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2017 Preseason Watchlist: Running Backs

Taking a look at the key depth charts and running backs to monitor in the 2017 NFL preseason

Running back is the highest leverage fantasy position. With a single injury or depth chart shift a player can go from the waiver wire to most starting lineups and vice versa. Here is a look at the running back situations to monitor in the preseason:

Matt Forte vs Bilal Powell

Forte is one of my preferred value backs in 2017. Bilal Powell took over late in 2016 as the Jets were playing out the string but does not have prototypical size and has yet to string together a long history of starting allegiance. Forte is in decline but still a three-down back. The Jets project as a glorified offensive dumpster fire but as we have seen with Jacksonville and other struggling teams, there is fantasy production to be gained regardless of game script. Powell is going around 10 positional ADP spots higher than Forte, which can flip in a hurry if Forte is being treated like the clear starter in the preseason.

Damien Williams vs Kenyan Drake

While a less glamorous competition in Miami than the Jets, this is an important battle for the No.2 role behind Jay Ajayi. Drake has the draft pedigree as a former Round 3 selection from Alabama, but Williams is a functional and well-rounded mid-career veteran. The winner of this competition is on the radar to stash when roster space allows as the classic 'one injury away from a hot waiver wire addition' in-season moniker.

Jonathan Williams

With Mike Gillislee off to divisional rival New England this offseason, the depth chart has cleared for Jonathan Williams to be the unquestioned No.2 back to LeSean McCoy. Williams still needs to show well and rotate as that unquestioned No.2 in the preseason to cement this status. Williams showed well in limited duty as a 2016 rookie with power running and interior skills.

Joe Mixon vs Jeremy Hill

Joe Mixon is the potential shooting star rookie who has dominant three-down potential. With Giovani Bernard likely a low factor early in the season, Jeremy Hill is the remaining roadblock to strong usage for Mixon. The ADP indicates faith in Mixon to outright win the job (RB12) and Hill is considered a run-of-the-mill backup in the RB50-60 range. While Mixon is on the short list of league-winning candidates, his peak a la David Johnson's breakout could be later in the season after further cementing his role. Even as a strong Mixon advocate in redraft and dynasty, I project more of a workload split to start the season.

James Conner

The backup role in Pittsburgh has been fruitful when Le'Veon Bell has missed time. DeAngelo Williams posted numerous impact games in 2015 and 2016 with Bell out of the lineup. Conner has the most upside of the candidates for the No.2 role but as a rookie needs to prove his mettle early and often to clearly define the pecking order for fantasy owners.

Robert Turbin vs Marlon Mack

The classic sturdy veteran against the incoming rookie battle for the primary backup spot. As a mid-Day 3 back with an incomplete profile, expect Mack to have his hands full with all-around Robert Turbin in the preseason and early in the regular season. My bet is on Turbin to keep the job for most, if not all, of 2016 if Frank Gore should miss time.

C.J. Anderson vs Jamaal Charles vs Devontae Booker

The Broncos' running back depth chart is one of the most uncertain in the NFL entering the preseason. Jamaal Charles is a health-pending wild card. If close to his former level, Charles has the most upside of the trio. Anderson has battled durability himself over his career and in fact, has only six games of 20 or more carries in his four-year career. Booker battled through injuries in 2016 as he did not capitalize on depth chart opportunity as a rookie. All three backs could see starts in 2017 and sifting the depth chart accurately in the preseason is a critical first step.

Elijah Hood

Marshawn Lynch came out of retirement to be the starting running back of the Raiders. However, there are questions about his workload and how much is left in the tank at his age and being away from the game. DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard lack prototypical size to project as a higher-volume starting option. Elijah Hood has strong pedigree dating back to high school recruiting and a 230-pound frame. Hood nearly fell out of the NFL Draft this year but has the best profile to sustain an offense with strong rushing volume. Hood first has to make the team and work his way up the depth chart and the process begins with performing well in August.

Darren McFadden vs Alfred Morris

With a potential suspension looming for Ezekiel Elliott, plus securing the No.2 role on a strong run game, this is an important preseason battle. Both McFadden and Morris have a track record of production in the NFL. Based on recent seasons, McFadden looks to have more left in the tank from a physical potential but Morris can leverage a good offensive line into noteworthy production. The winner of this battle is worthy of a roster spot while the No.3 option sits on the waiver wire outside of deeper formats.

Rob Kelley vs Samaje Perine

By the redraft ADP (RB28, RB45), the fantasy community expects this to be a relatively easy win for Perine to take hold of the backfield. However, Kelley is a try-hard back willing to move the pile and leverage his body in collisions. Perine can go from projected starter to sluggish starter if Kelley consistently rolls out as the first-team back during the preseason. Perine will have to earn his touches like every back, especially rookies.

Latavius Murray vs Dalvin Cook

Murray starts on the active PUP list but can be activated at any time. The ADP split (RB16, RB43) is even more slanted in favor of the rookie than Washington's pair of backs. Historically veteran backs like Murray are undervalued in these competitions, especially for early in the season. Cook has 'tweener' size at 213 pounds and Murray has been a higher volume back possessing receiving and goal line skills. Outside of Cook outright winning the job (or Murray being physically limited to start the season) look for this to be a closer battle and split than the ADP indicates.

Mark Ingram II vs Adrian Peterson

With the big addition of Adrian Peterson this offseason, Mark Ingram II has been a rumored trade option for running back-needy teams. Ingram's contract is of one-year construction with an easy out beyond 2017. If Peterson projects as the clear lead back with Alvin Kamara centering on the pass game, Ingram is a watch player to move in the preseason as more than $5 million is a big salary for a non-primary running back.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

With Doug Martin to start the season, there are starting running back weeks up for grabs. Jacquizz Rodgers is the leader in the clubhouse for the starter stint, but Peyton Barber is a darkhorse option with prototypical size and a grinder mentality on the interior. Charles Sims is likely to maintain his pass-centric role regardless of how the lead back battle plays out.

Malcolm Brown

Brown has been a deep dynasty stash since entering the NFL as a talented, but an undrafted prospect. A former elite recruit and 18-year-old breakout with prototypical size at Texas, Brown has stuck on the Rams depth chart thus far. Lance Dunbar is a sub-optimal pass-centric option on the depth chart as the veteran option behind Todd Gurley, but Brown has the workload upside if Gurley should miss time. Brown needs another solid preseason showing to cement his role if an opportunity presents itself in-season.

Carlos Hyde vs The World

A consistent news item this offseason has been the 49ers showing no faith in Carlos Hyde to be their lead back. Joe Williams has the hand-picked-rookie-by-Kyle-Shanahan shine to him but is still a Day 3 rookie looking to carve a role. Also, Tim Hightower has had a late-career renaissance as he pushed Mark Ingram II for time in New Orleans and has been a late-season fantasy impact player multiple seasons. Williams will have his hands up supplanting Hightower for the No.2 role. In a matter of weeks, we will know if all the Carlos Hyde news was a motivation tactic or there is fire to the smoke of Hyde not being in San Francisco's plans going forward.