The NFL’s best backs are a mix of versatility and strength, players who can consistently succeed despite the brutal wear and tear of their position. 

By Chris Burke
July 20, 2016

The fear all NFL front offices have when it comes to running backs is fragility. GMs tend to shy away from players in their 30s, and sometimes even from draft prospects who handled too heavy of an offensive responsibility in college. The shelf life at RB is short, relative to other spots on the field.

The NFL’s best running backs are a mix of versatility and strength, many of them capable of doing far more than just taking handoffs in the backfield. All of them can turn minimal gains into something special, and have proven they can do so despite the brutal wear and tear of their position. But even the best are not immune to the risks mentioned above—the top five RBs on our list have all dealt (or are currently dealing) with substantial leg or knee injuries. So let’s enjoy watching these guys play while we can.

Just missed the cut

Thomas Rawls, Seahawks: Rawls came out of nowhere, and it remains to be seen how he fares after his ‘15 season ended on a broken ankle. With the Seahawks in need of a Marshawn Lynch fill-in before that, though, Rawls played the role with aplomb—he averaged a whopping 5.6 yards per attempt (tops in the NFL).

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David Johnson, Cardinals: If Johnson had produced a larger sample size as a No. 1 back last season, he probably would be ranked. Once the Arizona rookie took over for an injured Chris Johnson, he blew up, averaging 126 yards rushing and 157.3 total yards from scrimmage from Weeks 13-15. He is a dynamic force for Bruce Arians’s offense.

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Freeman went from 95 touches as a rookie in 2014 to 338 last season as the Falcons’ go-to back. It should have come as no surprise, then, that his production tailed off quite a bit during the season’s second half. However, before he slogged to the finish line with his underachieving Falcons, Freeman wrestled the starting gig away from rookie Tevin Coleman by demonstrating an every-down skillset. He caught 73 passes, rushed for upwards of 1,000 yards and even tied for the league lead with 11 touchdowns. If backs like Bell, Charles and Martin set the standard for backs who can handle any role, Freeman is atop the second tier.

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Gore fell 33 yards shy of his ninth 1,000-yard rushing season, a sure sign that the 33-year-old, 11-year veteran has hit the wall, right? Don’t be so sure. Gore did post a career worst 3.7 yards per attempt in 2015, but much of the blame for the paltry number has to lie with the Colts’ inconsistent line and Andrew Luck’s absence. A bounceback can be expected in ‘16, even if the Colts start to limit Gore’s workload. His size (5’ 9”, 217 lbs.) does not tell the full story of how punishing a back Gore is when he gets moving downhill. He has made a living wearing down defenses over the course of a game.

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Why is Bernard, not Jeremy Hill in our top 10? After all, Hill was Cincinnati’s designated starter at running back—he tied for the league lead with 11 touchdowns on the ground last season and led the Bengals with 794 yards rushing. Well, to cut to the chase, Bernard was better across the board last season. He averaged 4.7 yards per rush and 9.6 yards per catch to Hill’s 3.6 and 5.3, respectively. There are other backs on our list who can provide similar all-around games, but that doesn’t mean such players are easy to come by. Bernard parlayed a part-time role into 1,200 yards from scrimmage, his third year of three since arriving in Cincinnati hitting the 1K mark. He arguably should be on the field even more. It might happen this season.

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The Panthers’ run game can be as unique as it is because of Cam Newton, sure, but it also relies heavily on Stewart in the lead role. The eight-year veteran came within 11 yards last season of the 1,000-yard mark, which would have been his first time there since 2009. But it was more a combination of DeAngelo Williams’s presence and Stewart’s own injury issues that kept him from those levels from 2010-14, not any problems with his game. With Newton keeping teams honest on the edge, Stewart is free to blast defenders between the tackles, although he also has the wherewithal to bounce outside when the situation calls for it.

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The 30-year-old is a marvel of consistency. Because he is capable of providing so many dimensions to an offense, Forte is rarely thought of as a traditional bellcow back. His average workload of 333 touches over eight NFL seasons would beg to differ. Forte has never finished a season with fewer than 200 carries, including last season when he missed three games (218 attempts for 898 yards), nor with fewer than 44 receptions. His pass-catching is what has made him so irreplaceable as a three-down back—he has caught 487 of the 636 passes thrown his way, for a 76.5% completion rate. Forte is at his best in the flat, with room to shake. He is entirely capable of grinding out the tough yards, though.

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Miller was pushed under the radar last season due to the Dolphins’ puzzling and at times inexplicable abandonment of the run game. He had no shortage of suitors when he hit free agency, and after signing with Houston, he’s primed to blow past his previous career highs (1,099 yards, eight touchdowns). The 25-year-old with quick feet and wheels can be a game breaker—he has TDs of 97, 85 and 54 yards in his career, the last on that list as a receiver; he can be a high-volume ball carrier, when given the opportunity. Houston so badly wanted him because he can move east-west and then explode through a hole (even if that east-west movement costs him on occasion). 

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The 2013 and ’14 seasons were utter disappointments for Martin, but last year, he again resembled the back that shined for the Buccaneers as a rookie. Bolstered by Jameis Winston’s arrival and improved O-line play, Martin averaged 4.9 yards per carry in 2015—better than every running back but Thomas Rawls and Ryan Mathews, neither of whom was a full-time starter. Martin chipped in 33 catches for 271 yards, as well. Despite his small stature, the 5’ 9”, 223-pounder is a load to bring down, and when he is going well, he can power through arm tackles just as effectively as he can spot a lane and turn the corner. Martin is a hard-nosed runner who should be able to maintain his current pace more effectively than he did after his rookie year.

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Nick Foles finding a magic potion that briefly turned him into Joe Montana was a prevailing storyline from Philadelphia’s 2013 division title. McCoy, though, was nothing short of brilliant. Thriving within Chip Kelly’s offense (ironically, in hindsight, since Kelly later replaced him with DeMarco Murray), McCoy carved up defenses to the tune of 1,600 yards and a rushing title. He has not matched that output before or since, but even last season’s injury-hindered 895-yard rushing total could not completely mask that McCoy remains a threat. His one-cut running style will cost him yardage in the backfield at times, but he engages the afterburners in a hurry when he finds a crease. His jukes and jump cuts have left defender after defender flailing at air.

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Twice now, Charles’s career has been derailed by an ACL injury. The latest setback came five games into a promising start to 2015—a vintage Charles performance in which he was dangerous both as a runner (5.1 yards per attempt) and a receiver (on pace for 67 receptions when he got hurt). At 100% he is an ideal back for the modern game, a three-down playmaker with more than enough evasiveness and speed to be deadly in the open field. On that note, it’s easy to forget that Charles also was a dangerous return man early in his career. He nearly hit 1,000 kick-return yards in 2009, paced by a 97-yard TD vs. Pittsburgh. The Chiefs long ago took him out of that role because he was too valuable to their offense, but the skill set that worked on special teams still gets the job done. Now, if he could just stay healthy.

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Once he made his way into the lineup full-time, beginning in Week 4 at Arizona, Gurley was a phenomenon. In his first four starts, he rushed for an average of 141.5 yards. He hit the century mark just once the remainder of the season as the Rams’ quarterback play stalled out, but Gurley captured Offensive Rookie of the Year nonetheless. And anyone who saw him play would agree that his 1,100-yard debut season is just the tip of the iceberg for a back whose blend of power and speed is reminiscent of backs like Peterson and Marshawn Lynch. Should Jared Goff finally unlock the full potential of the Rams’ offense, Gurley has all the talent required to challenge that 2K rushing mark. He has to be considered among the favorites to win the 2016 rushing title.

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There was bound to be a little rust for Peterson at the start of 2015, at age 30 and coming off a near season-long suspension. He limped his way into the year with a 10-carry, 31-yard Week 1 showing at San Francisco. After that? Peterson averaged just shy of 100 yards per game as he claimed his third rushing title—his 1,485 yards topped Doug Martin’s total by 83. Granted, it took Peterson an extra 39 carries to get there, but his ability to handle that heavy a load is a significant part of his appeal, too. When he plays a full 16 games, Peterson is a virtual lock for 1,300 yards and double-digit touchdowns. While fumbles have become an increasingly pressing issue, the rest of Peterson’s game remains on point.

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Bell’s teammate, Antonio Brown, just scored the top spot on our list of the NFL’s top outside receivers, so the Steelers’ 1–2 punch at the skill positions should be envied by the league. The 48th overall pick in 2013, Bell left college as a bruising workhorse back with questions about his pass-catching prowess and has since become as potent a three-down back as there has been in recent memory. He caught 83 passes during the 2014 season (one more than Rob Gronkowski), en route to 2,200 total yards from scrimmage. He was on an 1,800-plus-yard pace again last season before a knee injury ended his year in Week 8. Bell claims his legs are even stronger now after rehab, but if he even can get back to his ’14 form, he should again be as productive as they come.

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