Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire
Welcome! Our preseason rankings continue today with our top running backs for fantasy football in 2018. We’ll be doing a top 60 list, 20 at a time. Today, we start with the top 20 (and for our other rankings, be sure to check our rankings hub).
A quick note before we start (I made the same note in my quarterback rankings): You’ll see me reference two stats you may not be familiar with—DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) and Effective yards, both courtesy of Football Outsiders. If you want an in-depth explanation of DVOA, it can be found here, but the short version of it is this—DVOA is a stat that represents the value of a particular quarterback, per play, over the average quarterback in the same situation. If you’re a baseball fan, you can think of it similar to WAR. A zero DVOA is league-average, so a positive DVOA is above-average and a negative one is below-average. For scale, 30-40% tends to be the top end, while -30-40% and worse tends to be the low end.
Effective yards just takes DVOA and translates it into a yardage figure. So if a player has more effective yards than standard yards, they probably played worse than their stats indicate, and conversely, if a player has fewer effective yards than standard yards, they likely played better than they should have.
And just for fun, I’m naming the tiers after my favorite John Coltrane albums.
Tier 1: Blue Train
1. Le’Veon Bell (Pittsburgh Steelers) – I know a lot of people would put Todd Gurley here and I wouldn’t blame them at all. But I tend to be risk-averse in fantasy, and I think some regression is coming for Gurley, which is why I’m more inclined to roll with a high-floor guy like Bell. I’m not worried about Bell sitting out training camp, he did the same thing last year and he was amazing, posting 1,315 yards and a solid 7.9% DVOA along with that. Not only that, but Bell is on the last year of his contract, and I’m betting he doesn’t negotiate an extension. As a result, I bet the Steelers run him as hard as they can, and the more times Bell has the ball in his hands, the better for fantasy players.
2. Todd Gurley (Los Angeles Rams) – Todd Gurley was everything we wanted him to be and more last year—and while I’m expecting some touchdown regression to come, he’s still an extremely talented back in a good offense. All that being said, Gurley saw at least eight defenders in the box just 16.85% of the time last year, good for the third-fewest in football. I’d expect that to change this year as defenses make stopping Gurley a focus of their playcalling.
3. David Johnson (Arizona Cardinals) – If you drafted David Johnson with your first-round pick last year, I feel bad for you. After suffering a season-ending injury in Week 1, a lot of Johnson owners were stuck with a crisis right away. The bonus to Johnson suffering the injury in Week 1 is that he’s had a lot of time to heal, and he’s really healthy and ready to go for the start of this season. There’s no doubt about Johnson’s talent, but there is doubt about the rest of the Cardinals, who have a new head coach and a new quarterback in Sam Bradford (or, if we’re being honest, a mix of Mike Glennon and Josh Rosen because we all know Bradford’s probably going to get hurt). The team also has a very questionable offensive line. Mike Iupati and Andre Smith have had success in the past, but they also have injury questions. That being said, the Cardinals offensive line was solid in short-yardage situations and was middle-of-the-pack in keeping their running backs from getting stuffed, but they were dead-last in second-level yards (runs of 5-10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage) and open field yards (runs of more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage) which will likely prove a challenge for Johnson.
Tier 2: A Love Supreme
4. Ezekiel Elliott (Dallas Cowboys) – That six-game suspension last year hung over Elliott’s draft status like a massive specter, and it ended up coming at an awful time during Weeks 10-15. Still, Elliott was excellent last year, as you would expect, finishing the year with an 11.9% DVOA (good for eighth-best in the league) and he’s got a full season ahead of him behind one of the best offensive lines in football (who got even better by drafting Connor Williams). If the Cowboys offensive line has one weakness, it’s that their relatively mediocre in second-level and open field yards, but that’s a minor complaint. Expect Elliott to have an excellent year this year, especially in non-PPR leagues.
5. Alvin Kamara (New Orleans Saints) – Alvin Kamara was amazing last year. Given that Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson were in the Saints’ backfield, he was generally thought of as a nice PPR guy with some upside, and he ended up exploding last year for 917 rushing yards and 738 receiving yards, and that’s after barely being used in the first three weeks of the season. He also finished the year leading the league with a ridiculous 44.5% DVOA and gets to run behind a Saints offensive line that finished top in the league in open field yards and third in the league in second-level yards, which means big plays should come for Kamara. With Ingram suspended for the first four games of the season, expect another big year for Kamara.
6. Leonard Fournette (Jacksonville Jaguars) – Leonard Fournette is absurdly talented. Last year, he finished the season with 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns despite dealing with nagging injuries and ultimately missing three games in the year. Within the first six weeks of the season, Fournette saw four top-10 finishes, with his worst finish being 15th in Week 2. But he wore down as the season went on, missing Weeks 7-9 and finishing 43rd and 40th in weeks 10 and 12 respectively. But when he’s healthy, Fournette is ridiculously good, and on the plus side, he’s shown up to camp this year at 223 pounds, the lowest he’s been in a long time, suggesting that perhaps he won’t wear down as badly as he did last year. The Jags have also improved their offensive line, signing Andrew Norwell in the offseason, but they’ve still got Cam Robinson and A.J. Cann on that line—two linemen who struggled mightily last season. Robinson was a talented lineman at Alabama, and I’m hopeful that he’ll make some strides between his rookie and sophomore campaigns. If the Jags’ line gets better and Fournette can stay healthy, he could be an excellent back this season.
Tier 3: Giant Steps
7. Saquon Barkley (New York Giants) – Barkley was dangerous in college, and it’s why the Giants took him with the second-overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft. Barkley is going to get run into the ground—while Eli Manning and the passing offense will have a place, Barkley will be the feature of the Giants’ offense. Unfortunately, he’s got an offensive line in front of him that was near the bottom of the league in most metrics. However, the Giants line improved this offseason, signing Nate Solder to a massive deal and drafting Will Hernandez, but they’ve still got Jon Halapio and Ereck Flowers to deal with on that line. I don’t expect the line to be terrible, it’ll be better, and even behind a mediocre offensive line, I think Barkley can succeed. And I don’t expect Barkley to see a stacked box a whole ton, as the threat of Odell Beckham Jr. will keep opposing defenses from doing that (and if they do do it, they’ll regret it pretty quickly).
8. Kareem Hunt (Kansas City Chiefs) – Hunt was the big story at the beginning of the year last year, putting up top-five performances in the first three weeks of the season, but he slowed down in a big way, finishing 15th or worst in five out of the next six weeks. But those who were patient with Hunt were rewarded, as he finished inside the top-10 in Weeks 15 and 16. So what can we expect from Hunt this year? He should be a top-10 back without a doubt in my mind—he’s got the talent, as evidenced by his 11.9% DVOA (good for sixth in the league) and he’ll be running behind an offensive line that finished top-10 in short-yardage runs, second-level yards, open field yards, and preventing the running back from getting stuffed.
9. Dalvin Cook (Minnesota Vikings) – Cook flashed a lot of promise in a short time last year, with two top-10 finishes in the first four weeks of his NFL career. Unfortunately, his season was cut short by an ACL injury, but the upshot of the injury happening when it did is that he had plenty of time to recover. He’s a talented back, but he’s going to have to run behind a poor offensive line that’s likely to get worse with the sad, untimely death of offensive line coach Tony Sparano. Still, Cook has a lot of upside and will be in a good passing offense that should open up defenses for Cook to take advantage of.
10. Melvin Gordon (Los Angeles Chargers) – While Gordon may have finished last season with a -6.8% DVOA, he made up for it in volume, finishing the year averaging 21.4 carries per game. While he may not have been the most efficient running back in fantasy last year, fantasy points often largely come from volume, and Gordon has exactly that. If he didn’t get as much work as he does, he’d likely be more of an RB2 than an RB1.
11. Devonta Freeman (Atlanta Falcons) – Slowly but surely, Tevin Coleman has been taking touches away from Freeman, which has limited his fantasy value some. Still, he’s good when he’s out there and he’s in a solid offense with a great offensive line that finished top-10 in second-level yards and open field yards last year. With Andy Levitre fully healthy and the addition of Brandon Fusco, the line should be better than it was last year (or at least more consistent), which will be good news for Freeman. However, the presence of Coleman will limit Freeman to a borderline RB1.
12. Jerick McKinnon (San Francisco 49ers) – McKinnon has flashed plenty of upside in his career but has constantly been stifled but other running backs, whether it be Adrian Peterson, Dalvin Cook, Latavius Murray, or Matt Asiata. But now McKinnon is in San Francisco with the starting gig in a Kyle Shanahan offense that should be good through the air, which is great news. McKinnon finished last season with a poor -12.7% DVOA, but I believe much of his struggles can be sourced to the Vikings offensive line. Now, he’s behind a 49ers line that’s got one of the better offensive linemen in the league in Joe Staley and added Mike McGlinchey in the NFL Draft. They’ve still got Joshua Garnett to deal with at the right guard position, but this offensive line should be good, and likely will be one of the best ones McKinnon has ever run behind. He’s a bit of a risky pick, but I like his talent and I like the situation he’s in, and I think he presents a lot of upside.
13. Jordan Howard (Chicago Bears) – Howard gave fantasy owners a lot of ups and downs, finishing with three top-10 performances and seven top-20 performances last year, but also a handful of terrible games (like Weeks 2, 12, and 13). Howard did see his yards per carry drop from 5.2 to 4.1 last year, which isn’t great, but he also finished with a decent 5.8% DVOA . I think a lot of Howard’s struggles last year can be traced to the Bears’ offensive line, as Howard recorded the 14th-best DVOA last season but the 35th-best success rate (successful running plays divided by total running plays), suggesting he can break off big runs but is getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage a fair bit. That being said, the addition of James Daniels in the draft at the left guard position should prove beneficial for the running game, and if Cody Whitehair can improve to what we’ve seen him do before and Kyle Long can stay healthy, this offensive line could look a lot better than it did last year, which would be excellent news for Howard.
14. Alex Collins (Baltimore Ravens) – I was a big Alex Collins believer once the Ravens brought him up from the practice squad last year and I’m an even bigger believer in him this year. From Week 8 onward last year, Collins had six top-15 finishes with three of those being top-10 finishes. He’s an incredibly difficult guy to bring down and he’s quick. Yes, he’ll have Kenneth Dixon to contend with for carries, but given his injury history (he’s already missed a week of training camp with a hamstring injury), I’m not all that worried. Plus, I think the Ravens will roll with Collins as their primary guy with Dixon as a change-of-pace back and Buck Allen as the passing-down back. Collins finished the year with an excellent 15.1% DVOA, good for third-best in the league, and that was behind an injured Ravens line missing their best piece in Marshal Yanda. Yanda is slated to be back Week 1, and along with Ronnie Stanley, should give the Ravens a good enough offensive line for Collins to be successful.
15. LeSean McCoy (Buffalo Bills) – Yet again, LeSean McCoy finished the year as a top-10 running back thanks in part to just how much he was involved in the Bills’ offense, averaging 21.5 touches per game. That being said, there are a number of reasons to be wary of McCoy heading into this season, and it’s why I don’t have him ranked as a top-10 running back. First, he finished the year with a pretty rough -10.8% DVOA and a 43% success rate, the latter good for 32nd in the league. On top of that, he’s entering his age-30 season, will be running behind an awful Bills offensive line, and he’s got a domestic violence allegation levied against him that, depending on what the league uncovers in an investigation, could lead to a suspension. As a result, McCoy is very risky, and unless we get some kind of final word on the domestic violence allegation before you draft him, he’s someone who should not be drafted as a top-10 running back, despite the fact that, if everything stays as is, he has the ability to finish there, especially in PPR leagues.
Tier 4: My Favorite Things
16. Christian McCaffrey (Carolina Panthers) – Christian McCaffrey didn’t touch the ball a whole lot, but when he did, he capitalized on it, ranking fourth in the league in fantasy points per touch. He didn’t see a ton of rushes, just 117 attempts, and when he did run the ball, he was fine if unspectacular, finishing the year with a -6.2% DVOA. But where McCaffrey’s strength lies is as a receiving running back, and the Panthers took advantage of that, makes McCaffrey one of just three running backs to catch at least 80 balls last year. In a PPR league, McCaffrey is right on the fringe of being an RB1—in standard leagues, that value takes a little bit of a hit, but he still makes big plays when he has the ball. With C.J. Anderson now the primary running back in Carolina, McCaffrey is likely to see a similar role to the one he had last year, so there’s no reason to expect much different.
17. Joe Mixon (Cincinnati Bengals) – There is no denying Mixon’s talent, but he was a victim of his team last year, averaging just 3.5 yards per carry thanks mostly to a porous offensive line. That line has improved some this offseason with the signing of Cordy Glenn as a left tackle and drafting Billy Price as a center, but there are still a lot of question marks surrounding this line, especially on the right side. While they were solid at keeping the running back from getting stuffed last year, the Bengals’ offensive line ranked second-to-last in open field yards. Oh, and let’s not forget that Giovani Bernard is still on the team and still is a pretty good running back. Still, Mixon’s upside is enormous, if you told me he finished the year as a top-10 running back, I wouldn’t be shocked, but there’s a lot of risk and volatility built in here too, so be aware of that.
18. Kenyan Drake (Miami Dolphins) – Once the Dolphins traded Jay Ajayi, Kenyan Drake stepped into the spotlight and impressed. From Week 9 on, Drake finished with four top-10 performances, but at the same time, he ended the year with a -11.3% DVOA and 441 effective yards compared to his 648 standard yards. Part of that, I think, is thanks to the Dolphins’ offensive line, who were pretty bad last year. I don’t anticipate their line being that much better, which could prove a challenge for Drake, but at the very least, he’s got the starting job locked down and should get a good amount of volume, and in fantasy, that counts for a lot.
19. Royce Freeman (Denver Broncos) – How you rank Royce Freeman depends on your opinion of whether he gets the starting gig over Devontae Booker, and I think he will. Maybe Booker starts Week 1, but I think Freeman takes the job pretty quickly. Booker has been fine if unimpressive, losing his job a few times already in his NFL career. Freeman is talented, and he was an absolute workhorse for Oregon last season—I could see him doing more of the same in Denver behind a decent offensive line and in an offense helmed by surprise star quarterback Case Keenum. I think Keenum will help this Broncos passing game, which should open things up more for Freeman. That being said, if Freeman doesn’t get the gig and the Broncos, for whatever reason, commit entirely to Booker, then Freeman will drop significantly in the rankings.
20. Rashaad Penny (Seattle Seahawks) – In any other offense, I’d say there’s no doubt in my mind that Rashaad Penny will be the guy for the Seattle Seahawks, but Pete Carroll is a strange man, and he doesn’t always do what you think he’s going to do. Still, I’m a big fan of Penny and his skill, and I doubt the Seahawks are going to sit Penny, a first-round pick, in favor of Chris Carson, a 2017 seventh-round pick. Penny was impressive in college, rushing for 2,248 yards and leading the country with 82 forced missed tackles. That being said, those stats are a bit inflated because he was at San Diego State and didn’t exactly face top defenses every week. Still, Penny has high upside, but he’ll be a bit limited by the Seahawks awful offensive line who ranked dead-last in the league last year at preventing their running backs from getting stuffed at the line of scrimmage and were near the bottom in just about every other offensive line metric.