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RB Index: Constructing the perfect NFL running back

It's once again time to construct the perfect running back. I did this exercise last year, and like last year, my editor forbade me from selecting myself (even though it's the obvious answer).

So, in looking at active players only, let's highlight all of the best traits from individual running backs and combine them to make the perfect player at the position.

The perfect running back would have ...

Derrick Henry
Tennessee Titans · Seven NFL seasons

... the size of Derrick Henry.

Henry is such a unique running back. Built like a linebacker (measuring 6-foot-3, 247 pounds), he's used his physicality to rack up 1,500-plus rushing yards in three of the last four seasons -- since 2019, he's averaged 109.9 rush yards per game. Henry routinely runs through defenders at the line of scrimmage and at the second level, evidenced by his 1,257 yards after contact this season, most in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. Henry's one of the few running backs to be at the forefront of his team's game plan (as he's been over the last half-decade) in this pass-happy league.

Kenneth Walker III
Seattle Seahawks · Rookie

... the speed of Kenneth Walker III.

Walker showed blazing speed at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2022, running a 4.38-second 40-yard dash. It became clear this wasn't a fluke when the rookie recorded the second-fastest speed as a ball-carrier this season, hitting 22.09 mph during a 74-yard, fourth-quarter sprint to the end zone in Seattle's 37-23 win over the Chargers in Week 7. In fact, he had four rushes in which he reached at least 20 mph this season. The fleet-footed Walker ran his way to second place in the Offensive Rookie of the Year voting -- a solid start to a promising career.

Najee Harris
Pittsburgh Steelers · Two NFL seasons

... the durability of Najee Harris.

I bent the rules in this category last season when I selected Frank Gore, who didn't play a single snap in 2021, for this spot. This year, I'm going with Harris, who hasn't missed a game in his two years in the NFL. Availability is the most important asset to a player's team, especially when that team is in light rebuilding mode.

Josh Jacobs
Las Vegas Raiders · Four NFL seasons

... the contact balance of Josh Jacobs.

I was thisclose to picking Nick Chubb to represent this trait for the second straight year, but Jacobs did more than enough in 2022 to supplant the Cleveland veteran. Jacobs racked up 1,156 yards after contact in 2022 (per PFF) on the way to being crowned the NFL's rushing champion with 1,653 yards. Jacobs regularly dragged defenders and churned his legs for extra yards, which should help result in a big payday in free agency.

Saquon Barkley
New York Giants · Five NFL seasons

... the vision of Saquon Barkley.

Barkley has terrific patience and feel for the Giants' offensive line, often making precise cuts behind the line of scrimmage before hitting the hole with exceptional burst. The two-time Pro Bowler's vision was essential to his career-best campaign in 2022, when he racked up 1,312 rush yards and 10 touchdowns on 295 carries. As much as people love the big explosive runs, the tough short-yardage plays where his vision turned a loss into a positive gain were some of the best on his highlight reel. 

Christian McCaffrey
San Francisco 49ers · Six NFL seasons

... the agility and elusiveness of Christian McCaffrey.

Watch any number of McCaffrey highlights from 2022 -- whether from his time with the Carolina Panthers or in San Francisco under Kyle Shanahan -- and you'll know why he's the standard when it comes to agility and elusiveness. He not only thrives as a player between the tackles but outside and as a pass catcher. There's nothing he can't do in the open field, which is why he amassed nearly 1,900 scrimmage yards in 2022. 

Austin Ekeler
Los Angeles Chargers · Six NFL seasons

... the hands of Austin Ekeler.

I'd be silly not to roll with Ekeler after he set a franchise record for receptions in a single season (107, surpassing Keenan Allen's mark of 106 in 2021). Ekeler is used in so many ways within the Chargers' offensive attack. As a pass-catching weapon, he provides Justin Herbert with a reliable target out of the backfield in checkdown situations or as a receiver in the slot or out wide. An undrafted free agent in 2017, Ekeler has developed into an elite, versatile playmaker who's just hitting his stride.

James Conner
Arizona Cardinals · Six NFL seasons

... the pass protection of James Conner.

Conner remains my pick for best pass-protecting running back. It's an extremely underrated part of the back's job and often goes unnoticed. In 2022, Conner received a pass-blocking grade of 73.8 from PFF, the third-highest by any running back in the regular season (min. 50 pass-blocking snaps). Tony Pollard and Samaje Perine had higher grades, but unlike Pollard (two sacks allowed), Conner didn't give up a single sack all season (four pressures allowed on 79 pass-rushing snaps), and unlike Perine (who shared snaps with Joe Mixon in Cincinnati), Conner led his team in rushing attempts.

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