Most fantasy owners want to ensure they get a good running back on draft day. Sure, there are those that follow a zero-RB theory, where they wait as long as possible to get a running back, filling up their roster with other necessary positions, but most want a good running back. The position is hard to predict, as history has shown that running backs are prone to injury, which can derail an entire season. However, injury is an unknown, but fantasy owners should draft based on talent and opportunitiy.
The players in Tier 1 are the guys to target in the first few picks of the draft. These four running backs will likely go in the first round and be solid every-week starters. These rankings are based on PPR formats. In non-PPR, McCaffrey will be ranked out of the top tier, but in PPR, he is a must-own in the first half of the first round on draft day.
1. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
The best offensive player on a team that has a quarterback that cannot throw the ball, Barkley is going to be fed the ball as much as he can possibly handle. In his rookie season, he had 261 carries and 91 receptions. His numbers should increase in 2019. His 15 total touchdowns were impressive and the Giants are going to need him to repeat that. He has the talent and is one of the top (if not the top) running backs in the game.
2. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
In 2017, McCaffrey had 113 targets and 80 receptions. In 2018, he had 124 targets and 107 receptions. The Panthers know that he is one of the best pass-catching running backs in the game and they want to use him in that role. His 13 total touchdowns were an improvement, and McCaffrey still has room to increase his production. In PPR formats, he should be one of the top running backs off the board.
3. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
Another running back to target in PPR formats is Kamara. He's had 81 receptions in each of the past two years and five and four receiving touchdowns, respectively. In 2018, he took a step forward in the running game, rushing for about 150 more yards and six more touchdowns in 2017. With Mark Ingram out of the picture in New Orleans, Kamara is on track to increase those totals again. He's a solid top-three running back.
4. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
Please, don't make this Le'Veon Bell, part 2. Elliott claims he will not play in 2019 unless he gets a new contract. As of the beginning of August, he has not gotten a contract so he's not in training camp. Elliott's inclusion in the top tier is obviously assuming he has a contract (or at least shows up) before your draft. If he does not report, Elliott should drop on your board. Just ask Bell owners what happened last year.
The running backs in Tier 2 are the rest of the RB1 group for 2019, as of right now. These players have some risk (poor seasons behind them, injury risk, small sample size, etc.) but they all have the ability to produce week in, week out. They have all shown, at some point, that they can be elite running backs, and it's just a matter of staying on the field.
5. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
Johnson was a beast in 2016, and then lost all of '17 due to injury. He was healthy, but under-utilized in 2018. The team is talking about having him repeat his 2016 numbers, which would be a relief to fantasy owners. Johnson is only 27 years old, and he certainly can repeat the 1,239 rushing yards, 20 total touchdown from just a few seasons ago. He should be heavily utilized as a receiver as well in new head coach Kliff Kingsbury's version of the Air Raid offense, and that potential makes him a clear RB1.
6. James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers
Last year, when Le'Veon Bell sat out the year, Conner was forced into the starting role in Pittsburgh. To fantasy owners' delight, he excelled. He had nearly 1,000 rushing yards, nearly 500 receiving yards, and 13 total touchdowns. While he may share some carries with Jaylen Samuels, Conner is still the lead back. He struggled a bit at times last year, but he's still an RB1, albeit with a little risk.
7. Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
Mixon improved on his rookie season in 2018 with 1,168 rushing yards, eight rushing touchdowns, nearly 300 receiving yards and a TD catch. Mixon is talking about the upcoming season, saying he is ready for 400 carries (he had 237 last year). Odds are that he isn't going to get to 400, but he should put up solid fantasy numbers. The team should trust him more and he is just going to continue to improve.
8. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
Gurley, by all intents and purposes, should be in the top tier. However, something happened last year that fantasy owners still are not sure about. He suffered a knee injury and then his play just wasn't the same. Reports in the offseason indicated that this may be a lingering injury, and the Rams drafted a rookie running back. Gurley had the most touchdowns in his career in 2018, but his workload may be scaled back a bit this season.
9. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
Cook has the potential to be a top-tier running back, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy. It's hard to really rank Cook because it's simply based on potential. In his first two seasons, he's played in a total of 15 games. If he can stay healthy, he's an asset in the running game and the passing game.
10. Le'Veon Bell, New York Jets
Bell is on many lists as a potential fantasy football bust this year. The narrative fits: a player that sat out a year, on a team with a young quarterback and a coach who is easing him in. Bell's talent is certainly worthy of making him an RB1, however, it's going to be a matter of opportunity and conditioning. Until fantasy owners see Bell in action, he's a low RB1.
The running backs in Tier 3 are the guys to target for a solid No. 2 to pair with one of the guys above. Many fantasy owners are going to end up with one of these players to be their RB1s, and that's ok. If you're picking from this group, know that the risk increases, and ideally, it would be best to pair one of these players with someone from Tier 4.
11. Damien Williams, Kansas City Chiefs
Williams looks to be the No. 1 running back in Kansas City, but he's dealing with a hamstring injury early in training camp. Carlos Hyde has stepped up while Williams has been sidelined. Hyde isn't going to be a lead running back, but Williams needs to get healthy. Hamstring injuries have a history of lingering, but it seems the team is taking their time with this one. Williams is a low-end RB1 based on the high-powered Chiefs offense.
12. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
The Browns seem to really love Chubb – or they're saying the right things to give him the opportunity to succeed. The team signed Kareem Hunt, but they are indicating that Chubb will still be the starter even when Hunt returns after sitting the first eight games. Odds are that if Chubb succeeds in the position, it will be his, with Hunt playing a role. However, Chubb should excel in this offense and has the potential to be an RB1.
13. Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
Gordon also is holding out for a new contract and has already requested a trade. However, the Chargers have shown no indications they plan on honoring his request. Gordon finished with a career-best 14 total touchdowns last season but he can't help anyone's fantasy team if he's not going to play.
14. Kerryon Johnson, Detroit Lions
When the Lions released Theo Riddick, the arrow continued to point up for Johnson. The team is looking to get him into more of a pass-catching role. In 2018, he had 32 receptions for 213 yards and a touchdown. In the running game, he had 641 yards and three touchdowns. The Lions do like to throw the ball, but they haven't had a solid running back in the past few years. Johnson is a solid RB2 with the potential to be an RB1.
15. Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
In his second season, Jones had nearly 1,000 total yards and nine total touchdowns. Active in both the running and passing games, he is in line to be the lead back for Green Bay. However, he's missed time because of a hamstring injury. This is concerning because this is an injury that cost him time last season. Hamstring injuries linger, so fantasy owners need to keep an eye on him as the regular season nears.
16. Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars are talking about getting Fournette more involved in the passing game. If that does happen, his fantasy value (especially in PPR formats) rises. He missed a lot of time due to injury last year, and he is considered injury-prone at this point. However, if he can stay on the field, stay focused, and builds chemistry with Nick Foles, Fournette has the potential to finally make the leap to RB1.
17. Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts
The Colts likely want Mack to be their No. 1 running back, but they are likely a little concerned about his durability. They added D'Onta Foreman after Houston cut him early in training camp, but Mack is more established after racking up more than 1,000 total yards and 10 total touchdowns in 2018. There are a lot of running backs on the Colts roster, but the job is Mack's to lose. If he steps up, he's a solid RB2.
18. Josh Jacobs, Oakland Raiders
Putting a rookie in the top three tiers is risky, but Jacobs appears to have already secured the lead back role in Oakland. He doesn't have much competition and the Raiders are saying he's already a three-down back. Doug Martin isn't threatening anyone for their job anymore and Jacobs certainly has the ability to be an RB1. His rookie year likely won't have him producing huge numbers and he won't be out there for every down, but he is still a solid RB2.
The players in Tier 4 are at the end of the RB2 group and the top of the RB3 options. These players have the potential to be solid fantasy options, but they also carry more risk. The two Patriots running backs, for example, will likely share carries, and the situation may be a timeshare. David Montgomery is a rookie, and his role in the Bears offense is still not clear. These players could end up being RB2 options but they should be treated as RB3 candidates on draft day.
19. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
20. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
21. David Montgomery, Chicago Bears
22. Phillip Lindsay, Denver Broncos
23. Kenyan Drake, Miami Dolphins
24. Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks
25. Mark Ingram, Baltimore Ravens
26. James White, New England Patriots
27. Sony Michel, New England Patriots
The running backs in Tier 5 are solid RB3s. These players are not starting running backs on their team (at least not yet), but the potential is there. One injury to Todd Gurley, and Darrell Henderson's value leaps. Rashaad Penny, Derrius Guice and Miles Sanders are unproven, and they can go either way. These players are certainly worth drafting, but they shouldn't be the single starting running back on your team.
28. Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams
29. Tarik Cohen, Chicago Bears
30. Tevin Coleman, San Francisco 49ers
31. Lamar Miller*, Houston Texans
32. Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers
33. Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks
34. Derrius Guice, Washington Redskins
35. Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles
36. Jordan Howard, Philadelphia Eagles
[*Editor's note: Lamar Miller tore his ACL in the Texans' third preseason game. He is out for the season and is expected to be replaced by Duke Johnson as Houston's No. 1 running back.]
The running backs in Tier 6 fall into the category of RB4s who are filling out your roster. Some of these players are handcuffs (Latavius Murray for Alvin Kamara), and others just have limited roles. Kareem Hunt falls into this category because he's ineligible to play until Week 10. For fantasy owners, they may only have four weeks of him before the playoffs. If their team is already 2-8 by Week 10, Hunt isn't going to do a lot of good.
37. Latavius Murray, New Orleans Saints
38. Ronald Jones, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
39. Peyton Barber, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
40. Ito Smith, Atlanta Falcons
41. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
42. Damien Harris, New England Patriots
43. Donta Foreman, Indianapolis Colts
44. Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns
45. Royce Freeman, Denver Broncos
The players in Tier 7 are the guys that no one is excited about drafting, but may have value at some point in the season. They also may end up on the waiver wire by Week 5. Alexander Mattison in Minnesota is intriguing as Dalvin Cook has struggled with injuries. Kalen Ballage wasn't given an opportunity in Miami last year, but perhaps this is his year. Jerick McKinnon is coming off injury, but as he gets healthy, maybe he'll have more of an opportunity? These players are all question marks and are solid picks later in the draft.
46. Jaylen Samuels, Pittsburgh Steelers
47. Justin Jackson, Los Angeles Chargers
48. Jerick McKinnon, San Francisco 49ers
49. Kalen Ballage, Miami Dolphins
50. Adrian Peterson, Washington Redskins
51. Carlos Hyde, Kansas City Chiefs
52. Alexander Mattison, Minnesota Vikings
53. Darwin Thompson, Kansas City Chiefs
54. Matt Breida, San Francisco 49ers
The running backs in Tier 8 are guys that aren't quite at the bottom of the rankings, but are pretty close. These players don't have a clear path to touches or fantasy success. However, in deep leagues, they will be drafted, and some players in standard leagues may want to take a chance on one of these players, just in case. Perhaps the Todd Gurley owner thinks Malcolm Brown is a better handcuff. Perhaps a fantasy owner has faith in rookies Justice Hill or Devin Singletary.
55. Justice Hill, Baltimore Ravens
56. Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills
57. Malcolm Brown, Los Angeles Rams
58. Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts
59. Dion Lewis, Tennessee Titans
60. Jamaal Williams, Green Bay Packers
61. C.J. Anderson, Detroit Lions
62. Chris Thompson, Washington Redskins
63. Alfred Morris, Dallas Cowboys
Tier 9 consists of players that are being drafted in deeper leagues. These guys are the ones that are still out there in the late rounds that a fantasy owner feels good about. Odds are none of these players will end up as a top running back option for any fantasy owner, but they can fill in during a bye week or if other players on their team get injured. In many leagues, these guys will still be on the waiver wire after the draft concludes.
64. Mike Davis, Chicago Bears
65. Ryquell Armstead, Jacksonville Jaguars
66. Benny Snell Jr., Pittsburgh Steelers
67. Qadree Ollison, Atlanta Falcons
68. Duke Johnson, Houston Texans [Editor's note: Johnson is expected to be the starter for the Texans after Lamar Miller tore his ACL in the third preseason game.]
69. Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals
70. Chase Edmonds, Arizona Cardinals
71. Rex Burkhead, New England Patriots
72. Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys
73. Doug Martin, Oakland Raiders
74. Frank Gore, Buffalo Bills
75. Paul Perkins, New York Giants
— 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.