NFL’s top running back is not who you think

Photo Credit: The Inscriber Magazine

The NFL season is now under two months away from kicking off, and millions of people around the world will participate in fantasy football. While running backs like Dallas Cowboys’ star Ezekiel Elliott, Pittsburgh Steelers’ star LeVeon Bell and Arizona Cardinals’ star David Johnson will likely be the first three running backs off of most draft boards, put fantasy football aside and don’t let that distract you from who the real top running back in the NFL is.

Elliott has a monster offensive line to run behind in Dallas, and he carried the ball more than any other running back last season. Naturally, he should lead the league in rushing yards, as anything less would really be considered a disappointment, especially since he was the #4 overall pick in last year’s draft out of Ohio State. He did end up leading the league in rushing yards by over 300 yards to the next highest running back last season. Yet he’s not the league’s best running back.

Bell is the most explosive running back with the ball in the game, but he hasn’t exactly established himself as a reliable option in the long-term. He has played in all 16 games just once in four seasons, with injuries and legal issues sidelining him already even at only 25 years old. A rookie missing some time in his first season is one thing, but he has been in the league for four years and has averaged fewer than 12 games per season. He’s not the league’s best running back either.

Johnson is the best receiving running back in the game, as he totaled the most receptions and most receiving yards among all running backs by over 250 yards and led the entire NFL in yards from scrimmage last season. He was the Cardinals’ go-to guy in most situations, and his statistics show just how good of a producer he is from an offensive standpoint at the running back position. But like Elliott and Bell, Johnson is not the NFL’s best running back.

The real best running back in the league is none other than the Chicago Bears’ Jordan Howard. The 22-year-old out of Indiana had an under-the-radar rookie season that was truly elite from a running back standard, yet it was overlooked, and he doesn’t get nearly the attention or the hype that the other three do. He played in 15 games and was the primary running back in just 13 of them, yet his rushing total of 1,313 yards was second to only Elliott’s total, which made rookies the top two rushers in the NFL last season.

While Howard was second to Elliott in yardage total, he averaged 0.1 more yards per carry (5.2 to 5.1) than Elliott did. And Howard pulled that off despite Bears’ center Hroniss Grasubeing out for the season while Elliott, the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award winner, had the league’s best offensive line to run behind. The only three players that Howard trailed in the yards per carry category carried the ball fewer times than he did, which shows just how elusive of a running back he is.

Teams that play behind more often than they play ahead tend to throw the ball more because there is more potential for big plays throwing the ball than there is running it. And the Bears played behind a lot last season, as they tied for only 28th in average points per game last season (17.4). Yet they still managed to rank 17th in average rushing yards per game with just a 3-13 record! Why? Jordan Howard, that’s why. And if the Bears as a whole can have more success as a team, the team’s rushing numbers, particularly Howard’s numbers, could get even better than they already are.

Teams like Dallas, Pittsburgh and Arizona, the teams of the other three running backs mentioned above, provided their running backs with what the Bears could not provide Howard, and that was a solid overall offense, and frankly, a solid overall team. Dallas (13-3), Pittsburgh (11-5) and Arizona (7-8-1) ranked 5th, 6th and 10th, respectively in average points per game last season, so they were not forced to rely on the passing game and could allow their running backs to do more and carry the bulk of the workload.

But it was Howard on the 28th-best scoring team at just 3-13 that ended up doing more, and he did it with much less than those other three running backs. And while his rushing total is one thing, his numbers in the receiving category weren’t too shabby either, as his receiving yardage total bumped what would have been the 15th highest scrimmage yardage total in the NFL counting just rushing yards all the way up to 6th.

Sure, if you’re going to play fantasy football, you want to look at the yards, the touchdowns, and in some cases, the receptions to make your selection. In that case, you’d likely pick Elliott, Bell or Johnson as your top running back. But if you’re not interested in fantasy football and instead just looking to watch a top-tier running back slice through defensive units with ease every Sunday, prioritize Bears’ games above all the other teams’ games, including the Cowboys, Steelers and Cardinals.


-Asher Fair