It's not quite the 1970s and 1980s when franchise running backs such as Walter Payton (Chicago Bears), Eric Dickerson (LA Rams) and John Riggins (Washington) were the most important players on their respective teams, but the running back still matters a great deal in today's NFL.
The NFL may be a pass-first league, but many teams and running backs reminded us that the ground attack is still vital. These are my top 10 backfield stars heading into the 2020 season.
1. Christian McCaffrey Carolina Panthers
Derrick Henry may have received more publicity at the back end of the 2019 season due to his playoff run with Tennesee, but let's not forget what Christian McCaffrey did with the Panthers, topping 1,000 yards as a rusher and a receiver (becoming the third player in history to achieve that feat alongside Marshall Faulk in 1999 and Roger Craig in 1985). McCaffrey is a truly special modern-day back who can do it all.
2. Derrick Henry Tennessee Titans
Henry is more beautifully old school than his counterpart in Charlotte. But the results are equally impressive and, like McCaffrey, Henry is the beating heart of his team's offense. In fact, he sets the tone for this entire franchise. At 6-foot-3 and 247 pounds, Henry is bigger than some edge rushers and the NFL rushing champion becomes especially hard to tackle late in games and in seasons when the weather turns.
3. Saquon Barkley New York Giants
Even though he battled a high ankle sprain in 2019, Barkley still amassed more than 1,400 yards from scrimmage and reminded us that he is an elite talent with a red-hot race to the finish line (he rushed for 393 yards in the final three games of 2019). In two NFL seasons, Barkley has averaged 119.6 yards from scrimmage per outing across 29 games. He should be New York's foundational player for the next decade.
4. Nick Chubb Cleveland Browns
This one might surprise you, but I think Chubb can do it all and is a growing force in the NFL. Chubb ranked second among all NFL running backs with 1,494 rushing yards in 2019 and what really stood out was his average of 5.0. While he has the power to fight through would-be tacklers, Chubb can also score from anywhere on the field and already has 88 and 92-yard touchdown runs to his name in a young NFL career.
5. Ezekiel Elliott Dallas Cowboys
The two-time rushing champion has the achievements, skills and name recognition to be much higher up this list but, after a training camp holdout, Elliott averaged a career-low 84.8 rushing yards per game in 2019. While he remains a vital piece of Dallas' attack, his importance waned ever so slightly last season and the big plays dried up with just four runs over 20 yards. Zeke has the talent to bounce back, of course.
6. Aaron Jones Green Bay Packers
The name of the game is getting in the endzone and scoring points. And that is why this growing and emerging runner out of Green Bay gets placed here. In fact, Jones can feel aggrieved at not making my top five and it was close between him and Elliott. In his last 30 games, Jones has scored 40 touchdowns. His importance in Green Bay is growing year on year as more emphasis is placed on the ground attack.
7. Dalvin Cook Minnesota Vikings
Few backs are as important to their team as Cook. And not just in the running game. Cook averaged 118.1 yards from scrimmage to rank second in the NFL, but his greatest impact might come without touching the ball. Minnesota love play-action passes with Kirk Cousins ranking fourth in the NFL with a rating of 129.1 on such throws. Cousins has a QB rating 20 points higher when Cook is on the field.
8. Joe Mixon Cincinnati Bengals
On a better and more relevant team, Mixon would get recognition as one of the better backs in the NFL. I'm giving him some love here. Working behind a poor offensive line, Mixon rushed for 1,137 yards at an average of 4.1 per carry. That marked back to back seasons over 1,100 yards rushing for Mixon and a big season beckons in 2020 as he enters a contract year looking to up his value.
9. Alvin Kamara New Orleans Saints
We didn't see the same dynamic playmaker on the field in 2019 as Kamara was playing hurt from Week 6 onwards with a lower leg problem. But he still topped 1,300 yards from scrimmage and is always good for at least 80 catches per season. While his touchdowns dried up a bit last season (6 in 14 games), Kamara has a nose for the endzone, scoring 31 times in the 31 games before last year.
10. Josh Jacobs Las Vegas Raiders
One season does not make a career, of course. But I'm a big fan of the Raiders' young back who can be a driving force of Jon Gruden's team for years to come. Jacobs rushed for 1,150 yards as a rookie despite missing three games and playing with a shoulder injury in several others. Jacobs has the power to push the pile, but he is also elusive, leading all backs by forcing defenders into 69 missed tackles.