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Pre-Camp PPR RB Tiers

Sigmund Bloom looks at running back rankings through the lens of tiers as we get closer to the open of training camps.

After OTA’s and minicamps wind up, the NFL will go into one last period of hibernation for beach vacations and a deep breath before becoming consumed by the season. Us fantasy football types are no different. Before training camp and the preseason start to make us question what we think we know entering fantasy draft season, it’s good to take a snapshot of our beliefs to refer back to when August hype makes the vert and horizontal hold go wicky-wacky on our TV’s. I’ll be running down my current tiers for redraft leagues (PPR) before the earth starts to move again in late July.


This is an odd year at running back. The first and second rounds have enough viable options to go RB-RB if you want, and you can certainly secure an RB1 without putting your draft plan behind the eight ball. The 3rd-5th rounds have enough risk/reward RB picks to keep you up at night, but the 6th and 7th round backs seem similar enough to forgo running back in those rounds. The later rounds have some options that remain puzzlingly cheap and plenty of candidates for the list of backs that end up bailing out people who whiff or suffer injuries at running back. As usual, picking the right backs and staying ahead of the curve will be more important that staying true to rigid guidelines for when to take your backs.

ELITE RB1

Todd Gurley, LA
Le’Veon Bell, PIT
Ezekiel Elliott, DAL

I won’t talk anyone out of taking Bell #1 overall, just make sure you take DeAngelo Williams in the tenth round or so. Bell is no sure thing for Week 1 and his injury history is foreboding. Gurley doesn’t have the same PPR punch, but we haven’t seen his ceiling yet and he’ll be projected in the top five every single week he takes the field. Elliott has capable backups, which introduces some risk for a rookie, but his situation is supercharged, giving him a ceiling on a par with Gurley, and with his receiving ability, maybe even Bell.

STRONG RB1

Adrian Peterson, MIN
Lamar Miller, HOU
David Johnson, ARI
Jamaal Charles, KC

Your second round running back tier. They are all fine uses of a second, with minimal risk. Peterson may cede more work to Jerick McKinnon, but he’ll be a rock steady RB1 as long as age/usage doesn’t catch up with him. Miller will get the largest workload of his career and could even contend for a top three slot. Ability to hold up under a huge workload and his previous team’s reluctance to give him one are the only hesitations here. Johnson should lead the Cardinals running backs in touches, and in that offense, that could be easily be enough to propel him to a top five season even if Chris Johnson gets more touches than we expect. Charles is a gold standard back, we just need to see his recovery go well to potentially move him up in this tier. Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West are highly thought of by the Chiefs, but a healthy Charles will still rule this offense.

SOLID RB1

Mark Ingram, NO
Devonta Freeman, ATL

Ingram is a fine RB1 in PPR leagues. His surprising receiving game involvement in 2015 could be reduced if CJ Spiller or a restocked group of passing game weapons allows Drew Brees to lean on him less, but the Saints are so good at getting their running backs touchdown opportunities that it shouldn’t affect his tier. Freeman could be an elite RB1 again if Tevin Coleman can’t stay healthy, but if Coleman is healthy and effective, Freeman will be more like a boom/bust RB2. His involvement in the passing game gives a good enough weekly floor to still be classified as an RB1 in PPR leagues.

LOW RB1/STRONG RB2

Doug Martin, TB
Dion Lewis, NE

Both of these backs are arguably RB1’s. The only knock on Martin is Charles Sims being good enough to merit 10+ touches a game, including some red zone looks. The only knocks on Lewis are that he’s coming back from an ACL tear and Tom Brady might miss the first four games. I wouldn’t be scared of having one of them as my RB1.

REWARD/RISK RB2

Carlos Hyde, SF
Eddie Lacy, GB
Jay Ajayi, MIA
LeSean McCoy, BUF
Thomas Rawls, SEA
C.J. Anderson, DEN
Matt Jones, WAS

This tier keeps me up at night. They will cost between a third and fifth-round pick in most drafts, with Jones and Ajayi occasionally lasting until the sixth. That makes them the easy choices out of this tier. Hyde is the one I like best if we’re going for pure ceiling, but the 49ers falling behind in most games could doom his weekly floor. Lacy has a higher weekly floor, but the shine is off of his weight loss news, and James Starks was objectively better than him for most of 2015. McCoy actually ran well in 2015, but he’s already dinged and Karlos Williams can play, man. We aren’t sure when we’ll see Rawls take the field and Seattle took three backs in the draft, but he was great when he got a chance last year, easily good enough to justify a high pick considering the quality of the situation. Anderson will lead a team that should rely on its running game, and he has been an RB1 for a good stretch in the past, but only once. And then there’s Ajayi and Jones, who have been anointed by a lack of moves at running back by their teams. Ajayi looked better last year, so he’s the preferred target from this tier, but no other back in this group makes me feel the warm fuzzies when I draft them at ADP.

HIGH FLOOR RB2

Frank Gore, IND
Matt Forte, NYJ
Giovani Bernard, CIN
Danny Woodhead, SD
Duke Johnson, CLE

The RB2 ranks are expanded in PPR leagues because a predictable weekly dose of targets gives backs who aren’t quite workhorses a high enough weekly floor to trust in your lineup every week. Gore doesn’t quite fall in that group and he has the most attractive ADP right now. Forte is going the earliest. While he played well enough last year, I’m not sure he’s better than what I saw from Bilal Powell late last year. Bernard should pick up some of the slack left in the Bengals passing game and he is entering his prime. Woodhead’s value is durable, if unexciting without the touchdown outbursts. Johnson is exactly the type of player Hue Jackson can make good use out of with a limited wide receiver group and he has promise as long as the Browns get competent quarterback play. Bernard could “hit” if Jeremy Hill gets hurt, and Gore could flirt with RB1 production if the Colts bounce back, but this tier is more about floor than ceiling. Considering that they are available in the fifth/sixth round in most drafts, you shouldn’t feel pushed to get your RB2 in first four rounds if you like the WR/TE options better.

LOW RB2 FOR HOW LONG?

Latavius Murray, OAK
Ryan Mathews, PHI
Jonathan Stewart, CAR

This is a group I will avoid. They aren’t that different from Ajayi and Jones, but Murray seems to not have the confidence of his team, Mathews has rarely stayed healthy for a whole season and Stewart is already dinged and often yields to his quarterback at the goal line. The fifth/sixth round price isn’t terrible, but I see little room for profit and a lot of room for disappointment.

FLEX APPEAL WITH RB1 INJURY UPSIDE

Karlos Williams, BUF
Jeremy Hill, CIN
Charles Sims, TB

Any one of this group could be the hit of your running back draft if injury strikes their backfieldmate. Williams looked like a beast last year but missed five games himself. He has the starter most likely to go down (LeSean McCoy) in front of him. Hill was mediocre last year, but the Bengals are likely to lean more on the running game with the losses in the passing game, and there’s Bernard injury upside. Sims progressed a ton in year two, but he’ll only be reliable start with an injury to Doug Martin.

FLEX APPEAL WITH RB2 INJURY UPSIDE

T.J. Yeldon, JAX
Ameer Abdullah, DET
Isaiah Crowell, CLE
Melvin Gordon, SD
Chris Ivory, JAX
Jeremy Langford, CHI
Demarco Murray, TEN

All of these backs reside in RBBC backfields, and even an injury one or more of their running mates probably would not boost them to “season changer”. ADP makes it tough to love any of them outside of Crowell and Ivory. If the Jaguars become a competitive team week in, week out, Ivory can be a low RB2. Crowell might not even need that if Hue Jackson can restore the running game behind a very good offensive line. I just can’t see Yeldon, Abdullah, or Gordon making a huge second-year considering the nature of their offenses and running back depth charts. Langford and Murray didn’t inspire much confidence with 2015 play and they’ll still be sharing in offenses that are among the least exciting in the league.

FLEX APPEAL

Justin Forsett, BAL
LeGarrette Blount, NE

Blount is the ultimate what you see is what you get back. When the Patriots matchup favors the power running game (which should improve with the addition of Martellus Bennett), he’ll be an RB2 play. Forsett should enter the year as the starter and he is a capable RB2 for fantasy assuming he gets the majority of the touches, but there are younger backs nipping at his heels. Forsett could surprise and is worth looking at if you miss your running back targets earlier.

WHAT THE HECK FLEX WITH UPSIDE

Bilal Powell, NYJ
James Starks, GB

Be open to the possibility that Powell and Starks are the best running backs on their respective rosters this year. Powell played the best football of his career at the end of 2015, and Starks was consistently better than Eddie Lacy last year. The hard part here is that without Forte/Lacy injuries, they might not be reliable starts. We could easily have a situation in both backfields where no back gives us the warm fuzzies when we set our lineups. Considering how much less Powell/Starks cost, they are certainly better picks than Forte and Lacy at ADP, and they are good parts of any draft plan in deeper leagues.

BENCH STASH WITH RB1 UPSIDE

DeAngelo Williams, PIT
Jerick McKinnon, MIN

We already know Williams can be a league winner, and the starter in front of him is unsure for Week 1. Williams could even grow into a flex-worthy weekly role if the Steelers try to pace Le’Veon Bell’s workload. McKinnon could also see his weekly touch share grow, although the starter in front of him is more likely to go down. Matt Asiata is clearly in the rear view mirror in terms of the Vikings’ future priority in the backfield.

ROOKIE BENCH STASH

DeAndre Washington, OAK
Kenneth Dixon, BAL
Wendell Smallwood, PHI
Devontae Booker, DEN
Kenyan Drake, MIA
C.J. Prosise, SEA
Derrick Henry, TEN
Paul Perkins, NYG
Jordan Howard, CHI
Keith Marshall, WAS

It’s always good to reserve a pick or two for a rookie running back who could impress and wrest more touches as the season goes on, whether by injury or merit. Washington and Smallwood seemed destined to get a longer look and have somewhat shaky starters in front of them. Dixon and Booker are hypercompetent and if they get a bigger opportunity by whatever path they can, they should hold onto it. Drake and Prosise are far from finished products, but their teams are high on them and they have young unestablished starters in front of them. Henry, Perkins, Howard, and Marshall are clearly less attractive, but they still have a bit of unknown upside because of their freshly minted status and the lack of entrenched starters in front of them.

WHAT THE HECK FLEX

Theo Riddick, DET

I love Riddick in Best Ball leagues because of his ability to give you a reasonable floor that allows for minimal RB drafting early and riskier RB drafting late. In a typical PPR redraft league, he is a middling flex play at best with little prospect for his outlook to improve. He has value in deeper leagues, but in a typical 12-team league, I’m not sure he is worth drafting.

VETERANS ON LAST LEG

Rashad Jennings, NYG
C.J. Spiller, NO
Arian Foster, FA

There are scenarios where all three of these backs help you win some fantasy weeks. Jennings came on late last year and he’s still the best back on the Giants roster. Spiller is healthy (for now) and the Saints gave him over three million dollars, so that Sproles role could be his yet. Foster could be a PPR wonder with his passing game skills, but his injury history spells out stay away. They are more suitable picks in deeper leagues.

FLEX APPEAL LOW CEILING

Zach Zenner, DET
Shane Vereen, NYG
Chris Thompson, WAS
Darren Sproles, PHI

None of these backs will be able to secure anything like a feature role even if their backfield crumble around them, but they can have some use in a pinch. The hope is that Zenner gets goal line carries, and Vereen, Thompson, and Sproles (potentially for another team) have some PPR high points against matchups that open up their offenses. They are on the fringe of draftworthy in just about any format.

RB2 INJURY UPSIDE

Spencer Ware, KC
Charcandrick West, KC
Cameron Artis-Payne, CAR
Chris Johnson, ARI
Darren McFadden, DAL
Alfred Morris, DAL
James White, NE

With the exception of Artis-Payne and time-wise Morris, all of these backs have recently demonstrated the ability to be RB2 types when their number comes up. White was even an RB1 once Dion Lewis went down, but then again, so was Javorius Allen.

TALENT BENCH STASH

Christine Michael, SEA
Andre Ellington, ARI
Branden Oliver, SD
Tyler Ervin, HOU
Khiry Robinson, NYJ
Mike Davis, SF

Michael could gain momentum in training camp. Ellington has been an RB1 before and injuries happen (although mostly to him). Oliver is capable and in a good offense. Ervin might be the second best back on the Texans roster and poised for a lot of work if Lamar Miller goes down. He should get a chance to show his wares one way or the other with his dynamic open field game. Robinson is a grinder, but also an underrated receiver in a resourceful offense. Davis is still mostly a theoretical stash, but in a Chip Kelly offense we will definitely pay attention to the backup (even if its Shaun Draughn) behind an injury prone starter.

WATCH THE CAMP BATTLES

Robert Turbin, IND
Josh Ferguson, IND
Javorius Allen, BAL
KaDeem Carey, CHI
Daniel Lasco, NO
Stevan Ridley, DET
Kenjon Barner, PHI
Trent Richardson, BAL
Tim Hightower, NO
Dwayne Washington, DET
Brandon Wegher, CAR
Mike Gilleslee, BUF
Jonathan Williams, BUF

We want to see who Frank Gore’s backup is. The Ravens, Bears, Eagles and Saints #2 back. The Lions between the tackle back. The younger backup to Jonathan Stewart in Carolina. Any back that makes the run-heavy Bills roster. We think we know the answer to some of these, but things change quickly in traning camp. Keep your head on a swivel.