At the midpoint of the 2021 regular season. several running backs are stepping into bigger roles. Here are four guys I expect to break out over the next couple months:
Conner assumed a big role in the red zone for the Cardinals in the first half of the season, scoring a whopping 11 touchdowns (10 rushing), but playing behind Chase Edmonds limited his touches. Edmonds, who leads the team in scrimmage yards (641), is now out for multiple weeks with a high-ankle sprain. Consequently, Conner is about to be RB1 in the Cardinals’ backfield, with Eno Benjamin as his backup. As the primary back after Edmonds’ early exit last week, Conner posted a season-high 173 scrimmage yards and career-high three touchdowns in the win. Conner brings physicality and toughness to Kliff Kingsbury’s offense and gives the unit balance, which will be key down the stretch and into the postseason. Expect Conner’s numbers to jump off the page over the next month or two.
Dillon has already blown past his rookie production in rushes (76), rush yards (355), targets (16), receptions (14) and receiving yards (134), but he’s still just scratching the surface. The Packers’ big-bodied running back has been a force behind the offensive line over the last two games, averaging 5.2 yards per carry on 24 attempts. I’ve also been impressed with his pass-catching ability of late, showing he can operate as a three-down back in Matt LaFleur’s system. But Dillon’s impact will really be felt between the tackles as fall turns into winter in Green Bay, given his size (6-foot, 247 pounds) and bruising run style.
The Saints reacquired Ingram for a reason. They lack offensive weapons and need all the help they can get to boost sudden QB1 Trevor Siemian. With Ingram being a great locker room guy — someone who has a long and storied history with the Saints — the move made plenty of sense. Prior to being traded, Ingram averaged 3.2 yards per carry with the Houston Texans, but in just two games with the Saints, he’s at 4.7 yards per carry on 15 totes. He fits like a glove into Sean Payton’s offense, and I believe his attempts will increase moving forward to allow Alvin Kamara to be a greater asset in the passing game, an area that desperately needs help. The Saints sit at 5-3 and have the coaching and defense needed to make a postseason push. The offense must get better, and Ingram knows the system well.
The fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma has been an off-and-on contributor for the Patriots in the first half of the season, with 35 carries for 137 yards and one rush TD and seven receptions for 97 yards in five games. However, Stevenson is coming off his best performance of the season with 106 scrimmage yards, including a season-high 62 rush yards, against the Carolina Panthers. Every strength was displayed in this outing: his elusiveness, physicality and great hands as a 6-foot, 227-pound running back. He’s had double-digit carries in two games this season, but I won’t be surprised to see Josh McDaniels use him more down the stretch after the performance we saw in Week 9. And with the Patriots aiming to run the ball and play great defense — in an effort to take pressure off rookie quarterback Mac Jones — having a versatile player like Stevenson in the rotation is going to allow the Patriots to move the chains and control the clock.
Top 15 running backs
Former NFL rushing leader and NFL Network analyst Maurice Jones-Drew will survey all running backs and rank his top 15 each week of the 2021 season. His rankings are based on this season’s efforts alone. Here is MJD’s list heading into Week 10.
NOTE: Arrows reflect changes from last week’s rankings.
2021 stats: 9 games | 140 att | 821 rush yds | 5.9 ypc | 8 rush TD | 23 rec | 293 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 3 fumbles
Taylor is the first player not named Derrick Henry to hold the No. 1 spot my rankings since Week 14 of last season. With Henry on IR, someone had to claim the throne and Taylor has earned it on the way to helping Indy win three of their last four games. He’s recorded six straight games with 100-plus scrimmage yards and at least one rush TD — the first player since LaDainian Tomlinson (2006 MVP season) to do so in a season.
2021 stats: 7 games | 120 att | 721 rush yds | 6.0 ypc | 6 rush TD | 8 rec | 69 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 2 fumbles
Chubb ran the Browns to victory over the Bengals with 137 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries. His impact to his team’s offense is second to none, which we could witness (again) this weekend if he can’t go this weekend — although vaccinated, he tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday. Cleveland needs its No. 1 back against the Pats’ stingy D.
2021 stats: 9 games | 150 att | 636 rush yds | 4.2 ypc | 7 rush TD | 22 rec | 194 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 1 fumble
The Bengals head into a much-needed bye week after two brutal losses. Mixon has scored five scrimmage TDs in the last three games, a pace he’ll need to continue against a tough slew of upcoming opponents (Raiders, Steelers, Chargers).
2021 stats: 8 games | 146 att | 530 rush yds | 3.6 ypc | 3 rush TD | 32 rec | 310 rec yds | 4 rec TDs | 0 fumbles
Kamara is having a pretty incredible campaign but he’s somehow flying under the radar. He’s averaging 105 scrimmage yards per game with a chance to match the mark this weekend against the Titans, who have allowed three RBs to gain 100 scrimmage yards in a game this season. With Trevor Siemian taking over for Jameis Winston, Kamara needs to start taking over games from an offensive standpoint.
2021 stats: 8 games | 128 att | 622 rush yds | 4.9 ypc | 5 rush TDs | 23 rec | 153 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 0 fumbles
Zeke suffered a knee contusion in the Cowboys’ loss to the Broncos and had a season-low 10 carries as a result. Having missed just one game in his career due to injury, Zeke and the rest of the Cowboys will be looking to erase memories of Week 9. Playing against Atlanta is a good way to do that for No. 21, who has 323 scrimmage yards and two rush TDs in two career games against the Falcons. I just hope he’s healthy enough to be out there.
2021 stats: 6 games | 115 att | 554 rush yds | 4.8 ypc | 2 rush TD | 15 rec | 85 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 2 fumbles
Cook had a huge performance last week against the Ravens with 110 rush yards, the reason he’s ascending in the rankings. He said Wednesday that he expects to play against the Chargers in Week 10 in his response to a recent lawsuit. If he is indeed on the field Sunday afternoon at SoFi Stadium, Cook will likely feast against a Chargers outfit that’s allowing the most rush yards per game (161.6) this season.
2021 stats: 8 games | 150 att | 541 rush yds | 3.6 ypc | 4 rush TD | 40 rec | 289 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 0 fumbles
Tied for the fourth-most scrimmage yards among running backs heading into Week 10, Harris has given the Steelers’ offense some balance and helped control the clock, playing a major role in the team’s four-game win streak. He’s taken on a massive role, which is working well for Pittsburgh, in the offense as he’s on pace for 404 touches this season.
2021 stats: 9 games | 115 att | 454 rush yds | 3.9 ypc | 10 rush TD | 10 rec | 111 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 2 fumbles
Conner’s unique in that he’s listed in my top 10 and among my second-half breakout candidates, both of which can be true. When Conner was last healthy as the featured back, he was a dominant presence for Pittsburgh’s backfield. We should expect the same in Arizona.
2021 stats: 9 games | 116 att | 516 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 3 rush TDs | 33 rec | 237 rec yds | 4 rec TD | 2 fumbles
I was surprised to see the Packers throw the ball 34 times with Jordan Love replacing Aaron Rodgers rather than leaning on Jones (12 carries, 53 yards) and Dillon (eight carries, 46 yards) against the Chiefs, whose defense has been a liability all season long. Whether Rodgers is eligible to play Sunday or not, Matt LaFleur needs to get his 18th-ranked rushing attack going early to help the rest of the offense.
2021 stats: 8 games | 121 att | 562 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 5 rush TD | 19 rec | 144 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 0 fumbles
Henderson missed some of last week’s game with an ankle injury but should be able to go in Sunday’s division matchup with San Francisco. He has had over 20 carries in a game just once this season but his effectiveness (4.6 yards per carry) further validates Sean McVay’s quality-or-quantity approach in regard to the run game.
2021 stats: 8 games | 101 att | 479 rush yds | 4.7 ypc | 5 rush TD | 36 rec | 325 rec yds | 3 rec TD | 2 fumbles
Ekeler has the fifth-most scrimmage yards (804) by a running back this season, and there’s a good chance he moves up the list this weekend against a porous Vikings defense that’s allowing 136.6 rush yards per game (30th in the NFL) and 4.8 yards per carry (31st) this season.
2021 stats: 8 games | 101 att | 439 rush yds | 4.3 ypc | 4 rush TD | 30 rec | 239 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumble
Fournette is a major benefactor of the Buccaneers’ top-ranked passing offense as he’s having his best season in several years. The run game will become more crucial as it gets colder, so we can expect him to heat up down the stretch and beyond, just like he did last season.
2021 stats: 6 games | 73 att | 280 rush yds | 3.8 ypc | 5 rush TD | 18 rec | 129 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles
Jacobs has steadily improved over the last three games and posted his highest yards-per-carry mark (5.9) last week against the Giants. In Sunday’s massive prime-time matchup with the Chiefs, pressure is on Jacobs and run game to open the field for a passing attack that struggled without field-stretcher Henry Ruggs III, who was released by the team prior to Week 9 after his arrest on charge of DUI resulting in death. Jacobs has yet to have a 100-yard rushing performance this season, but Sunday could be it.
2021 stats: 9 games | 133 att | 547 rush yds | 4.1 ypc | 7 rush TD | 11 rec | 63 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 2 fumbles
Although Rhamondre Stevenson may be working his way into the rotation, Harris isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. He’s had at least one rushing touchdown in each of the last five games, in which New England has gone 4-1. To add to his case, he ranks ninth in the league in rush yards and is tied for fourth in rush TDs.
2021 stats: 4 games | 66 att | 253 rush yds | 3.8 ypc | 1 rush TD | 20 rec | 217 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumble
McCaffrey recorded 106 scrimmage yards in his first game since Week 3. He’s logged at least 100 scrimmage yards in all three of his full games this season. The Panthers are in the thick of the playoff race at 4-5 and have to feel good about McCaffrey being back on the field. Now if they could just figure out the quarterback position …
DROPPED OUT: Derrick Henry, Titans (previously No. 1); James Robinson, Jaguars (No. 11).
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