Some may argue that running back is the most important position to draft for fantasy football leagues. Others may say running backs are a dime a dozen and the best strategy is to wait on the position. Either way, running back will end up being a crucial part of fantasy teams. At the end of the 2017 season, Todd Gurley single-handedly won many owners their fantasy leagues. Drafting a quality running back can make the whole season easier for owners.
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Last year the top tier of running backs contained two: Le’Veon Bell (right) and David Johnson. This year, the list has expanded to include Todd Gurley. These three running backs are consistent, quality RB1s. With one of them on your team (barring injury, of course), you will have the ability to plug a top point-getter into your lineup and just worry about filling in the rest.
1. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Bell has been held up with contract issues, causing him to hold out for training camp. All signs point to him playing in Week 1, and he’s missed training camp before (see: 2017) and had a successful fantasy year. In 2017, he ran for 1,291 yards and nine touchdowns. He added a career-high 85 receptions, which went for 655 yards and two touchdowns. The Steelers rely on Bell to move the ball, especially when they are on the road (just look at Ben Roethlisberger’s stats).
2. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
Fantasy owners who used their first pick on Johnson last year may not be all in on this pick after he was injured early in the season opener and didn’t play another down. However, remember he was drafted as No. 1 overall in many leagues last year. The wrist injury won’t have any effect on his performance this year. He’s still an elite RB.
3. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
Gurley owners are still riding high after he came up big when it counted the most -- Weeks 14-16. In those three weeks, he had 366 rushing yards, 225 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. The rest of his year wasn’t too shabby either as he finished with 1,305 rushing yards, 788 receiving yards and 19 total touchdowns in 15 games. Now that the Rams have a viable passing attack, Gurley has room to run, and run he does.
The drop-off from Tier 1 to Tier 2 isn’t that significant, but it is enough to pause on draft day and contemplate taking a wide receiver if Tier 1 is empty when it's your turn. The Tier 2 running backs have a little more risk, whether that's due to competition, team situation or the fact some of the players in this group are still unproven in the NFL. Any one of these running backs may very well end the season as the top fantasy option, but it’s hard to make that prediction in the preseason.
4. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
Elliott’s (above, right) 2017 stats were marred by his six-game suspension, which hit fantasy owners hard, losing their RB1 for Weeks 10-15. In the 10 games he did play, he had 983 rushing yards, 269 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. Projecting his 10-game numbers to a 16-game season put his totals just below his rookie season. The Cowboys are entering 2018 without some of their top playmakers (Dez Bryant, Jason Witten), and this uncertainly on offense could make running lanes tougher to find for Elliott.
5. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
Kamara was primarily undrafted in 2017 and ended as one of the top running backs in fantasy, especially in PPR formats. He ended the season with 728 rushing yards, 826 receiving yards and 13 total touchdowns. With Mark Ingram serving a four-game suspension to start the season, Kamara has the opportunity to take the job and run with it. Ingram will still have a role, but Kamara will likely emerge as the back to own in New Orleans.
6. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
All signs point to Barkley being a top fantasy RB in 2018. However, he is still a rookie, so the ranking has to be earned. Barkley reportedly has looked great in training camp, and is not only running hard but is a force in the passing game as well. He’s going in the first round of most drafts, so if you want him on your team, you have to get him early. He may just be worth it.
7. Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs
After a surprisingly good rookie season, Hunt is now in the RB1 category. He started the season with four 100-yard rushing games and six touchdowns. However, he then went through a drought where he didn’t run for 100 yards or score until Week 14. He ended the season with more than 1,700 yards from scrimmage and 11 total touchdowns. The job is seemingly his, although we did think it was Spencer Ware’s at this time last year.
8. Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
Gordon’s 2017 season was his best yet, but it also was the first in his three-year career in which he played all 16 games. He ran for 1,105 yards, had 476 receiving yards and 12 total touchdowns. The Chargers will be without tight end Hunter Henry (torn ACL) and they cut ties with Antonio Gates, so some of those targets may be headed Gordon’s way. In PPR leagues, he has a boost with the hope he becomes even more involved in the passing game.
9. Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars
In his rookie year, Fournette ran for more than 1,000 yards and scored 10 total touchdowns. He lost about 15 pounds over the offseason and has said he reportedly feels the difference. While the weight loss should help, the team has to commit to the run more often. The Jaguars relied on their defense last year, and the offense as a whole just got by. Fournette has the ability to be a top-tier running back, and he may have a breakout sophomore season.
The players in Tier 3 certainly can serve as a solid RB1, but they don’t have the same allure as those in the first two tiers. There is risk involved with this tier, but each RB certainly has potential. If you out on getting one of the Tier 1 or 2 RBs, all is not lost if you end up with two from this group.
10. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
McCaffrey’s (above, right) value in 2017 was in PPR formats primarily, and that will continue this season. However, the Panthers have said they want him to touch the ball significantly more than he did last year. All of those touches won’t just be in the passing game, giving him potential top-10 RB value.
11. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
Cook looked great in his first three games in the NFL before he tore his ACL in Week 4. It's been a long rehab, but all signs point to him being ready to play Week 1. He’ll take back his role as the primary back for the Vikings, and he should excel -- as long as he stays healthy.
12. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
Freeman is the lead back for the Falcons, but Tevin Coleman is always in the picture. In 2017, Freeman had 865 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns. In the passing game, he only added 317 yards and a touchdown. A knee injury can be somewhat blamed for the drop in production considering he ran for more than 1,000 yards in each of the previous two seasons. He has said he expects to be fully healthy and ready to go come Week 1.
13. Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
After a sub-par rookie season (626 rushing yards, four rushing touchdowns, 30 receptions for 287 yards), Mixon has reportedly lost some weight and is ready to be the primary back for the Bengals. He’s shown he’s better than Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill is no longer in the picture.
14. Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears
He has gone over 1,000 rushing yards in each of his first two NFL seasons. He hasn’t been a touchdown machine (16 total) and he hasn’t been a large factor in the passing game. However, he’s going to be the primary back for Chicago. With only Tarik Cohen to share backfield touches with, Howard is a solid RB2.
This tier rounds out the RB2 group. Fantasy owners should plan on (ideally) having at least one running back from the tiers above and one from this group. While that won’t happen for everyone because of numbers, this is the tier that fantasy owners should target to grab their second (or for some, first) running back.
15. Jerick McKinnon, San Francisco 49ers
While McKinnon may be the running back atop the depth chart for the 49ers, he had opportunities when he was in Minnesota but never really did much with them. He should get plenty of work, including at the goal line and in the passing game, but he needs to prove his worth to fantasy owners.
16. Derrius Guice, Washington Redskins
Reports from the Redskins training camp have indicated that Guice will be the primary running back, although it is likely he’ll give up some work in the passing game. As a rookie, he just needs to beat out Samaje Perine and Rob Kelley, both who have proven to disappoint, and the starting gig will be his. [Editor's note: Guice tore his ACL in his first preseason game and is out for the season.]
17. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
The problem with McCoy (above, right) isn’t the talent or the opportunity. Rather, the off-field issues may cost him playing time, and that’s a huge blow for fantasy owners. No decision has been made and McCoy has reported to training camp, but the uncertainty surrounding his availability due to the possibility of him getting suspended has dropped his ADP.
18. Jay Ajayi, Philadelphia Eagles
Ajayi shined briefly in Miami before being traded to the Eagles last season. LeGarrette Blount was already in the picture, taking the goal-line work. However, Blount is gone and Ajayi has a chance to repeat the eight rushing touchdowns he had in 2016 as the primary back for the Eagles.
19. Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks
Even though he's a rookie, Penny will likely be the primary ball carrier for the Seahawks. He has Chris Carson to contend with, but the positive comments from Pete Carroll have led many to believe that Penny will be given plenty of work and opportunity.
The running backs in Tier 5 have potential to be solid RB2s, but they start the year slightly below that. Most of these players will share the workload with another player, or just aren’t proven enough to be a guaranteed reliable starter. As a second running back, these players aren’t terrible, but you wouldn’t want them as your RB1.
20. Kenyan Drake, Miami Dolphins
21. Alex Collins, Baltimore Ravens
22. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
23. Lamar Miller, Houston Texans
24. Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints
25. Royce Freeman, Denver Broncos
26. Rex Burkhead, New England Patriots
27. Tevin Coleman, Atlanta Falcons
28. Dion Lewis, New England Patriots
The players in Tier 6 are guys that will help fill out fantasy rosters. These players will have good weeks, or have value in the passing game. Some of these players are rookies, and others are nearing the end of their careers. These are the RB3s.
29. Marshawn Lynch, Oakland Raiders
30. Isaiah Crowell, New York Jets
31. Tarik Cohen, Chicago Bears
32. Ronald Jones II, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
33. Kerryon Johnson, Detroit Lions
34. Sony Michel, New England Patriots
35. Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts
36. Duke Johnson, Cleveland Browns
The running backs in Tier 7 are guys to draft if you have a feeling about someone, or are looking to handcuff one of your starters. These players may see some opportunity, but they also may end up being back on the waiver wire by Week 4.
37. Ty Montgomery, Green Bay Packers
38. Carlos Hyde, Cleveland Browns
39. C.J. Anderson, Carolina Panthers
40. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
41. Jamaal Williams, Green Bay Packers
42. Bilal Powell, New York Jets
43. Corey Clement, Philadelphia Eagles
44. Giovanni Bernard, Cincinnati Bernard
45. Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks
The players in Tier 8 will be drafted in most leagues, but as players to fill in as needed. These aren’t necessarily late-round fliers (that’s the final two tiers), but they are players that will provide some points each week. However, they aren’t consistent and they won’t provide the points needed to win a week.
46. Devontae Booker, Denver Broncos
47. Chris Thompson, Washington Redskins
48. Latavius Murray, Minnesota Vikings
49. Frank Gore, Miami Dolphins
50. Matt Breida, San Francisco 49ers
51. LeGarrette Blount, Detroit Lions
52. Doug Martin, Oakland Raiders
53. Theo Riddick, Detroit Lions
The players in Tier 9 are guys to take late in the draft. These may end up having some value, especially as backups. Chris Ivory, for example, is in a perfect position to take LeSean McCoy’s place if he ends up missing time.
54. D’Onta Foreman, Houston Texans
55. James White, New England Patriots
56. Kenneth Dixon, Baltimore Ravens
57. Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
58. Spencer Ware, Kansas City
59. T.J. Yeldon, Jacksonville Jaguars
60. Chris Ivory, Buffalo Bills
The players in this tier are late-round flyers or players to draft in very deep leagues. These players may end up having value or they must just be a waste of a pick. Either way, these are guys to simply take a gamble on and hope it pays off.
61. Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts
62. Peyton Barber, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
63. Darren Sproles, Philadelphia Eagles
64. Austin Eckler, Los Angeles Chargers
65. Jordan Wilkins, Indianapolis Colts
66. Jonathan Stewart, New York Giants
67. C.J. Prosise, Seattle Seahawks
68. Kalen Ballage, Miami Dolphins
69. Samaje Perine, Washington Redskins
70. Elijah McGuire, New York Jets
-- Tiers compiled by Sarah Lewis, who is part of the Athlon Contributor network and lives, eats, and breathes fantasy football. Have a fantasy football question? Send it to her on Twitter @Sarah_Lewis32.