Stars dot the depth chart at running back across the AFC North, with names like Nick Chubb, J.K. Dobbins, and now Najee Harris leading the way in the division, which is known for its old-school, smash mouth, ground-and-pound style of football that’s made it so competitive over the years.
Now that we move deeper into the off-season, I’m getting full-swing into my off-season series, starting with the Ranking the Rooms, where I take a deep dive into each position group for all four teams in the division and rank them from best to worst.
Today, I’ll take a look at the running back rooms across the division. Previously, I took a look at the AFC North QBs, grading them best to worst ahead of the 2021 season.
Let’s get started.
1. Cleveland Browns
For the third straight season, I have the Cleveland Browns and the duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt holding down the top billing here in the AFC North.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Chubb is the best pure running back in football, bar none. He’s so smooth in space, runs with a ton of power and has great vision. He fits exactly what the Browns want to be offensively, and we saw what he could do last season down the stretch, powering the Browns into the divisional round of the playoffs.
Behind Chubb, Hunt is not a No. 2, he’s more of a 1A. Hunt adds a receiving element to the room, while still maintaining that powerful downhill style of rushing attack the Browns have built their offense around.
In the draft, the Browns added dynamic dual-threat running back Demetric Felton out of UCLA, giving Cleveland a legitimate mismatch weapon out of the backfield who is a great route runner and a dangerous player after the catch. Having him as a No. 3 in this system seems a bit unfair.
Add in names like D’Ernest Johnson — who played very well in spurts last season due to injuries — and John Kelly and it’s clear the Browns have tremendous depth in the running back room, giving them the top spot in the division.
2. Baltimore Ravens
Though they released Mark Ingram following the 2020 season, Baltimore still maintains a deep, talented running backs room led by J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, both of whom fit the Ravens’ downhill rushing attack perfectly.
Dobbins really emerged as the lead back last season, rushing for 805 yards and nine touchdowns on just 134 carries, adding another 18 receptions for 120 yards after taking over as the starter. He’s a bit of a bowling ball at the position, possessing good power, contact balance and vision, but he has some burst to his game as well, making him a strong RB1 for the Ravens.
With Edwards, he is a guy who really came on strong two years ago, battled through a crowded backfield to reclaim his role, and has really given the Ravens a power element between the tackles on an offense centered around speed. Edwards added 723 rushing yards and six scores last season on just 144 carries, giving the Ravens a dynamic duo in the backfield, outside of Lamar Jackson.
Behind Edwards and Dobbins, the loss of Ingram certainly hurts depth, but the Ravens aren’t lacking there, with a guy like Justice Hill expected to take the next step forward this year. Add in big, physical backs in rookie Nate McCray and second-year pro Ty’Son Williams and it’s clear what the Ravens want in their running backs.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
I jumped Pittsburgh one spot this season with the selection of Najee Harris in the first round.
After really lacking depth and explosiveness last season, the entire outlook of the Steelers’ backfield changes with a bonafide No. 1 running back in Harris, who could steal Offensive Rookie of the Year honors this season in Pittsburgh. He’s a true bell-cow running back who is big, physical and freakishly athletic. He’ll add a receiving element to the backfield once again after James Conner struggled with injuries the last two seasons.
Behind Harris, Benny Snell Jr. and Anthony McFarland will battle it out for the No. 2 job. Snell is not to be overlooked, having a 100-yard game under his belt and showed he can handle a decent workload the last two seasons in Pittsburgh. With an improved offensive scheme and an emphasis on re-establishing the run, the change could do wonders for Snell.
As for McFarland, he’s reunited with Matt Canada, who was his offensive coordinator at Maryland when he blew up on the scene as a true home-run threat. The game looked too fast for him last season, so I’m excited to see what Year 2 brings.
After that trio on the depth chart, names like Jaylen Samuels, Kalen Ballage and Trey Edmunds will battle it out for the fourth running back spot. I lean towards Ballage here as he’s a better runner than Samuels and provides some special teams value.
4. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals take a large fall from No. 2 last season to dead last this season, largely due to the decision to cut terrific No. 2 running back Giovani Bernard this off-season, allowing him to sign with Tampa Bay. I have previously written that I believe Bernard was the best No. 2 in the division and could have started for a handful of teams across the league.
Losing him, not only as a change of pace guy behind Joe Mixon, but as a security blanket in the check down game for Joe Burrow, is an ugly look.
Mixon is still a darn good running back, but he couldn’t stay healthy last season and saw his streak of back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons come to a crashing halt. He’ll need to prove he can stay healthy and regain his form.
Behind Mixon, it looks rather bleak. Samaje Perine is a decent power back, but he’s best in short-yardage roles, nothing more. Trayveon Williams flashed a bit of juice down the stretch last season, averaging six yards per carry, but he is still relatively unknown with just 26 career carries under his belt.
Jacques Patrick is built very similarly to Perine, and he’s making the leap to the NFL from the XFL, so counting on him seems to be a stretch.
However, the Bengals do have two intriguing rookies in Pooka Williams Jr. and Chris Evans, both of whom I liked coming out of college. Evans projects to be the perfect No. 2 behind Mixon moving forward, while Williams has the breakaway speed to be a complimentary piece.
They’re both massive projections right now though, so counting on them heavily in 2021 is a reach for me.
2020 AFC North RB rankings:
No. 1 – Cleveland Browns
No. 2 – Cincinnati Bengals
No. 3 – Baltimore Ravens
No. 4 – Pittsburgh Steelers