At the end of the 2016 NFL season, the running backs who finished among the top four in rushing yards comprised two rookies (Ezekiel Elliott and Jordan Howard), a guy who everyone thought could be totally washed up (DeMarco Murray), and a guy who many people believed lost his job to a late-summer free agent acquisition (Jay Ajayi). So who will be among the NFL Rushing leaders this season?.
So how will things shake out after the 2017-2018 NFL season, as far as running backs to lead the NFL in rushing at year's end?
Here's a look at our top three candidates for this year's NFL Rushing leaders title:
3. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
In the NFL's culture of “what have you done for me lately,” we're very quick to forget the fact that Todd Gurley is only one season removed from finishing in the top three in rushing yards (in 2015), despite playing in only 13 games that year. Now, most people forget that fact because he had a positively miserable year in 2016, bringing new meaning to the term “sophomore slump” when his rushing total dropped by 20% and his yards per carry dropped by 33%.
Thankfully for Gurley, the offensively-challenged coaching staff in Los Angeles was dismissed, and replaced with new head coach Sean McVay, a wunderkind offensive savant who helped the Washington Redskins to a top-three offense in the NFL last year. With McVay (hopefully) working his magic with quarterback Jared Goff, teams (hopefully) won't be able to stuff the box and sell out to stop Gurley exclusively. Gurley has also come into this year's training camp with a renewed determination, eager to erase the sour memory of last year's performance. Sitting at 20-to-1 odds to win this award, he presents a very intriguing wager.
At 16-to-1 odds to win this wager, LeSean McCoy might one of the most tantalizing players to bet on, as far as this award goes. McCoy finished with 1,267 rushing yards last season (good for 6th in the NFL), and his 5.4 yards per attempt was the highest among all running backs ranked in the top 20 in rushing last year. And McCoy put up those numbers with backup running back Mike Gillislee stealing 101 carries (and a significant number of red zone opportunities) from McCoy last year.
Gillislee left Buffalo in the offseason, and while the Bills may give a few carries to backup Jonathan Williams, a lot of Gillislee's carries from last year should end up back in McCoy's hands. New offensive coordinator Rick Dennison will make McCoy the centerpiece of his run-first offense, especially considering two of Buffalo's top wide receivers on the roster last year — Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods — are no longer there. Add in the fact that McCoy came into this year's training camp in phenomenal shape, and it makes sense to see why he could have one enormous season left in the tank (he turned 29 years old this summer).
Le'Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers is the favorite to win this award at 3-to-1 odds, and with good reason. His 105.7 yards per game rushing last year was second in the league (only behind Ezekiel Elliott), and despite missing four games last year due to suspension, he still finished in the top 10 in rushing attempts in the league last year. In fact, if you extrapolate his 268 carries over 16 games last year, he would've led the NFL in rushing attempts.
So, while the Steelers might be known for a high-powered passing attack, the numbers show that when Bell is on the field, they're going to give it to him plenty often. Entering training camp healthy and suspension-free for the first time in three seasons, and with the incentive of a long-term contract still there, Bell could put up monstrous — and league-leading — rushing totals in 2017.