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Power Ranking 2024 AFC North Running Backs: With Chubb Banged Up, Is Henry the New King?

Steelers Now Power Rankings: Does the injury to Nick Chubb and the signing of Derrick Henry mean there’s a new king RB in the AFC North?

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AFC North RB Power Rankings

There is nothing quite like AFC North football. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens form the tightest geographical formation of any NFL circuit, with just 423 air miles between the furthest two teams.

The old saying is that familiarity breeds contempt, and it doesn’t take much to see the contempt these teams have for one another come out, whether it’s on the field, in interviews, or on social media.

But familiarity, in this case, has also bred a shared philosophy, at least for three of the four teams. The Steelers, Browns and Ravens have consistently been among the NFL’s leaders in running the football, with Baltimore hosting an NFL-best 52.3% run ratio in 2023. This is a division where running the ball — and stopping the run — matters more than almost anywhere else.

Despite that, it has not been a division of dominant running backs. The Ravens have dealt with a cavalcade of injuries at the position, rotating through backs somehow even faster than targets for Lamar Jackson. The Bengals and Steelers have had reliable starters in Najee Harris and the now-departed Joe Mixon that were strong players but not true stars in their own right. The Browns were the exception, with Nick Chubb carrying the load through a contentious quarterback situation over the years, but now that hegemony has been upset, with Chubb’s major knee injury at the hands of Minkah Fitzpatrick in 2023 having his start to the 2024 season in question. The Ravens, meanwhile, made a major upgrade, bringing in former Tennessee Titans star Derrick Henry with the hopes of finally establishing their own “bell cow” at the position.

Has the turnover upset the apple cart in the AFC North running back pecking order? We decided to take a look at just where the AFC North backs stack up in this week’s Power Rankings, with Derrick Bell, Zachary Smith and myself contributing to a three-voter panel.

Our power rankings are compiled with each first-place vote getting 10 points and so on and so forth. Here’s the final tally of Steelers Now’s consensus preseason 2024 power rankings of AFC North quarterbacks.

AFC North RB Rankings

AFC NORTH 2024 RUNNING BACK POWER RANKINGS

Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns

Despite being in a division that now includes Derrick Henry and already included Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren, I don’t believe it would be much of a question who the best RB in the AFC North is if not for injury. Following (another) devastating knee injury and one that some believed to be career treating, Nick Chubb has attacked rehab in the manner that anybody who knows Nick Chubb would anticipate. The surface level numbers are good enough to paint the picture. Chubb needs just 763 yards to move into second place all-time in rushing yards for the Browns. In his six seasons, he’s amassed 6,511 rushing yards, 1,011 receiving yards, 52 total touchdowns and averaged 5.3 yards per carry (3rd highest in Super Bowl era). Want a list of every running back who has averaged 5 yards per carry while having over 1200 touches? Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Jamal Charles and Nick Chubb. There’s the list

What about the advanced numbers? He far and away leads all RBs since 2022 in missed tackles forced vs yards after contract. Chubb averages 3.6 yards after contact over the last two seasons. He’s also second in cumulative rush EPA since 2016, behind only Derrick Henry. Keep in mind that Chubb didn’t come into the league until 2018. His rushing yards over expected (.90) is nearly double that of Christian McCaffrey (.47) who has the second highest total since 2016. All this to say, Nick Chubb is awesome and hopefully we see a version of Chubb that we’ve become accustomed to. – Smith

Derrick Henry, Baltimore Ravens

The King heading to the (AFC) North is one of the most fun storylines of the offseason. Even if Derrick Henry, now 30-years old, is no longer in his prime, his game has aged gracefully. He’s now less than 500 yards away from joining the 10,000 rushing yard club, which consists of just 31 players in NFL history. Henry’s blend of raw power and lateral agility is especially unique and preparing for him is especially difficult because there really aren’t any active players with a similar play style.

The most fascinating thing to watch for will be how he adjusts to the Ravens gap-heavy scheme after spending the entirety of his pro career in a zone-heavy system. Because of his age, his game could quickly decline at any moment but he’s continued to defy the odds up to this point. Henry has never shared a backfield with a quarterback as dynamic as Lamar Jackson, who also demands additional attention as a runner. With Nick Chubb recovering from a serious leg injury, the Alabama product gets the nod at the top of this list for me. Bell

Pittsburgh Steelers RB Najee Harris

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris runs with the ball against the Arizona Cardinals on Dec. 3, 2023. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers

The biggest reason that NFL teams have decided to collectively devalue the running back position is consistency, or rather a lack of it. The position has proven difficult to scout, with just as many late-round picks and UDFAs becoming stars as first-rounders. Players have shown an elevated propensity for having one strong year, followed by a whammy the next one, leaving owners holding big running back contracts with no future value all over. The biggest free agent contracts handed out to running backs in 2023 all turned out to be disasters. Anyone want Dalvin Cook, Miles Sanders, David Montgomery, Jamaal Williams, Sammie Perine or Alexander Mattison for what they cost a year ago? Then there’s the injury factor, where one play can send even a star like Nick Chubb off the field for a year or more.

The secret to Najee Harris’ success so far has been that in a position dominated by inconsistency, he’s been the exact opposite. A first-round pick, Harris lived up to that billing from day one. He hasn’t missed a game in three seasons, he’s the 18th back in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in his first three years in the league, and there’s little reason to think he’s not capable of doing it again in 2024. That rare consistency is what makes Harris one of the best. — Saunders

Jayen Warren, Pittsburgh Steelers

There is one player on this list that has the most rushing yards over expectation per attempt of any of the players, and there is one player on this list that has contributed the most as a pass catcher. That is the same player. Jaylen Warren is the best runner, as tracked by the NFL Next-Gen Stat that determines how well a play is blocked and defended. He’s also the best pass-catching back and an above-average run blocker.

He doesn’t get hurt, he doesn’t miss games. If there’s a knock on him, it’s that he’s never been asked to carry a full load, getting the lighter half of duties while splitting time with Najee Harris. But Nick Chubb won’t be able to do that, at least to start 2024. I have no idea how much longer Derrick Henry will be able to do that, if he even can this year. If I had to build a backfield with one back from the AFC North, give me Warren. — Saunders

Zack Moss, Cincinnati Bengals

It’s pretty easy to see why the Cincinnati Bengals went after Zach Moss as a replacement for Joe Mixon. After never quite finding his footing in Buffalo, he looked like the best version of himself in Indianapolis. Like the Colts, the Bengals want to spread defenses out in 11 personnel, primarily operating out of the shotgun and running between the tackles. Moss’ style resembles that of a battering ram where he’s consistently churning out yards after contact by falling forwards. Aside from the scheme fit, he simply looked more confident last season which led to a career highs across the board. 

It wouldn’t shock me if a 1,000 yard campaign was on the horizon for the fifth-year pro, seeing as there isn’t much proven talent in that room to take opportunities away from him. Cincinnati’s going to be an aerial assault teams by default but Moss, combined with some improvements along the offensive line, could come in handy when the weather gets ugly in the winter. He’s a quality player that should be quite useful in a high-powered offense. Bell

Cleveland Browns RB Jerome Ford Pittsburgh Steelers

Cleveland Browns running back Jerome Ford runs with the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 19, 2023. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Jerome Ford, Cleveland Browns

The Browns needed to use Jerome Ford a whole lot more than they intended to in 2023 after Nick Chubb’s injury. But the former fifth-round pick proved to be a steady hand, helping keep the Browns playoff hopes afloat without their top back. He rushed for an uninspiring 4.0 yards per carry, but also contributed 319 receiving yards on 63 targets. It doesn’t look like Ford is set to take over the starter role any time soon, but with Chubb set to return at some point this season, the Browns ma have found a solid complement. ‘– Saunders

Keaton Mitchell, Baltimore Ravens

It’s difficult to place Keaton Mitchell on a list like this because he’s coming off an ACL injury and the sample size of volume from his rookie season was so small. However, it’s impossible to understate just how dynamic he looked in Todd Monken’s offense, averaging a whopping 8.4 yards per carry in relief from weeks 9-15. Baltimore’s offensive line played a part in that but Mitchell’s straight like speed is special and he’s a threat to take it to the house on every single touch. His size will likely prohibit him from being a workhorse back at the NFL level but a rounding into a 1B-type is absolutely within the realm of realistic possibilities. 

For the life of me, I cannot fathom how this kid went undrafted after seeing how dynamic he was at East Carolina. That was a mistake by the NFL and Baltimore is set to reap the rewards. So long as he’s able to back to his old self, this looks like a pretty dangerous 1-2 punch for next season. Bell

D’Onta Foreman, Cleveland Browns

It took a while for him to get going after an Achilles injury early in his career but D’onta Foreman has been pretty productive when given chances in recent seasons. He’s obviously not the same caliber of talent of Nick Chubb, but those two do share some commonalities in how they succeed as rushers. Foreman is a bruiser with a knack for picking up first downs and punching the ball in near the end zone. The schematic fit in Kevin Stefanski’s offense which feature plenty of pullers and gap concepts makes me think that he could hold it down if Chubb misses time in his recovery. He’s a solid RB2 with a style that meshes well in the AFC North. — Bell

Pittsburgh Steelers Cincinnati Bengals Chase Brown

Pittsburgh Steelers safety Eric Rowe tackles Cincinnati Bengals running back Chase Brown on Dec. 23, 2023,. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Chase Brown, Cincinnati Bengals

It’s probably a coincidence, but the Bengals were 4-0 last season when Chase Brown got more than five carries. The 5-foot-9, 215-pound bowling ball of a back might be someone that takes a while to get going in a game, but he has elite athletic traits despite his stature, and don’t be surprised if Zack Moss has an injury or is slow to get going, if the Illinois grad steps up and snatches some carries.– Saunders

Justice Hill, Baltimore Ravens

Since tearing his Achilles in 2021, Justice Hill has played in all but three games for the Baltimore Ravens. In 2022, he was out-touched by Kenyan Drake, J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards. In 2023, it was only Edwards, but likely just because Dobbins and Keaton Mitchell were both hurt. Now with Derrick Henry in the fold, it’s going to be even harder for Hill to earn playing time. But considering Baltimore’s injury history at the position, I wouldn’t write anyone on that depth chart off, either. — Saunders