Ranking NFL divisions by running backs: Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara help NFC South edge out NFC East

Table of Contents 1. NFC South Thanks for signing up! Keep an eye on your

Every position on the field matters, including running back, a truth that tends to fly over the heads of those who see them as mostly disposable. And while it’s true that, generally speaking, an average to below-average halfback is more easily replaced than, say, a quarterback — that’s not the case in totality. There are certain players who transcend such a styrofoam cup hypothesis, and routinely help their respective team win games. What’s fun is attempting to determine which divisions have compiled the best talent at the position, and who could stand to improve in their scouting efforts.

To that end, on the heels of CBS Sports revealing its annual list of top-10 NFL running backs, it’s time to rank each division up against one another to find out where the most firepower lies (you can also check out our rankings of divisions by quarterbacks and wide receivers). Needless to say, things got hot in this battle for 2021. 

1. NFC South

Starters: Alvin Kamara (Saints), Christian McCaffrey (Panthers), Ronald Jones II (Bucs), Mike Davis (Falcons) 

The race for the No. 1 spot was a close one that ended in a photo finish. With claim to both Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey, the NFC South had enough firepower to take the throne even before sprinkling in RoJo and considering the possibility Mike Davis does some damage in Atlanta. It’s the only division with enough firepower to beat back the NFC North and NFC East — divisions that also own some nuclear weapons. Simply put, the NFC South is an absolute terror at the running back position, as any opposing defense can readily attest.

2. NFC North

Starters: Dalvin Cook (Vikings), Aaron Jones (Packers), David Montgomery (Bears), D’Andre Swift (Lions)

Both Cook and Jones are inhuman — that much is true. The two RB dynamos carry this division at the position and are now getting impressive help from an emerging David Montgomery. But for as promising as this lot is, there are questions on what Swift can be at the NFL level. The former second-round pick battled injury as a rookie that cost him several games and when he was on the field, he couldn’t beat out a much older Adrian Peterson to land more than four starts en route to rushing for just 521 yards. His 10 touchdowns hint at what’s to come if he can stay on the field, though, making for an intriguing cauldron of RB talent in a super competitive NFC North. 

3. NFC East

Starters: Ezekiel Elliott (Cowboys), Saquon Barkley (Giants), Antonio Gibson (WFT), Miles Sanders (Eagles)

Again, this was a photo finish in the top three spots on this list, and mostly because the NFC East not only boasts two-time NFL rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott — who appears hellbent on reclaiming his crown in 2021 — but also Saquon Barkley, an all-world talent. Gibson is showing signs of being the next big thing at the position and Sanders has impressed in Philly, but the division isn’t without concern regarding if Barkley can remain healthy enough to bowl over the NFL once again. Balance that with the presence of Tony Pollard as a talented backup in Dallas, however, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a division more talented at the position that isn’t the NFC South or NFC North. 

4. AFC West

Starters: Clyde Edwards-Helaire (Chiefs), Josh Jacobs (Raiders), Austin Ekeler (Chargers), Melvin Gordon (Broncos)

Talk about taking the NFL by storm. That’s exactly what Edwards-Helaire did in 2020, but his injury dampened an otherwise stellar professional debut. And then there’s Jacobs, who continues to prove he’s one of the best in the league, and who now has Kenyan Drake as a teammate in the RB room. Ekeler didn’t land a multi-year extension in L.A. by being an afterthought, and can wreck a defense both on the ground and in the air, with Gordon still showing signs of productivity despite some off-the-field issues that include a free agency holdout that did him no favors before landing in Denver. It’s a QB-driven division, but don’t sleep on its RBs.

5. AFC South

Starters: Derrick Henry (Titans), Jonathan Taylor (Colts), James Robinson (Jaguars), David Johnson (Texans)

Henry alone nearly pushed the AFC South to a higher ranking on this list, with the help of an up-and-comer in Taylor. Realistically speaking, however, as alien as Henry is — Taylor is entering just his second year and James Robinson might not be in the division much longer despite his solid rookie campaign. And then there’s Johnson, who might also be on a short lifespan in Houston, and is coming off of a 691-yard season that wasn’t poor but also wasn’t what the Texans traded away DeAndre Hopkins in the hopes of getting. Henry is the best RB in the league and, truth be told, he’s a large reason the AFC South landed in the top five here.

6. AFC North

Starters: Najee Harris (Steelers), J.K. Dobbins (Ravens), Nick Chubb (Browns), Joe Mixon (Bengals)

You love what the Browns have in Chubb, who’ll soon land a sizable extension from the team, and deservedly so. His tandem with Kareem Hunt truly carries this division from a running back perspective, and Dobbins joins Mixon in helping their case. There’s still much to be determined regarding Harris, though, considering he hasn’t taken a single snap in the NFL just yet. You’d like to believe he’ll pick right up where he left off at Alabama, but history has shown that’s not always the case. This isn’t to say Harris won’t be very good for Pittsburgh, but it is to say weighing him more heavily than proven NFL talent on this list would be disingenuous. That said, if he hits the ground running, the AFC North will climb for 2022.

7. NFC West

Starters: Chris Carson (Seahawks), Chase Edmonds (Cardinals), Cam Akers (Rams), Raheem Mostert (49ers)

Re-signing Carson was the smart thing to do in Seattle, as he continues to be one of the most underrated halfbacks in the entire league. He anchors this lot of starters and Edmonds will be made better by virtue of the Cardinals signing James Conner in free agency — if only because Edmonds knows he needs to establish himself as the alpha in the desert. It’s a similar dynamic to what’s in L.A., where Akers could stand to have a huge year in tandem with Darrell Henderson, and the 49ers are again stockpiling bodies at running back, but the fact they’re doing so means (outside of Mostert) they don’t have the wrecking ball other teams on this list do.

8. AFC East

Starters: Devin Singletary (Bills), Myles Gaskin (Dolphins), Damien Harris (Patriots), Lamical Perine (Jets)

When it comes to having dominant talent at halfback, the AFC East leaves much to be desired. None of the aforementioned have a single 1,000-yard season, and nor does Malcolm Brown, who’s joining the Dolphins in 2021. Each has some level of promise — e.g., Harris in New England — but until that promise and potential is realized, it’s not hard to decipher which division has the most work to do when it comes to being able to identify and sign elite running back talent. The AFC East would likely give its right arm to improve in this category, seeing as it would help their slate of quarterbacks become better at doing their job. And considering just how much needs to be done at QB in the division, Josh Allen notwithstanding, having great RBs to assist would be a great prescription.