For years, running back has been the most important position in fantasy.
Yet with the emergence of a dominant group of wide receivers and the suspension of the game’s best rusher, running backs are losing their grip. Last year was a down year for running backs as well, with just two of the preseason top ten finishing in the top ten in fantasy points by the end of the year. Written off youngsters like Devonta Freeman to aging backups like DeAngelo Williams to unknown rookies like David Johnson flourished, while established stars like Eddie Lacy and DeMarco Murray floundered.
Do your research, because it wouldn’t be shocking if the same situation occurred again.
The Top Tier
Unlike past years, there is little parity among the league’s RB1-quality running backs. With Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell suspended for the first four games of the season, there are a number of running backs who would be worthy of being the first rusher drafted.
Todd Gurley (Los Angeles Rams, Bye Week 8)
Despite not starting a game until Week 4, the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year still finished fifth in fantasy among running backs last year, posting 1,294 yards from scrimmage and hit paydirt 10 times. Now fully healed, Gurley should terrorize defenses even further this season. The Rams plan on playing smash-mouth football, which bodes well for the powerful running back. However, with a rookie quarterback in Jared Goff and a terrible receiving corps, defenses will frequently put eight men in the box to stop Gurley.
Adrian Peterson (Minnesota Vikings, Bye Week 6)
Entering his tenth year in the league, the man they call “All Day” shows no signs of slowing down. With the exception of 2011, where he tore his ACL, and 2014, where he was suspended for domestic abuse, Peterson has rushed for over 1,200 yards every season of his career. The Vikings have an improving defense and face a relatively easy schedule. Teddy Bridgewater will likely be throwing the ball more this year, but that would open up the run game for Peterson.
David Johnson (Arizona Cardinals, Bye Week 9)
After Chris Johnson went down due to injury in Week 12 last season, the younger Johnson stepped up, totaling 658 scrimmage yards and 5 touchdowns over the rest of the year. The former Northern Iowa rusher has the build to be a north-south runner, but is one of the better pass-catching running backs in the game. He should be the bell cow of the offense, but with CJ2K and Andre Ellington back, the situation could get complicated.
Lamar Miller (Houston Texans, Bye Week 9)
The newly-minted Houston Texan is one of the top breakout candidates among running backs. Woefully underutilized in Miami, Miller was the sixth best running back in fantasy last year despite receiving less than 200 carries. The Texans run a ground-and-pound offense, and Alfred Blue and Tyler Ervin aren’t threats to steal many touches. Miller won’t face a very favorable schedule, but the positives outweigh the negatives.
Devonta Freeman (Atlanta Falcons, Bye Week 11)
The top scoring running back in fantasy last year, Freeman exploded onto the scene after rookie Tevin Coleman went down in Week 2, totaling 1,634 yards and 14 total touchdowns. The former Florida State Seminole is still just 24 years old and still coming into his own as a rusher. Even after Coleman returned, he rarely played, which shows Freeman will likely receive the lion’s share of carries. He slowed significantly down the stretch, however, making drafting him risky.
The Possibly Suspended Top Tier
Le’Veon Bell (Pittsburgh Steelers, Bye Week 8)
The consensus best running back in the game, Bell’s top dog status was jeopardized when he was suspended four games for repeatedly missing drug tests. He is appealing, but it is unlikely he will win. Another red flag is his health, as Bell missed ten games last year due to an MCL injury. However, Bell is still the most talented rusher in the game, and is still worthy of a late first/early second round selection. If you do draft Bell, make sure you grab DeAngelo Williams, who in Bell’s absence became the fourth highest-scoring running back in fantasy.
Ezekiel Elliott (Dallas Cowboys, Bye Week 7)
The fourth overall selection in this past year’s draft has not been handed down a suspension yet for Elliott’s alleged domestic violence incidents, but a suspension could be in the works. If Elliott makes it through relatively scot-free, he could be a tremendous asset in fantasy. Dallas’ offensive line, which includes former All-Pros Travis Frederick, Zack Martin and Tyron Smith, made DeMarco Murray and Darren McFadden into stars. With an Adrian Peterson-esque talent like Elliott, the sky’s the limit.
While these starting-quality running backs are worthy of top tier status, there are specific red flags that hold them back from joining the pantheon.
Jamaal Charles (Kansas City Chiefs, Bye Week 5)
Starting the season on the PUP list after suffering an ACL tear last season, Charles could provide sneaky value. Many worry about Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West receiving greater roles in the offense, and though Ware could steal some goal-line touches, neither is a threat to the four-time Pro Bowler. Charles has averaged a ridiculous 5.5 yards per attempt in his career, and has played at least 15 games in all but two of his eight seasons.
Doug Martin (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Bye Week 6)
The third best rusher in fantasy last year, the “Muscle Hamster” had one of his best seasons in 2015-16. The 27 year-old running back made contributions in the passing game as well as on the ground, and with the development of Jameis Winston, teams will be less likely to stack the box against Martin. If there is a red flag with Martin, it’s his inconsistency. After a tremendous rookie season, Martin averaged just 3.6 and 3.7 yards per carry in the two years following before coming out of the woodwork again.
Mark Ingram (New Orleans Saints, Bye Week 5)
Perennially overlooked, the former Heisman Trophy winner has been a consistent, if unspectacular option over the last two years. At 26, he is entering the prime of his career, and is carving out a larger role in the offense as Drew Brees ages. While CJ Spiller will take away some touches on third down, Ingram is the unquestioned starter in the Big Easy.
Thomas Rawls (Seattle Seahawks, Bye Week 5)
With Marshawn Lynch surprising the football world by retiring this offseason, the starting job in Seattle is Rawls’ for the taking. When pressed into action as a rookie last year, Rawls didn’t disappoint, averaging 5.65 yards per attempt. He put on a clinic against the 49ers in Week 10, rushing for 209 yards and scoring two touchdowns. Also, Seattle will face the league’s easiest schedule for running backs in 2016. However, the Seahawks administration drafted three running backs, including CJ Prosise, which may show a lack of faith in Rawls.
LeSean McCoy (Buffalo Bills, Bye Week 10)
Despite playing in only 12 games last year, “Shady” still managed to put up 1,187 yards from scrimmage. He remains one of the most dangerous running backs in the game, as his lateral capabilities are almost unparalleled. However, he only scored five touchdowns last year, and with between-the-tackles runner Karlos Williams back, those numbers may not improve. After Mike Gillislee showed potential last year, he may be more involved in the offense as well.
Eddie Lacy (Green Bay Packers, Bye Week 4)
Lacy was one of the biggest disappointments in fantasy last year, posting just 758 rushing yards and five scores after rushing for over 1,100 yards and double-digit touchdowns in his previous two seasons. While always being on the larger side, Lacy was downright out of shape last year, causing frustration among the Cheeseheads. This offseason, Lacy worked out with P90X founder Tony Horton, and is reportedly in terrific shape. He could be a great value pick in the third round.
Also worth mention: Jonathan Stewart, Carolina; Matt Forte, New York Jets; Carlos Hyde, San Francisco; Dion Lewis, New England; CJ Anderson, Denver
Committees to Watch
One of the most critical factors to take into consideration when drafting running backs, more so than with other positions, is the talent level of those sitting behind or ahead of him on the depth chart. With more teams employing multiple running backs in the rotation than ever, figuring out where your player sits among his own teammates could mean boom or bust.
Jacksonville Jaguars (TJ Yeldon vs. Chris Ivory, Bye Week 5)
While the Jaguars focused on the defensive side of the ball this offseason, they shelled out $32 million over five years for Ivory, the eighth highest scoring running back in fantasy last year. Since the Jaguars scored only five rushing touchdowns last year, a punishing north-south runner like Ivory is a welcome addition. Yeldon, the incumbent, will still play a major role in the offense. But whether or not he is confined to strictly third down duties could make or break his fantasy value.
Miami Dolphins (Jay Ajayi vs. Arian Foster vs. Kenyan Drake, Bye Week 8)
My deepest condolences to the members of the fantasy community who pounced on second year pro Ajayi before July 18. After the departure of Lamar Miller to Houston, it looked like Ajayi would dominate the touches in South Beach, with rookie Drake taking over on third down. Unfortunately for those people who thought they had a breakout candidate on their hands, Miami signed Foster to a one-year deal a few weeks ago. Foster has proven to be one of the best running backs in the game if, and this is a big if, he stays healthy. It will be interesting to see how this situation plays out under new head coach Adam Gase.
New York Giants (Rashad Jennings vs. Shane Vereen vs. Andre Williams vs. Paul Perkins, Bye Week 8)
The Giants have one of the most complicated running back situations in the league, making it a group to avoid in fantasy. Jennings played in all 16 games for the first time in his career last season, but could only muster 863 rushing yards and four total touchdowns. Vereen will likely be the third down specialist again, but the man to watch is rookie Paul Perkins. The fifth-round pick from UCLA can contribute in a multitude of ways, and if Jennings goes down again, he would be the likely candidate to step into the lead role.
Tennessee Titans (DeMarco Murray vs. Derrick Henry, Bye Week 13)
Immediately after the Titans and their old-school head coach Mike Mularkey signed Murray in free agency, the “sleeper” talk around the former rushing leader grew in fantasy circles. Just one disappointing year removed from dominating opponents as a Dallas Cowboy, Murray appeared to be back on the rise with an offense better suited to his style of play. Then the Titans shocked the football world by selecting former Heisman winner Henry in the second round of the draft. With two stud running backs with similar rushing styles, it will be hard to tell who will have the upper hand.
Also worth mention: Baltimore Ravens; Cleveland Browns; San Diego Chargers; Washington Redskins
With no obvious sleeper candidates in the 20-40 range of the running back rankings, some promising rushers are flying under the radar.
Latavius Murray (Oakland Raiders, Bye Week 10)
Despite the Raiders organization attempting to phase out Murray, he has a monopoly in the Raiders backfield. Rookie DeAndre Washington might carve out a third down role, but last year’s tenth best running back will be touching the ball frequently. David Carr and the rest of the passing game’s development will also open the field for the third-year back. Murray is ranked 20th among running backs for 2016, making him a great flex option.
Duke Johnson Jr. (Cleveland Browns, Bye Week 13)
For a flex play in deeper leagues, the second-year pro out of Miami is a high-ceiling option. Johnson received only 104 carries last season and didn’t score a rushing touchdown, but had 61 receptions for 534 yards and two touchdowns. With former Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson now running the show in Cleveland, expect a committee backfield where Isaiah Crowell fills the Jeremy Hill role and Johnson is used like Giovani Bernard. If the expected increase in touches for Johnson occurs, he would be a strong mid-to-late round pick.
Ameer Abdullah (Detroit Lions, Bye Week 10)
It is no secret that the Lions plan to pass the ball in 2016. With Matt Stafford at quarterback, offensively-minded head coach Jim Caldwell, and a porous defense, a power run game isn’t going to lead Detroit to victory in a division that includes the Packers and Vikings. With bruising runner Joique Bell gone, pass catching specialist Abdullah is the main option. Detroit faces one of the easiest schedules for running backs this upcoming year, so if Abdullah can hold off undrafted second-year runner Zach Zenner and another third down specialist in Theo Riddick, the former Cornhusker will be a top 20 running back.
Also worth mention: Ryan Mathews, Philadelphia; Melvin Gordon, San Diego; Frank Gore, Indianapolis
After previously mentioned top two Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry, there is a lot of solid depth among the rookie class. While most are mired in backup spots, there is potential for some to make an immediate impact.
Kenneth Dixon (Baltimore Ravens, Bye Week 8)
Even though Justin Forsett has experienced a career revival in Baltimore, Dixon has definite sleeper potential. Forsett is on the wrong side of 30 and is coming off a season where he rushed for just 641 yards in ten games before injury struck. Javorius Allen was a serviceable replacement, but he averaged just 3.75 yards per carry last year. If the dynamic Dixon gets his chance, he will be a quality flex option.
Jordan Howard (Chicago Bears, Bye Week 9)
The Indiana product is in a similar situation to Dixon, as he is the primary backup to a subpar running back. With the former engine of the Chicago offense, Matt Forte, leaving for the Jets, Jeremy Langford steps into the starting role. Langford produced 816 scrimmage yards and seven touchdowns in a committee backfield last year, but the 3.6 yards per carry average is worrisome. If the incumbent continues to struggle, Howard could supplant him.
DeVontae Booker (Denver Broncos, Bye Week 11)
The Super Bowl champs are looking vulnerable after a brutal free agency period, and the fears that Mark Sanchez, he of Buttfumble infamy, will be the starting quarterback at Mile High are being realized. A strong ground game is the only way the Broncos will be able to simply compete in their division, and third round pick Booker will be involved in that rushing attack. Booker may not be the fastest guy, but the former Utah Ute possesses the vision and patience to succeed at the next level.
Also worth mention: CJ Prosise, Seattle; Wendell Smallwood, Philadelphia; Tyler Ervin, Houston
Stats courtesy of espn.com, strength of schedule courtesy of fftoolbox.com.