The modern NFL backfield looks a lot different than it did even 10 years ago. The prevalence of running backs by committee approaches has made depth at the position crucial.
In 2012, there were 10 running backs who had at least 275 carries. In 2022, only four eclipsed the mark Najee Harris was close to with 272.
There are still a few genuine featured backs left. Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs and Derrick Henry certainly fit the bill last season. But it’s even scarier for a defense when there are two backs who can carry the load and pose different problems for the defense.
Here, we’ll take a crack at power ranking the best duos in the league right now based on past production, talent level, how their skills work together and what the expectations are for 2023.
With so many teams going for a multi-pronged approach in the backfield, there are some strong duos that didn’t make the list but deserve some of the spotlight. These pairings just missed the cut for one reason or another.
Baltimore Ravens: JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards
Dobbins has looked great when he’s been on the field, averaging 6.0 yards per carry. carry as a rookie and 5.7 in his sophomore season. The problem is that he has only played in 23 of a possible 34 regular season games. Edwards is a strong runner, but neither has been used much in the passing game.
Philadelphia Eagles: Rashaad Penny and D’Andre Swift
The Eagles really rolled the dice and put Penny and Swift together this offseason. Penny has shown he can be electric when healthy, but he has never made it through a season healthy. Swift has been productive as a pass-catching back, but took a backseat to Jamaal Williams last season, and both are in their first season playing together on a new team.
Kansas City Chiefs: Isiah Pacheco and Jerick McKinnon
Pacheco and McKinnon have clearly defined roles, which is nice. Pacheco was the primary runner last season, while McKinnon was an excellent third-down back and receiving option. The overall production wasn’t quite there, and it’s hard to separate their success from the ideal situation.
Los Angeles Chargers: Austin Ekeler and Joshua Kelley
Ekeler is one of the most unique and dynamic running back talents in the league. Joshua Kelley is fine as the more traditional runner that gives Ekeler a break, but there isn’t enough of a rotation to really consider them a dangerous duo. The same logic applies to other backfields with a heavily featured runner like the Titans, Raiders and Giants.
The Lions running back duo of Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift combined for 2,070 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. Still, they liked who they brought in this offseason enough to let Williams walk and trade away Swift.
David Montgomery is the skilled veteran back in the new duo. He’s only rushed for over 1,000 yards once, but he’s a reliable pass-catching option with 155 career receptions in four seasons and 1,240 yards.
Montgomery’s rushing numbers could improve behind the Lions’ offensive line. He was ninth in juke rate, but only 50th in run block rating with Player Profiles. Essentially, Montgomery forced defenders to miss, but the blocking in front of him was uninspiring.
The wild card in this pairing is Gibbs. It was shocking to see the Lions take Gibbs with the 12th overall pick, but it speaks to the talent the Lions saw in his film from Georgia Tech and Alabama.
Montgomery provides a solid floor, but Gibbs is the ceiling. He was a talented receiver as well as runner in college, and the team has “made it a point to move him all over the place,” per Colton Pouncy by The Athletic.
If Gibbs is anywhere near as good as advertised, and Montgomery is used to vacating the rookie role while keeping him healthy, then this pairing could be even better than Williams and Swift were last season.
The Seahawks certainly have one of the youngest running back duos in the league, but it’s also one of the more promising.
It starts with Kenneth Walker III, who was good enough to finish second in Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2022.
According to Next generation statistics metrics, there wasn’t a more explosive running back in the league last season than Walker. He hit more than 15 miles per hour on 25 percent of his runs and 29 runs of more than 10 yards.
Despite Walker’s success in his rookie season, the Seahawks made another serious investment at the running back position by taking Zach Charbonnet in the second round.
Charbonnet was praised by Derrik Klassen for his “elite balance and coordination” in his scouting report for B/R. But he should really thrive as a pass-catching element in their backfield.
Walker was okay as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, but Charbonnet has shown a natural inclination to receive production. He had 61 catches for 518 yards over his final two college seasons.
Walker and Charbonnet don’t have the proven production of some of the other backfields on the roster, but there’s plenty of reason to believe they’ll finish the season ranked higher.
Alvin Kamara may be approaching the age where you start to worry about a running back, but that didn’t stop him from gaining 1,387 total yards from scrimmage last season.
The soon-to-be 28-year-old is still a good pass catcher who will be a good friend to Derek Carr this season. The quarterback has already been impressed by his teammate “not normal” route running in practice.
Kamara can still make defenders miss and get more than what is blocked. He was ninth in the league in Player Profilers “yards created” metric, which attempts to quantify how many yards the running back gained over what was blocked.
Kamara always needed a thumper to partner with who could earn the hard yards between the tackles. Last year that responsibility was a combination of Taysom Hill and Mark Ingram.
The Saints got a big upgrade in Jamaal Williams.
The 6’0″, 224-pound Williams is coming off a career year in Detroit. He had over 1,000 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns. He’s going to provide more than enough firepower to give them a strong two-headed monster and should be able to take over if Kamara ends up with a personal conduct suspension following an offseason assault arrest.
Consider this a payoff on the Bijan Robinson hype.
Last season, Tyler Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson were one of the most productive running back duos in the league. The two combined for 1,991 yards and 12 total touchdowns. Arthur Smith knows how to scheme the running game and has been instrumental in helping Cordarrelle Patterson transition from receiver and kick returner to running back.
Now he will have a true blue-chip prospect in Robinson to work with.
Patterson will likely take a step back in terms of volume, but he has been effusive in his praise for Robinson. He told recently Josh Kendall from The Athletic, “there isn’t a spot he can’t play on this field.”
Robinson’s receiving skills and dynamic ability in the open field will make him a fun watch on Sundays. It also means there is room for him to thrive while still keeping Tyler Allgeier involved.
The 2022 fifth-round pick averaged 4.9 yards per carry. carry while totaling just over 1,000 rushing yards last season.
The Falcons will once again have one of the best rushing attacks in the league next season. If Robinson is able to live up to the hype, this offense will be as dangerous as the combination of Robinson and Allgeier allows them to be.
The pairing of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt has been one of the best duos in the league since the Browns brought the two together in 2019.
Chubb does a lot of the heavy lifting. He remains one of the league’s most productive backs and had the most carries of 10 or more yards while hitting at least 15 miles per hour on 50 runs last year, per Next generation statistics.
For all his success, the Browns still relied on a rotation with Hunt. Chubb was 15th in opportunity share, per Player Profiles.
Hunt’s apparent departure leaves room for a new sidekick to emerge. The 27-year-old running back remains unsigned, but the Browns appear content to bring in second-year player Jerome Ford to fill the role.
Ford was only really used as a return man last season, but running backs coach Stump MItchell recently told reporters that he has the ability to “allow him to do anything and everything.”
There is some projection involved, but the Browns apparently believe Ford is good enough that they didn’t need to draft another running back or sign one despite plenty of good options available this offseason.
Christian McCaffrey was a key element of the 49ers’ offensive turnaround last season. Before trading McCaffrey, they were 20th in the league in scoring with 20.7 points per
They finished the season in sixth place with 26.5 points per game. match.
While the value of a running back can be disputed, McCaffrey is proof that there are still backs who can move the needle on their own. The scary thing is that the Niners didn’t get many opportunities to see what their offense looks like with McCaffrey and a healthy Elijah Mitchell.
Mitchell proved his worth as a rookie in 2021, rushing for 963 yards on 207 carries in 11 games.
Last season, Mitchell dealt with several knee injuries that had him in and out of the lineup. In all, he played in five games and still managed to average 6.2 yards per carry.
A healthy Mitchell should allow head coach Kyle Shanahan to get creative in McCaffrey’s role. Last year he played 124 shots as receiver. If Mitchell can take on more of the traditional running assignments between the tackles, Shanahan can move the CMC all over the formation and force defenses to identify where he is.
The combination becomes one of the most stressful pairings for defenses to defend.
The Green Bay Packers may have some questions with Jordan Love and the quarterback position heading into 2023. There is no question about the backfield they will have to support their young quarterback.
Even with Aaron Rodgers struggling to return to MVP form and the Packers lacking firepower in their receiving corps, the duo of Jones and Dillon were still constant threats against the defense.
Jones (1,516) and Dillon (976) combined for 2,492 yards from scrimmage last season. Jones’ receiving ability was particularly important. He caught 59 of his 72 targets for 395 yards and five touchdowns.
Dillon’s hard-charging running style gives them punch in close-range and goal-line situations. He had seven touchdowns on the ground.
As the Packers look to move their offense away from Rodgers, it becomes even more important that they can lean on their two backs. The fact that they have two well-rounded backs who could be the featured player on other teams gives them a leg up on switching offense.
The two veterans will be crucial for the Packers, who are battling in the NFC North this season.