Running backs have long been the hottest commodity in fantasy football. But with injuries at the position becoming more common, and more teams taking a by-committe approach, its getting trickier every year to figure out who are the guys to rely on. I’ll try to do my best anyways. Here are how I’d rank the Top 48 RBs in fantasy football, separated into six tiers, with two bonus sleepers at the end.
1. David Johnson
2. Le’Veon Bell
This is a 1A/1B sort of deal. I could give you some reasons Johnson is better than Bell, or I could give you some reasons Bell is better than Johnson. You wouldn’t be wrong going either way.
But obviously, you want me to give you an answer, so I’ll say this: Johnson has yet to miss a start in his young NFL career while Bell has missed 17 of a possible 64 games (more than 25%) due to injuries or suspensions. So obviously, Johnson is the more reliable pick. That said, Bell does play behind the better offensive line.
3. LeSean McCoy
4. Melvin Gordon
This is also a 3A/3B situation. But I’m going to go with McCoy because Gordon has missed five games in two seasons (15.6 percent of potential starts) while McCoy has missed 11 in eight (8.6 percent). McCoy also averaged a whole 1.5 more yards-per-carry than Gordon the previous season (5.4 v.s 3.9).
5. Demarco Murray
6. Devonta Freeman
7. Jordan Howard
8. Jay Ajayi (Liberty High School, Frisco, TX)
9. Ezekiel Elliot
This is where things start to get tricky for me. I thought I’d like Murray a lot more before I did my research, but the truth is he faded down the stretch last year. Meanwhile, fellow backmate and 2016 2nd round pick Derrick Henry gained 238 of his 490 yards and scored four of his five touchdowns in the last five games. Murray is still a fine pick. Tennessee had the third most rushing attempts in the league last year, and will likely be a run-heavy team again in 2017, but you always got to be wary of team taking a by-committee approach, and something tells me Murray is headed toward decreased workload. The worry about Freeman is similar.
He’s a great back who’s produced more than 3,000 total yards, 27 TDs and 127 catches in the last two years, but Tevin Coleman will be very much involved after gaining 941 yards and scoring 11 TDs in 2016… Howard had a tremendous rookie season and has no one to compete for carries against. His average of 96 rushing yards in games he started were 3rd best in the league, and his 5.2 yards per carry were 4th.
Now that I think about it, he probably belongs above the two guys I have listed before him… Ajayi was very up-and-down last year. He had three games of more than 200 yards, but averaged just 58 rushing yards in his other 11 starts. I like his potential to be a bigger threat in the passing game. He caught only 27 balls last year (less than two per game), but notched 50 receptions (more than four a game) in his last year of college at Boise State.
And now we get to Elliot. The guy obviously isn’t a first round pick anymore. But if you can get him at any point after that, pounce. All you got to do is get his backup, Darren McFadden, in the 7th or 8th, and then you’ll have the Dallas Cowboys running game locked down for the entire season. It’s like when Le’Veon Bell was suspended for the first two games last year and his backup, DeAngelo Williams, rushed for 237 yards, caught 10 passes for 66 yards, and scored three TDs in his absence.
Behind the best offensive line in the NFL, McFadden will likely still put up solid number in those first six games, and when Elliot comes back, he’ll be angry, rested, and still playing behind the best O-line in football. If you plan on making the fantasy playoffs, you’re going to want Elliot on your team when that time comes, not somebody else’s.
10. Marshawn Lynch
11. Joe Mixon
12. Christian McCaffrey
13. Leonard Fournette
14. Lamar Miller
15. Ty Montgomery (St. Mark’s School of Texas, Dallas, TX)
16. Isaiah Crowell
17. Todd Gurley
18. Mark Ingram
I Love Lynch this year. I’m a big believer that a RB is only as good as his offensive line, and the group he’ll be running behind in Oakland is a GINORMOUS upgrade from the line that was last blocking for him in Seattle. He’ll also have Derek Carr, Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree to keep defenses honest. I know Lynch is on the wrong side of 30, but he could not have walked into a better situation to make his comeback.
Next, I got three rookie RBs definitely worth rostering: Mixon, McCaffrey and Fournette. I’ve been a proponent of drafting rookie RBs for a long time. RBs are a ticking time bomb the second they make it to the league. It’s just a matter of time before they suffer an injury. It’s like buying a car. You know it’s going to break down at some point. Would you feel safer buying the new car with no miles on it? or the old, beat-up car that kind of makes weird noises when you go over speed bumps? Also, the learning curve for a rookie running back isn’t nearly as steep as it is for other youngsters. It’s basically, here’s the ball, run for your life. Unfortunately, others have caught up to my line of thinking so you’re not going to get the value on these guys that you could have five years ago.
But still, investing in one of these three guys is a smart move. Mixon and McCaffrey have shined throughout camp, and Fournette has the Jaguars backfield all to himself in a league that has fewer and fewer “workhorse” backs every year… Miller had a solid season for a team that ranked fifth in rushing attempts and could be ever better if the QB play improves… Montgomery successfully pulled off the switch from WR to RB last year and should get plenty of chances to score in an offense directed by Aaron Rodgers.
The Browns have quietly put together one of the best run-blocking lines in the league, and while poor QB play will likely put a ceiling on Crowell’s potential, coach Hue Jackson said that he regretted not getting Crowell the ball more last year, which makes me think he’s due for a larger workload in 2017. Gurley has all the skills, but couldn’t be in a worse situation. His O-line stinks and his QB might be even stinkier… Ingram likely won’t get enough touches to be a #1 back, but I think he’ll still get the ball more than anybody else in that backfield, and in the Saint’s offense, that should be good enough to be a solid #2.
19. Carlos Hyde
20. Dalvin Cook
21. Theo Riddick
22. Danny Woodhead
23. LaGarrette Blount
24. Spencer Ware
25. C.J. Anderson
26. Tevin Coleman
27. Bilal Powell
28. Ameer Abdullah
29. Adrian Peterson (Palestine High School, Palestine, TX)
30. Frank Gore
31. Matt Forte
Hyde averaged a robust 4.6 yards per carry last year but again will be stuck in a crappy offense that will hamper his ability to score touchdowns and break runs into the open field. Cook is another talented rookie with plenty of upside. Riddick and Woodhead are great PPR (point-per-reception) options. Riddick caught 53 passes in just 10 games last year and 80 in a full season the year before. In the last four years, Woodhead has twice sustained season-ending injuries within the opening month. The two seasons that didn’t happen, however, he averaged 78.5 catches for 680 yards and six TDs to go with 382 rushing yards and 2.5 TDs on the ground. Those are pretty good numbers.
Now he’s part of a Baltimore offense that completed 118 passes to its RBs last year, 26.9 percent of all receptions. Riddick and Woodhead are very much niche players, but Riddick was the #8 RB in PPR leagues last year on a PPG basis, and even in standard leagues, both are very much worth rostering. Blount won’t get anywhere close to the 18 TDs he scored in New England last year, but he’s still a big, physical back playing behind an above-average offensive line that’s paved the way for 31 rushing TDs the last two seasons. Ware will be feeling the heat from rookie Kareem Hunt, who the Chief traded three draft picks to move up 18 spots on the third round to select, and might be a risky pick at his current value.
Anderson will never be the fastest back in the league, but he’s experienced and will be leaned on as Denver figures out their QB situation. Coleman is only a change-of-pace back behind Devonta Freeman, but he should be able to put up decent numbers again in Atlanta’s vaunted offense, and if Freeman were to go down, Coleman would automatically be a top-10 RB. Powell averaged 5.5 yards per carry and caught 58 balls last year. If you’re going to get a NYJ back, he is the one to own. Abdullah looked great in week 1 before succumbing to a season-ending injury last year. If we see that Abdullah, he could be a steal.
As a Big XII fan, I’ll never forget how insanely dominant Peterson was when he burst onto the scene at OU. Because of those memories, I just can’t in my right mind give up on the guy. I know he was averaging a paltry 1.9 yards per carry before his season-ending injury last year, but he went for more than 1,700 total yards and 11 TDs the year before that! I’m sure there’s a good reason most teams balked at signing him this offseason, and I know he’s joining a crowded backfield in New Orleans, but I just won’t believe it.
AP ain’t done, and if I’m right, you’ll be getting incredible value on one of the best RBs of all-time… Gore and Forte are aging veterans playing behind bad offensive lines. I would pretty much avoid Forte. Gore might be OK if your desperate, but just know that his ceiling is low.
32. James White
33. Latavius Murray
34. Kareem Hunt
35. Jonathan Stewart
36. Rob Kelley
37. C.J. Prosise
38. Doug Martin
39. Darren McFadden
40. Derrick Henry
41. Paul Perkins
42. Eddie Lacy
43. Terrance West
44. Duke Johnson
45. Mike Gillislee
46. Thomas Rawls
47. Samaje Perine (Hendrickson High School, Pflugerville, TX)
48. DeAndre Washington (Fort Bend Marshall High School, Missouri City, TX)
Time to buy some lotto tickets! At this point in the draft, there are no guarantees. It’s mostly part-time players just hoping for the guy ahead of them to get injured. There is one guy in this group I really like, however, and that is White. Tom Brady may have won Super Bowl LI MVP, but White was the unsung hero of the Patriot’s wild comeback. White caught a Super Bowl record 14 passes, amassed 139 total yards, and scored three TDs, with a two-point conversion to boot. His 20 points in that game are also a Super Bowl record. Everyone expects Mike Gillislee to take all of Blount’s goal line work, but in the biggest game of the year, it was White, not Blount, who scored two goal line TDs and had a two-point conversion plunge.
Despite how great New England’s offense is, Patriot RBs are tough to own in fantasy because Belichick can be very fickle about who touches the ball. But I think White proved something to Belichick in last year’s Super Bowl, and I think he’ll be rewarded with a leading role in 2017. If that’s the case, White could be headed to monster season. New England has a top-10 offensive line and arguably the best QB in the league. The Patriots have scored a league-high 90 rushing TDs the last five seasons and are third in TD passes to RBs during that span.
Murray was quietly the 11th best RB in PPR leagues last fall, but all indications are that he’s behind Cook on Minnesota’s depth chart… Hunt is a rookie RB you can get at great value, but he’ll likely be in a timeshare with Ware… Stewart turned 30 during the offseason, but with Carolina apparently moving away from using Cam Newton as a goal line back, Stewart could be in line for some more TDs… Kelley is the #1 back in Washington and he’ll be playing behind an offensive line that returns all five starters (a rarity in the NFL), but his nickname is “Fat Rob.” Can you really trust a guy nicknamed “Fat Rob?”
Who will be the lead back in Seattle? Will it be Lacy? Will it be Rawls? Will it be Prosise? Will it even matter with them running behind the worst offensive line in football? The latter of those questions might be the most pertinent, but I got my money on Prosise. Lacy is big, but not fast. Rawls is fast, but not big. Prosise is a little bit of both, and is by far the best receiver out of the backfield… Martin will be suspended the first three games, but is getting most the first-team work at training camp. Martin has two seasons of more than 1,400 rushing yards, but his other three years in the league were injury-marred disasters. It’s tough to predict what Martin will be this year, but if he hits, he could me a moneymaker.
I said earlier in this column that McFadden will be the guy that carries the rock for the Cowboys while Elliot is sidelined with his suspension, but watch out for Alfred Morris, who had three straight 1,000 yard seasons for the Redskins from 2012-14. He’s looked like the sharper back through two preseason games. I’ll definitely be monitoring this situation, and suggest you to as well, especially if you drafted Elliott. I strongly believe whoever the Cowboys trot out for the first six games will put up solid numbers, and if Elliot were to get injured after returning from his suspension, that guy would be a must-start the rest of the way.
Henry will spell DeMarco Murray from time-to-time, and could see his value shoot through the roof if Murray goes down with an injury. Perkins should probably be higher solely because he’ll be the lead back for the Giants, but he’s an average runner at best playing behind a porous offensive line. Johnson is a dynamic player who’s averaged 57 catches in his two years in the league, but he’s solidly behind Crowell on the depth chart. And, you know, he plays for the Browns.
A lot of pundits are hyping Gillislee as the guy to own in New England, but as I said earlier, I disagree with that sentiment. Perine is a guy I thought I’d like a lot more before I did my research. He’s a rookie RB who would have produced much bigger numbers in college if he didn’t play alongside Joe Mixon, and the only guy he has to beat out for carries is nicknamed “Fat Rob.”
But camp reports seem to be down on Perine, who’s apparently struggling to pick up blitzes and is having major problems with ball security. Washington is kind of a homer pick. I got to see a lot of him when he was running for my alma mater, Texas Tech. He has great vision, is slippery between the tackles and can catch out of the backfield. If Lynch, who played just seven games his last season in the league and turned 31 in April, goes down, Washington could step in and have a huge season.
TWO OTHER ROOKIES I LIKE
As I said before, I love rookie RBs. Here are two guys going late in fantasy drafts who I think could be pleasant surprises.
Jamaal Williams, Green Bay – The fourth round pick out of BYU is reportedly putting pressure on presumed starter Ty Montgomery. Remember, Montgomery entered the league as a WR, not a RB. It’s not his natural position and he struggles in pass protection, something Williams excels at.
Remember in 2013 when Knowshon Moreno surprisingly beat out Montee Ball for the starting job in Denver and went on to have a monster season as Peyton Manning’s sidekick? Big reason for that was pass protection. When your offense revolves around an elite quarterback, you want a running back who can keep your prized asset upright. Williams can do that better than Montgomery, and unlike Montgomery, he actually played the position in college. If Williams does indeed beat out Montgomery for the No. 1 job in GB, he will be the steal of steals in fantasy drafts.
Joe Williams, San Francisco – Williams had a lot of red flags that scared most teams off from drafting him, but the dude rushed for 1,407 yards and 10 TDs in just nine games in his senior year at Utah. You may have to go way down the list to find him, but those lists are practically irrelevant when you get to this point in the draft, so Williams might be worth the flyer.
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