Running Back Fantasy Rankings
In the sequel to the debut of The MMQB’s new fantasy column, a look at the preseason running back rankings. Plus, why your league should embrace the positionless revolution (just like they already have in real football) and allow owners to ignore RBs altogether
Nothing says “archaic” quite like a fantasy football league that requires two starting running backs. Let me tell you a story like the tiresome old man that I am...
Back in the 1990s, before the NFL started prosecuting defensive backs for thought crimes, teams would often choose to run the ball. They’d line up with two backs (a running back and a fullback), two wide receivers and a tight end.
Then the aforementioned emphasis on eliminating downfield contact was introduced. And offenses evolved, culminating in the pass-happy league we see today. Three-receiver sets are now the base for most teams. The fullback is extinct. Empty backfields are en vogue. Teams take tight ends and running backs and split them out wide. And somehow, fantasy football has managed to actively ignore the fact that offensive football is far different than it was 15, 20 or 25 years ago. I mean, what is this, baseball?
Therefore, I urge all fantasy owners to join the positionless revolution. In the two leagues for which I serve as commissioner, we are entering our third seasons without a designation for RB, WR or TE. You start a QB and then five non-QB skill position players (FLEX, if it makes you feel more comfortable). We’re much better off for it. It creates flexibility and allows for creativity. But most of all, it dilutes the absurdly exaggerated value put on running backs, the bane of fantasy football’s existence.
Instead of spending Sunday morning hovering your mouse over LeGarrette Blount and Melvin Gordon because you’re forced to start a second running back despite the fact that there are only about 12 to 15 true feature backs left in the NFL (and a third of them will miss significant time due to injuries), why not be able to start additional receivers or tight ends, players who are actually going to be a significant part of an NFL game plan that week? Mark Ingram and Doug Martin and Lamar Miller are going to be top-25 picks in a lot of leagues. If you were drafting a real-life football team, and were limited to offensive skill position players, would any of those three go in the top 100?
So empty out your backfield and go five-wide. Or start three running backs and legally change your name to Barry Switzer. It’s like you get to assemble your offense however you see fit but without having to worry about the offensive line. Just like Ryan Grigson! (I kid! Grigson drafted Ryan Kelly. He’ll be fine.)
Alright, those rankings mentioned in the headline…
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1. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota
Really, it’s a toss up between Peterson and Todd Gurley for the top spot. They’re both supreme talents in otherwise mediocre offenses. Gurley should emerge as the better receiver, but the Vikings’ passing game is further along and should put Peterson in position for more touchdowns. I give AP the edge since, going into what might be his final year with the Vikings, Minnesota might just choose to run him into the ground, a la DeMarco Murray in Dallas two seasons ago.
2. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles
He’s awesome. But I’m just not sure the Rams—with a rookie QB, horrendous receivers and a tough slate—are going to put him in position to score enough touchdowns to be the top overall fantasy player many think he is.
3. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas
Were I not such a coward, I’d rank Elliott No. 1. He’ll run behind the best offensive line in football, and a healthy Romo and Dez assures no one is stacking up to stop the run in Dallas. And, well, Jerry Jones deserves flack for taking two top-40 picks and coming away with a running back and a linebacker with a debilitating injury, and you get the feeling the Cowboys will do everything they can to justify Elliott as the fourth overall pick. However, a rookie in a somewhat crowded backfield, with a domestic abuse accusation hanging over his head at the moment… The right first-round pick won’t guarantee you’ll win your league, but the wrong one can guarantee you won’t.
4. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh
If he wasn’t facing a suspension, he’d rank No. 1 on this list. Bell is the best all-around back in football, and he’s in the best offense. It’s no problem if you can also get DeAngelo Williams (a top-10 RB while Bell is out), but factor in Williams’ price as a potential top-75 pick when you’re drafting Bell.
5. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City
Yeah, he’ll turn 30 in December and he’s coming off a torn ACL. But Charles is coming back as the focal point of the Chiefs running and passing games. And make no mistake, while everyone had fun saying “Charcandrick” last year, K.C.’s offense is infinitely better when Charles is on the field.
6. Mark Ingram, New Orleans
If the Saints try to salvage something out of C.J. Spiller that could conceivably cut into Ingram’s workload. But as it stands now, Ingram is a proven commodity as a runner and receiver and should be looking at a massive workload as part of a high-powered offense.
7. Lamar Miller, Houston
Criminally underused in Miami (seriously, Loretta Lynch is asleep at the switch here), Miller should have a huge workload in a Houston offense with little depth behind him and a huge question mark at quarterback. Yeah, Miller is a bit of a finesse guy, but he has home run speed and should catch 50-plus passes.
8. David Johnson, Arizona
Granted, Johnson is a stud as a receiver and was far better as a runner than anyone expected last year. However, the fact that he’s a big back who stepped into the starting job last December with fresh legs surely gave him an edge he won’t enjoy this September. And while Johnson is a heavy favorite for the starting job, the Cards will find snaps for Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington.
9. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta
Freeman was as bad in the second half of 2015 as he was good in the first half (1,062 scrimmage yards, 10 TD with 4.7 YPC in first eight games, 572 and 4 with 3.1 in final seven games). He’s tremendous on those outside zone runs and capable both in the red zone and as a receiver, but the Falcons know they must limit his workload in 2016. If Freeman even approaches 300 touches this year, I’d be so stunned that my bowels would literally… alright, that’s gross. I’d be really surprised.
10. Doug Martin, Tampa Bay
The Bucs will lean heavily on Martin and the power run game again. He’s a solid low-end RB1, with his ceiling restricted by a limited role in the passing game (perhaps even more limited as Charles Sims continues to develop).
11. Eddie Lacy, Green Bay
Eddie Lacy is skinny. Ish.
12. C.J. Anderson, Denver
I’m always suspicious of guys who go on late-season runs when they have fresh legs (I just wrote that about David Johnson like four paragraphs ago, were you not listening?). But one encouraging note in regards to Anderson: He averaged 6.4 yards per carry in Brock Osweiler’s starts last year (when no one was fearing Denver’s passing game), so the Broncos’ insistence on holding an Invincible-style tryout for quarterback shouldn’t have a terribly adverse effect on Anderson.
13. Carlos Hyde, San Francisco
I think he’s a really good player, and I like the fit in Chip Kelly’s system and the fact that the increased tempo means more plays over the course of a game. But then, Blaine Gabbert and a defense in transition and the NFC West; the Niners will be playing from behind early and often (they had the worst first-half point differential in the NFL last year) again this season.
14. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo
It’s tough to get excited about Shady. He’s looking at a tougher schedule than last year, and Karlos Williams is poised to vulture touchdowns when he returns after a four-game suspension. The vet’s ceiling is probably 1,500 yards and eight TDs, good but not great.
15. Latavius Murray, Oakland
Murray had a chance to establish himself as a star last season, as a barren depth chart afforded him a huge workload (307 touches, to be exact). But after flashing in limited snaps the previous season, Murray looked decidedly mediocre. The good news is that diminutive rookie DeAndre Washington is the only real threat to Murray’s playing time, and workload alone should lead to solid value.
16. Matt Jones, Washington
I don’t think he’s a very good runner (he’s 6-2, 230 yet looks to bounce everything outside), but the Washington brass thinks he is good and they would know better than I do. It’s a bit of a unique situation, as Jones has the skills to be a very good passing down back, but Washington already has Chris Thompson to fill that role. Regardless, the potential for 300-plus touches in what should be a good-to-very-good offense is a formula for a big fantasy season.
17. Matt Forte, N.Y. Jets
He still has something left in the tank, though the depth chart (Bilal Powell, Khiry Robinson) screams “committee.” And if the Jets are expecting Forte to be their goal line back, well, his career performance in short yardage says they’re in for a disappointment.
18. Frank Gore, Indianapolis
He may be just 201 months shy of his 50th birthday, but Gore remains the clear-cut No. 1 back on what should be a top-10 offense.
19. Jeremy Langford, Chicago
Oh God, do I love the Bears in 2016. They have a much improved defense, a much improved Cutler, and their schedule is delightfully soft. It helps make Langford a big-time risk/reward pick. Jordan Howard lurks on the depth chart, but Langford should at least play a big role as a receiver out of the backfield. There’s an 18% chance he emerges as this season’s Devonta Freeman.
20. Danny Woodhead, San Diego
He’s a great fit in San Diego’s no huddle. But two drafts ago, the Chargers traded up to get their hands on Melvin Gordon, and you figure they have to find snaps for him.
21. Justin Forsett, Baltimore
Forsett will be the starter in Baltimore, though Buck Allen and Kenneth Dixon will be breathing down his neck. Though not literally.
22. Dion Lewis, New England
He was a top-10 fantasy back before getting hurt last year. The ACL recovery, plus the fact that James White probably retains some kind of role this year, is enough to rain on your “I drafted Dion Lewis” parade. (And what a parade it would have been.)
23. DeMarco Murray, Tennessee
After last season, my therapist says it might be time to accept that Murray isn’t very good. Tennessee wants to establish the run, but the Cowboys O-line isn’t walking through that door, Derrick Henry is waiting in the wings, and the Titans might be playing catch-up too often to stick with the run.
24. Duke Johnson, Cleveland
The Browns are talking up the Duke Johnson-Isaiah Crowell duo, with Johnson as the passing down back. And considering the Browns are going to be playing from behind the vast majority of the time, Johnson figures to be on the field far more often.
25. Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati
He had a dozen touchdowns last year despite failing to register a single 100-yard rushing game. And with Tyler Eifert out indefinitely, Hill could have an even larger workload in the red zone.
26. Jonathan Stewart, Carolina
The Panthers will probably have to cut back on Stewart’s workload, and Cameron Artis-Payne is ready for more. And, of course, Cam Newton will continue to do a lot of goal line work so he can do the thing where he touches his face to his arm.
27. Thomas Rawls, Seattle
He’s enough of an off-brand Marshawn Lynch that the Jujyfruits people should try to get in on the ground floor with Rawls. But the Seahawks (a) probably (and rightly) don’t expect him to stay healthy (which is why they drafted three running backs last spring), and (b) will probably use a much more pass-happy offense with spread looks (which is why they drafted C.J. Prosise, in particular).
28. Chris Ivory, Jacksonville
Ivory figures to take early-down work and, more importantly, the goal-line carries for what should be a good offense.
29. Rashad Jennings, N.Y. Giants
Shane Vereen takes all the passing downs, and rookie Paul Perkins will probably work his way into an early-down timeshare role with Jennings.
30. Ameer Abdullah, Detroit
The Lions have plans to run the ball forward for more than 2.4 yards at a time this season, which is a good goal to set. Abdullah is sometimes capable of doing that (though holding on to the ball while doing it is another issue).
31. Arian Foster, Miami
He can’t possibly stay healthy for 16 games, but Foster should have some moments in a Adam Gase offense considering his receiving skills.
32. Ryan Mathews, Philadelphia
He’s the top runner on Philly’s depth chart, which is a fine place to be. But Doug Pederson’s West Coast offense typically utilizes well-rounded backs with passing-game skills, which Mathews is not. I wouldn’t be surprised to see rookie Wendell Smallwood take an increasingly large workload as the season goes on.
33. T.J. Yeldon, Jacksonville
That Ivory signing was a real punch to the metaphorical crotch of Yeldon’s fantasy value. But enough about crotches. Yeldon should rack up receptions, but it’s going to take an injury to Ivory for Yeldon to have any significant fantasy value.
34. Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati
Meh. Seventeen touchdowns over three seasons. Though Bernard should easily get 1,000 yards from scrimmage again this year, so you could do worse in a bye-week fill-in.
35. DeAngelo Williams, Pittsburgh
He’s a top-10 back while Le’Veon Bell is out. Though any Bell owner with an IQ nearing triple-digits will reach for Williams, taking him off the table for everyone else.
36. Melvin Gordon, San Diego
Zero touchdowns and four lost fumbles as a rookie. (And, oh my God, the Chargers traded up to get him in the first round.) His knee is expected to be fine by the opener, and the Chargers will shoehorn him into a role. Whether he deserves one...
37. Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland
He won’t play on passing downs, and the Browns might as well be spotting opponents a touchdown every week. He also has a stupid Instagram account (which is normally redundant, but especially so in his case…)
38. Charles Sims, Tampa Bay
Doug Martin caught the new regime off-guard with his strong performance last season, but Sims is the guy GM Jason Licht drafted with visions of No. 1 back. Sims is one of the league’s better passing backs, and if Martin is banged up Sims becomes a top-10 fantasy option.
39. Karlos Williams, Buffalo
He’ll be back in October, at which point he’ll vulture TDs from LeSean McCoy. Don’t go nuts if McCoy gets hurt though: Small sample size, but in three starts last year Williams went for 108 yards from scrimmage.
40. Jay Ajayi, Miami
Considering the Dolphins drafted Kenyan Drake and signed Arian Foster this offseason, new head coach Adam Gase isn’t too giddy over Ajayi. He’s their best pure runner, but Gase is a pass-first play-caller and Ajayi doesn’t fit his style.
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Other humans good enough to consider drafting, but not good enough for me to write about…
41. LeGarrette Blount, New England
42. Buck Allen, Baltimore
43. Chris Johnson, Arizona
44. Derrick Henry, Tennessee
45. James Starks, Green Bay
46. Theo Riddick, Detroit
47. Paul Perkins, N.Y. Giants
48. Tevin Coleman, Atlanta
49. C.J. Prosise, Seattle
50. Shane Vereen, N.Y. Giants
51. DeAndre Washington, Oakland
52. Darren Sproles, Philadelphia
53. Jordan Howard, Chicago
54. Cameron Artis-Payne, Carolina
55. Bilal Powell, N.Y. Jets
56. Andre Ellington, Arizona
57. Alf Morris, Dallas
58. Ronnie Hillman, Denver
59. C.J. Spiller, New Orleans
60. Jerick McKinnon, Minnesota
61. Stevan Ridley, Detroit
62. Charcandrick West, Kansas City
63. Robert Turbin, Indianapolis
64. Alf Blue, Houston
65. Kenneth Dixon, Baltimore
66. Darren McFadden, Dallas
67. Spencer Ware, Kansas City
68. Chris Thompson, Washington
69. Wendell Smallwood, Philadelphia
70. Devontae Booker, Denver
71. Tim Hightower, New Orleans
72. Kenyan Drake, Miami
73. Khiry Robinson, N.Y. Jets
74. Shaun Draughn, San Francisco
75. Benny Cunningham, Los Angeles
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