Another year, another absolutely loaded depth chart at the running back position across the AFC North. It’s remarkable.
Of the four projected starting running backs in the AFC North ahead of the 2022 season, three made the Pro Bowl in 2021, more than any other division in the NFL, those being Cleveland’s Nick Chubb, Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon, and Pittsburgh’s Najee Harris. That’s truly incredible. It’s a star-studded position in the AFC North, which made this year’s version of my Ranking the Rooms: AFC North RBs series rather hard to boil down.
There’s a clear-cut top choice for me, which remains relatively the same for the last four seasons, but after that it’s truly a toss up.
Let’s dive in.
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, which is a ground-and-pound offense. He’s an exceptional talent with the football in his hands and has really helped transform the Browns from a laughing stock into a team that is well-built on paper.
Behind Chubb, Kareem Hunt is a terrific backup in the league. He would be the starting running back in most situations, but not in Cleveland. He’s done well sharing the load with Chubb in recent seasons, though he was injured much of last year and didn’t produce as much. He’s a better pass-catching back than Chubb, which makes the pair an ideal combination.
D’Earnest Johnson emerged as a legitimate NFL running back last season while Chubb and Hunt were injured. He’s a powerful player with some surprising speed and fit in rather nicely in the Browns’ system. Having a guy like that at No. 3, at least for now, is absurd.
Rookie Jerome Ford steps into the fold this season, as does second-year player Demetric Felton, making for a rather deep, talented Browns’ running back room under head coach Kevin Stefanski. How it all gets sorted out for the 53-man roster is anyone’s guess, but there’s loads of talent on the shores of Lake Erie at the running back position for the Browns.
2. CINCINNATI BENGALS
Joe Mixon has quietly been a star since stepping into the NFL, and in 2021 he put it all together, rushing for a career-high 1,205 yards and 13 touchdowns, helping the Bengals reach the Super Bowl.
He, like Chubb in Cleveland, is an awesome combination of power and speed, packing serious punch coming downhill while still having the elusiveness to leave defenders grasping at air in space. He’s the perfect compliment to the Bengals’ high-flying passing attack, being a downhill runner that can pound it between the tackles and wear teams out.
Veteran Samaje Perine backs up Mixon and is coming off of a second straight strong season in Cincinnati in which he recorded a career-high in catches with 27 out of the backfield. He’s an impressive combination of speed and power as well, but the Bengals tend to ride Mixon heavily, which leaves little breadcrumbs for Perine. He takes advantage though, averaging more than 4.5 yards per attempt each of the last two seasons with the Bengals.
Second-year pro Chris Evans profiles as the No. 3 in Cincinnati, and he’s a bit like former running back Giovani Bernard. Evans is a great receiver out of the backfield who is also strong as an ox, able to withstand punishment between the tackles should he be asked to handle that role. Evans hauled in two receiving touchdowns out of the backfield last season and should be in line for more work.
Veterans Trayvon Williams and Elijah Holyfield will compete for the No. 4/practice squad role in Cincinnati. Williams has 47 career touches in the NFL.
3. BALTIMORE RAVENS
J.K. Dobbins missed the entire 2021 season due to a torn ACL suffered late in the preseason, resulting in the Ravens attempting to patchwork the position behind Lamar Jackson in the backfield. Dobbins’ return is a major boost to Baltimore though as the former Ohio State star rushed for 805 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie, averaging six yards per carry.
Along with the return of Dobbins, the Ravens also added veteran running back Mike Davis in free agency, bringing in a veteran running back who has gotten better as he’s aged, rushing for more than 500 yards in three of his last five seasons in the NFL. Davis joins the likes of Gus Edwards, Justice Hill and rookie Tyler Badie in the Ravens’ running back room, which is again exceptionally deep.
Edwards also missed the entire 2021 season due to a knee injury, so his return is a significant boost as well, considering he’s rushed for at least 700 years in each of his three seasons in the NFL. He brings a significant downhill presence to the Ravens’ rushing attack. Badie and Hill profile as the homerun threats, though Hill could be on the outs quickly based on the moves the Ravens made at the position this offseason.
4. PITTSBURGH STEELERS
Najee Harris is the second-best running back individually in the division, at least in my opinion, but the Steelers’ ranking here has more to do with the significant lack of depth behind him than it does the talent of Harris.
Harris was truly incredible as a rookie in 2021, rushing for 1,200 yards behind the worst offensive line in football while battling against stacked boxes due to the lack of a deep passing attack in Pittsburgh. Somehow, he still found a way and forced more missed tackles on runs and catches than any back in football by a wide margin.
He’s a special player. The Steelers need to get him some help.
Unfortunately, that help isn’t behind him at the moment. Benny Snell Jr. is the backup running back as of now. He’s a strong special teams player, but he provides nothing offensively as a No. 2 running back. Anthony McFarland profiles as the ideal compliment to Harris with his speed and game-breaking ability, but he wasn’t able to stay healthy in 2021 and has shown very little when on the field.
Trey Edmunds is a solid special teams player as well and showed at times in 2020 that he could handle some work in the backfield, but that’s a less than ideal option behind Harris due to his plodding style overall. Rookie undrafted free agents Mataeo Durant and Jaylen Warren offer the most intrigue behind McFarland at the moment, and that’s saying all that needs to be said.
I fully expect the Steelers to make a move for a veteran running back this summer, likely late in camp as rosters get trimmed to 53 players.
2021 AFC North RB rankings:
No. 1 – Cleveland Browns
No. 2 – Baltimore Ravens
No. 3 – Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 4 – Cincinnati Bengals