- Ezekiel Elliott could become the first RB to win back-to-back rushing titles since LaDainian Tomlinson, but Jordan Howard and Le'Veon Bell won't let him have it that easily.
After a few down years, the running back position has made a comeback, and the NFL rushing title is again relevant each season.
In 2016, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott became the first rookie since Edgerrin James in 1999 to lead the league in rushing, and he’s looking to be the first back since LaDainian Tomlinson a decade ago to repeat as the champ. So which other backs will be his biggest competition this season?
First, let me explain who you won’t see on this list. LeSean McCoy, DeMarco Murray and Devonta Freeman are, in my opinion, among the five-best backs in football today. That doesn’t mean they’ll rush for more yards than all other contenders, though.
Shady shares a backfield in Buffalo with quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who last year led all quarterbacks with 580 rushing yards. Even if McCoy can return to his 2013 form when he won the rushing title, he may not have enough carries to rack up the yards with how many touches Taylor will consume.
Freeman, who will likely be paid like a top-five running back when his eventual extension is finalized, has to share carries with Tevin Coleman in Atlanta. The duo makes one of the league’s best backfields, but it’s not conducive to Freeman winning such an individual award.
Murray’s situation melds McCoy’s and Freeman’s together. Titans running back Derrick Henry should see a larger role in Year 2, and quarterback Marcus Mariota should still use his legs (though probably less following his leg surgery) for Tennessee. The winner of this award needs more of the offensive pie than what these three top backs will likely get.
The leading candidate: Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears
The runner-up last season in his rookie year, Howard had 1,313 rushing yards on 252 carries for the Bears. He racked up those impressive numbers as the Bears went through three starting quarterbacks and struggled to stay competitive in games (seven of their 13 losses were by more than eight points).
He had 16 carries of 15 or more yards last season, which were third-most in the league, and his 430 yards after contact were fifth best in the NFL. His usage could have been higher, too, since he was in on just 64 percent of the Bears’ offensive plays in 2016.
With Chicago finally having moved on from QB Jay Cutler, the Bears’ passing game should demand more respect in 2017 with Mike Glennon and Mitchell Trubisky at the helm (Trubisky recently called Glennon the starting QB), which in turn will give Howard fewer defenders to face in the box. With another year under his belt, Howard is my favorite.
Runner-up: Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
There should be no surprise if Elliott, who almost broke Eric Dickerson’s rookie record last season, comes away as the 2017 winner—with the exception of Doug Free, the stellar Dallas offensive line from 2016 is still in tact.
In Year 2, quarterback Dak Prescott should get more comfortable with the offense after looking like he had already mastered it in 2016. That may get him to throw the ball downfield more like his predecessor and take some of the carries away from Elliott. And the Cowboys will still want to sprinkle in Alfred Morris (69 carries for 243 yards last season) and Darren McFadden if both are still on the team come Week 1.
It was common in the 1990s for a player to repeat as the rushing champ (Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith and Edgerrin James all did it), but Tomlinson is the only one to do it since the turn of the century. Elliott is primed to follow in his footsteps.
No. 3: Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
The third-year back saw his numbers and play take a step back in 2016 from his Offensive Rookie of the Year season. In 2015 Gurley racked up 1,106 rushing yards in just 13 games but only mustered 885 yards in 16 contests last season. What happened?
The Rams had two head coaches and two starting quarterbacks, including a very bad 0–7 starting record under No. 1 pick Jared Goff. They also had to fix their offensive line this offseason by signing Andrew Whitworth and sending Greg Robinson to Detroit. But ESPN recently went deeper and found that Gurley missed the holes his line was creating. According to ESPN, Gurley had an 10.9 average of good blocking yards per attempt in his rookie season but just a 6.8 average last year, one of the worst in the league among running backs who qualified.
Gurley is too talented of a player for that to continue, and with a less hectic season around the Rams he should be able to focus on the opportunities in front of him and get back to the top of the leaderboard.
No. 4: Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
I will not argue anyone stating that Bell is the best running back in the league. How he dances and hits holes will be copied across high school football fields this fall, and his 105.7 rushing yards per game last year were second-best in the league and just off Elliott’s pace.
But Bell is coming off off-season groin surgery for an injury that limited in him in the AFC playoffs, and in 2015, he had season-ending surgery on his MCL. This is not to say Bell is “injury prone” because that would be unfair, but two lower-body surgeries in two years are enough to make me hedge my bet here.
Plus, the Steelers should roll through the 2017 schedule and prepare for January football. That means that they should preserve Bell in garbage time where he’d rack up more yards, and instead run rookie James Conner and others.
No. 5: David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
If we were talking about the scrimmage yards champion in 2017, I wouldn’t hesitate to name Johnson as the back-to-back winner of the award. His 2,118 scrimmage yards last season for the Cardinals beat Elliott by more than 100 yards.
But because he’s used so frequently as a pass-catcher, I don’t see him winning this rushing award. Johnson’s 1,239 rushing yards were seventh-best last season, but his 879 receiving yards and 80 receptions were both tops among all running backs.
His utility out of the backfield may very well help lead the Cardinals back to the playoffs, but all those receiving yards won’t help him be the rushing champ in 2017.