The NFL’s best running backs: We asked 50 execs, coaches and scouts to rank the top 10

  • ESPN staff writer
  • Previously a college football reporter for CBSSports.com
  • University of Florida graduate

Who’s the NFL’s best running back? Wide receiver? Cornerback? What about the second-best defensive tackle — after Aaron Donald? To preview the 2021 NFL season, we set out to answer those questions and much more.

We surveyed more than 50 league executives, coaches, scouts and players to help us stack the top 10 players at 11 different positions, from edge rushers to interior offensive linemen and all the way through tight ends. This is the second edition of these rankings, and several players moved up or dropped from last year’s lists.

Here’s how our process worked: Voters gave us their best 10 to 15 players at a position, then we compiled the results and ranked candidates based on number of top-10 votes, composite average, interviews, research and film-study help from ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen. We had several ties, so we broke them by isolating the two-man matchup with additional voting and follow-up calls. Each section is packed with quotes and nuggets from the voters on every guy — even the honorable mentions.

The objective is to identify the best players right now for 2021. This is not a five-year projection or an achievement award. Who’s the best today? Pretty simple.

We’ll roll out a position per day over the next 11 days. Here’s the schedule:

  • Week 1: edge rushers (July 5), interior defensive line (July 6), off-ball linebackers (July 7), cornerbacks (July 8), safeties (July 9), offensive tackles (July 10), interior offensive line (July 11)

  • Week 2: quarterbacks (July 12), running backs (July 13), wide receivers (July 14), tight ends (July 15)

Paying running backs is supposed to be a gamble. We’ve heard for years about the position’s short shelf life and cautionary tales of declining play after cashing out.

This year’s top-10 running back class defies that logic. Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook signed massive deals worth more than $180 million in total, and they rewarded that faith with stellar production in 2020. They surpassed 5,700 yards as a trio, along with 55 total touchdowns and a collective vault up this year’s rankings.

Meanwhile, last year’s top three battled injuries and production drop-offs, while talented backs out of Green Bay and Indianapolis stated their cases.

Here, league execs, coaches and players try to separate fact from fiction, resulting in a few surprises along the way. Let’s start with the No. 1 back:

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