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STATS 2017 Fantasy Football Preview: Running Backs

By: Stats Perform

Running back is arguably the defining position in fantasy football. It is often the most valuable, most talked about, most analyzed –  and yet least understood. To a certain extent, you need to embrace chaos and uncertainty.

If you head into the draft thinking that RBs will play out a certain way – i.e. David Johnson has a 90 percent chance of being the top-scoring RB on the season – you will make mistakes in your draft. The truth is, the RB position, by nature, is extremely volatile and very hard to predict.

The important question we must now ask: What truths can we derive from this chaos heading into the season? These are the things we need to be mindful of when heading into a draft in order to approach the position effectively.

  • David Johnson is the “most likely” RB to score the most points this season.

This mentality – what is “likely” to happen instead of “definite” – is what separates the novices from the pros. The volatility and unpredictability of the RB position leads to a lot of insecurity and anxiety at the beginning of the draft. Nobody wants to draft the next huge “bust.”

Sometimes this insecurity leads to irrational decision-making –  something like convincing yourself Le’Veon Bell will outscore DJ, even though that’s statistically less likely. Internal debate is fine and healthy, but I see it trend towards overthinking at the top end of the RB position too often. Don’t worry about getting everything right, but rather giving yourself the best possible odds.

  • There is a chance David Johnson misses 10+ games this year due to injury, or even gets benched due to ineffectiveness – no matter how ridiculous that sounds.

Take a look at the tiers below and realize that at least four guys in the first eight tiers will miss significant time, and at least two will suffer season-ending injuries. Then let it sink in for a second.

People can speculate, but we unfortunately have no way of knowing exactly which players will suffer such bad luck. This shouldn’t impact how you draft in the early rounds, when you will want to take the best players –  period. We can definitely use this fact to our advantage in the later rounds, however.

Knowing some RBs will get hurt – and it can happen to anyone – which backups could benefit the most from this? Also, while we can’t predict the injury side of the equation, we have a much better idea about players’ talent and role. We know David Johnson is very unlikely to get benched due to ineffectiveness, but 49ers starter Carlos Hyde will lose his job if he starts slow.

Keeping all this in mind will help you identify value (or false value) during your drafts. Who is talented? Who has a longer leash? Which backups could benefit the most from a starter going down? A tentative starter like Hyde will be over-drafted because he is No. 1 on the depth chart right now, but his downside is not reflected in his ADP.

On the flip side, a middle-round backup like Tevin Coleman could win you a fantasy championship if Devonta Freeman goes down. These are the types of value plays – or value traps – these tiers try to identify.

Having said all this, know that I tend to discuss the overall strategy of each tier/player, rather than talk about their 2016 stats or 3-cone drill times at the combine.

Tier 1 

David Johnson – Cardinals

Johnson has established himself as the true king of the position. He’s pretty much a perfect combination of Le’Veon Bell’s and Ezekiel Elliott’s playing styles – with a squeaky clean off-field game to boot. I feel both he and the Cardinals understand he has about two more mega-prime years to seize, and they’ll ride him as much as they can this year.

Tier 2 

Le’Veon Bell – Steelers
Ezekiel Elliott – Cowboys

There is no question Bell would get his own tier for PPR leagues, but I think in standard scoring you can make a case for either player. This is all assuming Elliott will not be suspended. On a side note, if Elliott is suspended two games, which is possible, I think he still warrants being the third RB taken overall. If you happen to take him, be sure to snag Darren McFadden a bit earlier than usual in order to lock in a handcuff with immediate value.

Tier 3 

LeSean McCoy – Bills
Melvin Gordon – Chargers

There is such a drop off after the top three that I feel people tend to reach for the Next Man Up, when it’s probably ideal to snag an elite wide receiver instead. Either of these backs could very well end up being the No. 1 RB, but they are also the first RBs who come with serious question marks “McCoy is getting old,” or “Gordon plays behind a poor o-line,” come to mind. I’d prefer drafting later in the first round and winding up with one or two guys from the next tier, rather than drafting these guys early or in the middle of the first round.

Tier 4 

Jay Ajayi – Dolphins
Jordan Howard – Bears
Devonta Freeman – Falcons
Demarco Murray – Titans

We now have our first set of RBs who could slip and offer sneaky value. This feels like the batch of backs people late in the first round get stuck with and say, “OK, fine, I guess I’ll take Jay Ajayi. The truth is, I really like snagging two players from this tier with wrap-around picks. It accomplishes a number of things.

1) It likely gives you the best starting RB pairing in the league off the bat. 2) There will be a huge drop-off at RB after these guys, which may cause others to panic and draft remaining RBs instead of other positions, giving you a better player at another position by the time it comes back to you. 4) It allows you to be aggressive and take chances on mid-round RBs who are risky but possess league-winning upside, rather than taking a “safe” starting RB with little upside.

Tier 5 

Leonard Fournette – Jaguars
Isaiah Crowell – Browns
Todd Gurley – Rams
Lamar Miller – Texans

I like to think of this as the first tier of guys who have RB1 upside, but also tons of risk. In fact, the risks are so obvious people love discussing them. I’d like to balance things out a bit and really sell you on their positives. After all, some of you will get stuck with these as your RB1s.

The Jaguars took a page from the Cowboys book and went out of their way to select a RB early in the draft to build the offense around him. I don’t think Fournette will quite meet the lofty expectations Zeke set after his monster 2016 season, but I think it’s safe to say the Jaguars intend to use him early and often right out of the gate. There’s no question he has the talent to be one of the league’s top backs, so he’s a much safer bet as a rookie than people are giving him credit for.

Crowell plays behind the NFL’s highest-paid offensive line after Cleveland signed Kevin Zeitler and JC Tretter to join Joe Thomas and Joel Bitonio. His increased involvement in the passing game makes him an even more enticing pick this year, as that will help keep his production consistent despite various game flows.

Exactly one year ago, you weren’t considered crazy if you drafted Gurley No. 1 overall. We quickly realized that his talent alone was not enough to overcome poor coaching and team play. It’s almost impossible for the Rams to be any worse this year, and I think we will see flashes of just how good Gurley can be. He has the upside to be a top-five RB this year.

Miller should see fewer stacked boxes now that Brock Oswieler is gone. The Texans drafted D’Onta Foreman, but I don’t think you should let that scare you off. I view it more as the Texans realizing they lacked a true backup and insurance policy, and I think Miller will remain the Bell Cow Back in Houston.

Tier 6 

Marshawn Lynch – Raiders
Dalvin Cook – Vikings

It takes a bit of faith to select either one of these RBs early, but both could be worth the risk. There is a lot of talk about limiting Lynch to 200 carries considering he’s a 32-year-old coming back from retirement. There are legitimate concerns, but I would argue that an inordinate amount of Lynch’s carries will be “high leverage” in the red zone, so we should be careful to not lower his value too much.

Meanwhile, Cook is the real deal. He can be freakishly good at times, and I think his above-average RB teammates are scaring too many people away. My outlook for him isn’t too far off from Fournette, and he may be in the better situation on paper. My biggest worry is actually that he suffered his fair share of soft tissue injuries in college, so he could be a bit of a “Questionable” tag headache. He’s worth the risk in my book, though.

Tier 7 

Ty Montgomery – Packers
Spencer Ware – Chiefs

Each of these players has RB1 upside, they also have competition on their own teams. Montgomery is still transitioning from being a WR to a RB. It’s not really possible for him to be able to handle a 250-plus-touches type of role, so expect him to mix monster weeks with some major duds. Further, Green Bay just drafted two RBs. I fear rookie Jamaal Williams could potentially take over as the starter at some point, leaving Montgomery as more of a gadget player with RB2 value.

If Ware is able to hold off rookie Kareem Hunt and maintain his three-down role for most of the season, then he will be a steal. The risk associated with Ware seems to be appropriately baked into his ADP right now as the 19th RB off the board.

Tier 8 

Joe Mixon – Bengals
Carlos Hyde – 49ers
Christian McCaffrey – Panthers
Tevin Coleman – Falcons
Bilal Powell – Jets

This tier is loaded with potential, but these guys have too many risks involved to feel good about relying on them as your RB2. I would avoid Hyde altogether in this range considering he’s being drafted closer to Tier 6 and 7 guys. I won’t end up with him on any teams. This feels like the high water mark for him, even if everything goes right. Hyde is going to be on a bad team that could be picking No. 1 overall next year with a new coaching regime that seems content with letting him walk next season.

I’d rather take a chance on someone like Coleman, who is currently ranked as if Devonta Freeman will be healthy all year, with none of his high upside baked in. If we expect chaos and volatility at RB, and draft accordingly, we raise Coleman’s stock, as he has league-winning potential if Freeman goes down. It’s a bit of a gamble, sure, but any RB in this range is a gamble in some way.

Tier 9 

Eddie Lacy – Seahawks
Mike Gillislee – Patriots
Terrance West – Ravens
Mark Ingram – Saints
Frank Gore – Colts
Ameer Abdullah – Lions
C.J. Anderson – Broncos
LeGarrette Blount – Eagles
Adrian Peterson – Saints
Paul Perkins – Giants
Doug Martin – Buccaneers

This tier acts as a safety net for people who used the early rounds to load up at other positions and are trying to lock up a safe-ish RB2. There is a fairly large drop-off after this tier, and you’d be stuck with low-risk/low-reward or high-risk/medium-reward players from here on out.

West offers the most value based on his current ADP being the 37th RB taken on average. I think the market hasn’t caught up to Kenneth Dixon’s season-ending injury just yet. Yes, Danny Woodhead will have a pretty big role (and he should be drafted higher in PPR leagues), but I don’t think his presence is enough to shy away from West if he falls outside of the top 30 RB.

Martin has sneaky value due to his three-game suspension. Most people will avoid having a 0 on their bench for three weeks, but you can make it work if you select Martin, especially as your RB4. You typically don’t even need your RB4 until bye weeks or injuries start happening anyways. You can also snag Jacquizz Rodgers late if you select Martin as your RB3, to really give yourself a solid situation entering the season, as he’ll likely start the games Martin is suspended.

Tier 10 

Derrick Henry – Titans
Matt Forte – Jets
Jonathan Stewart – Panthers
Danny Woodhead – Ravens

Henry is the guy to target from this group. His value is obviously capped due to Demarco Murray, but if Murray were to miss any time, it would vault Henry up to RB1 status. You really can’t say that about anyone else this far into the draft. Ideally, you would be selecting him as your RB4 for depth, and he is a potential league-winning player.

Tier 11 

Theo Riddick – Lions
Duke Johnson Jr. – Browns
Samaje Perine – Redskins
Rob Kelley – Redskins
Darren Sproles – Eagles

In PPR, a few of these players would be a tier or two higher. We will have to follow reports to get a better idea as to how the Redskins plan to utilize their backfield. As of now, it’s a tie between Perine and Kelley. Perine clearly has the most upside of the two, but all indications are that Kelley will start the season as the lead back. Kelley has apparently shed some weight and is in great shape heading into the preseason.

Tier 12 

James White – Patriots
Jamaal Charles – Broncos
Kareem Hunt – Chiefs
Giovani Bernard – Bengals
Shane Vereen – Giants
Latavius Murray – Vikings
C.J. Prosise – Seahawks

We are now entering the unwanted territory for standard leagues. It’s not to say that these RBs lack talent and can’t be good fantasy assets at some point this year, it’s just that their role is sure to be low-volume entering the season, and they don’t quite possess the upside of a Derrick Henry type.

Vereen has the most value in regards to his ADP, but I like Hunt as the sleeper pick of the bunch. As mentioned earlier, Spencer Ware is going to have to hold off the dynamic rookie for most of the season. I feel like Hunt is the ideal RB to roster for depth, since his role will only grow as the season goes on while he offers sneaky league-winning potential if Ware were to miss significant time – or even lose his job.

Tier 13 

Chris Thompson – Redskins
Jonathan Williams – Bills
Jalen Richard – Raiders
Robert Turbin – Colts
Rex Burkhead – Patriots
DeAndre Washington – Raiders
Jeremy Hill – Bengals
Joe Williams – 49ers
Devontae Booker – Broncos
Tim Hightower – 49ers
Darren McFadden – Cowboys

This tier is a gruesome batch featuring the weaker sides of RBBCs (running backs by committee) and/or third-down specialists. Most of these RBs need an injury or two in order to have their usage spike to anything higher than a bye-week-fill-in type player. Now that Frank Gore turned 34, I think it’s safe to say he may run out of gas at some point this season. His backup, Robert Turbin, has been a bit of a goal line vulture in the past, but I think this year he could take over as starter if Gore becomes completely ineffective – which is possible. McFadden is worth snagging a tad earlier as long as there is some speculation that Ezekiel Elliott could be suspended at all.

Tier 14 

Jacquizz Rodgers – Buccaneers
Alvin Kamara – Sains
Charles Sims – Buccaneers
Thomas Rawls – Seahawks
Jamaal Williams – Packers
T.J. Yeldon – Jaguars
Dion Lewis – Patriots
D’Onta Foreman – Texans

Rodgers is clearly the RB to take of this bunch as he is set to start for the Bucs for the first 3 games of their season. It makes even more sense for whoever selected Doug Martin earlier in the draft to snag him.