The foot injury to Tennessee Titans superstar running back Derrick Henry did more than just disrupt Tennessee’s path to a potential postseason berth. It also opened the door for another player to win the NFL’s 2021 rushing crown. There’s no doubt that if Henry stayed healthy, he would’ve run away with it (no pun intended). But his bum foot should keep him shelved for the rest of the regular season, which means he’ll pass his crown to a new king of the position.
The race for the top of the rushing yards mountain will be a fun one to watch over the final eight weeks of the season. There are a few obvious contenders, as well as one who’s lurking within striking range of making history.
Here are the top candidates to win the 2021 NFL rushing title.
Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts
Taylor seized his opportunity to stake his claim as the top running back in the NFL while Henry’s sidelined when he ran for 172 yards in Week 9’s Thursday night game against the New York Jets. Taylor is the total package -- he has plus vision, power, elusiveness, and long speed -- and he’s playing behind a quality offensive line. He ranks second in the league in rushing right now with 821 yards and trails Henry by 116 yards entering Week 10. He has a chance to pass him on Sunday and potentially run the table for the rest of the season as the league’s most productive running back.
Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
Based on talent alone, Chubb might be the best running back in the NFL, even when Henry is at full strength. But he’s stuck in a legitimate two-headed backfield with Kareem Hunt (when Hunt returns from injury) and doesn’t always get the workload that’s going to be needed to finish atop the rushing list. Chubb is currently third in rushing yards (721) while playing just seven games, but his odds of keeping pace with Taylor dip a bit with his recent positive COVID-19 test. There’s a chance he’ll miss Week 10’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals, and if he does, he’ll struggle to finish in the top three at his position, let alone No.1.
Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
Mixon is widely regarded as one of the top running backs in the league but his 2021 season still seems to be flying under the radar. He’s fourth in rushing yards (636) and basically has the Bengals’ backfield all to himself. The biggest issue throughout his career has been durability, and when combined with the traditional Bengals teams of the past (i.e., negative game scripts that rely heavily on the passing game), Mixon feels like a long shot. Still, his projected volume and Cincinnati’s more competitive roster in 2021 could combine to make Mixon a sneaky pick to keep climbing the running back ranks this year.
Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
Is it really possible for a quarterback to finish the season as the NFL’s leading rusher? Man, that’d be something. And in 2021, it’s not outside the range of potential outcomes. Jackson is sixth in rushing with 600 yards and is the beginning, middle, and end of the Baltimore Ravens offense. The ball will be in his hands on both designed runs and pass plays that break down, giving him a chance to chew up 80 or more rushing yards in every game with relative ease. He’s already done it four times this season, with two games over 100 yards. He tied Mike Vick last week for the most 100-yard rushing games by a quarterback in NFL history, and he’s only 24 years old. At his current pace, Jackson will finish the season with 1,275 rushing yards. That won’t be enough to lead the league, but a few big games here and there could push that number closer to 1,400, which would certainly be in play.
Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
Like Mixon, Elliott is enjoying a quietly productive 2021 season. He’s averaging nearly five yards per carry and is fifth in the league with 622 rushing yards. The Cowboys are a quality team that should remain in positive game scripts throughout the rest of the season, sans Week 9’s hiccup against the Denver Broncos. Elliott is the only running back on this list who’s been the NFL’s leading rusher before, so betting against him surging to the top of the list might not be a smart strategy. Elliott is a workhorse and those are the types of running backs who are always near the top of the rushing list in late December.