UPDATED 6/23: 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.
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 who 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 DJ’s fantasy value. Look for him to get the ball a lot.
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. I have him behind Johnson only because there are a lot of weapons here, but really, it’s pick your poison.
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. The only possible obstacle is the domestic violence charge that doesn’t seem to be going away. It’s worth noting that the offensive line may not be as dominant this year, but just barely.
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. 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. 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.
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 his rushing attempts, which isn’t a great, but it should at least keep him healthy. 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. If it seems like I am talking in circles, it’s because I am. It’s tough to be bullish on Miller this year as someone to target aggressively.
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.
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. Last season he was 4th in yards after contact 7th in missed tackles forced per attempt. However, the 49ers drafted intriguing rookie Joe Williams, who they traded up to get. 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.
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.
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, 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.
Ameer Abdullah, Lions – Love the talent and they do want him to be their lead back despite the presence of Riddick and Zenner. Will he approach 300 rush attempts? No. But can he get 250+ touches, you bet. 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.
Ty Montgomery, Packers – Is Montgomery the team’s workhorse back. I doubt it; especially since he had double digit carries in just one game last season. That said, HC 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. 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.
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.
C.J. Anderson, Broncos – If Jamaal Charles is fully healthy, he will relegate Anderson to a flex play. If Charles is not healthy (which looks to be the case), Anderson is a high upside RB2 due to volume since Booker is nothing more than a change of pace back. Unfortunately, we will not know the answer to this until pre-season kicks off deep into July. It should also be noted that the Broncos have one of the toughest schedules in the league this year 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. Anderson is not someone I'm targeting heavily at the moment despite his talent.
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. 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. 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.