Tier 1: God of War
1. Christian McCaffrey (Carolina Panthers) – Let’s not overthink this at number one overall. Christian McCaffrey scored a ridiculous 29 PPR points per game last season as the RB1 in just about any league type imaginable. Over the past three seasons, Todd Gurley is the only active running back to top even 25 points per game, so 2019 was a true outlier season from McCaffrey. While we shouldn’t exactly expect a repeat, and we should be looking ahead rather than looking in the past, all of the usage numbers support CMC as the RB1. McCaffrey set a career-high with 142 targets last year and was on the field for a league-leading 93.4% snap share among running backs (per FantasyData).
Even if new head coach Matt Rhule scales back his usage, which is certainly possible, we are still looking at a running back with 113 or more targets in all three NFL seasons. McCaffrey has topped 100 receptions and scored double-digit touchdowns in back to back seasons, and shows no signs of slowing down heading into his fourth season.
Tier 2: Persona 5
2. Saquon Barkley (New York Giants) – There are five players in this tier, and I loved Persona 5. That’s all I’ve got for this reference. Saquon Barkley’s “disappointing” 2019 season still saw him top 1,000 yards rushing, score eight total touchdowns, and catch 52 passes across 13 games. Barkley suffered a high-ankle sprain in Week 3 last year, a notoriously tough injury for a player to recover from in-season. While Barkley made a superhuman recovery to miss only three games and finish as the RB10 on the season, he was clearly not the Barkley that we knew from his 2018 rookie season. That historic rookie year saw him catch 91 passes on 121 targets and total 15 touchdowns, so we know the upside is obviously massive.
Sure, I wouldn’t fault you for being wary of the Giants’ new offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, but Barkley feels idiot-proof, especially for a coach looking to stay employed in the NFL after being fired in Dallas. If McCaffrey remains as elite as he was last year, Barkley is likely the only running back that could go toe-to-toe with CMC and challenge for the RB1 spot.
3. Ezekiel Elliott (Dallas Cowboys) – Ezekiel Elliott is a steady presence atop fantasy drafts yet again, and managers can pencil him in for 19 or more PPR points per game nearly every year. Outside of a suspension in 2017, Zeke has been locked into lineups since 2016, missing just two games over four seasons outside of the suspension. While at some point his massive workload may become a red flag (three of four seasons with 300+ carries), Elliott is still just 25 years old and has proven to be durable.
There are some signs of a slowdown, like his 3% breakaway rate (carries of 15+ yards) in 2019 that ranked 35th per FantasyData and in the ballpark of names like David Johnson and Frank Gore. Plus, the explosive Tony Pollard is backing him up to keep the pressure on. But in an offense that should be among the league’s best, with a proven track record of fantasy excellence, and in the prime of his career, it is hard to make an argument for anyone else at the RB3 spot. If new Cowboys’ head coach Mike McCarthy increases Elliott’s passing game role (71 targets last year), Zeke could challenge the two names ahead of him for RB1.
4. Alvin Kamara (New Orleans Saints) – Injuries dampened Alvin Kamara’s 2019 season, as well as some bad touchdown luck, leading to a less than spectacular season for Kamara’s lofty standards. Regardless, Kamara still finished as the RB9 overall despite missing two games and was the RB8 on a point per game basis. Kamara’s rushing ability looked just fine, as he finished 7th in Juke Rate and 13th in Breakaway Percentage among running backs per FantasyData. The difference could be seen in Kamara’s passing game work, however. Amazingly consistent, Kamara has had exactly 81 receptions in each of his first three years in the league. He turned those catches into 826 yards and five touchdowns in his rookie year and 709 yards with four touchdowns during the 2018 season. Last year, battling ankle and knee injuries, Kamara turned those 81 catches into just 533 yards and one receiving touchdown.
Give Kamara his typical 81 catches, more touchdowns than his 6 from last year, and some more explosive plays in the passing game, and he could be right back to the dominant player he was in 2018. He has more upside than Elliott does, but the injuries from last year are just enough for me to rank him as the RB4.
5. Dalvin Cook (Minnesota Vikings) – When he’s on the field, Dalvin Cook is an elite fantasy producer. His 21 PPR points per game last season makes him one of just ten active running backs to exceed that number over the last three seasons. The Vikings want to run the ball early and often and likely won’t have a choice in the matter after shipping out wide receiver Stefon Diggs, giving them one less reliable target in the passing game. Cook could pick up some slack there, as he set career-highs with 53 receptions on 63 targets for 519 receiving yards in 14 games last year. That passing game work is what separates him from other equally talented rushers like Joe Mixon and Josh Jacobs.
The issue with Cook is his health, of course. He’s already suffered an ACL tear during his rookie 2017 season, and then battled hamstring injuries in 2018 as he recovered from the knee injury. In 2019, Cook set the league on fire until a Week 11 chest injury, and he then struggled down the stretch with 3 sub-30 yard rushing performances. Cook then suffered a significant shoulder injury in Week 15 that knocked him out for the season, an injury that could be of the recurring variety. Cook’s upside is so high, however, that I’m willing to take the risk. While I typically don’t grab handcuffs, just make sure you draft backup Alexander Mattison in the 9th or 10th round so you can sleep at night.
6. Derrick Henry (Tennessee Titans) – A true unicorn, Derrick Henry shockingly reached 19.6 PPR points per game in 2019 despite just 24 targets all season long! Even crazier, those 24 targets represent the highest total of his four-year career. While the departure of Dion Lewis does free up some passing game work for Henry, Lewis only saw 32 targets even as the pass-catching specialist, and Tennessee drafted Darrynton Evans in the third round to theoretically fill that role. But you are drafting Henry for his rushing work, as he led the NFL in total Yards Created and Yards Created per game according to FantasyData.
The Titans aren’t likely to score an insane 34 red zone touchdowns on 45 total red zone appearances like they did last year, so Henry may see a reduction in his 18 total touchdowns. He also remains a bit susceptible to game script due to his lack of passing work, so if the Titans play more from behind in 2020 he could see more down weeks. But with running backs flying off the boards in fantasy drafts, Henry is a no-doubt first-round selection, and 1,000 yards rushing and 10+ touchdowns seem all but assured assuming health.
Tier 3: The Last of Us
7. Kenyan Drake (Arizona Cardinals) – Want an RB1 to build your team with? This tier is the last of the “safe” bets. The more I look into Kenyan Drake this offseason, the more excited I get about his fantasy potential. Drake has the pedigree we look for as a third-round pick in the 2016 draft out of Alabama, and while he may be a bit more of a compiler than a transcendent talent, his career 4.9 yards per carry shows he has some juice. Despite being underutilized in Miami for much of his first four seasons in the league, Drake still has posted back to back 50+ catch seasons, a number that fellow fantasy stalwart Joe Mixon has yet to reach, for example. Free from the oppressive grips of the Adam Gase regime, Drake exploded in Arizona down the stretch of 2019. Despite virtually no time to learn the offense after a mid-season trade, Drake averaged 19.9 PPR points per game from Weeks 9-17 in Arizona.
Although this Cardinals spread passing attack receives most of the attention, it was their ground game that ranked second in the NFL with 5.0 yards per attempt, seventh in the league with 18 rushing touchdowns, and traded away David Johnson, providing Drake with a major opportunity. His competition consists of Chase Edmonds, a 2018 fourth-round pick with just 120 career carries under his belt, and Eno Benjamin, a 2020 seventh-round pick. This Cardinals offense produced fantasy gold with every running back that commanded a major workload last year, and if Drake stays healthy he is primed for a big 2020. Depending on the ADP of the site you draft on, you may even be able to grab Drake towards the beginning of the second round, a screaming value in my eyes.
*Right before publish, Drake was spotted in a walking boot. The injury has been downplayed, but monitor this situation closely.
8. Clyde Edwards-Helaire (Kansas City Chiefs) – I know its scary drafting a rookie running back this high, and in a standard league, Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s value is lower than RB8. But in a Kansas City offense run by Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes, the upside is worth the risk, and the opt-out of teammate Damien Williams opens up a massive opportunity for CEH. Edwards-Helaire caught 55 passes in 15 games last year playing with Joe Burrow at LSU, and his passing game skill set is an excellent fit with the Chiefs.
His competition in KC now consists of DeAndre Washington, Darrel Williams, and Darwin Thompson, an uninspiring list to say the least, and drafting Edwards-Helaire in the first round (even before the Damien Williams opt-out) should make it clear that the Chiefs intend to use him. With so many touchdowns available in this offense, Edwards-Helaire has a shot at double-digit scores. Coupled with the potential for 50+ receptions, and CEH looks like a rock-solid first-rounder to me. I get it if you would rather just take Mixon, but I’m willing to chase the upside of CEH in the league’s most dangerous offense.
9. Joe Mixon (Cincinnati Bengals) – With a career-high 55 targets back in 2018, Joe Mixon has been a very good fantasy running back that has been held back from a true breakout due to his modest receiving numbers. Sure, a better offensive line would help, and playing for a better team would lead to more scoring chances (Mixon has yet to reach double-digit touchdowns). But until he is featured more in the passing game, those who draft Mixon will be reliant on a touchdown spike in order for Mixon to crack the top five running backs in PPR leagues.
Mixon’s 2019 RB13 finish was a bit deceptive as I wrote about in the offseason, and those who rostered him last year got almost nothing from him over the first half of the season. Mixon’s 2020 really comes down to number one overall pick Joe Burrow, who takes over at quarterback for the Bengals. If he looks like one of the league’s next great quarterbacks, he could overcome what looks like another below-average Bengals offensive line, produce more positive game scripts and scoring opportunities for Mixon, and maybe even direct more targets to the talented running back. However, if Burrow struggles in his rookie year I would expect more of the same from Mixon–good but not great numbers from the back half of the first round. Despite his flaws, Mixon certainly makes sense in this part of drafts, as the running back cliff rapidly approaches.
10. Miles Sanders (Philadelphia Eagles) – I had Miles Sanders as the RB7 as recently as a week ago, but Sanders is currently missing practice with an undisclosed lower-body injury and is week-to-week. There is very little information about the injury, and lowering him in the rankings could be an overreaction, especially with head coach Doug Pederson seeming unconcerned. Sanders is one of the offseason’s most hyped PPR running backs, and for good reason. The 2019 second-round pick took some time to earn the trust of the coaching staff but took off down the stretch as the Eagles were decimated on offense by injuries. Sanders received between three and six targets in all but two games in 2019, and both of those instances came within the first four weeks of the season.
Sanders managed an RB20 finish on a point per game basis despite only scoring six touchdowns, and Philadelphia did very little to replace the departed Jordan Howard, who averaged just over 13 carries per game over the first nine weeks before suffering an injury and missing the remainder of the year. Sanders faces competition from Boston Scott, a competent pass-catcher that is listed at 5’6” and has just 61 career rushing attempts, and Corey Clement, a former undrafted free agent that missed most of last year due to shoulder surgery. The path is wide open for Sanders as long as he is healthy, and as long as the Eagles don’t sign a veteran free agent close to the start of the season, the sky is the limit.
11. Aaron Jones (Green Bay Packers) – I was in love with Aaron Jones last offseason, and for good reason, as Jones exploded in 2019 and finished as the RB2 on a point per game basis. He certainly rode positive touchdown luck to that finish as he scored a whopping 19 touchdowns on the year, but he was no slouch even without hitting paydirt. Jones totaled 1,558 all-purpose yards as he at times looked dangerous in the passing game. Jones produced seven receptions for 159 yards and two touchdowns in Week 8 against the Chiefs, and nearly had a third where he stepped out of bounds on the sideline. Jones was very boom and bust at times last year, with 42 and 34 point weeks coupled with five games where he was held under 5 PPR points. Much of that volatility can likely be traced back to his snap share, as he still never quite received that workhorse role we had hoped for. Jones typically received 55-60% of the snaps for the Packers last year while splitting time with Jamal Williams, not quite true bell-cow usage.
With expected touchdown regression and the second-round selection of the massive A.J. Dillon to compete for snaps at the position, many are bailing on Jones this year. I still think he is a fine selection in the early to mid-stages of the second round in fantasy drafts. The Packers provided no help for Aaron Rodgers at the receiver position, and this team is clearly committed to running the ball. If Williams is phased out of the offense for Dillon, Jones should be able to keep a similar snap share. And while Jones is not going to score 19 touchdowns again, there remains room for him to grow in the passing game if he becomes a more consistent threat. Jones had eight games in 2019 with six or more targets, yet five games with one or fewer targets. You can make a good case for drafting a wide receiver in this range of drafts as opposed to selecting Jones, but we shouldn’t let his talent get obscured by a few negative data points.
12. Josh Jacobs (Las Vegas Raiders) – Josh Jacobs looked like one of the league’s best pure runners as a rookie in 2019 and impressively scored the 15th most points per game among all running backs. I view him as a poor man’s Joe Mixon–rock solid on the ground (sixth-best Juke Rate and Yards Created per game, ninth-best Breakaway Rate per FantasyData), talented as a receiver, but lacking the passing game work to be a true star. Jacobs had just one game with more than three targets and eight games with two or fewer targets in 2019, despite being a versatile weapon at Alabama. The Raiders claim to want to involve him more as a pass-catcher, but their actions say differently. They resigned third-down specialist Jalen Richard, drafted the versatile Lynn Bowden Jr. in the third round of the NFL Draft, and added Devontae Booker and Theo Riddick in free agency. Most of those names are nowhere near the talent of Jacobs, but it sure seems like a pattern of adding running backs that can contribute in the passing game.
Jacobs is an extremely talented player that you can draft in the late first or early second rounds of fantasy drafts, and as desperate as we all are to get running backs early he is a fine choice. But without the additional volume in the passing game, Jacobs is likely to settle in as a back-end RB1 this year.
13. Nick Chubb (Cleveland Browns) – Cleveland’s Nick Chubb is another supremely talented rusher who’s ceiling is capped in PPR leagues by circumstances beyond his control. Chubb averaged nearly 19 PPR points per game over the first 10 weeks of last year as Kareem Hunt sat out during his suspension. When Hunt returned, Chubb’s scoring dropped to 13 PPR points per game, as his targets per game dropped from four to just over two. Chubb isn’t likely to be a high volume pass-catcher anyway but with competition from an excellent receiver in Hunt his prospects of truly breaking out become slimmer.
Kevin Stefanski takes over in Cleveland and will run an offense very similar to what he ran in Minnesota, and this offense could dramatically improve in efficiency from the mess that was last year. It will heavily feature the running backs, and Chubb has a great shot to set career highs in touchdowns and rushing yardage. But with lackluster usage in the passing game, and as the first running back in my rankings with an established and talented running back to share the backfield with, I prefer the upside of the other options. I love Chubb as a player and a Derrick Henry type outlier season isn’t out of the question. But Chubb settles in more as an early second-round pick in fantasy drafts for me.
14. Austin Ekeler (Los Angeles Chargers) – Austin Ekeler marks the point of no return in my running back ranks, as the remaining options are full of question marks and red flags. Ekeler himself has some questions that bump him down to the bottom of this tier, but in PPR leagues he is still a justifiable early-round target. With Melvin Gordon out of the picture, Ekeler’s competition consists of Justin Jackson and rookie Joshua Kelley, neither of which pose any threat to Ekeler in the passing game. While he will have the pass-catching role on lockdown, Jackson and Kelley may combine to be a lesser Gordon on the ground, as Ekeler has yet to reach 600 yards rushing in any of his three seasons. The Chargers are committed long term to Ekeler, so he will get his chances on the ground, especially in what figures to be a run-heavy Chargers’ offense. But it would make sense for the Chargers to try to preserve Ekeler, and giving him 200+ carries while taking on a huge passing game role may not be wise.
The biggest question is whether he can maintain his 92 receptions on 108 targets from 2019 that propelled him to an RB6 finish as he transitions from Philip Rivers to Tyrod Taylor at quarterback. Rivers loved checking down to his pass catchers and often supported both Ekeler and Gordon at the same time. During his three years as a starter in Buffalo from 2015 to 2017, Taylor barely eclipsed 3,000 yards passing every year, topping out at 3,035 in a low volume passing offense. Taylor often favored tight ends, and while LeSean McCoy did lead a Taylor run offense in targets one year, that was with 77 targets, a steep drop from Ekeler’s 108 from last year. Ekeler may not be able to repeat his eight receiving touchdowns from last year, and coupled with a drop in targets could make him more of a mid-range RB2. But as the last of this tier, I’m happy to take Ekeler when he’s the last remaining, and trust that the Chargers will continue to feed him targets.
Tier 4: Fall Guys
15. James Conner (Pittsburgh Steelers) – This new tier is full of players that have fallen off from their former glory. The questions around James Conner are mainly health-related, as his 2018 season where he scored 21.5 PPR points per game was a truly elite season that has only been topped by seven other running backs over the past three seasons. Even last year, in an injury-plagued season with truly abysmal quarterback play from Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges, Conner recorded 14.6 points per game, a very respectable number. However, Conner missed six games last year while battling a quad injury and a recurring shoulder injury, and there are some real questions about his durability.
If quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can make it through the season looking like his old self, and Conner can shake the injury bug, he certainly has the upside to be an RB1 for your team. Conner is an asset in the passing game, as he garnered 71 targets over 13 games in 2018, and had four or more targets in seven of ten games last year. Rookie Anthony McFarland Jr. provides some additional competition this season, but none of the other options looked like a threat to Conner while filling in last season. Pittsburgh seems to prefer using Conner as a bell-cow back, the question is just whether he can hold up to the workload.
16. Leonard Fournette (Jacksonville Jaguars) – Leonard Fournette is full of questions that I have a hard time answering. Does he want to be in Jacksonville, and do the Jaguars want him on the team? Was his jump from 3.5 targets per game over his first two seasons to 6.7 targets per game last year legitimate, or was it simply an offense dumping the ball off in a losing season? Will new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden take him off the field for Chris Thompson (while healthy) on third downs, or alternatively get more looks to the wide receivers like D.J. Chark or Laviska Shenault Jr.?
I’m down on Fournette because of these questions. I don’t expect him to receive 100 targets again, especially after turning them into just 522 receiving yards last year. He has a career mark of 3.8 yards per carry on 666 attempts and plays for what could be the worst team in the league. He’s at the top of this tier because he is all but sure to score more than his unlucky total last year (three touchdowns on 341 touches), and he has a chance to be a volume monster again with subpar options behind him on the depth chart. My goal in drafts, however, is to get one or two running backs in front of Fournette and then to hammer the wide receiver position for a few rounds, so I won’t be drafting Fournette this year unless he falls in a draft.
*Leonard Fournette has been released by the Jaguars. He will likely rank in the 56-60 range, as there is at least some chance he joins a team and finds a role. But it is awfully late in camp for a full recovery*
17. Chris Carson (Seattle Seahawks) – The big question around Chris Carson is his health, as he suffered a hip fracture towards the end of 2019 that was a cause for concern this offseason. While Carson is currently away from the team dealing with a family matter, he did make it back to practice and was running with the first-team offense, a great sign for his 2020 outlook. Carson feels like a relatively safe pick, as he is just 25 years old, has topped 1,000 rushing yards in two of his three seasons in the league, and isn’t a complete zero in the passing game with 37 receptions last year.
We know that Seattle will run the ball frequently, and while Carson may not have the upside that the explosive playmakers in the first round of fantasy drafts have, he’s a fairly safe option if you need some volume at the position. Backup running back Rashaad Penny is likely to begin the year on the PUP list and miss the first six games, and while free agent signing Carlos Hyde will no doubt frustrate fantasy owners at times by stealing work, there should be enough to go around in this offense.
18. Jonathan Taylor (Indianapolis Colts) – Jonathan Taylor ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at the combine (best among rookie running backs) while measuring 5’11” and weighing 219 pounds. His elite combination of size and speed should already have us drooling at the thought of adding him to our fantasy teams, and then we get to his college production. Taylor handled 299 carries as a freshman at Wisconsin and came just short of 2,000 yards on the ground, and then proceeded to top 300 carries and 2,000 yards rushing in both his sophomore and junior seasons. Sure, there are questions about his pass-catching, but after catching just eight passes each of his first two seasons in college, Taylor caught 26 passes for 252 yards and five touchdowns last season for the Badgers. Some cite his issues with fumbling as a concern, but there is too much positive here.
Dropped into a well-run team in Indianapolis, Taylor will operate behind an excellent offensive line, have the bonus of a good play-caller in Frank Reich, and play with a quarterback in Philip Rivers who helped former Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon become a pass-catcher at the pro level. If you listen to some, we should be worried about Taylor beating out Marlon Mack, but I don’t buy it. Taylor is the superior prospect and should dispatch of Mack quickly. There’s a chance that Nyheim Hines takes too much passing game work, but we see players like Nick Chubb, Joe Mixon, Josh Jacobs, and Derrick Henry go early in drafts without a big receiving role, so why not Taylor? The upside is too great to pass up, especially if you can grab a true RB1 before him to help you if there is an early-season learning curve.
19. Melvin Gordon (Denver Broncos) – My main issue with drafting Melvin Gordon is my skepticism that quarterback Drew Lock will feed him targets like Rivers did with the Chargers. Gordon saw 55 targets in just 12 games last year, 66 in 12 games the year before, and 83 in a full season in 2017. Take away the passing game work, and you’re left with a rusher who has averaged exactly 4.0 yards per carry over 1,059 rushes and is going to a crowded receiving corps in Denver with a second-year quarterback that is far from a guarantee to move the ball consistently. Gordon has dealt with his share of injuries too, so I’m just having trouble getting excited about drafting Gordon. You might be able to get heavy volume at a discounted price and it works out in the end, but I’m looking elsewhere at this stage of drafts.
20. Todd Gurley (Atlanta Falcons) – I think most of us have accepted the fact that we aren’t getting prime Todd Gurley from the breakout Rams offense ever again, so hopefully, we can move past that right away. Playing with an arthritic knee last year, Gurley saw his yards per carry drop from 4.9 in 2018 to 3.8 in 2019 and, a bigger concern for me, saw his targets drop from consecutive years above 80 to just 49 targets for 209 receiving yards last year. He did score 14 total touchdowns, making fantasy managers happy, but only rushed for 857 yards across 15 games.
Gurley goes to an offense with a worse track record when running the ball, and if Gurley doesn’t regain some passing game work I just don’t see how he has any upside at all. Maybe Gurley will score double-digit touchdowns again, but that is the only way I don’t see this season ending in disappointment. The Rams, after all, waived Gurley despite very little cap relief as a result of the move, and Gurley could only get a one year, $5.5 million deal in free agency. That should tell you all you need to know about the lack of burst left in Gurley’s legs.