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2016 Fantasy Football: Early Running Back Top 10

Alessandro Miglio dives into his initial top 10 rankings at running back for 2016.

A rookie. Two greybeards. Coming back from injuries. Figuring out a muddled backfield. Losing weight. Gaining carries. New contracts. New teams.

The top 10 running backs are filled with intrigue already, and it's only May.

1. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers

Convincing Le’Veon Bell fans that he was a dangerous No. 1 pick last year was a futile effort. Not only was his suspension liable to put owners behind the eight ball early in the season, but his lingering offseason knee issue proved prophetic. So what makes him the top running back off the board this year?

Simply put, the Pittsburgh offense is arguably the best in the NFL. The passing offense certainly was, and we saw DeAngelo Williams’ reanimated corpse average 4.5 yards per carry last season in lieu of Bell, who played just six games upon return from his suspension before injury. He averaged 4.9 YPC himself when he was healthy and not-suspended, and he caught an eye-popping 83 passes out of the backfield in 2014.

There is a reason Bell was the No. 1 player off the board on average a year ago in spite of his suspension.

2. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams

If Bell was a risk last season, Gurley was practically radioactive coming off a torn ACL and a threat to start the season on the PUP list. He turned out to be the far better investment.

Gurley played in just 13 games and had just seven touches for 14 yards in his first one, yet he finished fourth in fantasy scoring at running back. The Georgia product averaged 4.8 YPC and caught 21 of 26 targets for another 188 yards. He was clearly worth that top-10 pick the Rams expended on him. 

Considering Los Angeles will have a rookie under center, expect Jeff Fisher to pound the rock. Gurley could well get 300-plus touches this season if he can stay healthy. His fantasy output was a bit homerun-dependent -- he scored 10 times and had a bunch of big plays -- but a full complement of starts should offset a regression in touchdown rate.

3. Lamar Miller, Houston Texans

There has to be some reason why the Miami Dolphins didn’t give the ball to Lamar Miller more, right? The fact he averaged 159 carries a year while averaging 4.6 YPC is coaching malpractice. How many games did he look great out of the gate only to never be heard from again? Then again, this is the Dolphins we are talking about here.

Miller performed well in spite of a perennially patchwork offensive line. Houston, on the other hand, has featured a consistently good front for years, one that propelled Arian Foster to league-leading heights before his body started failing him. Though that was an NFL lifetime and another regime ago, Foster once led the NFL in touches. At the very least, the Texans figure to give their pricey free-agent addition the ball more often.

It’s Miller time in Houston.

4. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings

How many more years of fantasy relevance does Adrian Peterson have left? Perhaps this is his last one.

The 31-year-old running back showed few signs of wearing down last year, and the Vikings are going to continue giving him the ball. He is the reigning rushing champion, and only injury and suspension has slowed him down in the NFL. Peterson is not of this Earth, and his production should be out of this world in 2016 yet again.

5. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

Bet you thought Ezekiel Elliott would be ranked higher here. 

There’s plenty of room for Elliott to climb the charts, to be sure. Elliott was taken fourth overall in the NFL draft, so it’s a good bet the Cowboys are going to get him the ball as much as possible. He has two problems, though -- Alfred Morris and the rookie wall. 

The former is easily dispatched. His defection from a hated NFL East rival notwithstanding, Morris is simply less talented than his rookie counterpart. Now, the Cowboys offensive line and scheme should help Morris immensely, but it’s tough to see him stealing a ton of playing time from Elliott.

6. Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Proof of rejuvenation-through-better-body-care is no more evident than in Doug Martin. The Artist Formerly Known as Muscle Hamster bounced back with a huge contract year that won him a big extension with the Buccaneers. 

Despite Charles Sims hogging much of the pass-catching opportunity in Tampa Bay, Martin wound up third in fantasy scoring last season. He got there by rushing for over 1,400 yards, nearly leading the league behind only Adrian Peterson. Martin was also the only one of the top six fantasy scorers not to hit double-digit touchdowns -- there is less risk that touchdown regression will adversely affect his 2016 output.

Hopefully, a fat new contract won’t correlate to playing weight for Martin, who looked rather spry all last season playing in an otherwise average offense with a rookie quarterback at the helm.

7. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs

Perhaps the toughest to pin down this early, Jamaal Charles always possesses the top-five scoring ability. His recovery from another torn ACL coupled with the emergence of Charcandrick West make him one of the riskier options at the top of the heap. Charles has a higher floor in PPR leagues thanks to Alex Smith's dumpoff tendencies.

8. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals

I wanted to leave David Johnson out of here. Not out of spite or trying to cause a stir with an early-season hot take. I just thought Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington might be problematic. Not that either of those guys would necessarily overtake Johnson, but a three-headed rushing monster isn’t terribly conducive to top-flight fantasy scoring. 

I argued with Footballguys staff. I debated on Twitter. It became readily apparent that I was on an island, but that didn’t necessarily make me wrong. Then I went back and took a better look. 

I was a fool.

Johnson scored the eighth-most fantasy points last season despite being buried on the depth chart for half a season and touching the ball just 161 times. He was a revelation once he was unleashed, both as a runner and a receiver out of the backfield. About the only thing to really dislike about his 2016 chances is the fact he scored 12 touchdowns on so few touches last season -- that 7.4 percent touchdown rate probably won’t hold up.

9. Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers

The days of Fat Eddie Lacy are over.

The big running back had reportedly lost 15-18 pounds this offseason as of mid-April, a startling and welcome revelation for anyone thinking about investing in him. A slimmed down, motivated version of pre-2015 Eddie Lacy is rather promising in the fantasy realm. Though how much weight he lost is quantifiable, how much weight he lost and how much that will directly impact his production is far more difficult to tell. He did average 12 touchdowns per season prior to last year’s debacle.

Lacy did let James Starks overtake him for a starting job last season, after all. Still, it should be his job’s to lose this summer, and he has the talent to be a force for the Packers.

10. Matt Forte, New York Jets

New team. Over 30. Same old Matt Forte. 

It feels like Forte has been in the league for 15 years. His reliable presence in the Chicago backfield has been a source of calm for Bears fans and fantasy owners alike. Three missed games last season nearly doubled his career total--Forte has missed eight games in his entire career. He wound up ninth in fantasy scoring in spite of missed time and a shared workload upon his return. 

Forte heads to the New York Jets, where he could be sharing time with Bilal Powell, who signed a nearly identical contract to his elder counterpart. Where Powell could hurt Forte the most is in the pass-catching department, something the latter had on lockdown in Chicago. That limits his upside, which is why he is barely cracking the top 10 here.