For most fantasy owners, running back is one of the hardest positions to draft. Unless you get a top-tier guy early in the draft, you wonder if it's worth it to skip the position for a few rounds while you fill up the rest of your roster. Running backs often determine fantasy winners and losers. If a stud gets hurt, your whole season can be derailed.
In 2020, the running back position is interesting as there are quite a few rookies that are in higher tiers than normal, thanks to some others either opting out or dealing with injury concerns. This football season may be unlike any other, but the running back position is still one to value on draft day.
— Tiers 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.
The players in Tier 1 are the no-brainer running backs that you plug into your lineup and keep there unless they are on a bye or get injured. Regardless of matchup, these are the players that will help your fantasy team all season. They have proven themselves and are clear RB1s, whether in a PPR or standard league. Draft them in the first round with confidence.
1. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
Only three players have ever had 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season: Roger Craig, Marshall Faulk... and McCaffrey. He is 24 years old, in his prime, and will likely be the first player off the board in fantasy drafts. It's hard to find any flaws with McCaffrey in any format.
2. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
Elliott has been impressive in his four years in the league. In 2019, his yardage was slightly down, but he made up for it in touchdowns. He had 1,357 rushing yards and 420 receiving yards and 14 total touchdowns. The Cowboys are going to continue to rely on him to carry their offense and he is worthy of a first-round draft pick.
3. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
Barkley's numbers were down in 2019 compared to his rookie year, but he also played three fewer games because of an ankle injury in Week 4. He arguably came back too early, as he didn't really look like himself until after the bye week. With just over 1,000 rushing yards and 438 receiving yards, Barkley has room to improve in 2020 and is still a top running back.
4. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
In the "weird stats" department comes this one: in each of his three seasons in the league, Kamara has had 81 receptions. However, in his rookie year he turned those receptions into 826 yards and five touchdowns. In 2019, he had 533 receiving yards and a touchdown. His rushing numbers were better (797 yards) but he didn't have the touchdowns he's had in years past. Kamara was likely playing injured in 2019 which accounts for some of this regression, but with Drew Brees checking down to him, he's a stud in PPR formats, especially.
The running backs in Tier 2 are still in the RB1 category, but they aren't without flaws. Perhaps it is injury risk (Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon), wondering if they can repeat previous success (Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake) or just not sure of how their role will fit on the team, they are in Tier 2. These players will still likely be drafted in the second and third round and be solid starters on fantasy teams.
5. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
Fantasy owners that were waiting to see if Cook would hold out seem to be assured that he will play, which is a relief. Cook owners will have enough to worry about as he hasn't been able to play all 16 games yet in his three-year NFL career. In 2019, he did play 14 games and had 13 touchdowns. If he can stay healthy, he's a top-tier running back. Because of the injury risk, he lands in Tier 2.
6. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
Unfortunately for Chubb, Kareem Hunt is still on the Browns. If he wasn't, Chubb would be in Tier 1. But with Hunt sharing some of the work (he was suspended the first eight games) last season, Chubb still put up great numbers: 1,494 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. He had seven games with more than 100 rushing yards. Hunt will take some of that (and some receptions) away, but Chubb is still an RB1.
7. Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
The biggest concern with Mixon is if he decides to hold out while waiting for a bigger contract. He's in the last year of his rookie deal and obviously, he wants to get paid. However, his 2019 season fell short compared to 2018 in terms of yards and touchdowns. He started the year slow, but ended with 1,137 rushing yards, 287 receiving yards and eight total touchdowns. He should improve in 2020, but fantasy owners have been burned by running backs in this situation before so just make sure he's going to play.
8. Kenyan Drake, Arizona Cardinals
In eight games with Arizona in 2019, Drake had eight touchdowns. He had three 100-yard rushing games and he looked like a clear RB1. This was a different running back that fantasy owners saw in Miami. With David Johnson now in Houston, the No. 1 job in Arizona is all his. It's clear the team wants to get him a lot of touches, which makes him RB1-worthy in fantasy.
9. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
Henry is 26 years old and coming off his best season. He posted career highs across the board, most notably in rushing yards (1,540) and touchdowns (18 total). In 2018, he had 12 touchdowns. It's hard to imagine Henry improving on the touchdowns, and it is possible that 2019 may be the highlight year of his career. With Darrynton Evans joining him in the backfield, Henry's role may be reduced, but based on his 2019 performance, fantasy owners have to consider him an RB1.
10. Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers
Ekeler is only 24 years old and now has the Chargers' backfield to himself — sort of. Melvin Gordon is gone, but Justin Jackson and Joshua Kelley in the picture. However, Ekeler will likely be the starter and is the clear pass-catching back. In 2019, he saw 108 targets, of which he caught 92 for 993 yards and eight touchdowns. He added three rushing touchdowns. Put it all together and that makes him a low RB1.
This tier of running backs are those that are on the fringe of being an RB1, but just aren't quite there yet. Two rookies fall into this tier as they certainly have the potential to be fantasy studs. Whether that happens in their rookie year or not remains to be seen. It will depend on how their respective teams decide to utilize them and how well they can perform.
11. Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
Jones had a stellar 2019 — 1,084 rushing yards, 474 receiving yards, and a whopping 19 touchdowns. The Packers did add AJ Dillon in the draft and Jamaal Williams remains in the picture, but it is clear that the Packers trust Jones with the lead role. He should be given plenty of work and is a low RB1.
12. Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles
Sanders is seemingly the top running back in Philadelphia, unless the team decides to add another before the season starts. Boston Scott will be in the picture, but this is Sanders' backfield. He had 818 rushing yards, three rushing touchdowns, 509 receiving yards, and three receiving touchdowns in his rookie year. He will build upon that and it seems that the team trusts him to do so.
13. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs
This is high to rank a rookie, but CEH has the potential to be a solid RB1, so this ranking may actually be a bit low. With Damien Williams opting out of the 2020 season, CEH is the top running back for the Chiefs. The Chiefs offense is one that scores — a lot — so any piece of this offense has the potential to be great for fantasy. CEH should be the top dynasty pick and in redraft formats. He's a borderline RB1.
14. Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders
In his rookie year, Jacobs had 1,150 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns. He only added 166 receiving yards, which brings down his value in PPR formats. Jalen Richard is still in the picture and has handled a lot of the passing downs. If this split continues, Jacobs continues as a solid RB2 each week. If he can get more work in the passing game, his value increases.
15. Melvin Gordon, Denver Broncos
Gordon is 27 and on a new team for 2020. However, he is expected to be the lead back for the Broncos. Unfortunately for Gordon, Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman are on the roster. Gordon will likely be given the opportunity to handle the majority of carries, but he will lose work to the other backs. He should be drafted as an RB2 because of the crowded backfield.
16. Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks
Carson had a solid 2019 season before he injured his hip, finishing with 1,230 rushing yards and nine total touchdowns. He did not need surgery but it's understandable if the team is a little concerned about his health and durability. Rashaad Penny (torn ACL) will start the season on the PUP list and the Seahawks also have veteran Carlos Hyde and rookie DeeJay Dallas as options. Carson figures to be the lead back, but will he see a heavy workload early and how many carries will the others get? The uncertainty in Seattle's backfield lowers Carson's value a little but don't let him slide too far if your draft.
17. D'Andre Swift, Detroit Lions
In his two seasons in the league, Kerryon Johnson has played in a total of 18 games. He's an injury risk, and when he has played, he hasn't exactly been amazing. The Lions addressed this in the draft by taking Swift. While the hype surrounding Swift isn't as high as it is for Clyde Edwards-Helaire, he's a player that can easily have a big role on a team that needs a running back to step up. He's a sneaky RB2 with upside.
18. Todd Gurley, Atlanta Falcons
Gurley is on a new team, but his health is still a question mark. The Falcons are likely looking for him to be their lead back and a touchdown machine, but only if his knees can handle it. He has posted double-digit rushing touchdowns in each of the past three seasons, but his overall production has declined in that same span. Atlanta needs a productive ball carrier but it's too risky to trust this is the Gurley of 2017. He's an RB2.
The running backs in Tier 4 are the low RB2s/high RB3s of the group. These running backs are all veterans and for the most part, fantasy owners know what they can do. All have either competition or injury histories preventing them from being an RB1, but they are a solid RB2 to have on your roster. Either grabbing two of the guys from this tier (or a player from this tier and the one above) would give any fantasy owner a solid start to the 2020 season.
19. David Johnson, Houston Texans
20. Raheem Mostert, San Francisco 49ers
21. James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers
22. Le'Veon Bell, New York Jets
23. David Montgomery, Chicago Bears
24. Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills
25. Mark Ingram, Baltimore Ravens
26. Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns
27. Leonard Fournette, Free Agent
[Editor's note: Fournette was released by Jacksonville on Aug. 31.]
The players in Tier 5 are below RB2, but have the potential to enter that category. There are four rookies in this grouping, all of whom may find their way into every-week lineups. Alexander Mattison is an interesting player to watch, as he is Dalvin Cook's backup. In his rookie year, he had 462 rushing yards and a touchdown in 13 games. As Cook does have an injury history, Mattison is one of the best handcuffs to grab.
28. J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens
29. Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts
30. Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams
31. Matt Breida, Miami Dolphins
32. Alexander Mattison, Minnesota Vikings
33. Jordan Howard, Miami Dolphins
34. James White, New England Patriots
35. Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts
36. Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team
(Alexander Mattison photo courtesy of vikings.com)
The running backs in this tier are the ones that fantasy owners will look at in the later rounds. No one will be excited to draft a player like Ronald Jones, but he could be the No. 1 running back in Tampa Bay. While fantasy owners haven't seen much from him in his first two years in the league, perhaps working with Tom Brady may spark something for Jones — and his fantasy owners.
37. Tarik Cohen, Chicago Bears
38. Boston Scott, Philadelphia Eagles
39. Phillip Lindsay, Denver Broncos
40. Ronald Jones, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
41. Zack Moss, Buffalo Bills
42. Tevin Coleman, San Francisco 49ers
43. Adrian Peterson, Washington Football Team
44. Chase Edmonds, Arizona Cardinals
45. Jamaal Williams, Green Bay Packers
The running backs in this tier are primarily backups, with the exception of Sony Michel. The concern with Michel is that the foot surgery he had in May will likely affect his playing status. He may begin the season on the PUP list, which would limit the number of games he will play. His two seasons in the league were similar (although he played three fewer games in 2019), with just under 1,000 rushing yards. He may be a steal if he goes this late in a draft and actually starts in Week 1.
46. Justin Jackson, Los Angeles Chargers
47. Damien Harris, New England Patriots
48. Kerryon Johnson, Detroit Lions
49. Jaylen Samuels, Pittsburgh Steelers
50. Ito Smith, Atlanta Falcons
51. Latavius Murray, New Orleans Saints
52. Sony Michel, New England Patriots
53. Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks
54. Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts
Some of the running back handcuffs are in this tier, although these handcuffs may not be quite as valuable as others in higher tiers. In some cases, they are the clear backup (Ryquell Armstead, for example). However, in others, such as with Benny Snell Jr., there are other players in the mix. If James Conner were to miss time, Snell would likely share the load with Jaylen Samuels, similar to last year. Both hurt each other's value.
55. Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys
56. Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
57. Duke Johnson, Houston Texans
58. Darrell Henderson Jr., Los Angeles Rams
59. Ryquell Armstead, Jacksonville Jaguars
60. Justice Hill, Baltimore Ravens
61. Benny Snell Jr., Pittsburgh Steelers
62. Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals
63. Joshua Kelley, Los Angeles Chargers
(Benny Snell Jr. photo by Rebecca Mehling/Pittsburgh Steelers, courtesy of steelers.com)
The running backs in this tier are late-round, dart-throw type players. These are the guys that might be older (Carlos Hyde, Rex Burkhead) and therefore are removed from the starting role on their team. They still have a little bit left in their tank and may step in for a big game or two. Other dart throws are rookies that are unproven and are lower on the depth chart (AJ Dillon, for example, behind not only Aaron Jones but also Jamaal Williams).
64. Jalen Richard, Las Vegas Raiders
65. Carlos Hyde, Seattle Seahawks
66. Royce Freeman, Denver Broncos
67. Rex Burkhead, New England Patriots
68. AJ Dillon, Green Bay Packers
69. Darrynton Evans, Tennessee Titans
70. Chris Thompson, Jacksonville Jaguars
71. Jerick McKinnon, San Francisco 49ers
72. Malcolm Brown, Los Angeles Rams
73. Trayveon Williams, Cincinnati Bengals
In deeper leagues, this last tier of running backs is made up of players that will likely be available in later rounds. These players are either third or lower on the projected depth chart or unproven rookies. LeSean McCoy is 32 years old and may have a role in Tampa Bay (if he makes the team), but he'll be behind Ronald Jones. Rookie Ke'Shawn Vaughn also is currently ahead of him on the depth chart, but McCoy may end up with some fantasy value in 2020.
74. Reggie Bonnafon, Carolina Panthers
75. Gus Edwards, Baltimore Ravens
76. Bryce Love, Washington Football Team
77. DeeJay Dallas, Seattle Seahawks
78. Devonta Freeman, Free Agent
79. Anthony McFarland, Pittsburgh Steelers
80. LeSean McCoy, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
81. Dion Lewis, New York Giants
82. Peyton Barber, Washington Football Team
83. DeAndre Washington, Kansas City Chiefs
84. Eno Benjamin, Arizona Cardinals
85. Lamical Perine, New York Jets
(LeSean McCoy photo by Tori Richman/Tampa Bay Buccaneers, courtesy of buccaneers.com)