UPDATED 8/21: 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 for running backs, which is one more 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 the season 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.
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 yards per carry) 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 fantasy points per game (FPG), just a tick above LeVeon 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 slightly 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. He has also not reported to camp, so there is also the possibility of a quad injury when he returns.
Nonetheless, 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 worth noting that the team’s 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.
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 averaged over 5.4 yards per carry and scored 14 touchdowns, despite getting sniped by Mike Gillislee for 9 others. With one of the better run blocking offensive lines in the league 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 an elite back. He averaged a disappointing 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.
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. Make no mistake about it, Freeman is the lead back here and one of the league's best running backs in the red zone, who just signed an extension with the team, making him the highest paid running back in the league.
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. He did suffer a concussion already in camp, but supposedly it’s his first, so it’s far too early to worry about 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. He led the team in red zone targets last season and 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 team’s workhorse back.
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. The downside is that he did drop 8 passes, the most in the league for running backs, and is also playing on a bad team in negative game scripts. He’s a rock solid RB1, but there are a lot of great receivers often available where he is going in drafts.
Leonard Fournette, Jaguars – Big, fast and nasty, 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. The team’s head coach has stated that he would ideally like Bortles to have ZERO pass attempts a game, while offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett, who took over mid season, is back with the team again. Under him the Jaguars improved their rankings in several categories including: time of possession (30th to 13th), goal-to-go efficiency (15th to fourth) and red-zone efficiency (16th to fifth). The Jaguars rushing attack also improved under Hackett from 30th in yards (72.6) to fifth (124.8) in rushing yards per game, 26th (3.79) to 13th (4.35) in yards per rush and from 32nd (38) to first (112) in rushes of four-plus yards. In his previous stint with the Bills in 2013, they ranked second in the NFL in rushing. You get the picture. While Ivory and Yeldon do not worry me, his offensive line and Blake Bortles do, which is why I dropped him to this tier and why I might drop him further. If healthy I think he can overcome the line play and I would also feel much more comfortable with him if they made the move to Chad Henne.
Lamar Miller, Texans – Miller may never be an elite back, but he wasn’t helped out by poor quarterback 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 4 yards per carry last season, his lowest YPC average of his career, although, to be fair, 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. Beat writers have even stated that Foreman is no threat to Miller's production. 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 in PPR leagues. The ineptitude of the offense kept Miller out of the red zone, scoring only 5 touchdowns, so expect that number to go up this year. In the murky world of running back committees, Miller is a solid RB2.
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 speed 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. The biggest issue for Montgomery though is pass protection, and right now rookie Jamal Williams is performing better in that area in camp and getting first team reps. 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, but pass protection is a concern.
Joe Mixon, Bengals - At 6’1” 228 pounds 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. With Jeremy Hill underperforming two years in a row now, Mixon should be the team’s lead back from day one, and beat writers have suggested he could receive over 20 touches a game right out of the gate. It does look like Giovanni Bernard is fully recovered from his knee surgery and he should usurp at least 30 to 35 percent of the teams touches. Although the Bengals have ranked 9th, 13th and 4th in running back touches over past three seasons, so there is plenty to go around for Mixon to put up big numbers. Noted Bengals beat writer Geoff Hobson recently stated: "Mixon is the real deal… and you have to think about him as a 20-carry-a-game guy with three to five catches.” 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 late August I will be moving him up my rankings.
Isaiah Crowell, Browns – Whether you like it or not, head coach 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 quarterback, 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 aggressive 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 quickly when trailing. Let's hope he remembers that, because that's the downside.
Carlos Hyde, 49ers – He’s a very talented back, but new head coach Kyle 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 whom they may feel is a better fit for this scheme. However, Williams has looked lost in camp so far and has serious questions regarding his pass catching and pass protection abilities, while Hyde has been dominating as a runner and pass catcher. 49ers beat writer, Kevin Jones, recently reported that Hyde has been one of the standouts at camp and insider Adam Caplan reported that Hyde is the teams unquestioned lead back. 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. Hyde also reported to camp in great shape and at his lowest weight since entering the league, it seems as if Hyde got the point and is ready to rock. He played all 10 starter snaps including the passing downs in the first pre-season game.
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. Still, it is doubtful that he gets more than 200 to 220 carries during the season, so don’t expect massive workhorse role.
Dalvin Cook, Vikings – Produced big time in college, although slid to the second round of the draft due to a horrible SPARQ score (bottom 15 percent), fumbling issues and off-field concerns. He actually reminds me a lot of Knowshon Moreno. He also landed in a crowded backfield with a bad offensive line. Although, so far he has drawn rave reviews in camp and if he plays like he did in college, he will be the Vikings lead back, which looks to be the case right now especially since Latavius Murray isn’t even practicing yet. He is looking like a safer play every day and the Vikings have one of the easiest run schedules in the league this year. The only thing keeping him in this tier is his pass protection skills and the fact that Murray doesn't need much time in camp to steal goal line touches, an area of the field he is very good in.
Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys – He is suspended for the first six games. He still does get to appeal the suspension, so that could be reduced, but inlcuding the bye, not having Elliot for 7 weeks of your fantasy season is a killer. Fantasy is about winning weeks, and using a high pick on him doesn't accomplish that. The suspension aside, besides Dez Bryant this offensive doesn’t have much, so when he is in there, look for it to once again run through Elliot. 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. It’s also worth noting that the Dallas offensive line lost two key pieces and is now probably just a top 5-10 unit, and the Cowboys go from having the easiest schedule in the league last year, to one of the hardest this season. They also play @Giants, @Raiders and then home versus the Seahawks in the fantasy playoffs, that's not a cake walk by any means. I'm probably not going to be the guy drafting him this season.