Running backs have been on the decline but standouts like Le'Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy, David Johnson and Todd Gurley could stop the bleeding—if they stay healthy.
Running backs have become the whipping boys of the fantasy community over the last few seasons. Once the center of the fantasy football universe, running backs have become increasingly fungible with each passing year. For every Adrian Peterson, a perennial first-round pick who delivers on demand, there are too many 2015 Eddie Lacys or 2014 Montee Balls or 2013 C.J. Spillers to count.
The position has experienced a value shift at the other end of the spectrum as well. Of last year’s top-five backs—Devonta Freeman, Peterson, Doug Martin, DeAngelo Williams and Todd Gurley—only Peterson and Martin had ADPs (average draft positions) in the first three rounds, with Peterson the only one inside the top 35. Freeman and Williams were both still on the board after 98 picks had been made in the typical draft. Now more than ever, early-round backs go bust, while middle- and late-round backs find themselves in the RB1 mix.
Still, there’s nothing quite like having one of the best running backs in the league on your roster. Last season was unprecedented in terms of running back versus wide receiver scoring, and Freeman, the No. 1 back, still outscored every receiver in the league in standard-scoring fantasy leagues. Owning the best back in the league gives you a leg up over your rival owners. Here are the 10 we see as having the best chance to be that best.
Martin bounced back in a big way last season, playing 16 games and finishing second in the league in rushing yards and third among running backs in standard-scoring leagues. Health will always be the issue for Martin, and just because he gave his fantasy owners 16 games last year doesn’t guarantee a thing for this season. Martin played all 16 games his rookie season, and then just 17 games over the next two years combined. There is plenty of reason to believe in him as long as he’s on the field. Theoretically, Tampa Bay’s offense should be able to take a step forward in Jameis Winston’s second season at the helm. The Winston-Martin-Mike Evans trio could sneakily be one of the most explosive in the league, with each player’s presence lifting the production of the others. Martin feels like a boring pick entering his fifth season in the league, but we’ve seen top-five output from him in two of his previous four years, which double as the only years he was fully healthy.
It’s seemingly in vogue to knock McCoy’s RB1 prospects this season, a tendency likely driven by his perceived fragility. McCoy played in 12 games last season, marking the fourth time in his seven years he failed to appear in all 16 games. He did, however, play all 16 in 2013 and 2014, and missed just one game in 2010 and 2011. McCoy’s owners might hold their collective breath every time he takes the field, but his per-game production has never been in question. He has been a top-12 back by points per game in all but two of his seasons, and one of those he fell short was his rookie year. Last season, McCoy was 17th in total points despite missing four games, and seventh in points per game among backs who played at least eight games. Just like Martin, McCoy is playing with an ascending quarterback in Tyrod Taylor, and if Sammy Watkins is over his foot injury by Week 1, the Bills are going to score some points. Remember, this team was 13th in total yards and 12th in points last season. Put McCoy in an offense like that, and you rarely come up with anything other than an RB1.
To evaluate Lacy this season, you must forgive his 2015 campaign. Lacy was one of the biggest busts in the game, failing to top 1,000 yards from scrimmage and finishing as the No. 25 back. This is a new season, however, and Lacy’s arrow is pointing up. He slimmed down over the off-season, which should help him reclaim the surprising burst he showed in his first two seasons in the league. With Jordy Nelson back on the field, the Packers will have all the clubs in their bag. Nelson’s absence significantly limited what the Packers could do in the passing game, and that trickled down to Lacy and the run game, The fantasy community fully understands and appreciates what an Aaron Rodgers-led offense can do when it’s at full strength, and how that rising tide lifts all ships. James Starks will be back in his familiar role this season, but it’s Lacy who will carry the load in the Green Bay backfield. Expect something more like his 2014 season than last year’s dreadful season.
Charles is one of the trickiest players to rank this season. He’s 29 and coming off the second ACL tear of his career, but has been one of the most productive per-game players since entering the league in 2008, and ripped off three of the best seasons of his career between ACL injuries. Both Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware showed something to the Kansas City coaching staff last season, meaning Charles might share a sizeable portion of his workload for the first time in his career. But might the company serve to protect him and keep him on the field for 16 games? With Charles, the good still comfortably outweighs the bad. He played a bit more than four games last year, running for 364 yards on 71 carries, catching 21 passes for 177 yards, and scoring five touchdowns. That comes out to an average of 16 fantasy points per game in standard-scoring leagues, just 0.3 points behind 2015’s leader, Devonta Freeman. Charles displays the inherent risk in drafting running backs early, but within the position, he remains one of the most bankable assets in the fantasy game
Understand this: If you let five backs go off the board before selecting Elliott, chances are you will not get him. It’s a guarantee that someone in your league will view the rookie out of Ohio State as a top-three back, a justifiable view. Dallas has had the best rushing offense for the past two years on the back of the league’s best offensive line. After helping DeMarco Murray to a 1,845-yard season in 2014, the Cowboys line paved the way for Darren McFadden to finish fourth in rushing last year with 1,089 yards despite getting more than 10 carries just nine times. Elliott’s unquestionably a more talented back, running for a total of 3,699 yards in his final two years in Columbus. He’s roundly praised as one of the best blockers at the running back position to come out of college in some time, a trait that, if true, would help him quickly become a true three-down back. In today’s NFL, it’s hard to imagine a team using the fourth overall pick on a back they didn’t plan to feature immediately. At the same time, the Cowboys have McFadden, Alfred Morris and receiving threat Lance Dunbar on the roster. As good as Elliott is, and as perfect as the Dallas environment is for him, he’s still a rookie. The case for Elliott as a top-three back is dependent, at least in part, on him being a workhorse in the style of Adrian Peterson. I’m not totally convinced that will happen, which explains his lower-than-average ranking here.
Chances are if you grabbed Johnson off waivers last year, you won your league. Or at least came very close. A bit player for Arizona’s first 11 games, Johnson was one of the best fantasy weapons over the last five weeks of the season, running for 442 yards, catching 17 passes for 216 yards and hitting pay dirt five times. He enters this season as the unquestioned starter, and it’s easy to see why that should be a great spot. The Cardinals offense figures to be among the best in the league, with Carson Palmer, Michael Floyd, Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and an impressive line surrounding Johnson. Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington are still in Arizona, and both will have roles in the offense. Johnson’s appeal this season is strong and easy to see, but given the company, he does carry some risk at his ADP.
If you’re looking for the running back in his first year in Texas with a new team who found the most ideal landing spot, you won’t find him in Dallas. You’ll have to shift to Houston. Miller spent the last two years as one of the league’s most underappreciated talents, not by the media or fantasy community, but by his own organization. The fifth-year player left behind Miami in the off-season and steps into a lucrative position in Houston vacated by Arian Foster who, even last year, was on his way to another RB1 season before a season-ending Achilles injury. Miller is equally adept at running and catching the ball, an ideal fit for the Texans’ offense. The only question for the Texans is Brock Osweiler, but it’s not as though the team had great quarterback play last year. And Miller himself didn’t exactly leave behind prime Dan Marino in Miami. Elliott to Dallas received all the offseason hype, but Miller to Houston was the true perfect marriage of player and team. Get ready for the best season of Miller’s career.
This is likely higher than you’re going to find Peterson in most places, but I’ve come to learn a few tenets during my time in the fantasy world, and one of those is you do not doubt Peterson. He led the NFL in rushing at 30 years old, carrying the ball 327 times for 1,485 yards, while scoring 11 touchdowns. Peterson has missed more than two games in a year because of injury just once in his career, and famously returned from one of the most gruesome knee injuries in just eight months to rush for 2,097 yards. The typical aging curve just doesn’t seem to apply. It’s true that most running backs don’t belong anywhere near the first round, let alone the top three at their position, once they’ve hit 31 years old. Peterson is not most running backs. He’s the focal point of the Minnesota offense with no one in position to steal away many touches, save for a handful of Jerick McKinnon receptions. Like we talked about with Drew Brees in our early quarterback top 10, no one has won anything in a fantasy league by betting against Peterson. That’s unlikely to change this season.
Let’s quickly recount the first four games of Gurley’s career: 19 carries for 146 yards in a win over the Cardinals; 30 carries for 159 yards in a loss to the Packers; 19 carries for 128 yards and two touchdowns in a win over the Browns; 20 carries for 133 yards and a score in a win over the 49ers. Let’s also remember that he did all of this with one of the worst passing teams in the league, placing an opposing defense’s entire attention on the backfield. Oh, and let’s also not forget that he started that stretch less than 11 months removed from a torn ACL in his final season at Georgia. Defenses keyed on Gurley over the back half of the season and were able to slow him down a bit, but he ended the year on a 271-yard, four-touchdown binge in the Rams last four games. Concerns about the passing game are still present, but no back has the success Gurley did in his rookie year by accident. Even with today’s fantasy game driven by wide receivers, Gurley is worthy of being a top-five pick in standard formats.
I’ve read arguments supporting Gurley, Peterson, Johnson and Elliott as the No. 1 fantasy back this season. But really, the only cogent argument for anyone other than Bell as fantasy’s top back is a medically based guarantee that he re-injures his knee. Bell has played 35 games in his NFL career, averaging 15.65 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. If we take his rookie year out of the equation and start with the season in which he became the player we know today, he has put up 17.03 points in an average contest. Bell has fumbled once—once!—in 799 touches, and that was in his rookie season. If you went into a lab with the goal of engineering the perfect back for the style of offense favored in today’s league, Bell would be the end product. He’s shifty with breakaway speed, and easily a top-three receiver out of the backfield. He protects his quarterback and converts in short-yardage situations. Bell does everything you want from a running back in 2016, and he does so in one of the league’s most potent offenses. Don’t overthink this one. Bell is, without question, the best fantasy back in the league.