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Fantasy Football 2018: Running Back Tiers

Breaking our running back rankings into tiers to help you better judge the position on draft day.

Rankings are the backbone of fantasy football draft prep season, but there are more to rankings than meets the eye. Every position has multiple drop-off points, where the fantasy value takes a dip. Knowing where these breaks are can help you make the right call on what appears to be a tough decision. That’s why after you rank the players at every position, you must then put them into tiers.

The idea is simple. While you might prefer Melvin Gordon to Dalvin Cook, you understand that the bottom-line difference between the two is minimal, thus placing them in the same tier. When multiple players in the same tier are still available, you may be able to wait on filling that spot on your roster. If you’re at the end of a tier, though, you’ll need to address it if you don’t want to have to drop down to the next group.

In this column, we look at running back tiers. Click the links for quarterbacks and wide receivers to dive into those positions.

Tier One

(1) Le’Veon Bell
(2) Todd Gurley

Some may say the top tier goes four deep, but I think there’s an elite pairing within that tier. Bell has been a top-three back in three of the last four years, and was on his way to being one all four years before injuring his knee in 2015. Sean McVay unlocked the superstar inside Gurley last season, and with the Rams returning all key personnel, it’s hard to imagine the back reverting to his Jeff Fisher-influenced form.

Tier Two

(3) David Johnson
(4) Ezekiel Elliott

Johnson and Elliott unquestionably have top-one upside at the position. There is some concern, however, relative to Bell and Gurley. We know what to expect from the Steelers and Rams this year. We cannot say the same of the Cardinals and Cowboys. If those teams struggle, could their issues trickle down and affect their star running backs? It’s possible enough to drop these two into a tier behind Bell and Gurley.

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Tier Three

(5) Saquon Barkley
(6) Melvin Gordon
(7) Alvin Kamara
(8) Dalvin Cook
(9) Kareem Hunt

History tells us that at least one of these players will go bust, but it’s hard to imagine any one of them not living up to his billing this year. Barkley, Gordon, Cook and Hunt are all likely to enjoy workhorse roles, with the latter three playing for offenses projected to be among the league’s best. Barkley was an elite prospect coming out of Penn State, and backs taken in the top-five overall with his skill set in today’s game tend not to disappoint. Kamara is an electric player who seems to have been engineered specifically to play football the way the modern game is played, and who just put together one of the most efficient seasons the league has ever seen.


Tier Four

(10) Jordan Howard
(11) Leonard Fournette
(12) Devonta Freeman

This is lower than you’ll find Fournette anywhere else, but he’s still a safe RB1 prospect. I’m concerned about his lack of efficiency and Blake Bortles at the controls, but everything else is in place for Fournette in his second year. Howard and Freeman, meanwhile, have been two of the most reliable players in the fantasy world for the entirety of their respective careers. Don’t buy into any of the supposed structural concerns for either player. Howard will fit in an offense designed by Andy Reid protégé Matt Nagy, and Freeman did just fine in his first year without Kyle Shanahan.

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Tier Five

(13) Kenyan Drake
(14) LeSean McCoy
(15) Lamar Miller
(16) Jay Ajayi
(17) Christian McCaffrey
(18) Joe Mixon
(19) Royce Freeman

This is the first group for which there are legitimate concerns that go beyond historical bust rates. Every player in here has, as part of his realistic range of outcomes, a season that would stand as a significant disappointment. Drake doesn’t have a track record. McCoy is a 30-year-old on a potentially terrible team. Miller has fallen short of expectations both years in Houston. Ajayi could be stuck in a true committee with Corey Clement and Darren Sproles. McCaffrey may not see a carry inside the 5-yard line thanks to C.J. Anderson. Mixon was legitimately bad last season. Freeman may not lead the Broncos in carries. Yet I’d be fine coming out of the draft with an elite wide receiver and then Drake, Miller or McCaffrey as my top running back—all of them have RB1 upside.

Tier Six

(20) Alex Collins
(21) Marshawn Lynch
(22) Carlos Hyde
(23) Dion Lewis
(24) C.J. Anderson
(25) Ronald Jones

Collins, Hyde, Anderson and Lynch are all similar players. They’re boring, they’re not going to catch many passes, and their ceilings aren’t much higher than their floors. Still, they all should get plenty of carries, especially Collins and Lynch, and all should dominate their team’s goal-line rushing offense, except for Anderson, who will lose some of that production to Cam Newton. Lewis would be much higher on this list if not for Derrick Henry, but there’s still a path to 200 touches for him in Tennessee. As for Jones, consider this a bet that he earns at least a two-thirds share of the backfield touches in Tampa.

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Tier Seven

(26) Jerick McKinnon
(27) Rex Burkhead
(28) Mark Ingram
(29) Tarik Cohen
(30) Sony Michel
(31) Derrick Henry
(32) Ty Montgomery
(33) Rashaad Penny

I have to start with McKinnon, on whom I’m much lower than most of the industry. Put simply, we’re not talking about a rookie or second-year player here. McKinnon had plenty of opportunity in Minnesota, abut never broke through. He gave up a ton of carries, including goal-line work, to Latavius Murray last year. His skill set makes him a great fit in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, but he’s not Devonta Freeman. I’d be careful of him at his ADP. Burkhead and Michel may get in one another’s way, but both are worth grabbing at ADP for the shot that they hit the higher end of their range of outcomes. Ingram would be a top-12 back if he weren’t suspended for four games to start the season. Cohen is one of the most exciting players going into this season, the Bears’ version of Tyreek Hill in the offense Matt Nagy brings over from Kansas City. The Dion Lewis signing was terrible news for Henry, who finally appeared to be taking over as the Titans’ workhorse. With Aaron Jones suspended two games to start the season, Montgomery once again has an opportunity to carve out a significant role in the Packers’ offense. Penny’s broken finger is terrible news for his fantasy value, as it gives Chris Carson a clear leg up in their position battle for the first few weeks of the regular season.


Tier Eight

(34) Duke Johnson
(35) Chris Thompson
(36) Kerryon Johnson
(37) Nyheim Hines
(38) Tevin Coleman
(39) Jamaal Williams
(40) Chris Carson
(41) Marlon Mack

Duke Johnson is going to do his thing as Cleveland’s primary receiving back. He’s the safest play in that team’s backfield. Even with Derrius Guice out for the season after tearing his ACL, I don’t think we can expect much more on the ground from Thompson. He’s a receiving back first, and Jay Gruden doesn’t seem too keen on suddenly giving him double-digit carries per game. Kerryon Johnson is one of the buzziest players in the league, and has a real chance to vault from the middle rounds to the top 20 at his position. Same goes for Nyheim Hines, who broke out in his junior year at North Carolina State. Marlon Mack is all that stands between him and a featured role alongside Andrew Luck. Tevin Coleman is a known commodity, but the Falcons need to get back to their 2016 ways to make him an effective fantasy option again. Unlike Devonta Freeman, he can’t do it on the ground alone. Just as it is for Ty Montgomery, the door is also open to Jamaal Williams to make something of himself in one of the best offenses in the league this year. Getting invested in an offense led by Aaron Rodgers is always a good idea, especially at this price. Carson likely enters the season atop the depth chart in Seattle, and that could give him enough time to establish himself, no matter the draft capital the team spent on Rashaad Penny.

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Tier Nine

(42) Isaiah Crowell
(43) Corey Clement
(44) Frank Gore
(45) Doug Martin
(46) Matt Breida
(47) Javorius Allen
(48) Bilal Powell
(49) Giovani Bernard
(50) Theo Riddick
(51) James White

Every back in this tier is a worthy depth back who fantasy owners may be happy to have around during the bye-week portion of the season. My favorite targets among the group are Breida, Allen and Bernard. All have significant receiving value and a clear path to carries should the starter go down or disappoint.

Other Positional Tiers: Quarterbacks | Wide Recievers

Wild Cards

(52) Alfred Morris
(53) Robert Kelley
(54) Aaron Jones

Part of the reason the 49ers signed Morris is because of his familiarity with Kyle Shanahan, but if Jerick McKinnon’s calf injury lingers, he could play a big role in this offense. Morris has averaged 4.4 yards per carry across 1,262 rushes in his career. Kelley is the odds-on-favorite to be the early-down back in Washington with Derrius Guice out for the season. Jones was likely on the inside track to be Green Bay’s starter before the league hit him with a two-game suspension. If neither Ty Montgomery nor Jamaal Williams stand out early, he could emerge once he’s eligible to play.