2019 NFL season: Todd Gurley leads top 10 running backs
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NFL Network’s "Top 100 Players of 2019" airs daily at 9 p.m. ET over the next two weeks, unveiling a new set of 10 honorees in each installment. In Episode 4, two running backs will be revealed between Nos. 61-70. Ahead of the episode, NFL Network analyst and Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson provides his own ranking of the top 10 running backs heading into the 2019 regular season.
I know folks tend to dwell on how Gurley’s 2018 campaign ended, but let’s not forget that he was in the MVP conversation for a majority of the season. Gurley had a league-high 21 touchdowns and didn’t even play in the final two games of the regular season due to a knee injury, which also hindered him significantly in the postseason. Gurley’s trainer, Travelle Gaines, said last month that the All-Pro back has an "arthritic component to his knee," and there have been concerns about whether Gurley, who didn’t participate in team drills during offseason workouts this spring, will be 100 percent come Week 1. Plus, as Gurley’s worked to shed weight to lessen the load on his knee, there are questions about whether he’ll still be a bell cow for the Rams’ offense. However, head coach Sean McVay recently said Gurley is " ready to go," and that is why he’s No. 1 on my list. When healthy, Gurley is the best all-around running back in the NFL, and his dynamic play will allow him to be effective no matter his touch count in 2019. He’s a physical dual-threat with breakaway speed — the kind of running back most teams desire to have and all teams loathe to play.
A bright spot for the Giants, Barkley strung together an amazing rookie campaign to take home the Offensive Rookie of the Year award last February. He led the league in scrimmage yards (2,028) and his 91 receptions were the most for any rookie running back in NFL history. If Barkley can do all of this behind a porous offensive line against loaded boxes, just imagine what he’s capable of with a middle-of-the-road or above-average front blocking for him. I can say with full confidence that this kid will become an all-time great.
Zeke has been every bit the star we all expected when he was drafted fourth overall in 2016. Earning two league rushing titles (2016, 2018) and leading the NFL in rush yards per game in each of his first three seasons, his production alone proves his value in Dallas. He led the NFL with a career-high 381 touches last season, and 2019 should be no different for the powerful workhorse (assuming his absence from the team flight to training camp on Thursday isn’t a precursor to a contract holdout that lingers into the season). According to NFL Research, if Zeke gets the ball as much or more in 2019, he’ll become the first RB with consecutive seasons of 380-plus touches since yours truly (six straight seasons) and Tiki Barber (two), with both streaks ending in 2006. Barring a prolonged contract dispute, I’m confident he will join us by season’s end, but I hope more of those touches will come in the passing game. With a career-high 77 receptions for 567 yards a year ago, Zeke has proven he’s a great pass catcher, too. He does it all.
Kamara showed last season during Mark Ingram’s four-game suspension that he has the goods to carry the load, averaging an NFL-best 152.8 scrimmage yards per game in that span. Still effective after Ingram’s return with 89.2 scrimmage yards per game, Kamara now gets his opportunity to be the guy for an entire season with Ingram signing this offseason with the Ravens. Yes, the Saints signed Latavius Murray, but I don’t think we’ll see him get the kind of workload that Ingram did. Kamara’s through-the-roof potential as an RB1, especially over a 16-game slate, locks him in at No. 4 on my list.
I have watched Gordon realize his potential at the game’s highest level, steadily improving over the last four seasons. He’s proven not only to be a reliable, physical three-down back for the Chargers but a home-run hitter from anywhere on the field, as well. Whether we’ll see Gordon on the field this season remains a question, though, as he did not report to Chargers training camp on Wednesday, following through on his threat to hold out until he and the team can reach a new contract agreement. If Gordon is on the field and healthy this season, he should have no problem maintaining his place among the best in the league at the position.
McCaffrey was supreme for the Panthers in his second season, as he led the team in many offensive categories — carries, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, to name a few. His value in the run and pass games is easy to see, as he repeatedly delivered positive plays. McCaffrey is one of just two players (the Texans’ DeAndre Hopkins is the other) to post 80 or more receptions with zero drops in a season since at least 2007, per Pro Football Focus. The Panthers’ RB1 is no doubt a phenomenal player and has a strong case to make for inclusion in the top five on this list.
Bell averaged more scrimmage yards per game (129) in his first five NFL seasons than any player in NFL history (minimum 50 games played). Now, Bell hasn’t seen game action since January 2018 after sitting out last season during his contract dispute with the Steelers, and he’s playing in a new offense with Gang Green. Would I be surprised if Bell doesn’t skip a beat and tears it up in Week 1 against the Bills? Not at all. Yes, there’s some uncertainty about how quickly he can get back into the groove after so much time off, but I don’t question his ability to get it done on the field.
Johnson was first-team All-Pro in 2016, but he hasn’t been able to recapture that form. After missing all but one game in 2017 due to a wrist injury and struggling while not getting much help from the rest of the offense in 2018, a year in which the team fired its offensive coordinator at midseason, Johnson should be thrilled about the franchise’s offseason makeover. New head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense should allow Johnson to thrive as a dynamic weapon out of the backfield. I expect him to excel as a runner between the tackles considering Kingsbury’s scheme won’t often allow defenses to load the box.
Mixon is another guy who can do everything, but he didn’t quite get his due in 2018 because his injury-riddled team floundered down the stretch. Mixon finished his sophomore campaign fourth in the league with 1,168 rushing yards. He’s a player first-year head coach Zac Taylor should lean on considering last year’s Bengals were 4-1 in games in which Mixon had at least 10 first-half carries and 1-8 in games when Mixon had nine or few carries before halftime.
Hunt’s off-field actions have gotten him into trouble, but my assignment here is to strictly judge on-field performance. There’s no denying Hunt was one of the best running backs in the league before being released by the Chiefs 11 games into the 2018 season, having already logged 1,202 scrimmage yards and 14 total touchdowns a year after leading the league in rushing. Now Hunt is a Cleveland Brown and has been suspended for the first eight games of the season for violating the NFL personal-conduct policy (Kansas City released Hunt after video surfaced of him shoving and kicking a woman during a February 2018 incident at a Cleveland hotel). With his return scheduled for Nov. 10 against the Bills, I realize Hunt won’t see anywhere near the touches others running backs will in 2019 — plus, he’ll likely split carries with Nick Chubb upon his return — but his dynamic on-field ability and durability will make him an asset late in the year. A fresh, uber-talented Hunt could be what gives this team an edge down the stretch.
Follow LaDainian Tomlinson on Twitter @LT_21.
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