Why, it’s fantasy football season, ladies and degenerates. Time to get back into your comfiest office chair and assume all the responsibility of a team owner—minus the overt racism and sexism displayed by those who do it for a living, of course!
It’s 2018 and running backs are still your ticket to success in fantasy football. Of the top 15 fantasy point scorers in point-per-reception leagues last season, six of them were running backs, including three of the top four overall point getters—Todd Gurley (first), Le’Veon Bell (third), and Alvin Kamara (fourth). Now say it with me: see the running back, value the running back, draft the running back.
Depending on the size of your league and the amount of positions you’re required to start each week, the need for running back changes slightly, but nevertheless, getting your first couple of picks right will not only go a long way towards increasing your odds of making the playoffs, but it’s going to make the waiver wire a lot less stressful after Week 1.
Let’s check into this year’s running back rankings for PPR leagues.
Tier 1 - The Elite
1. Ezekiel Elliott - Dallas Cowboys
2017 stats: 242 carries, 983 yards, 7 rushing TDs, 38 targets, 26 receptions, 269 yards, 2 receiving TDs
After a half season-long charade of being suspended—and then not being suspended—Elliott finally ceded to the NFL, dropped his appeal and served his six-game suspension after Week 8 last year. He returned for the final two games of the Cowboys season, playing ten games total in 2017, and finishing 17 yards shy of rushing for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. Even with the off-the-field issues he faced last season, Elliott still finished third amongst running backs in fantasy points per game, rushing for a league-high 98.3 yards per game.
As the Cowboys attempt to pick up the pieces from their troublesome 2017 season, they’ll need Elliott to be the catalyst for an offense missing both Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, two former faces of the franchise, and Elliott should be more than up to the task. Bryant and Witten were the Cowboys’ most-targeted receivers in 2017, racking up 219 targets between the two of them. Dallas traded for veteran playmaker Tavon Austin and drafted Michael Gallup in the third round of the draft, but their receiving corps as a whole is underwhelming. Zeke hasn’t been the recipient of more than 40 targets in a season yet, but this year should provide him with more opportunities as a pass-catcher.
2. Todd Gurley - Los Angeles Rams
2017 stats: 279 carries, 1,305 yards, 13 rushing TDs, 87 targets, 64 receptions, 788 yards, 6 receiving TDs
For anyone who doubted Gurley after his sophomore slump, it’s pretty clear the biggest challenge he was up against in 2016 was Jeff Fisher. With Sean McVay taking over the offense, the league and anyone following took notice.
This offseason, the Rams went for broke—as they should have with their franchise quarterback on his rookie contract—acquiring Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib, and Marcus Peters to bolster an already top-12 defense. On offense, the addition of speedster Brandin Cooks—to the tune of an $80 million, five-year extension, on the outside makes an already top-ranked offense even more potent, and Gurley will stand to benefit from an efficiency standpoint. However, he may see a small dip in usage with the addition of Cooks, which puts him second to only Elliott.
3. Le’Veon Bell - Pittsburgh Steelers
2017 stats: 321 carries, 1,291 yards, 9 rushing TDs, 106 targets, 85 receptions, 655 yards, 2 receiving TDs
Based on play and talent alone, Bell is just as deserving, if not more so than Elliott, of the top spot on this list. In 2017, Bell led the league in carries and was second in targets among running backs, and with the Steelers and Bell unable to reach an agreement on a contract extension for the second straight offseason, you can bet it’s in the Steelers’ best interest to utilize Bell as much as they can in 2018. Bell’s 4.0 yards per carry in 2017 may seem like a sign of him slowing down, but in all actuality, he’s just as efficient as ever.
But—and there’s always a but—it’s important to keep an eye on how the situation between the Steelers and Bell progresses in the weeks leading up to your draft. In an interview with SiriusXM Radio, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported it’s possible Bell could sit out for the first half of the 2018 season to avoid injury with the plan to hit the open market in 2019 with less wear and tear on his body. And after seeing Todd Gurley and the Rams come to an agreement, resetting the market for running backs, Bell could feel even more slighted than when the two sides failed to reach an agreement.
However, should Bell suit up and play for the Steelers—which seems the most likely scenario to play itself out—there’s obviously plenty incentive for him to ball out without a long-term contract in hand. Never underestimate the motivation of a contract year, and, also, you know, never count out one of the best running backs in the league who has proven himself as such year after year.
4. David Johnson - Arizona Cardinals
2017 stats: 11 carries, 23 yards, 9 targets, 6 receptions, 67 yards
Johnson’s season was cut short with a wrist injury after just three quarters of play in 2017, but the guy who led the league in yards from scrimmage in 2016 is back and healthy to start the season.
The Cardinals spent the first three picks of their 2018 draft rebuilding the offense, moving up to pick No. 10 to take quarterback Josh Rosen from UCLA, drafting Texas A&M wideout Christian Kirk, and then adding depth along the offensive line by selecting Mason Cole from Michigan. Aside from veteran—and future Hall of Famer—Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona is sparse on proven talent at the skill positions, so expect the Cardinals to call Johnson’s name often this season as he lives up to his RB1 billing.
Tier 2 - The Next Best Thing
5. Saquon Barkley - New York Giants
2017 stats: 217 carries, 1,271 yards, 18 rushing TDs, 54 receptions, 632 yards, 3 receiving TDs*
For the past two seasons, fantasy owners have been primed for this lesson on where to take rookie running backs. First it was Elliott in 2016, whose overall ADP in PPR leagues was 8.3, a fair but ultimately low price for the second best player in fantasy football that season. Last year there were a bevy of rookie backs worthy of being first or early second-round picks, but owners were wary. They ignored the writing on the wall with someone like Hunt, whose ADP was 18.7 even though Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware were both out of the picture by draft time and Hunt ended up placing 9th among all fantasy scorers.
Point being: Believe the hype surrounding Saquon Barkley, not only because of his undeniable talent, but because of his situation; he’s going to be the No. 1 guy in New York from day one on all three downs.
6. Alvin Kamara - New Orleans Saints
2017 stats: 120 carries, 728 yards, 8 rushing TDs, 100 targets, 81 receptions, 826 yards, 5 receiving TDs
Pegged by some to be this year’s most likely bust candidate, there’s, of course, virtually no way Kamara can replicate the type of efficiency he posted in his rookie season when he ran for a league leading 6.1 yards per carry. However, with Mark Ingram suspended for the first four games of 2018, Kamara’s volume of opportunities is going to be even bigger than anticipated, making the efficiency with which he runs the ball not nearly as important as it was during 2017.
Kamara is a legitimate threat to gain 2,000 yards from scrimmage at some point in his career, potentially being the first running back since Marshall Faulk in 1999 to rush for 1,000 yards and receive for 1,000 yards. He may even come close this year with a four-game sample of what Kamara is capable of as a lead back, and that’s enough to keep him in the discussion as an RB1 for 2018.
7. Kareem Hunt - Kansas City Chiefs
2017 stats: 272 carries, 1,327 yards, 8 rushing TDs, 63 targets, 53 receptions, 455 yards, 3 receiving TDs
The NFL’s leading rusher from a year ago will return to an offense almost overloaded with weapons—if there’s even such a thing? The Chiefs offense is even more vertical than it was a year ago with the addition of Sammy Watkins in free agency, and the insertion of Patrick Mahomes into the starting quarterback role after the team traded Alex Smith before this year’s draft.
Here’s the case for Hunt having another RB1 season, and why I have him seventh on this list: Hunt will be more involved in the passing game according to Andy Reid—good news for PPR leagues—and Hunt’s rookie wall that he hit from Week 8 through Week 13 shouldn’t be as prevalent an issue in Year 2—Hunt had three games with less than 12 carries and four games of less than four receptions during that stretch.
Tier 3 - Still RB1 Territory
8. Melvin Gordon - Los Angeles Chargers
2017 stats: 284 carries, 1,105 yards, 8 rushing TDs, 83 targets, 58 receptions, 476 yards, 4 receiving TDs
Last season, Melvin Gordon proved his 2016 season wasn’t a fluke. Gordon set career marks last year in a number of categories including carries, rushing yards, targets, receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. All of these accolades helped propel Gordon to a top-5 finish among running backs in fantasy points, and given the Chargers situation on offense, he could be in a position to do it again this season.
Los Angeles is without emerging tight end Hunter Henry, and the team will be hard pressed to find someone who can replicate his type of production, leaving the Chargers to once again lean on the former Wisconsin Badger out of the backfield to keep itself moving forward. Gordon will be a steal of sorts for those who invest in him in the second round, especially since his usage in the passing game could increase without Henry.
9. Leonard Fournette - Jacksonville Jaguars
2017 stats: 268 carries, 1,040 yards, 9 rushing TDs, 48 targets, 36 receptions, 302 yards, 1 receiving TD
Fournette was the first running back taken in the 2017 NFL Draft, but he wasn’t the first rookie running back taken in fantasy drafts last season. In fact, Fournette’s ADP (27) was lower than two other rookie runners—Hunt and McCaffrey—and only slightly higher than Cook’s (27.5). Despite being drafted into a situation where it seemed like he would immediately be the team’s leading rusher, on a team with a mediocre quarterback at best in Blake Bortles, Fournette didn’t get the same type of love in fantasy drafts as rookie runners before him. Fantasy owners ended up being right on not overdrafting him after Fournette had an albeit respectable finish as the 33rd best fantasy player in 2017—and finishing ninth among running backs.
After Jacksonville’s trip to the AFC Championship Game, it’s pretty clear the team is going to win with their defense and by controlling the ball on offense. Fournette dealt with some injuries a year ago, limiting him to just 13 games, but it’s his limited use on third down and in the receiving game that puts a cap on his ceiling in fantasy. In Fournette’s first year he had just 14 carries and 6 targets on third down plays, and it’s hard to see those numbers increasing in his sophomore season.
10. Dalvin Cook - Minnesota Vikings
2017 stats: 74 carries, 354 yards, 4 rushing TDs, 16 targets, 11 receptions, 90 yards
Averaging 4.8 yards per carry for four games before an ACL injury ended his rookie season, Cook was proving to be the talented running back many had anticipated him being out of Florida State. The Vikings will have virtually the same group of talented skill players minus Jerick McKinnon which only emboldens Cook’s role out of the backfield as a receiver. Add in Kirk Cousins, an incredibly accurate passer, and the Vikings offense should be improved over a year ago—unless that offensive line ends up being even worse than advertised.
Believing in Dalvin Cook’s durability, and just a four-game sample size, is a risk fantasy owners will have to take with Minnesota’s lead back, but it’s one absolutely worth taking in the early second round to nab a potential RB1.
11. Christian McCaffrey - Carolina Panthers
2017 stats: 117 carries, 435 yards, 2 rushing TDs, 113 targets, 80 receptions, 651 yards, 5 receiving TDs
The second running back taken in the 2017 NFL Draft, McCaffrey, to no one’s surprise, instantly became a fixture in the Panthers offense. Among running backs, McCaffrey led the league in targets (113) and was third in receptions (80) which makes him a prime candidate for PPR leagues despite his deficiencies as a runner in his rookie season—just 3.7 yards per carry.
During the offseason, the Panthers swapped out veteran Jonathan Stewart for former Broncos running back C.J. Anderson. It wouldn’t surprise if Anderson gets an equal, if not bigger workload in terms of carries, but even so, McCaffrey’s role as a receiver, and his hopeful growth as a runner from his rookie season to his second season, puts him in the mix as an RB1.
Tier 4 - On the Fringe
12. Devonta Freeman - Atlanta Falcons
2017 stats: 196 carries, 865 yards, 7 rushing TDs, 47 targets, 36 receptions, 317 yards, 1 receiving TD
The curious case of the Falcons backfield continues in Atlanta for at least another season. When the Falcons signed Freeman to a contract that made him the highest-paid running back in the NFL, it was a show of faith from Atlanta in his ability to be the lead runner despite the presence of Tevin Coleman in the Falcons backfield.
Last year, Freeman missed a couple of games with a knee injury and a couple of concussions, but he was still his productive self, largely due to his ability to find the end zone—Freeman has 29 rushing touchdowns over the past three seasons including a league-high 11 scores in 2015. Should he be healthy in 2018, Freeman has an RB2 floor, even with Coleman—who’s in the final year of his deal—still a part of the Falcons backfield.
13. Jordan Howard - Chicago Bears
2017 stats: 276 carries, 1,122 yards, 9 rushing TDs, 32 targets, 23 receptions, 125 yards
Howard’s stellar play has flown under the radar due to the Bears not being very competitive over his first two seasons, but in both 2016 and 2017, Howard was a top-14 finish among running backs in PPR leagues.
Matt Nagy, former offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, is the Chicago Bears new head coach, and if things go according to plan, the Bears will shift to a more pass-centric offense. Adding both Allen Robinson and Trey Burton in free agency, and Anthony Miller in the second round of the draft, is a clear sign Chicago is undergoing a bit of an identity shift. Howard should still be an effective runner (5.1 YPC his rookie season, 4.2 YPC in 2017) and, at the very least, a flex option week to week in 2018.
14. Jay Ajayi - Philadelphia Eagles
2017 stats: 208 carries, 873 yards, 1 rushing TD, 34 targets, 24 receptions, 158 yards, 1 receiving TD
Traded at the deadline from the listless Dolphins to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Eagles, Philadelphia’s offseason has cleared the way for Ajayi to become the lead back in a once crowded backfield.
Ajayi’s play in 2016 earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl, rushing for 1,272 yards and 8 touchdowns on 260 carries—good for 4.9 yards per carry. In 2017, Ajayi got off to a horrendous start, rushing for just 465 yards on 138 carries (3.4 yards per carry) until he experienced a complete turnaround in terms of efficiency once he got to Philadelphia—in seven games with the Eagles, he ran for 408 yards on just 70 carries.
With veteran back Darren Sproles still a part of the offense, Ajayi’s ceiling is capped in PPR leagues in comparison to some of the other top backs, but he should still be a reliable RB2.
15. Jerick McKinnon - San Francisco 49ers
2017 stats: 150 carries, 570 yards, 3 rushing TD, 68 targets, 51 receptions, 421 yards, 2 receiving TDs
If Kamara is the player with the most bust potential based on where he’s being drafted in leagues, McKinnon will be a close second.
McKinnon signed a four-year, $30 million contract this offseason to lead Kyle Shanahan’s backfield in San Francisco despite being extremely inefficient runner during his past two seasons in Minnesota—just 3.6 yards per carry over the course of 2016 and 2017. Of course, many are optimistic about his ability as a receiver out of the backfield and are assuming an uptick in volume with his new job in the Bay.
Based on his receiving totals and role in the 49ers offense, McKinnon is a shoo-in for RB2-level production, but it will be his ability—or inability—as a runner that will determine his worth in 2018.
16. LeSean McCoy - Buffalo Bills
2017 stats: 287 carries, 1,138 yards, 6 rushing TDs, 77 targets, 59 receptions, 448 yards, 2 receiving TDs
LeSean McCoy, the human being, is currently under investigation for his alleged role in a home invasion attack that left his ex-girlfriend, Delicia Cordon, badly beaten. Recently, Cordon’s lawyer, Tonya Mitchell Graham, has communicated that Cordon is “no longer certain the NFL star was involved in the attack.”
LeSean McCoy, the running back, turned 30 recently which is usually a mile marker that brings with it a sharp decline in production. Shady’s numbers have been steadily declining for years, but he’s maintained his fantasy position as an RB1 with the floor of an RB2, especially in PPR leagues.
It’s gross to be having a discussion about McCoy’s fantasy value in comparison to these serious allegations because life is life and football is a game, but just to be clear, McCoy is basically undraftable until this situation is resolved.
Tier 5 - The Illustrious RB2’s
17. Kenyan Drake - Miami Dolphins
2017 stats: 133 carries, 644 yards, 3 rushing TDs, 48 targets, 32 receptions, 239 yards, 1 receiving TD
After spending the first year and a half of his career as depth, Drake finally got the chance to take the lead in Miami’s backfield after Jay Ajayi was traded to the Eagles at the deadline. Drake finally secured the top spot over fellow back Damien Williams over the final five games of the season, running for 444 yards on just 91 carries—4.9 yards per carry—and catching 17 passes for 150 yards on 28 targets.
Drake did more than enough to prove himself worthy of a chance to start the 2018 season as the Dolphins starting running back, and should be on your radar as soon as the first few tiers of backs come off the board.
18. Joe Mixon - Cincinnati Bengals
2017 stats: 178 carries, 626 yards, 4 rushing TDs, 34 targets, 30 receptions, 287 yards
Rookie seasons aren’t such a seamless and easy transition for every highly touted draft pick, and Mixon’s first season is evidence of that. Mixon struggled with injuries as a rookie, which could be an explanation for his lack of productivity—only 3.5 yards per carry. Hopefully an offseason of rest and preparation can get him ready for his sophomore season. The job of Cincinnati’s lead back could be easy for Mixon to lose with veteran Giovani Bernard more than capable of taking over should Mixon falter or not show signs of improvement from a year ago.
19. Lamar Miller - Houston Texans
2017 stats: 238 carries, 888 yards, 3 rushing TDs, 45 targets, 36 receptions, 327 yards, 3 receiving TDs
The Texans offense was humming along when Deshaun Watson was playing quarterback and Miller was certainly a beneficiary of his rookie quarterback’s impressive play. With Watson behind center, Miller averaged more receptions, more receiving yards, and more receiving yards per reception. Last year was Miller’s most inefficient season as a runner, gaining just 3.7 yards per carry, but with the 13th easiest schedule for running backs and Watson back healthy, Miller is prime for a bounce back season in 2018.
20. Alex Collins - Baltimore Ravens
2017 stats: 212 carries, 973 yards, 6 rushing TDs, 36 targets, 23 receptions, 187 yards
Baltimore’s backfield has been in flux for a few years now with no one guy taking on the lead rusher role since Ray Rice was the team’s leading rusher for five straight seasons from 2009 through 2013. Since then, the Ravens have worked with a committee of different running backs: “He doesn’t make the law, he” Justin Forsett, Terrance “Was he actually good?” West, and Javorius “Buck” Allen.
Last season, Collins emerged as Baltimore’s best back early in the year, running efficiently to the tune of 4.6 YPC and putting himself in the mix to stabilize the Ravens ground attack in 2018. Kenneth Dixon is also in the mix here, and is a real threat to siphon targets from Collins provided he can stay healthy.
21. Dion Lewis - Tennessee Titans
2017 stats: 180 carries, 896 yards, 6 rushing TDs, 35 targets, 32 receptions, 214 yards, 3 receiving TDs
The former New England Patriots running back signed a four-year, $19.8 million contract with Tennessee this past offseason after having a career year in 2017. Lewis finally managed to shake the injury-prone label, playing in all 16 games for the first time in his career and finishing 15th among running backs in fantasy points scored in PPR formats.
With Lewis firmly in his prime, and for the kind of coin he received, you better believe he’ll get plenty of opportunities out of the Titans backfield as both a runner and receiver—and his ability as a receiver explains why he’s slightly higher in these rankings than his new teammate, Derrick Henry.
Tier 6 - Mid-Round Gems
22. Ronald Jones II - Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2017 stats: 261 carries, 1,550 yards, 19 rushing TDs, 14 receptions, 187 yards, 1 receiving TD*
Though RoJo doesn’t have a clear path to the starting job, he stands the best chance of any rookie running back not named Saquon Barkley to supplant the guys in front of him on the depth chart and carve out a role on all three downs.
His time at USC didn’t showcase his ability as a receiver, but he’s already proving he has the talent to be a threat at all levels in the receiving game beyond just the measurables and upside draftniks alluded to during draft season.
23. Marshawn Lynch - Oakland Raiders
2017 stats: 207 carries, 891 yards, 7 rushing TDs, 31 targets, 20 receptions, 151 yards
Beast Mode made his return in 2018 after taking a season off from football, and all things considered, Lynch played like a player returning from a year away from football. In his first eight games, Lynch carried the ball for just 3.8 YPC on 86 attempts, and wasn’t much of a factor in the passing game, catching just six passes on 12 targets. After the Raiders bye week, however, Lynch proved to be his normal, productive self. Over the final seven games of the season, Lynch ran for 4.7 YPC on 121 attempts and scored three touchdowns.
The Raiders didn’t do much this offseason to change their backfield, adding Doug Martin who isn’t a real threat to Lynch’s status as the team’s No. 1 running back, but the team did spend their first round pick on offensive tackle Kolton Miller, a solid addition to improve their run blocking up front. Lynch is 32, but without having to knock off the ring rust this season, he could easily play into an RB2 position.
25. Derrius Guice - Washington
2017 stats: 237 carries, 1,251 yards, 11 rushing TDs, 18 receptions, 124 yards, 2 receiving TDs*
Of any of the players slipping in the 2018 NFL Draft, Guice’s freefall well into the second round was the most surprising. Touted by many as the second-best running back in the draft, some mock drafts had Washington using the 13th overall pick in the draft to take Guice. Instead, Guice was the sixth running back off the board and Washington’s pick at No. 59 overall after questions about his maturity surfaced during the draft process.
Maturity concerns aside, Guice is an uber-talented runner and should earn the early-down carries in Washington’s offense from Week 1, but his upside is dependent on how much work Chris Thompson—one of the better receiving backs in the league—gets on third down.
26. Mark Ingram - New Orleans Saints
2017 stats: 230 carries, 1,124 yards, 12 rushing TDs, 71 targets, 58 receptions, 416 yards
If Ingram doesn’t get suspended for the first four games of the season, he’s a top-10 running back without question. Last season, Ingram posted career-high totals in carries, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, receptions, and receiving yards. Instead, things are a bit up in the air for Ingram in 2018. When he returns, he’ll undoubtedly be a big part of the Saints offense, but just how big seems somewhat contingent on how well Alvin Kamara handles the lead back duties in those first four games, and how well New Orleans is producing on offense.
With all that being said, Ingram’s suspension will absolutely scare off some owners, but you shouldn’t be one of them. Ingram should stick around well into the sixth or seventh round, and at that time, drafting and stashing Ingram is well worth the risk for a player on the final year on his current deal and one the Saints utilize a ton near the goal line—13 carries inside the 5-yard line for eight touchdowns in 2017.
Tier 7 - The Sleepers
26. Derrick Henry - Tennessee Titans
2017 stats: 176 carries, 744 yards, 5 rushing TDs, 17 targets, 11 receptions, 136 yards, 1 receiving TD
When the Titans released DeMarco Murray in March of this offseason, it seemed like Derrick Henry was finally going to get a chance to become the top-10 fantasy running back everyone thought he could be. That pipe dream was short-lived though when the Titans signed Dion Lewis exactly a week after Murray was cut.
So instead of ascending to RB1 level, Henry is relegated to being a fringe RB2 depending on how the touches shake out in Tennessee’s time share. It goes without saying that if you commit to either Lewis or Henry, you absolutely need to commit to the other as a handcuff considering Lewis’ injury history. In the case of Lewis missing time, Henry could end up being a steal in Round 4 or 5.
27. Sony Michel - New England Patriots
2017 stats: 156 carries, 1,227 yards, 16 rushing TDs, 9 receptions, 96 yards, 1 receiving TD*
Somewhat surprisingly, Michel was the first Georgia running back off the board in this year’s draft. But it was Bill Belichick and the Patriots who did the picking, so they must be right.
Michel is the type of back who can brutalize defenders, running through them to pick up extra yards, but he also has the athleticism and agility to beat a defense with his lateral quickness. Even though he didn’t do much of it at Georgia, Michel is a capable receiver out of the backfield, and in New England he might end up fitting into the Patriots offense as Dion Lewis’ replacement—someone who had over 210 touches in 2017.
He’s probably not going to be given all of those touches—we’re all familiar with Belichick’s timeshare approach to using running backs—but the Patriots didn’t draft him in the first round without a significant role in mind for the former Bulldog.
28. Rashaad Penny - Seattle Seahawks
2017 stats: 289 carries, 2,248 yards, 23 rushing TDs, 19 receptions, 135 yards, 2 receiving TDs*
One of the biggest surprises of draft night in 2018 was the Seahawks selecting Rashaad Penny with their first-round pick. The second running back off the board, Penny was the nation’s leading rusher in his senior year at San Diego St., scoring 25 touchdowns and moving his way up draft boards.
In Seattle, the Seahawks running game hasn’t quite recovered since Marshawn Lynch’s decision to retire, but it may have been because the ‘Hawks were trying to put a Band-Aid on an open artery. Their offensive line still doesn’t inspire much confidence, but spending their first-round pick on Penny is a serious commitment by the Seahawks. There is plenty of competition around Penny from players who have been limited by their respective injuries in seasons past, but it’s hard to see the Seahawks investing the kind of draft capital they did in Penny without a substantial role expected for him in 2018.
29. Jamaal Williams - Green Bay Packers
2017 stats: 153 carries, 556 yards, 4 rushing TDs, 34 targets, 25 receptions, 262 yards, 2 receiving TDs
Another interesting camp battle to pay attention to is how the Packers’ running back depth shakes itself out. Last season, Ty Montgomery was making the the official transition from receiver to runner, Green Bay drafted both Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, and then Aaron Rodgers got hurt. With backup Brett Hundley taking over at quarterback, the Packers had plenty of time to figure out who would be their running back going forward, and each guy got a fair chance to prove their worth.
Montgomery started hot in 2017, but faded when injuries sidelined him for half of the season. Jones was up next, posting a pair of monster weeks against the Cowboys—19 carries for 125 yards and a touchdown—and the Saints—17 carries for 131 yards and a touchdown. Williams had four games of 20-plus carries over the second half of the season, and while he only managed to run for 3.7 YPC over those eight games, teams were keen to stacking the box with defenders against the now-outed Hundley.
Williams is one of the biggest sleepers heading into this season, and with Jones suspended for the first two games of 2018 and Montgomery expected to take on a more hybrid role, Williams could very well be best set up to be the Pack’s leading rusher this year.
30. Royce Freeman - Denver Broncos
2017 stats: 244 carries, 1,475 yards, 16 rushing TDs, 14 receptions, 164 yards*
After C.J. Anderson left Denver for Carolina in free agency, 280-plus opportunities suddenly opened up in the Broncos offense, but the million-dollar question is how those will be divvied up in 2018.
The Broncos have a pair of running backs in Royce Freeman and Devontae Booker, and either one of them has a chance to be the starter in Week 1. Should Freeman get the job, which seems likely after Booker has struggled to be a productive runner in either of his first two seasons, he should be able to claim a significant amount of those opportunities left behind by Anderson’s departure as both a pass-catcher and a runner.
31. Tarik Cohen - Chicago Bears
2017 stats: 87 carries, 370 yards, 2 rushing TDs, 71 targets, 53 receptions, 353 yards, 1 receiving TD
Considering Cohen was an early season waiver wire target without an ADP, his fantasy finish in 2017—30th among running backs—is a pretty impressive feat. Heading into 2018, Cohen figures to be an even bigger part of the offense with Matt Nagy’s penchant for receiving backs. Last season, John Fox and Co. seemed to lack the imagination to use the “Human Joystick” in different ways, stifling his production after a hot start to 2017, but when Nagy is likening him to Tyreek Hill—and calling him an even better ball carrier—you have to imagine the second-year running back is in much better hands. Cohen’s position here on this list also marks the beginning of running backs you’ll look to handcuff.
Tier 8 - The Handcuffs and Question Marks
32. Carlos Hyde - Cleveland Browns
2017 stats: 240 carries, 938 yards, 8 rushing TDs, 88 targets, 59 receptions, 350 yards
Concerned about the Browns backfield? Yeah, me too.
Hyde put together a top-8 fantasy season last year among running backs, and did so in a very under-the-radar fashion. Finishing with a career high in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and yards from scrimmage, Hyde signed with the Browns as a free agent and subsequently tossed his fantasy value into a wormhole. What comes out the other end, who knows, but with Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson Jr. involved, it won’t be anything close to the type of production he had in San Francisco a year ago. Count on someone else overdrafting him and doing you a favor.
33. Marlon Mack - Indianapolis Colts
2017 stats: 93 carries, 358 yards, 12 rushing TDs, 71 targets, 58 receptions, 416 yards
The Colts spent the draft improving the interior of their offensive line. First they selected the best player in the draft, Quenton Nelson, with the sixth overall pick, and Braden Smith in the second round, bolstering both guard spots in an effort to keep Andrew Luck clean and upright. By proxy, the Colts should also be better at running the ball than a year ago—Indianapolis was 28th in the NFL in yards per carry (3.8 YPC).
Last year, Mack played through his rookie season with a torn labrum that was surgically repaired during the offseason, but he’s been cleared medically and will start training camp as the Colts starting running back. Indianapolis drafted a couple of other running backs in the 2018 draft—Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins—but for now, Mack is the clear starter in a situation that will most likely be handled as a committee.
34. Tevin Coleman - Atlanta Falcons
2017 stats: 156 carries, 628 yards, 5 rushing TDs, 39 targets, 27 receptions, 299 yards, 3 receiving TDs
Another obvious handcuff for Devonta Freeman owners, Coleman has been one of the most dependable running backs off fantasy benches over the past two seasons. At this point, Coleman’s nose for the end zone—19 total touchdowns in 2016 and 2017 combined—has to be considered more of a skill instead of some mix of dumb luck and opportunity. In the event of a Freeman injury, Coleman has been the consummate handcuff back, making the most of his opportunity. In spot duty last season, Coleman had 39 carries for 140 yards and three touchdowns, and should be a mid-round target, especially for Freeman owners or those in keeper leagues—Coleman is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
35. Duke Johnson Jr. - Cleveland Browns
2017 stats: 82 carries, 348 yards, 4 rushing TDs, 93 targets, 74 receptions, 693 yards, 3 receiving TDs
Last year, even with just 82 carries, Johnson was the 11th ranked running back in PPR formats due to getting targeted like a wide receiver (93). Had it not been for the Browns offseason, Duke Johnson Jr. would be a lot higher on this list. The addition of target machine Jarvis Landry, a more pronounced role for Josh Gordon, and the addition of Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb this offseason make touches in the Cleveland offense a bit more scarce. Johnson has some value as a flex play week to week, so target him on the other side of the mid-rounds.
36. Chris Thompson - Washington
2017 stats: 64 carries, 294 yards, 2 rushing TDs, 54 targets, 39 receptions, 510 yards, 4 receiving TDs
Thompson’s breakout season in 2017 ended with a broken fibula, but after not landing on the PUP list to begin training camp in 2018, things are looking up for the sixth-year running back. Washington did add Derrius Guice, but with the level of efficiency Thompson displayed last season—4.6 yards per carry and 3.9 receptions per game at 13.1 yards per reception—he should be the team’s third-down back to begin the season while getting some situational work alongside Guice on earlier downs. Take a chance on Thompson around Round 7 or 8 in hopes of getting the same player who finished 11th in fantasy points per game among running backs in 2017.
37. Isaiah Crowell - New York Jets
2017 stats: 206 carries, 853 yards, 2 rushing TDs, 42 targets, 28 receptions, 182 yards
A popular choice a year ago as the fantasy sleeper at the running back position, 2017 didn’t go as well as anticipated for Isaiah Crowell—or anything related to Browns football for that matter. After posting eye-popping numbers in 2017—952 yards, 4.8 YPC, 7 rushing TDs, and 40 receptions for 319 yards on 53 targets—the only career mark Crowell hit was 206 carries.
Crowell signed with the New York Jets this offseason and joined one of the more puzzling backfields in the NFL. He should end up being the lead back, but alongside Bilal Powell and Elijah McGuire, this situation might be worth monitoring; depending on if one of these guys can earn the lion’s share of work, you could snag a player who can fill a FLEX based solely on volume alone.
38. Kerryon Johnson - Detroit Lions
2017 stats: 285 carries, 1,391 yards, 18 rushing TDs, 24 receptions, 194 yards, 2 receiving TDs*
Detroit spent this offseason addressing a running game that was one of, if not the worst, in the NFL by nearly any measure. By raw statistics, the Lions had the fewest rushing yards (1,221), the lowest yards per carry (3.4), and the fewest amount of yards per game (76.3) in 2017. So the Lions drafted Frank Ragnow, one of the top interior offensive linemen in the draft, and moved up in the draft to select Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson in the second round.
With a healthy offensive line and a new running back, it’d seem like Johnson would be an intriguing prospect in drafts this season, but the team also went out and signed LeGarrette Blount during free agency, and the team still has veteran Theo Riddick, one of the better third-down backs in terms of pass-protection and receiving in the NFL. Johnson very well may end up leading this group of backs in touches, but his upside doesn’t warrant anything more than a mid-to-late round flier.
39. C.J. Anderson - Carolina Panthers
2017 stats: 245 carries, 1,007 yards, 3 rushing TDs, 40 targets, 28 receptions, 224 yards, 1 receiving TD
During his five seasons in Denver, C.J. Anderson was, most plainly stated, an effective running back. In 2017, he set career marks in carries, rushing yards, and yards from scrimmage, but the NFL is a business, and Anderson was cut from Denver in May to save money, clearing the path for a running back with a lot left still in the tank to head to Carolina on a one-year deal.
Anderson’s backfield mate Christian McCaffrey was already mentioned much earlier on this list for his pass-catching ability, but of all the backs who will be available in the later rounds, Anderson may have the highest floor of any of them. Former Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart and his 206 touches—198 of which were carries—last season are up for the taking, and Anderson should be in line to see a good chunk of those come his way in 2018.
40. Giovani Bernard - Cincinnati Bengals
2017 stats: 105 carries, 458 yards, 2 rushing TDs, 60 targets, 43 receptions, 389 yards, 2 receiving TDs
Joe Mixon struggled in his rookie season for a variety of reasons, but that didn’t stop Giovani Bernard from stepping in and putting up respectable numbers as both a runner and receiver, especially over the final five games of the 2017 season—71 carries for 337 yards and 4.8 receptions per game. Bernard finished as the 27th ranked running back in fantasy in an albeit limited role last year, but his role this season may be scaled back even further should Mixon take the next step in Year Two.
If nothing else, the Bengals have insurance in case things go south with Mixon for a second season in a row, whether it be due to injury or lack of productivity, so Bernard is a definite handcuff to Mixon who may provide FLEX opportunities should they present themselves.
41. Rex Burkhead - New England Patriots
2017 stats: 64 carries, 264 yards, 5 rushing TDs, 36 targets, 30 receptions, 254 yards, 3 receiving TDs
New England’s backfield is more often than not a mystery from one week to the next, but the departure of Dion Lewis from the Patriots backfield creates 200-plus opportunities for those still in Foxborough. How Rex Burkhead fits into this backfield alongside James White, Mike Gillislee, Jeremy Hill, and the aforementioned Michel is probably an entire training camp and preseason away from shaking itself out, but if the workload Burkhead got in the second half of the season as a runner and a pass-catcher is any indication of how the Patriots view the veteran, he could very well be in line for some of the opportunities vacated by Lewis.
Tier 9 - Late-round Fliers
42. Theo Riddick - Detroit Lions
2017 stats: 84 carries, 286 yards, 3 rushing TDs, 71 targets, 53 receptions, 444 yards, 2 receiving TDs
As Ameer Abdullah struggled all season long, Riddick was given the second-most carries of his career in 2017, and earned more snaps than Abdullah by season’s end. Abdullah is effectively out of the picture and on the roster bubble, but the additions of LeGarrette Blount and Kerryon Johnson should cap Riddick’s carry total to its lowest count since 2014—which is a very good thing for the Lions offense. Riddick is, at the very least, the best pass-catcher and pass-blocker in Detroit from the season’s jump, and should still find some situational value over the course of the season.
43. Devontae Booker - Denver Broncos
2017 stats: 79 carries, 299 yards, 1 rushing TD, 38 targets, 30 receptions, 275 yards
There’s not much of a reason to believe in Booker at this point, but there’s still an outside chance that Royce Freeman, the Broncos third-round pick in this year’s draft, doesn’t hit the ground running and isn’t Denver’s lead back out of the gate. If there is anything to be optimistic about as Booker heads into his third season, he has proved to be a capable receiver, totaling over 30 receptions in both of his first two seasons.
44. Nyheim Hines - Indianapolis Colts
2017 stats: 197 carries, 1,113 yards, 12 rushing TDs, 26 receptions, 152 yards*
Though Marlon Mack seems to be the de facto starting running back in Indianapolis, there’s wiggle room for other runners to earn playing time. Enter rookie Nyheim Hines out of NC State. Hines played both running back and wide receiver with the Wolfpack and could find himself doing a little bit of both as the Colts undergo a system change with a new coaching staff in place.
Detractors of Hines as an NFL running back bring up his size, or lack thereof at 5-foot-8 and 198 pounds, but that didn’t seem to get in the way of a guy like Darren Sproles making a nice little career for himself as a scatback. Hines won’t play himself into a heavy workload as a rookie, but he might end up finding himself a nice productive role as a receiver lined up all over different formations.
45. Matt Breida - San Francisco 49ers
2017 stats: 105 carries, 465 yards, 2 rushing TDs, 36 targets, 21 receptions, 180 yards, 1 receiving TD
Last year, Breida was the guy who was going to push Carlos Hyde in training camp. Maybe not for the starting running back position, but at least for a sizable chunk of the opportunities in San Francisco. As an undrafted rookie out of Georgia Southern, Breida accomplished that to an extent, earning 105 carries and 36 targets in 2017 while Hyde put together an RB1 season of his own.
This year, Breida is once again second on the depth chart in San Francisco, but this time he’s behind new addition Jerick McKinnon. In his years with the Vikings, McKinnon was boom or bust, but the 49ers broke into the bank and blew up the vault like he was worth every penny of the four-year, $30 million contract they handed him. If McKinnon doesn’t handle the lead back duties like head coach Kyle Shanahan expects him too—and he never did very well in Minnesota when given the opportunity—Breida could be a nice flier to have stashed on your roster.
46. Bilal Powell - New York Jets
2017 stats: 178 carries, 772 yards, 5 rushing TDs, 33 targets, 23 receptions, 170 yards
The Jets didn’t view Powell as a starting running back, choosing instead to sign Isaiah Crowell in free agency. With some semblance of a backfield for Gang Green, it’s a murky situation at best in New York to see who will get the most touches.
Powell has been a pretty productive player over the course of his career, having his best season in 2016 when he finished 16th in fantasy scoring among running backs, but the only reason you’re picking up Powell is if something decisive happens to the Jets backfield.
47. Corey Clement - Philadelphia Eagles
2017 stats: 74 carries, 321 yards, 4 rushing TDs, 15 targets, 10 receptions, 123 yards, 2 receiving TDs
The Eagles running back corps is headed by Jay Ajayi and veteran Darren Sproles, who is returning for his final season after missing the majority of 2017 with a broken arm, but Corey Clement is going to fit in here somewhere, perhaps even as the team’s No. 2 running back. With LeGarrette Blount moving on to Detroit, the Eagles have roughly 175 touches to divvy up between Ajayi, Sproles, and Clement. Youth and versatility are on Clement’s side, and if he’s able to play himself into more offensive snaps this season, add him because of his ability as a receiver.
49. Austin Ekeler - Los Angeles Chargers
2017 stats: 47 carries, 260 yards, 2 rushing TDs, 35 targets, 27 receptions, 279 yards, 3 receiving TDs
If you’re the one who drafted Melvin Gordon, you should be the one who picks up Austin Ekeler as insurance. He performed well as a receiver and was efficient on his 47 carries in 2017, but he shouldn’t see many more touches in this upcoming season. Still, Ekeler has the inside track to be the team’s backup running back, even after the team spent a seventh-round draft pick on running back Justin Jackson out of Northwestern.
49. Ty Montgomery - Green Bay Packers
2017 stats: 71 carries, 273 yards, 3 rushing TDs, 31 targets, 23 receptions, 173 yards, 1 receiving TD
If not for Kareem Hunt, Ty Montgomery was the hottest running back in fantasy football, totaling over 48 fantasy points through the first two weeks of the 2017 season. Things went south soon after when Aaron Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone, and then Montgomery was saddled with injuries of his own, missing half of last year with rib and wrist ailments.
Montgomery certainly has every opportunity to reclaim the No. 1 spot in the Packers backfield, but with the way both Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones played during his absence, it might be difficult for Montgomery to carve out a bigger role than playing primarily on third-down.
50. Kenneth Dixon - Baltimore Ravens
2016 stats: 88 carries, 382 yards, 2 rushing TDs, 41 targets, 30 receptions, 162 yards, 1 receiving TD*
*Injured for 2017 season
Firmly behind both Alex Collins and Javorius Allen in the Baltimore backfield after injury and suspension derailed the entirety of his sophomore year, Dixon is facing a bit of an uphill battle to reclaim the role he had by the end of his rookie season in 2016. He’s only draft-worthy in deep leagues, but he’s certainly worth adding to your watchlist as the season progresses and he potentially works himself back into a significant role in the Ravens offense.