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RB Index, Week 17: Leonard Fournette, Sony Michel among 5 running backs who deserve new contracts

With just two weeks remaining in the 2021 regular season, time is running out for players to showcase their value and make an impression on decision-makers around the league. However, some guys already have done the work to merit new money this offseason.

Here are five running backs who have earned new contracts, all of whom are set to hit the open market when free agency begins on March 16:

James Conner
Arizona Cardinals · Year 5
Chase Edmonds
Arizona Cardinals · Year 4

Both Conner and Edmonds are set to become unrestricted free agents this offseason, but I don't think Arizona will let them out the door. I still believe Conner was the best offseason signing this year, as he leads the Cardinals in scrimmage yards (1,034) and touchdowns (16, T-third in the NFL). Edmonds has been equally impressive when available, with a team-leading 5.5 rush yards per carry and 821 scrimmage yards across 11 games. I think both guys have earned a contract similar to the two-year deal Denver gave Melvin Gordon in 2020. Both Conner and Edmonds are young enough to have plenty left in the tank to make multi-year deals worth it for Arizona, which might even want to consider adding an extra year on for Conner and/or Edmonds with Kyler Murray still playing under his rookie deal.

Leonard Fournette
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · Year 5

Fournette turned down bigger money to stay in Tampa last offseason, signing a one-year, $3.25 million deal, which meant all 22 Tampa Bay starters from Super Bowl LV returned to the Buccaneers for the 2021 season. After carving out a starting role for himself in the Bucs' Super Bowl run last season, Fournette has been the featured back in one of the league's most potent offenses (when healthy) in 2021. This season, the fifth-year pro is averaging 4.5 yards per carry (would be a season high) and has eight rush TDs (one shy of his rookie-season total). That's not all. Fournette has become a weapon in the Bucs' passing attack, with 69 catches (most among RBs) for 454 receiving yards (third-most) and two scores. A hamstring injury will sideline him for the remainder of the season, but he could return for the playoffs -- where his performance last January and February birthed two choice nicknames: Playoff Lenny and Lombardi Lenny. I expect the Bucs to bring him back on a multi-year deal this offseason, which would likely mean not re-signing Ronald Jones II, who's in the last year of his rookie deal. It makes sense with an increased salary cap expected for 2022 and the fact that Fournette's still relatively young (turns 27 in January).

Sony Michel
Los Angeles Rams · Year 4

Michel made the cross-country trip from New England to Los Angeles back in August, when the Rams traded for the fourth-year pro after losing Cam Akers to an Achilles injury. He played as Darrell Henderson's backup for a majority of the season, but stepped into the starting role at the beginning of December as Henderson dealt with injuries and a stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Since Week 13, Michel leads the NFL with 423 rushing yards and has averaged 114.5 scrimmage yards per game. During that four-week span, the Rams' rush offense ranked 10th in the NFL, a vast improvement from their No. 24 ranking from Weeks 1-12. With Michel in the backfield, the Rams have finally found the balance they've been seeking since Todd Gurley's glory days. 

L.A. activated Akers off IR last week, and there's a chance he plays Sunday vs. the Ravens. We'll have to see how Akers looks in his return from a major injury, but regardless, Michel has done enough this season to earn a multi-year contract -- with the Rams or someone else.

UPDATE: On Thursday, Rams coach Sean McVay pumped the breaks on Cam Akers returning to action Sunday, saying "the target's always potentially been" Week 18 or the playoffs.

Darrel Williams
Kansas City Chiefs · Year 4

Williams has enjoyed his best season to date, contributing career-high production in both the Chiefs' run and pass attacks:

  • 123 carries, 453 rush yards and four rush TDs
  • 41 catches on 50 targets for 403 yards and two TDs

He's played in all 15 of Kansas City's games this season, with Clyde Edwards-Helaire in and out of the lineup, making five starts (Chiefs are 4-1 in those games). If I was a team that needed a veteran back to pair with a young guy or rookie, Williams would be someone I would seriously look into. He's a proven asset in the pass game and as a runner between the tackles, and has shown this season he can handle a heavier load.

Top 15 running backs

Former NFL rushing leader and NFL Network analyst Maurice Jones-Drew will survey all running backs and rank his top 15 each week of the 2021 season. His rankings are based on this season's efforts alone. Here is MJD's list heading into Week 17.

NOTE: Arrows reflect changes from Week 16's rankings.

Jonathan Taylor
Indianapolis Colts · Year 2

2021 stats: 15 games | 297 att | 1,626 rush yds | 5.5 ypc | 17 rush TD | 36 rec | 336 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 4 fumbles 

Although Taylor snapped his streak of 11 straight games with a rush TD in Week 16, he still compiled 108 yards on the ground to help the Colts defeat the the Cardinals on the road. But Taylor didn't need to be the hero Saturday, thanks to the Colts (finally) having a balanced offensive effort.

Nick Chubb
Cleveland Browns · Year 4

2021 stats: 12 games | 207 att | 1,143 rush yds | 5.5 ypc | 8 rush TD | 19 rec | 172 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 2 fumbles

Chubb did everything he could to spoil Christmas Day for the Packers, carrying 17 times for 126 yards (7.4 yards per carry) and a TD, and catching three passes for 58 yards. However, Baker Mayfield's four INTs(!) doomed the Browns' chances on Saturday and in the playoff race. They are still mathematically alive, but it doesn't look extremely promising, especially with how this team's playing of late.

Joe Mixon
Cincinnati Bengals · Year 5

2021 stats: 15 games | 280 att | 1,159 rush yds | 4.1 ypc | 13 rush TD | 35 rec | 274 rec yds | 3 rec TD | 2 fumbles

The Bengals got Mixon involved early and often in a high-stakes game vs. the Ravens, and it paid off in a big way in the first half, with Mixon scoring a pair of TDs (one rush, one rec.) to help them build a 31-14 lead at halftime. It was Mixon's fifth game with at least two TDs this season (tied for most in the NFL). If the Bengals can find this type of performance consistently, they will be dangerous in the postseason.

Austin Ekeler
Los Angeles Chargers · Year 5

2021 stats: 14 games | 173 att | 789 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 10 rush TD | 62 rec | 558 rec yds | 7 rec TD | 4 fumbles

Backup Justin Jackson played well in Ekeler's absence in Week 16, but not having a number of star players hurt the Chargers as they fell to the Texans. After that costly loss that knocked them out of the playoff picture (for now), the Chargers will lean on Ekeler, who was activated off the COVID list Tuesday, and others to get the job done Sunday against the Broncos. Ekeler, who leads all running backs in receiving yards and receiving TDs this season, needs to be a major player for his team over the last two weeks of the season.

Dalvin Cook
Minnesota Vikings · Year 5

2021 stats: 11 games | 226 att | 1,067 rush yds | 4.7 ypc | 6 rush TD | 30 rec | 221 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 3 fumbles

The Vikings missed Cook (COVID) in last week's loss to the Rams, but get him back for Sunday night's tilt with Green Bay. In Minnesota's Week 11 win over their division rival, Cook racked up 115 scrimmage yards and a touchdown. Cook has nine touchdowns in six career games vs. Green Bay, and he'll have to be at his very best to help the Vikings keep their postseason hopes alive.

James Conner
Arizona Cardinals · Year 5

2021 stats: 14 games | 187 att | 700 rush yds | 3.7 ypc | 14 rush TD | 31 rec | 334 rec yds | 2 rec TDs | 2 fumbles

Conner, who missed Week 16 due to a heel injury, has taken on a bigger role in the Cardinals' passing attack over his last six games -- 26 catches, 300 rec. yards and two rec. TDs -- eating up targets with Chase Edmonds and DeAndre Hopkins largely unavailable. To put that production into perspective, Conner had just five receptions for 34 yards through his first eight games this year. We'll see if he and Edmonds can get going this Sunday against a fiesty Cowboys defense -- a game the Cardinals desperately need to win.

Damien Harris
New England Patriots · Year 3

2021 stats: 13 games | 182 att | 857 rush yds | 4.7 ypc | 12 rush TD | 13 rec | 84 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 2 fumbles

While Mac Jones and the Patriots' defense struggled last week against the Bills, Harris had one of the best outings of his career, rushing for 103 yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries. The effort marked his fifth game this season with at least 100 rush yards (tied for second in the NFL). The Pats have an opportunity to get right and end their two-game skid Sunday vs. the Jags, who rank 24th against the run. Harris could have another notable outing.

Najee Harris
Pittsburgh Steelers · Rookie

2021 stats: 15 games | 268 att | 984 rush yds | 3.7 ypc | 6 rush TD | 67 rec | 422 rec yds | 3 rec TD | 0 fumbles

Harris has been a silver lining in a disappointing campaign for the Steelers' offense. With two games to play, he can become the fifth player in NFL history with 1,000-plus rushing yards and 500-plus receiving yards as a rookie. He needs 16 rushing yards and 78 receiving yards to join the elite club.

Ezekiel Elliott
Dallas Cowboys · Year 6

2021 stats: 15 games | 210 att | 899 rush yds | 4.3 ypc | 10 rush TDs | 45 rec | 270 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 1 fumble

Zeke started the Cowboys' scoring frenzy last week with a 5-yard TD reception from Dak Prescott and added another score -- this time on an 11-yard run -- in the second quarter. Dallas has played extremely well in its four-game win streak, and a victory over the 10-win Cardinals could be just the confidence boost the Cowboys need heading into the postseason.

Sony Michel
Los Angeles Rams · Year 4

2021 stats: 15 games | 168 att | 728 rush yds | 4.3 ypc | 3 rush TD | 17 rec | 97 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 1 fumble

While Matthew Stafford tried to give away the win last week, Michel took advantage of every opportunity with a career-high 27 carries for 131 yards and a TD. He's been a huge asset for the Rams down the stretch, helping them rise to the top spot in the division. 

Aaron Jones
Green Bay Packers · Year 5

2021 stats: 14 games | 163 att | 723 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 4 rush TD | 47 rec | 361 rec yds | 6 rec TD | 2 fumbles

Over the last three games, Jones is averaging 5.3 yards per carry with three total TDs (two receiving). He's one of the most efficient backs with the ball in his hands, and history tells us he'll continue that success vs. Minnesota on Sunday night. In five career games against the Vikings since 2018, Jones has averaged 102 rush yards and 119.8 scrimmage yards per game.

Antonio Gibson
Washington Football Team · Year 2

2021 stats: 15 games | 237 att | 891 rush yds | 3.7 ypc | 6 rush TDs | 41 rec | 289 rec yds | 3 rec TDs | 6 fumbles

Eighth in the NFL in rushing yards, Gibson hasn't been all that great in Washington's three-game skid, with 31 carries, 91 yards (2.9 yards per carry), 10 receptions, 73 receiving yards and two scrimmage TDs. Washington's slim playoff hopes hinge on them avenging their loss to the Eagles from two weeks ago this weekend. Gibson will have to be much better than he was in that game (15 carries, 26 yards, one TD).

UPDATE: Washington announced Friday that Gibson was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Alvin Kamara
New Orleans Saints · Year 5

2021 stats: 10 games | 184 att | 668 rush yds | 3.6 ypc | 4 rush TD | 38 rec | 348 rec yds | 4 rec TDs | 0 fumbles

For as poor as the Saints' offense has been since losing Jameis Winston back in October, Kamara has somehow mustered up 1,075 scrimmage yards this season. After logging fewer than 60 scrimmage yards in each of the last two contests, he's on pace to have a career-low in yards, but the fact that he's still over the 1,000-yard mark speaks to his crazy ability. Some guys can't reach that threshold during their best seasons.

Josh Jacobs
Las Vegas Raiders · Year 3

2021 stats: 13 games | 175 att | 677 rush yds | 3.9 ypc | 7 rush TD | 48 rec | 319 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 2 fumbles

Jacobs is coming off his best performance of the year, posting season-highs in both carries (27) and rush yards (129) in a win over Denver. He's been playing at a high level over the last five weeks, averaging 98 scrimmage yards per game, up from his 63.3 in Weeks 1-11. The Raiders still have an outside chance to sneak into the playoffs, and they'll need everyone -- including Jacobs (that means no fumbles!) -- at their very best over the last two games.

Javonte Williams
Denver Broncos · Rookie

2021 stats: 15 games | 177 att | 827 rush yds | 4.7 ypc | 4 rush TD | 40 rec | 296 rec yds | 3 rec TD | 2 fumbles

With Drew Lock filling in for Teddy Bridgewater, the Broncos struggled mightily to move the ball against the Raiders last week, producing just 158 yards of total offense. For as good as Williams has been, the rookie had a measly 12 yards on seven carries (though he did score a TD). This is not the time to roll over.

DROPPED OUT: Miles Sanders, Eagles (previously No. 9); Leonard Fournette, Buccaneers (No. 11).

Follow Maurice Jones-Drew on Twitter.

The Ground Index presented by FedEx ranks NFL running back performances all season long. Check out the weekly FedEx Air NFL Players of the Week and cast your vote after Sunday Night Football.

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