September 15, 2023 12:00pm

The NFL and This Season's Breakout Stars

Running backs no longer earn premium pay in the NFL nor do they dominate on the field – at least not dominate like an Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders or Emmitt Smith who could stack rushing crown after rushing crown.

Photo of Rick Gosselin
NFL Correspondent

Running backs no longer earn premium pay in the NFL nor do they dominate on the field – at least not dominate like an Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders or Emmitt Smith who could stack rushing crown after rushing crown.

A different back has led the league in rushing each of the last three seasons – Derrick Henry in 2020, Jonathan Taylor in 2021 and Josh Jacobs in 2022. So that’s the topic of this week’s NFL Power Poll question. We asked our panel of former players, coaches, officials, talent evaluators, writers and broadcasters what running back would break through as a first-time rushing champion in 2023 and offered up eight options.

All eight received support – but Nick Chubb of the Cleveland Browns ran away with it, receiving 85 of the 169 votes cast. Christian McCaffrey of the 49ers was next with 49 votes, followed by Travis Etienne of the Jaguars with 12. The other four received single-digit support: Saquon Barkley of the Giants, Kenneth Walker III of the Seahawks, David Montgomery of the Lions and Tyler Allgeier of the Falcons.

Six of the backs were 1,000-yard rushers last season, led by the 1,525 yards of Chubb, who finished third in the NFL in rushing behind Jacobs and Henry. That made the Chubb the heavy favorite in 2023.

“Chubb runs behind a solid offensive line and the Browns have been a heavy run team in recent years,” said Ira Kaufman of and also a Hall of Fame voter. “He has been very consistent, with an impressive yards per carry average.”

Added Hall of Fame voter Barry Wilner: “While such teams as Atlanta and Seattle are run-first teams much of the time, Nick Chubb is the best of the running backs listed. He has come close to leading the league in rushing before. The injury to (Pro Bowl tackle) Jack Conklin could damage his chances, but I don't see Cleveland changing its offensive approach.”

McCaffrey leads the league in rushing after one week with his 152 yards on 22 carries in a route of the Steelers. He has rushed for 100 yards in four of his last seven games with the 49ers.

“Kyle Shanahan likes to throw the ball,” said former Hall of Fame voter Vito Stellino, “but the 49ers figure to be ahead a lot in the fourth quarter so they can run McCaffrey.”

Added Bruce Castleberry, the sports editor of the Boston Herald: “If healthy, McCaffrey is elite. But that’s a big if. He easily could compile over 2,500 yards of offense in a full season.”

In our second question, we explored passers. Only nine quarterbacks have passed for 5,000 yards in a single NFL season. Only four are still active: Justin Herbert, Patrick Mahomes, Matthew Stafford and Jameis Winston. So we asked our panel who the next quarterback to join the fraternity of 5,000-yard passers would be and again gave eight options.

Again, all eight received votes – but Tua Tagovailoa of the Miami Dolphins ran away with it, receiving 93 votes. Travis Lawrence of the Jaguars was next with 23 votes, followed by Joe Burrow of the Bengals with 22. Josh Allen of the Bills received 12 votes, Kirk Cousins of the Vikings 11 votes and the other three

quarterbacks – Jared Goff of the Lions, Dak Prescott of the Cowboys and Derek Carr of the Saints – all received single-digit support.

Tua made a strong case for himself on opening day by passing for 466 yards in a road victory over the Los Angeles Chargers. It was the fourth best opening-game performance in NFL history with three Hall of Famers ahead of Tua on the list – Norm Van Brocklin, Tom Brady and Dan Marino.

“The only thing keeping McCaffrey and Tua from going nuts statistically are injuries,” said Mike Chappell of in Indianapolis. “Both are in ideal situations for monster years.”

In his first three seasons, Tagovailoa has missed 14 games with injury. Lawrence hasn’t missed a start in his three seasons, passing for 3,600 yards in his first year and 4,100 in his second.

“Lawrence has the weaponry around him now to go big,” Castleberry said.

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of significant key players in American sports today. It's member list draws on people from media, team management, and league management. It is not a scientific survey, but the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those who know most about the sport.

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