Running Back Tiers

A look at the 2015 running back crop for fantasy leagues through the lens of tiers

The age of RBBC is fully upon us, so the number of true bell cow backs seems to dwindle each year. Nailing that early pick, finding the mid and late sleepers, and being vigilant on the waiver wire is more important than ever. The first-round landscape continues to be more hopeful early than the 2013 minefield, but Lesean McCoy reminds us of the risks. The third round is a prime vein of running back gold, but the prospects get bleaked after that. Let the tiers run...

ELITE

Le’Veon Bell, PIT

You don’t need me to tell you this. Don’t worry about the two missed games. If you can’t overcome an 0-2 (which is far from assured and some teams that don’t draft Bell will start 0-2), then you aren’t going to win the title anyway. Bell is on the upside of his career, in a high octane offense, with a terrible defense to keep games high-scoring. He might be the best receiving back in the league. The sky is the limit.

PROBABLY ELITE

Adrian Peterson, MIN
Jamaal Charles, KC
C.J. Anderson, DEN

The first two backs are Hall of Fame quality, but both could also be at the point where their bodies start to betray. In fact, both battled nagging injuries in their last full playing seasons. If the arrow points down further we shouldn’t be surprised, but when it comes to talent on this level, I’m willing to be a year late in fading them. Both have improved situations this year if you want a positive indicator other raw talent and proven elite talent through just about any situation.

Anderson has the role and offense for elite production. He also has a very limited track record, and his quarterback/offensive line could be in decline. There’s more risk with Anderson, but if everything goes off as planned, he’ll be a top five fantasy back.

BRICK OUTHOUSE SOLID RB1

Marshawn Lynch, SEA
Eddie Lacy, GB
Matt Forte, CHI
Frank Gore, IND

These backs are cornerstones with very high floors outside of catastrophic injury. Lynch is my go-to RB4 in drafts, although I wouldn’t talk you out of taking Anderson over him. Lacy will be limited from getting an elite RB1 workload, but elite RB talent and offensive surroundings are there. Forte will take a drop in receptions, but he showed last year he will keep on chugging even when his team is going down in flames. Gore has the age 32 risk, but an ideal situation and if any back’s career is telling us to bet on him being the exception to the rule, it is Gore’s.

RB1 IF…

Justin Forsett, BAL
Demarco Murray, PHI
Jeremy Hill, CIN
Lamar Miller, MIA
Andre Ellington, ARI

Forsett is probably a member of brick outhouse RB1 tier, but his limited track record adds the “if”. Murray is sharing with two other backs in an unknown distribution. Hill is prone being a dud when the Bengals fall behind. Miller’s coaches have been reluctant to give him an RB1 workload. Ellington was hurt before the season even started last year and some have him pigeonholed as a back who should be used like Darren Sproles.

All of these RBs have either demonstrated RB1 talent, production or both in the past. They can help make your draft in the third round, although Forsett, Hill and Murray rarely if ever make it that far in draft.

SOLID RB2

Lesean McCoy, BUF
Mark Ingram II, NO
Melvin Gordon III, SD
Jonathan Stewart, CAR
Rashad Jennings, NYG

If this group and their situations play out at the very top of their range of outcomes, perhaps there’s an RB1 in the mix. McCoy has shown before that he can do it, but he is also in a one-dimensional offense with an offensive line that is a work in progress. Ingram was almost at RB1 on a per-game basis last year, but that was without CJ Spiller in the mix. Gordon will yield to Danny Woodhead in passing situations, but could burst on the scene as a runner behind a massive Chargers offensive line. Stewart is an RB1 level talent, but Cam Newton taking goal-line touchdowns caps his upside, and his injury history lowers his floor to the basement. Jennings will give way to Shane Vereen and Andre Williams more than he did last year, but when healthy, he’ll still be the most valuable Giants back on a week-to-week basis. You’ll notice that this group goes off of the board anywhere from the second to seventh round. None have great profit potential at ADP.

DO YOU FEEL LUCKY, PUNK?

Ameer Abdullah, DET
Joseph Randle, DAL

CJ Spiller, NO
Arian Foster, HOU
Todd Gurley, STL

TJ Yeldon, JAX

Welp, this is a group that could be your surprise RB1 or your waste of a mid-round pick. Abdullah could be limited to a receiving back role if Joique Bell is healthy, but he could win a larger role by sheer quality even if Bell is healthy, and get more like a Reggie Bush 2013 role if Bell is not. Randle enters the season as the #1 Cowboys back, but who knows what that situation will look like in Week 2. Maybe even the day after I write this. Foster could be back in September, or maybe November. He could be healthy for the rest of the season after return, or immediately get hurt and end up sidelined for the rest of the season. The reward here is a known elite RB1 producer. Gurley is not expected to play the first few games by the Rams according to NFL Network reporter Ian Rapoport, and the Rams could use him in a committee all season with Tre Mason to protect him in year one returning from an ACL tear. Gurley could also be so good once he returns that they tear up whatever plans they have to ease him in. Spiller was cleared for takeoff in New Orleans, but had to go back to the gate for knee surgery, which might not be an issue in season, but we can't be sure. Yeldon is going to be "eased in" and could seize control of the backfield as the season goes along, but it is far from assured with two solid talents sharing time.

I am all for taking these kinds of picks in the fifth or later. Once you have your core players, build in a few picks that could be major profit-winner for you. This group qualifies. Foster screams value if he's there in the seventh or later.

BOOM/BUST RB2

Alfred Morris, WAS
Carlos Hyde, SF
LeGarrette Blount, NE
Chris Ivory, NYJ
Latavius Murray, OAK
Isaiah Crowell, CLE
Doug Martin, TB

This is an unexciting group for the most part. They will have RB1 weekly upside when their teams roll to wins, but they will also have lineup liability downside when their teams sputter. Morris and Hyde are overdrafted as two-down backs on likely losing teams. Blount is on a winning team, but he will miss a game, and Belichick. Still a fine RB3/Flex. Ivory’s ADP is puzzling as he has been given a chance to do more passing down work and his main competition is coming back from an ACL tear. Murray is a nice athletic specimen, but he has a receiving back to share with plus, Raiders. Crowell *should* be the Morris/Hyde of the Browns, who have a much better line and defense to keep games on run scripts than Washington or San Francisco, but something is keeping the Browns from committing to their best back between the tackles. Martin should be better than last year, but he’s still on a terrible run blocking team and will have to share with Charles Sims on passing downs. Bell becomes a solid RB2 once he’s fully healthy and playing for the third preseason game. If he’s not, he stays here.

RECEIVING BACKS

Duke Johnson Jr, CLE
Giovani Bernard, CIN

Danny Woodhead, SD
Darren Sproles, PHI
Shane Vereen, NYG
Lance Dunbar, DAL
Reggie Bush, SF
Charles Sims, TB
Theo Riddick, DET
Roy Helu, OAK

The unifying attribute here is that all of these backs project to be primary “passing situation” players. In PPR leagues, that alone can make a back worth of flex starts with RB2 upside.

Duke Johnson Jr is the most interesting because of the unsettled nature of the potentially very productive Browns running game. He could show well as a receiving back and earn more work, eventually approaching true lead back status. None of the other backs on this list can do that without injury. Bernard, Vereen, Sproles, and Woodhead have the best roles right out of the box, and Bernard and Vereen have great injury upside. Sproles and Woodhead are less likely to become high volume backs if the players ahead of them go down.

Dunbar might not have as good a role to begin as the backs ahead of him, but he is arguably the best running game in the league, and anything can happen in an unstable situation like Dallas’s, ask Justin Forsett. Bush, Sims, Riddick, and Helu are all players with their own relative strenghts and value as bye/injury/emergency backs in PPR leagues, but it’s hard to picture a scenario where you’re really excited to have drafted them.

FLEX APPEAL

Tevin Coleman, ATL
Devonta Freeman, ATL
Ryan Mathews, PHI

Christine Michael, DAL

Zach Zenner, DET

Joique Bell, DET

Mathews is an insta-start if Demarco Murray misses time - assuming Mathews is healthy himself. Is there a scenario where one of the young Falcons back pushes the other into a backup role? Maybe if Coleman rips off long scores in two or three straight games. Zenner might be better than Joique Bell right now.

HANDCUFFS

Knile Davis, KC
DeAngelo Williams, PIT
Tre Mason, STL
Alfred Blue, HOU
Chris Polk, HOU
Stevan Ridley, NYJ
James Starks, GB
Fred Jackson, BUF
Denard Robinson, JAX
Javorius Allen, BAL
Robert Turbin, SEA
Montee Ball, DEN
Andre Williams, NYG
Lorenzo Taliaferro, BAL
Jerick McKinnon, MIN
Matt Asiata, MIN

This is a ridiculously long list for a tier, but the bottom line is that these players don’t have value without an injury to the starter ahead of them. Williams and Mason are near the top of the list because they will get starts to begin the season. Davis is atop the list because we know we’ll project him as a top 12-15 back any time Jamaal Charles is out. The Texans backs are near the top because Arian Foster is likely to miss time early in the season, although he’ll be replaced by an RBBC of the two (or more) backs. Ridley is behind Chris Ivory, who hasn’t been durable in the past, but the former Patriot is coming back from an ACL tear. Starks is a true handcuff who like Davis will get starter’s work if the first-stringer (Eddie Lacy) goes down. Fred Jackson is still hanging around and his value could persist if LeSean McCoy misses time, or if Buffalo is successful at having the ridiculous run/pass split Rex Ryan wants.

Some of these backup situations could change, including terrific spots like Balitmore and Indianapolis. This list is somewhat fluid. You always want to factor in talent, quality of situation, clarity of role in case of starter injury, and likelihood of starter injury when ranking handcuffs. Time permitting, I’ll do an article laying this out in the next two weeks.

These are end of bench spots to see if you’re lucky enough to be holding them their number comes up, or to handcuff a starter in deeper leagues with thinner waiver wires. I like carrying a handcuff back or two, but it doesn’t have to be the one behind your starters.

WAIVER WIRE SPEED DIAL/YOU NEVER KNOW

Josh Robinson, IND
Jay Ajayi, MIA
David Cobb, TEN

Bishop Sankey, TEN
David Johnson, ARI
Darren McFadden, DAL
Antone Smith, ATL
Terrance West, CLE
Marcel Reece, OAK
Matt Jones, WAS
Karlos Williams, BUF
Gus Johnson, DAL

These are mostly young backs who have a chance to play themselves in handcuff/backup roles or maybe even a little more if they really impress their teams. McFadden and West don't inspire any confidence from me, but their running games are plug and play. Smith might never be more than a 5-8 touch back, but the unsettled nature of the Falcons backfield and his big play profile makes me pay attention to him. Reece has already shown that he can be fantasy relevant with enough touches. These are good targets late in very deep leagues, but its more likely that you'll put them on your waiver wire monitor list, and we'll revisit their rosterability and value in September once the games start.