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Running back rankings: Ezekiel Elliott tops backfield renaissance

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The running back position is having a renaissance. The group atop the position is deeper and more dynamic than any the NFL has witnessed since the LaDainian Tomlinson-led mid-aughts. Finding a matchup nightmare on passing downs is all but a requirement for modern offenses.

So how does this current crop of running backs shape up? Before training camp gets rolling, here's a look at the best 32 running backs heading into the 2018 campaign. The rankings should serve partly as a snapshot of the position, and partly as a projection. These are the players I'd most want on my roster for this season, rookies excluded.

1
Ezekiel Elliott
RB
Cowboys

Power still has a place in NFL offenses. If anything, the league's trend toward spreading the field with speed on both sides of the ball only makes complete, rugged backs like Zeke more valuable, as undersized defenders bounce off him. The game appears to come easy for Elliott, who is already the league's best pure runner at age 22. There should be another level of play he can reach, and this should be the season he reaches it.

2017 stats: 10 games | 242 carries | 983 rush yds | 4.1 avg | 7 rush TD | 26 rec | 269 rec yds | 2 rec TD

2
Le'Veon Bell
RB
Steelers

The great ones seem to watch the game from above while they play it. No one creates his own yardage quite like Bell, with his ability to sidestep tacklers or shrug them off. He routinely beats safeties as an outside receiver, with 33 more catches than the next-closest back over the last two years. No other back performs every last aspect of his job -- from short-yardage runs to blocking -- at such a high level with such flourish.

2017 stats: 15 games | 321 carries | 1,291 rush yds | 4.0 avg | 9 rush TD | 85 rec | 655 rec yds | 2 rec TD

3
Todd Gurley
RB
Rams

The Rams helped reverse the trend of top-shelf backs falling on draft day by selecting Gurley 10th overall in 2015, which is an incredible bargain, given that there are two years still left on his rookie deal (including the fifth-year option for 2019). In a passing league, defensive coaches facing the Rams start their game plans with how to stop Gurley. It didn't help much, as Gurley still led the league in yards from scrimmage and rushing/receiving touchdowns.

2017 stats: 15 games | 279 carries | 1,305 rush yds | 4.7 avg | 13 rush TD | 64 rec | 788 rec yds | 6 rec TD

4
David Johnson
RB
Cardinals

I'll never get used to a runner this big who is able to move his feet that fast. Footwork helps make Johnson an extraordinary receiver and a candidate to break any play wide open by cutting against the grain. He's only started 22 games in three seasons, but his legs will be fresh after missing 15 games in 2017 with a wrist injury. The fact that this guy is ranked fourth shows how strong the top of the position is.

2016 stats: 16 games | 293 carries | 1,239 rush yds | 4.2 avg | 16 rush TD | 80 rec | 879 rec yds | 4 rec TD

5
Alvin Kamara
RB
Saints

This ranking could look silly a year from now. Like another NOLA legend with no ceiling, Kamara has a flow so sick it makes you want to throw your food up. He's stronger than you think, playing heavier than Marshall Faulk or Priest Holmes did in their day. They just don't make running backs like Kamara any more. Matter of fact, they never made them like him before.

2017 stats: 16 games | 120 carries | 728 rush yds | 6.1 avg | 8 rush TD | 81 rec | 826 rec yds | 5 rec TD

6
LeSean McCoy
RB
Bills

It's strange to remember a time when the rap against Shady was that he couldn't handle a big workload. While he still occasionally gives away yardage in search of "SportsCenter," McCoy has evolved into one of the most durable runners of this century, able to improve the players around him.

2017 stats: 16 games | 287 carries | 1,138 rush yds | 4.0 avg | 6 rush TD | 59 rec | 448 rec yds | 2 rec TD

7
Devonta Freeman
RB
Falcons

Freeman occasionally seeks out contact at the expense of gaining more yards, but it's a blast to watch. A fourth-round pick who has proven well-rounded except for his blocking, Freeman is a reminder that scouts often struggle to evaluate a player's motor. No matter the score or the situation, Freeman attacks every rep as if it's his last.

2017 stats: 14 games | 196 carries | 865 rush yds | 4.4 avg | 7 rush TD | 36 rec | 317 rec yds | 1 rec TD

8
Kareem Hunt
RB
Chiefs

Was it the Chiefs' scheme or Hunt's ability that led to his rookie season? Yes. Give Hunt room, and he can take any play the distance. While he might not possess the one standout trait that makes the players above special, Hunt does everything asked of him well. Running backs like Hunt, who break tackles inside and catch passes outside, tilt the field, offering more flexibility in play calls and tempo.

2017 stats: 16 games | 272 carries | 1,327 rush yds | 4.9 avg | 8 rush TD | 53 rec | 455 rec yds | 3 rec TD

9
Leonard Fournette
RB
Jaguars

Famous for finishing every run at LSU, Fournette appeared to run out of gas at times as a rookie while playing at a heavier weight. His ankle injuries from college also persisted, and he didn't enjoy as many breakaway runs. Still, few runners are more fearsome in short-yardage situations. He should be more prepared to carry an offense in Year 2.

2017 stats: 13 games | 268 carries | 1,040 rush yds | 3.9 avg | 9 rush TD | 36 rec | 302 rec yds | 1 rec TD

10
Mark Ingram
RB
Saints

Chris Wesseling has been banging the drum for Ingram as one of the league's best runners for a while, but the national recognition didn't catch up until last season. His career would have had a different arc had he landed with a team that favors a true primary running back. Then again, he probably wouldn't be peaking heading into Year 8, four-game suspension to start this season aside.

2017 stats: 16 games | 230 carries | 1,124 rush yds | 4.9 avg | 12 rush TD | 58 rec | 416 rec yds

11
Joe Mixon
RB
Bengals

Blame his 3.5 yards-per-carry mark mostly on the offensive line and a youthful desire to turn every run into a highlight. By the end of last season, Mixon was trusting his blocks, finishing runs and popping off the screen as an elusive runner who is sometimes reminiscent of Le'Veon Bell and LeSean McCoy.

2017 stats: 14 games | 178 carries | 626 rush yds | 3.5 avg | 4 rush TD | 30 rec | 287 rec yds

12
Melvin Gordon
RB
Chargers

Only four running backs have more yards from scrimmage over the last two years, so why does it feel like Gordon could do more? Gordon has everything a running back wants, except a yards-per-carry mark north of 4.0. His college scouting report has been proven wrong regarding nearly all of his weaknesses and some strengths, so there's room to grow if he creates more explosive runs.

2017 stats: 16 games | 284 carries | 1,105 rush yds | 3.9 avg | 8 rush TD | 58 rec | 476 rec yds | 4 rec TD

13
Dalvin Cook
RB
Vikings

It took one start to realize that Cook fell too far in the draft. Third in the league in yards from scrimmage through Week 3 last season, Cook is a north-south runner who showed surprising toughness and an ability to make defenders miss in the hole. His October ACL injury is the only thing preventing him from being ranked higher.

2017 stats: 4 games | 74 carries | 354 rush yds | 4.8 avg | 2 rush TD | 11 rec | 90 rec yds

14
Kenyan Drake
RB
Dolphins

Drake was never a primary back in college, but he played like one in a fiery five-game stretch to end last season. The game tape showed a rare combination of suddenness, power and versatility. He led the league in rushing after Week 13, and only Alvin Kamara topped Drake in elusive rating last season, according to Pro Football Focus. He practically beat the Patriots by himself. It's a small sample size, but I'm sold.

2017 stats: 16 games | 133 carries | 644 rush yds | 4.8 avg | 3 rush TD | 32 rec | 239 rec yds | 1 rec TD

15
Jordan Howard
RB
Bears

Howard is in the wrong era, as a traditional gliding power back without great receiving skills. Easy to imagine Howard as a star of the 1970s. It remains to be seen how Howard's role changes now that John Fox's 1970s offense has left the building.

2017 stats: 16 games | 276 carries | 1,122 rush yds | 4.1 avg | 9 rush TD | 23 rec | 125 rec yds

16
Tevin Coleman
RB
Falcons

Like a young Mark Ingram, Coleman's talent outstrips his role in a crowded offense. The upright speedster believes he'll be used more in 2018 after getting a career-high 183 touches a season ago. That should set Coleman up well, with free agency looming next offseason.

2017 stats: 15 games | 156 carries | 628 rush yds | 4.0 avg | 5 rush TD | 27 rec | 299 rec yds | 3 rec TD

17
Dion Lewis
RB
Titans

A fascinating, winding career for Lewis crested last season with 249 touches, including the playoffs, in his final 15 games. He still makes defenders miss like a video game simulacrum, but he showed a newfound toughness between the tackles. Last year's workload accounts for more than half of his touches since entering the league in 2011, so the only question is whether he can do it again.

2017 stats: 16 games | 180 carries | 896 rush yds | 5.0 avg | 6 rush TD | 32 rec | 214 rec yds | 3 rec TD

18
Christian McCaffrey
RB
Panthers

One-thousand eighty-six yards from scrimmage, 80 catches and seven touchdowns is nothing to sneeze at, even if it looked unremarkable. McCaffrey has to prove he won't go down at first contact on inside runs, but the Panthers still found a productive player who should only get better. Don't dismiss him just because he's not Alvin Kamara.

2017 stats: 16 games | 117 carries | 435 rush yds | 3.7 avg | 2 rush TD | 80 rec | 651 rec yds | 5 rec TD

19
Jay Ajayi
RB
Eagles

I wondered a year ago if Ajayi would be durable enough -- and crazy enough -- to maintain his uber-masculine running style. He wound up being far less elusive in Miami and was banished to the eventual Super Bowl champions after his commitment was questioned. His 48 touches in three playoff games should be a preview of his increasing role, but London's favorite son has the profile of a back who burns brightly early in his career before fading away.

2017 stats: 14 games | 208 carries | 873 rush yds | 4.2 avg | 1 rush TD | 24 rec | 158 rec yds | 1 rec TD

20
Derrick Henry
RB
Titans

There isn't a lot of wiggle or passing-game refinement in Henry's game, but Dion Lewis' presence should balance out those shortcomings. Henry's profile is not unlike a younger version of his former teammate DeMarco Murray, who was a load to tackle and liable to break a long one late in games, when defenders were sucking wind.

2017 stats: 16 games | 176 carries | 744 rush yds | 4.2 avg | 5 rush TD | 11 rec | 136 rec yds | 1 rec TD

21
Duke Johnson
RB
Browns

Passing-down backs have gone from useful role players to necessities. Someone like Johnson, who is second among all running backs with 127 catches over the last two years, has more value than a traditional thumper because of the play calls he opens up. Johnson has taken almost exactly half the Browns' snaps since being drafted, an efficient producer on an inefficient offense.

2017 stats: 16 games | 82 carries | 348 rush yds | 4.2 avg | 4 rush TD | 74 rec | 693 rec yds | 3 rec TD

22
Giovani Bernard
RB
Bengals

Bernard's explosiveness was diminished early last season, when he was still recovering from ACL surgery. By the time he piled up 168 yards against Detroit in Week 16, the old Gio was back. He has underrated strength and is great on screens. The Bengals should have one of the most dynamic tandems in football if they can improve their run blocking.

2017 stats: 16 games | 105 carries | 458 rush yds | 4.4 avg | 2 rush TD | 43 rec | 389 rec yds | 2 rec TD

23
Tarik Cohen
RB
Bears

Some runners have great short-area quickness. Some just have pure straight-line speed. Cohen has both, with a low center of gravity that makes him difficult to tackle -- if the defense can locate him behind the line of scrimmage. New Bears coach Matt Nagy should utilize him in ways the previous regime didn't try.

2017 stats: 16 games | 87 carries | 370 rush yds | 4.3 avg | 2 rush TD | 53 rec | 353 rec yds | 1 rec TD

24
Jerick McKinnon
RB
49ers

Niners coach Kyle Shanahan is partly responsible for this ranking. If someone who knows the running game as well as Shanahan believes McKinnon is worth more than $11 million this season to be a primary runner, who am I to disagree? His legs are fresh entering his fifth season with only 474 career carries.

2017 stats: 16 games | 150 carries | 570 rush yds | 3.8 avg | 3 rush TD | 51 rec | 421 rec yds | 2 rec TD

25
Carlos Hyde
RB
Browns

Four different offensive coordinators couldn't get the most out of Hyde, who seemed to drive coaches crazy by making a dazzling move one play and then a mental error on the next one. He was paid well in free agency, but he might wind up third on the Browns depth chart behind rookie Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson.

2017 stats: 16 games | 240 carries | 938 rush yds | 3.9 avg | 8 rush TD | 59 rec | 350 rec yds

26
Alex Collins
RB
Ravens

It's remarkable that Collins couldn't make the Seahawks in training camp last season. He wound up being the best player on the Ravens' offense, consistently running through arm tackles on the way to 1,160 yards from scrimmage. NFL history is littered with big runners who had one season of brilliance -- hello, Samkon Gado -- so Collins still must prove he has staying power.

2017 stats: 15 games | 212 carries | 973 rush yds | 4.6 avg | 6 rush TD | 23 rec | 187 rec yds

27
Marshawn Lynch
RB
Raiders

It's hard for Lynch to do anything quietly, but his 1,042 yards from scrimmage last season were quietly effective. Bizarrely blamed at times for the Raiders' offensive downturn because he was new to the mix, Lynch gave Oakland his trademark effort, usually picking up more yards than were blocked for him.

2017 stats: 15 games | 207 carries | 891 rush yds | 4.3 avg | 7 rush TD | 20 rec | 151 rec yds

28
Isaiah Crowell
RB
Jets

Crowell has averaged nearly 200 rushes over the last three seasons, producing at a better-than-replacement-level clip. Availability is a skill at running back, and Crowell has yet to miss a game since emerging as an undrafted diamond in the rough for Cleveland.

2017 stats: 16 games | 206 carries | 853 rush yds | 4.1 avg | 2 rush TD | 28 rec | 182 rec yds

29
Theo Riddick
RB
Lions

He's a passing-down specialist, but a very good specialist. Riddick's outrageous receiving ability is one of the biggest reasons why Matthew Stafford and the Lions are one of the best teams at running a two-minute offense with the game on the line.

2017 stats: 16 games | 84 carries | 286 rush yds | 3.4 avg | 3 rush TD | 53 rec | 444 rec yds | 2 rec TD

30
Chris Thompson
RB
Redskins

A broken leg short-circuited what was shaping up to be Thompson's best season in 2017. As long as he recovers well from the injury, he still figures to have a sizable role supporting rookie Derrius Guice.

2017 stats: 10 games | 64 carries | 294 rush yds | 4.6 avg | 2 rush TD | 39 rec | 510 rec yds | 4 rec TD

31
Aaron Jones
RB
Packers

In 81 carries, Jones strung together enough impressive runs and grabs for me to believe he could be the best Packers runner since Eddie Lacy in his rookie season. Jones just needs to improve his blocking to stay on the field.

2017 stats: 12 games | 81 carries | 448 rush yds | 5.5 avg | 4 rush TD | 9 rec | 22 rec yds

32
James White
RB
Patriots

Only Le'Veon Bell and Duke Johnson have caught more passes over the last two seasons. And while the Patriots don't hand the ball off to White much, they still trusted him with two of the biggest short-yardage carries in franchise history in Super Bowl LI. He delivered on both of them, earning a new contract as a reward.

2017 stats: 14 games | 43 carries | 171 rush yds | 4.0 avg | 56 rec | 429 rec yds | 3 rec TD

JUST MISSED: LeGarrette Blount, Detroit Lions; Ty Montgomery, Green Bay Packers; Bilal Powell, New York Jets; Ameer Abdullah, Detroit Lions; Rex Burkhead, New England Patriots.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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