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Top 5 Running Backs in the NFC South

Ranking the best running backs in the NFC South as we head into the 2022 season.
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An unbelievable boatload of talent flooded into the NFL with the 2017 NFL Draft. The New Orleans Saints alone acquired CB Marshon Lattimore, OT Ryan Ramczyk, RB Alvin Kamara, and the since-departed S Marcus Williams, DE Trey Hendrickson, and LB Alex Anzalone. Recent additions like DE Tanoh Kpassagnon, S Marcus Maye, S Justin Evans, G Forrest Lamp, and DE Taco Charlton were also products of the 2017 draft.

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Kamara, a relative unknown from Tennessee, was the fifth running back selected when the Saints picked him in the third round. He’d take the league by storm, accounting for 1,901 yards and 14 touchdowns in his first year while winning the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

While Kamara has been one of the NFL's most dynamic weapons since entering the league, he wasn't the only dominant back produced by the 2017 draft. Leonard Fournette (Jacksonville), Christian McCaffrey (Carolina), Dalvin Cook (Minnesota), Joe Mixon (Cincinnati), Kareem Hunt (Kansas City), and Aaron Jones (Green Bay) have been among the league's best backs since being drafted in 2017.

Fournette joined Kamara and McCaffrey in the NFC South in 2020, signing with the Buccaneers. This division may be undergoing a shift at the quarterback position, but still has among the league's best talent at the skill positions.

These are my rankings for the top-5 running backs in the NFC South as we head towards the 2022 season.

5. MARK INGRAM, SAINTS

New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram II (14) runs past Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David (54). Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram II (14) runs past Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David (54). Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Ingram, a first-round choice of the Saints in the 2011 NFL Draft, is the franchise's all-time leader in rushing yardage and rushing touchdowns. He left after the 2018 season as a free agent, but returned via trade midway through last year.

One of the league's oldest backs, Ingram is entering his 12th season and will turn 33 in December. He proved that he still has quality football left, picking up 337 yards over four games at mid-season before being hampered by a knee injury down the stretch.

Ingram was the team’s featured back from 2014 to 2017 and is one of just four backs in franchise history to have multiple 1,000-yard seasons. He and Kamara teamed up to form the league's best backfield tandem in 2017 and 2018. An underrated receiver, he is a factor in every down and distance situation.

Ingram is no longer capable of shouldering an offensive attack. However, he’ll be counted on to produce. Kamara is facing a potential six-game suspension from the NFL for an offseason arrest in Las Vegas. There is currently no proven depth for the Saints behind Kamara and Ingram.

At 5’9” and 215-Lbs., Ingram is a reliable battering ram between the tackles. Those skills allow the team to use the versatile Kamara in other capacities around the formation. For at least a portion of the 2022 season, New Orleans may need Ingram to revert back to his Pro Bowl form of just a few years ago.

4. CORDARRELLE PATTERSON, FALCONS

Atlanta Falcons running back Cordarrelle Patterson (84) runs against the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Falcons running back Cordarrelle Patterson (84) runs against the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

A first-round pick out of Tennessee by the Vikings in 2013, Patterson has always been among the league's most feared kickoff returners. However, he was never used correctly in stops with Minnesota, Oakland, New England, and Chicago over his first eight seasons.

After signing with Atlanta last season, Patterson's versatile abilities were used around the formation more than any other time of his career. He’d lead the Falcons with 618 yards rushing and six scores, both career high marks. Patterson, used as a traditional wideout in his other stops, also tied a career best with 52 receptions for a career-high 548 yards and five more touchdowns.

The 31-year-old Patterson is one of the few reliable offensive weapons for the Falcons. He isn't a big threat between the tackles, but is one of the NFC's most dangerous players in space. Atlanta does a nice job of doing just that, either out of the backfield or lined up wide.

The Falcons signed former Kansas City RB Damien Williams this offseason to assume some of the rushing load. While Williams will be used between the tackles, expect Patterson to again be the team’s leading rusher and primary weapon for a rebuilding Atlanta offense.

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3. CHRISTIAN MCCAFFREY, PANTHERS

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) runs for a touchdown as New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins (27) defends. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) runs for a touchdown as New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins (27) defends. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY

The eighth overall selection and second back off the board in 2017, McCaffrey was an immediate all-purpose star as a rookie out of Stanford. Only Kamara could match McCaffrey's versatility and all-purpose production between 2017 and 2019.

In 2019, McCaffrey became just the third player in NFL history to have over 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. Over his first three seasons, McCaffrey had an incredible 5,443 yards from scrimmage and scored 39 touchdowns.

The 26-year-old McCaffrey has been plagued by injuries over the last two campaigns. He’s played in just 10 of Carolina's last 33 games, with his absence crippling an already short-handed offense. At 5'11” and 205-Lbs., some have expressed doubts about the Panthers reliance on him as a between the tackles runner.

Carolina signed RB D’Onta Freeman this offseason, a big-bodied thumper to pair with developing second-year RB Chuba Hubbard, to take some pressure off McCaffrey. The Panthers still desperately need their versatile back on the field for any chance at success in 2022.

2. LEONARD FOURNETTE, BUCCANEERS

Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette (7) runs through Atlanta Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell (24). Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette (7) runs through Atlanta Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell (24). Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

A New Orleans native and former LSU star, Fournette was the first back drafted and the fourth overall selection in 2017 by Jacksonville. He’d carry the Jaguars over his first three years, averaging 100 all-purpose yards over 36 games and turning in two 1,000-yard rushing seasons.

After failing in trade attempts and not picking up his fifth-year option in 2020, Jacksonville released a disgruntled Fournette. He’d sign with Tampa Bay, where he publicly complained about his usage (600 total yards in 13 games) during the regular season.

Fournette caught fire in the 2021 playoffs. He was Tampa Bay's leading rusher during their four-game march to the Super Bowl, picking up 300 yards on the ground and adding another 148 yards on 18 receptions while scoring four touchdowns.

Fournette's postseason run earned him the lead role in the Buccaneers backfield last season. He responded with a team-high 812 rushing yards and 69 receptions for 454 yards with 10 total scores in 14 games.

The 27-year-old Fournette is a 6-foot and 228-Lb. bulldozer with underrated open field agility. Expect him to be an even bigger part of Tampa Bay's offense in 2022.

1. ALVIN KAMARA, SAINTS

New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) runs away from Carolina Panthers defensive back Myles Hartsfield (38) and cornerback Rashaan Melvin (29). Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY

New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) runs away from Carolina Panthers defensive back Myles Hartsfield (38) and cornerback Rashaan Melvin (29). Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY

Over his five-year career, Kamara showed that his 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year performance was just a glimpse of what he could do. By his second season, he was the focal point of the New Orleans attack and the primary focus of opposing defenses.

Kamara has 4,238 rushing yards, 373 receptions for 3,263 yards, and 68 total touchdowns over five consecutive Pro Bowl seasons. Just 27-years-old, he’s already the franchise's all-time leader for receptions and receiving yards for a running back. He’s also just five total touchdowns and five rushing scores away from the franchise lead in those categories and 30 yards away from third place on the team’s all-time rushing list.

At 5'10” and 215-Lbs., Kamara is an effective runner between the tackles, but it's his abilities in the open field that make him an elite player. He runs routes and catches like a Pro Bowl wideout. He has incredible cutback ability and natural vision to find gaps in a defense. His jaw-dropping balance and burst allows him to create extra yardage and make him a scoring threat anywhere on the field.

Kamara missed four games with a knee injury in 2021. The Saints were 0-4 without him, managing less than 100 yards on the ground and just 300 yards of total offense in those contests. Even with the return of injured QB Jameis Winston and added weapons at receiver, the Saints offense will still revolve around Kamara.

New Orleans will be challenged to replace Kamara's production during his expected suspension, which will also affect his fantasy value and overall statistics. When he is on the field, there isn't a player in the league who can threaten a defense in as many ways as Alvin Kamara. 

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