Today I begin my week of running back rankings by unveiling my top 20 fantasy running backs for the 2019 season. I’ll cover 20 running backs each day, concluding on Friday.
My general strategy with running backs is to hammer the position early and often. Running backs are volatile and unpredictable, leading many to avoid picking them early to chase the safer receivers. I take the opposite approach; since even experts are wrong so often on running backs, I want to take as many shots as possible. Some will be flops, and you’ll wonder what you were thinking in hindsight. But the running back picks that hit can be league winners. I often remind myself in drafts; just when you think you have enough running backs on your roster, draft one more to be sure.
Running back rankings are based on PPR scoring. I will note adjustments to make in standard leagues when necessary.
Tier 1: Foundational Backs
1. Saquon Barkley (New York Giants) – This top tier is largely interchangeable, so feel free to “get your guy”, as they say. In a standard league, I would drop Barkley a spot or two due to the potential struggles of the Giants offense. But in PPR, Barkley is my first choice. Ben Davidowitz had an awesome deep dive on Barkley yesterday. But in short, Barkley was the RB1 in PPR in his first year in the league and is a 99th percentile athlete. He saw double-digit targets in five games last year, including a 16 target, 14 catch game. His 121 total targets are the third-best single-season total over the past three years. Barkley scored double-digit fantasy points in all but one week last year, and the Giants have no choice but to force-feed their number two overall draft pick with Odell Beckham Jr. traded to Cleveland. Barkley saw the fourth-highest percentage of his team’s carries and targets in the red zone among all running backs last year and is capable of breaking long runs from anywhere on the field, further increasing his scoring chances. Yes, the offense may be bad. But Barkley truly is a generational talent.
2. Christian McCaffrey (Carolina Panthers) – McCaffrey would be fourth in this tier for a standard league, but his elite pass game work is a huge asset in PPR leagues. He was essentially tied with Barkley as the RB1 last year and saw a league-leading 124 targets, the best target total for a running back over the last three years. McCaffrey’s 113 targets from 2017 prove that this passing game usage was no fluke, giving him near immunity to the game script issues that trouble many running backs, as he is the primary runner and receiver. On the ground, McCaffrey improved to an excellent five yards per carry, and was the best red zone running back not named Todd Gurley or Alvin Kamara last year. The Panthers have given no indication of easing up on his true workhorse status, as the running back depth chart is littered with 5th round and later draft picks and undrafted free agents. McCaffrey looks locked and loaded in an offense that could actually improve with Cam Newton‘s improved health and a second year in offensive coordinator Norv Turner‘s system.
3. Ezekiel Elliott (Dallas Cowboys) – Elliot is viewed as the safe option in this tier, moving him to the top of many smart fantasy analysts’ rankings. And in a standard league, Elliott looks like the top option due to his elite rushing volume. In a PPR league, however, I prefer the high volume pass game work of Barkley and McCaffrey, as targets are more valuable than carries in fantasy football, especially in PPR scoring. Elliot has averaged over 20 fantasy points per game in PPR leagues in each of his three years in the NFL; if safety is what you are looking for, Elliot might be your top pick. But Elliot hasn’t reached the lofty levels of other elite running backs, topping out at his 329 fantasy points last year, good for RB5. For those searching for reasons for an elite Zeke year, his target totals are encouraging, as they have increased from the high 30’s in his first two years in the league, to a career-high 95 targets in 2018. The possibility of a more modern offense with new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore could also help Elliott if the offense becomes more efficient. Recent news suggests Elliott is considering holding out for a new contract. It’s too early to change his ranking but watch this situation carefully.
4. Alvin Kamara (New Orleans Saints) – With Gurley plagued by injury concerns, Kamara takes over as the clear red zone monster in the NFL. Kamara ranked second among running backs with 77 carries plus targets inside the 20-yard line in 2018, second with 42 carries plus targets inside the 10-yard line, second with 147 fantasy points inside the 20-yard line, and second with 97 fantasy points inside the 10-yard line, making up a clear top tier with Gurley in all of those categories. Kamara saw 37% of the Saints total carries plus targets inside the red zone, a lucrative role on a team with the league’s third-most red zone trips and second-most red zone touchdowns. In standard leagues, you could make a case for Kamara as the first or second pick in the draft, as he has scored 13 and 18 total touchdowns in his two NFL seasons. Kamara hasn’t topped 1,000 yards rushing in a season and is going to remain the lowest volume player in this tier. But Kamara has reached 100 targets both years in the league and coupled with his touchdown totals lock him into the top four picks of almost all league types.
5. David Johnson (Arizona Cardinals) – 2018 was a trainwreck of a year for the Cardinals offense, as they finished last in the league in yards per play (4.3), last in points scored per game (14.1), and last in red zone trips (28). The offense got their coach fired and their first-round quarterback traded, and yet Johnson still finished as the RB9 last year in PPR leagues, and the RB11 on a point per game basis. You would be hard-pressed to imagine a scenario where the offense gets worse in 2019, and the addition of quarterback Kyler Murray and air raid coach Kliff Kingsbury should produce a drastic change in the offense. At the very least, the Cardinals should improve on their 31st ranked 902 offensive plays from last year. Johnson has shown his floor as the RB9 when healthy, and his ceiling is elite. DJ’s 2016 season remains the best PPR season for a running back in the past three years, and his 25.5 points per game from 2016 have only been topped by Gurley and Le’Veon Bell over that same time period. Johnson’s 2016 season saw him accumulate 80 catches on 120 targets, while in 2018 those numbers dropped to 50 catches on 76 targets. Rational coaching will go a long way towards reestablishing Johnson as a top-end fantasy points producer.
Tier 2: Risk and Reward?
6. Melvin Gordon (Los Angeles Chargers) – We all know what Gordon can do while healthy. His 22.96 PPR points per game last year was the 5th best mark among all running backs. His target totals are impressive, drawing 83 looks in the passing game in 2017 and 66 last year in an injury-shortened season. Gordon’s yards per rush shot up to 5.1 last year after sitting at 3.9 or lower for his previous three seasons, further improving his profile. Gordon was also extremely efficient at scoring on his touches inside the 10-yard line last year, with 61 fantasy points scored on 18 combined carries and targets. But health has been a concern, as Gordon missed Week 7, 12, 13, and 14 last year, and has missed a total of 9 games in four years. Coupled with his ongoing threat of a contract holdout, Gordon is close to dropping down this tier. It’s too early to go overboard on the contract holdout, but his sounds a little more serious than Elliott’s at this point in time. Gordon could stay healthy and hold onto his efficiency from last year on his way to another top finish. Or he could battle injuries and revert to his mediocre yards per rush numbers from the past. I’ll likely be targeting the top wide receivers at this point of the draft.
7. James Conner (Pittsburgh Steelers) – Conner took over for Le’Veon Bell in 2018 and the Steelers offense didn’t miss a beat. Conner received double-digit carries in 10 of his 13 games last year, and he surpassed 20 carries in four games. His five 100 yard rushing games are even more impressive considering the Steelers threw the most passes in the league by a significant margin. Speaking of the passing game, Conner had the 14th most running back targets in the league despite missing three games with an ankle sprain. Conner could grow his pass game role as well, with Antonio Brown‘s 168 targets leaving for Oakland. His 21.5 PPR points per game from 2018 puts him in elite company, as evidenced by his RB6 finish last year in only 13 games. Many drafters seem to be scared off by backup running backs Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell. But they are fourth and fifth-round picks backing up a player in Conner that just posted 1,470 total yards in 13 games while scoring a touchdown per game. I’ll gladly take Conner when he falls into the second round of drafts.
8. Joe Mixon (Cincinnati Bengals) – Those hoping for the big Mixon breakout season may already be seeing their dreams go up in smoke. First-round rookie right tackle Jonah Williams is already out for the year, and starting left guard Clint Boling was forced to retire at age 30 due to a blood clot. So we are back to square one for the Bengals sub-par offensive line, with any hopes for improvement tied to new head coach Zac Taylor‘s scheme opening up the offense. So why hasn’t Mixon dropped further? He ranked ninth among running backs last year with 17.4 PPR points per game despite a mediocre 55 targets across his 14 games played. If the new Bengals offense features Mixon in the passing game, that could be a huge boost to his value. And I ultimately still believe in Mixon’s talent and pass-catching ability. But in the end, Cincinnati’s bad offensive line and consistently mediocre quarterback play will prevent Mixon from fully breaking out.
9. Le’Veon Bell (New York Jets) – Bell is full of warning signs that make me want to pass on him in drafts. He’s been out of football for a year, and while he seems to be in shape, will he be ready for the grind of an NFL season? Will the jump from a perennial top tier passing offense in Pittsburgh to a Jets team with a young quarterback learning a new offense sap his otherworldly passing game production? Is Adam Gase a good coach, and is he interested in feeding Bell like the Steelers used to? Although I have bad feelings about this whole situation, it’s hard to ignore Bell’s talent and his past production. Bell has three seasons over 75 catches on his resume, giving him more appeal in PPR leagues than standard. His 12 game 2016 season saw him catch 75 balls on 94 targets, producing an elite 26.45 points per game that have only been topped by Gurley over the last three seasons. Bell then followed it up with a 2017 season where he saw 106 targets and only trailed Gurley again on a per-game basis. I wouldn’t blame anyone for drafting him at the top of this tier, but I’ll likely be passing on draft day.
10. Todd Gurley (Los Angeles Rams) – Gurley is the best fantasy running back in the league when healthy and playing for coach Sean McVay. But Gurley’s health is a major concern. With an arthritic knee that sapped him down the stretch of 2018 and left him severely underused in the biggest games of the season, Gurley goes into 2019 as the ultimate question mark. Gurley was absolutely dominant in scoring position last year, leading all running backs with 102 fantasy points scored inside the 10-yard line while receiving a massive 41.47% of the Rams carries plus targets inside the red zone. That will be a huge determining factor for Gurley’s 2019 fantasy finish; if he can stay on the field all year, will the Rams continue to feature him in the red zone? Ultimately, I have a really hard time spending an early draft pick on a player that is already injured going into the season. In a standard league, I would be more willing to chase Gurley’s touchdown potential, but I doubt he will get the volume needed in a PPR league.
11. Nick Chubb (Cleveland Browns) – Attached to a talented offense led by Baker Mayfield, Chubb has the potential to produce a monster fantasy season. Defenses won’t be able to focus on Chubb with the addition of Odell Beckham Jr., freeing him up to take advantage of easier running opportunities. With running back Kareem Hunt suspended for the first eight games of the season, Chubb finds himself backed up by a player who seems destined to be traded in Duke Johnson as well as several undrafted free agents. Chubb should get all the opportunities that he can handle in the first eight games, and a chance to build off his 17 points per game in starts last year. He’s not a complete zero in the passing game either, as he saw what amounted to a 64 target full season pace in his starts. And by the time Hunt is off his suspension, it’s very possible he is eased back into action. Chubb has the potential to carry us to the fantasy playoffs, and he may be just fine when we get there as well.
Tier 3: Fragile Break Out Candidates
12. Damien Williams (Kansas City Chiefs) – Williams is a surprisingly capable pass catcher in his limited NFL sample size, seeing six or more targets in four of his five starts down the stretch last year including the playoffs. An undrafted player that toiled on the Dolphins for four years, Williams also had a brief run at the end of the 2017 season where he saw four starts, receiving five or more targets in two of those games, and producing six catches for 47 yards and a touchdown in his best game. Overall, he has caught 108 of 139 career targets, and any passing game ability is obviously something to take note of in this Chiefs offense. The concerns are pretty simple; can Williams hold up over the course of a 16 game season as the feature back? Will Carlos Hyde eat into his touches and steal goalline work? The upside is enticing, but I likely won’t be reaching to take Williams ahead of the elite dependable receivers in the same area of drafts.
13. Dalvin Cook (Minnesota Vikings) – I’m a little lower on Cook than the consensus seems to be, which means that I won’t be drafting him often. I see all the positives; Cook broke out over the first four games of his rookie season in 2017 before suffering an ACL injury, and after returning from the injury and struggling his way through a hamstring issue that limited him through the first eight weeks, Cook returned and showed flashes of his potential down the stretch. He’s an asset in the passing game for fantasy owners, being getting looks at a 71 target pace last year if he had played 16 games. He’s a talented player on a run-heavy offense, and I would be happy to own him. But between his injury issues costing him 17 games across his first two seasons, the Vikings selection of running back Alexander Mattison in the third round of this year’s draft, and the Vikings likely not possessing an elite offense, there are enough reasons for me to limit my hype on Cook.
14. Aaron Jones (Green Bay Packers) – Jones is one of the players that I want to run up and go get in all of my drafts. After being misused in former coach Mike McCarthy‘s stale offensive system, word out of camp is that Jones is a perfect fit for new head coach Matt LaFleur’s zone-blocking running scheme. But really, Jones just needs to see the field more, as he flashed a dominant stretch last year after returning from a two-game suspension. Jones averaged 5.5 yards per rush last year, and during his stretch of seven games where he saw double-digit carries he rattled off eight touchdowns to go along with a decent pass-catching floor. Highlights of his seven-game stretch included a 145-yard rushing game on just 15 carries, followed up the next week by with five catches on six targets for 63 yards and a touchdown. The Packers have an excellent offensive line, an excellent quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, and lackluster competition at the running back position. Like most running backs, Jones just needs to stay on the field; he’s missed four games each season between suspension and injury. There are some running backs ahead of Jones that I may pass up in favor of steady wide receivers, hoping that Jones falls to me later.
15. Marlon Mack (Indianapolis Colts) – The RB14 last year in PPR leagues, Mack is simply held back by his lack of passing game involvement. Mack only saw four targets in one game last year, turned in only one game with three or more catches, and failed to reach 20 receiving yards in all but one game. In a standard league, Mack looks like a touchdown machine and ground game specialist and likely deserves to go right where Chubb is going. But in PPR leagues, Mack may lack the ability to put together an elite season without the receptions boosting his point totals. Pass game back Nyheim Hines looks entrenched in his role, and the offense is filled with weapons, giving me worry that he truly breaks out. Like every running back in this tier, Mack needs to stay on the field as well, after missing time with hamstring, ankle, and concussion issues last year. However, his touchdown upside in one of the league’s best offenses still makes him worth the selection in PPR leagues
16. Kerryon Johnson (Detroit Lions) – Kerryon finally got a stretch of starts in week four of last year, and produced a low-end RB1 type performance with 12 points per game in his starts. Johnson had peak single game target totals of 8, 6, 6, and 5, showing that he has pass game upside as well. If the Lions move on from Theo Riddick, as rumors have suggested, Johnson would find himself in an excellent position to breakout. Like seemingly every running back, however, Johnson battled a knee issue that caused him to miss the final six games of 2018. If Johnson can stay on the field, and the Lions commit to him in their run-heavy offense, Johnson has the all-around game that could allow a major breakout. Just prepare to be frustrated as C.J. Anderson vultures goalline carries throughout the year.
Tier 4: Beginning of the End
17. Leonard Fournette (Jacksonville Jaguars) – Fournette ultimately has too many question marks for me to draft early. Constant hamstring and ankle injuries have nagged at Fournette, causing him to miss 11 games across his first two seasons. Coupled with run-ins with the coaching staff and front office that have had him in and out of the doghouse, and Fournette has concerning trends even before getting to the onfield play. His 3.7 yards per rush is subpar, his passing game role is fairly limited, and he plays in an offense that likely will not challenge top-five status, to be kind. Perennial vulture Alfred Blue and fifth-round rookie Ryquell Armstead could provide some competition as well. Fournette is good for 15 carries a game when he’s healthy and has scored 16 touchdowns in 21 career games, so he should be elevated to the tier above in standard leagues. But I’m very hesitant to count on Fournette staying on the field and in the good graces of the coaching staff.
18. Josh Jacobs (Oakland Raiders) – While everyone rushes to anoint Jacobs as a workhorse back, I think it’s worth showing some caution. For one, I don’t particularly trust Jon Gruden to act in a predictable fashion, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Doug Martin weaseled his way into some goalline carries and Jalen Richard continued to be a pass game factor. Jacobs wasn’t a workhorse at Alabama, didn’t have elite combine numbers, and may not quite be the talent that his first-round draft tag would indicate. On the plus side, he’s good in the passing game and looks like the type of player that should fit in the NFL right away. And despite Gruden’s unpredictability, one would assume that the Raiders want to make their first-round investment pay off. Jacobs may drop to the bottom of this tier in standard leagues where the Raiders ability to score touchdowns and run the ball with a lead is a question mark. But in PPR, Jacobs should be a solid contributor right away.
19. Philip Lindsay (Denver Broncos) – Lindsay missed the end of the 2018 season with a wrist injury, and there was some concern in the offseason around his recovery. But reports are better as of late, and he expects to be ready for training camp. The 5’8″ undrafted rookie set the league on fire last year with 5.4 yards per attempt across 15 games. He finished as the RB13 and was one of the most lucrative waiver wire pickups of the entire season. There has been chatter in camp that running back Royce Freeman could be a better fit in offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello‘s scheme, but Lindsay will likely get his shot to prove last year was no fluke. Lindsay was actually disappointing in the passing game, which is surprising for a player his size, contributing only 241 yards on 41 targets. If the new scheme could make him a factor in the passing game and use him in space, that would go a long way towards elevating Lindsay through the running back ranks. Without added pass game work, Lindsay will likely continue his mediocre red-zone production, and a drop from his excellent yards per carry numbers would be a big hit. However, I would be comfortable taking Lindsay in drafts as an RB2 or flex play.
20. Devonta Freeman (Atlanta Falcons) – If you can’t tell by his rank, Freeman scares me this year. At the end of his 2017 season, Freeman battled an assortment of injuries, causing fantasy analysts to wonder if he was breaking down heading into the 2018 season. Those fears were confirmed, as Freeman suffered knee, foot, and groin injuries last year, played in Week 1 and Week 5, and missed the rest of the season after undergoing groin surgery. At 5’8″ and with a physical style of play, I’m extremely worried about investing in Freeman. If he returns to form (reports out of camp are positive), Freeman has shown the ability to be a top-five back. But I doubt that he will be given a workhorse role even if healthy, as his injury history is too great to ignore. If he drops in drafts I’ll consider, but using a third-round pick on Freeman is too dangerous for my tastes. If you do draft Freeman, strongly consider running back Ito Smith as a handcuff.
(Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)