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Running Back Tiers - Footballguys

A look at the 2018 running back landscape through the lens of tiers

Running back is getting more top-heavy than ever with the increase in RBBC approaches and larger roles for role playing backs (especially backs who excel as receivers). This makes getting your cornerstone back pick in the first or second round even more important, and hitting on a later pick or two crucial to having a successful fantasy season. How do the tiers and order within tiers break down in this ever-changing landscape at running back?

UBERstud

Don’t overthink the #1 pick. Nothing has changed in Gurley’s situation and while his 2017 was monumental, projecting a large regression in his production is unfounded. The #2 pick is a different story. 2016 David Johnson was actually a more productive fantasy back than 2017 Todd Gurley (yes, look it up). Of course, the 2016 Cardinals offense is a lot better than even the most optimistic projection of the 2018 offense, but Johnson should remain central no matter the game script because of that. Elliott is fourth, but if Scott Linehan realizes that the back is actually one of the best answers to filling the huge vacuum in the passing game, Elliott could get target numbers closer to the other three backs in this tier, although his offense could take a step back if the passing game doesn’t come together. He’s the clear #4 in this group.

ELITE WITH LIMITED TRACK RECORD

There’s an argument for Kamara to be the fifth member of the elite tier in PPR leagues. Some have reservations because of how efficient he was last year, but remember that he was eased in for the first three games and also left a game early with a concussion. Even if the team doesn’t work him more with Mark Ingram II out for four games, Kamara can still equal his league-winning 2017 while absorbing a step back in efficiency. Don’t sweat regression, higher than average efficiency is the name of the game in the Saints offense for a long time running. Invest in the mid-first with confidence. The gap between Kamara and the uberstuds grows in .5 PPR and especially non-PPR leagues.

STRONG RB1

This the the group that will get snapped up in the second half of the first round of most drafts. Consider yourself lucky if any of these guys are there for you in the second. Gordon is first because he is set up for a huge touchdown season with Hunter Henry out, he proved himself as a very good receiver out of the backfield last year, and the offensive line should be improved. He also has the best chance to join the uberstud tier this year. The Vikings backfield was one of the most productive in the league without Cook for most of the year and their quarterback play should be improved. He’s an easy #2, with absolutely no hitches so far in his return from ACL surgery. Fournette’s injury worries keep him third, but still above the allure of the unknown in Barkley. Fournette will produce a ton as default as Jacksonville’s #1 back, and he’s dropped some weight, always a good sign. Still, the Jaguars have two quality backs for him to share with, something no other back in the top nine has to contend with. He certainly has a skillset and talent to fit in the uberback tier, but Jonathan Stewart looms to vulture a touchdown or three, and we can’t assume Mike Shula will able to realize the considerable potential in the Giants young skill player core with Eli Manning at the helm and mixed track record in Carolina. Barkley is often going first in this tier, which feels too optimistic, especially after he suffered a hamstring injury before the season. Cook is the value pick.

RBBC (?) RB1s

The upside of this group is capped by sharing with very competent backs and otherwise not having the 20 touch a game profile of the uberstud and strong RB1 tiers. Freeman comes in first because like Kamara, he has been an elite back in a timeshare already, and the Falcons offense should improve in Steve Sarkisian year two, and with it, Freeman’s touchdown and receiving numbers. Hunt is likely a tier above for most, but the return of Spencer Ware without restrictions has me worried. Mixon will also benefit from an improved offense, but Giovani Bernard showed he should be used more at the end of the season when Mixon was out. He has the talent to jump a tier if the Bengals sparingly used Bernard like they did until Mixon got hurt. Howard is looking more attractive as the Bears offense looks more like the best candidate to make a 2017 Rams type leap. He’ll have fewer high volume games and cede more snaps to Tarik Cohen, but we know he can ball and he’ll be used more efficiently and possibly get a lot more scoring and game-finishing opportunities. He could actually end up being more valuable even while Tarik Cohen takes a big step forward in usage. McCaffrey has been gaining profile since Jonathan Stewart was released, but CJ Anderson is actually an upgrade from Jonathan Stewart and McCaffrey was a lineup liability as often as he was a matchup tilter last year. A better offense could great more scoring opportunities, but how many of those will trickle down to McCaffrey? His year-end scoring finish masks relative unreliability week-to-week for a running back that requires a big investment. The Panthers are possibly indicating a willingness to follow through on feeding McCaffrey based on their heavy usage in the preseason.

STEALTH RB1

Bell, can rank no higher than this while his status through at least Week 10 is in doubt. The Ravens backfield was very productive last year, Collins was a big reason why, and the team is getting their best offensive lineman back after Marshal Yanda missed most of 2017. Keep scooping him up in the fourth as your RB2. Factoring in the cost of Ingram’s suspension is not precise, but his role shouldn’t change on return, which makes him a strong RB2 or even low RB1 upon return. You can draft anticipating his absence, and have an unfair advantage if he’s your RB2 and you pocketed two top wide receivers or a top wide receiver and tight end by waiting to get your RB2 until you took Ingram at his depressed value.

BOOM/BUST RB2

The fourth and fifth round of drafts is full of backs with a wide range of season-long and weekly outcomes. You might be able to get away with taking no backs in the first three rounds and be just fine with three from this list in the 4th-6th rounds if you make the right selections. At the very least having a back from this list as your Week 1 RB2 isn’t too scary and you will be strong elsewhere. Taking a stance on the backs in this tier and zeroing in one or two is one of the most important fantasy draft prep tasks this year.

It’s difficult to get the picture of Drake dominating late last year out of your head, but assumption of rational coaching in Adam Gase’s handling of his backs hasn’t always been reliable. As long as he remains involved a lot as a receiver, Drake is a safer pick that he feels like with encouraging early reports about his place on the depth chart at training camp.

Ajayi has the track record and talent to emerge in Philadelphia, but this team seems wedded to a three (if not four) back committee. It does make sense for the Eagles to lean on him more this year, but just how much more? He’ll at least be a matchup RB2, with the size of Corey Clement and Darren Sproles roles being the biggest variable in his eventual value.

Miller was underwhelming as a player, but this is a scenario where you are drafting the situation with D’Onta Foreman a question mark for the start of the season. Miller has also slimmed down closer to his Miami playing weight when he was much more explosive. The quality of this offense could allow Miller to flirt with RB1 number simply by doing his job competently.

As the most talented back in one of the most productive backfield in the league, Michel is enticing, but he’ll have to practice better ball security than he did in college. He has significant Rex Burkhead injury upside, but if Jeremy Hill or Mike Gillislee win a role, Michel’s value could be a disappointment like Dion Lewis’s was in the first half of the season.

Speaking of Lewis, he should get a larger opportunity than he did in the first half of the year in New England. The talent and possibility of the new coaching staff in Tennessee setting him up to succeed is balanced out by his RBBC-capped upside and injury history.

Henry is much lower on this list than he’ll be in drafts, but the reality is that his role might not be that different than it was last year. He was a great play when he got to finish games with long scores, but he wasn’t consistently effective running the ball otherwise, and Lewis can be much better than Demarco Murray was last year on a per touch basis, encouraging more work.

Burkhead was only getting 8-12 touches a game, but his consistent red zone involvement and quality as a receiver actually make him a weekly RB2. If he doesn’t miss significant time, he’ll be a value pick.

Assumption of rational coaching in Oakland will be tough, but if Jon Gruden is rational, Lynch will get at least 15 carries a game. Doug Martin is there to potentially ruin another backfield, but at least Lynch is at least 2-3 rounds cheaper than he was last year in a somewhat similar situation.

Before the incident at one of the homes he owns, McCoy was 2nd-3rd round value that required spending valuable draft capital to invest in what will surely be the worst offense in the league. Now McCoy is in danger of landing on the exempt list, although if the story doesn’t have any new developments before the season, there are no obvious signs that will happen. If McCoy is there in the fourth or fifth, he’s worth consideration, but this is obviously volatile.

Royce Freeman and Kerryon Johnson are having great camps and should take over their backfields sooner than later. Freeman has less stiff competition for touches, so he should be prioritized first.

HIGH FLOOR RB3/FLEX

With the exception of Coleman in the case of a serious Devonta Freeman injury, this group has limited season-long ceilings, but they are safer when looking at season-long outlooks for bye/injury RB2 starts and flex plays than the speculative group. Coleman is second fiddle, but was still useful last year and should get closer to 2016 production levels in Sarkisian’s second year. Thompson had some explosive plays last year and was still viable at times when he didn’t, but his injury history is troubling. Cohen is poised to have a larger role and be set up for more success under the new coaching regime. Crowell is under the radar in a similar role to the one that had him going much earlier in 2017 drafts. The Jets aren’t sold on Bilal Powell to be more than a complement, and the 2018 Jets should offer better game scripts than the 2017 Browns. Crowell is in his prime at 25 to boot. Hyde would be a strong RB2 if he was uncontested, but the presence of Duke Johnson Jr and Nick Chubb mean he could be useless at some point in the season a la Latavius Murray before Dalvin Cook went down. So far, the Browns are treating him like a clear starter. It is unlikely that any of this group win your league for you or greatly outperform ADP, but they can provide solid floors as we go through the running back injury/bye week gauntlet.

SPECULATIVE BENCH BACK

You probably don’t want to have to rely on any of these backs in your starting lineup in Week 1, but you might be happy to plug them into your lineup as early as Week 2. Jones has the highest big play ceiling, but has struggled in camp and the preseason. Aaron Jones is out for two games, so Jamaal Williams will get first crack at the lead job (assuming Ty Montgomery plays more of a receiving back role), but Chicago and Minnesota aren’t easy run matchups and Williams is unlikely to run away with the job. Jones is the better runner and could promptly take over most of the early down work upon his return. If the Packers use rational coaching and employ a three-headed RBBC, none of the backs will deliver on ADP. Mack is very intriguing with touchdown vulture Robert Turbin suspended for the first four games and a possible emphasis on short passing to help Andrew Luck re-acclimate to the field. He is a big play threat and good fit in the offense. Mack was playing hurt last year, so perhaps we haven’t seen the best of him. The Colts should use 3-4 backs all year, which could hamper the weekly consistency needed for fantasy predictability in lineup setting leagues. Carlos Hyde is a bigger roadblock for Chubb than Carlos Hyde was last year, but we are also talking about a back in Chubb whose talent level pre-injury was in the Leonard Fournette/Derrius Guice neighborhood. Penny is being overdrafted, as Chris Carson has been one of the best impressive players for the Seahawks this offseason and it was the worst situation for running backs last year. The allure of the unknown is strong in this tier, but wide receivers and quarterbacks are better values around the time they go off of the board.

DISCOUNTED VETERANS BATTLING ROOKIES FOR TOUCHES

Rookie running backs were keys to fantasy wins for many teams last year, so the allure of the unknown is strong. Alternatively, if rookies struggle to stay healthy or make the leap to the NFL, unheralded veterans can be very profitable at discounted ADP. There are four situations with touches up in the air depending on how things go this summer and throughout the season. Carson is in a poor running game but has generated an overwhelming amount of buzz. Barber is a true workmanlike back, but still on the upside of his career. This group is more likely to have an early impact than late impact, which makes them fit better on teams that draft Mark Ingram II. Both are going way later than backs listed #1 on the depth chart to open camp usually do.

QUALITY DEPTH WITH INJURY UPSIDE

This list is full of players that could skyrocket in value with an injury in front of them on the depth chart or at least be viable desperation starts in any given week. Johnson’s role won’t necessarily shrink much after his extension, but it won’t get larger either. The offense will be better, but we basically know what Johnson is for fantasy. Bernard is good enough to be a strong RB2 if Joe Mixon wasn’t around, but he is. The hope is that the team saw what Bernard did late last year when Mixon was out and employ more of an RBBC. It’s rare to get backs of his quality still in their prime in the second half of fantasy drafts. The Packers could surprise us and put Montgomery in as a feature back again, but it’s more likely that he’ll be a role player. Anderson has a chance to get 12-18 carries a game, plus relevance in fantasy matchups and he can be a feature back if Christian McCaffrey goes down, although the Panthers haven't been inclined to use him in the preseason. The Ravens can support two fantasy relevant backs, so Allen is worth rostering even if Alex Collins stays healthy. Yeldon is a good all-around back and Grant might be another Chris Thompson, and both give you Leonard Fournette injury upside as parts of one of the most prolific backfields in the league. Powell is destined to toil away as a 7- to 10-touch-a-game player without an Isaiah Crowell injury. Gore could be a workhorse if needed, but Kenyan Drake is in his way. Same goes for Murray and Ware - with injuries to the starters ahead of them, they become solid RB2s, or in Ware’s case maybe a low RB1. Ekeler had a great midseason production spurt, but the team still wants to feature Melvin Gordon III. He might still have some bye/injury value as a pass-catching complement. This group might inspire impatience and drops if you draft them in short bench leagues, but they will be valuable lottery tickets come November/December.

preferred bench stash

Wilkins could start the season leading the Colts in carries and getting goal line looks. Hill could have the Mike Gillislee role that produced a three score game right out of the gate last year. Williams might be the winner of the valuable #2 back role in New Orleans for the first four games.

BYE/INJURY DEPTH AT BEST

Now we get to the boring part of the draft. This group has limited season-long and weekly upside but also probably have defined roles and guaranteed weekly touches. Riddick has a been a surprise in a Lions backfield that lacked a good goalline back or lead back, but that isn’t the case this year. Blount will be an okay flex play in games where the Lions are favored. Sproles will get his 7-10 touches a game but function more to lower the ceiling of his backfieldmates than create a high one of his own. Martin is getting some irrational love from the Raiders and should spell Marshawn Lynch if not be in a perplexing RBBC. His addition means DeAndre Washington is likely gone, making the explosive Richard a more interesting desperation play and stash with more of the scatback work to himself.

IN CASE OF EMERGENCY BREAK GLASS

We could be talking about one or more of these backs as waiver wire pickups. Rod Smith is the primary backup to Ezekiel Elliott and could be a three-down back if Elliott misses time. Conner has had a great preseason and could be a breakout star if Bell goes down. Brown/Kelly would share work but are in a very good situation. Edmonds is actually the primary backup to David Johnson. Stewart would only be half of a duo if Barkley goes down, but he’s adequate as an inside runner. Blue will be the backup to Lamar Miller as long as D’Onta Foreman is recovering from his Achilles tear.

DEEP LEAGUE BENCH STASH

For deeper leagues where you make wild dart throws at running back late, this list should suffice.