Ranking The NFC North Running Back Rooms For 2020
Last week, I ranked the starting quarterbacks in the NFC North. Since a team ideally will only play one quarterback in a season, it made sense to focus on the debate between the starters and not incorporate the backups.
But as I begin to break down and rank the other positions in the division, I'm going to widen the scope to incorporate the full room. At the skill positions, which is where we're headed next, several players are going to be counted on to contribute. So I'll start by ranking each position group as a whole for the four NFC North squads, but to settle some debates, I'll end the article by ranking the overall best players at that position.
Today's group is the running backs, where the division has two stars, a recently-drafted stud, and a lot of interesting depth. Since not every team has a fullback, I'm not going to factor those in. (C.J. Ham is clearly the best in the division).
1. Minnesota Vikings
Starter: Dalvin Cook
Backup: Alexander Mattison
Depth: Mike Boone, Ameer Abdullah, Tony Brooks-James
When he's healthy, Cook is the best running back in the NFC North. He has averaged 103.1 yards from scrimmage per game in his three-year career, and that includes numerous games over the last two seasons where he played through nagging injuries. His healthy peak came in Weeks 1 through 10 last season, where he averaged 141.5 yards from scrimmage and carried the Vikings to several wins.
Cook's vision, acceleration, agility, and power make him a top-five running back in the NFL. He's also a big-time threat as a receiver out of the backfield, with a career average of 8.8 yards per reception on 104 catches. The next thing he needs to accomplish is keeping his body intact for a full 16-game season. As he enters the final season of his rookie deal, extension talks with the Vikings are ongoing. It has been reported that the two sides aren't close to a deal yet.
What locks the Vikings into this top spot is the presence of Mattison as Cook's backup. The 2019 third-rounder out of Boise State totaled 544 yards from scrimmage on 110 touches last season. He was seen by many as a pure power back coming out of college, but showed impressive burst and elusiveness during his rookie season. He's also the best hurdler in the NFL, though the Vikings may want him doing that less frequently because of the injury risks. Mattison is probably already better than Latavius Murray, the Vikings' backup in 2017 and 2018. Boone and Abdullah are also strong options as No. 3 and 4 RBs.
2. Green Bay Packers
Starter: Aaron Jones
Backup: A.J. Dillon
Depth: Jamaal Williams, Dexter Williams, Tyler Ervin, Patrick Taylor
The Packers have a decent case for the top spot on this ranking because of their star power and some solid depth. If you polled every NFL coach and GM on who they'd take between Jones and Cook, I imagine some would choose Jones because he's not that far behind talent-wise and has fewer injury concerns. Jones is an explosive, quick-twitch athlete who actually has graded out higher than Cook in each of the last three years, according to Pro Football Focus.
The mind-boggling thing when it comes to Jones is that the Packers don't seem to think he's as good as everyone else does. Back in the 2017 draft where Cook went in the second round, the Packers drafted Williams in the fourth and Jones in the fifth. Since then, Jones has received 534 touches and Williams has gotten 472, and Jones was trailing by 72 in that department until the Packers finally gave him the lion's share of the work last season. For their careers, Jones has turned his touches into 2,962 yards and 32 touchdowns, while Williams has posted 2,205 yards and 15 scores. That's 5.0 yards per carry and 8.4 yards per catch for Jones to 3.9 yards per carry and 8.0 yards per catch for Williams, yet it took three years for Green Bay to realize which one is better.
In 2020, Jones still probably won't be a workhorse back. He and Williams are entering the final years of their rookie contracts, so the Packers drafted Dillon in the second round. While I'm not sure if that was the best value they could've gotten with that pick, Dillon is definitely talented. He's a big, physical back who is an excellent athlete at nearly 250 pounds. The Boston College product racked up over 4,300 rushing yards and 38 touchdowns in just three seasons. I'd assume he jumps ahead of Williams in the pecking order, even if he's not nearly as good of a receiver.
No. 3: Detroit Lions
Starter: D'Andre Swift
Backup: Kerryon Johnson
Depth: Bo Scarbrough, Ty Johnson, Jason Huntley, Wes Hills
Most depth charts online have Johnson listed as the Lions' starter, but I'd bet that if Swift isn't "starting" in Week 1, he'll be the main guy by midseason. The Lions used the No. 35 pick on the former Georgia star to have him become their No. 1 back sooner rather than later. Swift was a first-round talent who they were happy to see fall to them in the second. He's on the shorter side at 5'8", but has a solid, physical frame at 212 pounds. Swift has 4.48 speed and plenty of big-play ability, which helped him record 2,780 yards from scrimmage and 21 touchdowns over the last two seasons in the SEC.
The Lions are desperately hoping that Swift will become a star. When I had Matthew Stafford third in my NFC North QB rankings, several Lions fans told me I should've given more consideration to the fact that he's never had much of a running game. That's a valid point, even if I don't think it changes my rankings. The Lions had their truly ridiculous 70-game streak without a 100-yard rusher come to an end in 2018. This is their history of early-round running backs since 2000: Reuben Droughns, Kevin Jones, Brian Calhoun, Kevin Smith, Jahvid Best, Mikel Leshoure, Abdullah, Johnson, and Swift. Yikes.
Johnson was outstanding as a rookie before getting injured, recording 854 yards from scrimmage and averaging 5.4 yards per carry in 10 games. But he was a massive disappointment last season, with his yards per carry falling to 3.6. He also spent time on injured reserve for the second straight season, which was likely a big reason why the Lions drafted Swift. Johnson will have a role this season, and if he stays healthy he could be one of the better backups in the league. This duo has the potential to climb up this list in the coming years. There's also some solid depth here; Scarbrough was impressive last season.
No. 4: Chicago Bears
Starter: David Montgomery
Backup: Tarik Cohen
Depth: Ryan Nall, Artavis Pierce, Napoleon Maxwell
Sorry, Bears fans. Just like it was easy to place Mitchell Trubisky/Nick Foles as the worst starting QB in the NFC North, it was also fairly easy to rank Chicago's running back group last in the division. Better days are coming when I get to the defensive side of the ball, I promise.
The Bears traded up to get Montgomery in the third round of last year's draft, and he had a mostly unimpressive rookie season. The Iowa State product went over 1,000 yards from scrimmage and had a few nice games, but the reality is that he averaged just 3.7 yards per carry. It's worth noting that the Bears had one of the worst run-blocking offensive lines in the league last year – they ranked 29th in Football Outsider's adjusted line yards – but Montgomery still should've been able to do more with his touches.
Cohen was a Pro Bowler in 2018 after putting up 725 receiving yards on 10.2 yards per catch and nearly 1,200 yards from scrimmage, but his efficiency fell back to earth last year. Cohen's yards per carry dropped from 4.5 to 3.3, and more importantly, his yards per catch fell from 10.2 to 5.8. Part of that can be blamed on Trubisky and the offensive line, but PFF graded Cohen as the 52nd-best running back out of 58 qualifiers. That's not great. There's also an incredible lack of depth behind the top two; Nall has 8 career rushing yards and both Pierce and Maxwell are undrafted rookies.
Individual NFC North Running Back Rankings
- Dalvin Cook
- Aaron Jones
- D'Andre Swift
- Alexander Mattison
- Kerryon Johnson
- A.J. Dillon
- David Montgomery
- Tarik Cohen
- Jamaal Williams
- Bo Scarbrough
- Mike Boone
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