Fantasy draft season is upon us, it’s time to stop preparing and start committing. Running back is still as top heavy as ever, but there are some fascinating mid-round prospects who could help out if you are patient at the position this year. How do the PPR tiers look this year?
David Johnson, ARI
Le’Veon Bell, PIT
I won’t talk you out of Bell over Johnson. I have Johnson first because I’m not thrilled about Bell’s holdout, and Bell has suffered a significant injury every year of his career. Bell does seem to have a higher weekly ceiling and a better surrounding situation. Both have a higher risk of missed games by their starting quarterback than a typical back. 1-2, 2-1, I won’t quibble with the order.
ELITE RB1 BUT…
Ezekiel Elliott, DAL
Elliott didn’t have quite the weekly ceiling of Bell and Johnson last year because they were more involved as receivers, but that could change this year. Another thing that could change this year is Elliott’s ability to play 16 games because of a possible suspension. It could be 1-2 games. It could be 4-6. Jerry Jones appears to be ready to fight, so even if a suspension comes down, it could be kept in limbo until during the season or even next year. Elliott is still going to be a first-round pick unless this is at least four games, and maybe even in that event. Darren McFadden is the handcuff to own, but Rob Kelley and Jacquizz Rodgers could also serve as a cheap fill-in. Having Elliott on your team could mean triumph by season’s end, but heartburn at the beginning.
McCoy was outstanding last year, and his situation should be unchanged, if not improved, pending the health of left tackle Cordy Glenn’s foot. New offensive coordinator Rick Dennison should invigorate the offense, including more receptions for McCoy. While he isn’t the automatic goal line option that the others high on this list are, he still scored 13 times last year while setting a career high in yards per carry. There’s a case to be made for Gordon to be taken ahead of him. The Chargers line and offense should improve and there is no threat to Gordon dominating touches. Ajayi already has a concussion and the Dolphins are breaking in a new quarterback, but he should be even better than last year, when he made history with week-winning outbursts in three different games after starting the season back at home in the coaches doghouse. All are worthy picks in the second half of the first round.
Freeman is proven, but his season-long ceiling is limited by the presence of Tevin Coleman. Think of him as swinging for a single in the late first/early second, but still with the potential to be a home run in any given week. Murray was a strong RB1 last year, but Derrick Henry’s progress and another year of wear discounts him to the second round. Howard pulled a Todd Gurley and transcended a terrible situation last year. Can Howard one up Gurley and do it two years in a row? A lack of passing game involvement makes it more difficult to invest with confidence in the second round.
Gurley was more of an upside RB2 until the news about Lance Dunbar’s balky knee. Now Gurley might get most of the passing game work. Add in the potential for Sean McVay to revitalize this offense and the improvements on the offensive line and you have a converge of positive factors for the biggest disappointment of the 2016 first round. Lynch’s return has been met with skepticism, but Latavius Murray turned this role into low RB1 numbers last year, and Lynch can be better than Murray, even at this late juncture in his career.
Fournette and Crowell have the talent to be fantasy RB1s, but their situations have flaws. Fournette should get as much work as he can handle, and Crowell could get more than his 198 carries from 2016 if the Browns are more competitive. The Browns have an upgraded offensive line, and Crowell also caught 40 passes last year. The Jaguars have a solid run-blocking line and a great defense. The Jaguars also have Blake Bortles as quarterback and the Browns are the Browns. Fournette is going about a round earlier than Crowell and both might be overvalued at this point.
HIGH WEEKLY CEILING RB2
PPR scoring allows you to have a much wider net of running backs capable of RB1 weeks. This group has 40-50 catches as a floor, and Woodhead/McCaffrey could easily approach 70-80. Montgomery has an unknown ceiling and the weakest competition for touches. Abdullah was an RB1 in his one healthy game last year. McCaffrey will be a focal point of the offense even if he cedes 200+ carries to Jonathan Stewart - and Stewart’s durability is not a given. Cook appears to have already established himself as the lead back, but like Abdullah, he could be taken out at the goal line and in obvious run situations - although Theo Riddick is a more formidable pass catcher than Jerick McKinnon. I am tempted to put Woodhead at the top of this tier because he should benefit from the Ravens offense’s proclivity for running back targets and he’s also good in the red zone. You can get a nice RB2 with RB1 weekly upside in the 4th/5th (or even sixth in Woodhead’s case) this year.
Hyde is gaining momentum, and if the Kyle Shanahan running game clicks, he could be a low RB1. There’s still Hyde’s injury history and the possibility of other backs chipping away at his workload, not to mention Brian Hoyer at quarterback and the 49ers likely losing a lot of games. Hyde was able to score three times as a receiver and twice in garbage time last year. Will that happen again? Miller was a dud despite a high ADP last year. The team likes Tyler Ervin and D’Onta Foreman. It’s difficult to see him making a big difference in fantasy leagues this year. Even when there was a boom, it was small.
POTENTIAL LEAGUE WINNER LUXURY PICK
Mixon has gotten out of the range that I would select him with Giovani Bernard healthy and Jeremy Hill still on the roster. He has the talent to take over the Bengals backfield, but there’s also the issue of that line. I see the potential, but not at the current price. Henry needs a Demarco Murray injury to return first-round value, but he can still be a flex a la Tevin Coleman if the progress he has showed forces the team into giving him more opportunities. Martin will miss three games and the team is still motivating him by promising nothing, but all reports point to regaining 2015 form, when he was a solid RB1. Pairing him with Jacquizz Rodgers or Rob Kelley isn’t too expensive and worth a look. Gillislee won’t reproduce LeGarrette Blount’s 18 touchdowns, but he could get 10-12 and be much more productive with his touches. Maybe "league winner' is a stretch here, but he could be worth 2-3 rounds ADP greater than his cost.
REGAIN PAST GLORY RBBC RB2/FLEX
Lacy will go into the season as the starter, but this is a three-headed backfield in Seattle. New Orleans will also have a three-headed backfield, but they have shown more ability to produce big games despite a committee approach. All of these backs have the talent to be an RB1, but the situation would need to clarify with injuries. I’m fine with any as my third back outside of the first six rounds.
LOW CEILING RB2/FLEX
CJ Anderson, DEN
Frank Gore, IND
Gore is more reasonably priced, but Robert Turbin and Marlon Mack are coming on, and his value will be down from last year. He could be a par and return some decent RB2 weeks, but Gore also likely lacks the ability to greatly outproduce his ADP. Spencer Ware was in this tier but his status is up in the air after a knee injury.
Kareem Hunt, KC (Pending Ware injury news)
Maybe I’m sleeping on Perkins ability to be a three-down back. Maybe I am taking the Giants running game too lightly. Perkins is worth his ADP, but I rarely find myself taking him. Coleman is only going to have consistent value if Devonta Freeman goes down, and there’s some touchdown luck regression due. He’s usually gone a round or two before I would consider him. Powell was an RB1 down the stretch last year, but that was in a Chan Gailey offense and with other actual NFL talents around him. The Jets are waving the white flag right now.
PPR SPECIAL FLEX
None of these players will be season-changers, but they can help in a pinch in PPR leagues. White has the most red zone potential. Johnson and Riddick could be in the 60-70 reception range, and both could gain a lot of value in case of injury to Crowell or Abdullah. Kamara will be set up to succeed and could gain value if Ingram/Peterson go down. Prosise is more likely to get hurt than Rawls or Lacy, but there’s injury upside there, plus he showed big play potential in his short stint last year. Bernard is the least exciting with two backs between him and injury upside instead of just one.
WHAT THE HECK FLEX
Keeping with the theme of a limited season-long ceiling, this group mostly derives their value from volume and goal-line work instead of reception potential. Kelley should begin the season as the starter, but will he end it as one? Will West get some competition before the season begins? Stewart’s upside is limited by McCaffrey, but he is more secure than Kelley/West. Rodgers will be startable as a flex for the first three games, but beyond that is a handcuff at best unless Doug Martin is a bust. Burkhead could/should have some big weeks, but will be unpredictable.
This group might not provide any value Week 1, but still has a high upper end in their range of outcomes. Perine is a superior talent to Kelley and the incumbent won’t go away easily. Ware is out for at least a few regular season games and probably will return to an RBBC. Rawls could force a RBBC, but needs a Lacy injury to have consistent value. I can’t quit Charles, although he might not make the team and he is being brought along slowly. I can’t quit Lewis, but he’s fourth in line for touches. His natural ability could change that in short order. McFadden could have value right away if Elliott is suspended and Jerry Jones doesn’t fight too hard. Conner (if he gets healthy) is the other classic handcuffs if the youngsters can secure the backup jobs in camp. Jamaal Williams is looking like the #2 and a potential finisher of drives and games.
DEEP LEAGUE END GAME/WAIVER WIRE WATCH LIST
Richard and Washington are both talented enough to generate value with more touches, but that won’t happen unless Lynch goes down. Same goes for Turbin with Gore in the Colts backfield. Ervin and Cohen are intriguing weapons who could pop in early action and earn more touches. Hill and Forte have touchdown potential every week, but Hill is on the way down and Forte is on a team that won’t score many touchdowns. Booker should be poised to benefit if Anderson can’t hold up again, but he’s hurt right now. Thompson has bye/injury/emergency value, but there’s no path to more.
IN CASE OF INJURY BREAK GLASS
Jerick McKinnon, MIN
Chris Johnson, ARI
Branden Oliver, LAC
Marlon Mack, IND
T.J. Yeldon, JAX
Charles Sims, TB
Wayne Gallman, NYG
Shane Vereen, NYG
Damien Williams, MIA
Zach Zenner, DET
Chris Ivory, JAX
Tim Hightower, SF
D’Onta Foreman, HOU
Malcolm Brown, LAR
Chris Carson, SEA
Role players and injury upside dot this list, with a decent amount of talent and a few good situation/talent intersections. All of them will need injuries above them on the depth chart to achieve relevance, and that is not given even if injuries do strike their backfields.