Last week, we decided that Lamar Jackson is the best quarterback in the AFC North, but what about the running backs? Unlike in our quarterbacks rankings, we had a strong consensus, as all three selectors picked Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb as the cream of the crop.
But where do they fall from there? Alan Saunders, Chris Carter and Nick Farabaugh broke down their top 10 running backs of the AFC North.
Our power rankings were 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 2022 power rankings of AFC North running backs.
1. NICK CHUBB, CLEVELAND BROWNS
Nick Chubb finished first the AFC North in 2021 with 1,259 rushing yards, despite finishing third with 228 carries. Chubb is not the most dangerous or highly targeted guy in the passing game, but he more than makes up for it with his consistent availability at the NFL’s most difficult to stay healthy at position.
Chubb has rushed for at least 190 carries, at least 996 yards and at least eight touchdowns in each of his four seasons. His average year is a Pro Bowl-year. He has missed time, four games in 2020 and three in 2021, but he hasn’t let that time missed stop him from being extremely productive.
Some of the credit for Chubb’s success probably goes to Cleveland’s strong offensive line and a game plan built around the running game — a rarity in today’s NFL. But that game plan probably wouldn’t exist if not for the ability of Chubb to make it a winning formula. — Saunders
2. JOE MIXON, CINCINNATI BENGALS
Joe Mixon might be one of then most underrated running backs in the NFL when it comes to his ability to be an every-down threat. Mixon’s rushing totals are productive. He’s had three 1,000-yard seasons in the last four, missing 10 games in 2020. But his career average of 4.1 yards per carry is pedestrian compared to Chubb and others on this list.
Where Mixon stands out is his ability to be an all-ways back. He caught 42 of 48 targets in the passing game with just two drops in 2021, and averaged 6.5 yards per target as a receiver.
With a questionable offensive line and a young quarterback, the Bengals need Mixon to be a security blanket for Joe Burrow in the passing game and keep the offense on schedule and he does just that. — Saunders
Counterpoint: Mixon has put together a very good running back resume. But don’t let his being on a better team last year fool you, Harris is already a better running back. He already averages more rushing yards, receptions and receiving yards than Mixon when looking at both careers. He also did that in one season with a bad offensive line and a very limited quarterbacks that allowed defense to focus solely on Harris. Let him play on a more balanced unit and he blows past Mixon. — Carter
3. NAJEE HARRIS, PITTSBURGH STEELERS
Najee Harris had the ultimate “it depends upon how you look at it” rookie season. He rushed for 1,200 yards, was targeted an eye-popping 94 times in the passing game and scored 10 total touchdowns. But he also rushed for just 3.9 yards per carry, only caught 78.7% of those 94 passing targets and had to play an absurd 980 offensive snaps to gain those numbers — 171 more than the second-most running back, Ezekiel Elliott.
Harris has the talent to perform more efficiently than he did in 2021, but until he turns that ability into productivity at the NFL level, it’s hard to rank him above the two established performers ahead of him.
Harris’ issues in 2021 were emblematic of the Steelers entire offensive struggles, as well. Too many negative and no-gain plays kept the offense out of favorable down and distance situations and put too much of the workload on an over-the-hill Ben Roethlisberger. The 2022 Steelers need more from Harris to better balance their offense and transition into a post-Roethlisberger team. — Saunders
4. KAREEM HUNT, CLEVELAND BROWNS
Kareem Hunt could still be a starting running back on teams that needed one. He’s not the same player who was a serious threat with the Chiefs when he came into the league in 2017. But this could be a year he falls further down this list, as Hunt had injury concerns last year and D’Ernest Johnson stepped up for the Browns. How the Browns’ offense looks with or without Deshaun Watson will play a role in Hunt’s status. Hunt’s set to be a free agent after this season and will be 28 to start next year. If he wants one last good NFL running back contract, he’ll need to maximize his 2022 season. — Carter
5. J.K DOBBINS, BALTIMORE RAVENS
J.K. Dobbins looked very good for the Ravens, in 2020. He missed the entire 2021 season due to an injury. But his athleticism in the backfield paired with Lamar Jackson could make them a serious dual running threat. As a rookie, Dobbins averaged six yards per carry. He may have only started one game, but there’s a respect for what the third-year running back out of Ohio State brings to the table. — Carter
6. GUS EDWARDS, BALTIMORE RAVENS
Gus Edwards has earned a good reputation as a backup option for the Ravens. He’s started six games in two different seasons (2018 and 2020), but also missed the entirety of last season due to injury. This is why many have the Ravens making a leap in 2022 after going 8-9 in 2021; several major players will be back for this roster. Edwards and Dobbins as a pair next to Jackson could become the NFL’s most dangerous collective running threat. — Carter
Counterpoint: D’Ernest Johnson over Gus Edwards
Putting Johnson over Gus Edwards is a debate that is a tough one, but it is made easier by a few things. For one, Edwards is coming off of an ACL tear, which puts him in more contentious waters than a healthy Johnson. That has to factor intos the equation here. Second, Johnson’s elusiveness takes him to another level. He forced a missed tackle on 35% of his carries this past season, 7th highest in the NFL. Edwards is more a brusier, but Johnson is built to make big plays happen in different contexts. That is why Johnson ever so slightly beats out Edwards in my rankings. — Farabaugh
7. D’ERNEST JOHNSON, CLEVELAND BROWNS
The Browns, despite having two very good running backs in Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb, have dealt with plenty of injuries in their backfield over the past few years. When things have gone sideways, it has been D’Ernest Johnson to come in to play at a high level. Johnson’s combination of easy acceleration and quick feet allow him to cut on a dime and forced missed tackles at ease. He is an efficient, hard-nosed runner that is a solid NFL rusher, and that lands him here. — Farabaugh
8. MIKE DAVIS, BALTIMORE RAVENS
An addition to the AFC North running back room, Mike Davis comes over from the Atlanta Falcons and brings a hard-nosed, tough rushing style with him. It is emblematic of the Ravens over the years and while Davis, now a true veteran, lacks some athletic traits as others on this list, his all-around game and elite vision allow him to carve out a role in the NFL. Baltimore should be, at the very least, three deep at running back with Davis’s addition to the room. — Farabaugh
9. SAMAJE PERINE, CINCINNATI BENGALS
Perine’s stats don’t jump off the page given Joe Mixon’s high usage rate, but when he is on the field, Perine is a high-level backup running back. He is again, not the most athletic guy, but is quick and has decent vision. Add in soft hands and good pass protection skills and Perine is an ideal third-down back who can come in on earlier downs in the pinch. The Bengals are lucky to have Perine to back up Mixon. — Farabaugh
10. DEMETRIC FELTON, CLEVELAND BROWNS
There aren’t many good options this far down the board, and Demetric Felton is buried on Cleveland’s depth chart behind three other quality rushers, but his abilities in the passing game make him an extremely valuable asset to the Browns.
Felton had just seven carries for 24 yards in 2021, the fewest of each of any running back on our list that wasn’t injured. But in the passing game, he became a weapon, turning 21 targets into 181 yards. His 7.3 yards per total target (combined rushing and receiving) is the top of any returning back in the division.