When looking at running back tiers in fantasy football, it is always tough. Last year, Adrian Peterson was in the top tier. Fantasy owners that drafted him in the first round know all too well how that turned out. Injuries, especially to top-tier running backs, can be brutal. It's important to always grab a handcuff to your stud starter. Just because a handcuff is listed in a low tier doesn't always mean to hold off; a handcuff is more important to the player who owns the starter than the rest of the league. Therefore, take that into consideration when looking at the tiers.
The top tier is simple: David Johnson and Le'Veon Bell. Experts can debate who should be drafted first, but the reality is, both are stud running backs. Both have proven themselves and both should have a solid season, barring injury. They stand alone in the top tier.
1. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
The No. 1 running back in fantasy points in 2016, Johnson returns atop this list. At 25 years old, he's still in his prime, and the team supports the use of running him as much as possible. In PPR scoring, he has even more value, as there are reports that he may not only get a shot at another, 1,000-yard season on the ground, but one through the air as well.
2. Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Bell is another running back who the team likes to throw the ball to, which means even more points for fantasy owners. The only concern with Bell may be injury. He's has missed time due to injury over the past two seasons and not participating in training camp is usually a predictor of injury.
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After the top two running backs comes what really is the rest of the first tier. These three players have flaws, but are still in the top group. Fantasy owners may debate the order of these players, but most would agree that Bell and Johnson will be drafted before this tier.
3. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
Obviously, the possibility of Elliott being suspended for as many as six games will impact his draft positioning. But until his appeal is heard and ruled on, exactly how many games he will miss is not known. What is known, however, is that his rookie season was, by all accounts, incredible, and for the games he will play he should remain a solid RB1. However, because of the strong likelihood he will miss multiple games where Elliott ends up in this tier (or another one) come draft day is certainly up for debate.
4. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
Even though he's 29, McCoy is still a lead back on a team that is going to run the ball. He's also a great pass catcher and he's utilized in that role. The job is his, the goal line work is his, and the Bills are going to make the most of his time on the field. If Ezekiel Elliott ends up getting suspended, McCoy should be drafted ahead of him, especially in PPR formats.
5. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
With two seasons of more than 1,000 rushing yards, 11 rushing touchdowns and at least 50 receptions, Freeman is consistent. He usually sees double-digit carries each week and is involved in the passing game. Sure, Tevin Coleman is in the picture, but Freeman is higher on the depth chart and seemingly trusted more in the game plan.
The rest of the top 10 are still RB1 options, but all carry a little more risk than the guys above them. They are prone to having a big game followed by a disappointing game. For consistency, take guys in the higher tiers.
6. Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
While Gordon has yet to hit 1,000 rushing yards, he will be given the opportunity for success in 2017. He ended last season just shy of the 1,000-yard mark, but he improved on his receptions. He'll have value in standard and PPR formats given the role he will play in that offense.
7. Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears
While Ezekiel Elliott was the rookie running back everyone was buzzing about, Howard quietly ran for 1,313 yards and six touchdowns. He had 29 receptions for 298 yards and added another touchdown as well. He's essentially the focal point of an offense that has consistently struggled to move the ball through the air and is a sneaky RB1 that fantasy owners can grab outside of the first round.
8. Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins
Coming out of nowhere, Ajayi proved that he could be the starting running back for the Dolphins – and fantasy teams in 2016. He ran for more than 1,200 yards and added 27 receptions. He's not typically a prolific receiver out of the backfield, but Jay Cutler may need someone to check down to. Ajayi did suffer a concussion in training camp, so just keep an eye on that to be sure he's good to go for the start of the season.
9. DeMarco Murray, Tennessee Titans
When healthy, Murray is a solid fantasy option. However, at 29, he has battled various ailments and injuries that have limited his performance. He's likely to help fantasy teams for about half of the season. This is a case where it is important to draft Derrick Henry, his handcuff.
10. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
The problem, as 2016 Gurley owners know, is the Rams’ offense is stagnant. He showed signs of top-tier running back potential during his rookie year, but his sophomore season was overall a disappointment. With not much else going for them on offense, the Rams will likely turn to him again. Volume alone gives him a place in this tier.
Rounding out the starting running backs for fantasy is this tier. These are players that are going to be a RB1 for some players, and that's fine, but the consistency may not be there as much as those in the higher tiers.
11. Lamar Miller, Houston Texans
Following a disappointing 2016, Miller is still just 26. He did manage more than 1,000 rushing yards in his first season with the Texans, but didn't have the receptions that fantasy owners hoped for. He's a low RB1/high RB2 heading into 2017.
12. Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars
While it's hard for a rookie running back to be a RB1, it does happen. In this case, Jacksonville wants to run the ball – they've made that quite clear. They drafted Fournette to run, and that's what they're going to let him do. The rest is up to him.
13. Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints
Even with Adrian Peterson in the picture, Ingram still is the back to own in New Orleans. Ingram will likely take on a bigger role when it comes to passing downs, increasing his value in PPR formats.
14. Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland Browns
With nearly 1,000 rushing yards and 40 receptions in 2016, Crowell isn't a fancy name, but he'll get the job done as a RB2. Cleveland is going to be searching for offense somewhere, and they haven't found it through the air.
15. Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers
The talent isn't the question; health is. The 49ers have been talking up Hyde as of late, and he will likely start the season healthy. Maintaining that has been the issue.
16. Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
Even during the draft, Mixon's talent wasn't questioned. The Bengals were willing to gamble on him staying on the straight and narrow when it came to off-field issues; fantasy owners should be confident in his ability on the field.
17. Spencer Ware, Kansas City Chiefs
With more than 1,300 yards from scrimmage in 14 games, Ware was the back to own in Kansas City last season. He'll likely take on the starting role, but he does have company in the backfield, which lowers his draft stock slightly.
18. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
Even though Jonathan Stewart remains in the picture, he is usually battling an injury of some sort, and the Panthers want to get their first-round pick involved. McCaffrey should offer even more value in PPR formats.
19. Ty Montgomery, Green Bay Packers
The wide receiver-turned-running back showed in 2016 that he can make plays regardless of role. He does have competition for carries, but his ability to catch the ball and athleticism should give him an edge when it comes to touches.
While Tier 5 sounds low, these are players that are around RB2 territory. A solid roster will contain either two of these players or one of these and one from a higher tier.
20. Eddie Lacy, Seattle Seahawks
21. Terrance West, Baltimore Ravens
22. Mike Gillislee, New England Patriots
23. LeGarrette Blount, Philadelphia Eagles
24. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
25. Marshawn Lynch, Oakland Raiders
26. C.J. Anderson, Denver Broncos
27. Danny Woodhead, Baltimore Ravens
28. Robert Kelley, Washington Redskins
29. Adrian Peterson, New Orleans Saints
These are running backs that are going to be drafted but are in the RB3 category. They are players that are mostly set in their roles and don't have a ton of room for upside.
30. Tevin Coleman, Atlanta Falcons
31. Bilal Powell, New York Jets
32. Frank Gore, Indianapolis Colts
33. Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
34. Ameer Abdullah, Detroit Lions
35. Paul Perkins, New York Giants
36. Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers
37. Matt Forté, New York Jets
38. James White, New England Patriots
By this tier, the running backs are either handcuffs or guys with more limited roles. All of these players should be owned, just don’t reach for them unless it’s to handcuff a starter.
39. Latavius Murray, Minnesota Vikings
40. Jacquizz Rodgers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
41. Darren Sproles, Philadelphia Eagles
42. C.J. Prosise, Seattle Seahawks
43. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
44. Theo Riddick, Detroit Lions
45. Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals
This tier contains players that have potential to be fantasy relevant, but they also may end up being a bust. Other players in this tier have shown what they can do and they have proven that they just aren't going to be a solid fantasy starter.
46. Samaje Perine, Washington Redskins
47. Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati Bengals
48. Thomas Rawls, Seattle Seahawks
49. Jamaal Charles, Denver Broncos
50. James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers
51. DeAndre Washington, Oakland Raiders
52. Jalen Richard, Oakland Raiders
53. Jamaal Williams, Green Bay Packers
54. Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs
55. Joe Williams, San Francisco 49ers
These are players to grab in the last rounds of the draft, just in case. Opportunity needs to knock, but there is potential and upside in this tier in the right situation.
56. Duke Johnson, Cleveland Browns
57. Rex Burkhead, New England Patriots
58. Dion Lewis, New England Patriots
59. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
60. Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts
61. D'Onta Foreman, Houston Texans
62. Shane Vereen, New York Giants
63. Darren McFadden, Dallas Cowboys
This last group is dart throws. These are players that may have value or they may be dropped by Week 2.
64. Chris Thompson, Washington Redskins
65. T.J. Yeldon, Jacksonville Jaguars
66. Charles Sims, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
67. Jonathan Williams, Buffalo Bills
68. Chris Ivory, Jacksonville Jaguars
69. Devontae Booker, Denver Broncos
70. Wendell Smallwood, Philadelphia Eagles
— 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.