2017 Fantasy Football: RB Breakdown
Over the past decade the NFL has displayed more pass-heavy offensive schemes than ever before. As a result, the running back position has become undervalued. Despite this shift in reality, the running back position in fantasy football is now more important than ever. The 2017 draft featured what many experts believe to be the deepest running back class in years. As a result, the market is over-saturated with talent at the running back position. Quality veteran running backs such as Adrian Peterson and Jamal Charles will actually have to compete for the starting job on their respective teams. Below is a breakdown of the running back situation for every NFL team. Each running back listed will be given a rating between 0 and 10 to signify their fantasy value based on skill and team situation– a 10.0 will represent the most talented running back in a dream scenario, whereas a 0.0 will represent a low-potential back buried on the depth chart.
1st String: David Johnson, 10.0
2nd String: Andre Ellington, 2.3
3rd String: TJ Logan, 1.5
David Johnson is the unquestioned star running back for the Cardinals after leading the league in total yards from scrimmage in 2016. On top of being a top-tier rusher, Johnson is one of the best receiving backs in the league. As a result, Johnson is a candidate for the number one pick in PPR drafts this year. Baring an injury to Johnson, Andre Ellington and TJ Logan figure to get very little work out of the backfield. Ellington shows more upside than Logan given his use out of the slot and in certain offensive packages.
Update: Chris Johnson did re-sign with the Cardinals this week
1st String: Devonta Freeman, 8.9
2nd String: Tevin Coleman, 6.2
3rd String: Brian Hill, 0.3
In 2016 Freeman showed doubters that he was more than a one-season wonder. Unfortunately for fantasy owners, Tevin Coleman came back from injury and etched out a sizable role in Atlanta’s high-powered offense. Given the limited number of carries to go around, it’s difficult for me to endorse freeman as a foolproof RB1. That said, both Freeman and Coleman are talented backs that will perform well for fantasy owners this season.
1st String: Terrance West, 6.5
2nd String: Kenneth Dixon, 5.7
3rd String: Danny Woodhead, 5.3
Baltimore will once again feature one of the most annoying backfields in the NFL–from a fantasy perspective that is. Incumbent starter Terrance West has performed decently for the Ravens, but he is by no means a stud. Last year predictions were made that Dixon would take over the starting role around week 5 once he was healthy, but he never grasped that opportunity. This year analysts are saying much of the same, except that Dixon will be coming off a suspension in week 5 instead of an injury. Throw Danny Woodhead into the mix and there are a lot of mouths to feed in Baltimore. In my opinion, the confusion surrounding this backfield isn’t worth the pick you’ll need to grab one of these guys on draft night. If West or Woodhead fall into the last few rounds of the draft, maybe take a chance on them–otherwise stay clear of this backfield headache.
1st String: LeSean McCoy, 9.6
2nd String: Jonathan Williams, 2.7
3rd String: Joe Banyard, 0.3
No surprises here–LeSean McCoy is a workhorse and he’ll produce. The only question mark surrounding McCoy is his injury history. With Mike Gillislee now departed to New England, Jonathan Williams will take over the backup duties. If McCoy were to get hurt, Williams would get the first crack at the position and is worth considering as a handcuff pick if you take McCoy in the first or second round. Banyard has little to no chance of having a fantasy impact this season.
1st String: Jonathan Stewart, 6.9
2nd String: Christian McCaffrey, 7.1
3rd String: Fozzy Whitaker, 1.6
The Carolina backfield is going to be one of the most difficult to interpret before fantasy drafts. Jonathan Stewart has been the starter for years, but is consistently average. If I were to compare Stewart to a fantasy quarterback, it would be Alex Smith. The Panthers realized the lack of pop in their running back committee and responded by drafting stud rookie Christian McCaffrey. Some people question whether McCaffrey will be a three-down back in the NFL, but at the very worst he’ll be used in a Danny Woodhead type role this season. The question over who will ultimately lead the backfield makes spending a high draft pick on Stewart or McCaffrey a risky proposition. Fozzy Whitaker looks to remain in fantasy obscurity for the upcoming season.
1st String: Jordan Howard, 9.3
2nd String: Jeremy Langford, 2.9
3rd String: Ka’deem Carey, 1.6
Jordan Howard came out of nowhere as a rookie last year. He took advantage of Langford’s injuries and poor performances, quickly establishing himself as the starting running back. Howard went on to be a top-10 fantasy running back for 2016. There are questions whether Howard will have a sophomore slump in 2017 given the overall state of the Chicago Bears, but he’s definitely one of the unquestioned bell-cow backs in the NFL. I would feel comfortable taking him in the late second round for a standard, 12-team league. Langford and Carey will only hold fantasy value if Howard gets hurt or severely under-performs.
1st String: Jeremy Hill, 7.1
2nd String: Giovani Bernard, 6.4
3rd String: Joe Mixon, 7.0
I strongly suggest you treat the Cincinnati backfield like a police crime scene with yellow “CAUTION” tape surrounding the perimeter. Make a concerted effort not to take one of these guys on draft day if you can help it. Last year the backfield situation was difficult to predict with only Bernard and Hill on the roster, but this year the Bengals also added the talented rookie Mixon to the group. All of these backs will likely perform throughout the season at one point or another, but that’s not a desirable fantasy football situation given the lack of consistency.
1st String: Isaiah Crowell, 9.1
2nd String: Duke Johnson, 5.1
3rd String: Matt Dayes, 0.3
The Browns haven’t featured a potent offense for quite some time, but last year Crowell showed enough for fans to be excited. Crowell has been the starting running back for a few years, is still only 24, and has always flashed signs of potential. He only surrenders playing time to Duke Johnson, who acts as a change of pace receiving back. The Browns made some significant additions to their offensive line in the offseason, so Crowell’s production should only go up from here. Given the team he plays for, he might fall to the fifth or sixth round–he’ll be a good pickup at that point.
1st String: Ezekiel Elliot, 9.8
2nd String: Darren McFadden, 5.0
3rd String: Alfred Morris, 0.6
Ezekiel Elliot has it all. He’s young, talented, has an amazing offensive line, and plays all three downs. On top of that, the Cowboys feature a pretty balanced offense which gives him plenty of carries. If you draft Elliot with your first round pick, be sure to snap up McFadden as a handcuff pick towards the end of the draft. Recent news suggests that Elliot might be up for a small suspension due to a domestic violence allegation; he was acquitted in court, but the NFL may still take action. As long as the suspension isn’t longer than a few games, Elliot will still be worth a high pick. Rumors are that Morris may get cut before the season starts–he’s irrelevant at this point.
1st String: CJ Anderson, 7.2
2nd String: Jamaal Charles, 6.0
3rd String: Devontae Booker, 3.3
The Broncos running game took a major turn for the worse last season. CJ Anderson under-performed to start the season and then got hurt. Devontae Booker showed promise as a change of pace back, but failed to impress when handed the starting role. In response, the Broncos decided to make the peculiar free agent addition of Jamaal Charles. In Kansas City, Charles featured as one of the premier backs of the NFL… when he wasn’t injured. Charles is slated to be healthy for the preseason, but little is known as to what backfield role he will assume. Most people predict that Anderson will regain the starting role, but don’t count Charles out just yet. Be cautious drafting any of these guys until clear roles for the backfield are established.
1st String: Ameer Abdullah, 7.3
2nd String: Theo Riddick, 3.8
3rd String: Zach Zenner, 4.7
The front office for the Lions made an interesting choice this offseason by choosing not to draft one of the many talented rookie running backs available. They also decided not to sign a proven, veteran back in free agency. These decisions were made coming off a season where the Lions backfield could only be described as a wasteland. Ameer Abdullah showed potential his rookie year, but was placed on injured reserve early last season. Abdullah figures to be the starting back for the beginning of the season, but Zenner could take over that role should Abdullah get hurt or fail to impress. Riddick will continue to function as an effective receiving and change-of-pace back if he can put his injuries behind him. I see Abdullah being a late round snag that could evolve into a consistent fantasy starter, but don’t spend a high pick on any Detroit running back this season.
Green Bay Packers:
1st String: Ty Montgomery, 8.0
2nd String: Jamaal Williams, 4.4
3rd String: Aaron Jones, 0.7
A strange thing happened last year when the Packers decided to convert their receiver Ty Montgomery to the running back position. It was even stranger when Montgomery stepped into the role and had a considerable amount of success. He was so successful that the Packers felt comfortable letting Eddie Lacy walk in free agency. In order to fill the backup role, the Packers grabbed Jamaal Williams in the draft. Williams doesn’t appear to have a wow-factor to his game, but he’ll likely be the starter if Montgomery were to go down. While Montgomery is the unquestioned starter, he doesn’t have the track record that many others do. He should be a mid to late round pick in most drafts.
1st String: Lamar Miller, 8.7
2nd String: Alfred Blue, 1.4
3rd String: D’Onta Foreman, 5.4
Lamar Miller came over to the Texans in free agency last year after performing exceedingly well for the Dolphins in 2015. Unfortunately, when Miller left the Dolphins, he apparently left his production behind as well. Miller was given a ton of carries in his first season with the Texans but couldn’t do much with them. Part of Miller’s struggles could be attributed to the Texan’s offensive line, but fantasy owners don’t really care about such excuses. In order to give Miller some additional motivation, the Texans drafted D’Onta Foreman in the 2017 draft. He’s a big,bruising back that could push Miller for carries if he struggles early on. Alfred Blue is the backup for now, but expect Foreman to take over that role sooner than later.
1st String: Frank Gore, 8.0
2nd String: Robert Turbin, 3.7
3rd String: Marlon Mack, 4.0
Frank Gore is the running back that father time forgot about. He’s 34 and still the unquestioned leader of the Colt’s backfield. Fantasy owners who took Gore with a late-round pick in 2016 were rewarded with a quality RB2 that performed consistently throughout the season. That said, 2017 might finally be the year that Gore runs out of steam. Robert Turbin is currently the backup behind Gore, and while having the prototypical pedigree of a starting back, he has never quite put it all together. Third in line is the rookie Marlon Mack, who was explosive throughout a majority of his college career. It’d be a coin toss as to who would take over if Gore went down with injury, but Mack edges out Turbin in potential upside. I suggest owners look for a repeat out of Gore in 2017 and snag him with a late round pick.
1st String: Leonard Fournette, 8.6
2nd String: TJ Yeldon, 3.8
3rd String: Chris Ivory, 2.3
Jacksonville hopes to have finally found their talisman running back in Leonard Fournette. They drafted him with the fourth overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft. He will immediately take over the starting role and be given every chance to succeed. I’m always wary about taking a rookie in the first few rounds of a fantasy draft, but it worked well for owners who took Elliot last year. Yeldon figures to come into the game for some passing plays, but he won’t have enough production to enter fantasy relevance. Chris Ivory is the odd man out and is a candidate to be released before the season starts.
Kansas City Chiefs:
1st String: Spencer Ware, 7.6
2nd String: Charcandrick West, 1.3
3rd String: Kareem Hunt, 5.8
With Jamaal Charles out for most of 2016, Spencer Ware stepped in as the Chief’s starting running back. He didn’t show up the highlight reel often, but Ware held his own as a fairly consistent RB2. Coming into 2017, Ware immediately faces competition from rookie selection Kareem Hunt. I predict Ware will be the starter week 1, but expect Hunt to begin pushing him for carries should he struggle. West seems to have cemented his place as the occasional passing back to be deployed in certain packages–he holds little to no fantasy value.
Los Angeles Chargers:
1st String: Melvin Gordon, 9.6
2nd String: Brandon Oliver, 3.2
3rd String: Kenneth Farrow, 1.2
Melvin Gordon had a real bummer of a rookie season in 2015. Fantasy owners that took a bet on him bouncing back in 2016 were greatly rewarded. Gordon became the centerpiece of the Chargers offensive attack and also finished as a top-10 fantasy back. I don’t expect Gordon to repeat his success in 2017, but he still should have a solid year. Coming off a season-ending injury in 2016, Brandon Oliver will look to recapture his role as the change-of-pace back, though he won’t be a consistent fantasy option. Kenneth Farrow will only become relevant if Gordon picks up a serious injury.
Los Angeles Rams:
1st String: Todd Gurley, 9.4
2nd String: Malcolm Brown, 1.8
3rd String: Lance Dunbar, 2.6
What do fantasy owners do with Gurley? He had an amazing rookie season in 2015 and showed no signs of slowing down heading into 2016. He did slow down though…to a crawl. Gurley was drafted in the top 5 picks of almost every fantasy draft last year and was among one of the biggest busts. Despite playing poorly, most of Gurley’s struggles can be attributed to his offensive line and the state of the Rams organization in general. Malcolm Brown figures to slot in as Gurley’s backup should he succumb to injury. Lance Dunbar came over from Dallas and plans to slot in as the team’s receiving back. Tread lightly when drafting Gurley this year, but I think it’s safe to say that 2016 showed his fantasy floor.
1st String: Jay Ajayi, 9.6
2nd String: Damien Williams, 2.4
3rd String: Kenyan Drake, 2.4
Ajayi’s 2016 season started on the rocks. He had just been beaten out for the starting running back job by Arian Foster and was displeased. He didn’t hide that displeasure well and ended up in the doghouse for a few weeks. Then Foster got injured and decided to retire. Ajayi had a few monster games, took over the starting role, and never looked back. Neither Damien Williams nor Kenyan Drake have the build to take over the starting role for long, even if Ajayi were to get injured. It will be interesting to see how Ajayi fairs when asked to be the bell-cow back for the entire season. If Ajayi drops a round or two in your fantasy draft don’t be afraid to pick him, but make sure not to reach for him. He still might turn out to be a flash in the pan.
1st String: Latavius Murray, 6.8
2nd String: Dalvin Cook, 7.4
3rd String: Jerick McKinnon, 4.5
Latavius Murray was brought in during free agency and given a sizable contract to be the team’s starting running back. Murray is still young and is coming off a few moderately productive seasons in Oakland. I doubt the Vikings were planning on selecting a running back in the 2017 draft, but when Dalvin Cook fell to the second round they saw a talent that they couldn’t pass on. Cook was touted by most as an easy first round pick with the expectation being that he would immediately step into a three-down role in the NFL–now there is a good, old-fashioned competition in Minnesota for the starting gig. It’s anyone’s best guess as how the Vikings will use the two backs in 2017, so it’s best to stick clear of the situation until the final depth charts are released. It’s also important to note that Jerick McKinnon is still a presence in the backfield and may sneak in a few snaps here and there given his experience with the offense.
New England Patriots:
1st String: James White/Dion Lewis, 5.0
2nd String: Mike Gillislee, 6.8
3rd String: Rex Burkhead , 4.5
The New England Patriots backfield is another fantasy mess. They let 2016 starting back LeGarrette Blount leave in free agency to join the Eagles. In order to fill this void, the Patriots brought in Mike Gillislee from Buffalo and Rex Burkhead from Cincinnati. Early reports suggest that Gillislee has the best chance to take the goal-line carries. Even though Gillislee may steal most of the touchdowns, Dion Lewis and James White will continue in their roles as shifty receiving and change-of-pace backs. As a result of the confusion surrounding the New England backfield, most of their backs will fall towards the end of the draft. In 2016 LeGarrette Blount was available in the 10th round of my draft and he was a steal. If the same situation occurs with Gillislee in that role, don’t be afraid to take a gamble on him. Burkhead has potential, but only if he can beat out Gillislee in camp and the preseason.
New Orleans Saints:
1st String: Mark Ingram, 7.9
2nd String: Adrian Peterson, 6.3
3rd String: Alvin Kamara, 4.9
The Saints made some rather interesting moves in the offseason this year. The first action was signing Adrian Peterson. Even though he’s getting up there in years, Adrian Peterson is still one of the best running backs in the NFL. Rather than go to a team where he would be guaranteed a three-down role, he decided to join a team with another successful starting back, Mark Ingram. We won’t really know the division of labor between the two backs until the season starts, but expect that both Ingram and Peterson will be involved. The second peculiar action the Saints took was selecting the rookie Alvin Kamara in the draft. Kamara has the pedigree to be a three-down back in the NFL as well, but joins an obviously crowded backfield. While all of these backs are extremely talented, the Saint’s three-headed monster approach to the ground game is bound to give fantasy owners a headache or two.
New York Giants:
1st String: Paul Perkins, 7.6
2nd String: Shane Vereen, 3.5
3rd String: Wayne Gallman, 2.6
The Giants run game has been lackluster for quite a few years. Towards the end of 2016, Paul Perkins stepped into more of a lead back role and didn’t disappoint. Perkins didn’t light up the turf, but it was obvious that he was the best option the Giants had. This year Perkins figures to start the season as the lead back and will likely keep that role provided he doesn’t get injured. Shane Vereen is coming off a serious injury that derailed most of his 2016 campaign. If he’s healthy, Vereen will reclaim his place as the go-to receiving back for the Giants. Wayne Gallman is a rookie back with little upside, but figures to have a fantasy role if Paul Perkins were to go down with injury.
New York Jets:
1st String: Matt Forte, 7.9
2nd String: Bilal Powell, 6.1
3rd String: Elijah McGuire, 0.9
The Jets cleaned house this season, releasing almost all of their aging veteran stars with big contracts. Matt Forte was one of the few veteran players to remain. Forte had a good first season with the Jets in 2016, but picked up a season-ending injury towards the end of the campaign. When Forte went down, Bilal Powell came in and sowed that he was more than capable of taking on a three-down role. He performed so well that some people predicted that he would retain the starting role in 2017. McGuire has little to no chance of making a fantasy impact this season. I think Forte will be the Jets back to draft this year, but owners who get Forte will likely want to snag Powell with a late-round pick for security. Given that the Jets are likely to have a terrible season, it might be best to stick clear of any of their backs when possible.
1st String: Marshawn Lynch, 8.9
2nd String: Jalen Richard, 2.1
3rd String: DeAndre Washington, 1.0
The hometown hero, Marshawn Lynch, comes out of retirement to join his favorite team before they pack up shop and move to Las Vegas–It’s a story that most journalists dream of coming true. Players coming out of retirement to rejoin the NFL usually don’t have much success, but Marshawn Lynch isn’t like most players. He retired while he was young and likely has plenty of gas left in the tank to play a few more seasons. Another thing he has going for him is the lack of competition; both Richard and Washington lack the size and skills necessary to fill the starting running back role, so expect Marshawn to be the lead back barring a serious injury. I would feel comfortable drafting Lynch anytime after the fourth round.
1st String: LeGarrette Blount, 8.7
2nd String: Wendell Smallwood, 2.0
3rd String: Darren Sproles, 3.7
Blount joins the Eagles backfield in coming off his most productive season in the NFL where he led the league in touchdowns. He figures to slot into a bruising, goal-line role with the Eagles, but could also take over some of the early down work depending on the flow of the game. Wendell Smallwood and Darren Sproles both figure to have a role in the offense, but not enough to warrant a draft-day selection. Blount might once again be a good value pick in the middle rounds of the draft, but don’t expect him to repeat his 2016 production with his new team–they aren’t the Patriots after all.
1st String: Le’Veon Bell, 10.0
2nd String: James Conner, 4.1
3rd String: Knile Davis, 0.7
Le’Veon Bell is arguably the most electric and explosive running back in the NFL. He figures to be a top-5 pick in every fantasy draft this year. He’s coming off an injury he suffered at the end of lat season, but is going to be healthy before the start of the season. The only concern with Bell is that another injury might crop up, but that’s the case with every running back. If you draft Bell, you must try to grab James Conner as a handcuff pick later in the draft. Conner had a productive career in college and will have every chance to hone his trade behind one of the best backs in the NFL. Knile Davis is nothing more than a journeyman depth option at this point and he holds no fantasy relevance.
San Francisco 49ers:
1st String: Carlos Hyde, 8.7
2nd String: Tim Hightower, 2.6
3rd String: Joseph Williams, 0.4
San Francisco has made a lot of changes in the offseason and while things generally seem to be trending in the right direction, with change comes uncertainty. This is especially true in the case of Carlos Hyde. Some reports suggest that the new regime isn’t completely sold on Carlos Hyde as their franchise running back and his nagging injury history does nothing to waylay those thoughts. That said, Hyde has performed extremely well when healthy and 2017 might be the year he finally puts it all together. The team added Tim Hightower in the offseason, but he should only factor in if Hyde gets hurt. Hyde seems like a high-risk, high-reward back for this season–draft him accordingly.
1st String: Eddie Lacy, 7.7
2nd String: Thomas Rawls, 6.1
3rd String: CJ Prosise, 3.7
The Seahawks made some quick moves to bring in Eddie Lacy in the offseason despite his injury and weight concerns. They took a rather large gamble–if Lacy can recapture his form, it’ll pay off big time. Unfortunately, that’s a big IF. Complicating matters further is the presence of Thomas Rawls and CJ Prosise in the Seahawks backfield; both backs have featured as successful starters for the team at different times over the past two years. From a fantasy perspective, I would do everything in my power to stick clear of this backfield situation unless one of these guys falls to the later rounds.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
1st String: Doug Martin, 7.6
2nd String: Charles Sims, 3.2
3rd String: Jacquizz Rodgers, 5.0
The Doug Martin saga rages on. Martin was hurt for a majority of last season and was suspended for the final game of the 2016 season due to substance abuse issues. Apparently Martin checked himself into a rehab facility in the offseason, but reports suggest that he’s now come back to the Bucs looking better than ever. That said, Martin is suspended for the first three games of the season and Jacquizz Rodgers filled in admirably in 2016 in Martin’s absence. I think Martin will reclaim the starting role this season, but if Rodgers plays well in the first three games, Martin might have to split carries when he returns. On top of all that, Charles Sims will return to the fold in his receiving role. I have a feeling that Martin will be drafted higher than he’s probably worth, but if he drops to the middle rounds in your draft, be sure to pick him up.
1st String: DeMarco Murray, 9.2
2nd String: Derrick Henry, 5.2
3rd String: David Fluellen, 0.2
The Titans feature two of the most talented running backs in the NFL in DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. In 2016 Murray showed that his poor production in Philadelphia was purely a result of Chip Kelly’s offensive scheme and finished the season as a top-10 fantasy running back. Derrick Henry didn’t get the amount of carries that Murray did in 2016, but he made the most of the carries he did get. He’s a stud, and I would expect Henry to get more carries in his sophomore season. Expect Murray to be drafted in the first two rounds in 2017– owners who draft him there should try to get Derrick Henry as well, though that may be difficult as Henry projects to be more than a last-round pick.
1st String: Rob Kelley, 8.5
2nd String: Chris Thompson, 3.0
3rd String: Samaje Perine, 5.3
Rob Kelley took over the starting job from Matt Jones last season and ran with it…literally. Reports suggest that the has come into the Redskin’s offseason program in even better shape than last year. Expect his production to go up in 2017 providing that rookie Samaje Perine doesn’t cut into his carries. If Perine does have an impact, it’ll likely be limited to goal-line situations. Chris Thompson will act in his usual receiving back capacity and is only a suitable fantasy options in PPR leagues. I expect Kelley to make a jump in his second year and he may only require a mid-round investment–he could end up a top-10 fantasy back in 2017.
Casey Birch covers the NFL for MyFantasySportsTalk.com, you can follow him on twitter @Calan24
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