Fantasy Football: Running Backs Tiers

Le'Veon Bell

This is the big enchilada when it comes to fantasy positions and that cannot be overstated. Investing early, and heavily at running back is how you set yourself up for success. Only four players in 2017 appeared on 20% or more of fantasy championship rosters and the top three were all running backs – Todd Gurley (47%), LeVeon Bell (26.9%) and Kareem Hunt (20.5%) – the fourth was Julio Jones (20.1%). Among the 8 most owned players, 6 were running backs.

Certainly, a partial factor here was Gurley’s #1 overall fantasy production combined with his 3rd round ADP and Hunt’s Top 5 stats as the #10 back off the board. When you get that kind of value in addition to your top two picks in the draft you should be in great shape. Bell, however consistently sits atop this list year in and year out and you’re certainly paying top dollar for him.

The reason for this is simple – there are very few workhorse running backs in the NFL and they are the only position capable of contributing significantly in multiple fantasy categories. A true workhorse back will not only benefit from volume as a runner but also targets as a pass catcher. If you fail to grab one early, you may wind up limping through a season rotating what you hope to be “hot hands” all season long or praying you hit it big on the waiver wire. Certainly, there will be some studs who are waiver adds this year as there are every year, but having locked in a safe bet early and adding a stud through the wire or as a late flier will virtually lock up your trip to the championship game.

Verse one, chapter one of my Fantasy Bible states: “Thou shalt draft the three-down monster backs before all else.”

So, who are those guys?

TIER 1 – The Elites

Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, Kareem Hunt, Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson

Bell is as consistent and dependable as they come, averaging 2000+ yards from scrimmage and 11 TD over the first five seasons of his career. He is the epitome of a dual threat, stat stuffer and should be one of the first players off the board. Gurley’s 2017 breakout was technically a “surprise” based on his 2016 snoozer but it was really a validation of his monster rookie campaign. Smart owners had Gurley pegged for a major bounce back last year and no one will be sleeping on the back in 2018. Gurley will be Bell’s top competition for #1 overall.

Some may argue that Hunt and Johnson don’t deserve to be on this list this year but the reality is that both are volume heavy backs who are very productive in the passing game and have no competition behind them. Hunt may have only one season under his belt but when he touched the ball 25 times or more, the Chiefs won and with a rookie QB on the team, Kansas City will want to run the ball. Johnson may face stiff opposition as the only real offensive weapon in Arizona outside of Fitzgerald but that was true in 2016 when he led all running backs in fantasy points. This year he’ll have more capable QB play in the form of Sam Bradford or Josh Rosen so the arrow is pointing up here.

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Ezekiel Elliott is simply the heart and soul of the Cowboys. When he was absent from the team in 2017 serving his suspension, Dallas looked lost. Elliott’s elite ball carrying ability has often over-shadowed his sneaky good receiving skills and the man is a pure TD machine.

“These five names are all Top 10 players if not your #1-5 overall picks.”

PROJECTIONS:

NAME TEAM RU YD RU TD REC  REC YD REC TD FUM POINTS
David Johnson ARI 1315 12 65 700 4 4 354.5
LeVeon Bell PIT 1280 10 70 630 5 2 347
Todd Gurley LAR 1325 11 55 660 4 3 337.5
Ezekiel Elliot DAL 1360 10 45 465 4 1 309.5
Kareem Hunt KC 1380 10 50 430 2 1 301

*Points based on PPR formats

TIER 2 – The Supremes

Alvin Kamara, Melvin Gordon, Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook

This group could have a lot more members but I limited it to these four because they own their respective backfields without any competition and are pure volume monsters.

Kamara is arguably an elite with Mark Ingram shelved for a four-game suspension and a likely heavy workload in store as the feature back in New Orleans. The only reason I kept Kamara back a rank is because it remains to be seen how he fairs as a workhorse and whether that impacts his overall explosiveness. The same is true for Dalvin Cooks who is coming off an ACL injury that cost him almost all of his rookie campaign in 2017. Cook looked like an every-down stud in his limited work and he is mostly unchallenged in Minnesota for touches making him a viable candidate to join the ranks of the Elites if he can stay on the field.

Gordon is far from a sexy option and anyone who has owned him can attest that he can be frustrating at times. He has talent and certainly opportunity but he has failed over and over again to impress as a ball carrier with a career 3.9 ypc. Gordon makes this list because he gets soo many touches as both a runner and a pass catcher making him a volume monster who can anchor your running back corps.

Fournette may already be an elite option after he posted the 8th most fantasy points among all running backs in only 13 games. Perhaps the most shocking was the big bruisers 36 catches out of the backfield showing off his potential upside as a receiver. Fournette’s rookie campaign was similar to the rookie year of Todd Gurley and if he can avoid the 2nd year slump that Gurley had, the Jacksonville runner could be in a position to make a run at #1 overall stats.

“… the Jacksonville runner could be in a position to make a run at #1 overall stats.”

PROJECTIONS

NAME TEAM RU YD RU TD REC  REC YD REC TD FUM POINTS
Alvin Kamara NO 1020 10 75 770 5 1 342
Melvin Gordon LAC 1180 9 55 495 3 1 292.5
Dalvin Cook MIN 1260 10 35 315 3 2 266.5
Leonard Fournette JAX 1235 9 35 310 2 2 251.5

TIER 3 – The Greats

Saquon Barkley, LeSean McCoy, Christian McCaffery, Devonta Freeman, Jordan Howard, Jerrick McKinnon

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Barkley has all of the makings of an elite back but given that he’s never taken an NFL snap, we simply can’t grant him the status. Barkley should be coming off draft boards in the 2nd round as the only legitimate all-around back for the Giants and he’s worth the pick. McCoy is also worthy of a higher ranking than this but his off-field issues leave his future as murky at best. Still, the back has averaged 1600 total yards and 10 TD over his career and was the #7 overall back in 2017 on a terrible Bills team.

McCaffery, Freeman, and McKinnon are all in similar situations that could be considered time-shares. CJ Anderson will threaten early down work for McCaffery, Tevin Coleman will take drives away from Freeman, and Matt Breida is going to take work away from McKinnon. All three backs are explosive enough to pile up 1200-1500 all-purpose yards on the ground and through the air with a run at double-digit touchdowns making them solid RB2 material and names that should come off the board in the 2nd and 3rd rounds.

Jordan Howard is an interesting back who could wind up in any of the top three tiers or lower. Howard helped win fantasy leagues everywhere as a waiver wire gem who had 1600 total yards in 2016 before “slumping” to only 1300 yards in 2017. Howard’s lack of usage in the passing game last year thanks to Tarik Cohen’s emergence keeps expectations tampered but Howard is a capable receiver.

“I think Howard’s primed for a rebound as the feature back on a much improved Chicago team.”

PROJECTIONS:

NAME TEAM RU YD RU TD REC  REC YD REC TD FUM POINTS
Saquon Barkley NYG 1200 10 45 500 3 1 291
Christian McCaffery CAR 705 4 85 700 6 2 281.5
LeSean McCoy BUF 1215 8 55 400 2 3 270.5
Devonta Freeman ATL 1015 9 54 450 2 3 260.5
Jerrick McKinnon SF 950 5 55 470 4 1 249
Jordan Howard CHI 1215 9 25 200 1 1 224.5

TIER 4 – The Best of the Rest

Rashaad Penny, Kenyan Drake, Derrick Henry, Joe Mixon, Alex Collins, LaMar Miller, Jay Ajayi

Penny is an intriguing rookie prospect who was a monster for San Diego State as a capable feature back. He arguably belongs a lot higher on this list and I have him projected to be a very successful back, but the presence of Chris Carson is casting a little cold water on his prospects. Penny might be one of the biggest steals in the draft this year.

Drake, Collins, and Ajayi should be primed to anchor their respective backfields giving them some volume upside. Drake will be pushed by the aging Frank Gore and young sleeper Kalen Ballage but he will get the chance to own the feature role out of the gate. Ajayi is the feature back for the defending Super Bowl champs but he’ll be pushed by Corey Clement and Wendall Smallwood who both looked good in 2017. Collins has less competition and could be the best option of this entire group as the primary carrier in Baltimore. All three are back-end RB2 options and viable flex picks in the 4th-6th rounds.

Henry, Mixon, and Miller are all capable of anchoring their offenses but are all pushed by talented backups who will steal touches. Henry and Mixon offer more upside as younger, emerging backs who will be given chances to lock down their backfields and could turn into Supreme options if everything breaks their way. Miller is on his last hurrah and needs to show something or turn into a veteran afterthought.

This entire group has question marks and any of them could turn into great or supreme options if their backups are hurt or they take off early.

“Penny might be one of the biggest steals in the draft this year.”

PROJECTIONS:

NAME TEAM RU YD RU TD REC  REC YD REC TD FUM POINTS
Rashaad Penny SEA 1175 8 30 350 1 1 234.5
Joe Mixon CIN 1125 8 35 325 2 3 234
Derrick Henry TEN 1105 8 25 265 1 1 214
Alex Collins BAL 1050 8 25 200 1 2 200
Kenyan Drake MIA 1005 5 30 260 2 2 194.5
Lamar Miller HOU 860 4 40 310 2 1 191
Jay Ajayi PHI 930 6 15 135 1 155.5
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TIER 5 – The Wild Bunch

Derrius Guice, Devontae Booker, Jordan Wilkins, Rex Burkhead, Marshawn Lynch, Ronald Jones, Kerryon Johnson

Each of these backs has a path to great seasons in 2018 and could move up these rankings rapidly, but all of them could just as easily fall flat.

Guice is probably the most exciting of the group with his talent and the situation he finds himself in on a Redskins team desperate for an early down grinder. However, the presence of Chris Thompson will hamper Guice’s ability to carve out every down work. Similarly, Booker is first in line for the passing work and while he’s going to also get the first crack at early carries in Denver, Royce Freeman will be nipping at his heels and could steal his carries. Both backs could be feature back sleepers and both could be yawners.

Burkhead is going to be a major factor in the Patriots passing game and his ability to work as the short yardage back successfully will keep him in the mix on early downs making him a sneaky all-around contributor who could get to 1200 all-purpose yards the creative way. Ronald Jones is another promising rookie talent who enters a wide open Tampa Bay backfield situation ripe for the taking. Jones is a strong pass catcher which will make sure he’s on the field often and if he can pass up the sketchy depth for early-down work he could turn out to be a league winner.

Wilkins and Kerryon Johnson are talented backs who are also staring down teams that have running back situations that are far from locked in. Wilkins will get every chance to steal the early work from Marlon Mack and the winner of that battle could soar up these rankings. Johnson really only needs to by-pass Ameer Abdullah to find his place among the RB2 population. Both bear watching closely.

Marshawn Lynch would be much higher, but the presence of Doug Martin is a concern. Oakland may elect to keep Lynch fresh by splitting carries between the two so caution is required.

“Guice is probably the most exciting of the group with his talent and the situation he finds himself in.”

PROJECTIONS:

NAME TEAM RU YD RU TD REC  REC YD REC TD FUM POINTS
Devontae Booker DEN 1105 7 35 320 1 1 223.5
Ronald Jones TB 760 6 35 325 2 1 189.5
Rex Burkhead NE 425 6 45 390 3 1 178.5
Marshawn Lynch OAK 630 6 25 215 2 1 155.5
Derrius Guice WAS 875 7 10 105 1 1 154
Kerryon Johnson DET 510 5 15 135 109.5
Jordan Wilkins IND 475 5 15 135 1 104
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Ben Stecker

Ben Stecker

Author SportsTalkLine.com at SportsTalkLine
Writer, sports connoisseur, Pacific Northwesterner. Rarely met a sport I couldn't be great friends with. Follow me on twitter @Softball_Guy
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