Running Back Tiers, Targets, and Players to Avoid

A look at the 2020 running backs grouped by tiers with values and overpriced players broken out, plus some schedule notes and favorites for specific strategy and scoring system quirks

The trend at running back remains clear - fewer sure thing workhorses and more backs with questions about timeshares, injury histories, and consistency. That combines this year with a more level group at wide receiver through the top 30-40 to create even more emphasis on hitting on your early running back picks. The mid-rounds are fraught with danger, but there’s lots of intrigue once we get to the bench picks. As usual, running back scarcity means you’ll feel less comfortable taking a running back than you will taking a peer from another position. How are the backs distributed and which one makes us feel the least apprehension when selecting them?

Team Cornerstones

Christian McCaffrey, CAR
Saquon Barkley, NYG
Ezekiel Elliott, DAL
Alvin Kamara, NO
Derrick Henry, TEN
Dalvin Cook, MIN

These backs are all the centerpieces in offenses that use them in almost ideal ways against the background of at least competent offensive play. You can expect these backs to go off of the board in the first 6-8 picks of every draft. In fact, you can expect McCaffrey and Barkley to go 1-2 with a high probability that Elliott and Kamara will be 3 and 4 in some. McCaffrey #1 needs no explanation, nor does Barkley #2, don’t let his injury last year obscure his weekly and season-long ceiling - although Daniel Jones and the new offense creates some volatility for him, especially in the passing game. Elliott vs. Kamara is a legitimate debate, with Kamara having latent upside after an injury-marred season and Elliott could get a bump this year from an offense that should be explosive in all facets of play. Henry has some skeptics out there and is the most likely of this tier to fall a bit, but he was the clear #2 back after Tannehill took over. Cook’s holdout drama never materialized, but his injury history still puts him at the bottom of this tier.

Value: Henry
Priced Correctly: McCaffrey, Barkley, Elliott, Kamara, Cook

The Next Big Thing?

Clyde Edwards-Helaire, KC
Joe Mixon, CIN
Miles Sanders, PHI
Josh Jacobs, LV
Kenyan Drake, ARI

This is the tier you’re looking at in the second half of the first round and maybe the first few picks of the second. Edwards-Helaire should lead it in most drafts. He’ll have a chance to do even more than Kareem Hunt did as a rookie when Hunt was a top-five fantasy running back in an Alex Smith offense. He’s worth the plunge once the top six backs are gone and I won’t talk you out of taking him over Cook. Mixon is next with the hope that a new quarterback and left tackle will help the offense support strong production from him outside of December when the season is already lost. There was an argument for Sanders ahead of Mixon and even Edwards-Helaire after he finished the year with a top-five flurry of numbers following a Jordan Howard injury, but his camp injury adds enough risk to break ties against him, although upside drafters might still be swayed by his ceiling and place on the early ascendant section of his career arc. Jacobs is next with the promise of more passing game work and an excellent rookie season, but beware the Cadillac Williams risk of Gruden running him into the ground. If Jacobs has another season-ending injury this year, it will become a bigger part of his fantasy profile in light of him never being a heavy workload back at Alabama. Drake is last because, like Jacobs, he hasn’t demonstrated the ability to hold up under a heavy workload for a whole season because, like Jacobs, he was a part-time back at Alabama, and then two different head coaches at Miami never seemed to commit to him for long before they dealt him to Arizona, who fed him to the tune of league-winning performances in Weeks 15 and 16 last year.

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