Execs, coaches, scouts rank NFL’s top 10 running backs for 2024

With 2024 NFL training camps on the horizon, it is again time for the league’s true insiders to make their voices heard. ESPN surveyed league executives, coaches and scouts to help us rank the top 10 players at 11 different positions, from quarterback to cornerback and all positions in between. This is the fifth edition of these rankings, and as usual, several players have moved up or fallen off last year’s lists.

A reminder of the rankings process: Voters give us their best 10 players at a position, then we compile the results and rank candidates based on number of top-10 votes, composite average and dozens of interviews, with research and film-study help from ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen. In total, nearly 80 voters submitted a ballot on at least one position, and in many cases all positions. Additional voting and follow-up calls with those surveyed help us break any ties.

Each section includes quotes and nuggets from the voters on every ranked player — even the honorable mentions. The objective is to identify the best players right now for 2024. This is not a five-year projection or a career achievement award. Who are the best players today?

We will roll out a position per day over 11 days. The schedule: running backs (July 8), defensive tackles (July 9), edge rushers (July 10), safeties (July 11), tight ends (July 12), interior offensive linemen (July 13), offensive tackles (July 14), quarterbacks (July 15), off-ball linebackers (July 16), wide receivers (July 17), cornerbacks (July 18).

The demise of the running backs was greatly — OK, mildly — exaggerated.

The glory days of the 350-carry back are mostly gone, but the position has experienced a major infusion of young talent.

Just look at the past two drafts, which produced three of the top eight recipients in this year’s top-10 ranking. All three players are 23 or younger.

None are close to unseating this year’s No. 1, who garnered more votes than just about any player at any position. But they are eager to try — and might just have the skill sets to do it.

Overall, teams leaned on the running game slightly less in 2023. Thirteen teams surpassed 2,000 yards on the ground, compared to 18 in 2022.

But that didn’t discount the great performances, and free agency showed us that running the ball still pays. Six different backs earned deals worth between $16 and $48 million. Several are on this list … and in new uniforms. Let’s look at some of the game’s top ball carriers as ranked by execs, coaches and scouts around the NFL.

 

1. Christian McCaffrey, San Francisco 49ers

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 4
Age: 28 | Last year’s ranking: 2

Health and a killer offense have elevated McCaffrey to his rightful place as the best tailback and a top player in all of football.

McCaffrey garnered more than 80% of the first-place votes.

He was dominant in every category. He consistently got positive yards before contact (888) and after contact (571), ranking first and second in those respective areas. The 49ers got 5.6 yards per carry when giving McCaffrey the ball on first downs. Inside the tackles, McCaffrey averaged 4.9 yards per carry, fourth among running backs.

And that’s before considering his elite receiving ability, catching 67 passes for 564 yards last season.

“He does everything exceptionally,” a veteran NFL offensive coach who has coached him said. “Explosiveness, vision, technique, versatility, great teammate, hardest worker, dedicated in the offseason. The only thing holding him back was when he was hurt. But he’s exactly how you would draw up a football player.”

McCaffrey has three seasons with at least 1,000 rushing yards and 700 receiving yards, trailing only Marshall Faulk (4) in NFL history.

He was the 2023 leader in explosive plays (10-yard runs and 20-yard receptions).

“San Francisco made one of the best trades of the decade when they got him [in 2022],” a player-personnel executive said. “He’s perfect for what they do.”

Christian McCaffrey led the NFL in rushing yards (1,459) in 2023. Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

2. Breece Hall, New York Jets

Highest ranking: 2 | Lowest ranking: Unranked
Age: 23 | Last year’s ranking: Honorable mention

Hall is considered the game’s best running back under the age of 25, with big upside on Year 3 projections.

He looked brilliant as a rookie before tearing his ACL, then looked great again late in 2023 with 357 yards and three touchdowns over weeks 16-18 despite a nonexistent passing game around him.

“Natural rusher with acceleration through the hole,” a high-ranking NFL official said. “He’s got power and can create his own shot by making someone miss.”

Hall averaged 4.3 yards per carry against a heavy box (eight or more defenders), which ranked fifth in the NFL.

Hall proved versatile with 76 catches for 591 yards along with his 994 rushing yards.

“Legit dual-threat, a glider with high-level change of direction and vision,” an NFL personnel evaluator said. “Home run hitter with the ball in his hands. Can grind volume, create explosives at any moment.”

What to know for the 2024 NFL offseason

3. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: Unranked
Age: 28 | Last year’s ranking: 1

This one is complicated. Chubb has been the game’s best pure rusher when healthy. But his future is shrouded in uncertainty because of a severe knee injury suffered last season that required multiple surgeries.

Chubb is expected to return in 2024. What exactly the Browns are getting upon that return is tough to project.

Some took Chubb off their ballots altogether. Many others kept him in the top three.

“He would be No. 1 for me if healthy,” an AFC executive said. “Even though I’m not sure how he’s going to look, he deserves to be high.”

The surgeries repaired damage to the meniscus, MCL and ACL in his left knee, the same side that Chubb seriously injured at Georgia in 2015.

“Even if he’s lacking some explosion in the short term, he still has instincts and good feet,” an AFC personnel evaluator said. “Hopefully that shines through and he gets his power back. He’s such a good player.”

Since entering the NFL in 2018, Chubb has averaged 5.3 yards per rush, the third-highest mark by a running back in the Super Bowl era with a minimum of 500 carries, behind Bo Jackson and Jamaal Charles at 5.4.

4. Saquon Barkley, Philadelphia Eagles

Highest ranking: 2 | Lowest ranking: 10
Age: 27 | Last year’s ranking: 4

After years of toiling in the Giants’ grind-it-out offense, Barkley upgraded to Philly.

The possibilities have some around the league excited.

“He’s going to be a beast,” a veteran AFC scout who ranked him second said. “The weapons around him on the outside, dual-threat QB, shotgun runs, his versatility — it’s a perfect fit.”

A career reset like McCaffrey’s in San Francisco would be ideal for Barkley, whose production dipped to 962 yards on 247 carries (3.9 yards per carry) last season. Barkley battled ankle issues that sources said were worse than most knew. Many weeks it was a struggle for him to see the field.

The money still spoke, with Philly signing Barkley to a three-year, $37.75 million deal in free agency.

Durability is a part of the Barkley conversation. He has missed at least three games in four of his six NFL seasons. But in the two seasons when he played 16 games, in 2018 and 2022, he totaled 3,678 yards and 25 touchdowns.

He makes life easier on quarterbacks, too. Daniel Jones’ touchdown-to-interception ratio was 2.3 with Barkley in his backfield, compared to 0.8 without him.

“Probably not as fast as he used to be,” an NFL offensive coach said. “He has the ability to make people miss in space, which is sometimes bad since you think you can bounce it and outrun people. But when he does get downhill, running in between tackles, he’s so strong naturally that he’s hard to tackle. He runs through arm tackles. Just has to decide to do it.”

Saquon Barkley comes to the Philadelphia Eagles after a six-year stint with the New York Giants. Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

5. Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts

Highest ranking: 2 | Lowest ranking: Unranked
Age: 25 | Last year’s ranking: 6

Taylor’s career has seen plenty of highs and lows, from a 2021 rushing title to a Year 3 plummet due in part to an anemic Colts offense around him to a lengthy contract dispute that pushed against last year’s trade deadline.

Late in 2023, armed with a new contract, Taylor pumped out 487 yards and six touchdowns over his final five games.

“Still explosive — last year he was beat up,” an AFC scout said. “The Colts eased him into things. But he’s probably the best combination of size and straight-line speed right now.”

The Colts’ run block win rate improved from 23rd to 14th year-over-year, and a healthy Taylor for a full season should improve that stock even more.

“Expecting a huge year from him,” an AFC executive said. “Still an impact player.”

6. Bijan Robinson, Atlanta Falcons

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: Unranked
Age: 22 | Last year’s ranking: N/A

Robinson didn’t quite validate the hype as a rookie. His 976 rushing yards in 2023, which tied for 15th in the league, fell short of projections for the No. 8 pick in a run-heavy offense.

To be sure, Robinson’s usage — despite his obvious ability to shake defenders — was curious at times. Robinson got more than 15 carries in four of 17 games.

“The production is not all him — he’s a top-five talent at the position right now,” an NFL personnel evaluator said.

That’s why the Year 2 expectations are still massive.

Robinson led the league with 5.2 yards per carry against boxes of seven or more defenders. His 35 explosive plays ranked third for running backs.

“If he gets to the second or third level, he’s incredibly hard to tackle,” an NFL offensive coach said. “Deceptive speed once he gets loose. He reminds me of LeSean McCoy. Very elusive. Really hard to touch him.”

7. Josh Jacobs, Green Bay Packers

Highest ranking: 2 | Lowest ranking: Unranked
Age: 25 | Last year’s ranking: 3

The Packers are hoping for the return of 2022 Jacobs after signing him to a four-year, $48-million deal in March.

Jacobs looked like the game’s premier back that season on his way to 1,653 yards and a first-team All-Pro bid, becoming the first Raiders player since Marcus Allen to lead the league in rushing. Last season, the production was that of a volume grinder, with a career-low 3.5 yards per carry, though Las Vegas’ coaching change and quarterback carousel didn’t help.

But if you’re looking for a traditional, durable back, he’s still one of the best.

“Just a good all-around back,” an NFL offensive coach said. “Can run inside or outside zone. Breaks a lot of tackles at the point of contact. Rarely tackled by one guy. Not the fastest or biggest or strongest but just knows how to run the football and [be] very productive. And he’s very durable. Can get you a lot of carries and really punish you in the fourth quarter.”

Josh Jacobs collected 5,545 rushing yards across five years with the Raiders franchise. Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

8. Jahmyr Gibbs, Detroit Lions

Highest ranking: 3 | Lowest ranking: Unranked
Age: 22 | Last year’s ranking: N/A

While Bijan Robinson was the top back in the 2023 draft, some scouts preferred Gibbs’ skill set and versatility.

That’s why Detroit selected him at No. 12, four picks behind Robinson, which didn’t shock some.

“Change of pace. Fast. Elusive. Versatile,” an AFC executive said. “Dynamic in the pass game. Not a typical North-South runner you love in a run-heavy offense, but he can break explosive plays at the snap of a finger, which is scary in our league.”

Despite the presence of power back David Montgomery, the Lions made sure Gibbs was heavily involved during his rookie season, with 234 touches (52 receptions) over 15 games. Gibbs rewarded that faith with 1,261 total yards and 11 touchdowns.

Gibbs averaged 5.4 yards per carry out of shotgun formations, which is the best among running backs. He also led the league when rushing to the right side (6.3).

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9. Derrick Henry, Baltimore Ravens

Highest ranking: 3 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 30 | Last year’s ranking: 5

Having more than 2,000 carries over eight years usually gets thirty-something backs out of here.

But Henry is still the king of yards after contact, leading the league with 619 last year. He hit 21.68 miles per hour on a long touchdown run at 247 pounds.

“He’s a warrior,” a veteran NFL coach said. “Just keeps himself in such good physical conditioning with offseason workouts. I don’t see him slowing down over the next two years. He’s a volume back with great size, breaks tackles, has deceptive speed and no one’s really catching him if he gets going. I don’t think he’s lost a step.”

Multiple people interviewed wonder about Henry’s fit in Baltimore — an I-formation back in a shotgun-heavy offense.

“It’s definitely going to be interesting,” an NFC scout said. “They will probably go with a little more pistol, which is like being underneath center, and he can get downhill.”

10. Travis Etienne Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars

Highest ranking: 4 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 25 | Last year’s ranking: Honorable mention

After missing his entire rookie year because of injury, Etienne became a top-10 back with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons, 16 total touchdowns and nearly 100 receptions.

One stat from last season perfectly describes Etienne’s explosion — he hit a max of 19.62 miles per hour when crossing the line of scrimmage.

“One of the few three-down backs. Really good zone runner. Makes people miss in space,” an NFL coordinator said. “Decent catching the ball and in pass protection. No major flaws — just not great in short-yardage situations.”

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