Running back is a difficult position to nail in MFL10’s without overinvesting or getting lucky. Two years ago, running back scarcity at the top of drafts convinced me to go big on running back early, devoting as many as three of my first five picks to the position. Last year, lack of clarity and a glut of receiving backs in the mid rounds made it easier to go cheap at the position and invest in blue chip wide receivers with premium picks. In early drafts, a combination of a lack of clarity regarding entrenched starters on the eve of one of the best running back classes in recent memory entering the league and some no brainer late picks to get cheap running back starts demands a combination of the two approaches. I’m often devoting two of my first 3-4 picks to running back, but then waiting until the mid-late rounds to fill out the depth. Let’s walk the landscape.
Early 1st Options
This is simple. If you draw at top three pick, you should take a running back. Johnson is the easy #1 pick. Bell’s injury history is an issue, but his weekly ceiling makes him the call over Elliott at #2. Elliott is a fine consolation at #3, although there is a non-zero chance of a suspension if he gets any more bad publicity, and maybe even if he doesn’t. Wide receiver is plenty deep enough to forego Brown or Beckham here.
1st-2nd Round Options
There are warts to each of these backs, but the prospect of coming out of the first two rounds without a running back can be bleak. The dropoff in wide receiver quality is a bit surprising in both the first and second, so I am usually taking a back from this group if I draw a pick in the second hald of the first round.
McCoy is the clear target here. He produced on a par with Elliott and gained Patrick DiMarco. There’s risk of age dropoff. Alternatively, you could opt for Melvin Gordon III, with a small risk of Joe Mixon landing in Los Angeles, or Devonta Freeman with Tevin Coleman muddying his weekly outlook. Howard is a solid pick anywhere in the second with his rookie year rampage despite the lack of receiving punch. I’m still a sucker for Gurley in the late second. He had 12.9 or more PPR points 60 percent of the time and it can’t get much worse. There’s still a top talent there and the offensive coaching should be at least competent now.
Aim to get at least one of these backs if you don’t draw a top three pick. Spending both of your first two picks on backs isn’t absurd with the depth at wide receiver and dropoff at running back.
Late 2nd-3rd Round Options
We can draw a line at the bottom of this tier that basically ends the list of entrenched starters. It’s a good idea to get your RB2 from this tier, although cobbling together an RB2 committee later is also viable. Ajayi lacks PPR punch like Howard, but gives you a high weekly ceiling. Murray produced like a first-round pick and was declared the lead back multiple times this offseason but comes with age dropoff risk. I trust the Titans offense more than the Dolphins and tend to take Murray as my RB2, but won’t talk you out of Ajayi. Miller, like Gurley, was more useful than you think despite a disappointing season, going over 13.8 in 8 of 14 games, and he could be a brilliant pick in hindsight if Tony Romo ends up with the Texans. Hyde was a beast, although it’s yet to be seen if the loss of Kelly and Kaepernick will be a net loss when weighed against the addition of Kyle Shanahan. I’m staying away from Fournette, who is coming at nearly the same cost as Ezekiel Elliott at this time last year. There is no best case scenario for him that is even half as good as Dallas for Elliott and he’s probably not going to be a three-down back right away like Elliott. Ingram has ended up on a lot of my teams that pick late in the third as an RB2 to pair with McCoy. Tim Hightower is still a free agent and Ingram was a top 10 back after his “benching” last year with Hightower on the roster.
Murray, Hyde, Murray, Ingram, you can’t go wrong with most of the running backs typically on the board in the third, and the wide receivers you are passing on aren’t too compelling unless Keenan Allen falls too far. The third round is a good running back round.
4th-5th Round Options
Going the first three rounds without a back means that you probably have to draft at least six backs and hope they spread out their good weeks with one or two hitting a best case scenario. Wide receiver quality lingers through the sixth and both tight end and quarterback provide good value here. There are some solid running back values here, but the opportunity cost at other positions can sting. I would be ok with getting my RB2 here, but prefer to have an RB1 in tow before the fourth.
Cook is explosive and can provide some PPR punch, but you’re hoping for talent to create opportunity with the uncertainty of draft landing spot looming. Anderson faded quickly last year and could cede more to a draft back this year than he did to Devontae Booker last year. Ware was uninspiring and also seems like a prime candidate to see his role shrink. Coleman is an interesting proposition, with the likelihood of RB1/RB2 weeks while healthy (that’s not a trivial condition) and the possibility of RB1 upside if Freeman gets hurt. I’ll make an exception for him if I started with a top three back and went WR/WR or WR/Gronk at the 2-3 turn. Crowell should benefit from the offensive line additions in Cleveland and went over 12.8 points over half of the time despite being on the league’s worst team. McCaffrey’s receiving ability makes him very enticing in the fifth, and Derrick Henry has league-winning upside if Murray goes down.
Coleman, Crowell, and McCaffrey should be your targets around the fifth as the first in an RB2 committee, and if you can get two around the 4th/5th turn as your RB2 duo, that should allow you to skip running back for at least the next 4-5 rounds.
6th-7th Round Options
At this point you are throwing darts, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t hit. Murray was a near RB1 last year on touchdowns, but it is hard to see that translating in Minnesota. I prefer Jerick McKinnon at cost from that backfield. Mixon is a first round talent and could make your draft, but he should also fall out of the first and could end up in a committee with a more established back. It’s hard to see the appeal of Prosise ahead of Lacy. His PPR ceiling is enticing, but durability and a crowded backfield obstructs the view of Prosise at his best. Montgomery had his moments last year and could improve with an offseason devoted to learning the position, but high volume games and goal line opportunities could still be hard to come by.
Peterson and Lacy get my attention here because both have feature back experience. You can afford to whiff on a pick or two at running back in the name of chasing upside. I like both as boom/bust RB3 picks at ADP. Peterson can pick a situation based on opportunity and Lacy seems to have the first crack at the lead role in Seattle. He will be hampered by a poor line and maybe his own dedication to conditioning, but last year he ran well before injury and Seattle is still a winning team that creates weekly ceiling. Abdullah is tough to gauge. He was dynamic to open the season, but Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner and a potential draft back threaten to keep him from being consistent week-to-week.
8th-11th Round Options
8th-9th: Kenneth Dixon, BAL, Theo Riddick, DET, Rob Kelley, WAS, Giovani Bernard, CIN, Bilal Powell, NYJ, Rex Burkhead, NE
9th-11th: Thomas Rawls, SEA, Paul Perkins, NYG, Danny Woodhead, BAL, Dion Lewis, NE, LeGarrette Blount, NE, Jamaal Charles, FA, Duke Johnson Jr, CLE
11th-13th: Frank Gore, IND, Jonathan Stewart, CAR, Matt Forte, NYJ, Jerick McKinnon, MIN, Alvin Kamara, ROOK
The wide range of options in the 8th-11th that offer a good chance of putting up 4-8 RB2 quality weeks with a few RB1 weeks to boot makes it much less scary to punt on running back and build a juggernaut of wide receivers with the luxury of some tight end or quarterback strength. The only problem with this strategy is that players who can give 4-8 WR2/WR3 weeks with a few WR1 weeks are even cheaper and available even later.
The excitement about Dixon has waned since the signing of Woodhead, who might be more attractive in this range despite the lower ADP and ACL recovery. Riddick won’t be the surprise RB1 he was last year, but he can still help with his PPR punch. There’s an argument that he should go before Abdullah. Kelley had a nice second half of the year, but aside from fumbles he didn’t decisively outperform Matt Jones and Washington could draft a back. Bernard is coming back from an ACL but that seems to be more than priced in and he should be an easy choice over the fading Jeremy Hill in this range. Powell really came on at the end of the year and is a fine momentum pick at ADP if you need part of an RB2 by committee. Burkhead is hard to ignore at his price. He might drive us crazy in redraft leagues, but his versatility plus at least current status as best “big” back makes him the kind of pick that can save your bacon at running back if your early picks bust.
Rawls needs a Lacy injury, Perkins and the Giants running game don’t inspire confidence, and Blount is a scary proposition unless New England re-signs him. There are all avoids for now. As much as I love the talent of Lewis, James White isn’t going away. He’s probably ranked third among Patriots backs in terms of ADP attractiveness. As much as I have loved watching Jamaal Charles, there’s a good chance he will never be the same. You can shank a few picks and the upside is exciting if Charles does bounce back, so I won’t talk you out of a pick if he falls a round or two too far or you need ceiling after ignoring running back early. Duke Johnson Jr lacked punch last year, but he’s an excellent “firewall” floor pick if you have a lot of risk in your earlier running back picks.
Gore and Stewart are boring, but will provide very solid return on a second half of the draft price tag. Both could cede work to rookies, but should still collect some scores and solid games in any event. If their teams miss on running back early, Gore could be an RB2 again and Stewart an RB2/RB3, although both come with decline risk, especially Gore. Forte might take a backseat to Powell, but there are worse uses of a 12th or 13th round pick. Kamara isn’t one of my favorites, but he should be drafted on the second day and could land in a plum spot. McKinnon is my favorite in the 11th-13th round range, as I think he can outplay Latavius Murray (a la Powell/Forte 2016) and he was used a lot more as a receiver down the stretch.
12th-15th Round Options
You might have to make some tough choices in the 8th-11th round range as you watch tight end dry up or see quarterback value dangling. The 12th-15th range offers up a few options to help with running back depth if you break ties against backs in the mid rounds. Martin could be released, played terribly last year, and will miss the first three games, but he works if you need a swing for the fences pick later. Sims left us with a lot of optimism in 2015 and would seem to be poised to benefit from Martin’s potential ouster, but he was hurt and underwhelming last year and appears to be no more prominent in the Bucs plans than Jacquizz Rodgers. Yeldon actually had 11+ points in seven of 15 games, but four of those were games Chris Ivory missed and the Jaguars should draft a back this year.
White is the jewel here. He had 11+ points in seven of 15 games, including three of six with Dion Lewis, LeGarrette Blount might not be around to hoover up goal line opportunities, and oh, White was pretty good in the Super Bowl. I’m not at all against taking both Burkhead and White at ADP. It will probably turn out to be a winning strategy. If you get one thing out of this article, it is to target James White at ADP.
15th Round and Later Options
15th and Later: Marshawn Lynch, FA, Devontae Booker, DEN, Mike Gillislee, BUF, D’Onta Foreman, ROOK, Jalen Richard, OAK, Samaje Perine, ROOK, DeAndre Washington, OAK, Darren Sproles, PHI, Jacquizz Rodgers, TB, Chris Thompson, WAS, Kareem Hunt, ROOK, Chris Ivory, JAX. Shane Vereen, NYG, Zach Zenner, DET, Lance Dunbar, LAR
Running back end game in an NFL can be very important if you have a good handle on the weakness in your running back group before you make the last pick or two to round out the roster.
Lynch, Foreman, Perine, and Hunt offer high ceilings if you already have the depth and managed risk to not sweat adding to your weekly floor “firewall” options.
Gillislee (did you know he scored seven times last year?), Sproles, Thompson, Vereen and Dunbar are all good options to give 5-10 point weekly floors to bolster a group that has higher injury or role risk, or lack of depth. Gilleslee has McCoy injury upside, Sproles and Thompson have consistent roles and and Vereen and Dunbar are dirt cheap. Sproles stands out as the screaming value here, producing nine double digit PPR scores last year. Even if his backfield is crashed by a rookie, he’ll score at least a few times as a flex or RB2.
Richard, Washington, Rodgers, Zenner, and Ivory are desperation lobs if you miss on the more attractive options like Sproles and the rookies. All had their moments last year, but most of them could be joined by rookies and don’t have the ceiling or floor that others in this tier offer.
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