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Fantasy Football 2017: Which RBs Should You Target in the Second or Third Round?

Lamar Miller

Lamar Miller

Remember when the “zero-RB” strategy was a thing in fantasy football? It was a sound strategy and it did work – back in 2015. If you tried the zero RB approach last year, things probably didn’t go so well for you.

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Running backs are back in vogue and taking at least one in the first three rounds of your draft is a must. Why? Because after round 3 and maybe round 4 (depending on how your league drafts), the running back value falls of a cliff.

If your goal is to take two RBs in the first three rounds or if you do start your draft with two WRs, which RBs should you take in the second and third round? These are the ones (in alphabetical order) you may want to target.

Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins

Ajayi is an interesting fantasy prospect for 2017. On the one hand, his 1,272 rushing yards and eight touchdowns were solid production considering a shaky offensive line and not always a great amount of pass production. On the other hand, he was very hit or miss. After being left behind as a punishment for the first game, Ajayi struggled to find his groove. Then starting in Week 6, Ajayi had games totaling 204, 214 and 111 yards as well as four touchdowns on the ground over that stretch. He also would post 206 yards against the Buffalo in Week 16, but those were his only 100-yard games of the season and he managed just one touchdown from Weeks 10-15. That lack of consistency is a huge concern coming into 2017.

Hopefully, a healthy offensive line – center Mike Pouncey and left tackle Brandon Albert were frequently out last year – and Laremy Tunsil moving to left tackle will give Ajayi more consistent holes to work with and that should make a big difference.

Related: Jay Ajayi's Fantasy Football Projection for 2017

Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland Browns

Crowell's 2016 season was underrated due to a lack of usage that was mostly out of his control. Because Cleveland was facing so many negative game scripts, Crowell only had 198 carries on the season, but those carries resulted in 952 yards or 4.8 yards per carry. Crowell also quietly notched a career-high 40 receptions, cutting into the passing game work that many assumed would be reserved exclusively for Duke Johnson.

If the team's offseason moves are any indication, the Browns certainly believe in Crowell. They added only a seventh-round draft pick at the position this offseason and tendered him as a second-round pick, which kept multiple reported suitors away. Crowell should continue to be a workhorse this year.

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Related: Isaiah Crowell's Fantasy Football Projection for 2017

Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams

After an impressive rookie season in 2015, Gurley was one of the biggest letdowns in the entire NFL in 2016. The Rams’ offensive line did not help matters, ranking in the bottom five of most metrics in run blocking. The Rams’ passing game also was arguably the least daunting in the league. Gurley's 41 percent Success Rate ranked outside the top 30 among his peers. This offseason, Los Angeles reinforced the offensive line in addition to bringing in a new coaching staff.

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If there was one positive from last season it was Gurley’s increased involvement as a receiver, as his receptions per game went from 1.6 to 2.7. Lance Dunbar was signed in free agency to replace Benny Cunningham as a change-of-pace option in the backfield, but Gurley will continue to get the bulk of the carries. He has elite physical traits and enters this season as one of the best rebound candidates not only at his position, but period.

Related: What to Expect from 2016 Early-Round Busts

Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

Since Cam Newton came into the league, no team has targeted its running backs less than the Panthers. Throwing to running backs is a facet that now must be added to Carolina’s game plan if McCaffrey is going to thrive. While it’s true that Newton has never had a back like McCaffrey to throw to, his problem is that many of the plays which would normally evolve into running back catches via checkdowns are the same plays on which he has usually opted to tuck the ball and run in the past. Just days into training camp, Newton said that he has no plans to stop running the ball.

Even if McCaffrey can get Newton to throw to him, he still has to deal with the issue of his quarterback’s presence near the goal line, which inherently caps the upside of every running back on the Panthers. Since 2011, only six players have more rushes inside the 10-yard line than Newton, who has 97 such attempts. No other quarterback has more than 35 in that span. Not only do McCaffrey owners have to worry about Newton, but Jonathan Stewart still stands to retain a major role in the offense. However, the combination of McCaffrey’s intriguing skill set and his potential for significant touches also provides him with enough upside to finish as a top-10 fantasy RB.

Lamar Miller, Houston Texans

The Texans would like to manage Miller's carries more in 2017, hoping that he'll stay healthy and fresh for the entire season. An early season blitz of usage in 2016 may have been a factor in him hitting the wall and dealing with nagging injuries late last year.  Last year he handled 65 percent of the team's carries, which should be the case once again as long as he is productive and can stay on the field.

Miller also has posted at least 31 receptions in each of the last three years. He should have the benefit of more targets with the possibility of Deshaun Watson taking over at quarterback, as rookie signal-callers have a tendency to checkdown when it comes to their reads and progressions. The Texans took D’Onta Foreman in the third round of the draft, who could earn some carries to help keep Miller fresh throughout the year. He is still considered to be the main back for Houston, but Foreman and veterans Tyler Ervin and Alfred Blue are ready in the wings should Miller struggles or get hurt again.

DeMarco Murray, Tennessee Titans

The Titans traded for Murray last year and made him their bell-cow back. Despite the addition of Derrick Henry, Murray finished fourth in fantasy points among running backs, compiling 1,664 yards from scrimmage and 12 total touchdowns. He also recorded at least 53 receptions for the third time in four seasons. Henry played well but Murray out-touched him by nearly a 3:1 ratio.

Although there will be talk of Henry earning more carries this season, it's hard to envision Murray’s workload changing dramatically unless the veteran gets hurt. Murray's quickness and experience on passing downs give him the edge. At the same time, Henry is just an injury away from an opportunity to be a RB1. Murray has been brought along slowly during training camp because of a hamstring injury, but he should be fine by Week 1. If you do grab Murray in your draft, it would be a wise move to snag Henry a round or two later.

— Written by Michael Horvath, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Horvath is a Canadian who also happens to be a fantasy football (not to be confused with CFL) and fitness nut. Follow him on Twitter @realmikehorvath.