At the midpoint of the 2021 regular season. several running backs are stepping into bigger roles. Here are four guys I expect to break out over the next couple months:
Conner assumed a big role in the red zone for the Cardinals in the first half of the season, scoring a whopping 11 touchdowns (10 rushing), but playing behind Chase Edmonds limited his touches. Edmonds, who leads the team in scrimmage yards (641), is now out for multiple weeks with a high-ankle sprain. Consequently, Conner is about to be RB1 in the Cardinals' backfield, with Eno Benjamin as his backup. As the primary back after Edmonds' early exit last week, Conner posted a season-high 173 scrimmage yards and career-high three touchdowns in the win. Conner brings physicality and toughness to Kliff Kingsbury's offense and gives the unit balance, which will be key down the stretch and into the postseason. Expect Conner's numbers to jump off the page over the next month or two.
Dillon has already blown past his rookie production in rushes (76), rush yards (355), targets (16), receptions (14) and receiving yards (134), but he's still just scratching the surface. The Packers' big-bodied running back has been a force behind the offensive line over the last two games, averaging 5.2 yards per carry on 24 attempts. I've also been impressed with his pass-catching ability of late, showing he can operate as a three-down back in Matt LaFleur's system. But Dillon's impact will really be felt between the tackles as fall turns into winter in Green Bay, given his size (6-foot, 247 pounds) and bruising run style.
The Saints reacquired Ingram for a reason. They lack offensive weapons and need all the help they can get to boost sudden QB1 Trevor Siemian. With Ingram being a great locker room guy -- someone who has a long and storied history with the Saints -- the move made plenty of sense. Prior to being traded, Ingram averaged 3.2 yards per carry with the Houston Texans, but in just two games with the Saints, he's at 4.7 yards per carry on 15 totes. He fits like a glove into Sean Payton's offense, and I believe his attempts will increase moving forward to allow Alvin Kamara to be a greater asset in the passing game, an area that desperately needs help. The Saints sit at 5-3 and have the coaching and defense needed to make a postseason push. The offense must get better, and Ingram knows the system well.
The fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma was an off-and-on contributor for the Patriots in the first half of the season, with 35 carries for 136 yards and one TD in five games, also adding seven receptions for 97 yards. However, Stevenson is coming off his best performance of the season, with 106 scrimmage yards (including a season-high 62 rush yards) against the Carolina Panthers. Every strength was displayed in this outing: his elusiveness, physicality and great hands as a 6-foot, 227-pound running back. He's had double-digit carries in just two games this season, but I won't be surprised to see Josh McDaniels use him more down the stretch after the performance we saw in Week 9. And with the Patriots aiming to run the ball and play great defense -- in an effort to take pressure off rookie quarterback Mac Jones -- having a versatile player like Stevenson in the rotation is going to allow New England to move the chains and control the clock.
UPDATE: Patriots RBs Damien Harris (concussion) and Rhamondre Stevenson (concussion) are questionable to play Sunday against the Browns.
Top 15 running backs
Former NFL rushing leader and NFL Network analyst Maurice Jones-Drew will survey all running backs and rank his top 15 each week of the 2021 season. His rankings are based on this season's efforts alone. Here is MJD's list heading into Week 10.
NOTE: Arrows reflect changes from last week's rankings.
2021 stats: 9 games | 140 att | 821 rush yds | 5.9 ypc | 8 rush TD | 23 rec | 293 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 3 fumbles
Taylor is the first player not named Derrick Henry to hold the No. 1 spot my rankings since Week 14 of last season. With Henry on IR, someone had to claim the throne, and Taylor has earned it while helping Indy win three of its last four games. He's recorded six straight games with 100-plus scrimmage yards and at least one rush TD -- the first player since LaDainian Tomlinson (2006 MVP campaign) to do so in a season.
2021 stats: 7 games | 120 att | 721 rush yds | 6.0 ypc | 6 rush TD | 8 rec | 69 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 2 fumbles
Chubb ran the Browns to victory over the Bengals with 137 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries. His impact on his team's offense is second to none -- unfortunately, we might see this through his absence on Sunday, as Chubb tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday. Cleveland sure could use its No. 1 back against the Pats' stingy D.
UPDATE: Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said Friday that Nick Chubb (COVID-19) won't play Sunday against the Patriots.
2021 stats: 9 games | 150 att | 636 rush yds | 4.2 ypc | 7 rush TD | 22 rec | 194 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 1 fumble
The Bengals are in the midst of a much-needed bye week after two brutal losses. Mixon has scored five scrimmage TDs in the last three games, a pace he'll need to continue against a tough slew of upcoming opponents (at Raiders, vs. Steelers, vs. Chargers).
2021 stats: 8 games | 146 att | 530 rush yds | 3.6 ypc | 3 rush TD | 32 rec | 310 rec yds | 4 rec TDs | 0 fumbles
Kamara is having a pretty incredible campaign, but he's somehow flying under the radar. He's averaging 105 scrimmage yards per game, with a chance to match the mark this weekend against the Titans, who have allowed three RBs to gain 100 scrimmage yards in a game this season. With Trevor Siemian taking over for Jameis Winston, Kamara needs to completely take over games from an offensive standpoint.
UPDATE: The Saints have ruled out Alvin Kamara (knee) for Sunday's game against the Titans.
2021 stats: 8 games | 128 att | 622 rush yds | 4.9 ypc | 5 rush TDs | 23 rec | 153 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 0 fumbles
Zeke suffered a knee contusion in the Cowboys' loss to the Broncos and had a season-low 10 carries as a result. Having missed just one game in his career due to injury, Zeke and the rest of the Cowboys will be looking to erase memories of Week 9. Playing against Atlanta's defense is a good way to do that for No. 21, who has 323 scrimmage yards and two rushing TDs in two career games against the Falcons. I just hope he's healthy enough to be out there.
2021 stats: 6 games | 115 att | 554 rush yds | 4.8 ypc | 2 rush TD | 15 rec | 85 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 2 fumbles
Cook had a nice performance last week against the Ravens with 110 rushing yards, the reason he's ascending in the rankings. He said Wednesday that he expects to play against the Chargers on Sunday in his response to a recent lawsuit. If he is indeed on the field at SoFi Stadium, Cook will likely feast against a Bolts outfit that's allowing the most ground yards per game (161.6) this season.
2021 stats: 8 games | 150 att | 541 rush yds | 3.6 ypc | 4 rush TD | 40 rec | 289 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 0 fumbles
Tied for the fourth-most scrimmage yards among running backs heading into Week 10, Harris has given the Steelers' offense balance and helped control the clock, playing a major role in the team's four-game win streak. On pace for 404 touches this season, he's taken on a massive role as the centerpiece of Pittsburgh's attack in Year 1.
2021 stats: 9 games | 115 att | 454 rush yds | 3.9 ypc | 10 rush TD | 10 rec | 111 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 2 fumbles
Conner's unique in that he's listed in my top 10 and among my second-half breakout candidates, both of which can be true. When Conner was last healthy as the featured back, he was a dominant presence in Pittsburgh's backfield. We should expect the same in Arizona.
2021 stats: 9 games | 116 att | 516 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 3 rush TDs | 33 rec | 237 rec yds | 4 rec TD | 2 fumbles
I was surprised to see the Packers throw the ball 34 times with Jordan Love replacing Aaron Rodgers, as opposed to leaning on Jones (12 carries, 53 yards) and Dillon (eight carries, 46 yards) against the Chiefs, whose defense has been a liability all season long. Whether Rodgers is ready to play Sunday or not, Matt LaFleur needs to get his 18th-ranked rushing attack going early to help the rest of the offense.
2021 stats: 8 games | 121 att | 562 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 5 rush TD | 19 rec | 144 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 0 fumbles
Henderson missed some of last week's game with an ankle injury, but should be able to go in Monday night's divisional bout with San Francisco. He's hit 20 carries in a game just once this season, but his effectiveness (4.6 yards per carry) further validates Sean McVay's quality-or-quantity approach in regard to the run game.
2021 stats: 8 games | 101 att | 479 rush yds | 4.7 ypc | 5 rush TD | 36 rec | 325 rec yds | 3 rec TD | 2 fumbles
Ekeler has the fifth-most scrimmage yards (804) by a running back this season, and there's a good chance he moves up the list this weekend against a porous Vikings defense that's allowing 136.6 rush yards per game (30th in the NFL) and 4.8 yards per carry (31st).
2021 stats: 8 games | 101 att | 439 rush yds | 4.3 ypc | 4 rush TD | 30 rec | 239 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumble
Fournette is a major benefactor of the Buccaneers' top-ranked passing offense, as he's having his best season in several years. The run game will become more crucial as it gets colder, so we can expect him to heat up down the stretch and beyond, just like he did last season.
2021 stats: 6 games | 73 att | 280 rush yds | 3.8 ypc | 5 rush TD | 18 rec | 129 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles
Jacobs has steadily improved over the last three games and posted his highest yards-per-carry mark (5.9) last week against the Giants. In Sunday's massive prime-time matchup with the Chiefs, the pressure will be on Jacobs and ground game to open up the field for a passing attack that struggled without field stretcher Henry Ruggs III, who was released by the team prior to Week 9 following his arrest on a charge of DUI resulting in death. Jacobs has yet to have a 100-yard rushing performance this season, but that could change Sunday night.
2021 stats: 9 games | 133 att | 547 rush yds | 4.1 ypc | 7 rush TD | 11 rec | 63 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 2 fumbles
Although Rhamondre Stevenson may be working his way into the rotation, Harris isn't going anywhere anytime soon. He's had at least one rushing touchdown in each of the last five games, in which New England has gone 4-1. To add to his case, he ranks ninth in the league in rush yards and is tied for fourth in rush TDs.
UPDATE: Damien Harris (concussion) is questionable to play Sunday against the Browns.
2021 stats: 4 games | 66 att | 253 rush yds | 3.8 ypc | 1 rush TD | 20 rec | 217 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumble
McCaffrey recorded 106 scrimmage yards in his first game since Week 3. He's logged at least 100 scrimmage yards in all three of his full games this season. The Panthers are in the thick of the playoff race at 4-5 and have to feel good about McCaffrey being back on the field.