The start of a new year is always a good time to review, and this week, I’m looking back on some of my mistakes. Fortunately for me, there aren’t many.
Back in June, I ranked all 32 RB1s heading into the 2021 NFL regular season. To no one’s surprise, I had Derrick Henry at the very top of my rankings and can confidently say I nailed that projection. The Tennessee Titans star running back has missed the last eight games after undergoing foot surgery and STILL ranks in the top 10 in the NFL in carries, rush yards and rush TDs. Most importantly, he was designated to return from injured reserve this week, opening a 21-day window for him to rejoin the active roster. Whether he takes the field on Sunday or not, he could make a king-sized impact in the playoffs.
Now, here’s where I swallow my pride. Below are two running backs I was wrong about this season, excluding players who have missed much of the season due to injury.
Coming into the season, I questioned Fournette’s ability to continue his playoff pace (see: Playoff Lenny) and keep the starting role over Ronald Jones II for the entire season. While he didn’t quite produce like he did in the Bucs’ Super Bowl run, he started all but one game in 2021 when he was healthy (he was placed on IR heading into Week 16). Fournette was more efficient than he had been in prior seasons, averaging a career-high 4.5 yards per carry, and he was used far more in the pass game than he was in his first season in Tampa, nearly doubling his totals in receptions and yards. Prior to the hamstring injury that sidelined him late in the year, Fournette was playing confidently. I believe having a staff and quarterback (a guy you may have heard of named Tom Brady) that believe in him helped a lot in that regard. Such trust can go a long way, and we’ll likely see the veteran back pick up where he left off in the playoffs if he’s healthy.
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My reasoning for putting Harris all the way down at No. 29 heading into the season was the fact that he was sharing the backfield with former first-round draft pick Sony Michel. Well, one month later, Michel was traded away to the Rams, leaving Harris as the featured back. He’s received the bulk of the carries in New England’s run-heavy offense — which also features rookie Rhamondre Stevenson — and has helped rookie quarterback Mac Jones transition to the pros. Harris is averaging roughly the same number of yards per carry (4.7 in 2021; 5.0 in 2020) and carries per game (13.6 in 2021; 13.7 in 2020) that he did last season, but his touchdowns total has skyrocketed. He had a pair of rush TDs in 2020. This season, he has 14(!) with one regular-season game to go.
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 18.
NOTE: Arrows reflect changes from Week 17’s rankings.
2021 stats: 16 games | 317 att | 1,734 rush yds | 5.5 ypc | 18 rush TD | 37 rec | 342 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 4 fumbles
Taylor’s incredible run continued in Week 17 as he set a single-season Colts record for most rush yards, surpassing Edgerrin James’ mark of 1,709 in 2000. He also broke a tie with Hall of Famer Lenny Moore (19 in 1964) for the most scrimmage touchdowns in a season in team history. Who needs a 17th game to make history? Not this guy.
2021 stats: 13 games | 219 att | 1,201 rush yds | 5.5 ypc | 8 rush TD | 19 rec | 172 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 2 fumbles
Chubb averaged 4.8 yards per tote against the Steelers but had just 12 carries in the loss. Head coach Kevin Stefanski said following the game that the running back was dealing with a rib injury. Hopefully, Chubb will be healthy enough to finish the season on his terms in Week 18.
2021 stats: 16 games | 292 att | 1,205 rush yds | 4.1 ypc | 13 rush TD | 42 rec | 314 rec yds | 3 rec TD | 2 fumbles
With the Bengals clawing back from 14 points down three separate times vs. Kansas City, they had to throw the ball to stay alive. So on a day when Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase led the team to its first AFC North title in six seasons, Mixon finished with 46 yards on 12 carries. He did have a season-high seven catches on eight targets in the win. Unfortunately, Mixon tested positive for COVID-19 this week and won’t play in the season finale.
2021 stats: 15 games | 190 att | 847 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 11 rush TD | 65 rec | 612 rec yds | 7 rec TD | 4 fumbles
After missing Week 16 due to COVID-19 protocols, Ekeler didn’t waste any time getting back to work in Week 17. He recorded his eighth game with at least 100 scrimmage yards this season (tied for third most in the NFL) to help the Chargers defeat the Broncos and set up a win-and-in playoff scenario against the Raiders on Sunday night. Los Angeles has the goods to get it done, but everyone needs to show up.
2021 stats: 16 games | 296 att | 1,172 rush yds | 4.0 ypc | 7 rush TD | 70 rec | 440 rec yds | 3 rec TD | 0 fumbles
What a great home finale for the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger went out with a victory. The defense sacked Baker Mayfield nine times. And, my favorite part, Najee Harris broke Hall of Famer Franco Harris’ Steelers rookie record of 1,055 rushing yards set in 1972. Harris has a bright future and will be the center of this offense for years to come as the organization makes a transition at QB.
2021 stats: 14 games | 191 att | 892 rush yds | 4.7 ypc | 14 rush TD | 14 rec | 96 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 2 fumbles
No matter how hard they try, defenses can’t seem to keep Harris out of the end zone. With two more scores last week against the Jaguars — he’s had five in the last two games — Harris is now tied for the second-most rush touchdowns in a season in franchise history with Curtis Martin, who logged 14 in both the 1995 and 1996 seasons. Only LeGarrette Blount had more with a Patriots-record 18 in 2016.
2021 stats: 12 games | 235 att | 1,080 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 6 rush TD | 33 rec | 221 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 3 fumbles
The Vikings were without Kirk Cousins on Sunday night, and boy, did it show. They barely cracked 200 yards of total offense — Cook had only 13 yards on nine carries — as they were eliminated from playoff contention. With Mike Zimmer’s job hanging in the balance — and perhaps his future has already been decided — the Vikings better hope they put together a better performance against the Bears than they did last week.
2021 stats: 16 games | 187 att | 802 rush yds | 4.3 ypc | 4 rush TD | 20 rec | 122 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 1 fumble
Michel came through again for the Rams, who won their fifth straight game with a late comeback over Baltimore. Michel has had at least 70 rush yards in each of those five games after having zero such performances in the first 11 games of the season. Since Week 13, he has the third-most rush yards in the league with 497. The Rams need him to keep this pace, especially with Matthew Stafford so prone to turning the ball over of late.
2021 stats: 15 games | 171 att | 799 rush yds | 4.7 ypc | 4 rush TD | 52 rec | 391 rec yds | 6 rec TD | 2 fumbles
Even if the Packers, who have already locked up the NFC’s No. 1 seed, decide to sit key players in Week 18, Jones can be content knowing he has compiled at least 1,100 scrimmage yards for a third straight season. If he does play, he’ll have the chance to add to his seven TDs vs. the Lions since 2020, the second-most in the NFL against a single opponent since 2020.
2021 stats: 12 games | 210 att | 752 rush yds | 3.6 ypc | 4 rush TD | 45 rec | 423 rec yds | 5 rec TDs | 0 fumbles
Kamara makes this Saints offense watchable. New Orleans eked out a win last week to keep its playoff hopes alive thanks to four Brett Maher field goals and Kamara’s fourth-quarter TD reception. That touchdown snapped a streak of 11 straight quarters without a TD for the Saints. Woof.
2021 stats: 16 games | 219 att | 915 rush yds | 4.2 ypc | 10 rush TDs | 46 rec | 284 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 1 fumble
Elliott has rushed for fewer than 60 yards in 10 straight games. However, he still ranks in the top 10 in the league in carries, rush yards and rush TDs this season. The Cowboys need more from him if they plan to make a run deep into the playoffs, let alone win one game.
2021 stats: 14 games | 191 att | 740 rush yds | 3.9 ypc | 8 rush TD | 52 rec | 336 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 2 fumbles
Jacobs chipped in 63 rush yards against the Colts and got the Raiders on the board first with a 2-yard touchdown run. With that performance, Jacobs joined Hall of Famer Marcus Allen as the only players in Raiders history to have at least 1,000 scrimmage yards in each of their first three seasons. The Raiders will need the best out of Jacobs on Sunday night to secure a postseason berth for the first time since 2016.
2021 stats: 9 games | 96 att | 559 rush yds | 5.8 ypc | 5 rush TD | 6 rec | 48 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 0 fumbles
Penny enters the rankings after a productive month. He’s coming off a career-high 170 rush yards and two TDs, with 144 of those yards coming in the first half against the Lions. Since Week 14, Penny has 69 carries for 481 rush yards (most in the NFL) and five touchdowns for an impressive 7.0 yards per carry. Imagine if he could stay healthy.
2021 stats: 10 games | 186 att | 878 rush yds | 4.7 ypc | 5 rush TD | 19 rec | 137 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 0 fumbles
Mitchell has been a pleasant surprise for Kyle Shanahan in the run game this season when he’s available. After missing three games with a concussion and knee injury, Mitchell returned in Week 17 to help out fellow rookie, quarterback Trey Lance, by rushing for 119 yards on 21 attempts (5.7 yards per carry) in the 49ers’ 23-7 win over Houston. His 87.8 rush yards per game leads all rookies and ranks fifth in the NFL this season. That’s how good he is in this offense. He just needs to be available for his team.
2021 stats: 15 games | 237 att | 891 rush yds | 3.7 ypc | 6 rush TDs | 41 rec | 289 rec yds | 3 rec TDs | 6 fumbles
Gibson missed last week’s game vs. the Eagles while on the reserve/COVID-19 list but he’s expected to be back in action for the season finale against the Giants. With the Football Team eliminated from the playoffs, Gibson and friends will be looking to finish the year with a victory over a division rival to end on a high note. Against New York in Week 2, Gibson rushed for 69 yards on 13 carries for 5.3 yards per carry.
DROPPED OUT: James Conner, Cardinals (previously No. 6); Javonte Williams, Broncos (No. 15).
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The Ground Index presented by FedEx ranks NFL running back performances all season long. Check out the weekly FedEx Air NFL Players of the Week and cast your vote after Sunday Night Football.
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