Running Back Tiers
By Sigmund Bloom and Jene Bramel
August 27th, 2011

Whether you do a full set of projections to compare players or put your rank lists together by gut feel, every cheat sheet can be broken out into tiers. The process is simple and its rewards are many. Breaking your rankings into tiers forces you to crystallize your opinions on players. It will help you make good strategic decisions during your draft, by keeping you on the right side of runs or highlighting positions that may be sloughed a round longer than you thought or that you should target early than you expected. Testing your tiers in a few mock drafts will leave you prepared for every contingency during your draft and keep you from scrambling when you're on the clock in those all-important middle rounds.

This series will walk you through our tiering process position by position, including the major defensive position, and offer our strategic insights along the way. We'll have thoughts on whether you should go with a top quarterback or QBBC, whether you should target a top TE over your RB3 or WR3, whether you should prioritize DL over LB and whether there are any defensive backs worth drafting early.

Previously covered

  • Quarterback
  • In this installment, we're moving on to the running backs. The two of us will each have a slightly different tiering style at the running back (and wide receiver) position - Bloom's style is more right-brain and intuitive, Bramel's more left-brain and clinical - but the bottom line is the same. Both of us have this position tiered in ways that allow us to know at a glance where a given player would slot in our lineup in any scoring system with any combination of talent already drafted. We can easily compare ADP and know which players are going to be value plays for us and which players we'll just let slide. By continuing this process to the end of our rank lists, we're just as prepared for contingencies in the sixth, tenth and thirteenth rounds as we were in the second.

    Sigmund Bloom

    Platinum

  • Arian Foster, HOU (PPR+)
  • Adrian Peterson, MIN
  • Ray Rice, BAL (PPR+)
  • Jamaal Charles, KC (PPR+)
  • LeSean McCoy, PHI (PPR+)
  • Rashard Mendenhall, PIT
  • Chris Johnson, TEN (PPR+)
  • This is a tightly packed elite tier that is very fluid and level from top to bottom. Foster offers an extremely high demonstrated ceiling, but lacks the track record. Peterson is the safest, but the line is a question. Rice has the full lead role now, but his line just added a guy that the Vikings rejected. Charles isn't even the starter for his team and McCoy is also subject to more sporadic touches at times than other running backs in this tier. Mendenhall is a player I like more every time I review his profile this year. He is only 24 and has been drawing rave reviews as a complete back about to really come into his own. The Steelers schedule, especially in the playoffs, is another reason to love Mendenhall. Chris Johnson is the wild card here, depending on the outcome of his visit to Nashville. The risk of missing games and otherwise getting off to a slow start is enough to justify putting him at the bottom of this tier until things look like they're about to get resolved.

    Jene Bramel

    This position is deep this year. I have 21 players in my top three tiers. I'd be okay with any of them as my RB1. And many of the guys in the fourth and fifth tiers are going to be reasonable RB2 plays. Unless I have a top four pick or an exceptional value falls to me in the second round, I don't think I'm taking a back until the third round or later.

    There are four players that I believe have a ceiling of 2000 total yards and mid double digit touchdowns - Foster, Peterson, Rice and Charles. I'm a little nervous about Charles, but his upside keeps him in this tier and makes it likely that I'll still draft him over a WR with an early-mid first round pick. Matt Waldman's argument that Chris Johnson's situation is beginning to mirror that of Vincent Jackson's 2010 has me nervous. I've never been completely sold on Johnson as an elite fantasy back, so the potential of a prolonged holdout is more than enough to keep him out of my elite tier.

    Sigmund Bloom

    24K Gold

  • Steven Jackson, STL (PPR+)
  • Frank Gore, SF (PPR+)
  • Darren McFadden, OAK (PPR+)
  • Peyton Hillis, CLE (PPR+)
  • Maurice Jones-Drew, JAX
  • All of these guys have resided in the elite tier in the past, and they can do it again. Jackson will have the best surrounding offense he has had in years and I don't see the loss of burst that others see. Gore has always produced no matter how terrible the 49ers offense is and he's playing for a contract. McFadden was just as explosive as Charles last year, he just missed time (although he did lose a good guard and an offensive line-friendly head coach). Hillis won't be as threatened by Hardesty as we thought, at least not at first, and McCoy is looking good enough to keep the Browns offense viable. Then there's MJD. I can't put my finger on it, but the air around his knee maladies has had an ominous tinge. He's a terrific running back, but that plus an uninspiring Jags offense and the presence of a back that can extend MJD's career in Rashad Jennings make it easier to only look at him in the mid-to-late second. These backs are routinely going in the second and they make it easier to go WR in the late first.

    Gold, purity TBD

  • Matt Forte, CHI (PPR+)
  • Mark Ingram, NO
  • Michael Turner, ATL
  • LeGarrette Blount, TB
  • DeAngelo Williams, CAR
  • Jahvid Best, DET (PPR+)
  • Felix Jones, DAL (PPR+)
  • Ahmad Bradshaw, NYG (PPR+)
  • Any of these backs could be at least 24K Gold, and a few even have a chance to be platinum if things break right. Forte's offensive line and the presence of Marion Barber near the goal line hurts his ceiling, but he has the highest floor and arguably belongs in 24K in PPR. Ingram should at worst be 2010 Benjarvus Green-Ellis, but he has the talent to be so much more. Turner seems to be trending down and the offense is no longer centered around him, but he is the TD guy in a great offense. Blount is basically Turner, but trending up in a less potent offense. Williams is intriguing because John Fox and his devotion to a two-back backfield is gone from Carolina and Jonathan Stewart is already having some issues with his achilles. Jahvid Best might have been at the top of this tier before his concussion reminded us that he just might not be feature-back material. Felix Jones is rocketing up draft boards. While we've heard this optimism before, no one behind him is building any buzz and Jones has the look of a back poised to put up career year numbers now that he has put his durability issues behind him. Bradshaw is as just about as good as the other backs on the list, but I believe his opportunity is being overstated, so he's in the bottom of the tier. Any of this group makes for quality RB2s.

    Jene Bramel

    Bloom and I differ on the backs within these two tiers (and the one to follow), but our strategy arguments are similar.

    My RB1/RB2 swing tier includes these:

  • Rashard Mendenhall
  • Chris Johnson (PPR+)
  • LeSean McCoy (PPR+)
  • Darren McFadden
  • Michael Turner (PPR-)
  • Maurice Jones-Drew
  • Matt Forte (PPR+)
  • Frank Gore
  • Steven Jackson
  • Peyton Hillis.
  • I've felt Mendenhall a strong RB1 since last summer. There's an argument that he belongs in the elite (2000-15 potential) tier, especially since I think he stands out as the best option in what is otherwise a tightly packed tier. Upside separates McCoy/McFadden from Jackson/Hillis, but the mid-range projection for everyone in this tier is about the same (1400-1600 total yards, 8-10 scores).

    I think Turner is extremely underrated, even in PPR leagues. He's healthy, the primary goal line option for a very good offense with enough receiving options that defense will find it very difficult to put an eighth defender in the box. It won't be shocking to see him finish in the top five.

    My RB2 With Upside tier is also deep. It includes Ingram, Jones, Blount, Bradshaw, Best (PPR+), Wells and Williams. It's this group that drives my feeling that you can reasonably slough running backs (after the big four) in the first two rounds (and longer) without worry that you'll be caught on the wrong side of a run. Each player in this tier has RB1 talent and all (except Williams) play for a strong offense that should support 250+ touch opportunity. All of the above carry some risk, but all could easily rank well inside the top 12-15 at year's end.

    Sigmund Bloom

    14K Gold

  • Ryan Mathews, SD
  • Shonn Greene, NYJ
  • Marshawn Lynch, SEA
  • Chris Wells, ARI
  • This is really a continuation of the last tier in terms of opportunity, but there's something about the player or situation that I just don't like. Ryan Mathews has to prove he can stay healthy or at least produce through injuries. Shonn Greene has to prove he can stay healthy and not wear down over the course of games and the season as a whole. Also, like Mathews, he just hasn't consistently impressed me as a runner. Lynch might be saddled with some of the worst QB play in the league next to him. Wells hasn't been able to stay healthy or play well through injuries and he is on quite possibly the worst running team in the league. These guys can fall to the 5th or later, so the risk is priced in, but I prefer the WRs available around that time.

    Jene Bramel

    For me, this next tier should consist of the swing RB2/RB3 players I'd be very happy with as RB3/flex, but who could get enough touches to crack the top 20. It's again a broad tier - eight deep, putting my list 29 players deep now - and includes Greene, Lynch, Addai, Grant, Benson, Mathews, Stewart and Moreno. In general, this is a group of solid talents whose fantasy hype doesn't match those in the tier above.

    Grant is the highest risk in the tier, Matthews has the most upside. I think Lynch remains underrated at an ADP outside RB24 and that Addai and Benson deserve stronger consideration as RB2 candidates than they've gotten. I've been targeting this group with success during the sixth and seventh round and sometimes as late as the early ninth.

    Bloom and I have a different way of separating the RB3 and later tiers. We'll present his first, then mine.

    Sigmund Bloom

    Oldies but Goodies

  • Reggie Bush, MIA (PPR+)
  • Joseph Addai, IND
  • Fred Jackson, BUF
  • Ryan Grant, GB
  • Cedric Benson, CIN
  • How much do these backs who are teetering on the edge of the downslope have left in the tank? Bush has the most intriguing situation, but he has let us down repeatedly. Addai will be solid as long as Delone Carter isn't the automatic option inside the 10, and you can get Carter cheap to protect against that anyway. All Jackson does is produce, perhaps he will be a good value on the latest news that the team wants to force Spiller in. Grant has the shadow of buzz that he could be cut, but that ain't gonna happen. Still, James Starks (and Alex Green) loom large over his stock, too. Cedric Benson seems like a wasted pick to me with a rookie QB, but the Cincy schedule is soft early and he might get off to a solid start. This group is full of flex/matchup plays with RB2 upside.

    I'll Believe It When I See It

  • C.J. Spiller, BUF
  • Knowshon Moreno, DEN
  • Tim Hightower, ARI
  • Opportunity is there, especially for Hightower, but none of these backs have had the look of someone on the verge of a breakout lately. They are good targets around the 8th-9th if you like to draft for ceiling.

    Proven Parts of RBBC with Injury Upside

  • Mike Tolbert, SD
  • Benjarvus Green-Ellis, NE
  • Michael Bush, OAK
  • Brandon Jacobs, NYG
  • Willis McGahee, DEN
  • Pierre Thomas, NO (PPR+)
  • Danny Woodhead, NE (PPR+)
  • Jonathan Stewart, CAR
  • Darren Sproles, NO (PPR+)
  • Leon Washington, SEA (PPR+)
  • The first five names on this list are sneaky good in non-PPR because of their goal-line roles, and if injuries strike other backs in their backfields, they can perform like RB2s or even RB1s. Later on the list, you get players who have the sneaky upside in PPR leagues because of their pass-catching prowess. Stewart is a back I am souring on because of his achilles soreness. Of this group, I think Jacobs, the NE backs, and McGahee are consistently the best values. Don't sleep on Washington, who is turning heads in camp and could have a bigger role than any of us are envisioning. Having one or two from this list on your bench is crucial to win the battle of attrition at RB.

    Just Give Me a Chance

  • James Starks, GB
  • Daniel Thomas, MIA
  • Delone Carter, IND
  • Rashad Jennings, JAX
  • Bernard Scott, CIN
  • Bilal Powell, NYJ
  • DeMarco Murray, DAL
  • Roy Helu, WAS
  • Isaac Redman, PIT
  • Stevan Ridley, NE
  • Shane Vereen, NE
  • Montario Hardesty, CLE
  • Mike Goodson, CAR
  • Kendall Hunter, SF
  • Jacquizz Rodgers, ATL
  • Ben Tate, HOU
  • Javon Ringer / Jamie Harper, TEN
  • Taiwan Jones, OAK
  • These are your end of the bench backs, young talents who could surprise if they get the opportunity. You hold and wait and see. I like the talent of Carter, Jennings, Scott, Powell, and Vereen. I like the situation of Carter, Scott, Powell, Helu, and the NE backs. As you might guess, I end up with Carter, Scott, and Powell on a lot of my teams.

    In Case of Emergency, Break Glass

  • LaDainian Tomlinson, NYJ
  • Ronnie Brown, PHI
  • Thomas Jones, KC
  • Marion Barber, CHI
  • Cadillac Williams, STL
  • Ricky Williams, BAL
  • These oldsters could have great value if the starters ahead of them go down, but they won't win any jobs by greatly outplaying expectations. Probably not worth drafting, but keep them on waiver wire speed dial.

    Question Marks

  • Ryan Torain, WAS
  • Jason Snelling, ATL
  • Tashard Choice, DAL
  • Donald Brown, IND
  • Jerome Harrison, DET
  • Justin Forsett, SEA
  • These backs have all showed something at different times in the past, but they seem to be not that highly thought of by their teams. I'm open to them regaining their value, but I won't draft them.

    Jene Bramel

    Committee Backs With Upside

  • Mike Tolbert
  • Reggie Bush (PPR+)
  • Tim Hightower
  • Fred Jackson
  • James Starks
  • BenJarvus Green-Ellis
  • Pierre Thomas
  • C.J. Spiller (PPR+)
  • Michael Bush
  • Willis McGahee
  • Daniel Thomas
  • Brandon Jacobs
  • Rashad Jennings
  • Delone Carter
  • Bernard Scott
  • Montario Hardesty
  • Another very deep tier, though the immediate value has finally begun to dry up toward the bottom. Some of these backs will get more carries than others during the first half of the season, but nearly all are an injury or coach's whim from 15-20 touches (or more) a week. I've been targeting Starks, BJGE, McGahee, Jennings and Carter as later round value plays.

    Veteran Committee Backs With Questions

  • Marion Barber
  • Thomas Jones
  • Ronnie Brown
  • LaDainian Tomlinson
  • Ricky Williams
  • I suspect the fantasy world has written off at least one of these five too soon. I'm not shying away from any as a strong RB5. This list extends through my RB45 and we've only now started to fall off the value cliff.

    PPR Specials

  • Danny Woodhead
  • Darren Sproles
  • Jacquizz Rodgers
  • Priority Watch List
  • Stevan Ridley / Shane Vereen
  • Ben Tate
  • Bilal Powell
  • Isaac Redman
  • Javon Ringer / Jamie Harper
  • Jason Snelling
  • Roy Helu / Ryan Torain
  • Kendall Hunter
  • Donald Brown
  • Toby Gerhart
  • Demarco Murray/Tashard Choice
  • Hope you enjoyed this installment. We'll be rolling out the others over the next week or so. Comments, suggestions or questions are welcome below or by email at bloom@footballguys.com or bramel@footballguys.com. You can also follow our active Twitter feeds @SigmundBloom and @JeneBramel. Thanks for reading.

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