Le’Veon Bell is easily the best running back in the AFC North. He may even be the best in the entire league. In order to get there, it has been an interesting career for him.
Bell missed a few games with injuries as a rookie in 2013. Then he was suspended for three games, which was reduced to two games, and then another injury that ended his 2015 season. He was suspended again in 2016 for three games.
Before last season, he was given a franchise tag. He held out and eventually signed a one-year contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Following the season, he voiced his displeasure with getting another franchise tag and the Steelers did. The Steelers obviously want to keep him in Pittsburgh, but may not want to commit to a high-priced running back on a multi-year contract, which is what Bell wants.
When he is on the field, the Steelers are a much better offense. He has a knack for slowing down at exactly the right time to set up a block before accelerating throw the whole. He doesn’t take many negative plays and still has the ability to hit the home run. He is also valuable as a receiver.
He ranks 13th in rushing attempts, 14th in rushing yards, 14th in rushing touchdowns, 12th in yards per rush attempt, 21st in yards from scrimmage, 28th in all-purpose yards and 15th in yards per touch among active players.
#2 – Carlos Hyde
Hyde signed with the Cleveland Browns to a multi-year contract in March. He will begin the season as the starter after rushing for over 900 yards and five touchdowns in each of the last two seasons in San Francisco. He had his best season in 2016, but improved in the passing game last year. He will be a part of a three-back committee that includes a rookie and a receiver. Hyde is a big, powerful back that doesn’t take negative plays and gets downhill. He is not turn a lot of carries into 30-plus yard touchdowns.
#3 – Joe Mixon
Mixon played in 14 games, seven starts, for the Cincinnati Bengals as a rookie in 2017. He was one of the “first-round talents that goes in a later round because of off-field issues” selections. From a talent standpoint, he was considered one of the best in the draft. But, an assault incident involving a woman at a restaurant, clouded his future as a football player. The Bengals took a chance on him and got 626 yards and four touchdowns. He ascended the depth chart as the season progressed and finished, not just as the starter, but as the workhorse back. He has the ability to run between-the-tackles, on the edge and catch the ball out of the backfield. He is still needs to improve his blitz pickup, but has a bright future in Cincinnati, as a long as he can keep his nose clean.
#4 – Nick Chubb
The Browns struggled to run the ball in the past. So, they overhauled their running back group. After signing Hyde as a free agent, they drafted Chubb in the second round of the draft. He is a big, powerful runner that will keep the offense on track on early downs. He doesn’t have great breakaway athleticism or home run ability, but will not have many negative plays. He split carries at the University of Georgia as the between-the-tackles back, which is a role he should continue in the NFL.
#5 – Alex Collins
Collins had a breakout season for the Baltimore Ravens in 2017. After having limited opportunities in Seattle as a rookie the previous season, he ran for 973 yards and six touchdowns in 12 starts. He began the season as the backup, but quickly supplanted Terrance West in Week 3. Collins has the size to run between-the-tackles and the athleticism to break a long run. He probably isn’t going excel in either area, but will not have many negative plays and should have a pretty good yards-per-carry average.
#6 – Duke Johnson
Johnson is not going to be a workhorse back or high-volume ball carrier, but he is going to be a valuable piece of the Browns. He is a very good receiver. He can line up in the backfield, out wide or in the slot. He was fourth among running backs last in receptions with 74. He has seen his starter status diminish every year since starting seven games as a rookie in 2015. But, he may be a better and more valuable player now in his current role.
#7 – Giovani Bernard
Like Johnson, Bernard has not been able to elevate himself as a runner, but has carved out a nice niche as a receiver out of the backfield. Bernard is not as versatile in the receiving game as Johnson, but the Bengals can rely on Bernard to catch the ball and get yards. He will be a solid complement to Mixon.
#8 – Javorius Allen
Allen is the receiving back for the Ravens. He isn’t as polished or proven in the role as Johnson and Bernard, but has very good hands. He is a bit of an anomaly. He has good skills as a receiver and power back, but isn’t going to make big plays on the edge. Along with serving as the third-down back, he can be the short-yardage runner.
#9 – James Conner
Conner was one of the better stories of the 2017 draft. He still is a very good story as the backup for the Steelers in the NFL. In 2015, he announced through a University of Pittsburgh press release that he had Hodgkin lymphoma. The Erie, Pa. native vowed to not only beat cancer, but would play football at Heinz Field again. After being declared cancer-free in 2016, he played his final season in college and then was drafted by the Steelers in the third round. He is a big, powerful, between-the-tackles runner.
#10 – Kenneth Dixon
Dixon was a running back that experts loved coming out of Louisiana Tech University in 2016. Many thought he could be the primary ball carrier right away. However, he only played 12 games as rookie as he battled a knee injury. Then, after the season, he received a substance-abuse suspension. He was then placed on injured reserve and suspended an additional two games. He is now eligible to play, but needs to prove he can stay on the field. He has the talent to be an every-down back.