Running back is such a temporary position in the NFL. Someone who is a star one year may suddenly become irrelevant the next. Any sort of success is fleeting. The names a top the rushing leaderboards are just a revolving door of starlet running backs.
Because of the nature of the position, ranking them year to year can be pretty hard. A player who may have been a star in 2018 might fall out of the national conversation entirely.
Today’s task, ranking the top five running backs in the NFC North, is tough as it is hard to guess where any of these players will be next year. We’re going to try to do just that anyways, though.
Just missed the list:
Tarik Cohen (Bears)
5. Kerryon Johnson (Detroit Lions)
Johnson might be the best example of just how fleeting success can be in the NFL. The young running back was a star in the Motor City when he first arrived. He broke the team’s long 100-yard rusher drought in his third career NFL game and earned his team a signature victory over the New England Patriots. He has three 100-yard rushing performances in only two NFL seasons.
Despite that, Johnson’s time with the Lions may already be winding down. The running back is yet to finish a full NFL season due to what seems like a permanent spot on the team's injury report. Detroit may be prepping to limit his role as well, as they spent an early second round pick on the next player on this list.
Johnson looked like he was going to be a long-term feature piece of the offense when he first arrived in 2018, but now only two years later, it looks like he may not even be the top running back on the roster anymore. He is still a great player, and a better RB2 than a majority of teams have, but you have to imagine all these injuries will start hurting his ability as a runner.
4. D’Andre Swift (Detroit Lions)
Detroit made a surprising choice in the second round of the NFL draft. While many expected them to continue improving the defense, they, instead, added another running back in Georgia’s D’Andre Swift, making him the second running back they have selected in the second round in the last three years.
Swift was one of the best players in college football last season. I even mentioned him as the true reason for the Bulldogs’ success last season in my Jake Fromm film breakdown. He is incredibly fast, agile and elusive (or as some might say, swift). While he is not particularly big, measuring at only 5-foot-9, 212 pounds, what he lacks in power he makes up for in athleticism.
It will be interesting to see how the Lions utilize Swift this season, but they did not draft a player that early to sit on the bench. Expect the running back to take over as the starter in Detroit and be moved all across the offense in his first season.
3. David Montgomery (Chicago Bears)
The Bears 2019 third-round pick proved to be star in his rookie year. David Montgomery played in all 16 games, rushed for 889 yards and six touchdowns in his first taste on NFL action. While he could have been more efficient, rushing for less than 4.0 yards per carry, he made the most of what was a poor offensive line in front of him in 2019.
Montgomery also proved to be a decent receiver is his first year, catching 25 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown. Most importantly, the running back stayed relatively healthy throughout the 2020 season.
The running back will likely take over as the full-time starter in 2019, as Tarik Cohen seems to have fallen off after a few years as they team’s top running back. His increased workload should mean more production, so do not be surprised if Montgomery is a 1,000-yard rusher in 2020.
2. Aaron Jones (Green Bay Packers)
Aaron Jones may not have put up the incredible 5.5 yard per carry mark he did in his previous two seasons, but the running back topped 1,000 yards for the first time in his career in 2019 and found the endzone 16 times on the ground. While the Packers defense received most of the attention for the team’s deep playoff run, Jones carried a huge share of the load on the offensive side.
The running back also caught 49 passes last season, for 474 yards and three touchdowns. He is a dynamic threat and quietly emerged as one of the NFL’s best receiving backs in 2019.
Jones got a starter’s workload for the first time in his career in 2019, and did not at all disappoint. He stayed healthy, as well. The Packers are in a time of transition at the moment, and having a reliable running back like Jones on the roster can be a boon to the team when the need it most.
1. Dalvin Cook (Minnesota Vikings)
Dalvin Cook was an MVP front runner in the early stages of the 2019 season. He eclipsed 110 yards in five of hist first seven games. Cook eventually finished the season with 1,135 yards and 13 touchdowns. In the NFC, he may have been overshadowed by the likes of Christian McCaffrey in Carolina, but the Vikings running back is certainly one of the best players in the league at his position.
Injuries plagued the first two years of Cook’s career, but when he was finally healthy in year three, he took over the offense. He is a major candidate for regression in 2020, though, as it is very hard to keep up that level of play when you are a player as physical as Cook, and his history of knee injuries limit his long-term durability.
For now, though, Cook is one of the best skill players in the league when healthy. He is far and away better than any other player on this list, and is the perfect complement to the Vikings’ Kirk Cousins-led passing game.