2018 Fantasy Football - Top 12 (Early) RB Rankings

by Nick Ercolano May 05, 2018

2018 Fantasy Football - Top 12 (Early) RB Rankings

Today we're taking a look at my top 12 running backs rankings for 2018 fantasy football.

1. Le'Veon Bell (PIT)

Current ADP: RB2

  • It's Lev over Gurley here for me. Lev is simply too consistent, with his workload, his production and his skill in the receiving game.
  • Averaged over 27 touches/game in 2017, over 28/game in 2016. He led all NFL RBs in receptions last year (85), and has led the position in receptions/game in each of the last two seasons = about 6 receptions/game in that span.Reception Leaders NFL 2017
  • Only 9 WRs had more catches than Bell last year.... 9.
  • All 5 starting lineman are back, again one of the top groups in the NFL. They ranked #1 in PB and #7 in RB per Football Outsiders in 2017.
  • They have the incredible weapons on the outside, as usual, spreading the field, opening up the linebacking core when he runs, the underneath routes when they pass, it's just craziness.
  • Todd Haley is gone, Randy Fichtner is their new OC. Well, he's been their QB coach for the last 8 seasons.

2. Todd Gurley (LAR)

Current ADP: RB1

  • No reason to get into Gurley here. Would love him as my RB1. He's getting drafted as the consensus top RB in fantasy right now so it's not like I need to convince you where he's at.

3. Ezekiel Elliott (DAL)

Current ADP: RB4

  • With all of the off-field issues behind him, Zeke finally gets to head into the szn with a clear head, I think he's gonna go absolute beast mode in 2018. To be completely honest, for ME, the gap between Zeke and Gurley is closer than the gap between Bell and Gurley in these rankings.
  • Listen to this. Zeke missed 6 games with the suspension last year, he has the most rushing yards in the NFL since the start of 2016 with 2,615.
  • He came close to Bell last year, averaging 26.8/touches a game in those 10 games. It's clear exactly what this offense is doing - and even more so now with Dez gone. I'm not sure Dez leaving really does anything for me, but maybe fewer pass attempts on the GL that end up as rushing attempts for Zeke, either way, I think he's a guaranteed double-digit TDs. Zeke has played in 26 career games, he's scored 25 touchdowns, averaging 24.9 touches/game. As amazing as he's been, and all the recognition he's getting, I think he's actually underrated.
  • Outside of the one dud game against Denver last year, Zeke had at least 115 total yards and/or a touchdown in all 9 games. He was fantasy's RB2 in STD and RB3 in PPR on a PPG basis.
  • Their line is still very much at the top of the league, ranking 4th in RBing per FO, and 4th overall per PFF last year, and that's including Tyron Smith missing time.
  • Of course what has separated him from these top two guys was his involvement in the passing game. They said last summer he was going to be more involved in the passing game, and it did happen. He went from 2.6 targets a game in 2016 to 3.8 in 2017. That paces out to 61 targets on the szn, which is nearly the same amount as a guy like Kareem Hunt, who you kind of identify with as a big piece of the receiving game in KC, and about a single target less/game than LeSean McCoy last year. He only had two games all of 2016 that he saw 5 targets in, in 2017 in just 10 games he saw 5 targets 5 separate times. If this keeps up, no reason why Zeke can't finish as RB1 in 2018.

4. David Johnson (ARZ)

Current ADP: RB3

  • We all love David Johnson. How could you not? Especially if you owned him in 2016. I'll be honest, though. He makes me a tadddd nervous this year, in terms of people overdrafting him.
  • My number one reason for concern is if you're debating taking him ahead of Lev or ahead of DJ or something like that. In DJ's historic season in 2016, he averaged 22.9 FPPG. Last year Gurley topped that, with 23.4. David Johnson scored 20 touchdowns in 2016. If there's ever been something that's screamed TD regression, it's that number.
  • Mike Clay who I respect, ironically he works for ESPN, who I don't respect fantasy opinions from, has him projected for 10 total TDs in 2018, and I think that's probably fair. 20 is just an outrageous number.
  • There's no argument from me on the volume side of things from me. He averaged 23.3 touches/game in 2016, had 17 touches in Week 1 last year before the injury, it's clear what the game plan was and will be, and it's getting DJ the ball.
  • What makes me a bit nervous is the questions on offense. We have a new QB in Sam Bradford, as long as he can stat healthy, which is fine, no qualms with the man. But the offensive line is a big concern. They ranked 21st overall in 2017 per Football Outsiders, whereas in 2016, DJ's big year they were the 7th best RBing line. Last year, PFF actually graded them out as the 31st ranked offensive line - and they were 29th in yards before an RB was contacted last year - only Miami, Detroit and Indy were worse, even Seattle was better. And get this, per PFF, on outside zone runs, their line averaged -0.21 yards before contact - we know how good DJ is on outside runs, and hitting the corner with a burst. They did go out and address their line a little, signing former G-Men Justin Pugh to a massive 5-year, $45M deal, which is definitely a boost to the line, but he did grade out as PFF's 52nd graded tackle (not sure if he'll play T or G here, but either way).
  • Then you look at coaching changes. They bring in Steve Wilks as their new HC - he's the former DC for the Carolina Panthers and they bring in Mike McCoy as their OC. Sure he's experienced, doesn't mean he's good.
  • We look back at some of the years McCoy was an OC. We have a 3-year sample in Denver 2010-2012 - the top fantasy finishes for an RB under McCoy: 2010 - Knowshown Moreno = RB19; 2011 - Willis McGahee = RB24; 2012 - Willis McGahee = RB28.
  • Denver didn't learn their lesson, decided to bring him back as an OC last year, y'all know how that went.
  • So, I'm all-in on DJ's talent and workload, but there's a lot of other moving parts here that I don't necessarily love, but of course the upside is here so you can't put him any lower than RB4.

5. Saquon Barkley - (NYG)

Current ADP: RB7

Drafted By Cleveland Browns
Round Selected (Pick) 1 (4)
Height 6'0"
Weight 233lbs
Age 21
40-Yard Dash (Percentile Rank) 4.40 (97th)
Weight Adjusted Speed Score Percentile Rank 99th
Burst Score Percentile Rank 97th
Agility Score Percentile Rank
N/A
Bench Press Reps (Percentile Rank) 29 (96th)
SPARQ Score Percentile Rank 99th
College YPC 5.5
  • Right up there among the Gurleys and Zekes of running back prospects. A running back that can do it all, and did for Penn State. Evan Silva comped him as a mix of LeSean McCoy and David Johnson. I mean.....
  • He's a true 3-down back, weighing in at a healthy 230lbs,. Not only did he rush for 1,271 yards and 18 touchdowns during his junior, and final season in college, but he caught a ridiculous 54 passes for an added 634 yards. Oh, and he also took two kickoffs back to the crib, averaging 28.4 yards per kick return... He might have added a passing touchdown too.. but that's neither here nor here.
  • He was the only player in the country to rush for over 1,000 yards and have over 500 receiving yards in 2017. He ran from the shotgun, he ran behind center, he lined up in the slot, a lot. And He did it all behind a bad offensive line.
  • A lot of people will knit-pick the few times he gets tackled behind the line of scrimmage when trying to make something happen, but those things will happen when you have to put the team on your back. Considering the homerun type upside that a guy like Barkley has everytime he touches the ball, I'm more than happy to let a few negative runs preface those Sportscenter Top-10 40-50 yard runs that include a marinade of gorgeous jukes, spin and hurdles. 
  • 300 touches is a guarantee if he's healthy.
  • I still have no idea why they brought in Jonathan Stewart, but neverthemore. They have J-Stew, Wayne Gallman and Paul Perkins. Vereen and Darkwa are both gone via FA. The Giants total team carries last year, 394, among the lowest in the NFL, largely due to them trailing.
  • We have to take a look at the offensive line, of course, a really weak spot for this team. And although it took a ton of scrutiny, and was bad, they dealt with a lot of injuries, they had 9 different starters over the course of the year. The surprisingly ranked 15th in RBing and 10th in PBing per FO, but PFF had them graded out 26th overall, but they were middle of the pack in terms of yards before contact for running backs. They lost Justin Pugh in FA, but they were able to snag former Pats LT Nate Solder for a cool 4-year, $62M, so now at least Ereck Flowers doesn't have to play LT. You have to love their second-round pick WIll Hernandez, one of the draft's best offensive lineman, who will be a day one starter, with all-pro upside and is a boost for Barkley and this line When it comes to a bad line, yeah it sucks, but if the offense can be at least average and they should be given the talented weapons, and Barkley sees enough volume, I'm not worried about the line nearly as much as most people are.
  • I think it's important to take a look at the coaching changes, they bring in Pat Shurmur as the HC and Mike Shula as OC. Shurmur's bounced around the league a lot, but was the OC in Minnesota last year. Their MO was the ground game, 31.3 rushes/game, only Jacksonville ran the ball more than the Vikings. He was also the OC in Philly from 2013-2015, where they ranked #1 in rushing attempts, #9 and #11. You know what he wants to do. Shula, a former QB coach, has been the Panthers OC for the last 5 seasons. They haven't given him much to work with in terms of RB personnel, and with Cam as a running QB, but the Panthers under Shula have been one of the most run-heavy teams in the NFL over the past half decade.
  • We look at scoring opportunities. You have to think the Giants back bounce on this side of the ball, at least a little bit, I mean 15.4 PPG last year is Cleveland Browns-esq, actually, the Browns were the only team to average less. Taking a look back at least year, their running backs (+ Eli), had 12 carries inside the 5, 24 inside the 10 and 50 RZ carries. Nothing to get crazy excited about, but Barkley should see 90% of these, and be successful with them considering his wiggle and body size.
  • What I'm hoping, is they use this kid correctly. They need to utilize him in the passing game on early downs, get him in space, not just on 3rd downs. Without Perkins on the roster, Barkley is the only natural pass-catcher here which is great.
  • If you're with me in that Saquon touches the rock 300 times next year, listen to this. Six running backs had 300+ touches in 2017: Bell, Gurley, Shady, Gordon, Hunt, Fournette. Those six finished as RB1, RB2, RB4, RB5, RB7, RB8.
  • And I'm going to go more in-depth in terms of where I'd draft these guys in a video once the draft concludes, I'm going to do my top-12 overall rookie fantasy players. I'm not gonna do this type of video for every round. Shit would be asinine. 
  • He's your easy 1.01 in dynasty this year, and I'll be seriously debating him between pick 5-7, David Johnson through Fournette and Kareem Hunt.

6. Leonard Fournette (JAX)

Current ADP: RB8

  • Fournette is my #6 guy, but he and Hunt are really a coin flip for me. I love both guys this year.
  • The biggest concern you can have for Fournette is his injury history - dealt with lower leg issues in college, which forced him to miss 3 games during his rookie season, but when he played... mangggg was he good.
  • He racked up over 1,340 total yards and 10 touchdowns on 304 touches in just 13 games - szn long pace gives him 1,650 yards, 12.3 TDs and 374 touches (44 catches on 59 targets). Only Zeke and Lev saw more carries/game than Fournette's 20.6. 
  • They're obviously going to be a defensive-minded team, and ground & pound. Their line made major steps forward in 2017, ranking 9th overall per FO, and the 1.95 yards Jaguars running backs averaged before contact ranked second in the NFL last season (PFF).
  • So what did they do? They signed the best available FA lineman in Andrew Norwell, formerly of the Panthers, to a 5-year, $66.5M contract, $30M guaranteed - easily the highest paid G in the NFL now. Oh, he's just the 3rd overall graded Guard in the NFL last year per PFF. 
  • Chris Ivory is gone, Yeldon has another year on his contract, but I love Corey Grant back there. Flashes of really good stuff, I like the idea of cuffing Fournette with Corey Grant. 

7. Kareem Hunt (KC)

Current ADP: RB6

  • I have no problem with you if you're taking Hunt over Fournette, really. Hunt proved to be a legit 3-down back, a beautiful blend of balance, vision, burst, power. 
  • Despite catching 53 passes last year (t-11th most for RB), Andy Reid says he wants to get Hunt even more involved in the passing game. His 85% catch % (53/62) ranked 6th among 41 RBs with at least 33 targets, averaging 8.6 YPR.
  • With new QB Patrick Mahomes under center, it's possible they play it a little bit safer with him and target more underneath routes, so that could work in Hunt's favor too.
  • I have no worries about them signing Damien Williams, Kerwynn Williams, all these Williams, Ware coming back. All irrelevant, Hunt is the guy.
  • They lose OC Matt Nagy, but replace him in-house with their RB coach Eric Bieniemy, who I'm sure is well aware of what Hunt is capable of.
  • I'm absolutely fine with Hunt as my RB1.

8. Alvin Kamara (NO)

Current ADP: RB5

  • Kamara put together one the single greatest rookie szns OAT of all time. 1,554 total yards, 13 touchdowns and 82 receptions, all with just over 200 touches. 
  • There are two arguments that people will make against Kamara as to why they wouldn't pick him this high.
  • 1. Ingram is still there. 2. His efficiency was off the chart, it has nowhere to go but down.
  • So, Ingram - yup you right, IDT Ingram is going anywhere - But where tf was he when Kamara did all this last year? Oh yeah... right there as well - and Ingram ate too. You can't forget that the Saints started with AP in the backfield too. Kamara started the season averaging just 6.6 touches and 45 yards/game over their first 3 and still finished as RB3. 
  • Which leads me to my next point as to his efficiency - Kamara is basically a rich man's version of Tevin Coleman. Think about it - heading into last szn - everyone as saying no way both guys can eat, Coleman can't keep up this efficiency, yak yak yak. Now while his numbers did dip a bit, Coleman as still firmly an RB2 to finish 2017. 
  • But in 2018 you can expect Kamara to handle a huge workload out of the gate. He didn't have a single game with more than 12 carries on the year. You can argue that his efficiency might decrease, but his volume has nowhere to go but up.. after already being the 3rd most targeted (101) RB in the entire NFL.
  • Their offensive line? 1st overall in RBing per Football Outsiders, 4th best yards before contact number per PFF - aka one of the league's best, if not THE best.

9. Melvin Gordon (LAC)

Current ADP: RB9

  • There's just not much to dislike about a guy that's seeing the volume he's seeing. 341 total touches in 2017 = 21.3/game. He's finished as a top-7 fantasy RB in back-to-back szns.
  • Despite his 3.9 career YPC number, the Chargers are insistent on keeping him the bellcow, plus it's not all his fault, he did what he could ranking 2nd in the NFL in total tackles avoided, 4th in total yards created (PlayerProfiler) and 7th in tackles/avoided per attempt among 28 RBs with at least 160 carries.
  • The line was a problem. They ranked 23rd in RB per FO, 22nd in average yards before RBs getting contacted and 24th overall per PFF.
  • But there's good news. Their Center last year, Spencer Pulley graded as the 33rd of 34 graded C's in the NFL last year. They bring in Mike Pouncey, who when healthy is a big upgrade. They also get back last year's 2nd round pick Forrest Lamp who tore his ACL in last year's preszn. Guard and Center were two huge weak points for them that will, optimistically hoping that things go right, be improved in 2018.

10. Dalvin Cook (MIN)

Current ADP: RB10

  • Love me some Dalvin Cook. Reminds me so much of Devonta Freeman. Have said that since before the draft. He just does everything well.
  • Obviously, the concern here is him coming off of the ACL injury. But the Vikes knew what they had in Cook before the injury. He played in Weeks 1-4 and averaged 21.25 touches, 111 yards from scrimmage and scoring twice, he was fantasy's RB8 in that span.
  • They bring in Kirk, this offense should be very good next year and I like when I draft featured running back in good offenses, things tend to work out for the most part.
  • Wouldn't surprise me one bit to seek Cook finish as a top-5 fantasy back in 2018.

11. LeSean McCoy (BUF)

Current ADP: RB11

  • Shady is a tricky one this year. He finished last year as RB7 in fantasy, but had the lowest ypc total of his career, and he'll turn 30 this year.
  • One nugget I do love from Rotoworld (Mike Clay):LeSean McCoy 2017 ypc
  • It's no surprise a guy like Shady will play better under shotgun. He has a lot more space to create. So the crazy thing here, in 2016 80% of their total plays came under center, 3rd highest in the NFL, and they ran the ball 40% of the time when they were in shotgun (2nd highest rate in NFL). In 2017, that number literally dipped from 80% to 47% of plays in shotgun, 6th lowest in the NFL, and only ran the ball no 17% of their shotgun plays. A huge dip.
  • So, they get rid of Rick Dennison, and bring in Brian Doball, Alabama's OC/QB Coach - yes college Alabama. Though, Doball spent 11 total seasons with the PATS and as the OC for the Browns, the Dolphins and for Kansas City - it didn't go well for any of those OC spots... so, it's not a guaranteed upgrade if we're being honest. 
  • What else is concerning is their offensive line, who went from really good in 2016, to, not terrible but a big step back. Problem is, they lose their best lineman Richie Incognito to retirement, same with their C Eric Wood who was a former 1st round pick and a 9-year starter for the Bills and they traded away LT Cordy Glenn, who hasn't been healthy over the last two years, but is very good when healthy.
  • It's gonna be a really interesting draft, seeing what Buffalo does. They signed A.J. McCarron who as of right now is the starting QB. Definitely a downgrade in my opinion from Tyrod. Running QBs almost always help out fantasy RBs, as long as your OC knows what the hell he's doing, which wasn't the case.
  • Shady's still gonna heavily involved in the passing game, but he's going to need to improve his rushing numbers to be a top-10 fantasy back.

12. Devonta Freeman (ATL)

Current ADP: RB14

  • Before we hang Devonta, I want to at least give Sarkisian, who I think is trash for the record, a second season. Look at Kyle Shanahan, his first year as OC in Atlanta in 2015, they averaged 21.2 PPG, before taking that monster leap in Year 2. In Sarkisian's first year, they actually averaged more PPG, 22.1. Obviously, Freeman was much better in 2015 regardless, but sometimes it takes a year to see the tangible results of chemistry and continuity.
  • After all, he's going as RB14, and finished the season as RB11 in PPG, despite playing with a sprained MCL and PCL down the stretch last year. He also technically played in 14 games, but left Week 10 with a concussion after 2 carries (for 3 yards), so rightfully discounting that against his PPG numbers, Freeman is a top-10 fantasy back again.
  • The big drop off has come in the receiving department:
  • It's anyone's guess if that holds true, but obviously, Freeman, when involved in the passing game is an elite fantasy option.
  • What I did like were the GL numbers. He was 3rd in the NFL with 14 carries inside the 5, despite missing 2 (really 3) games. But crazier is this, check these numbers out:Julio Jones Redzone Targets 2017
  • I'm not exactly sure what actionable things we can conclude from this, but I feel like some of it may have been in Sarkisian, Dan Quinn's head. All last summer we heard... feed Julio, feed Julio - you have to target him in the end zone, and they clearly did. He finished with 3 touchdowns. They were forcing him the ball. We have to hope they look back at the film, and change their game plan down there, to see what worked so well for them, and it was playing it safe, getting the ball to their best guys in space, like Freeman and letting him do the work.
  • So there are definitely things to be worried about, but also things that you can point to and say hey, there is still upside with Freeman.

T-12. Joe Mixon (CIN)

Current ADP: RB15

  • I've talked about Mixon quite a few times already, in my top sleepers video, on Instagram, etc.
  • Feel free to go watch that, basically, he's the unquestioned workhorse heading into the szn, in an offense I expect to improve. We went into last year not knowing what to expect from the backfield, Hill is now gone and it's Mixon's. 
  • Their line was awful, but they traded for Cordy Glenn to sure up their LT spot, as long as he can stay healthy. Drafted a center, Billy Price from Ohio State, 21st overall. They also brought in former Cowboys o-line coach Frank Pollack as well, who was the O-line coach for Dallas from 2015-2017 when they had their dominant run of the offensive line.
  • I compared him to Le'Veon. Polarizing, patient, can play all 3 downs and had a bad rookie year, just like Mixon. What I like even more.... news just came out a few days ago, Mixon is weighing in at 225. He came into rookie minicamp at 240. Bell dropped weight his first year going into his second, and it did wonders obviously, I'm ALWAYS in favor of an RB dropping weight as long as he's already well built, like Mixon is.

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