Backup running backs have stepped up of late and made the most of their opportunities with a number of RB1s sidelined due to injury or COVID-19 protocols. The RB2s have helped their respective teams win while in the lineup. Now, as the starters make their way back onto the field, I can't help but think some of these backups are far from finished.
Here are three RB2s who, in my estimation, will have a bigger stretch-run impact than their teams' RB1s.
Aaron Jones has missed some time with a knee injury this season, but the Packers haven't skipped a beat. This is exactly why Green Bay spent a 2020 second-round pick on Dillon, who's averaging 4.3 yards per attempt over 143 carries in 2021. In fact, since Jones returned to action in Week 12, Dillon has out-carried him 35 to 15 and outrushed him 140 to 58. Dillon is able to fill any void and provide a physical, downhill rushing element to an offense that features quick, explosive players like Jones. Dillon routinely keeps the defense on its heels and punishes opponents with his physicality late in games, something that will help Green Bay keep the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
Thrust into the starting role after Cam Akers (Achilles) was lost for the season in training camp, Darrell Henderson played well in his 10 starts, averaging 4.6 yards per carry and scoring eight touchdowns (five rushing, three receiving). But Henderson was sidelined by a thigh injury in Week 13 and then he landed on the COVID-19/reserve list prior to Monday's win over Arizona. Consequently, Michel's role significantly expanded over the last two games -- SEE: 44 carries for 200 yards and a touchdown -- and his style has provided the Rams with a more physical ground attack. Michel has averaged 4.6 yards per carry in those two starts, both L.A. wins. While he might not regularly break off the kind of big gains Henderson can provide, his tough, 4-yard runs help make second and third downs manageable for the Rams' offense. He's also helped open up the passing game -- which we saw in the win over the Cards -- and that's the type of back the Rams need to succeed in the postseason. Now, if Henderson is cleared to play on Sunday, we could see Michel's opportunities decrease, but the impact of his carries won't.
Though Damien Harris leads the Patriots in rushing yards and rushing TDs, his hamstring injury makes me believe the rookie is about to eat. Stevenson has obtained a featured role within the offense in spurts -- including Week 10 against Cleveland, when he ran for 100 yards and two touchdowns with Harris inactive due to a concussion -- but there's a greater chance his workload increases over the final month. The 6-foot, 227-pound back's physical rushing style wears down defenses and extends drives deep into the game, as we saw in the Week 13 win at Buffalo, while Harris offers a more explosive element. When considering the conservative approach the Patriots have taken with rookie quarterback Mac Jones, they need a guy who helps them control the clock. Stevenson could be that man.
UPDATE: Damien Harris has been downgraded to out for Saturday night's game vs. the Colts, the team announced Friday. Stevenson is in line to start.
Top 15 running backs
Former NFL rushing leader and NFL Network analyst Maurice Jones-Drew will survey all running backs and rank his top 15 each week of the 2021 season. His rankings are based on this season's efforts alone. Here is MJD's list heading into Week 15.
NOTE: Arrows reflect changes from Week 14's rankings.
2021 stats: 13 games | 241 att | 1,348 rush yds | 5.6 ypc | 16 rush TD | 36 rec | 336 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 4 fumbles
Taylor could put a huge stamp on his MVP candidacy with a big outing vs. Bill Belichick's Patriots. Belichick has an 18-2 record as Patriots HC against running backs with 1,000-plus rushing yards entering the game, per NFL Research. One thing going Taylor's way is the fact that the Patriots' defense ranks dead last in the league in Next Gen Stats' rush yards over expected (+229), while Taylor leads all running backs in most rushing yards over expected with +360. This is must-see TV.
2021 stats: 13 games | 171 att | 778 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 8 rush TD | 62 rec | 421 rec yds | 2 rec TDs | 1 fumble
Fournette unlocked his potential in Tampa at the start of last season's playoffs and that success has now stretched almost an entire calendar year. Over his last 17 games (including the postseason), Fournette has 1,647 scrimmage yards and 14 scrimmage TD on 315 touches -- all three of those rank in the top four among RBs in that span.
2021 stats: 13 games | 161 att | 730 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 9 rush TD | 58 rec | 535 rec yds | 7 rec TD | 4 fumbles
Ekeler had 14 touches for 84 yards before an ankle injury forced his exit in the third quarter vs. the Giants. He has participated in practice this week ahead of Thursday night's uber-important division game vs. K.C., and the Chargers need him. He has the third-most scrimmage yards (1,265) and leads the league in receiving yards (535) and receiving TDs (seven) among running backs this season.
2021 stats: 13 games | 179 att | 661 rush yds | 3.7 ypc | 14 rush TD | 29 rec | 303 rec yds | 2 rec TDs | 2 fumbles
Conner had himself a day against the Rams with 125 scrimmage yards (31 rush, 94 receiving) and two rushing touchdowns. He just has no quit -- evidenced by this 1-yard touchdown on fourth down where he avoided an Aaron Donald tackle -- and a knack for the end zone. Scoring is great, but the Cardinals need a bit more on the ground to alleviate some of the pressure on Kyler Murray and the aerial attack.
2021 stats: 13 games | 245 att | 1,036 rush yds | 4.2 ypc | 12 rush TD | 28 rec | 202 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 2 fumbles
Mixon drops after a sluggish performance against the 49ers, in which he averaged 3.2 yards per carry and was held without a touchdown for the first time since Week 3 (snapping a nine-game TD streak). He's also been held to fewer than 70 scrimmage yards in two straight weeks (both losses for Cincy). Mixon's still one of two RBs with more than 1,000 rush yards, but this is the wrong time of year to be in a slump.
2021 stats: 13 games | 237 att | 873 rush yds | 3.7 ypc | 6 rush TD | 60 rec | 397 rec yds | 3 rec TD | 0 fumbles
Remember how good Le'Veon Bell was with the Steelers? Harris just surpassed Bell's rookie production for the franchise record with 1,270 scrimmage yards, and there's still four games left to play. Harris dazzled against the Vikings last week with the first multi-TD game of his career (one rush, one receiving), showing off his versatility in a nationally televised game.
2021 stats: 10 games | 167 att | 926 rush yds | 5.5 ypc | 6 rush TD | 15 rec | 112 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 2 fumbles
Chubb slides after a rocky Week 14 performance that saw him gain just 59 yards on 17 carries. Over the last two games, Cleveland's RB1 has accumulated 75 total ground yards. The Browns need to get back to being that run-first offense they were early in the season when they were averaging more than 150 rushing yards per game.
2021 stats: 10 games | 198 att | 978 rush yds | 4.9 ypc | 6 rush TD | 28 rec | 219 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 3 fumbles
Cook returns to the list after gashing the Steelers for 205 yards and two TDs on 27 carries in prime time. He looked like me in high school, just running circles around guys. He's vital to the Vikings' success and they know it.
2021 stats: 9 games | 173 att | 650 rush yds | 3.8 ypc | 4 rush TD | 36 rec | 335 rec yds | 4 rec TDs | 0 fumbles
The Saints snapped a five-game skid last week thanks to Kamara's big day vs. the Jets. He tied his season high with 120 rush yards in his first game back from a knee injury that had held him out the previous four contests. Kamara elevates this offense on every level when he's on the field. To wit:
With Kamara: 6-3 record, 25.7 points/game, 131.9 rush yards/game, 0.8 giveaways/game.
Without Kamara: 0-4 record, 18.3 points/game, 98.0 rush yards/game, 2.3 giveaways/game.
2021 stats: 12 games | 164 att | 754 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 9 rush TD | 13 rec | 84 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 2 fumbles
After claiming the AFC's top seed with a wacky win in Week 13, the Patriots face another run-heavy team Saturday when they travel to Indianapolis. Harris has quietly improved as the season's gone along, with 83 carries, 423 rush yards (5.1 yards per carry) and six rush TDs since Week 7, but now he's dealing with a hamstring issue. And those things can linger.
UPDATE: Harris has been downgraded to out for Saturday night's game vs. the Colts, the team announced Friday.
2021 stats: 13 games | 185 att | 810 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 8 rush TDs | 41 rec | 245 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 1 fumble
Zeke remains outside the top 10 after another mediocre outing in Week 14. We know what he's capable of, so it's tough to watch him struggle this way with injuries through the second half of the season. His drop in production over the last couple months helps explain some of the Cowboys' recent struggles:
Weeks 1-6: 19.7 touches/game, 86.8 rush yards/game, 104.3 scrimmage yards/game, six scrimmage TDs
Weeks 7-14: 15.4 touches/game, 41.3 rush yards/game, 61.3 scrimmage yards/game, three scrimmage TDs
2021 stats: 13 games | 216 att | 836 rush yds | 3.9 ypc | 5 rush TDs | 33 rec | 221 rec yds | 2 rec TDs | 6 fumbles
Gibson slides slightly following the season-low 41 scrimmage yards in last week's loss, which came after he'd averaged 107.5 scrimmage yards per game in Weeks 10-13 (all wins). He must get back to being a versatile threat if the Football Team intends to keep hold of the final NFC wild-card spot. Even that might not be enough, with Taylor Heinicke banged up and a number of players on the COVID-19 list.
2021 stats: 10 games | 112 att | 578 rush yds | 5.2 ypc | 0 rush TD | 23 rec | 140 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumble
Sanders, who suffered an ankle injury late in Week 13 before the bye, is trending toward playing against Washington. The Eagles need him to help maintain their top-ranked rushing attack that's averaging 210.5 yards per game since Week 8. Prior to his injury in the win over the Jets, Sanders stepped up in a major way; with Jalen Hurts sidelined by an injury of his own, Sanders rushed for 120 yards on 24 carries. With or without Hurts in the lineup, Philly needs Sanders to drive the ground game.
2021 stats: 12 games | 159 att | 716 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 7 rush TD | 22 rec | 166 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 2 fumbles
Gordon and Javonte Williams have been a great RB tandem all season, and it's time I award both of their efforts in the same week. After missing the Chiefs game with shoulder and hip injuries, Gordon (like the rest of the Broncos) played with a fire in his heart just days after former Denver WR Demaryius Thomas' death. He had 24 carries for 111 yards and two touchdowns in the win over Detroit, and he's been an efficient player all year, especially inside the tackles, where he ranks fourth in yards per carry (4.7) among backs with at least 50 such rushes.
2021 stats: 13 games | 155 att | 743 rush yds | 4.8 ypc | 3 rush TD | 34 rec | 279 rec yds | 3 rec TD | 2 fumbles
The rookie provided another fine effort in the win over Detroit with 73 yards on 15 totes and a 10-yard touchdown reception for good measure. The Broncos have now rushed for at least 140 yards in three straight games, and it's the backfield that will likely dictate how the final regular-season stretch plays out for Denver.