There have been a few close calls, but Eric Dickerson's iconic 1984 regular season has stood the test of time. Since Dickerson broke O.J. Simpson's 11-year-old record for rushing yards in a single season (Simpson rushed for 2,003 yards in the 12-game 1973 regular season), six other running backs have joined them in the 2,000-yard club: Barry Sanders (2,053 yards in 1997), Terrell Davis (2,008 yards in 1998), Jamal Lewis (2,066 yards in 2003), Chris Johnson (2,006 yards in 2009), Adrian Peterson (2,097 yards in 2012) and Derrick Henry (2,027). As great as these seasons were, none were quite as prolific as the 2,105 yards Dickerson tallied in 1984. While many records have since been broken, Dickerson's '84 season continues to be the measuring stick for running backs. It also was the exclamation point for a Hall of Fame career for Dickerson, one of 12 running backs named to the NFL's 100th Anniversary All-Time Team.
The advent of the 17-game regular season, however, may lead to Dickerson's run atop the record book finally coming to an end. And while many teams have shifted toward having a stable of running backs instead of a bell cow, there are still several running backs who should get enough work in 2021 to potentially threaten Dickerson's record. Let's take a look at the five backs who could take the crown as the NFL's single-season rushing king by the end the 2021 season.
1. Derrick Henry
The league's two-time defending rushing champion is also the latest member of the 2,000-yard club. A year after running for a league-best 1,540 yards, Henry rumbled for 2,027 yards last season while also leading the NFL in touchdown runs for a second straight year. While he also led the NFL with 681 carries over the last two seasons, the 27-year-old Henry should be able to produce at least one more monster season in 2021. The offseason signings of receivers Julio Jones and Josh Reynolds should help spread out the offense more for Henry. Tennessee also drafted Dillon Radunz while also signing veteran Kendall Lamm to help fill their void at right tackle.
If healthy, Henry is the hands-down favorite to win a third consecutive rushing title while also putting himself in position to break Dickerson's record. A faster start in 2021 (of his 10 100-yard games last season, four took place in the Titans' first eight games) would further increase Henry's odds at making history.
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2. Dalvin Cook
After injuries limited his effectiveness during his first two seasons, Cook has established himself as one of the league's premier running backs during the past two seasons. Over that span, the former Florida State standout has rushed for 2,692 yards and 29 touchdowns while also catching 97 passes for 880 yards. Cook was briefly in the MVP conversation last season after helping the Vikings bounce back from a 1-5 start. Cook will again be complemented this season by receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, who in 2020 combined to record 2,325 receiving yards and 21 touchdowns.
Making Cook's success last season even more impressive was that he did it behind an offensive line that was ranked 26th in the league by Pro Football Focus. Minnesota addressed its line by spending a first-round pick on tackle Christian Darrisaw, who will look to fill the void left by veteran Riley Reiff. If Darrisaw and fellow rookie lineman Wyatt Davis can make an early impact, Cook should once again be at or near to the top of the league's rushing standings this season.
3. Nick Chubb
Chubb has the talent and the offensive teammates (particularly on the offensive line) to break Dickerson's record. The 25-year-old also has plenty of tread on his tires after receiving just 190 carries last season and 680 carries during his first three seasons. The big question is how many carries Chubb will share with fellow running back Kareem Hunt, who had nearly as many carries in 16 games as Chubb did in 12 games during the 2020 regular season.
Given his situation with Hunt, Chubb would probably have to have more than a few big rushing performances if he is going to seriously challenge Dickerson's record in 2021. That is certainly something that is within Chubb's wheelhouse, as he rushed for more than 100 yards in 13 of his last 23 regular-season games. And while he is often regarded as a power back, Chubb is a notable home run hitter, with previous season-high runs of 92, 88 and 59 yards.
Claims of Elliott's demise have been largely exaggerated. While he has yet to match the numbers he compiled in his rookie season, Elliott did win a second rushing title in 2018. He followed that up with a third Pro Bowl selection in 2019 after rushing for 1,357 yards. And despite injuries to a slew of teammates last season, Elliott finished 21 yards shy of the 1,000-yard mark. The returns of quarterback Dak Prescott and linemen Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and La'el Collins will certainly help Elliott reclaim his standing as arguably the league's best running back. Elliott has further increased his odds for a big season after reportedly getting himself into the best shape of his career.
The big question regarding Elliott is how many carries he will receive within Mike McCarthy's pass-happy offense. After getting 22 carries in each of his first two games last season, Elliott had just one other 20-plus-carry game in 2020. That being said, it's hard to envision Elliott not getting more carries if he is as fit as advertised, especially during the home stretch of the regular season.
5. J.K. Dobbins
Dobbins was eased into action during his rookie season, but by the end of the year, the former Ohio State Buckeye was the Ravens' top running back. Despite getting just 134 carries, Dobbins finished his rookie season with 805 yards while averaging more than 6 yards per carry. In the last six games of the regular season, Dobbins rumbled for 495 and seven touchdowns on just 77 carries. Dobbins should be the focal point of what has been the league's top-ranked rushing attack over the past two seasons.
How many yards Dobbins gains in 2021 will largely depend on how much the Ravens spread the wealth between him, quarterback Lamar Jackson and fellow running back Gus Edwards. Dobbins will also be running behind an offensive line that lost Pro Bowler tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and center Matt Skura during the offseason. Proven newcomers Alejandro Villanueva and Kevin Zeitler will look to keep Dobbins and the rest of the Ravens' running game rolling in 2021.