Once again, the running back depth charts in the AFC North are rather loaded.
While a trio of starters at the running back position in Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon, Pittsburgh’s Najee Harris and Baltimore’s J.K. Dobbins all dealt with injuries last season, all three project to be 1,000-yard rushers in 2023 once again, joining arguably the best running back in football in Nick Chubb in absolutely stacked running back rooms within the division.
That said, there’s a clear-cut top choice for me, which has remained relatively the same for the last five seasons. After that though, it’s truly a toss up.
Let’s dive in.
1. CLEVELAND BROWNS
Make it four years in a row holding down the top spot in my Ranking the Rooms: AFC North RBs series for the Cleveland Browns.
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 laughingstock into a team that is well-built on paper.
Chubb rushed for a career-high 1,525 yards and 12 touchdowns last season on 302 carries, dominating week after week. He’s a remarkable talent, one that is very fun to watch week after week.
Behind him, the Browns shook up the depth chart a bit, letting veteran backup Kareem Hunt hit free agency. That move has thrown the depth for a bit of a loop in Cleveland, but it’s something the Browns have been preparing for, thanks to the selection of Jerome Ford in the 2022 NFL Draft. Ford slots in nicely behind Chubb as a solid 1-2 punch. He has great speed and power and should be able to alleviate the wear and tear on Chubb in 2023.
Veteran John Kelly Jr. returns as well and could give the Browns some snaps at the running back position in their physical rushing attack, while running back/wide receiver hybrid Demetric Felton is an intriguing dual-threat offensive piece for Cleveland. It all starts with Chubb though. As he goes, so go the Browns.
2. PITTSBURGH STEELERS
This is a massive jump for the Steelers, going from No. 4 last season to No. 2 this season. It might be a bit of a head scratcher, but the way the Steelers played down the stretch in the second half of 2022 and ran the football at will on teams with Najee Harris and dynamic undrafted free agent Jaylen Warren was rather impressive.
Harris recorded his second-straight 1,000-yard season and has a chance to do something only a handful of greats have done in their careers: rush for 1,000 yards in three straights seasons to open up their careers. He’s going to be a workhorse again, and with an improved offensive line and no longer dealing with a LisFranc injury that slowed him early last season, Harris could be in store for his best season yet.
Warren really boosts the Steelers here. Last year, Pittsburgh ranked No. 4 in the series due to the lack of depth behind Harris. While the depth still isn’t all that great, Warren is the clear-cut No. 2, and a good one at that. A physical blocker, powerful, explosive runner and a dynamic weapon in the passing game out of the backfield, Warren was a major surprise in 2022. Hopefully he can keep it up this season.
Behind Harris and Warren, the Steelers will see who out of Master Teague III, Anthony McFarland Jr., Jason Huntley and UDFA Alfonzo Graham can grab the No. 3 role.
3. CINCINNATI BENGALS
Mixon has been a star since stepping into the NFL, but in 2022 he had his first real down season — by his standards. He rushed for just 814 yards and seven touchdowns on 210 carries, missing three games for Cincinnati.
That said, at just 26 years old, there’s still a lot of tread left on those tires. 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 complement to the Bengals’ high-flying passing attack, being a downhill runner who can pound it between the tackles and wear teams down.
The issue here is the significant loss of depth with the departure of veteran Samaje Perine to Denver, dealing a big blow to the Bengals. Cincinnati tried to address the issue by drafting Illinois’ Chase Brown in the 2023 NFL Draft, and also hopes that third-year backup Chris Evans steps up into a bigger role this season.
Brown is a good complement to Mixon, profiling as that true home run threat with the football in his heads. He was one of the fastest backs in the draft class and also has the strength to pound the rock between the tackles throughout games. Evans is very much like former Bengals running back Giovani Bernard. He is a good 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.
Behind Brown and Evans, the Bengals will see what they have in veteran Trayveon Williams, who remains an intriguing weapon but can’t stay healthy. Cincinnati also has two undrafted rookie free agents in Calvin Tyler Jr. out of Utah State and Jacob Saylors out of East Tennessee State to get a look at.
4. BALTIMORE RAVENS
This ranking has the chance to look the silliest when it’s all said and done in 2022.
J.K. Dobbins returned from multiple knee injuries last season and showed some flashes, but he seems to have lost that long speed he had coming out of Ohio State, which is very, very concerning for the Ravens moving forward.
In his return to the lineup, Dobbins played in eight games last season, rushing for 520 yards and two touchdowns on 92 carries. He should be closer to 100 percent this season but that’s still a lot of projecting moving forward.
Then there’s Gus Edwards, who dealt with injuries all last season as well and appears to be on the downside of his career. Edwards played in just nine games, rushing for 433 yards and three touchdowns on 87 carries. On paper, the duo of Dobbins and Edwards looks strong, but there are too many questions about health moving forward with the two to have the Ravens anywhere else but last right now.
Behind Edwards and Dobbins, the Ravens have some sound depth on paper with fifth-year running back Justice Hill, who had his best season in 2022. He is a strong special teams player but got some work offensively last season and took advantage of it. Behind Hill the Ravens also did a nice job adding undrafted free agent running back Keaton Mitchell out of East Carolina, who is a serious speedster with the football in his hands.
2022 AFC North RB rankings:
No. 1 – Cleveland Browns
No. 2 – Cincinnati Bengals
No. 3 – Baltimore Ravens
No. 4 – Pittsburgh Steelers