 UDFA), Dare Ogunbowale (2017 UDFA), and Devine Ozigbo (2019 UDFA). Ogunbowale has the most extensive profile of the three, and I see him being the one sticking around in the end as RB4 (should Jacksonville choose to go this route). Ozigbo was supposed to split carries with Robinson last year after the team had cut Leonard Fournette, as he had a good training camp and was wowing the team with his skills and abilities. He was meant to be the second back in a running back-by-committee approach that the Jags were taking, before it turned out to become the James Robinson show. I feel like he should still get a chance elsewhere, if he doesn’t stick here, and I would like to see him land on Jacksonville’s practice squad at the very least. Cottrell is another option for the practice squad, should Ozigbo not stick around.
3. Tennessee Titans– Many people might find it surprising to see a team with the league’s leading rusher from a year ago ranked third on this list. Yes, Derrick Henry is a beast and finished 2020 as a First-Team All-Pro, with 2,141 yards from scrimmage and 17 touchdowns. However, the problem here is he did that on 378 carries, which is 75 more than he had the previous year (303). Henry is now 27 years old as he enters his sixth season in the NFL, and we really have to wonder if his body will continue to be able to handle such a high rate of usage as he ages. Recently, there have been some interesting discussions regarding running backs who carry the ball 370+ times in a season. For most, the following season has been marked by a major injury or an otherwise significant loss in productivity. If King Henry is able to stay healthy this year and duplicate last season’s numbers, he would certainly defy past history and continue to show that he’s unlike any running back we’ve ever seen in the NFL.
Other than Henry, the only other Tennessee running back on the roster who took some of the rushing duties away was Jeremy McNichols, who had 47 carries for 208 yards and 1 rushing touchdown. McNichols’ ability is pretty limited and, prior to 2020, he had just 2 carries for 4 yards. Those numbers for a backup running back just aren’t good enough to ease some of the rushing load off of Henry. Any setbacks to Henry this season and the Titans offense could potentially be in big trouble. That being said, they did sign Brian Hill in free agency to back Henry up, but even then he might not be enough.
The rest of the running back room, as of June 4th, 2021, consists of: Khari Blasingame (2019 UDFA; listed as FB/RB), Darrynton Evans (Titans’ 2020 third round pick), and Mekhi Sargent (2021 UDFA). Blasingame plays as the lead fullback, but he doesn’t really see many touches even then. Evans was recently seen taking reps at WR, since the team hasn’t been able to see him on the field much and are giving him the opportunity to at least see playing time somewhere, given the limited opportunity in front of him at RB. In the end, I see Henry, Hill, and McNichols as the three RBs on their active roster, with Blasingame at FB, Evans switching over to WR or possibly getting cut/traded, and Sargent as the possible practice squad RB. Since they use fullbacks, and also have another 2021 UDFA in Tory Carter fighting for his chance to make the cut, I don’t see the need for an RB4 here for the Titans.
4. Houston Texans– This team enters the season with Deshaun Watson battling legal troubles and demanding to be traded. Without him, their offense should look totally different, and they’d have to rely on their running game more often in order to be more effective. With David Johnson already coming back, the Texans brought in veteran running backs Phillip Lindsay (formerly of the Denver Broncos) and Mark Ingram II (formerly of the Baltimore Ravens) to help out. They even signed former Patriot Rex Burkhead a few days ago.
Of the four, Lindsay is the best running back they have, but he suffered season ending knee and hip injuries last December. In his first three seasons, he’s been productive by finishing his first two years in Denver with over 1,000 yards rushing. If he can stay healthy, he should bounce back and could be the team’s clear top running back.
David Johnson, the Texans’ top running back in 2020, put up decent numbers (1,005 yards from scrimmage) despite missing 4 games. Houston’s problem is that they don’t have a running back who can carry the load when needed to, and they continue to struggle with nagging injuries at the position as well. A casual fan would look at this running back group and probably get excited, but with Mark Ingram and David Johnson’s best days behind them, this team’s running game will only go as far as Phillip Lindsay can take them. Also, without their star Quarterback Deshaun Watson starting, the team’s passing game will be very limited and opposing defenses will be expecting them to run the ball often. This will make their offense more predictable and one-dimensional. That being said, QB Tyrod Taylor has been somewhat known for his mobility, with 5.4 yards/attempt and 25.7 yards/game in his career. He can try to help out with his feet to keep defenses at bay to counter my previous point. In the end, I would expect Johnson, Ingram, and Lindsay to be the top 3 backs, with Burkhead getting the RB4 spot (should they go for 4 backs).
The rest of the running back room, as of June 4th, 2021, consists of: Dontrell Hilliard (2018 UDFA), Buddy Howell (2018 UDFA), and Scottie Phillips (2020 UDFA). My best guess is that Hilliard, who has the most extensive profile of the three, will stick around as the practice squad RB and/or fight for that RB4 spot with Burkhead.
That’s it for the AFC South team running back rankings for 2021. Good luck to all the running backs in the division, and we’ll see which team has the best rushing attack this season.