Even though the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, the running back position is one of the most important on the offensive side of the ball. A good running back can pick up yards without putting the quarterback at risk, open up the passing game, and even become a major part of the passing game.
With a huge offseason ahead, here are the top 10 available running backs for 2021:
This group of available running backs just misses the cut for one or more of a handful of reasons. These players are either declining due to age or injury concerns, whereas others don’t appear to be worth the eventual contract they may be signed to.
Top 10 Available Running Backs:
10| Malcolm Brown, LAR
Malcolm Brown is a bruising runner who has played in the Rams organization for the last five years. He is yet to have a true breakout season, but certainly showed flashes in 2020 within a three-man rotation in the Rams backfield.
In 2020, Brown got his highest percent of snaps in his career and had his best output as well. He rushed for 419 yards and five scores. The 27-year-old may end up staying with Sean McVay and the Rams, but his value as an unrestricted free agent has never been higher.
Trey Sermon is the first of the available running backs from the 2021 NFL Draft. He spent three seasons at Oklahoma before playing his senior year at Ohio State. Sermon turned it on late in the season and helped lead the Buckeyes to another College Football National Championship berth.
Sermon had what would have been his most productive year with Ohio State. He totaled 870 rushing yards in just 8 games, averaging 7.5 yards per attempt. However, he was not particularly active in the passing game.
Sermon has the size and athleticism to be a weapon in the NFL, but there are question marks regarding his health, after a major knee injury with Oklahoma and an upper-body injury that held him out of the majority of the championship game against Alabama.
8| Jamaal Williams, GB
Jamaal Williams is coming off of his rookie contract with the Green Bay Packers. In that time, he sat behind and split snaps with another very talented player, one we will see later on in this list.
As for Williams, 2020 may not have been his most productive year, but he showed his growth and versatility in Green Bay’s offense. Williams only rushed for 505 yards, but he did so on relatively few carries. His 4.2 yards per carry was higher than his career average. Just as he has been his whole career, Williams was yet again a contributor in Green Bay’s high-powered passing attack, catching for 236 yards.
The most impressive, and notable, metric for Williams is his fumbles. Or should I say lack of fumbles? Jamaal Williams has never lost a fumble in his four years in the league. That type of ball security is extremely important.
Out of all of the available running backs, this may be the biggest sleeper on the list. Kenny Gainwell opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID related concerns. After re-watching some of his 2019 tape, Gainwell is an electric prospect.
He played in 14 games and was given the rock a ton in 2019. Gainwell finished the year with almost 1500 rushing yards, and 2069 total from scrimmage. That tops the single-season total of any of the draft-eligible running backs on this list.
Two things drive Gainwell’s stock down, however. Firstly, he put up that incredible season in just his second year. He hasn’t shown teams that he can contribute like that consistently. The second is his pedigree. Gainwell is coming out of the American conference, not a yearly contender like the SEC, Big 10, or ACC. I don’t think those matter too much; Gainwell is supremely talented and will get his shot.
6| Gus Edwards, BAL
Gus Edwards may end up being the least available of these available running backs. Not necessarily because he’s better than everyone else, but because he’s a restricted free agent for a team that cut one of their other running backs. Edwards has slowly made more and more of an impact in the Ravens offense, and he impressed this season.
Edwards played in all 16 games, starting six, and got his highest career percent of snaps from the other two backs with the Ravens. He averaged five yards per carry en route to a 723 yard and five TD season. Arguably more impressively, Edwards caught just nine receptions and took those for 129 receiving yards.
Edwards is just reaching his prime years and could become a premier back in the NFL.
5| James Conner, PIT
James Conner is one of the more experienced players out of the available running backs. He has been the RB1 in Pittsburgh since the departure of Le’Veon Bell and had a breakout season in 2018. He was hindered by injuries in 2019, but 2020 saw the start of a return to form.
Conner has always been a versatile back, performing well in the passing game from the backfield. Going forward though, he needs to continue improving on the ground. He ran for 973 yards in 2018 and 721 in 2020. He obviously has the talent to be a starting running back, he just needs to continue his full recovery and improvement.
Widely regarded as one of the best available running backs coming out of the draft, Travis Etienne is supremely talented and ready to contribute from day one. He was one of the driving forces behind Clemson’s dominance the last four years and ranked near the top of all running backs each season.
Since joining the Tigers, Etienne ran all over the ACC. He ran for 766 yards his freshman year and never had less than that. In 2019, his best season, Etienne totaled 2046 yards from scrimmage and 23 touchdowns.
Travis Etienne is a natural winner and will be a high-motor, driving force to whichever team drafts him early. He’s just a step behind the next player on this list.
3| Najee Harris, Alabama
Najee Harris was the most impressive of the draft available running backs last season. He improved every collegiate season he played in and looks to continue growing into the NFL. Through a full SEC West schedule, Harris dominated every team he played against.
Harris was a running and jumping highlight reel from game one until the end of the national championship win. He ran for 1466 yards and 26 scores over 13 games in 2020. His overall package of receiving ability, size (six-foot-two, 230lb), and athleticism make Harris the most attractive rookie coming into the league.
2| Kenyan Drake, ARI
Kenyan Drake is the most experienced of the available running backs on this list. With a year remaining on his four-year entry-level contract, Drake was traded from Miami to Arizona, where he has played the last two seasons.
2020 was his best year yet on the field. Drake started 13 out of the 15 games he played in and ran for 955 yards and 10 touchdowns. At this point, Drake is a solid starting NFL running back who will provide value to whatever team picks him up.
1| Aaron Jones, GB
Aaron Jones is undoubtedly the best of the available running backs in the NFL. He is coming off of a huge year for both him and the Green Bay Packers, going all the way to another NFC Championship game.
Jones is entering free agency after a second consecutive season of 1000+ yards. Last season, he racked up 16 touchdowns in the process; making this year’s nine pale in comparison. His talent as both a between-the-tackles and outside the numbers runner makes Jones an invaluable piece to the Packers’ offense.
Even with the huge contract Jones deserves, expect the Packers to lock him up.