Fantasy Football 2016: Running Back Tiers and Rankings
Preseason fantasy rankings are tough because things change every day. Players get injured, players still get added to teams, and position battles are ongoing. Keep that in mind when looking at any preseason ranks. However, when looking at tiers, unless something devastating happens (see Jordy Nelson, August 2015), the tiers usually stay about the same from the preseason leading up to draft day.
Here is a look at this year’s running back tiers. Running back is one of the toughest positions to predict in fantasy football. Some owners prefer to wait and fill other positions first. Others want to take running backs early and often because they are so prone to getting injured.
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Whichever strategy you choose, be aware of the running backs in each tier. Twelve running backs make up the first two tiers of the position. It's highly unlikely that everyone in the draft room will get one of these backs; not everyone will want one. Some owners may want to wait and grab a few of the third- and fourth-tier running backs. Pick a strategy, be informed, and hopefully these tiers will help.
— Written by Sarah Lewis, who is part of the Athlon Contributor network and lives, eats, and breathes fantasy football. She also writes for SoCalledFantasyExperts.com among other sites. Have a fantasy football question? Send it to her on Twitter @Sarah_Lewis32.
Here are elite running backs that will likely be the first RBs off the board on draft day. This is the first group, and the order is simply personal preference as each has flaws, but each also has the potential to be the guy who carries your team to the playoffs. Running back is always tough with injuries, but if these guys can stay healthy, they should be a strong, consistent running back on your team.
1. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
Despite being 31 years old, Peterson is still one of the best in the game. He's kept in shape and is one of the few running backs that unquestionably has the starting job. He'll be out there for all downs, running and catching the ball. He'll be in for goal-line work, and he certainly has the potential to rush for at least 1,000 yards again in 2016. He's consistent, which in this running back market, is key.
2. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
Gurley is set to have a great season. He's another guy who is the only back for his team, so the carries are all his. Now almost two years removed from his knee injury, he should put up even better numbers than last year. When he received double-digit carries in 2015, he had either a touchdown or more than 100 yards in every game. He's going to have to be able to escape stacked boxes, though, because opposing defenses are going to know the Rams' strategy.
3. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
While it seems like Johnson is a clear-cut RB1, there is some mixed feelings in Arizona that he won't be the bell-cow running back in every game. Even though Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington are still in the picture, this will likely be David Johnson's show. However, he didn't come into true fantasy relevance until late last season, so the question remains: how good is he over a full season? What he showed last season is enough to draft him as a RB1 with hope that he maintains it this year.
4. Lamar Miller, Houston Texans
A change in scenery will do Miller good. After being under-utilized in Miami, Miller will be the lead back in an offense that will use him in both the running and the passing game. He's only 25 and he's had one 1,000-yard season so far. He had 10 touchdowns in 2015, and this season he should have more than 1,000 rushing yards, double-digit touchdowns and 50-plus receptions.
The second tier of running backs is made up of guys that carry a little more risk. Whether it be because of recent (last season) injuries or just being a little unproven, these are guys that have the potential to be a top-tier running back, but aren't quite there right now. This group will serve as RB1s on plenty of fantasy teams and there's nothing wrong with that, just know the risks involved.
5. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
All indications coming out of Cowboys training camp point to Elliott having a major role on offense. Rumors of more than 375 carries have circulated, and while that seems a little high (DeMarco Murray had 392 when he lead the league in rushing in 2014), Elliott will be the workhorse back in an offense that will use him any way it can. It's hard to predict how a rookie will do in the NFL, but some running backs have come in and been difference-makers for their teams. That's the hope for Elliott owners.
6. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs
Charles is coming back from his second ACL surgery in four years. He should be fine to play in Week 1, but health will be a concern. The Chiefs used Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West last year after Charles went down and they had a lot of success. It is possible that they are going to look to take away from Charles' workload with the other backs in 2016. Charles has the talent to be a top back, but fantasy owners will want to see that he is healthy.
7. Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
In 2015, Martin showed that he still could be an elite running back, finishing second in the NFL in rushing with 1,402 yards and scoring seven total touchdowns. He posted 33 receptions as well and should be involved in the passing game moving forward. While 2015 was a contract year, Martin did prove that his rookie year wasn't a fluke. He will be given the opportunity to succeed; fantasy owners just hope he can match his production from 2015 rather than revert to his ’14 or ’13 form.
8. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
McCoy has a clear path to success, in an offense that likes to throw the ball and no clear backup. If he can stay healthy, he will put up solid RB1 numbers. Karlos Williams was the threat to McCoy, but he showed up to training camp out of shape and now faces a four-game suspension. McCoy will be given all of the carries, and if he excels, expect him to retain that role.
9. Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints
At age 26, Ingram hasn't been able to put it all together for a full season yet. In 2014, he had 964 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, but last season, he had 769 rushing yards and six touchdowns. He did step up his role in the passing game, however, with 50 receptions for 405 passing yards. If he can continue to be part of the passing offense, he has more value – as long as he can stay healthy.
10. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
At 24, Freeman is poised to have a big year, but fantasy owners should temper their expectations when looking at last year's numbers. Tevin Coleman will still be in the picture, and the Falcons have said they want both backs to be involved. Freeman did look great for a stretch, but he couldn't maintain the numbers he put up in the first seven weeks of the season. He's still a RB1, but 1,000 rushing yards and double-digit touchdowns may be his ceiling, rather than his floor.
11. Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Between the knee injury and the pending four-game suspension, it's getting harder and harder to keep Bell in the RB1 category for the year. He's a supremely talented back, no question about it, but when you already know you're without your top back for five games (four for a suspension, plus a bye week) and you need to win at least eight or nine to make it to the playoffs, it's a hard pill to swallow. Bell should be healthy by the time he's eligible to play, and while there will be questions as to if he can stay healthy, the bigger question is: how productive will he be in the games that he plays? Is it enough to take him as a top running back?
Fantasy owners that try the "zero running back" theory will likely end up with their first running back from this tier. Perhaps a player from Tier 3 and one from Tier 4 might be better than a guy from Tier 1 and another from Tier 5. Either way, these running backs are not the elite backs of the previous two tiers, but certainly can carry a fantasy team, as long as your roster has some decent depth.
12. C.J. Anderson, Denver Broncos
At only 25, Anderson has had his share of injuries, but looks to be healthy heading into the 2016 season. Ronnie Hillman is still in the picture, but Anderson should be given the chance to carry the load on an offense that will be looking to run the ball this season.
13. Thomas Rawls, Seattle Seahawks
With Marshawn Lynch gone, the running back gig will go to Rawls, assuming he's healthy. He broke his ankle at the end of last season, but insists he'll be fine for Week 1. As long as we see him practicing and playing, he's worth drafting this high.
14. Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers
After a frustrating season last year, Lacy has lost weight, but the Packers are saying he and James Starks will share the workload. It makes sense, given each of their strengths, but it is a knock on Lacy's fantasy value.
15. Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers
With Chip Kelly now in San Francisco, Hyde certainly has the potential to be a top running back. However, the biggest concern is health. He's had trouble staying on the field, but if he can, look for him to exceed his ADP.
16. Latavius Murray, Oakland Raiders
He did top 1,000 yards in 2015, and he will be the primary ball carrier in Oakland, so Murray's fantasy outlook is promising. However, he only scored six touchdowns in 2015 and the Raiders prefer to throw the ball than to hand it off to Murray. He is involved in the passing game, so that helps his value and makes him a solid RB2.
17. Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati Bengals
After rushing for more than 1,100 yards in 2014, he didn't even hit 800 last year with the same amount of carries. He did have four more touchdowns (for a total of 14 on the year), but he was inconsistent throughout the season. With Giovani Bernard still in the picture, expect another solid season overall from Hill, but he's hard to trust on a weekly basis.
18. DeMarco Murray, Tennessee Titans
Fantasy owners are divided on Murray: some see him regaining his 2014 form and others see him continuing his ‘15 decline. The Titans’ offensive line isn't a good as Dallas' was, but the offense as a whole seems to be a better fit. Murray will be given the chance to succeed; it's a matter of time to see if he does.
19. Matt Forte, New York Jets
Unfortunately for Forte, when he left Chicago he entered into a situation where he will be sharing carries with Bilal Powell and Khiry Robinson. The Jets have come out and said that it will be a timeshare, although Forte's talent exceeds the other backs on the team. He should get more work, but nothing is a guarantee.
The fourth tier contains running backs that do have some potential, but are likely not going to be a RB1 for your fantasy team. These will be drafted as RB2s because they could perform well, but they just as equally could end up being dropped by a frustrated fantasy owner.
20. Dion Lewis, New England Patriots
21. Ryan Mathews, Philadelphia Eagles
22. Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers
23. Matt Jones, Washington Redskins
24. Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals
25. Frank Gore, Indianapolis Colts
26. Ameer Abdullah, Detroit Lions
By Tier 5, the running back pickings aren't exciting. No one is going to congratulate you on a great pick from this group. These players simply don't get enough carries to be in a higher tier. Some are in danger of losing playing time, and others will end up as backups.
27. Jeremy Langford, Chicago Bears
28. Melvin Gordon, San Diego Chargers
29. Danny Woodhead, San Diego Chargers
30. Duke Johnson Jr., Cleveland Browns
31. Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins
32. Charles Sims, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
33. Chris Ivory, Jacksonville Jaguars
34. T.J. Yeldon, Jacksonville Jaguars
The running backs in this tier are going to end up on fantasy teams, but likely aren't going to end up starting a lot of weeks for their owners unless something else happens. These are players that have a solid chance at success, but it is dependent on an injury to someone else on their team.
35. DeAngelo Williams, Pittsburgh Steelers
36. Justin Forsett, Baltimore Ravens
37. Rashad Jennings, New York Giants
38. Tevin Coleman, Atlanta Falcons
39. Kenneth Dixon, Baltimore Ravens
40. Arian Foster, Miami Dolphins
41. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
This tier has handcuffs, which are necessary, and guys that will likely be a bye week fill-in. These players have some potential, but the likelihood of them being a solid fixture in your starting lineup is slim.
42. LeGarrette Blount, New England Patriots
43. Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears
44. Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland Browns
45. Devontae Booker, Denver Broncos
46. Paul Perkins, New York Giants
47. Jerick McKinnon, Minnesota Vikings
48. Theo Riddick, Detroit Lions
49. Bilal Powell, New York Jets
This tier consists of guys that are kind of a shot in the dark. Sometimes you get a feeling or read something that makes you think someone might break out. If that's the case here, grab any of these guys.
50. C.J. Prosise, Seattle Seahawks
51. DeAndre Washington, Oakland Raiders
52. Javorius Allen, Baltimore Ravens
53. Spencer Ware, Kansas City Chiefs
54. Chris Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
55. Charcandrick West, Kansas City Chiefs
56. Karlos Williams, Buffalo Bills
57. James Starks, Green Bay Packers
58. Darren McFadden, Dallas Cowboys
59. Tim Hightower, New Orleans Saints
60. Cameron Artis-Payne, Carolina Panthers
The last tier is made up of guys who are simply handcuffs and late-round fliers that may not have any impact at all in 2016.
61. Darren Sproles, Philadelphia Eagles
62. Kenyan Drake, Miami Dolphins
63. Shane Vereen, New York Giants
64. Wendell Smallwood, Philadelphia Eagles
65. Alfred Morris, Dallas Cowboys
66. Shaun Draughn, San Francisco 49ers
67. C.J. Spiller, New Orleans Saints
68. Andre Ellington, Arizona Cardinals
69. Tyler Ervin, Houston Texans
70. Keith Marshall, Washington Redskins
71. Alex Collins, Seattle Seahawks
72. Ka'Deem Carey, Chicago Bears
73. Zach Zenner, Detroit Lions
74. Chris Thompson, Washington Redskins
75. Ronnie Hillman, Denver Broncos