As the preseason gets underway and everyone gets hyped for the start of the 2017 NFL season, we’re ranking each and every position for you as you get ready for your drafts. We’ll be releasing the Top 60 running backs 20 at a time. Here’s the top 20…
Tier 1: Picks 1.1 and 1.2
1. David Johnson (Arizona Cardinals) -The most valuable fantasy asset of 2016 returns to top the RB charts. He’s like a running back and receiver rolled into one. With 293 rushing attempts and 120 receiving targets, he was the only player in football to have over 400 touches, and opportunity is king, especially when it’s paired with talent like Johnson’s. He literally checks every box you’d want in an RB prospect. Age? He’s young and ascending. Opportunity? With 293 rushing attempts and 120 receiving targets, he was the only player in football to have over 400 touches. He is his team’s offense. Talent? Transcendent. Off field issues? Unlike other residents of this tier, Johnson is a boy scout. Listen to his quarterback Carson Palmer,“He’s extremely nice, but he’s extremely mature. He’s dedicated to his wife. He’s dedicated to the baby they have coming (in January). He’s beyond his years maturity-wise and extremely intelligent.” In other words, at pick 1.1 you take David Johnson ten times out of ten.
2. Le’Veon Bell (Pittsburgh Steelers) – There is a significant contingent of fantasy enthusiasts who make a persuasive argument that Bell should be the top RB in fantasy football in 2017. He has more years of solid production on his resume. He plays for a better offense on paper and his team is much more balanced. He has a better offensive line. These are all true, However, Bell carries risk that Johnson does not. In his four years in the league, he has only played a whole season once (2014) due to a mixture of injuries and off field issue related suspensions. Still, the upside is there, his 19.95 points per game in 2016 were only a hair shy of Johnson’s 20.4, and that was in a year where Bell only scored 9 TDs, a number which is due for some serious positive regression. If Bell falls past pick 1.2 in your league, you are either playing with idiots, or you live in Baltimore.
Tier 2: The Guys With Only One Risky Thing About Them
3. LeSean McCoy (Buffalo Bills) – The Buffalo Bills have lead the league in rushing yards in each of the past two years, and during that time, they have lead the league in rushing play splits, with a nearly 50% rushing rate (the league average is closer to 40%). This is a rushing team, boy, a rushing team. At the top of the depth chart in Buffalo is Shady McCoy, perennial top five back. Supremely talented and in a great situation, Shady easily rolled in as the RB3 overall in 2016 (standard), and that was despite missing a game as well as having backup Mike Gillislee steal nine touchdowns. Gillislee’s gone this year, and a wheels-up McCoy should be in line for positive TD regression. The main knocks against Shady is his health (he hasn’t played a full season since 2014). His age is also frequently brought up, though 29 isn’t that old.
4. Jordan Howard (Chicago Bears) – Howard is an anomaly– a RB drafted in the fifth round playing on a terrible team who rose to fantasy stardom as a rookie. And rise he did. If one extrapolates out his points per game after he took over in week four of 2016 to a whole season, Howard would have been the RB6 just ahead of Devonta Freeman. Knocks against Howard are his terrible team offense, and his ‘good not great’ abilities. Still, very little about his situation has changed for 2017. He has potentially a QB upgrade, and his line is the same one that dominated in 2017. He’s definitely not sexy, but then again, no one in this tier is.
5. Melvin Gordon (Los Angeles Chargers) – Melvin Gordon was the only top-ten running back in 2016 to have fewer than 1000 yards rushing. He makes his money in the form of touchdowns. Sweet, sweet touchdowns. It’s a nice way to make a living, but it’s risky, since touchdown rates can vary quite a bit from year to year. Still, Gordon plays on a high octane passing offense with plenty of opportunities in the red zone. He makes a fine choice in 2016.
6. DeMarco Murray (Tennessee Titans) – A proven talent on a run oriented team behind one of the best lines in football, Murray has a lot going for him. However, he is not alone. Like beautiful girl swimming in the moonlight, we can almost hear the orchestral music playing. Der-rick… Der-rick… Derrick Henry is a shark, and he’s going to be the feature back in Tennessee. The only question is, when? We think 2018, when DeMarco Murray’s guaranteed contractual money runs out. True, Murray did slow down a bit int he second half of 2016, and Henry did start to come on a bit, but at least for this year, smart money is on the entrenched starter, and this is a situation you want a piece of.
7. Devonta Freeman (Atlanta Falcons) – Freeman is strange, in that he plays in a legitimate RBBC, yet is the only RB to put up 1000+ yards in each of the past two years. I was fiercely against drafting him in 2016, viewing his RB1 overall finish in 2015 as a fluke, but I’ve begun to come around. Still, I expect the Falcon offense to take a step back this year without OC Kyle Shanahan, and if it does Freeman may find himself outside the top ten RBs.
8. Jay Ajayi (Miami Dolphins) – Ajayi shocked everyone by putting up three 200+ yard games in 2016. He returns without much competition for carries in 2017. Still, there is a lot of risk here, since Ajayi has already had a concussion and since Ryan Tannehill is now out for the season. Smokin’ Joe Cutler will be the starting QB, and his impact on Ajayi’s value is still unclear.
Tier 2: Higher Risk, Higher Reward
9. Todd Gurley (Los Angeles Rams) – The number one RB by ADP in 2016 has fallen from grace after a massively disappointing year. Still, he has no competition on a run-first team in an increasingly soft division. We expect him to bounce back in 2017.
10. Ezekiel Elliott (Dallas Cowboys) – Elliott has had a busy off season. He was pulled over for speeding (100 mph!) early in the year, then he was filmed pulling down a young woman’s shirt, and in July he was in a fight at a club, where he may or may not have broken a DJ’s nose (NSFW). Now, he’s been suspended for six games. What a freaking mess. So where do you take him? If you’re pick 1.1 or 1.2, consider taking Zeke as your second round pick and pray that you can win half of your first games.
11. Lamar Miller (Houston Texans) – Ugh. After spending his career as a talented backup, Miller was finally given the chance to be an every-down guy in 2016. It turns out he’s not an every down guy. Drafting Miller in 2017 is like getting into a taxi cab that smells like vomit. Draft with caution.
12. Marshawn Lynch (Oakland Raiders) – Beast Mode is back, and (presumably) ready to run through a motha***** face. After a year off, he’s getting to play in his hometown. It’s a good situation on a run first team with an incredible line, though there are significant concerns about a potential RBBC with Jalen Richardson and DeAndre Washington as well as Lynch’s age (32). If this season doesn’t work out, maybe lynch could keep making pop-rap cameos.
13. Leonard Fournette (Jacksonville Jaguars) – Fournette was a college dynamo, and he’ll be a star in the NFL, though probably not this year. He’s a rookie on a bad team in a possible RBBC with Chris Ivory and possibly T.J. Yeldon. That’s a lot for pure talent alone to overcome.
14. Spencer Ware (Kansas City Chiefs) – Ware started off hot before fizzling in 2016. There are points to be had in the KC backfield, but he’s by no means a sure thing, especially with the addition of Kareem Hunt. Still, Ware has flashed in the past, and he looks to be the starter (for now).
15. Isaiah Crowell (Cleveland Browns) – There may not seem like much upside to a two-down back with middling skill on a team that is not projected to win a single game this year. Still, Cleveland’s offensive line is sneaky-good, and there may be a higher than expected ceiling for Crowell here.
16. Mark Ingram (New Orleans Saints) – Ingram has been a perennial fantasy stud, but the arrival of Adrian Peterson has taken some shine off him, and he’s priced accordingly. If you believe (as I do) that Peterson is washed up, then you should take a long hard look at Ingram.
17. Carlos Hyde (San Francisco 49ers) – Hyde is a talented player, and has flashed sporadically in the past. Still, he’s often injured, on one of the NFL’s worst offenses, and not a lock to be the lead back (with Joe Williams, and even Tim Hightower sniffing at his heels). Hyde is high-risk/middling-reward this year.
18. Ty Montgomery (Green Bay Packers) – As anyone who has owned former Packers RB Eddie Lacy can attest, the Packers can be maddening in their backfield misuse. Still, they are a top-shelf offense, and the lead back job appears to be Montgomery’s to lose. As a converted wide receiver, he offers reception upside that Lacy never really had. There is top-6 upside if Montgomery can get enough touches.
19. C.J. Anderson (Denver Broncos) – Anderson is a talented enough guy who is the victim of poor offensive play, injuries, and competition. Devontae Booker and the ghost of Jamaal Charles are waiting behind him and it looks like… wait… is that it? There’s gotta be someone else, right? I mean, Charles won’t be taking carries away from Anderson any time soon, and Booker struggled mightily when asked to carry the load in 2016 and is currently recovering from wrist surgery.) Anderson could represent some sneaky mid-round value.
20. Mike Gillislee (New England Patriots) – The Patriots have developed a reputation for being a fantasy headache at the RB position, with a player belching out 150 yards and three TDs one week before getting three carries for -2 yards the next. There are three capable backs in addition to Gillislee: James White, Dion Lewis, and Rex Burkhead. With so much uncertainty, the discriminating fantasy player may ask, why bother? Because this backfield produces fantasy points by the fistfull, that’s why. Besides, the Pats backfield isn’t at opaque as it first seems. Gillislee is the two down grinder and goal line guy, Lewis and White are the third-down guys,and Burkhead is punt-returning depth. The New England grinder traditionally gets a lot of work in games where the Pats are winning, and unsurprisingly, they are projected to win more games than any other team in the NFL this season.