The 2021 season is finally at hand for the Minnesota Vikings as training camp will begin in earnest July 28, and the coaching staff will see a team that has significantly more ability than the one that closed the previous year.
The return of Danielle Hunter is probably the biggest improvement, because he is a game-changing pass rusher – something the team missed in a big way because of Hunter’s absence due to a herniated disc. The defense was putrid last year and could not stop the run or get to the quarterback. The additions of defensive tackles Dalvin Tomlinson and Michael Pierce along with cornerback Patrick Peterson could help turn the team’s defensive fortunes around.
While inconsistency has been one of the team’s most egregious problems the last two years, that has not been the case at the running back position. Dalvin Cook has given the Vikings a remarkably productive and explosive running game. When the Vikings decide to run the football, they are clearly one of the best teams in the league in that area. The Tennessee Titans may have a slight advantage with power back Derrick Henry, but the other 30 teams in the league are all looking up at the Minnesota running game.
In this piece, we look at the five best running backs in the league, and what each one of those backs means to their teams.
1. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans – The 27-year-old power back gets better every season, and he is a battering ram of a runner who has dominated the way few have in his NFL career. The 6-3, 247-pound Henry can find the hole and accelerate, but the key to his game is the ability to lower his shoulder and drive tacklers backwards. He also has one of the greatest stiff-arm moves in the history of the NFL.
Henry announced his presence as a game-changing factor in 2018 when he rushed for 1,059 yards and 12 touchdowns while averaging 4.9 yards per carry. That was a confidence-building season for Henry who followed up with 1,540 yards, 16 rushing touchdowns and 5.1 yards per carry. That was enough to drive Henry up to the top of the RB rankings, but it wasn’t enough for him.
He had one of the greatest seasons for any running back last year as he rushed for 2,027 yards and 17 touchdowns with an eye-catching 5.4 yards per carry. While Henry’s power and ferocity are two of his most notable assets, he can also pick up huge chunks of yardage once he gets into the clear. As long as Henry is healthy, the Titans will remain a contender or favorite in the AFC South.
2. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings – Cook will turn 26-years-old early in training camp, and he should be approaching the best seasons of his career as he prepares for his 2021 performance.
Cook begins his fifth NFL season and he is coming off back-to-back sensational years. He rushed for 1,135 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2019 and he also contributed 53 receptions for 519 yards. Cook followed up with 1,557 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns in 2020 with 44 catches for 361 yards and a touchdown.
The versatility as a runner and receiver is nearly as notable as his big-play ability. He has had runs of 70 yards or more in each of the past three seasons, and he also had a 50-yard reception. Cook has the kind of brilliant make-you-miss moves to threaten the defense on nearly every play, and he is the Vikings’ best and most consistent offensive asset.
3. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns – Chubb is one of the primary reasons the Browns have progressed so significantly in the last two seasons. The 5-11, 227-pound Chubb is one of the most instinctive runners in the league.
The former Georgia Bulldog ran for 1,494 yards and eight touchdowns in 2019 and he followed up with 1,067 yards and 12 touchdowns last year. Once Chubb gets the ball in his hands, he is one of the biggest threats in the league. In addition to running away from tacklers, he is one of the best after contact.
He only caught 16 passes last season, and the Browns would like to see more from him in that area. However, he takes the heat off of quarterback Baker Mayfield, and he is a game-changing presence for the Browns.
4. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers – Few running backs in recent years have been as versatile as McCaffrey, who excels as a running back and a receiver. McCaffrey has the quickness to break into the open and the long speed to make big plays out of the backfield. He also has sensational moves as a receiver and perhaps the most dependable hands in the league when it comes to catching the ball out of the backfield.
McCaffrey played just three games in 2020 due to a high ankle sprain early in the season and a shoulder injury later on. He rushed for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2019, and he also added 116 receptions for 1,005 yards and four touchdowns in 2019.
If McCaffrey can stay healthy in 2021, he should be able to come close to matching those numbers and the Panthers will become a far more dangerous team.
5. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants – Observers could raise an eyebrow over the placement of Barkley over Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints, but the fourth-year running back should come back with a huge season.
Barkley rushed for 1,307 and 1,003 yards in his first two seasons, but he tore his ACL last year and played just two games.
Barkley and the Giants have kept a relatively low profile as he rehabs from his injury, and he will not go back into action until he is 100 percent. Once that happens, the belief here is that Barkley will be among the best running backs in the league and will give the Giants a game-changing presence out of the backfield.