Each fantasy football season the landscape of the skill positions change. One year offers more depth, while another turns into a studs and duds feel to the available player pool. Dissecting key drop off points in the position ADP is critical to maximizing draft day value. Here are the key pivot points for 2017 at running back:
The Big 3 Turned Big 2
The top of the draft board was shaken up by Ezekiel Elliott's suspension announcement. The appeal process is still ongoing with the final result in flux, but at a minimum Ezekiel Elliott is gone from inclusion in the group. David Johnson and LeVeon Bell are the crown jewels of the fantasy world with their elite workloads, receiving prowess, and profiles of past production.
Beyond Johnson and Bell early in Round 1, the next tier of running backs stretches wide from as early as the mid-first round all the way into Rounds 3-4.
The Isaiah crowell Threshold
The next tier has a similar cutoff to the quarterback position in this series. I mentioned Eli Manning, while beyond QB12 in ADP, is the last sturdy QB1 for a typical roster. At running back, the cutoff in this zone is Isaiah Crowell at RB16. Crowell is typically gone in Rounds 3-4.
Crowell has a strong workload projection with Cleveland's rock-solid offensive line in front of him. Crowell's range of outcomes including RB1 upside and a mid-RB2 floor as he has pushed aside any competition from Duke Johnson, whose reports have centered around more time at receiver this offseason rather than pushing Crowell for traditional running back snaps.
Within this RB3 to RB16, there is plenty of sameness where Crowell's profile is not much different than Devonta Freeman, Melvin Gordon, and LeSean McCoy, who commonly go in Round 1. Crowell is an ideal RB2 on fantasy rosters, but a fail-safe floor to grab a team's top option if finding value at another position in Rounds 1-2.
Within this tier resides four rookies - Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Joe Mixon, and Dalvin Cook. Mixon offers the best bang-for-the-buck late in Round 3 or sagging to Round 4 (like Crowell). Mixon is the best combination of size, athleticism, and two-way skills to become a high-end RB1 by the stretch run of 2017.
Lamar Miller is the least exciting back within this zone. Miller's 2016 tape is pedestrian at best and the lone moving piece to offer a glimmer of upside potential in 2017 is Deshaun Watson's mobility to widen running lanes under center. However, D'Onta Foreman offers more challenger skills than retread Alfred Blue on the depth chart behind Miller.
The upside swings in this zone include Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, and Christian McCaffrey. Gurley's path to high-end production lies in the factory reset of the Rams organization from the top down to the offensive personnel itself. Jared Goff and the new passing game weapons offer roomier boxes with which Gurley can exploit. For Elliott, the obvious risk is how many games (and when) he will miss in 2017. Even spending a second round pick will prove acceptable to drafters if they can squeak into the playoffs and Elliott is in their lineup when they arrive. With McCaffrey, the risk is the long history of Carolina's offense to not being PPR-friendly (or touchdown-friendly) for running backs. Will Cam Newton share more of the rushing scores? Will the Panthers move up from bottom-of-the-league in terms of running back catches to a high enough level for McCaffrey to thrive in PPR scoring? McCaffrey will need strong optimization of touches to beat his RB12 positional ADP.
The Tell the Story Tier Break
After Isaiah Crowell is gone, the next tier of backs stretches 30 deep and into Rounds 10-12 of typical leagues. All of them have stories to tell where they are mid-RB2 producers or better if things break right.
In general, gravitate to the easy stories in this range. Here are the easiest explanations to draft a weekly starter:
Carlos Hyde: While the tough love news from San Francisco was persistent this offseason, Hyde is the unquestioned starter to open the season and Kyle Shanahan has been a strong framework for running back production in his history.
C.J. Anderson: A running theme in this subset is the underappreciated Week 1 veteran starter. Anderson qualifies without much pressure beyond him on the Denver depth chart. Durability and other questions are present, but role and likely usage is does not include a low floor beyond injury.
Spencer Ware: Kareem Hunt is the clear No.2 and potential challenger later in the season, but Ware fits the critera of the easy Week 1 starter projection to have the job and, no pun intended, run with it out of the gate. At low RB2 or high RB3 ADP, Ware fits the annual criteria I use to identify potential RB1 producers for a value.
Danny Woodhead: The pass-catching maven enters a Baltimore offense which has churned out elite receiving marks for their running backs in recent seasons. The marriage is perfect for Woodhead to crush his RB25-30 current ADP in PPR scoring. An older back coming off a major injury is the wart to Woodhead's profile.
Adrian Peterson: The Saints produce plenty of goal line cracks with Drew Brees and Sean Payton running the offense. Peterson is poised to see lighter boxes and more goal line chances than recent seasons in Minnesota. The age decline factor and limited PPR upside with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara on the depth chart are limiting factors, but Peterson is one of the best bets for double-digit touchdowns in this tier.
Doug Martin: In a poor man's Ezekiel Elliott subset, Martin is set to miss games via suspension to start the season. However, Martin projects as the most talented back in Tampa Bay upon his return and an upgraded passing game to optimize Martin's opportunities.
Terrance West: While Danny Woodhead will get his in 2017, the absence of Kenneth Dixon for the season is a boost to the upside (and floor) for West as the projected starter and early-down back in Baltimore. Owners buying roles and depth chart security will love the price of West at RB40-ish and in Rounds 7-10 of drafts.
Rob Kelley: Samaje Perine's slow start has fueled Kelley's workload projection especially early in the season for Washington. Like others in this tier, the story of Kelley playing well enough to hold on to a lion's share of the backfield is an easy one to tell.
The Chase the Upside Tier
This tier begins outside the top-45 or so running backs. The stories to fantasy prominence are murkier considering their profiles, depth charts, durability, or a combination of all three. Here are the leading candidates to hit big:
Jeremy Hill: Joe Mixon is one of the early highlights of the preseason, but Hill could still be the Week 1 starter for Cincinnati. How long Hill could hold off Mixon for the most touches defines Hill's viability - or Mixon being out of the picture via injury unlocks Hill as an unquestioned weekly starter.
Darren McFadden: The profit of McFadden in the RB50 range of ADP (Rounds 10-13) hinges of Ezekiel Elliott's missed games. If Elliott misses the full six and McFadden is healthy for the full stretch, McFadden is an easy profit back for the month and a half of automatic starter status.
James Conner: Like McFadden, Conner offers strong production if the team's stud starter misses time. LeVeon Bell is a two-way risk with injury and off-the-field. Otherwise, Conner is a roster clogger after spending a pick in the Round 15 zone.
Rex Burkhead: While Mike Gillislee and James White are more acclaimed by the fantasy marketplace, Burkhead showed his Danny Woodhead-like appeal in Week 2 of the preseason as a two-way mismatch. Burkhead can be a touchdown collector and moveable chess piece on a New England offense which loves to be multiple in their packages and formations.
Finally, the running backs who can surge to strong production with an injury in front of them (beyond James Conner) includes:
- Robert Turbin
- Devontae Booker
- T.J. Yeldon
- Tim Hightower
- Alfred Morris (if Darren McFadden is out during Ezekiel Elliott's suspension period)
- Damien Williams or Kenyan Drake (uncertain pecking order behind Jay Ajayi)
- Branden Oliver