UPDATED 7/15: When I draft, I always have a tier sheet handy. I find that organizing players by tiers is far more beneficial than merely ranking players.
I could rank David Johnson over LeVeon Bell, but it is impossible to truly predict who will finish better between the two of them, but I do know that both should finish better than a guy like Lamar Miller.
Another reason I prefer tier rankings is that a range of outcomes approach is preferable to just this is what a guy will finish with at the end of the season. Jason Witten and Frank Gore have low end RB1 and TE1 numbers the past two years, but their weekly numbers are not going to help you win your weeks for the most part. In essence, you are looking for a player that has a chance to perform at a weekly level that is higher than a mere replacement level player, even if that replacement level player may have decent looking year-end numbers. Which brings me to my final point, fantasy football, in season long leagues, is about winning weeks, so you need to draft a combination of players where some have high ceiling, while some of high floors. That is how you win.
Before I get into my tiers, just a note that I am finding it more difficult this year than ever to predict this coming season, which is one reason tiers should actually help. There are so many multi-back committees right now and so many murky situations, that we are going to have to wait and see how it all shakes out as we get closer to camp or perhaps deep into camp, before we know who will be starting on many of the teams. The Patriots have four legit candidates to lead their backfield at the moment, and possibly, five if/when Blount signs.
RUNNING BACK TIERS
David Johnson, Cardinals – He’s a league winner and the foundation of their offense that is used in all facets of the game. They upgraded their offensive line with no real upgrades anywhere else on their offense, which is a problem for the Cardinals, but not for Johnson’s fantasy value, as he played on nearly 84% of the team’s snaps. Over 16 games last season (he got injured in the 17th), he put up 1,239 rushing yards (4.2 ypc) with 16 touchdowns, adding 80 catches, 879 yards and 4 more touchdowns through the air on a ridiculous 118 targets. Excluding his week 17 game where he got injured, he averaged 27 FPG, just a tick above Bell. In respect to Bell, Johnson had 35 rushes inside the 10 yard line last season compared to just 14 for Bell, and then 559 air yards compared to just 52 for Bell. He also finished as the top overall running back six of the 16 weeks (37.5%) and never had less than 100 total yards in a game. Warren Sharp graded the Cardinals with the 4th easiest schedule in the league, so it’s really pick your poison between him and Bell, but there are some compelling reasons to lean Johnson.
LeVeon Bell, Steelers – He’s unstoppable, and unlike Antonio Brown who is subject to Big Ben’s road splits, Bell gets it done no matter the venue. If you have the first pick in the draft, your only decision is to take Bell or David Johnson. There are clearly worse problems to have in life. In MFL10’s I have been alternating between the two of them, although I have been leaning towards Johnson slighlty more for reasons stated above in Johnson' profile and because the Steelers have the leagues 3rd toughest rushing schedule, not that Bell can be stopped. I will concede that with a lack of a long term deal in place, the Steelers could ride Bell until the wheels fall off with no care of long term usage if they don't plan on re-signing him next season, especially if Big Ben retires.
Nontheless, missing four games due to suspension and rest last year, Bell ran for 1,268 yards (4.9 ypc), while adding 75 catches, 616 yards and 2 more touchdowns through the air on a whopping 94 targets. On the year he averaged 26.5 FPG, which is just 0.5 behind David Johnson*, playing on 96% of the teams snaps and seeing nearly 45% of the teams total touches. Bell had more than 20 fantasy points in 9 of the 12 games he played, including a monster 52 point fantasy game against the Bills. Like Johnson, you have to worry about over use, and Bell has dealt with his fair share of injuries. However, with the better supporting cast, especially with wide receiver Martavis Bryant back in the fold and rookie running back, James Conner on board, I think Bell gets a bit more rest, which is actually a good thing, since he will have a better chance of staying healthy all year. It's worht noting that the teams playoff schedule is tough, facing the Ravens, Patriots and Texans in weeks 14 to 16, but tough opponents doesn’t mean a thing with Bell.
Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys – Unreal landing spot and he can do it all: run the rock through people, around people and no problem lining up outside to catch passes. Besides Dez Bryant this offensive doesn’t have much, so look for it to once again run through Zeke. Zeke led the league in rushing with 1,631 yards (5.1ypc) and had15 touchdowns on the ground, adding 32 catches, on 40 targets, for an additional 363 yards and 1 touchdown through the air. He finished the season with a rock solid 21 fantasy points per game and played on 71% of the team’s snaps. The only possible obstacle is the domestic violence charge that doesn’t seem to be going away. It's serious enough to the point where ESPN's Adam Schefter said he would be hesitant to draft Elliott in fantasy due to the uncertainty about the NFL's ongoing investigation into the incident. If he is suspended, we are probably looking at 2-4 games, which you can cover, like Bell owners did last year, so don't let him drop too far. It’s also worth noting that the Dallas offensive line lost two key pieces and is now probably just a top 5-10 unit, but that’s just knit picking.
LeSean McCoy, Bills – The Bills will be run heavy team once again and somehow McCoy is only 28 years old. He is their foundation back that gets it done in the air and on the ground, finishing second in Football Outsiders rankings according to DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement). Last year he avergaed over 5.4 yards per carry and scored 14 touchdowns, despite getting sniped by Mike Gillislee for 9 others. With one of the better offensive lines for the run and after signing all-pro fullback Patrick DiMarco, look for McCoy to shine once again. Make sure to handcuff with Jonathan Williams.
Melvin Gordon, Chargers – The off-season moves couldn’t have been better for Gordon’s stock. Not only did they not re-sign Danny Woodhead, but also they didn’t bring in any backup of note. Additionally, they went out and upgraded their offensive line by signing LT Okung and using their 2nd and 3rd round picks on two of the top 3 guards in the draft. Right Tackle is still an issue, but with Antonio Gates still on the team, blocking on that side of the line has help. The downside for Gordon, is that I'm still not sure he is very good. He avergaed a dissapointing 3.9 yards per carry and only 26 percent of his carries went for 5 yards or more, the third worst in the league last year. But if fantasy volume is king, and he was very consistent on a week-to-week basis scoring at least 10 fantasy points 92% of the time (5th best), at least 15 fantasy points 75% of the time (5th best) and at least 20 fantasy points 42 percent of the time (5th best). With no competition and a slew of receivers to take the pressure off, he could easily finish in the top tier.
Jay Ajayi, Dolphins – I told you. I pounded the table, I tweeted, I wrote …. Get Ajayi. I even put my money where my mouth was, as he was my most drafted player in all my 35 MFL10s. He led the league in forced missed tackles last year and in yards after contact. After finishing as PFFs 3rd rated running back in 2016, look for him to take a step forward as the team's unquestioned workhorse who is still improving as a pass catcher, an area he actually excelled in when in college. The teams GM said he should be better by 200 percent this year. It’s bluster, but I’m still buying despite the tough schedule, and it is tough.
TIER 3 (Tier 2 players have no viable threats to any meaningful touches, unlike Tier 3 guys. But not much separates them beyond that.)
DeMarco Murray, Titans – The Titan's are loaded at wide receiver and Marcus Mariota is a stud entering his third season. So there is clearly some risk with Murray due to all the weapons. However, exotic smash mouth is a real thing and, at least this year, look for Murray to once again lead the charge, putting up 1,287 yards and 9 touchdowns on the ground, adding 52 catches for 377 yards and 3 touchdowns in the air. Despite his size, Henry just isn’t at the same level as Murray on tape, so you can expect Murrary to get the rock plenty on the ground and through the air. The Titans also have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, with every starter scoring above an 80 grade by PFF, which makes them elite as a unit. Noted Titans beat writer, Jim Wyatt, stated recently that Murray looks great and will still be the teams workhorse back.
Devonta Freeman, Falcons – Freeman’s week-to-week upside is always going to be capped by Tevin Coleman, but this team utilizes both backs in all phases of the game, so even on down weeks, Freeman is reliable in PPR leagues. Freeman is the lead back here and one of the league's best running backs in the red zone.
Jordan Howard, Bears – Howard proved a lot of people wrong last season by being much more than an early-down bruiser. Despite not taking over lead duties until Week 4, Howard ran for 1,313 yards, adding 29 catches for another 298 yards. During that time he had seven games with more than 100 yards and four more with over 75. The team has two of the top guards in the league and Howard will be the foundation of this offense once again.
Lamar Miller, Texans – Miller may never be an elite back, but he wasn’t helped out by poor QB play and a dreadful offensive line. They can’t have any worse quarterback play, but this line is still bad outside of their Center and Left Tackle. In fact, the Texans may actually have the worst guard tandem in the league. Nonetheless, Miller was able to grind out just over 1,000 yards to the tune of 4ypc last season, his lowest YPC average of his career, although on a bum ankle for part of the time. With the drafting of rookie Foreman they will look to limit some of his rushing attempts, but it should keep him healthy and fresh more than eat into his value. Foreman is also not a capable blocker at this point, so Miller is the team's pass catching back and lead runner without question, which is huge for PPR. The ineptitude of the offense kept Miller out of the redzone, scoring only 5 touchdowns, so expect that number to go up this year, even if the quarterback play isn't better. In the murky world of runnig back comittees, Miller is a solid RB2.
Leonard Fournette, Jaguars – Big and fast, they drafted Fournette to be their lead back and to take the ball out of Bortles hands and put it into his belly. With a better defense, the Jaguars want to limit opposing teams scoring and run the ball to kill the clock and slow the game down. I’d be surprised if he didn’t finish as a Top 12 running back this season and I’m not worried by Ivory and Yeldon, change has come.
Marshawn Lynch, Raiders – Beast Mode is back and he didn’t return to sit on the bench. Running behind the leagues second best offensive line and playing on a team with great weapons on the outside to keep teams honest, only age can hold him back. He didn’t look great in 2015 and DeAndre Washington will come in on some passing downs, so there is downside, but hopefully a year off to rest and a massively upgraded line is just what he needs to return to form.
Joe Mixon, Bengals - At 6’1” 228 lbs with 4.45 jets, Mixon is the top overall back in this year's class. He creates yards on the ground by running tough inside and also by easily getting to the edge, all with LeVeon Bell type patience. He’s also a very good receiver in the David Johnson mold. I don’t compare him to those two players lightly. Mixon is the real deal. With Gio Bernard still working his away back from injury and Jeremy Hill underperforming two years in a row now, Mixon could be the Bengals workhorse back from the get go. The Bengals have ranked 9th, 13th and 4th in running back touches over past three seasons. His biggest obstacle is the Bengals offensive line that has the two worst starting tackles in the league and one of the worst starting right guards in the league. I have a feeling come August I will be moving him up my rankings.
Isaiah Crowell, Browns – Whether you like it or not, HC Hue Jackson loves him and they didn’t draft anyone to compete with him. Last season behind a horrible offensive line, he averaged a rock solid 4.8 yards per carry and also caught 40 passes. In fact, down the stretch he was used in the passing game more than Duke Johnson even. He finished second in the league last year in yards after contact (3.18) and now with a top 3 offensive line and without a legit QB, Crowell should get plenty of use in both the run and pass game this year. He’s an underrated RB2 or even a borderline RB1 for those that wait at the position, although keep in mind if you intend to be too agressive with him, this is still not a good defensive team, and in the 4th quarter last year Crowell had only 32 rushing attempts, compared to 91 for Ezekiel Elliott. However, head coach Hue Jackson recently stated that he should have used Crowell more and not abandoned the run so quckily when trailing. Let's hope he remembers that, because that's the downside.
Carlos Hyde, 49ers – He’s a very talented back, but new HC Shanahan has questioned his fit in his offense, which is a concern and a bit curious since he is a good zone runner, although he ran mostly inside zone last year and Shanahan mixes between inside and a lot of outside zone. Last season he was 4th in yards after contact 7th in missed tackles forced per attempt. In fact, 662 of his 988 yards cam after contact. However, the 49ers drafted intriguing rookie Joe Williams, who they traded up to get and who they feel is a better fit for this scheme. Albiet, Williams has seriou questions regarding his pass catching and pass protection abilities. If you are betting on talent, then Hyde makes for a solid RB2 on a team that has no problem employing two RBs like we saw in Atlanta last year. However, they seem very down on him and reports out of OTA's have not been good. Looks like a parting of the ways is possible as early as this year, although he should be a viable starter for you fantasy team no matter where he lands.
Todd Gurley, Rams – He knows he played poorly last year, but he’s still the man here and they upgraded their offensive line, at least a bit. Last season, per the NFL's NextGen Stats, Gurley had -.07 yards before a defender was within 1 yard of him, which means that defenders essentially lived in the Rams backfield. Additionally, per PFF, 68.5% of Gurley's yards were gained after contact, meaning he had to work for every yard gained. It’s a make or break year in real life for Gurley, while in fantasy, he at least has a pedestrian RB2 floor with a huge ceiling if he can live up to his rookie year hype and this offensive line can get their act together.
Ty Montgomery, Packers – Montgomery started last season as a receiver and ended it as the Packers leading rusher. He stands 6" 221 pounds with 4.55 jets and a huge 40.5” vertical, finishing with a solid 127 SPARQ athletic score. Is Montgomery the team’s workhorse back. Perhaps not; especially since he had double digit carries in just one game last season and they drafted three running backs this year. That said, head coach Mike McCarthy declared after the draft that Montgomery is his starting running back, he has a year under his belt and a full off-season to dedicate himself to the running back position and most importantly, it doesn’t matter. That’s the beauty of owning Montgomery, even if he is not used as a workhorse back, he will be used a ton as their passing down back and as a receiver with another back on the field. With no other veterans on the team, it's not like they can pull him off for a better pass protector. If you are buying into Christian McCaffery as a fantasy stud this year, there is no reason you shouldn’t be buying into Montgomery as well.
Spencer Ware, Chiefs – If he wins the starting job, he should be a steady RB2 and is a very good back despite fading as the year went on, averaging 4.3 yards per carry on the year. He's a true three down back and even finished second in the league in forced missed tackles on his 33 receptions last season, and 5th in the league in percent of runs with positive yards after contact. The addition of rookie Kareem Hunt could be a killer though, and it would not be surprising if Hunt ends up winning this job outright, which drafters of Ware need to keep in mind. As we have seen with HC Reid in the past, he likes to ride one main back and he heaped high praise Ware earlier this year. Additionally, ESPN Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher believes Ware is the likely starter and suggested that he could get "the majority of work as the featured back.” Other reports have mentioned something similar, including the Chiefs own website. It should be noted that before his Week 8 concussion, Ware averaged 5 yards per carry and 18.4 yards per catch, after the concussion, this fell to 3.7 yards per carry and 8.4 yards per catch. 4-for-4’s Joe Holka also stated in his Rushing Expectation series that after charting 60 running backs, he has seen very few running backs come close to the dominance that Ware has shown in his methodology. He stated that among his 60 player sample, Ware finished in the 94th percentile in terms of Expectation Score on the ground and 99th percentile through the air. This is going to be a training camp battle to watch closely, and the winner is going to end up being a steal in drafts.
Ameer Abdullah, Lions – I love his talent and they do want him to be their lead back despite the presence of Theo Riddick and Zack Zenner. He had an elite top 97% SPARQ athletic score coming out of college, which was even higher than David Johnson and better than anyone in this years draft class. Will he approach 300 rush attempts? No. But beat writers said that they do intend to get him at least 200 carries and he should see 250+ touches. With a smaller stature, goal-line work could be limited, but the Lions threw the ball an absurd 70% of the time in the red zone last year and 64% of the time the year before that. If you want to take a stab on an upside guy with a lot of talent, he's the guy to grab as your RB3. Just needs to stay healthy and they did upgrade their offensive line
C.J. Anderson, Broncos – If Jamaal Charles is fully healthy, he will relegate Anderson to a flex play. If Charles is not healthy, Anderson is a high upside RB2 due to volume since Booker is nothing more than a change of pace back, and not even healthy at the moment. Unfortunately, we will not know the answer to this until pre-season kicks off deep into July. When healthy though, Anderson produces; per PFF, over the past three years, with backs having at least 400 rushing attempts, Anderson ranks top 6 in yards per carry, touchdowns per carry, yards after contact per attempt and forced missed tackles per attempt. He also averaged a very solid 4.7 yards per carry his last two healthy season. Unforunately this year the Broncos do have one of the toughest schedules in the league against the run and another major concern is the Broncos offensive line. While the center and guard spots are solid, left tackle Donald Stephenson is easily one of the worst in the league and they are counting on rookie first round pick Garett Bolles to beat him out. Right tackle Menelik Watson is a also major concern, so the hope is that new OC Mike McCoy's gap blocking, power run scheme, where Anderson will follow his lead blockers, the fullback (fan favorite Andy Janovich) and the pulling guard, should help minimize the lines deficiencies.
Tevin Coleman, Falcons – A high-end compliment to Freeman and he is a big play waiting to happen. Best owned as your RB3, but massive RB1 upside if Freeman goes down and weekly flex value with major upside every week.
Mike Gillislee, Patriots – He’s produces every time he gets the ball and while he enters a crowded Patriots backfield, he looks to be clearly the teams lead runner on early downs and near the goal line. Blount scored 18 touchdowns in this role last year, and while I don’t think anyone should go into the season thinking he will score that many, 10+ touchdowns is certainly in range, especially since the Patriots were second in the league last year in red zone run percentage. On the Bills last season, Gillislee had 101 rushes for 577 yards (a league leading 5.7 yards per carry) and 8 touchdowns, adding 9 catches for 50 yards and another touchdown through the air. He finished 1st in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted per-play efficiency metrics and 4th in FO’s season-cumulative efficiency metrics. Additionally, per PFF, of running backs with at least 100 carries, Gillislee ranked 2nd in yards after contact (3.34), 3rd in average yards before contact and 1st in PFF’s rushing grade per attempt. He also forced16 missed tackles on just 101 carries and his 10 carries of 15 or more yards was only behind McCoy and Isaiah Crowell in PFF’s Breakaway Percentage metric. His PPR upside will be capped no matter what by a slew of capable pass catching backs, but with his red zone usage, that won’t matter much to his bottom line in all formats.
Danny Woodhead, Ravens – Coming off a torn ACL and entering his age 32 season, it is fair to wonder if we will get the Woodhead we have come to love and admire. He is certainly being drafted as that guy right now in MFL10s and all reports have been positive so far. With Kenneth Dixon suspended and now having knee surgery, if healthy, Woodhead will be a solid RB2 in PPR leagues and back-end or high flex play in standard leagues since he is great at playing the game of football.