2017 rushing title predictions: Will Ezekiel Elliott keep the RB throne?

Last season, Ezekiel Elliott became the first rookie of this millennium to lead the NFL in rushing yards. (Edgerrin James last accomplished this feat in Year 1 back in 1999.) So, given that Dallas returns three first-team All-Pro O-linemen and Elliott will enter the 2017 campaign at the spry age of 22, conventional wisdom says the Cowboys back will lead the league in rushing once again, right? Well, maybe not ...

No running back has logged consecutive season as the game's ground king since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006-07. And the past nine campaigns have seen seven different rushers in the No. 1 spot. (Adrian Peterson has topped the board on three separate occasions.)

So, who will lead the NFL in rushing in 2017?

David Johnson will lead the NFL in rushing in 2017. While Ezekiel Elliott will run behind a better offensive line, the Cowboys did lose an underrated run blocker in Ronald Leary and a stout tackle in Doug Free. The absence of both unsung guys on the Dallas line could mean slightly less production, at least in terms of yards per carry. Le'Veon Bell is still the best overall RB in the game, but it has become increasingly difficult to rely on him to play a full slate.

Meanwhile, Johnson remains the most reliable weapon the Cardinals have. If the youngsters pan out in the back seven, Arizona could find itself in lower-scoring games. Thus, the Cards will look to pound the rock with No. 31 a whole lot. Call me predictable, but I'm sticking with Ezekiel Elliott. The Dallas Cowboys running back ran away with the rushing title in 2016 and he's poised to be even more prolific during his second year in the NFL. The Cowboys already have talked about wanting to use him more, even though he led the league with 322 carries last season (on his way to 1,631 yards). They also seem prepared to back up that plan, especially since Elliott wants the ball as many times as they'll give it to him. Dallas will still find a way to utilize other backfield options to spell him from time to time. Just don't be surprised if Elliott ends up with more attempts and yards than he accumulated last fall. DeMarco Murray will get back to the top of the rushing heap, like in 2014. I love the Tennessee Titans' offensive line and I think Marcus Mariota is going to have his best season in Year 3. The passing weapons are going to prevent defenses from stacking the box, leaving Murray to take advantage of all the positives the Titans have added on offense. Jordan Howard is going to lead the league in rushing this season. I know some of you will be all, "This is a homer pick and Rank is just biased." And others will be all, "I have no idea who this guy is, but he's probably from Naperville or something." You'd be wrong, though. I was born in Schaumburg, so the joke is on you. But I'm not going to sit here and defend my homer pick. Actually, I will. Here's why Howard is going to lead the league ...

First, he's got great opportunity, in that he's not in a backfield committee. A non-backfield committee is a rare commodity in 2017, like finding somebody who actually enjoyed "Suicide Squad" (and I should let you know, that I did). Second, he's got a coach who is committed to the run. The Bears have a loaded front seven on defense, and you know they are going to want to shorten games by having Howard grind the ball. You think John Fox will just, all of a sudden, turn into Mouse Davis and have Mike Glennon throw the rock all over the field? And the Bears will be in close games. They aren't going to get blown out a lot. Third, you know who finished second in the league in rushing last season? Yes, this man. But his work was completely overshadowed by his fellow rook in Dallas. Finally, I love the offensive line. The top interior three is the best group in the NFL. Flopping Kyle Long and Josh Sitton is going to be great, too. Because Sitton can return to his dominant side. On the other hand, Long has shown he can thrive at any position on the offensive line. Shoot, put my dude at tight end or H-back and he would crush it.

So there you go. Straight analysis. Howard is your 2017 rushing leader. I'll look forward to your hat-in-hand tweets to me at the end of the season. We haven't had a repeat winner in this category since NFL Network's own LaDainian Tomlinson did it in 2006 and 2007. So, keeping with that trend, I'll give my vote to LeSean McCoy. Shady will be the focal point of a Buffalo offense that is now being run by Rick Dennison, who did remarkable things as the offensive coordinator for Arian Foster back in Houston.

When taking a stab at projecting the rushing leader, my thought process is to find a talented back in a solid offense who should see a high number of touches. McCoy checks all those boxes and has thrived in a brand new offense before: Shady led the league in rushing in 2013, his first year with Chip Kelly. I like Jordan Howard, simply because his ability perfectly matches the situation he's in. The Chicago Bears are going to be a power-running team under John Fox, who has historically had an affinity for the ground game. Howard is a very talented player who finished 318 yards behind No. 1 rusher Ezekiel Elliott in 2016, despite starting just 13 games. This year, Howard will take full advantage of the opportunity in front of him and seize the top spot. Shady McCoy will lead the NFL in rushing. The Buffalo Bills will continue to be a ground-and-pound team. Even though a new coaching staff is coming over, Rick Dennison is bringing in a zone-based system that has really helped running backs flourish. McCoy is a perfect fit in the I-formation and should have a lot of success behind a big offensive line. Plus, defensive-minded head coach Sean McDermott wants to make sure the offense controls the ball and keeps the defense off the field. Ezekiel Elliott is going to win back-to-back rushing titles. The Cowboys' offensive line is built for the run game, so he'll get plenty of carries. And with has good Dak Prescott was in his rookie season, they will have to run the ball to be successful on offense. It's just hard for me to argue against Dallas' run game. Adrian Peterson is coming into this season coming off an injury and with a chip on his shoulder. The Saints' offensive line has improved and like I recently wrote, Peterson still has some good football left in him. He's going to surprise a lot of people in 2017.

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