Running Back Tiers
By Sigmund Bloom and Jene Bramel
August 15th, 2012

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 the rewards are many. Breaking your rankings into tiers forces you to crystallize your opinions on players. It naturally lends itself to helping you make good strategic decisions during your draft. The process helps you stay on the right side of runs, shows you which positions can be sloughed a round longer than you thought or need to be targeted early. Perhaps most importantly, tiering and then running a few mock drafts leave you prepared for every contingency during your draft and will 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 this summer, including IDPs, 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 tight end over your RB3 or WR3, whether you should prioritize defensive linemen over linebackers again this year and whether there are any defensive backs worth drafting early.

Note: We are assuming a 12-team league and PPR scoring when discussing draft round estimates and ADP data.

Bloom: Elite RB with Low Risk

  • Arian Foster
  • Ray Rice
  • LeSean McCoy
  • These three are the gold standard at running back. They bring a history of proven production, a good track record of durability and are the focal point of their respective offenses. Choosing between them is a matter of taste in essence. Foster has the highest ceiling and probably greatest risk with the turnover on the Texans offensive line. Rice has been used to death in the last three years, but the contract extension given to him by the Ravens is reassuring. McCoy is still on the upslope of his career, but his 2011 touchdown level might be unsustainable. Any are worthy of the #1 overall pick in a PPR league.

    Draft Outlook: Be happy to draw the #3 slot and get one of these backs while getting to choose before the other two teams with an elite back at each turn.

    Bramel: Agreed. I might lean narrowly to Rice due to the presence of Ben Tate, but it's a hair-splitting distinction.

    Bloom: Elite RB with Medium Risk

  • Chris Johnson
  • Maurice Jones-Drew
  • Both of these backs can produce with the top three, but Johnson wasn't himself last year, and Jones-Drew is in a holdout, but one that I believe will end soon. Jones-Drew's surrounding offense seems like the bigger risk, but it didn't stop him from leading the league in rushing last year.

    Draft Outlook: These are your mid-first round targets. Feel lucky to get them in the late first with the running back shortage this year.

    Elite RB with High Risk

  • Darren McFadden
  • I have no doubt McFadden will put up numbers with any back in the league while he plays, but we all know that is going to be for a limited time if the past is any indication. Perhaps he could pull a Fred Taylor and shrug off the injury-prone label, but even two-thirds of a season from McFadden makes him worth an early pick.

    Draft Outlook: McFadden is the running back you are targeting at or near the turn. Just make sure to get Mike Goodson in about the 13th/14th round.

    Bramel: My draft board is going to include Ryan Mathews and Demarco Murray in this tier and I'm going to stubbornly suggest that neither (nor McFadden for that matter) carries higher risk than Johnson or Jones-Drew. It's easy to argue that Mathews as a fragile back, but I'm not buying it. The fractured clavicle doesn't concern me and I felt like Mathews was a tougher player than he was given credit for last year. He's super-talented and there's no one on the depth chart to keep him from 20+ touches a week. He's a gamble I'm still willing to take in the late first and would consider a gift any time after the mid-second. Murray is another back who has gotten an undeserved label as injury prone. I think he'll be heavily used on a good offense and earn more red zone opportunities than many think. Both are top six backs for me.

    Bloom: RB1 with Low Risk

  • Darren Sproles
  • Matt Forte
  • These backs don't have the ability to reach the elite scoring level, but they are suitable RB1s.

    Draft Outlook: Forte is still being drafted in the first round in a lot of cases, I think that's too high because of Michael Bush's presence. He's a fine back to pair with McFadden or a non-RB first-round pick. Sproles is going mid to late-second and an excellent second-round pick as your #2 RB or #1 to pair with a non-RB in the first.

    Potential RB1 Risk/Upside Grab Bag

  • Marshawn Lynch
  • Demarco Murray
  • Ryan Mathews
  • Jamaal Charles
  • Adrian Peterson
  • Steven Jackson
  • Doug Martin
  • Fred Jackson
  • Trent Richardson
  • Good luck navigating this group. Lynch seems like the no brainer pick in the second or third and more and more signs point to no suspension this year. Murray's injury history makes him a risk, but with elite upside and no current issues. Mathews is scary with a broken collarbone, but has elite upside. Charles and Peterson have elite upside but are coming off of ACL tears - Peterson's was less than nine months ago. Jackson is getting close to the RB age/usage cliff, and he's in a morose offense, but with a coach that will run him into the ground. Martin is still battling LeGarrette Blount (don't laugh), Jackson will see more work go CJ Spiller's way this year, and Richardson just had his second knee surgery of the offseason, and he's in a weak offense.

    Draft Outlook: ADP is less useful here as the order these backs go off the board will depend a lot on personal preference. Lynch is the obvious value anywhere from mid-second on. Murray will cost you a mid-second, but I prefer Sproles there. Mathews is falling to the mid-third and should be an automatic pick there unless Lynch is also on the board. Charles will cost a mid-second, Peterson a late-second or early-third. It's probably best to pass on them there. Steven Jackson is usually gone by the mid-third, but Fred Jackson and Doug Martin are both backs you can hope to get in the late third after a start with one back and one non-RB. Pray for them to fall if you don't take a back with either of your first two picks. Richardson is still going in the second, too much risk for me there.

    RB2 with RB1 Upside

  • Ahmad Bradshaw
  • Frank Gore
  • Bradshaw was already an A1 last year and he has durability issues. Gore is getting up there and surrounded by specialty backs that can steal touches. There's still a possibility that Bradshaw and/or Gore put up previous RB1 levels of production and overcome the concerns about their fantasy value this year. Both will be strong RB2's at worst as lead backs on winning teams.

    Draft Outlook: Bradshaw will likely cost you a third, Gore a fourth. Think of Bradshaw as your "in case of emergency break glass" back in the late third. Target wide receivers in the fourth round, not Gore, unless you're a big-time believer and only have one running back on the roster.

    Bramel: I like Peterson, S. Jackson and Bradshaw as the likely best values in this tier. I'll be mixing and matching from this group depending on whether I feel I can assume risk in the hopes of elite upside (Peterson, Charles, Martin, Richardson) or prefer some safety in my RB2 (Lynch, S. Jackson, F. Jackson, Bradshaw, Gore) behind a more suspect RB1. If the draft falls that way, I'll be very happy to grab three players from the above tiers in the first three or four rounds.

    I'm not buying the worries on Bradshaw and I'll be targeting him in the late third / early fourth round in most drafts. David Wilson isn't as big a threat as some argue and Bradshaw is capable of 18-20 touches a week including targets on passing downs and around the goal line. He's easily a top 15 fantasy back for me.

    Bloom: High Floor RB2s with Conditional Upside

  • Isaac Redman
  • Jonathan Stewart
  • Reggie Bush
  • Michael Turner
  • Peyton Hillis
  • BenJarvus Green-Ellis
  • Willis McGahee
  • All of these backs have pretty well-established roles that give them consistent week-to-week value. All of them have upside in various scenarios. Redman could be an RB1 over the course of the year if the Steelers don't revert to a committee at any point this year. Stewart becomes an RB1 if DeAngelo Williams goes down. Bush, if he is featured in a crowded backfield. Turner, if the Falcons offense doesn't change as much as we think. Hillis, if Kansas City is a winning team and they shoot for 500 carries between him and Jamaal Charles. Green-Ellis, if Cincinnati is a winning team. McGahee, if he can be viable in passing situations and sets.

    Draft Outlook: When you see the ADP of this group, coming out of the first four rounds with only one running back doesn't seem so insane. Bush is a fourth-rounder, Turner, 4th/5th, Redman 5th/6th, Green-Ellis 6th, McGahee and Stewart 6th/7th, and Hillis 7th. The seventh round looks like a great place to get your RB3, or RB2 if you have built a murderer's row elsewhere.

    Bramel: If you elect to risk drafting an elite quarterback and an elite tight end in the first five rounds, this is the group you'll be considering as your RB2 unless you're comfortable sloughing wide receiver. There is some value in this list, to which I'd add Stevan Ridley and Mark Ingram (I told you I was stubborn), but make sure you like what you see here before committing to an upside-down like draft strategy.

    If I'm unable to secure a RB3 from the above tiers, I'll be targeting one of Stewart, Redman, Bush or Turner soon thereafter and then hoping to get Ridley or Ingram as my RB4.

    Bloom: Exciting RB3s

  • Roy Helu
  • Kevin Smith
  • Stevan Ridley
  • Pierre Thomas
  • Jacquizz Rodgers
  • Mark Ingram
  • Donald Brown
  • You can tell yourself a story to get fired up about any of these guys a being flex/RB3 with the potential for much, much more this year. Helu is the most talented back in a combustible Redskins running game. Smith, the healthiest back in Detroit and he produced like crazy in a limited time atop the depth chart last year. Ridley presumably has the Green-Ellis role in New England. Thomas is still ultra-consistent and provides a nice floor in PPR leagues. Rodgers could be a Sproles-lite for Atlanta. Ingram might get double-digit touchdowns in take two with the Saints. Brown appears to be the lead back for the Colts. All have big risk factors against being "plug and play" running backs for most of the year, which is what keeps them out of the RB2 tier.

    Draft Outlook: Helu (6th), Brown/Ridley (7th), and Ingram (8th) all appear to be reaches at their current ADP. Smith, Thomas, and Rodgers are your backs to target as RB4s in the 10th.

    Bramel: Exciting is one word for this tier. I'd prefer indigestion-inducing, or the how did I let myself get stuck with this guy as my flex play or bye week RB2 tier if you slough running backs too long. I'm not drinking the Kool-Aid on Rodgers yet, but agree that he's an attractive upside RB4 option. I don't want any part of the Shanahanigans in Washington, especially now that Helu has revealed that he's again struggling with an Achilles problem. I'd much rather take a flyer on Mikel Leshoure than Kevin Smith.

    Bloom: "Lottery Ticket" RB4s

  • David Wilson
  • Ryan Williams
  • Chris Wells
  • CJ Spiller
  • DeAngelo Williams
  • Mikel Leshoure
  • Michael Bush
  • Ben Tate
  • Ronnie Hillman
  • Shonn Greene
  • Evan Royster
  • Jahvid Best
  • Now we're to the part of your running back bench where you are just stashing guys and hoping for the best. There's lots of talent on this list. Wilson getting the break of a Bradshaw injury or Williams seeing Wells go out are both decent possibilities, so they lead the list. Spiller and Williams have borderline RB1 talent, but need injuries from more durable backs to be startable. Leshoure is risky, but so is everyone in front of him. Bush has the goal line back role, but needs a Forte injury to be trusted, and Tate is only a matchup play without a Foster injury. Hillman will be brought along slow, but could be a passing down back in time. Greene is just not inspiring in any way, no matter what the Jets coaches say about him. Royster will be hard to trust no matter what happens, but he could be the back that Shanahan settles on, you never know. Best could suddenly get cleared and resume as the Lions lead back, you never know.

    Draft Outlook: Don't go near Greene at his 5th/6th ADP. Spiller and Wells are being overdrafted in the 7th. Tate and Best are losing propositions in the 8th (Don't think you need Tate if you have Foster. You don't.). Both Williamses, Bush, Leshoure, and Wilson are going in the 9th (and Hillman in the 10th), but the previous tier gives you better options there. Royster is the name to highlight here at his 13th/14th round ADP.

    Bramel: I like the upside of many of these players as my RB4. Ryan Williams, Mikel Leshoure, Ben Tate have been frequent targets and C.J. Spiller has lots of value in PPR leagues. Jahvid Best is well down my draft board. We're nearly ten months removed from his last concussion and there's no timetable for his return. I'll consider him very late, but he'll be gone long before he's on my radar.

    Bloom: Secondary Backs with Talent

  • Bernard Scott
  • Rashad Jennings
  • LeGarrette Blount
  • Shane Vereen
  • Felix Jones
  • Mike Goodson
  • If the opportunity is there via injury, any of these backs could make their owners very happy. Scott, Jennings, Blount, Goodson, and Jones have all produced well in the past, and Vereen is a young back with live legs in a wide open offense.

    Draft Outlook: Jones and Blount are going in the 11th because they have brighter days in their past. Jennings, Vereen, and Scott are going in the 13th and they are good backs to target if Royster is gone. Goodson is going in the 15th/16th and he should be a late round target whether you own McFadden or not.

    Bramel: Scott and Jennings have my attention in this tier. I'd like to buy into Blount's camp resurgence or believe that Vereen will get enough opportunity to be flex worthy, but I'm not feeling either as more than RB5/RB6 targets.

    Bloom: Worth a Roster Spot

  • Tim Hightower
  • Daniel Thomas/Lamar Miller
  • Joique Bell/Keiland Williams
  • Toby Gerhart
  • Javon Ringer
  • Alex Green/James Starks/Cedric Benson
  • Bilal Powell
  • Kendall Hunter
  • Montario Hardesty
  • Jonathan Dwyer
  • Robert Turbin
  • Isaiah Pead
  • Vick Ballard
  • Alfred Morris
  • Mike Tolbert
  • In deep leagues, you'll want to fill bench spots with backs who could have value in an instant with the right chain of events. The Miami combo has the most talent, but the Detroit combo could see the field at any moment the way that team's fortunes in the backfield have gone. Hunter is worth targeting on talent alone, and Dwyer is intriguing while he is having his best camp as a pro.

    Draft Outlook: Gerhart, Thomas, and Starks have been overrated in early drafts and won't be there in the late rounds. Powell, Dwyer, Hunter, Miller and Williams/Bell are all good "last round pick" types to target.

    Bramel: I think Green and Ringer stand out in this group, but Miller, Starks, Powell, Hunter, Dwyer, Hardesty and Pead are all on my list of late round flyer targets as well.

    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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