Take a victory lap, Jonathan Taylor. You’ve earned it.
The Indianapolis Colts running back exploded during second half of the 2020 season, allowing the rookie to finish third in the NFL with 1,169 rushing yards. But ultimately, that was just the precursor to a truly historic performance in 2021. Allow me to gloat for a moment, as I dubbed Taylor the NFL’s next great running back in this very space one year ago.
Taylor took his game to another level this season. He was the talk of the league for weeks at a time, throwing himself squarely into the MVP race and eventually setting a Colts record with 1,811 rushing yards — a total that led the NFL by a whopping 552 yards. He also paced the league in rushing touchdowns (18), total TDs (20) and scrimmage yards (2,171). Unsurprisingly, he was a unanimous All-Pro selection. There’s no doubt Taylor is a special player who will be vying for top honors at the position for years to come.
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So, who’s the NFL’s next next great running back? Yup, after last year’s successful forecast, I’m doubling down on this topic.
This year’s rookie class provided another crop of talented rushers, including the Steelers’ Najee Harris, Jets’ Michael Carter, Patriots’ Rhamondre Stevenson and 49ers’ Elijah Mitchell, to name a few. But one back really stood out to me, a bruiser with the promise to achieve big things in the coming years:
I liked Williams heading into the 2021 NFL Draft, where the Denver Broncos ended up snagging him with the third pick of the second round. In my estimation, he offered great acceleration, physicality and the natural ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Williams put all of that on display this season, even though he split time with accomplished veteran Melvin Gordon. The rookie finished with 903 rush yards on 203 carries, going step for step with the experienced Gordon (203 carries, 918 yards) throughout the season. Pretty impressive work for both backs, considering Denver’s offensive line ranked just 19th in yards before contact per carry, per Pro Football Focus. Another PFF stat that speaks to Williams’ beastliness as a ball carrier: His 64 forced missed tackles on run plays were second in the entire league, behind only Taylor’s 67 — and the Colts star had 129 more carries! That’s a testament to Williams’ good vision, speed, power and sheer determination to gain the extra yard.
Imagine what Williams could do with a full workload, something that might come to fruition next season with Gordon set to hit free agency in March. If I were the Broncos, I’d feel good about handing Williams the reins as a true bell-cow back. In his lone start of the season (Week 13 vs. Kansas City), he had 23 carries for 102 yards, as well as six receptions for 76 yards and a TD. Williams is the type of player who can set the tone for the offense — no matter who ends up becoming Denver’s next head coach — and more importantly, force defenses to respect the Broncos’ run game. With a full helping of carries, I envision this guy blowing past 1,300 yards. This will take pressure off next year’s quarterback (whomever that may be) and allow great pass catchers like Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and Noah Fant to feast down the field.
There’s a lot to like about Williams’ game, but there’s also a lot that we didn’t get to see in 2021. Don’t be surprised when Williams becomes the next great player at the position as his role expands next year and beyond.
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 hierarchy with the regular season in the books.
NOTE: Arrows reflect changes from Week 18’s rankings.
2021 stats: 17 games | 332 att | 1,811 rush yds | 5.5 ypc | 18 rush TD | 40 rec | 360 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 4 fumbles
The Colts chose the wrong time to no-show, as they played themselves out of the postseason with a shocking loss to the Jaguars. Taylor, an MVP candidate, failed to rush for 100 yards or a TD for the first time since Week 3, which tells you just how off Indy was. Not making the playoffs will scar the Colts for a while, but that doesn’t take away from Taylor’s magnificent campaign.
2021 stats: 14 games | 228 att | 1,259 rush yds | 5.5 ypc | 8 rush TD | 20 rec | 174 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 2 fumbles
Chubb finished the 2021 campaign with 58 yards on nine carries in a win over the Bengals, who rested their star players after securing the division title one week prior. The fourth-year back finished second in the NFL in rushing yards despite playing in 14 games, and he averaged 5.0-plus yards per carry for the fourth straight season. He was worth every penny of the three-year extension signed in training camp.
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
Along with many other Bengals stars, Mixon did not play in the season finale, with Zac Taylor looking to get his team rested and right for Saturday’s wild-card matchup with the Raiders. Mixon can play a big part in helping Cincy earn its first postseason win in over three decades if he just performs like he has all season long. Finally putting together the complete campaign I’ve been waiting for, Mixon posted numerous career highs as a runner and receiver.
2021 stats: 16 games | 206 att | 911 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 12 rush TD | 70 rec | 647 rec yds | 8 rec TD | 4 fumbles
The fact that the Chargers didn’t make the postseason shouldn’t take away from Ekeler’s remarkable 2021 campaign. He logged the third season in franchise history with at least 20 scrimmage touchdowns, joining Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson, who did it twice (2005 and ’06). We saw just how good the Bolts’ offense can be when everyone is healthy and vibing on the field. The next step is getting to the postseason and living up to the hype.
2021 stats: 17 games | 307 att | 1,200 rush yds | 3.9 ypc | 7 rush TD | 74 rec | 467 rec yds | 3 rec TD | 0 fumbles
In the season finale against the Ravens, the Steelers’ offense was far from spectacular — much like it has been for most of the season. The rookie running back had just 49 scrimmage yards, but it was enough to help Pittsburgh sneak into the playoffs. And altogether, Harris has had a crazy-good campaign, becoming the first rookie in NFL history with at least 300 carries and 70 receptions. He also led all rookies in rush yards, rush TDs and scrimmage yards (1,667). His 10 scrimmage TDs trail only stud Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase.
2021 stats: 13 games | 249 att | 1,159 rush yds | 4.7 ypc | 6 rush TD | 34 rec | 224 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 3 fumbles
The three-time Pro Bowler had another impressive campaign, racking up more than 1,100 rush yards for the third straight season despite playing in just 13 games. His touchdown totals were down due to the Vikings’ offense stalling for drives at a time. Looking forward, Minnesota can expect plenty of change this offseason, yet the Vikes should see more of the same from Cook next fall.
2021 stats: 15 games | 202 att | 752 rush yds | 3.7 ypc | 15 rush TD | 37 rec | 375 rec yds | 3 rec TD | 2 fumbles
Conner battled injury over the last month of the season, but the production he compiled when on the field merits a spot in the top 10. He had 1,127 scrimmage yards and 18 scrimmage TDs (T-third in the NFL), with six games featuring two-plus TDs (most in the NFL). He elevates the Cardinals’ offense and it’ll be a major bummer if he’s unable to go Monday against the Rams because of the ribs injury he suffered in Week 18.
2021 stats: 15 games | 202 att | 929 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 15 rush TD | 18 rec | 132 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 2 fumbles
Getting in the end zone 15 times in 15 games is more than enough to get you in the top 10 at the end of the season. Looking ahead, Harris can be the X-factor for the Patriots in Saturday night’s wild-card game based on past performances. In three career games vs. Buffalo, Harris has averaged 105.3 rush yards and 1.7 rush TDs per game, while running at a rate of 7.2 yards per carry. The Pats need this kind of performance from their third-year back in order to pull off the upset.
2021 stats: 13 games | 240 att | 898 rush yds | 3.7 ypc | 4 rush TD | 47 rec | 439 rec yds | 5 rec TDs | 0 fumbles
Kamara and the Saints left it all out on the field in Week 18 in hopes of earning a wild-card spot, and they just missed. The fact that Kamara finished the season with 1,337 scrimmage yards — playing in an offense that was without its bookend tackles for half the season and lacked adequate quarterback play after Jameis Winston went down — is pretty remarkable.
2021 stats: 17 games | 237 att | 1,002 rush yds | 4.2 ypc | 10 rush TDs | 47 rec | 287 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 1 fumble
After a mostly-mediocre season by Zeke’s standards, he finished on a high note with 18 carries for 87 yards (4.8 yards per tote) in a win over Philly. It was his most carries and rush yards in a game since Week 5, and the effort got him past 1,000 rushing yards for the fourth time in his career. Let’s see which Zeke the Cowboys get in the postseason.
2021 stats: 16 games | 258 att | 1,037 rush yds | 4.0 ypc | 7 rush TDs | 42 rec | 294 rec yds | 3 rec TDs | 6 fumbles
Despite battling multiple injuries throughout the season, Gibson ended the 2021 campaign with a career-high 146 rush yards, highlighted by an 18-yard TD run in the fourth quarter to seal a victory over the division-rival Giants. The career day gave the second-year pro his first 1,000-yard rushing campaign, with Gibson boasting the sixth-most rush yards in the NFL this season. This is definitely a positive Washington’s offense can build on.
2021 stats: 11 games | 207 att | 963 rush yds | 4.7 ypc | 5 rush TD | 19 rec | 137 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 0 fumbles
Thrust into a starting role after injuries plagued the 49ers’ backfield, Mitchell made the most of his opportunities and played an important role in getting the 49ers to the postseason. His 87.5 rush yards per game led all rookies and ranked fifth among all players. Not bad for a sixth-round draft pick.
2021 stats: 16 games | 203 att | 918 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 8 rush TD | 28 rec | 213 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 3 fumbles
Gordon played well all year long for the Broncos, capping his season with a 110-yard rushing performance against the Chiefs. A free agent in March, Gordon should have no problem landing a new contract — whether in Denver or somewhere else.
2021 stats: 17 games | 203 att | 903 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 4 rush TD | 43 rec | 316 rec yds | 3 rec TDs | 2 fumbles
Williams had himself a fine rookie campaign as part of Denver’s 1-2 backfield punch, ranking 13th in the NFL in rush yards. His production in both the run and pass games is something to build on as the Broncos head into a new era.
2021 stats: 8 games | 219 att | 937 rush yds | 4.3 ypc | 10 rush TD | 18 rec | 154 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 1 fumble
I can’t not put Henry in my end-of-the-season rankings. He ranked ninth in the league in rush yards and tied for sixth in rush TDs despite missing the Titans’ last nine games due to a foot injury. He was on a historic pace that would’ve put his 2020 performance, in which he rushed for 2,027 yards and 17 TDs, to shame. Man, what could have been … The good news is he appears set to rejoin the top-seeded Titans in the Divisional Round.
DROPPED OUT: Sony Michel, Rams (previously No. 8); Aaron Jones, Packers (No. 9); Josh Jacobs, Raiders (No. 12); Rashaad Penny, Seahawks (No. 13).
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