- A consensus among the top-four picks has emerged entering fantasy draft season. But how should they be ranked?
The Roundtable Series of the SI.com fantasy football draft kit will ask our writers a pressing question in the fantasy football world. In this installment, SI’s Michael Beller, and 4 For 4’s Brandon Niles and Chris Allen consider the following:
A clear consensus that goes four deep has formed at the top of drafts, but the order of those four varies more regularly than we've seen in a long time. So, how do you rank Todd Gurley, Le'Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott and David Johnson?
Michael Beller: I’ve got Bell locked in as my No. 1 overall pick, and I’d take Elliott last of the four. Gurley vs. Johnson is a true toss-up, but I give the former a slight edge. So, for me, it’s Bell, Gurley, Johnson and Elliott.
I explained earlier this summer why Bell is my top overall player, specifically in regard to why I’d take him over Gurley, and you can read the full explanation in our running back primer. In short, it’s all about the track record. Bell has been a top-three running back in standard and PPR formats in three of the last four seasons. The one year he fell short, he suffered a season-ending MCL tear in Week 8. At the time, he was third in points per game in standard leagues, and fourth in PPR. Don’t give me any of that garbage about him being overworked. We’re talking about a 26-year-old, world-class athlete who has averaged 308.2 touches per season. Career-long workload will eventually be a concern for Bell, but that is still reality is still years away.
I’ve got Elliott fourth because of team context. There’s a non-zero chance that the Cowboys are among the worst teams in the NFC and picking in the top 10 of next year’s draft, and that would have negative effects on Elliott’s bottom line. Understand that I’m not calling him a bust. He’s my No. 5 overall player, and if Antonio Brown’s hip issue lingers late into the preseason, I’ll bump Elliott up a spot to No. 4. When we’re talking about players as good as Bell, Gurley and Johnson, though, the real concerns about the Cowboys are enough to rate Elliott last among the quartet.
As for Gurley and Johnson, I think it’s more of a coin flip than any other player vs. player at the same position. I opt for Gurley for a few reasons. First, like Elliott, Johnson could be in some team-driven trouble this year. That isn’t likely to be the case for Gurley, with the Rams looking like one of the best teams in the NFC, at least on paper. Second, while I’m bullish on what Mike McCoy means for Johnson, we already know exactly what Sean McVay means for Gurley. He is the nucleus of the offense, and there’s good reason to believe he’ll equal or surpass the 366 carries plus targets he got last year. On top of that, the Rams returned all five starters from an offensive line that ranked third in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards.
Brandon Niles: I tend to be risk-averse, so when I’m nitpicking the four elite backs my cautious nature identifies the flaws first. A massively disappointing 2016 season still burns in my brain when I consider Todd Gurley. Le’Veon Bell has contract issues and has missed 15 games over the last three years for various reasons. Ezekiel Elliott served a six-game suspension last year and he’s unlikely to exceed 50 targets in the passing game. David Johnson is coming off a wrist injury that wiped out his 2017 season and has a new coach and quarterback.
All things considered, I’m more afraid of injuries and holdouts than I am a regression from Gurley or a second suspension for Elliott.
Gurley is my top pick. While he may not match his 2,093 combined yards and 19 touchdowns from last season, he’d have to fall off a cliff to regress all the way to his 2016 form. That year, he averaged 3.2 yards per carry and destroyed fantasy teams. Additionally, improved quarterback play in Los Angeles should limit defenders from loading the box like they did two seasons ago, and Gurley’s 64 receptions last year give him a significant edge over Elliott.
Elliott is number two on my list. The trio of Allen Hurns, Michael Gallup and Tavon Austin, joining holdover Cole Beasley, should be an improvement over last year’s weapons, and Elliott should benefit from more space. He’s averaged 24.88 touches per game, he’s only 23 years old and he’s proven he can produce even when he’s the defense’s focal point. If you’re looking for a safe option, Elliott is about as safe as they come at the position, even with less activity in the passing game.
Johnson barely edges out Bell on my board. He’s coming off a wrist injury and is seeking a contract extension, but was the consensus top pick last year. Johnson averaged 4.2 yards per carry and caught 80 of 120 passes thrown his way in 2016, while hitting paydirt 20 times. Johnson has as much upside as any fantasy player, but the wrist injury and the uncertainty surrounding the Arizona offense drops him a hair below Elliott in my book.
If Bell were a lock to stay healthy, happy and eligible, he’d be first on my list. Things as they are, I like the security of the other three over Bell’s volatility. However, there’s no doubting Bell’s talent and his ability to produce on the field. As long as he’s healthy, he’ll be an elite fantasy back, aided by his extreme activing in the passing game, with 160 receptions over the last two seasons comfortably leading the league. He’s undoubtedly a great pick, but someone has to be last among these four, and there are more red flags here than with any other candidate. Bell has wear and tear after 406 touches in 2017, he’s never scored more than 11 touchdowns in a season, and he and the team look headed for a bitter divorce over his contract situation.
Chris Allen: I rank ‘em in the following order:
First, there’s one thing to keep in mind. These are all players being drafted in the first half of every draft. Personal preference can sway any drafter and there’s no shame in picking them out of order. If you’re one of the lucky few that get an early draft slot, shoot your shot. Those players won’t be there by your next pick.
My process for ranking them looks at three criteria: how they contribute to their team, their offensive line and team outlook for the 2018 season.
The first two criteria are the most critical as they are clear indicators of both usage and success. These are weighted heavier than the third criteria. Both can be traced to a team’s outlook, but here’s where personal preference has some sway. And personal preference is important. This is fantasy football. It should be fun. However, the other components to my process keep me grounded with a focus on being a top contender in my league.
If you look at the first three running backs and then look at my first criteria, the connection becomes obvious. Bell and Gurley were in the top six for both rush attempts and targets in 2017. Going back to 2016, we can see that David Johnson slides right into this group with respect to usage (293 attempts, 120 targets). This is not a quantitative analysis on their 2018 season, but a qualitative view on how each are used. Even if you look at Elliott’s targets per game and extend them out to a full season (60.8), he’s still far short of Gurley and Bell (87 and 106, respectively). PPR or standard scoring format aside, there’s a clear difference in how each are used, which is reflected in the rankings.
So, with the first three forming a mini tie, let’s look at offensive lines. The Rams, Steelers and Cowboys all received top-10 offensive line grades from Pro Football Focus based on their projected starting personnel. The Cardinals are 27th after A.Q. Shipley, who was supposed to be their starting center, tore his ACL. This puts Johnson at the end of the mini tier. Elliot remains at the four spot.
Now we’re down to team outlook. This can be narrative-based, but there’s some logic that goes into it. The Rams have the most continuity in terms of personnel and a strong defense that will lead to positive game scripts for Gurley. The Steelers’ weaker defense has been shown to boost Bell’s usage in the passing game, but this only benefits PPR scoring. In taking a holistic approach, I have Bell behind Gurley. But, as was previously mentioned, there’s an argument to be made for either to be drafted at first overall.