by Nick Ercolano
August 29, 2018
Alright, alright, alright. Everyone loves talking about running backs. So let's get after it - we're breaking down my 2018 fantasy football running back rankings by tiers.
1. Le'veon Bell - Pittsburgh Steelers
2. David Johnson - Arizona Cardinals
3. Ezekiel Elliott - Dallas Cowboys
4. Todd Gurley - Los Angeles Rams
It should come as no surprise that this it the top tier of running backs for me - as it is for everyone in the world right now. They're all pretty much equal to me - I have Le'Veon Bell as my one simply because his workload has been consistently massive year over year, my rankings are based on 0.5 PPR and Bell is unbelievably involved in both the pass & run game for this Steelers offense who once again projects to be a very high-powered offense - they have the #4 ranked O-Line per PFF entering 2018 - people worried about Todd Haley leaving shouldn't be, the OC taking over is their QB coach of the last 8 years, the offense isn't going to change much, there are even rumors of them running way more hurry up this year which I think gives Bell even more upside. He's averaged nearly 26 touches/game over the last 4 seasons with the Steelers, and about 6 receptions/game over the L2 years - there are only 5 players in the NFL that have averaged more catches/game - they are all WRs - guys like OBJ, Fitz, and them.
David Johnson started off as my #4 on this list, but after watching the preseason, he's just too damn good - it doesn't matter how bad this offense is going to be or this line is going to be - DJ is good enough to offset that. I almost forgot just how good DJ was in 2016, and I think that 1,000-yard rushing and 1,000 yard receiving year is definitely possible.
I debated moving Zeke up to my #1 at one point this summer. Fully healthy, coming off a campaign where he averaged almost 27 touches/game in a 10-game sample size, Zeke is a very good bet to lead the NFL in rushing yards and attempts. His upside is that of the DeMarco Murray 2014-esq workload, where he carried the ball 393 times and caught 57 passes. People like to move Zeke down in PPR formats, but he's been RB3 in 0.5 PPR fppg in each of his first two seasons and he has yet to come close to his ceiling in the passing game. After tons of reports about him getting more involved as a receiver last year, we saw his targets and receptions per game from 2.6 (tgts) and 2.1 (rec)/game in 2016 to 3.8 targets and 2.6 receptions/game in 2017. Now you look at how many opportunities can be had in this offense with Dez and Witten gone - Zeke is a good bet to raise the bar on his 2017 numbers. What moves him down my rankings to 3 is his o-line, which was the strong point of this argument up until about a week ago when reports about injuries on this o-line started flooding in like Rachell Star 20 minutes into a scifi-thriller porn. You have Zack Martin dealing with a hyperextended knee, we have Dallas' pro bowl Center Travis Frederick dealing with a rare disease known as Guillan-Barre Syndrome and the reports sounds really serious that it could cost him a lot of time. I saw somewhere on Twitter another one of their lineman's ankle was an issue and heavily taped, their 2nd round pick from Texas Connor Williams has looked like trash this preseason, so a lot of question marks here. Zeke's volume is still the main driver of his ranking though.
I don't hate Todd Gurley, but he's not touching his numbers from last year - regression is coming here, but would still be perfectly happy with him as my RB1.
5. Saquon Barkley - New York Giants
Barkley will be in that top tier this time next year - but you get the rookie discount on him. He's the best talent we've seen in a long time, with a David Johnson like skillset. If you're worried about him being a rookie and being "unproven", you're doing fantasy football wrong.
6. Leonard Fournette - Jacksonville Jaguars
7.Melvin Gordon - Los Angeles Chargers
8. Alvin Kamara - New Orleans Saints
9. Christian McCaffrey - Carolina Panthers
Fournette is my guy this year - and after watching him in the preseason and seeing how much they're using him on third downs, I'm even higher on him. The only argument someone could make against Fournette are his ankles. Otherwise, his workload is arguably a lock to be one of the highest in the entire NFL. The defense is fantastic and will routinely set them up with great field position. He scored 13 touchdowns in 16 games last year - he averaged over 25 touches/game in their 3 playoff games, we know exactly what this team wants to do. They had a good o-line last year and brought in pro-bowl LG Andrew Norwell via FA - and now he's lost 12-15lbs and looks noticeably leaner and more explosive which eases my mind on the injury front.
Not much to talk about with Melvin Gordon and Alvin Kamara here - business as usual. Gordon actually moved up ahead of Kamara this past week, just seeing how safe of a pick Gordon is (so it seems) - especially how they've been using him in the preseason. Coming off back-to-back 12-TD seasons, he's seen 86% of the Chargers first-team snaps and there are no signs Ekeler is going to eat into his workload and the coaches are talking about him getting even more involved in the passing game - not much to dislike about Gordon here. Kamara was the goat last year - the most basic analysis I can give you is that his efficiency was ridiculous last year, which has to go down, but his volume is going to shoot up this year, more than making up for it. He's in a great offense behind arguably the best offensive line, without Ingram for the first four games - the only knock on Kamara is that he's never been a bellcow before, so it's tough to say if he'll hold up, or if the Saints won't give the Ingram role to Jonathan Williams and then back to Ingram when he's done with his suspension. But, he has 90-100 catch upside in this offense that targeted their RBs on 32% of their pass plays last year, highest % in the NFL by nearly 5%. In a full PPR league I would move Kamara back ahead of Gordon, and likely Fournette as well.
C-Mac is a late riser, just based on what we're seeing in the preseason. The proof is in the pudding. C.J. Anderson just hasn't created the timeshare many of us thought would be the case when they signed him. "Christian McCaffrey has been on the field for 28-of-35 first-team snaps (80%) and handled 83% of the RB touches. McCaffrey is the workhorse here. CJ Anderson finally saw the turf with the 1's in the Panthers' second preseason game after McCaffrey ripped off 28-straight first-team snaps." He's seen the GL work, the in-between-the-tackles carries, a ton of targets, just everything. He's shaping up to be the workhorse back we saw at Stanford.
10. Devonta Freeman - Atlanta Falcons
11. Kareem Hunt - Kansas City Chiefs
12. Dalvin Cook - Minnesota Vikings
13. Jordan Howard - Chicago Bears
This tier consists of backs with top-5 upside, but stuck in timeshares, arguably. Freeman will split work with Tevin Coleman, but I'd argue he has the safest floor. If he's healthy he'll give you 1,300 total yards and double-digit TDs as the Falcons lead back, good in the passing game, gets the large majority of RZ and GL touches in an offense primed to bounce back in 2018.
The next two guys I went in-depth on in one of my In The Muck Monday videos where I compared the two players, before eventually deciding on Cook as the back I'd want, however, following some more content I've taken in, I've moved Hunt over Cook on my board, although they're both lower in my rankings then the consensus so I probably won't end up with shares of either of them on my teams this year.
Both Cook & Hunt will certainly be the lead backs in their respective offenses, but I think fantasy drafters are underestimating the roles that Latavius Murray will have in that MIN offense. Murray will undoubtedly steal GL work from Cook. Spencer Ware will take carries from Hunt as well, he finally returned to game action in the Chiefs Week 3 preseason game, touching the ball 5 times for 21 yards, but good to see him back on the filed regardless. Murray has 20 rushing scores in the last two years, he's good at scoring, that's the real thing here - you can't just write it off. People are really talking about Murray in a timeshare with Cook. I don't think that's the case whatsoever, but most NFL teams don't have the luxury of having a backup RB like Murray and don't think they won't use him accordingly. With Hunt, you're looking at KC, with a coach in Andy Reid who normally gives the RB2 a decent workload. After Ware went down with the season-ending injury last summer, Reid was forced into giving Hunt the highest % of carries any KC back has ever seen, exemplified by this chart.
His workload is bound to regress, but he's looked very good in the passing game this preseason and it's something that should continue into the regular season. Mahomes has also shown to be pretty good. Not that I thought he would be bad, but I think based on current ADPs of Hunt, Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Watkins, everyone already assumed Mahomes was great before even seeing him in action here. Now we have, so I adjust accordingly. When it comes down to it, I think both backs are fantastic real-life runners, but I'm more nervous about Latavius being a real threat here.
Jordan Howard is a guy that I've had a hard time pinning this summer, but Matt Nagy is repeatedly coming out and saying Howard will operate on third downs. He's said it multiple times and it's time to start taking his word for it - considering he's been saying things like Burton will occupy the Travis Kelce role and it's happened without skipping a beat. Howard's played on 72% of snaps with the first team, Cohen just 27.5%, they've split 3rd down snaps 3-3. Howard is obviously a fantastic running back but his pass-game involvement and just having horrible hands was always the concern. Howard has 15 rushing scores in his first two years, in bad offenses. Nagy's offense has much more upside of course, and Howard is a good bet to flirt with double-digit TDs and surpass and match his 2-year, 1,200+ rushing yard average in 2018. His floor is fantastic, and if he has been working on his receiving game and gets the 3rd down snaps Nagy's been preaching about, Howard has tremendous upside and is one of the best 3rd round picks this year, especially if you go WR heavy with your first couple of picks.
14. Joe Mixon - Cincinnati Bengals
15. Lamar Miller - Houston Texans
Joe Mixon is a tricky one for me. I love the guy's talent, but I have trouble pulling the trigger when he's there for me in the early 3rd round. The preseason has held some good and some bad indicators for Mixon. We'll get the bad stuff out of the way first. Despite reportedly losing weight, he still doesn't look good in the running game - not like we expected him to look, the way he did at Oklahoma. Assuming he doesn't play in preseason week 4, he had just 7 yards on 6 carries and he'll finish the preseason rushing the ball 13 times for 24 yards (1.8 ypc). The offensive line is still not great, despite the moves made this summer.
The good news for Mixon is this - he's clearly the workhorse here, significantly out-snapping and out-touching backup Gio Bernard with the starters. He's being used all over the field and has made a few big plays in the receiving game this preseason, which is a big strength for Mixon - 3-48-1 so far. Mixon isn't a must draft for me at this point, but I would like to have a share or two of him in my redraft leagues this year. The comparisons to Bell, after a down rookie year might be a little strong, but it's possible that he's this year's Gurley. People, like myself, dug too far into the player from an efficiency standpoint and not enough into the volume that's coming. Mixon, if he can be the running back that we saw at Oklahoma, given the volume he's set up for has ridiculously high-upside in 2018.
Lamar Miller is quickly becoming the single best value at the running back position in fantasy football drafts. With sophomore running back returning from the torn achilles, and with no sight of returning anytime soon, Miller is entrenched as the 3-down workhorse in this offense. Head coach Bill O'Brien said as much saying "he's what we call a three-down back" - Deshaun Watson has played 27 snaps this preseason - Miller has played in 26-of-27. They have no one behind him outside of extra medium Alfred Blue. The reports of Miller dropping weight this offseason, while like I said need to be taken with a grain of salt, seem to be true from what I've seen. He looks better and has more wiggle than in previous years, something that he's sorely lacked. He also ran much, much better and put up much better numbers with Deshaun Watson in the lineup than out of it, as do most backs with mobile QBs. Here's Miller's numbers with Watson on the field in 2017:
Draft Miller in round 4 or 5 of every draft you're in.
16. Alex Collins - Baltimore Ravens
17. LeSean McCoy - Buffalo Bills
18. Jay Ajayi - Philadelphia Eagles
People were really concerned with Dixon and Allen getting all the work this preseason. That is what you call clear, unquestioned starter treatment, my friends. Alex Collins rushed the ball just three times in August, but like Collins does, he did a lot, turning that into 33 yards. However, for as good a back as I think Collins is, because he is, there's a reason he's outside of my top-15 - the worry about an RBBC are real. Buck Allen profiles as a shitty, high-volume pass catcher who will probably vulture 3rd down work from Collins. Kenneth Dixon has actually looked pretty good this preseason and given the amount of shit Dixon has gone through and still maintained a spot on this roster, the Ravens want him to be a thing. Collins is the heavy favorite for early-down work, but it's tricky to accurately guess what his role on 3rd down and on the GL will be. Buck Allen was used heavily there last year, even while Collins was dominating touches down the stretch. Like Mixon, Collins is a guy I'm not necessarily targeting everywhere but I'd like a share or two of him this year because I think the upside is very reaal here.
LeSean McCoy is down here because 1. This offense is going to be bad. Very bad. And 2. We still really don't have an idea what will happen with the whole domestic violence thing. By no means am I saying he did it, or was even involved, but it doesn't matter what I think - he can still be put on the commissioner's exempt list at any point, if new evidence pops up on September 15th, things can change over night. If this was Le'Veon Bell in the Steelers offense or something, the risk would be worth the reward IMO, but for right now, his 25th overall ADP is too high for me. His volume will certainly be there if nothing comes of the legal situation, and that alone would make him flirt with RB1 numbers, but it's too risky for me, this early in the draft.
Jay Ajayi - I initially chose Ajayi over Collins in my ITMM video earlier this summer - but Ajayi has now missed 8 straight days of practice with a "lower-body" injury. We don't have much news about the injury - but it's concerning, so as of this video I'm a little worried. He should still be the lead back on early downs, but like Collins, Ajayi might be in more of an RBBC than we imagine. Clement is a guy I like and I'm sure they'll find a way to work Sproles into their weekly game plan. I just personally think Collins is more talented.
19. Jerick McKinnon - San Francisco 49ers
20. Royce Freeman - Denver Broncos
21. Kenyan Drake - Miami Dolphins
22. Rex Burkhead - New England Patriots
23. Derrick Henry - Tennessee Titans
24. Dion Lewis - Tennessee Titans
The further you get down the rankings, the more question marks come attached to the players.
As I posted on my FF Instagram last week, y'all should go follow me on there, Jerick McKinnon at his current pick #24 price is an easy fade for me. This wasn't the case just a month ago, but things have changed rapidly - thanks to this calf strain that has sidelined McKinnon since their Week 1 Preseason game - up until Week 1 of the regular season, assuming he's healthy and ready to go for that. A muscle strain in the calf has a high re-injury probability which frightens me, and now that brought in Alfred Morris who had career years with Kyle Shanahan back in Washington, carrying the ball 17 times for 84 yards in their Week 3 preseason game. Alf was quietly really good for Dallas last year, ranking highly per FO's RB DVOA, averaging 4.8 ypc and 3.3 YAC. Morris could certainly carve out a role in this backfield on early downs. Money does talk though and don't forget that they gave a shitload of it to McKinnon during the FA period. I do expect McKinnon to come back and lead this backfield when healthy, Shanahan is a wizard when it comes to creating fantasy gold in his backfield and his offenses make backs who can catch the ball flourish - Carlos Hyde caught 59 passes last year, McKinnon should murder that in a full 16... but the price is high right now. He'd have to fall a full round in ADP for me to think about drafting him.
Royce Freeman has looked as good as any rookie RB this offseason, scoring his third preseason touchdown in as many games. It was a beautiful 24-yarder where he broke some tackles and looked very legit. However, as I've been echoing all offseason, Devontae Booker is a real thing in Denver, despite what you personally want to tell yourselves. The coaches don't just run backup players out on the field with starters for fun. Preseason gives us an idea of the playing splits between backfields. As per Nathan Jahnke of PFF, Denver running back snap counts with the starters on Friday - 14 for Booker, 11 for Freeman, 8 for Philip Lindsay. Booker was also on the field for the 2-minute drill, so he's going to have a passing role in Denver, like I've said. Freeman of course has monster upside, the coaches have talked him up a lot, but we might see something like a poor-mans version of Jordan Howard from Freeman. I'm okay with where he's being picked right now, 4th, 5th round, but if he starts moving up any further I'm definitely out of this timeshare.
Kenyan Drake is a guy I've wrestled with and hate the situation he's in, in a projected bad offense, bad offensive line, Gore will get more work then people expect, but what we've seen from Drake tells you the upside is real. So this past weekend in a draft I was in, I actually got Drake, in the 6th round - it was only 10 people and it was a superflex leagues so QBs were going quick too, but in the 6th I couldn't pass on that, so I'm happy I got him here, for a great value, but I won't be taking him in the 3rd or 4th round, that's for sure. We have such a small, limited sample size from him, and I think the coaches have made it clear that they don't really want to use him as a workhorse, but he's capable of make plenty of big plays and is a great athlete, good out of the backfield as a pass-catcher, so he should have his share of big fantasy days.
It's hard not to love Rex Burkhead. He had been sidelined with this knee issue for a minute, but he returned to practice last Sunday, he hasn't been playing in their preseason game, but:
That's not a suprise. His current 7th price is fantastic, even if you're not a fan of getting involved with this backfield. Burkhead is someone that NE used everywhere last year, in the passing game, running the ball, on the GL - as we like to say at BDGE, diversify the revenue. He's basically the only Patriot back that you can say isn't game script dependent - and he's super flexible in how he scores his points. They're going to be using him all over the field over the first month of the season with Edelman out and I think he's an absolute steal in any sort of PPR league right now.
We move on to my last two RBs here on this list - the Tennessee Titans duo of Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis. This tweet by Graham Barfield sums it up perfectly:
This split couldn't be easier to see coming. They didn't pay Lewis $20M to have him sit on the bench. Lewis will occupy almost the entirety of the passing-role out of the backfield for Tennesse, and we saw just how valuable that was for Todd Gurley last year where now Titans OC Matt Lafleur has moved over from to install this offense. Gurley caught 64 passes on 87 targets for 788 yards and 6 scores. All of those numbers ranked top-5 among NFL RBs in 2017. What's more is that the Titans won't have anywhere near the game script that LAR had last year, meaning they were constantly winning and didn't need to throw that much. While TEN certainly isn't a bad team, Lewis' receiving upside is right where Gurley's numbers were + Lewis is no joke in the rushing game either. But, Henry can't be written off without hesitation, he's a guy I don't want to draft, but I really hope he falls to me at a value somewhere so I can at least hedge my bet. I constantly talk about how we're all gonna be wrong a lot of predictions we're making for the 2018 season - Henry could very well be one of them for me. And if I am wrong, about not liking him much, it could hurt in a big way. He has 12+ rushing TD upside this year, but I'm nervous he's going to be a nightmare to decide whether or not to start on a week-to-week basis considering his involvement in the passing game is minimal. Sure, he could end up scoring more overall points then Lewis, but Lewis will give you a better floor on a week-to-week basis.
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