Quarterbacks soak up most of the salary cap in the NFL due to their importance to winning Super Bowls. Running backs have seen their opportunities to earn extra money decline as the league has moved to more of a passing league. Running backs typically have short careers and have to make money when they can.
This season has seen the running backs with the most potential form a support group of sorts. However, just because the league doesn’t want to pay the top running backs big money doesn’t mean there aren’t a few top running backs currently in the NFL.
Most of the top runners are still on their rookie deals, and here’s a look at the top five.
5. Christian McCaffrey, San Francisco 49ers
The Stanford product looked at home with the 49ers after being dealt to the West Coast from the Carolina Panthers in the middle of last season. Playing under 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan will likely see McCaffrey appropriately utilized. Last season, McCaffrey piled up 1,139 rushing yards and eight touchdowns between both teams.
McCaffrey also caught 85 passes last season. The major concern for McCaffrey will be his injury history as he gets older. Prior to last season, McCaffrey had missed significant portions of the previous two seasons. While McCaffrey may never have another season where he has 1,000 rushing and receiving yards, he should be better utilized in San Francisco.
The 49ers’ biggest challenge for creating room for McCaffrey may be what they end up doing at quarterback. Former first-round pick Trey Lance returns but has been injury prone and is largely unknown. Second-year quarterback Brock Purdy was successful last season, but he isn’t a sure thing.
4. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
Barkley recently signed the franchise tag with the Giants. He isn’t happy about not being able to earn a long-term deal like New York’s quarterback, Daniel Jones, did. It is unlikely the money situation should affect Barkley’s play.
There is a lot of excitement for the Giants this season. In an extremely difficult NFC East division last season, New York was able to finish in third place and make the NFC playoffs. The Giants’ success didn’t stop there as they upset Minnesota in the Wild Card round before bowing out to eventual NFC champion Philadelphia.
Barkley still has a lot to prove this season and could find more money in free agency if he can have another strong season like last year. Giants coach Brian Daboll was able to resurrect the team’s offense. Last season, Barley rushed for a career-high 1,312 yards and scored 10 times.
Barkley was able to showcase his durability by carrying the ball a career-high 295 times. While injuries are always a concern for Barkley, he is likely to earn the fourth 1,000-yard season of his career.
3. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
A tough quarterback situation didn’t impact Derrick Henry’s production. Henry averaged 4.4 yards per carry and finished the season with 1,538 yards and 13 touchdowns. It was a nice bounceback season for Henry, who was limited to playing in eight games during the previous season due to injury.
Henry is now 29 and may start to decline due to his age and workload. He has carried the ball 300 or more times during four of the past five seasons. Henry seems to be built like a power back of yesteryear and may still have a few years of tread left on the tires. Tennessee’s offense will need Henry to play well to make the playoffs.
The Titans did make some moves in the offseason to try and take the pressure off of Henry. While Tennessee will try to stick it out with veteran quarterback Ryan Tannehill for another season, the Titans were able to lure free-agent wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to Nashville.
2. Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders
Jacobs hasn’t found much happiness in Sin City as of late. The Raiders running back won’t be attending training camp in late July due to a contract dispute. Jacobs has more than provided the Raiders with value and high performance on his rookie contract.
Jacobs, 25, has never rushed for fewer than 872 yards in any of his four seasons in the league. In 2022, Jacobs finished with a career-high 1,653 yards and scored 12 touchdowns. In three of his four seasons, Jacobs has rushed for more than 1,000 yards. He has been a steady presence for the tumultuous last few seasons for Las Vegas.
The Raiders’ last playoff appearance from two seasons ago was marred by the John Gruden scandal. Jacobs, however, has been steady throughout all of the chaos. This presents Las Vegas with a difficult situation.
The Raiders are breaking in a new quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo, and have a star wide receiver in Davante Adams. Las Vegas will want to work with Jacobs to get him back in camp. There are few players like him in the league.
1. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
The Browns aren’t a team that people can accuse of overworking their star tailback. There is a better case to be made that Cleveland has been negligent for not working with him more. Last year, Chubb carried the ball more than 300 times for the first time in his career.
Chubb has now put together four consecutive seasons of 1,000 rushing yards or more. For his career, Chubb has averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry. Chubb has also been effective at finding the endzone. Chubb has scored at least eight touchdowns in all five of his NFL seasons.
Most importantly, Chubb provides hope. Quarterback Deshaun Watson will get a full season under center for the Browns this season. If he can return to form, Cleveland should be able to challenge for the AFC North title.