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Fantasy football running back primer: Everything to know heading into 2016

Is Ezekiel Elliott really going to be a star right away? Which mid-round back should you target? Tackling those and more in our comprehensive fantasy running back guide.

The running back position no longer dominates the fantasy football world, but then, that has been the case for a few seasons. It has taken the market a few years to reflect the fact that, as a group, receivers are a wiser investment in the early rounds of a fantasy draft. This season is the first that the lesson goes all the way to the top, with Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr. and Julio Jones as the top-three players by average draft position.

Don’t fall for the misguided notion that the pendulum has swung completely against running backs. There are still six coming off the board in the typical first round, and four more in the second. They may have given up their dominance early in drafts, but you’re still going to hear plenty of their names called in the first few rounds. And there is still no weapon in the fantasy game that quite measures up to an elite RB1.

If that’s the case, though, then why have receivers taken over the top of the draft and infiltrated the first two rounds like never before? It all comes down to risk. Running backs get injured more frequently and have higher bust rates than any other position in the fantasy game. It’s nearly impossible to win your fantasy league in the first two rounds, but it’s entirely possible to lose it if one of your marquee players goes bust. Running backs are far more likely to ruin fantasy dreams, and that’s why they’ve tumbled, on the whole, down draft boards.

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Getting in on the top tier of backs in the first round is all well and good, but picking your spots at the position is of the utmost importance. It’s absolutely crucial to find the value at the position in the middle and late rounds. In fact, it’s likely more important here than at any other position. Just like we know a handful of early-round running backs will bust, so too do we know that a few players no one is discussing now will turn into fantasy stars, just like Devonta Freeman and Thomas Rawls last year.

With that, on to a full overview of the position with our 2016 running back primer. My complete running back rankings, as well as those of fellow SI.com fantasy writer Pat Fitzmaurice, can be found at the bottom of the story.

Burning questions

Will Ezekiel Elliott really be that good that quickly?

Elliott couldn’t have asked for a better landing spot in the NFL. The Cowboys used the No. 4 pick to grab the talented running back out of Ohio State, making him the highest-selected back since the Browns took Trent Richardson third in 2012. Elliott will be a first-round pick in your draft, with some in the expert community already ranking him as the top running back.

It’s not hard to make that case. Elliott enters the league polished in all of the backfield arts. He ran for more than 1,800 yards in each of his final two seasons in Columbus and scored 41 total touchdowns over those 28 games. Elliott is also roundly praised as an excellent blocker.

Then there’s the team element. The Cowboys elite offensive line returns intact this season after paving the way for Darren McFadden to run for 1,089 yards in 2015 even though he started just 10 games. Put a runner like Elliott behind that line, the theory goes, and you’ve got an easy RB1 on your hands with No. 1 overall player upside.

The final piece to the puzzle is workload. It’s hard to imagine a team using the No. 4 pick on a running back if they didn’t plan on immediately making him a workhorse, but we still need to see that commitment from the coaching staff. As good as Elliott figures to be, he also needs to prove he can handle it. If both of those pieces fall into place, Elliott should be a top-five back with the potential for a historic rookie year.

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Who is this year’s draft-day RB1 bust?

Last year it was Jeremy Hill and C.J. Anderson. The year before that it was Montee Ball. C.J. Spiller broke hearts in 2013. It’s a guarantee that at least one back drafted with a top-15 ADP will go bust this season. Avoiding that player is just as important as hitting on your early picks and finding good value later in the draft. This year, the back you want to avoid is Devonta Freeman.

Yes, Freeman was the top running back in all fantasy formats last season. He rose to those heights thanks in part to an unusual set of circumstances, the most important of which was Tevin Coleman’s rib injury. That gave Freeman enough time to assert himself as the backfield’s dominant force. The Falcons are already saying that Coleman will get a lot more work this season—remember, the Indiana product who was tabbed the starter after training camp last year.

Freeman was great as a receiver all year, but he failed to top 90 yards rushing in his final eight games and ran for more than four yards per carry just once in the second half of the season. Even with his strong start, he finished the season with 4.02 yards per carry. Fantasy owners are still drafting him like the workhorse he was last season. If he loses that status, which he almost certainly will, and doesn’t improve his efficiency, he’ll be comfortably out of RB1 territory.

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Who’s the mid-round back you’re targeting in all your leagues?

My love for Melvin Gordon and Giovani Bernard is well-known, so I won’t go cover that again here. I’ll be going after both of them in this range, along with another favorite target, Cleveland’s Duke Johnson.

Johnson did nearly all of his damage during his rookie season as a receiver, catching 61 passes for 534 yards and two touchdowns, while running 104 times for 379 yards. However, he had 242 carries for 1,652 yards in his final season at Miami, so it’s not as though he’s a running back in name only. The Browns’ hiring of Hue Jackson had to be a welcome sight for Johnson; it isn’t hard to see the second-year player becoming the Browns’ version of Bernard this season. Jackson loves splitting work between two backs, and realistically, that’s the best Johnson could hope for with Isaiah Crowell still in the fold.

Just like last season, it’s possible Cleveland’s typical game flow will favor Johnson over Crowell. The former got about 100 more snaps in 2015, largely because the Browns were trailing so often. If that happens again this year, which seems likely, we should see plenty of Johnson in all situations.

The one issue could be Johnson’s place in the passing game. Last year, he really only had to deal with Travis Benjamin and Gary Barnidge. Benjamin is in San Diego now, but Josh Gordon will return in Week 5, and rookie Corey Coleman should play a big role in the offense right away. Still, that’s a risk worth taking given Johnson’s upside.

Which backfield will be fantasy’s greatest headache?

Just like there are early-round busts every season, so, too, is there a backfield that is more trouble figuring out than it’s worth for fantasy owners. There are a few candidates this season—including the Ravens, Dolphins and Giants—but thanks in part to the draft-day price tags of the players involved, I’m going to highlight the Titans.