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  • Will Leonard Fournette buoy or crush fantasy championship dreams? Should fantasy owners invest in Marshawn Lynch?
By Michael Beller
August 14, 2017

Running backs climbed back atop the fantasy football world last season, with Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson wresting the throne from the league’s best wide receivers. Heading into this season, backs and receivers are on more equal footing than they have been in recent memory, which should make for the most interesting set of early rounds that we have seen in years in the fantasy community.

Ezekiel Elliott was atop fantasy rankings alongside Bell and Johnson before the NFL suspended him for six games, sending his fantasy value plunging. In our below running back rankings, Elliott has dropped to , which puts him squarely in the third round. Even if owners do gamble on his services, make sure you get a worthwhile backup.

Fantasy owners need to be careful about overcorrecting for the value of the running back position as a whole, based only on the exploits of Bell, Johnson and Elliott from last season. While they made the top of the position as strong as ever in 2016, their success didn’t fully trickle down to their counterparts. Once Bell and Johnson are off the board, there are more questions than answers at the running back position. Here are five all fantasy owners should do their best to hash out before they sit down to draft this summer.

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BURNING QUESTIONS

Which running back will destroy owners’ dreams of a fantasy championship this year?

Last year, it was Todd Gurley. In 2015, it was C.J. Anderson. The year before that, Adrian Peterson held his fantasy owners back. From Doug Martin to C.J. Spiller to Ray Rice, 2013 was filled with first-round running back busts. It happens every year, without fail. As sure as there are stars above, there will be consensus early-round running backs who sink their owners’ championship hopes this season.

This year, Leonard Fournette is the most dangerous running back coming off the board in the first two rounds of a typical fantasy draft. This has little to do with his talent level or perceived ability to transition to the NFL. Fournette is clearly built for the league after an excellent college career at LSU, during which he ran for 3,830 yards and 40 touchdowns in three seasons, the last of which was limited by injuries. Fournette was rightly viewed as one of the true offensive prizes in this year’s draft. However fantasy owners cannot in good conscience use a top-20 pick on a running back playing with Blake Bortles, sight unseen.

As a quarterback, Bortles can completely torpedo an entire offense—all we need for proof of that is to look at what happened in Jacksonville last season. Investing in bad quarterbacks, be it directly or indirectly, is the surest way to derail a fantasy season. Quarterbacks are the engines of their offenses, and Bortles forced Jacksonville’s to give out far too often last season. There’s little reason to expect that to change this year.

Fournette is far superior to Chris Ivory or T.J. Yeldon, and the Jaguars used the fourth-overall pick to make him the focal point of their offense. Still, this isn’t like Elliott landing with the Cowboys—an ideal spot for him. In fact, it’s the inverse. In most fantasy leagues, drafting Fournette means passing on the likes of Dez Bryant, T.Y. Hilton, Michael Thomas, Lamar Miller, Rob Gronkowski and a host of other, safer players. Remember, you want to lock in high floors early in fantasy drafts. Fournette does not bring that to the table.

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Which mid-round running back has the best chance to be a league-winner?

Just as we know there will be early-round running backs who flop and crush their owners dreams, so, too, will there be mid- and late-round backs who significantly exceed expectations and find themselves at the center of championship runs. Last year, Jordan Howard, Melvin Gordon and LeGarrette Blount fit this bill. To find this season’s best candidate, cast your gaze toward Detroit.

Ameer Abdullah is readily available in the middle rounds of all fantasy formats. 4for4’s multi-site ADP tool has him coming off the board anywhere between the late-fifth and early-10th rounds at the four most popular fantasy sites, with an ADP of 87.5 among the four. That’s a bargain given the potential payoff for one of the league’s most electric players.

Admittedly, all Abdullah has proven in his first two years in the league is that he can fall short of expectations and get injured. He was a hot commodity as a rookie in 2015, before plodding his way to 780 total yards and three touchdowns in 16 games. After a hot start last season, he suffered a season-ending foot injury in Week 2. We’d never draw conclusions from about five quarters of football, but his pre-injury performance last season does give us an idea of how the Lions would like to use him this season.

Before he lost his season, Abdullah had 18 carries for 101 yards, five catches for 57 yards and one touchdown. Even with Theo Riddick holding down his role as one of the league’s premier pass-catching backs—he had 12 touches for 108 yards in the one game they shared the backfield last year—Abdullah was at the center of Detroit’s offense. Even with a foot injury in his past, he’s just 24 years old and retains all the explosion with which he came out of Nebraska two years ago. Jim Bob Cooter has built a solid, efficient offense around Matthew Stafford, and the former first overall pick has proved himself adept at running it. Everything is in place for Abdullah to come through on his three-year run toward fantasy stardom.

Abdullah’s league-winning upside is evident to anyone willing to look. There are few players available at his ADP for whom that is true.

What should we make of Marshawn Lynch?

Lynch could have rode off into the sunset as America’s most entertaining retiree, but that life did not suit him, at least not yet. After one year out of the league, Lynch was traded from the Seahawks (who owned his rights even after he retired) to his hometown Raiders. While his second-round ADP suggests the fantasy community is all in on Lynch’s comeback, there’s good reason to let someone else take that plunge.

First and foremost, it’s impossible to overstate how challenging it is to get back in the saddle and not miss a beat after sitting out from the NFL for a year. The task is doubly hard for a 31-year-old running back with more than 2,600 touches worth of mileage on his body. Expecting Lynch to return at the same level he left the league is, at best, wishful thinking and, at worst, foolish.

Additionally, remember that, last we saw of Lynch, he was far from his best. He was limited by injury to seven games in 2015, during which he ran for 417 yards on 111 carries (3.76 yards per carry) and was a non-factor in the passing game. The Seahawks offensive line was atrocious that season, and Oakland’s is expected to be among the best in the league this season. Still, it’s worth noting that Thomas Rawls, then an unheralded rookie, totaled 830 yards on 147 totes (5.65 YPC) behind that same atrocious line in 2015. Lynch was already losing his fastball, and that was two years and one retirement ago.

Finally, we come to the question of price tag. Lynch’s ADP has him coming off the board around the same time as Brandin Cooks, Doug Baldwin, Demaryius Thomas, Lamar Miller, Travis Kelce, Christian McCaffrey, Isaiah Crowell and Sammy Watkins. That’s quite the opportunity cost for a 31-year-old at a high-stress position who will be taking an NFL field for the first time in 19 months when the Raiders visit the Titans Week 1.

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Bell and Johnson are off the board. Now what?

I see four possible answers to this question. The first, which many fantasy owners will want to pursue, is to take a receiver. For the sake of this discussion, though, we’ll assume that the top receivers are gone, as well. Three running backs—LeSean McCoy, Melvin Gordon and Jordan Howard—can rightly stake a claim to the top of the position’s second tier. Which one, however, has the best claim?

For my money, McCoy is the man. My love for Howard knows few bounds, as should be clear from our running backs breakout piece. One of those bounds, however, is track record. As great as Howard was last season, we’ve only see him do it once. We’ve seen McCoy put up a season that matched or exceeded what Howard did last year five times in his career. Another boundary is Howard’s quarterback. There are no concerns there for McCoy, with the woefully underrated Tyrod Taylor at the helm for the Bills.

Gordon also doesn’t have quarterback concerns, with Philip Rivers still providing a steady hand and driving a potent offensive attack. Gordon’s limitation is in the efficiency department. Even as he broke out last year, finishing eighth among running backs in total points, and fifth in points per game, in standard-scoring leagues, Gordon ran for just 3.93 YPC. Among last year’s top-12 scoring backs, only Gordon, Frank Gore and LeGarette Blount fell short of 4.4 YPC, let alone 4.0 YPC.

McCoy, now 29 years old, is still going strong. He’s as shifty and explosive as ever, and remains an important weapon in Buffalo’s passing game. Taylor’s ability as a runner opens up more holes for McCoy, as well, another differentiator for him compared with Howard and Gordon. There are arguments for all three to be the fourth back taken in a typical draft, but those for McCoy are strongest.

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How will Todd Gurley’s “rubber-match” season unfold?

Gurley’s first season was a huge win. His second was a dreadful loss. His third year in the league could very well determine the path his career takes. He’ll also send any fantasy owner that takes him down a markedly different draft-day route than those who pass on him. All that makes him one of this season’s most confounding players.

Gurley was a consensus top-five pick last year, with a not insignificant portion of the fantasy community believing he should be the first overall player on the board. Ultimately, he was the biggest bust of the 2016 season, running for 886 yards and six touchdowns, and catching 43 passes for 327 yards. He was the No. 20 running back in standard formats, and the No. 15 player at the position in PPR leagues. That’s all well and good for a mid-round pick, but that’s a nightmare season for a top-five selection. Gurley did not have one 100-yard game, and ran for fewer than 3.9 YPC or fewer in 14 of 16 games. Gurley owners had exactly one positive day with him last year, and that was the day of their draft. From there, it was nothing but disappointment.

Past isn’t always prologue, but it’s hard to get excited about Gurley this season. A lot of the same problems, starting with the Rams quarterback situation, are still present. Jared Goff did not inspire much confidence as a rookie, and he could once again be a headwind for everyone in this offense. The offensive line didn’t do Gurley any favors, with the Rams ranking 28th in the league in yards created before contact, according to Pro Football Focus. Three of five starters from last year are back, it will be up to the newcomers, left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center Rob Havenstein, to reshape the entire line.

Like with Fournette, draft-day cost is the hardest element to reconcile with Gurley. You’re going to have to use a top-15 or -20 pick to secure Gurley’s services. Even though there’s reason for optimism, centering on Gurley’s talent, a new coaching staff, and upgraded offensive line, you have to be sure of him to take him at his ADP.

RUNNING BACK RANKINGS

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