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By: Matt Holleran
Who has the best running backs in the NFC East?
With the start of the 2021 NFL regular season less than a month away, we take a stab at ranking the NFC East position groups.
Today, we start by taking a look at the running backs. Let us know in the comments section what you think of our rankings.
4) Philadelphia Eagles
RB1: Miles Sanders
Backups: Boston Scott, Jason Huntley, Kenneth Gainwell
Despite having the seventh-worst rushing offense in football last season, according to Pro Football Focus, Eagles running back Miles Sanders had a solid season. Sanders got off to a slow start, but still finished with some decent numbers. The former second-round pick rushed for 867 yards, averaging 5.3 yards per carry, and scored six touchdowns on the ground. His PFF rushing grade improved dramatically from his rookie year, jumping from a 59.1 all the way up to a 75.3.
Despite having a solid season on the ground, Sanders’ receiving totals did drop drastically. He caught just 28 passes for 197 yards and failed to score a touchdown through the air. It’s fair to question if this drop in pass-catching production was more due to the instability and poor play at the quarterback position rather than Sanders’ individual production.
Behind Sanders, Philadelphia has third-year man Boston Scott and two unproven players in Jason Huntley and Kenneth Gainwell. Scott has been around the league since 2018 and has had some production, five rushing TDs in 2019 and 374 rushing yards in 2020, but isn’t going to scare a defense.
3) Washington Football Team
RB1: Antonio Gibson
Backups: JD McKissic, Peyton Barber, Lamar Miller
The WFT’s running back group is led by the versatile 23-year-old Antonio Gibson. The third-round pick had a very productive rookie year in 2020, rushing for 795 yards and scoring an extremely impressive 11 touchdowns. Gibson also caught 36 passes for 247 yards, bringing his total yards to 1,042 in just 14 games.
Touchdown Antonio Gibson! That’s his 10th on the year and it is 27-16 #WashingtonFootball up on the Cowboys in Dallas. 12:07 left in this one. #WASvsDAL pic.twitter.com/i0xSK7ZDMN
— 106.7 The Fan (@1067theFan) November 27, 2020
Washington pairs Gibson with JD McKissic, one of the better backup running backs in the league. The 27-year-old had the most productive season of his career in 2020 with the WFT, rushing for 365 yards and hauling in an impressive 80 catches for 589 yards and two touchdowns.
.@JdMckissic for 6⃣
#SEAvsWAS FOX pic.twitter.com/dVGuOjCtKR
— Washington Football Team (@WashingtonNFL) December 20, 2020
Washington’s running back group is versatile, fairly young, and productive. Antonio Gibson showed tons of promise in his rookie season, and JD McKissic is coming off a career year. With such a talented defense and a quarterback prone to turnovers, Washington likely will rely heavily on their running game this year to carry the load for their offense.
2) New York Giants
RB1: Saquon Barkley
Backups: Devontae Booker, Elijhaa Penny, Gary Brightwell, Corey Clement
When he’s on the field, there’s no disputing that Saquon Barkley is one of the best five running backs in football. Unfortunately for Barkley, since playing in all 16 games during his rookie year in 2018, he’s had some trouble staying on the field. The former second-overall pick missed three games during 2019, followed up by missing 14 games after tearing his ACL in Week 2 of this past season.
During Barkley’s last extended action in 2019, he was able to have an extremely productive season despite being a part of one of the worst offenses in the NFL. As a team, the Giants scored 17 points or fewer in half of their games. This did not stop Barkley from totaling 1,441 yards from scrimmage, 1,003 rushing and 438 receiving, and eight touchdowns.
GO HEAD, @saquon!
159 Total Yards, 2 Touchdowns, and a souvenir for a fan in the 1st half!
(via @Giants) pic.twitter.com/yNFOW1WoZQ
— FOX Sports (@FOXSports) December 22, 2019
Devontae Booker had a decent year as the backup in Las Vegas last season, but the fact of the matter is Barkley’s ability to stay on the field will determine how successful their run game is. If he’s healthy for 16 games, Barkley’s a virtual lock for 1,200 or more rushing yards and tons of explosive plays.
He’s coming off one of the worst injuries in sports, so we’ll just have to wait if the star running back will be able to stay on the field in 2021.
1) Dallas Cowboys
RB1: Ezekiel Elliott
Backups: Tony Pollard, Rico Dowdle, JaQuan Hardy, Brenden Knox
You could argue that if you individually compare Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott, Barkley is the better runner. But, when you compare the team’s running back groups altogether, there’s no question the Cowboys have the best group in the division.
Ezekiel Elliott is coming off the worst season of his career, but the sixth-year pro seems well on his way to a huge bounce-back season. By all accounts, Elliott has looked great during training camp. The running back appears to be in great shape, revealing during the Hall of Fame Game last week that he has lost 10lbs in preparation for the upcoming season.
He’s down 10 pounds. @EzekielElliott’s ready to go in 2021.
: @ProFootballHOF Game on FOX pic.twitter.com/5UU3CkoIro
— NFL (@NFL) August 6, 2021
If Zeke wants to regain his All-Pro form, his number one priority must be protecting the football. Elliott spoke back in July about how not fumbling is his No. 1 focus entering this season.
“Number one fumbling the ball,” Elliott said when asked what his No. 1 focus is this season. “I’ve never been a fumbler. When you carry the ball, you kind of carry the whole hope of the whole team, organization and fan base. If you cough it up and give it to the other team, you’re letting everyone down so I mean that’s the No. 1 thing that’s my focus this year is protecting the ball.”
The Cowboys get to pair Elliott with one of the better backup running backs in football in Tony Pollard. The former fourth-round pick showed some really good signs last season, rushing for 435 yards and scoring four touchdowns. Pollard made some explosive plays just like the one shown below.
This touchdown run gave Tony Pollard 69 rushing yards on the day.
(via @NFL) pic.twitter.com/hIRCqWUuda
— RJ Ochoa (@rjochoa) December 20, 2020
Pollard is only going to get better as his role in the offense expands. Pairing him with a rejuvenated Elliott is going to give the Cowboys not only the best running back group in the NFC East this season, but potentially one of the best groups in all of football.