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Running Back Tiers in Redraft PPR Leagues

Sigmund Bloom separates the 2013 running back crop into tiers to add another dimension to rankings.

Rankings are a good place to start your fantasy football draft preparation, but they don't convey the true landscape of a group of a players at a position without the added dimension of “tiers”. Tiers collect players of similar expected value and show how the difference between #10 and #20 on a list is bigger than the difference between #20 and #30. An early look at the running back tiers this year reveals a deeper group of potential RB1 and RB2 candidates than we saw in 2012 and a lot more than can give your strategy at the position much more nuance in early drafts.

THE RB1

I won't be shocked if Adrian Peterson isn't the #1 running back at the end of the season. Stuff happens. It's still easy to say that Peterson should be the first pick. He was producing at singularly historic levels in the second half of the 2012 season, and he wasn't even a year removed from a catastrophic knee injury. Using “career/historic year dropoff” type knocks on Peterson as the #1 pick ignore that he destroyed every “year N+1 after ACL surgery dropoff” knock last year. He doesn't have the PPR punch of some of the backs below him, but I'm not betting against Peterson after he set records playing with the worst pass offense in the league.

Elite RB1

All of these players present very strong outlooks and top 3-5 upside. We can quibble over which we like or doubt most based on any number of factors, but the bottom line here is that all of these guys are presumptive RB1 level producers any time they take the field. Richardson's durability question, Lynch's lack of PPR punch, and Bernard Pierce's emergence next to Rice are keeping that trio in a mini-tier in the second half of the first round, but the top five seem to be interchangeable in early drafts. Martin is the safest pick, but other than his outburst vs. Oakland last year, he was mostly a mid-to-low RB1 at best from week-to-week.

Low RB1/High RB2

Much like their elite peers, this is a group of running backs that you know you will want in your lineup every week. They go about getting their production in a variety of ways, but with their roles and surrounding offenses, this tier is highly likely to give you baseline PPR RB2 production at worst with elite RB1 upside in any given week. Any of this group has the potential finish in the back half of the top 10 and give you a passable RB1 on a team that is very strong elsewhere. Morris, Gore, and Ridley lack PPR punch, but they are #1 running backs on winning teams that run the ball very well. The depth at running back this year makes going away from the position in the first or second round a palatable proposition. I won't argue vigorously against any reshuffling of this group except that Gore belongs in it, and Chris Johnson doesn't. Gore is presenting the biggest value by far, often falling to the third, or even fourth round.

Boom/Bust RB2 

This group is much better as RB3s than RB2s because of the inherent risk in their outlooks. Johnson is going way too early for my liking (check his game logs last year), but Wilson looks like fine RB3 picks in the fourth round to me. I'm warming to Lacy in the fourth if you don't have a second running back at that point. The Oakland offense looks enough like a dumpsterfire in the making to avoid McFadden without even factoring in his injury history.
 

High Upside RB3 with RB2 potential

Miller has fallen a tier as the Dolphins seem insistent on how close Daniel Thomas is to him in the starting job race. Vereen is especially enticing after a strong start to the preseason and Reggie Bush/Darren Sproles PPR upside. The Patriots have a tendency to change up game plans from week-to-week, and enough rookie talent has emerged to make Vereen less than automatic as the third option in the passing game once Gronkowski returns, but neither of Gronkowski or Amendola are likely to play 16 games. Bernard has a lower ceiling than Vereen, but he is also a very talented receiving back in an offense that should pile up yards and points. Richardson has taken over the Rams backfield, but he might not be built for 300 touches.
 

Low Upside RB3 with RB2 potential

It's hard to imagine anyone in this group really hitting it big based on what we know right now, but all are in line for roles that should at least give them flex value, if not mid-to-low RB2 starter status. Williams will lose some scores on the ground to Cam Newton and Mike Tolbert, but he'll likely not lose many snaps to Jonathan Stewart. Ivory could add more juice to the role Shonn Greene turned into RB2 production last year, but he has to stay healthy. Ball could rack up touchdowns, but he'll share the backfield with Ronnie Hillman. Bradshaw is the best running back on the Colts roster, but it sounds like his workload will have to be managed to keep him healthy, and even that might not work. Mathews is looking good, but it's hard to see any running back excelling in what passes for an offense in San Diego. 

Matchup Flex Plays with RB1 injury upside

This group is entrenched as high-upside backups with enough of the workload to be flex plays when the matchup dictates a lot of touches for the running game. Pierce is behind the back with the lowest injury risk, but Pierce could also horn his way into a bigger role on a team that is probably going run-heavy. I'm not a fan of taking any of these backs unless they are there in the 10th round or later.
 
Limited Upside Flex Plays
 
It seems like none of these running backs are going to be more than a low RB2 no matter how many injuries strike their backfields. Woodhead and Thomas have some weekly PPR upside, Green-Ellis and Ingram have touchdown upside, and Hillman has big play upside, but all flex plays at best in most scenarios, with little chance of really changing the fate of your team.
 

Upside Bench Running Backs

This group might have less value in your lineup in week 1 than the limited upside flex plays, but they have a higher ceiling if the starter ahead of them goes down, and arguably more talent. Of course, Rashard Mendenhall doesn't fit in that statement, but this is about the kind of back I would think his combination of a gimpy knee and poor run offense gives him, even as the starter. Just don't take him unless your league forgets about him until the 12th round. Brown has to fight off Chris Polk for the #2 job, or Polk might be the name here soon. Joique Bell and Rodgers will be PPR wonders if Jackson or Bush go down, and both have shown a tendency to do that in the past. Powell has the most fragile starter, but weakest offense around him. This is where I have Le'Veon Bell, partially because of uncertainty about his injury, and partially because the Steelers running game is so uninspiring.
 

Hold and Hope

All of these backs need an injury ahead of them to have value. Michael, Bush, and Helu are my favorites because they would inherit very nice roles and have at least decent talent. Michael could be 80-90% of Lynch if he got a chance to run with the job in the event of a Lynch injury. Guys like Blount, Hunter, Moreno and Harris have sneaky value as backups who would be starters in very good running games if injuries strike their backfields.
 

Deep Sea Fishing

If the earlier tiers don't fill out your bench because you're in a very deep league, here are a few more rosterable running backs with some conceivable path to value based on talent and situation.