What makes a running back a consistent fantasy producer? Is it his vision? Acceleration and agility? Offensive line? Receiving skills? This article is a list of the most consistent, high-performing fantasy running backs since 2007.
Consistency can be measured a number of ways. Some use standard deviation. I prefer creating tiers based on the average value of fantasy production (fantasy points per game). Tiers don't punish players for production well above their average the way that standard deviation can.
My consistency tiers based on the span of seasons measured in a 12-team league:
- Elite: Weekly performances that meet or exceed the average fantasy points per game of the top two overall RBs.
- No. 1 RB: Weekly performances that meet the average fantasy points per game of top 12 running backs.
- Sub Par: Weekly performances that are below the average baseline of the lowest-ranked starter spot in a league.
In this article, I'm measuring running backs in 12-team PPR leagues that field two starters. It means the No.1 RB tier spans the averages of the top-12 backs, the No. 2 RB tier spans backs in the range of 13-24, and the Sub-Par tier begins with performances below the 24th-ranked starter's average.
For those of you willing to do the extra work to customize consistency data for your league format that starts additional backs, I'm including average tiers for RB3 and RB4. When I focus on consistency specifically for this season (later this summer), I will adjust the Sub Par Tier to the average production of the 37th ranked RB because many leagues that readers tell me about (and I participate in) have at least one flex option at RB.
The averages at the bottom of the table below are the fantasy points that define each tier.
With the process explained, here's the quickest way to think of this information:
- The Elite tier measures the percentage of a running back's games between 2007-16 where he scored at least 22.7 fantasy points.
- The #1RB Tier measures the percentage of a running back's games between 2007-16 where he scored between 13.1-22.69 fantasy points.
- The #2RB Tier measures the percentage of a running back's games between 2007-16 where he scored between 11.5-13.09 fantasy points.
- The Sub-Par tier measures the percentage of a quarterback's games between 2007-16 where he scored less than 11.5 fantasy points.
The players below are sorted by the following priority:
- The lowest percentage of Sub Par games.
- The highest percentage of No.1 games.
- The highest percentage of Elite games.
"Max" and "Min" are the highest and lowest fantasy performances during their decade of play. There are a few tables below filtered by minimum games.
TOP 36 HIGH-PERFORMING FANTASY Running BACKS (2007-2016) And No Minimum Games
There are some worthwhile differences to consider when comparing running back consistency with quarterbacks. It's common sense, but still worth noting that quarterbacks with a track record of quality games have the longer careers on average.
Still, players like LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte, Steven Jackson, Frank Gore, Jamaal Charles, Marshawn Lynch, and Chris Johnson have quarterback-like longevity. It's one of the reasons why dynasty and keeper leagues target running backs early in rookie drafts.
The top running backs have a lower percentage of sub-par games than the top quarterbacks. There were 15 quarterbacks on last week's list with a sub-par percentage of at least 50; only 4 running backs on this list are in this range.
Although these runners didn't bottom out as often as passers, quarterbacks have a higher percentage of quality games (elite and top 12) than their running back counterparts. In most formats, the ratio of startable running backs to quarterbacks is at least 2:1, if not 3:1, and NFL teams rarely manage their offenses with a committee of quarterbacks in the same way they do with runners.
Players in bold are notable options who won't qualify in the second table because they lack the minimum game requirements.
The six players you won't see in the subsequent table are Ezekiel Elliott, Jordan Howard, Melvin Gordon III, Todd Gurley, C.J. Prosise, T.J. Yeldon, and Karlos Williams. Elliott, Howard, Gordon, and Gurley are the obvious four that fantasy owners expect starter production now and the foreseeable future.
Don't Write Off Todd Gurley Yet...
Last year's disappointing 12.5 fantasy points per game average has generated a lot of questions about Gurley. I believe Gurley's vocal displeasure with the offense is valid. Despite Gurley not performing to an elite standard—much less an RB1 standard—Gurley percentage of sub-par fantasy games (31.3) was tied for 11th lowest in 2016.
If Gurley was "simply not as skilled as we thought," which is a common thing I've read in the fantasy community, I would have expected Gurley's sub-par games to be at least twice as bad as it was. The fact that Gurley still managed 68.75 percent rate as a fantasy RB2 despite much lower percentages with RB1 (43.75) and Elite (6.25) is an indication that Los Angeles couldn't stay in games long enough for Gurley to be a second-half factor.
Five of the Rams nine losses were by margins of at least two touchdowns—that's a potential 31 percent of Gurley's games that could have been either RB1 or Elite quality if the contest was close and the Rams weren't forced to throw downfield for most of the fourth quarter (at least). Although there's a compelling argument that Gurley is as talented as first thought at the end of 2015, it may not matter if the surrounding talent and/or scheme in Los Angeles doesn't improve.
Based on what we saw last year, if you can get Gurley as an RB2, it's worth the risk. If you've drawn an early pick in re-drafts, a pairing of Gurley with one of the top backs (David Johnson, Le'Veon Bell, and Elliott) could be a league-winning combination if my assertion that the 2017 Rams will be good enough for Gurley to up his RB1 and Elite games.
The fear is that the addition of Lance Dunbar will further damage Gurley's potential this year. While possible, I look to Cleveland's backfield as a comparable worst-case scenario. The Browns could not build or maintain leads in enough games for the offense to ride Isaiah Crowell's talent. It meant that Duke Johnson Jr saw a lot of work as a receiving back.
However, Crowell still performed as an RB2 in 62.5 percent of last year's games, averaging 0.5 fantasy points more per game than Gurley. Crowell had slightly greater variance as an Elite RB1 and Sub-Par RB than Gurley. I'm not as worried about Dunbar's presence as I am the long-term stability of passing game and the coaching staff. If the Rams remain a weigh station for lost football souls, fantasy owners can only hope Gurley stays healthy and Snake Plissken has enough Geritol to lead another Escape from L.A.
C.J. Prosise Is The "Long Game" in Seattle
Questions about Eddie Lacy's (ADP 67, RB25) weight and a Thomas Rawls (ADP 145, RB49) rebound are the short-term headlines about the Seahawks' backfield, but it's Prosise who could be the late-round steal of 2017. Prosise doesn't even have a draftable ADP, but Seattle used Prosise in the passing game last year and generated big-play success.
Prosise only played six games as a rookie, but his RB1 rate was 50 percent while averaging 10.17 fantasy points per game in PPR leagues. While Lacy and Rawls battle it out for two-down, fourth quarter, and/or red zone duty, Prosise could wind up the most consistent and productive of the three if neither veteran makes a clear case.
In fact, the 220-pound Prosise was a fast enough learner as a rookie that if his learning curve progresses at a similar rate, he could end the season as the feature back. While unlikely, Prosise's ADP and consistent use in the passing game makes him a late-round bargain with potential as a league winner.
T.J. Yeldon is a most unlikely answer to any "which RB should I pick in 2017" fantasy questions. Most consider Yeldon a bust after two seasons. Those who bash him most tend to cite yards-per-carry stats or try to compare Yeldon to backs like Jay Ajayi or Carlos Hyde, but without any context about the offense lines.
I liked Yeldon's skill at Alabama and I thought the Jaguars offense didn't do him any favors. The second-year back performed to RB2 production for nearly 47 percent of the 2016 season, tied for 12th among all running backs last year. His Sub Par rate of 53.3 percent is also tied for 12th.
In comparison to Chris Ivory, Yeldon's RB2 rate and average points per game were slightly higher and his Sub Par rate was slightly lower. The only thing people question about Ivory is his ability to stay healthy. Yeldon was more consistent and as productive "per game" as Ty Montgomery, Rob Kelley, Terrance West, and Jerick McKinnon and in arguably a worse offense than any of them.
Don't be surprised if Yeldon surfaces with a better team in 2018 and looks closer to the back that the Jaguars thought he'd be. If that happens, we may also be feeling sorry for Leonard Fournette.
TOP 36 HIGH-PERFORMING FANTASY RUNNING BACKS (2007-2016, Minimum of 32 games)
Despite what I said about quarterbacks having longer careers than running backs, 19 of the 36 players in this table have a strong shot of playing this year and 7 of the top 12 on this list are projected as significant contributors in 2017. Only used 32 games because the running back position has a high rate of injury and two years of starts is a solid sample size of a runner's worth. Let's examine this list and profile the backs on it.
- Only 13 of the 36 players on this list had a significant fantasy season (RB2 production) with multiple and only 7 have had multiple fantasy seasons of significance with multiple teams.
- Of those 7 backs who earned multiple seasons of significance, 6 went to new squads before or during their prime.
- The outlier? Frank Gore.
- If Adrian Peterson is built of similar stuff as Gore, and he could be, it's an encouraging sign. Matt Forte? Love his career and style of play, but not so much.
- 28 of the 36 backs weigh at least 210 pounds. This may not be as much of a correlation of skill as it is the league reinforcing an idea of what it believes a runner's weight minimum should be.
- Only eight backs (Eddie Lacy, Brian Westbrook, LaDanian Tomlinson, Reggie Bush, Ryan Grant, Michael Turner, Devonta Freeman, and Le'Veon Bell) played with consistent fantasy QB1s. One could argue that the number is actually six because Freeman and Bell only qualify if you count Ryan's seasons prior to Freeman entering the league and Roethlisberger's production based on points per game only. Considering that Carson Palmer's rate of QB1 play is 50 percent of David Johnson's short career and I didn't list Johnson, I'd say the better figure is 6.
- 21 of the 36 backs have breakaway speed (the consistent ability to beat the angles of cornerbacks without changing direction to do it).
- Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch, Frank Gore, Ray Rice, Devonta Freeman, and Michael Turner weren't among those with breakaway speed but generated careers worth of big plays.
- While 21 of these backs have "starter-caliber" power, only 11 of them are players I'd say were capable of consistently punishing a defense with their power.
- Even if they weren't targeted to their abilities, most of the players on this list are good receivers at their position. Here's how I'd classify them:
- Great: David Johnson, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Brian Westbrook, Reggie Bush.
- Good: Le'Veon Bell, Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy, DeMarco Murray, Matt Forte, Ray Rice, Frank Gore, Clinton Portis, Maurice Jones-Drew, Jamaal Charles, Marshawn Lynch, Knowshon Moreno, Doug Martin, Joseph Addai, Giovani Bernard, Chris Johnson, Devonta Freeman, Rashard Mendenhall, Latavius Murray, Lamar Miller, Mark Ingram II, Darren McFadden.
- Competent: Adrian Peterson, Steven Jackson, Eddie Lacy, Ryan Mathews, Willis McGahee.
- The vast majority of these backs have excellent footwork and agility to create space. The two that lacked the same level of agility as the rest of this list might be Ryan Grant and Darren McFadden.
2017 FANTASY IMPLICATIONS
How I'd demarcate the tiers:
- Elite Tier: RB1 production at least 70 percent and RB2 at least 80 percent.
- Second Tier: RB1 production of at least 60 percent and RB2 at least 70 percent.
- Third Tier: RB1 production at least 50 percent and RB2 at least 60 percent.
- Fourth Tier: RB1 production at least 40 percent and RB2 at least 60 percent.
My top tier includes Le'Veon Bell and Ezekiel Elliott. These tiers are different than my fantasy rankings because I'm not factoring injury history into the tiers. Bell is lower in my rankings as I write this piece because I believe his style might contribute to injuries. When he's on the field, Bell is a superstar who has only delivered below fantasy starter expectation 7 times during the past 50 games.
In addition to their vision, quickness, agility, and power, what Bell and Elliott also have in common is excellent offensive line play. Where Bell's style is special and unusual, Elliott's is more efficient and perhaps a little safer. Although this list illustrates that top runners often have long careers, the position as a whole has a high turnover due to injury.
Elliott's skill, age, and relative youth of his surrounding talent contribute to the idea that Elliott is still an ascending talent whose elite rookie year is a sign of things to come. However, there's a good argument that Elliott doesn't have much room to improve in the production department because his Elite Game Rate is an incredible 53 percent and he was also the best in every other consistency tier, including a 100 percent rate as no worse than an rB3. Where do you go from there?
While I wouldn't turn down either one, I'd still take my shot with Elliott first overall despite the potential that he peaked as a rookie.
LeSean McCoy, DeMarco Murray, and David Johnson are my excellent second tier. Although one must take into account that Johnson has played 18 and 48 fewer games than Bell and Arian Foster, respectively, Johnson's Elite Game Rate of 40.6 percent is only behind this duo. Johnson's production was likely inflated last year due to a struggling passing game, but the list above reveals that great quarterback play isn't the correlating factor for a top ground game.
I feel more assured of a player's outlook when he's working behind a quality offensive line. I feel better about McCoy and Murray's line than I do Johnson's. However, age (McCoy) and competition for carries (Murray) are the hairs I'm splitting in this tier to give the nod to Johnson. And trust me, they are the thinnest of hairs.
I'd roll with any of these three, although my comfort level with Murray would be best described as "supreme" if not for the presence of Derrick Henry. As a chronicler of annual turnover of early-round running backs based on the previous year's performance, I'll remind you that usually, between 5-7 of the top 12 backs from year X don't repeat as fantasy starters in year X+1. Elliott, Bell, Johnson, and McCoy are the four I'm most comfortable with. Murray's ability and line play makes him a player that I'll take but it often comes after some consideration of a top receiver.
This is where the adventure begins. Five years ago, Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte, Frank Gore, Jamaal Charles, and Marshawn Lynch would all be in a higher tier. If healthier than we last saw them, Peterson, Forte, Charles, and Lynch all have the skills to thrill fans one last time. However, I can't rightfully place any of them in this tier with the exception of Gore.
If you're not appreciating that the old man of his group who lost his game-breaking explosion before he ever left college is the last man standing among these Hall of Fame caliber runners, then you never saw Gore in his Hurricane prime. It's one thing to be great when all of your tools are at your disposal. It's entirely another to have what could have made you an all-timer taken away before entering the highest level of the game. Gore's 150 games during this decade is easily the top mark and the fact that he's 11th on this list is a testament to his work ethic and mastery of the position.
Gore's ADP is 96 as RB34 after earning his 6th top 12 fantasy season at his position in the last 7. Fantasy owners hate to be on the downside of the age issue but as an investment at the 8-9 turn, I'll keep some duct tape and WD40 handy if it means Gore still has the skills to deliver borderline RB1 value.
Marshawn Lynch and Doug Martin comprise this tier. The "wise" call is to avoid Lynch because his back issues contributed to his first retirement and he's old enough that a year away from the game could lead to a significant decline in his ability. But if there has been a player in this league who has played the fool to catch the wise during the past 5-7 years, Lynch is that guy.
The back issues will quietly remain a risk but if he can manage it, Lynch has the surrounding talent to support his potential return to feature-back stardom. As RB15 with an ADP of 42, he's among a group of runners who have high upside but few of them will be every-down backs behind strong offensive lines. I'll bet on the back remaining healthy enough this year.
I've discussed Martin everywhere. He's healthy, his mind his right, he's the clear-cut No. 1 as of training camp, and the team is raving about him. He's been a top-3 fantasy back during the two years where this team feedback was the narrative about Martin. As I mentioned recently, Martin's last top-3 season included a rate of performance that would have placed him as the No. 11 RB if he missed three games.
The Buccaneers offense is promising enough that Martin should finish very close to RB1 territory despite the suspension. With an ADP of 78 as RB28, Gore, Lynch, and Martin are 3 of 7-9 backs I'd have on my list as mid-round targets.
This is the tier that will defy or confirm conventional wisdom. I believe one of these players will prove that the magic is still there. The rest? Like old myths, there will be glimpses of what they were, but not enough to recapture the glory days.
Forte looked slower last year, but he ran with intelligence and toughness. If the injury he played through was the true reason he appeared a step slower, he'll shock the NFL. I think we'll look back on 2017 and choose to remember Forte as a Bear while blocking his Jets phase from our memory banks.
According to Cecil Lammey, Jamaal Charles seems incredulous to the idea that he's physically lost his elite athletic ability. Every great performer has spent years cultivating a mindset that combats doubt. They needed this skill to reach their heights.
Expecting them to turn that off when there's early evidence of decline illustrates an incredible lack of understanding about human nature. Sadly, we're likely to see Charles discover that his past greatness will only show up in fleeting moments. I hope I'm wrong, but Andy Reid strikes me as a realist and if he's publicly talking about Charles' demise, I'm not hopeful.
That leaves us with Adrian Peterson playing Bad Santa in the Big Easy. I heard a lot of people declare Peterson's career death last fall. I didn't say much because I wanted to see the death certificate. When I looked at the film, I couldn't find it.
Early in the year, the Vikings line didn't open anything for Peterson and at his worst, the franchise runner tried to do too much. When he briefly returned from injury late in the year there were moments beneath the rust where the vision, hard cuts, and strength were there. This is a big crease that most competent NFL rushers would locate and hit, so don't think I'm touting this example as a special play. Focus solely on what Peterson is doing and you'll see that even after several weeks of rehab and returning to the field less than 100 percent, he's someone we shouldn't write off yet.
I think Minnesota let Peterson walk because he was on the wrong side of 30, his style didn't fit what the Vikings wanted to do, and his off-field behavior has been troublesome—even if "troublesome" encompasses a broad range of behavior when comparing Peterson's with other individuals. Maybe Peterson's body will break down again, but the fact that the Saints tried to trade Mark Ingram II during the offseason is a greater indicator to me that New Orleans is confident in Peterson returning to form.
And I think that confidence has more to do with Peterson than rookie Alvin Kamara who is a talented player, but his ball security and decision-making have enough flaws that I don't buy into the idea that he's immediate feature back material. While the theory that New Orleans wouldn't have traded up for Kamara if they didn't plan to use him has merit, the Saints have no problem maximizing the strengths of talented players with limited skills early on and turning them into fantasy-friendly options. Devery Henderson, Reggie Bush, Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, and Brandin Cooks all qualify in this respect.
The real consideration is age.
Top 20 Running Back Seasons Since 2000, Age 32 and Up
- 5 of the top 10 seasons occurred during the past 7 years and Gore owns two of them.
- 6 of these seasons were RB1 fantasy material in standard leagues.
- 5 qualified as RB1 material for PPR.
- Only 9 of these 20 PPR seasons didn't qualify as RB1 or RB2 value.
- 11 of these 20 standard seasons didn't qualify as RB1 or RB2 value.
- Every season qualified as no worse than RB3/flex value.
- 7 seasons included at least 9 rushing touchdowns.
If you examine the physical profile of these backs, all but two of them (Kevin Faulk and Darren Sproles) were considered every-down backs. Some of these runners were known for breakaway speed at one time (the Williams backs, Dunn, and Dillon), but all of them were known more for vision, cutback ability, and power. Peterson still has all of these skills intact.
I think there's a better chance than people think that Peterson's 2017 season ends up on this list. While it wouldn't surprise me if he tops Ricky Williams' carries and yardage totals, I think a realistic expectation is touches and production in the realm of Corey Dillon's 2006 season, which would have been the 14th best total for a back last year in standard leagues and 20th in PPR formats.
At RB31 available with the 90th pick in late June, I'll easily take a chance on Peterson in this range. If the positive reports continue and it translates into noteworthy highlights in August, his value will rise. If it doesn't creep above RB20, I'd still consider him worth it.
Devonta Freeman, Mark Ingram II, and Darren Sproles also made the top 36. Freeman's value is obvious and if his upside wasn't capped by Tevin Coleman, I'd consider him for the second tier. He's a safer pick than Martin and Lynch, but he's pricier than the backs in the second tier and there are receivers that I'd prefer at his range.
The Saints attempt to trade Ingram tells me that he could easily be an afterthought all season long. However, he's skilled enough that you can't ignore him when he's in a prolific offense with an aging start returning from injury and a rookie known for his exciting, but mistaken-prone style. I don't like the idea of taking Ingram with the 54th pick as RB19, but fantasy owners that drafted him could hastily cut him by October if Peterson and/or Kamara dominate touches. We saw this last year with Jay Ajayi's early woes and many fantasy teams benefitted from the Dolphins back later in the year.
The Eagles want to transition from Sproles to Donnel Pumphrey as fast as possible. The reason NFL scouts compared these two backs favorably is that Pumphrey ran a traditional gap system between the tackles at San Diego State and it's similar to what Sproles did at Kansas State. The difference is that Sproles showed unusual power and balance for his size and Pumphrey only relied on his vision, speed, and quickness.
Pumphrey is no Sproles, but he's good enough to play the NFL version of the role. Just don't expect him to hold up as well between the tackles as Sproles did on the occasions where he was used as such.
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