Ranking the top NFL running backs in 2022 reveals that while competent RBs can largely be found anywhere, the best talent often rises to the top. Many of the backs in our top 32 were mid-to-late-round draft picks (or weren’t selected at all). Yet, most of the top 10 were chosen on Day 1 or 2. Let’s take a look at PFN’s full list of the best running backs heading into next season.
Editor’s note: We did not include any 2022 rookies on this list. Running backs like Breece Hall and Kenneth Walker III may be excellent in their first years in the NFL, but until we see them play, it doesn’t seem logical to incorporate them here.
Top NFL running backs in 2022
1) Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts
In the final game of the Colts’ 2020 campaign, Jonathan Taylor put the NFL on notice by racking up 253 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 30 carries in a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Wisconsin product put up more yards on the ground in a single game than any player since DeMarco Murray managed that same total a decade earlier.
But Taylor’s Week 17 output would only be a precursor to his dominant 2021 season. Appearing in all 17 games last year, Taylor led the NFL in attempts (332), rushing yards (1,811), and rushing TDs (18). His 2,171 total yards were the fourth-most by a running back over the past 10 years, and the Colts led the league in expected points added per rush by a wide margin.
A first-team All-Pro selection, Taylor runs with a rare combination of power and speed. The 23-year-old is one of the most dynamic playmakers in the NFL and gave the Colts a chance as Carson Wentz’s play deteriorated down the stretch. Taylor regularly put Indianapolis on his back, as evidenced by his 32-185-4 line against the Buffalo Bills in Week 11.
While Taylor benefits from playing behind one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, that wasn’t always the case in 2021. Every Indy OL starter missed at least some time last season, and center Ryan Kelly was the only lineman who played at least 80% of the club’s offensive snaps. The Colts’ front five will see more turnover next season. Danny Pinter is set to take over at left guard for Mark Glowinski, while left tackle is a three-man race between Matt Pryor, Dennis Kelly, and third-round rookie Bernhard Raimann.
Taylor will be playing with his third quarterback in as many seasons, but Matt Ryan should offer an improvement over Wentz. A better offense will lead to more scoring opportunities, giving Taylor the chance to become just the 12th player since the merger to reach 20 rushing touchdowns.
2) Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
Arguably the most elusive runner in the NFL, Nick Chubb has been a force since entering the league in 2018. After narrowly missing the 1,000-yard mark by four yards in his rookie season, Chubb has topped that threshold every year since. In 2021, he totaled 1,259 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground while ranking second league-wide in yards per attempt after contact and fourth in attempts per broken tackle.
Chubb missed seven games over the past two seasons, but he’ll be counted on again in 2022. Jacoby Brissett figures to be under center for the Browns while Deshaun Watson serves an expected suspension. Given Cleveland’s lack of receiving depth, their offense will run through Chubb when Brissett is playing QB.
He won’t be asked to do it alone, though, as the Browns have the best RB depth chart in the league. Kareem Hunt, D’Ernest Johnson, and rookie Jerome Ford are all options in Cleveland’s backfield, but Chubb will continue to be the focal point as one of the NFL’s top running backs in 2022.
3) Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
After being overworked for years, Derrick Henry finally proved mortal. A foot fracture forced him to miss the second half of the regular season, but he did make it back in time for the Titans’ Divisional Round loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Henry amassed a gargantuan 321 touches in 2019 and 397 in 2020, and he was heading towards an even larger total in 2021. Through eight games, Henry had posted 237 touches, good for 29.63 per game. At that rate, even over a 16-game season (as he played in 2019 and 2020), Henry would have collected 474 touches, the second-most by an RB since 1970 behind only James Wilder’s 492-touch 1984 campaign for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
With A.J. Brown no longer around, the Titans may be tempted to heavily lean on Henry again next season. He’s clearly the beating heart of Tennessee’s offense, but the team should be cautious as Henry enters his age-28 campaign.
4) Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
Dalvin Cook’s talent has never been in question. Cook’s averaged more than 4½ yards per carry in every year of his career and has been outstanding when he’s been able to stay on the field.
However, injuries have taken a toll, and Cook has never completed an entire season. He came the closest in 2020 when he put up a career-high 1,557 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns in 14 games. Last year, Cook missed three games with ankle and shoulder issues and only scored six times. Yet, he still managed to top the 1,000-yard barrier.
New Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell should install a more creative run game in Minnesota, and Cook could be used differently in the passing attack. While Cook received 43 targets a year ago, 17 came on screens. His average depth of target was -1.8 yards behind the line of scrimmage, the second-lowest among all NFL running backs. Given his skill set, Cook has the ability to handle a more diverse role.
5) Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
Only four RBs in the history of the NFL have recorded 100-reception seasons — and Christian McCaffrey has done it twice! The former Stanford Cardinal caught 107 passes in 2018 before reeling in an absurd 119 receptions the following year. That 2020 campaign was CMC’s pièce de résistance, as his 2,392 yards from scrimmage were the third-most in NFL history.
We all know what’s happened since. Various injuries have kept McCaffrey off the field for all but 10 games over the past two seasons. He was still the highly-effective running back that we’ve come to know when he was able to play, but it’s fair to wonder about his longevity.
Without an improved QB situation in Carolina, the Panthers will likely ask McCaffrey to spearhead their offense again in 2022. If that’s the case, he’ll do it behind an offensive line that has gone from among the league’s dregs to simply below-average. First-round pick Ikem Ekwonu will take over at left tackle, while free agent additions Austin Corbett and Bradley Bozeman will offer an improvement on the interior.
6) Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
Bill Belichick called Joe Mixon the “best back in the league” as recently as 2019, and the Bengals’ bell cow turned in the finest season of his five-year career in 2022. First and foremost, Mixon didn’t miss any time due to injury (although he did sit out a meaningless Week 18 game). He also experienced positive TD regression, hitting paydirt a career-high 16 times despite garnering a similar red-zone workload as he had in previous seasons.
Like McCaffrey with the Panthers, Mixon will benefit from Cincinnati’s complete offensive line overhaul. The Bengals added three new starters — right tackle La’el Collins, right guard Alex Cappa, and center Ted Karras — in free agency. 2021 second-round pick Jackson Carman and 2022 fourth-rounder Cordell Volson will battle for the left guard spot.
With Joe Burrow playing at an MVP level, the Bengals leaned into the pass down the stretch. From Week 9 through the Super Bowl, Cincinnati ranked sixth in situation-neutral pass rate. Cincinnati is unlikely to restrain Burrow as he enters his third NFL season, so Mixon may need to get more involved in the passing game — if Cincinnati’s coaching staff finally allows him to play on third downs.
7) Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
If it weren’t for CMC, Kamara would be considered the preeminent pass-catching RB in the NFL. No running back in league history managed more receptions over the first four years of their career than Kamara’s 326. And he’s not too shabby as a runner, either, as his slippery style allowed him to average five yards per carry from 2017-20.
2021 was a disappointment for Kamara compared to expectations. With Drew Brees retiring and Jameis Winston going down for the season in Week 8, Kamara had to finish the year with Taysom Hill, Trevor Siemian, and even Ian Book under center. With no threat at quarterback, opposing defenses geared up to stop the run. Kamara faced eight-plus men in the box on 31.25% of his attempts, the ninth-highest rate in the NFL.
Kamara may never repeat the receiving production he managed with Brees. Nevertheless, he’s still at the center of the Saints’ offensive game plan. Winston will need to become more comfortable dumping the ball off to his explosive RB. Last season, only 36.6% of his attempts came between 0-9 yards, dead last among qualifying quarterbacks.
8) Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers
Every other running back in our top 10 was selected on Day 1 or 2 of the NFL draft, but Austin Ekeler had to work himself up the ranks as an undrafted free agent. After an injury-riddled 2020, Ekeler posted the best season of his career in 2021, finishing with 1,558 yards from scrimmage and 20 total touchdowns.
While he’s always been an excellent pass catcher, Ekleler took his rushing production to a new level last year. After never topping 140 attempts, 600 yards, or three rushing touchdowns, he blew past those numbers with a 206-911-12 line in 2021.
Whether that workload will continue next year is an open question. The Chargers don’t want Ekeler’s carry total to get out of control, but they haven’t been able to find a suitable No. 2. That could change in 2022 after Los Angeles selected Texas A&M’s Isaiah Spiller in the fourth round. After handling the second-most red-zone carries among RBs last year, Ekeler could cede some work — and some scoring opportunities — to his rookie counterpart.
9) Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
The best ability is availability, and Ezekiel Elliott has been available. Many of the running backs on this list missed time in 2021. But Zeke appeared in all 17 games, and he’s been sidelined for just two total games over the past four years.
That’s not to say Elliott wasn’t injured, though, as he admitted he played through a torn PCL last season. His grit is to be commended, but he clearly didn’t look like the same player, and he’s appeared to be on a downward trend for two seasons. After averaging 1,474 yards rushing in three healthy campaigns (2016, 2018, 2019), Elliott averaged only 991 yards per season from 2020-21.
Zeke didn’t require offseason surgery and will be 100% for the start of the season. He may continue to surrender carries to backup Tony Pollard, but that might help Elliott be more efficient with his touches. With Amari Cooper gone and Michael Gallup recovering from a torn ACL, the Cowboys may need to pound the rock to open the season. Elliott should have plenty of work even if he’s the 1A to Pollard’s 1B.
10) Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers
No running back played more snaps than Najee Harris (980) in 2021. In the last decade, only one running back (McCaffrey in 2019) handled more offensive snaps. The Steelers obviously wanted to force-feed their first-round pick. However, Harris isn’t going to hold up with that kind of workload. Thankfully, Pittsburgh is already discussing paring back his touches next season.
Even so, Harris still projects as the centerpiece of the Steelers’ offense. Pittsburgh will have either Mitchell Trubisky or first-round pick Kenny Pickett under center in 2022. Both project as improvements over final-season Ben Roethlisberger, but the Steelers are likely to reduce their 63% pass rate (second-highest in the league) from a year ago. Harris will still see a lot of carries. Can Benny Snell, Anthony McFarland, and the rest of Pittsburgh’s RB depth chart help alleviate some of the pressure?
Up front, the Steelers still have issues at offensive tackle. Yet, they’ve made meaningful additions to the interior by signing James Daniels and Mason Cole. Harris put up just 1.7 yards before contact per attempt last year, tied for third-worst in the NFL. Pittsburgh’s OL upgrades should ensure he sees a little more daylight before getting hit.
Top NFL RBs in 2022 | 11-32
11) Antonio Gibson, Washington Commanders
12) Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
13) Leonard Fournette, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
14) AJ Dillon, Green Bay Packers
15) Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys
16) Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos
17) Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles
18) Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
19) J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens
20) Michael Carter, New York Jets
21) James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
22) James Conner, Arizona Cardinals
23) Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders
24) Damien Harris, New England Patriots
25) Melvin Gordon, Denver Broncos
26) Gus Edwards, Baltimore Ravens
27) Elijah Mitchell, San Francisco 49ers
28) Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks
29) David Montgomery, Chicago Bears
30) Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills
31) Sony Michel, Miami Dolphins
32) D’Andre Swift, Detroit Lions