clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

2016 Fantasy football: Running back rankings

New, comments

Here we go: football is right around the corner and it's about that time to start doing some research about fantasy football. Let Ryan Mathews do the research while you reap the benefits.

Phillip Faraone/Getty Images

Editor's note: Even though our Pride Of Detroit fantasy league is full, start up another POD league at Yahoo! sports. We already have one overflow league, but if you're still on the outside looking in, head to the fanposts and create a new league.

Once the crown jewels of your fantasy team's crown, running backs have taken a backseat to the new darlings of fantasy football: wide receivers. Even though it's getting more and more difficult to project just what kind of production you're going to get out of a running back for a myriad of reasons -- time shares, injuries and evolving offensive schemes to name a few -- picking the right running back at the right spot could set your team up for a season's worth of success. But first, if you haven't had a chance check out the other positional rankings yet, check them out here:

Here are the quarterback positional rankings.

Here's how I ranked the tight ends.

Alright, no more waiting, let's get back to the 2016 Guide to Crushing the Competition:

Group "The young bucks are coming, the young bucks are coming!"

1. David Johnson

It’s one of the biggest pitfalls of fantasy football: you can’t win this year’s championship by drafting the players that won last year’s title. David Johnson may or may not have been a member of the team that won it all in your league last year, but if you have him in 2016, your odds of winning it all dramatically increase. There are some concerns about Johnson’s situation in Arizona: "Chris Johnson still stands to see some carries", "David Johnson didn’t play very well down the stretch", or, my personal favorite to debunk, "He only really played for half of a year."

Yes, Chris Johnson will still see the field and yes, he will still get carries so as long as he’s productive. However, it didn’t really matter last year when David and Chris were in a timeshare in Arizona’s backfield, they were both reliable fantasy options; one stands to receive more work than the other this year though, and that’s why DJ is prime to score a lot of fantasy points in 2016. You’re thinking to yourself, "Well, I’m not going to draft a guy as the first running back off the board if he’s only ‘reliable.’ I need a workhorse to get me points!" Seeing as "workhorse" backs are so scarce in the league these days, you shouldn’t get caught up in archaic lingo that’s only going to taint your perception of who’s available when it’s your turn to draft a running back. David Johnson may have shared the backfield with Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington — he didn’t even see double-digit carries until Week 12 (22) — but he still finished seventh among all running backs in fantasy points. Pretty good finish for a guy who touched the ball a total of 161 times in 2015. In his rookie season, he had eight weeks where he had less than four carries and less than three targets. Considering how little work he got early in 2015, expect that number to almost double in 2016.

Johnson was on the field for 412, or 37.4 percent, of the snaps on offense in 2015. As it stands now, by nearly all the news coming out of Cardinals’ camp, Johnson should see far more snaps this season; he should see an increase rushing attempts this season and he should see an increase in targets, both out of the backfield and lined up as a receiver in the slot as he’s become more acclimated with the offense. But is there reason to believe that DJ could hit a wall and wear down since he’s not used to the workload of a full season? It’s a concern, but it’s not something that should turn you away from going with David Johnson at No. 1 overall because he does have Chris Johnson to come in, get a few carries and take some of the pressure off of him if need be. A lot of this belief in DJ comes from looking at what he did in limited time — he only started five games — and projecting where he could go from there. Not a single running back in fantasy, outside of maybe the second guy on this list, has NFL reps and a bigger percentage of chances heading into 2016.

2. Todd Gurley

Gurley was one of the biggest question marks heading into the 2015 season. After drafting him, the Rams made it clear they were going to bring him along at a pace that wouldn’t put him at risk to re-injure the knee he was rehabbing from ACL surgery. He didn’t play in the preseason and then he was held out of the first two weeks of the season completely. Week 3 saw him make a brief appearance against the Steelers — six carries for nine yards — and then it was off to the races. By Week 8, Gurley had emerged as a bona fide fantasy stud. In his first four starts, Gurley averaged 141.5 rushing yards per game and 6.6 yards per attempt. His ten rushing touchdowns placed him fifth among running backs, he was one of seven rushers to break 1,000 yards rushing in 2015, his 4.8 yards per attempt landed him at sixth among runners and his 85.1 yards per game put him behind only Adrian Peterson and Doug Martin in that category. All of this led to an NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award and it seems like the sky is the limit for Gurley in year two.

The Rams are still very much a work-in-progress on offense and Gurley is without a doubt the most talented player on that side of the ball; Todd Gurley is the offense. Jared Goff is a rookie quarterback who will surely experience ups and downs and the receiving corps doesn’t have a single player who should be drafted in your league — although I’m going to pick up Tavon Austin at some point this year because, like last year, he’ll do something so mind-blowingly incredible I won’t be able to resist. In 2015, the Rams had a 47.56%/52.44% run to pass ratio, and their run percentage of 47.56% was seventh highest in all of the NFL. They will continue to run the ball with Gurley this year and even though defenses will key in on the run and stack the box, Gurley — without a carry limit like he had to begin last year — will still get a high volume of opportunities, just like he did last year in the face of all the attention he was getting. Gurley was ninth in carries last year with 229, expect him to have right around 300 attempts, barring injury, because there is no one that he is sharing the backfield with in Los Angeles.

Group "The last remnant of the bell cow back"

3. Adrian Peterson

He’s 31-years-old, but he hasn’t shown any signs of aging. After missing nearly an entire season due to suspension in 2014, Adrian Peterson came out of the gate in 2015 like a man ready to remind everyone that he is still the gold-standard when it comes to running backs in fantasy football. After a strange Week 1 where the 49ers beat the Vikings thoroughly and completely — and the Vikings learned it was time for the team to ditch the idea of giving the ball to Peterson out of shotgun formations — it was back to the same ol’ thing with Peterson. His rushing yards per attempt in the following weeks were 4.6, 6.3, 5,1, 2.3, 5.2, 5.2, 4.3 and 7.8. He led the league in rushing attempts, rushing yards, rushing yards per game and rushing touchdowns. When it comes to running backs scoring fantasy points, it’s nice to have them catch the ball and get into the end zone both through the air and on the ground; after all, a rushing touchdown is worth as much as 60 rushing yards in most leagues. In his career, Peterson has yet to score less than 10 touchdowns in a season where he’s played at least 12 games. Peterson has finished in the top five in rushing touchdowns in every year of his career aside from 2008, where he finished tied for eighth in the league with 10.

Until Peterson shows any signs of slowing down, this offense will continue to run the football first and rely on Teddy Bridgewater to make throws in certain situations. The Vikings added more weapons on offense, like first-round selection Laquon Treadwell, which will give the passing game more opportunities to keep drives alive as a means to feed Peterson the ball. Word out of camp is that the team is trying to find more ways to involve AD in the passing game, and while this sounds promising, it shouldn’t be something you should expect to actually materialize. Some may consider him to be a "dinosaur" in fantasy as people expect elite fantasy running backs to be prolific pass-catchers, but look at where Peterson has ranked in standard leagues over the past few years without doing much in the passing game: second in 2015, eighth in 2013 and first in 2012. In those years, of the top ten running backs, Peterson’s reception totals were in the bottom half, finishing 10th in 2013, tied for ninth in 2015 and sixth in 2012. In other words, just because he’s not part of the "new wave" of running backs that are the trendy pick doesn’t mean he can’t put up points and keep pace.

Group "All I need is a chance"

4. Lamar Miller

I wasn’t so high on the fantasy prospects of Lamar Miller and his move to Houston when it first happened. It seemed like a chance for another season of disappointment for a running back that has had trouble living up to offseason reports of him being "the guy" in the backfield. After doing some digging, Lamar Miller moved from the mid-teens on this list, all the way up to this spot right here. It doesn’t take much convincing, so here goes: Joe Philbin didn’t know what he had and Bill O’Brien will give him the carries and targets to make him a sure-fire first-round talent.

In his three seasons as a starter, Miller has had over 200 rushing attempts only once — the 2014 season where he rushed for 1,099 yards to the tune of 5.1 YPA and nine total touchdowns. What’s even more jarring when looking at the numbers from Miller’s time in Miami is that he never averaged more than 14 attempts per game, but Ryan Tannehill was busy throwing the ball 586 times last year, good for eighth in pass attempts in 2015. Not only is that the reason Philbin was left at the airport, but it’s the reason why you should love Miller’s situation in Houston: the Texans ran the ball 472 times in 2015, good for fifth in the NFL and good news for those of you looking for a running back that many of your fellow owners will pass on because they believed in Joe Philbin.

Group "New knee, new me!"

5. Jamaal Charles

There were two running backs that absolutely crushed the dreams of fantasy team owners everywhere due to injury: Jamaal Charles and Le’Veon Bell. In Week 5, Charles tore his ACL for the second time in his career, this time in his right knee. In 2011, Charles missed the final 14 games of the regular season only to return in 2012 and have the best season of his career up until that point. Things aren’t that simple for Charles heading into 2016. He’ll be 30 near this season’s end and without as much time to rehab his knee this time around if he hopes to be ready for the start of the season. Even with that risk, Charles is still a top pick in fantasy this year.

Take a look back at the year he was putting together in 2015 before he went down with an injury: three top-seven finishes, 16 FPts/G, 5.1 yards per carry, 8.4 yards per reception and five total touchdowns. Had Charles not gotten injured and finished the season, he would have likely finished somewhere in the top five amongst running backs and changed the outcome of plenty of leagues. Instead, Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware had a chance to share carries out of the backfield and the running back by committee was productive with both of the backs each getting shine. Outside of the red flag because of his knee, Charles should see some of his carries get distributed between mostly West and Ware, with the majority of those carries going to the back who comes out of camp the RB2.

His ability as a pass catcher is something the Chiefs should take advantage of this season, but in general, the Chiefs should just put the ball in his hands: in 2013, Charles had 70 receptions and 259 rushing attempts, more touches than he’s had in any other year, and he scored 19 touchdowns. The Chiefs won 11 games that season and were a playoff collapse away from beating the Colts and advancing. Point is, Charles is now off the PUP list, and reports have him being ready for Week 1 of the regular season. If he’s the same back he was before he went down last season, there’s no reason to think he isn’t capable of picking up where he left off.

6. Le’Veon Bell

The amount of confidence I have in Bell returning from his injured knee is probably unhealthy. Checking in at No. 6 on this list, you might be thinking this is much too high for a running back that isn’t only returning from a torn MCL, but isn’t going to see the field for the first four weeks of the regular season. Allow me to explain myself in a few words: draft DeAngelo Williams. If you’re going to invest in Bell — and as the No. 6 running back, he would likely be a late first, early second-round selection — you need to utilize what’s known in fantasy circles as the "handcuff." The handcuff is, essentially, drafting both of the top running backs in a backfield to ensure you don’t miss an ounce of their production in case something unfortunate happens to one or the other. When it comes down to it, in fantasy football, you’re as much drafting situations and opportunities as you are the talent attached to the name. In this case, drafting Williams is a preemptive strike; you’re not concerned about who is going to win the starting job, you’re buying into his situation, opportunities in the Steelers’ offense and the staggering numbers he put last season taking over the RB1 duties: 200 rushing attempts, 907 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns and 40 catches for 367 yards.

But enough about who you need to draft if you invest a valuable, early draft pick on Bell; let’s talk about the guy who would have been No. 1 on this list if he didn’t have a four-game suspension looming. Le’Veon Bell is, without a doubt, the most valuable running back in fantasy football, and I think that from Week 5 through Week 17, he’ll prove that. His unique ability to rack up the yards on the ground and catch footballs in bunches are what makes him valuable in any league you’re playing in, regardless of the scoring system. Last year, before Bell went down, he was averaging 14.5 FPts/G in standard ESPN leagues. Granted it's a small sample size in 2015, but Bell has the track record, and 14.5 FPts/G in 2015 was good enough to finish fifth among running backs. In six games, he had 556 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns and 24 receptions for 136 yards. He was averaging nearly 23 touches per game, even after returning to a team where DeAngelo Williams was already shouldering the load and running well.

Bottom line: if you're concerned about the suspension, draft DeAngelo Williams. If you're concerned about the knee, watch this:

Group "I hope @alex_reno's mom drafts this player"

7. LeSean McCoy

Everybody is invited to the LeSean McCoy comeback season party: it’s free of gender discrimination, and it’s going to be an all-season event. Even you, Alex Reno, even you are invited. I think the only thing that might hold back McCoy is Karlos Will… Well, he won’t be back for four weeks after getting suspended for taking something he shouldn’t have, but at least he’s back in shape after having pregnant cravings. Okay, so that just means the next back will probably vulture carries from Shady and that name is… Reggie Bush. Alright, do you see my point? This is LeSean McCoy’s job and even after Williams’ returns, he’s still going to get a ton of opportunities — maybe more than any other running back in the league. The Bills were second in the NFL in rushing attempts in 2015 and that kind of dedicated commitment to running the ball bodes well for McCoy: In 2014 and 2013, McCoy had 312 and 314 rush attempts respectively and finished in the top three in both rush attempts and rushing yards.

The Bills did shut down McCoy after a nagging injury turned into a torn MCL that caused him to miss the final two weeks of the season, but still only 28, there isn’t much reason to believe that Shady can’t return and put up big numbers with a substantial carry total.

8. Ezekiel Elliott

In all my time playing fantasy football, I have never seen a rookie as highly coveted and ranked near — or at the top — of not only his position, but in the entire league. It’s not completely mind-numbing: Elliott is a talented runner, there's a reason he was the fourth pick in the draft. This hype is just a tad overblown in the end, that's all.

Of course, there are no stats that I can reference here to show you how Elliott played last year in the NFL. I can't tell you if he was a victim of running back by committee or underutilized. Well, wait, I can do the latter. What I can tell you is that the Cowboys offensive line is the best in the NFL. There were only seven 1,000-yard rushers in the league last year and Darren McFadden was one of them. He actually finished fourth in rushing yards and it wasn't because of attempts, he averaged 4.6 YPA, something he hadn't done since he was 23 years old.

So, to summarize, because of Darren McFadden, by way of Tyron Smith, La'el Collins, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin and Doug Free, Ezekiel Elliott will succeed. Will he live up to the fantasy hype? Probably.

Group "How did the entire NFC South end up right here?"

9. Doug Martin

10. Mark Ingram

11. Devonta Freeman

12. Jonathan Stewart

Of the names in this group, Devonta Freeman might be a name that you’re surprised to see this low. It might be lower than any other name you’ve seen so far, if you’ve been reading other content this website’s Twitter account has had you reading. Here’s why they’re wrong on suggesting you take Devonta Freeman any higher than round two: Tevin Coleman and consistency. Freeman’s 2015 was terrific: He scored more fantasy points than any other running back and he averaged more fantasy points than any other back. Sometimes, though, stats can be a bit deceiving, and I think that’s the case here; Freeman was fantastic, but in spurts. Week 3 he had 30 carries for 141 yards and five catches for 52 yards. Week 5 he had 27 carries for 153 yards, seven catches for 44 yards. The following week, Freeman had 13 carries for 100 yards and a rushing touchdown to go along with eight catches for 56 yards and another score. In all three of these weeks, Freeman was either first or second in fantasy points among running backs. Conversely, in Weeks 1, 7, 12, 13 and 14, Freeman finished outside of the top 16 running backs, and finished outside of the top 40 for three of those weeks.

And then there’s the matter of Tevin Coleman. In Week 11, when Freeman was under concussion protocol, Coleman got the chance to start and made all of his opportunity against a stout Vikings defense: 18 rushes for 110 yards for a 6.1 YPA. With Tevin Coleman getting more and more reps in training camp, especially in receiving situations, the Falcons are going to share the snaps in the backfield.

Group "Super glad he’s away from Chip Kelly"

13. DeMarco Murray

Group "The rest of the AFC West backs"

14. Latavius Murray

15. C.J. Anderson

Group "Looks like he really did lay off the China food"

16. Eddie Lacy

In Green Bay’s preseason opener, Lacy was moving really well, looking more explosive once given the ball and even doing so on consecutive carries. He does look as though he’s cut some weight from last season, but I just can’t advise you to take him any higher than round three in your draft: his production was much too volatile last season and losing the starting job to James Starks last season was an eye-opener. Still, that could have been a source of motivation, and Lacy could finally take the next step to reach the fantasy potential he showed in his first two seasons.

Group "The rest of the NFC West runners"

17. Carlos Hyde

18. Thomas Rawls

After he opened the NFL season on Monday night against the Vikings and looked like he switched bodies with Adrian Peterson, Hyde had a foot injury that bothered him all of last season. In Chip Kelly’s high volume offense, Hyde should get a lot of snaps and chances.

Rawls, like Hyde, had his season cut short due to an injury and is considered to be the next bell-cow, the successor to Beast Mode. If that was truly the case, I’m not sure why the Seahawks drafted precisely 1,000 running backs in the draft. I’m still optimistic about Rawls this season should his ankle be healed and healthy: his 5.6 YPA were the best in the NFL last year.

Group "It me"

19. Ryan Mathews

Group "Only if you’re willing to carry their handcuff all season"

20. Matt Forte

21. Dion Lewis

22. Danny Woodhead

Group "Cincinnati Bengals"

23. Jeremy Hill

24. Giovani Bernard

Group "Will these guys be the feature back by season’s end?"

25. Ameer Abdullah

26. Matt Jones

27. Arian Foster

28. Matt Jones

29. Frank Gore

30. Rashad Jennings

Group "The four game starter"

31. DeAngelo Williams

Group "You’ll find them on your waiver wire at least once, and they’ll be worth picking up and stashing"

32. T.J. Yeldon

33. Duke Johnson

34. Justin Forsett

35. Bilal Powell

34. Chris Ivory

35. Theo Riddick

Group "You’ll find them on the waiver and you’ll be pretty desperate to be counting on them for starts"

36. Charles Sims

37. Jay Ajayi

38. Javorius Allen

39. Darren Sproles

40. Chris Johnson

41. Shane Vereen

42. LeGarrette Blount

43. Darren McFadden

44. Charcandrick West

Group "Will probably be better than the ten guys ahead of them on this list at some point"

45. Tevin Coleman

46. Kenneth Dixon

47. Wendell Smallwood

48. Jordan Howard

49. Paul Perkins

50. Devontae Booker