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Early Rankings – Top 10 RB

It’s early in the off season, and these rankings will likely take on a different form as we approach the start of the NFL season, but in an effort to map the journey, we’ll take a few days to give you a look at the top of each position and who we think is rising and who we think is falling. If you’re looking for overall rankings, our initial rankings will be posted at the links in the header this week as well. 
  1. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants – Considered a can’t-miss prospect, Barkley turned in an all time great rookie season in 2018 with 2,000 total yards, 91 receptions, and 15 total TDs. Considering that he did that behind a pourous offensive line and without much protection from an inept passing  game, it’s fairly obvious that even minor improvements should allow Barkley to maintain his frantic pace. With Odell Beckham gone, there are some (myself included) that expect this Giants offense to run a bit more efficiently, and I expect a similar output to the generational talent in 2019.
  2. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys – Zeke fought through some rough weeks to start the season but really came on down the stretch, giving the owners of the #1 overall pick something to think about. While the Cowboys feature a better offensive line, Zeke does present a few questions given that his usage in the passing game is far less impactful than Barkley. Also, keep an eye on any discipline that may come of an off season run in with security at an event. I doubt he’ll see discipline, but any missed time may impact his standings.
  3. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers – When you look at sheer opportunity, McCaffrey’s snap share should relieve any concerns about his ability to repeat as a top 3 option in 2019. He’ll continue to be a target hog in the passing game, and his ability to run the ball was entirely overlooked when he came into the league. Don’t expect folks to make the same mistake in 2019, as McCaffrey is an elite option at the RB position and should go early in the first round.
  4. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints – While Latavius Murray was brought in to replace the exiting Mark Ingram, it’s still Alvin Kamara’s offense when it comes to the running back position. He’s a trusted weapon for the Drew Brees led passing game, as evidenced by his 162 receptions in his two seasons in New Orleans, and he was excellent running the football despite the obvious regression we expected in terms of efficiency. Even if his trips to the endzone dip slightly from the 14 he had last year, he’s still a safe bet for 1,500-1,700 total yards and monster PPR weeks.
  5. Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers – If Gordon could stay healthy, he’d be higher on this list, but as it stands, he’s a high volume back with a propensity to miss games. Still, it was encouraging to see him take the next step last year with a 5.1 yard per carry mark, and 10 TDs in only 12 games. If you miss out on the sure-thing backs that come just ahead of him, Gordon is an excellent consolation prize, just be sure to have a back up plan if he misses a few weeks during the season.
  6. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals – It certainly feels like David Johnson has been in the league a long time, but the truth is he’s still well within his prime as an NFL running back, and should be healthy coming into 2019; something we haven’t seen from Johnson since he suffered a season ending injury in 2017. As the season wore on, we saw glimpses of the DJ that convinced us he was the top overall option in fantasy. With a new head coach and quarterback combo that should keep defenses a little more honest, and additional weapons at the receiver position, there could be a little more room to run for Johnson, which should help him get back to his A game. 2,000 yards may be a bit of a lofty goal, but he’s a threat to the top 5 regardless.
  7. James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers – I know that others are a little higher on Conner as a stud fantasy running back, but the truth is he’s not Le’Veon Bell, and the Steelers off season saw plenty of turmoil that will make it difficult to come out of the gates firing. Expecting a bit of regression still provides for a valuable fantasy season, but don’t be surprised if/when Conner disappears for a few weeks. Fatigue was a definite factor last year, and with no Antonio Brown to help pull defenders from the line, we’re going to get a good look early on how well Conner runs against heavier fronts.
  8. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams – Gurley is proving to be a special case in 2019. We know how good he is when he’s healthy, and we also know how health so often evades him in his NFL career. With what’s being dubbed a “chronic knee issue” we have fears that Gurley won’t be as effective in 2019 as he was early in the season last year. When the Rams drafted the dynamic RB Darrel Henderson, it certainly looked like they were concerned too. My guess is that even a healthy Gurley sees far fewer touches in 2019. The Rams would be wise to give their stud running back a little rest during the season, otherwise they’re bound to be missing him in big games again this year.
  9. Le’Veon Bell, New York Jets – Relocating to the Jets wasn’t necessarily the most ideal landing place for a perennial top 3 pick. The money may have been right, but there’s certainly going to be some growing pains as Bell acclimates to an Adam Gase offense that has to be digested by a handful of young players, including second year starter Sam Darnold. Could that be a recipe for success though? It’s not difficult to see Bell having a huge impact in the passing game, so don’t expect him to completely fall off the map. My big concern is simply a wide range of outcomes. These are the Jets were talking about here, and Gase has a history of misusing his running backs (and wasn’t keen on Bell in the first place). He could have a huge season as the teams focal point, or he could have a complete dud if they struggle on offense again in 2019.
  10. Joe Mixon – Cincinnati Bengals – This is about the point in the draft that the running back position becomes a crap-shoot. I do love Mixon’s skill set, and he was excellent during stretches last season, but injuries derailed a promising season for the second year pro. With the end of the season leaving a sour taste in the front offices mouth, they added two running backs in the draft, which may impact Mixon’s ability to garner top 5 snap share, but top ten is a solid prediction. I don’t expect him to feature as heavily in the passing game as the backs ahead of him, but a 1,500 yard (total) season and double digit TDs are very reasonable predictions for Mixon if he sees 14-16 starts.
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Final RB Tiers

We’re pushing through into the regular season this week and a lot of you are drafting; it’s time to post our final pre-season tiers for each position. It’s going to be a busy Sunday as we push to publish the remaining positional tiers!

ELITE Tier

  • Todd Gurley
  • Ezekiel Elliott
  • David Johnson
  • Le’Veon Bell

You know what you’re getting if you target any of these guys in the first few picks of the draft. All four of these backs are threats for 2,000 total yards, and in PPR leagues they all should finish at or near the top of the positional rankings at seasons end. If you’re concerned about Bell or Johnson due to injury or hold out, you shouldn’t be. Generational talent always finds a way to shine.

GREAT PLAYER Tier

  • Saquon Barkley
  • Melvin Gordon
  • Leonard Fournette
  • Dalvin Cook
  • Alvin Kamara
  • Kareem Hunt
  • Devonta Freeman

There’s a simple euphemism we use when ranking our running backs; opportunity + talent = production. What all of these names have is gobs of both. While they may be missing the outrageous three down usage the names in the “Elite” tier, they all figure to feature heavily as their teams lead back.

VERY GOOD Tier

  • Joe Mixon
  • Jordan Howard
  • Christian McCaffrey
  • Alex Collins
  • Lamar Miller
  • Derrick Henry
  • LeSean McCoy
  • Royce Freeman
  • Kenyan Drake

At this point, you may start fielding questions about players ability to play all three downs. Whether you’re concerned about Jordan Howard in the passing game or Christian McCaffrey on early downs, there are legitimate reasons you may not take these guys ahead of the aforementioned tiered players. If you’re drafting wide outs early, though, these guys do have the kind of ceiling that makes them worth locking up if you’re light at the position.

GOOD Tier

  • Jay Ajayi
  • Mark Ingram
  • Marlon Mack
  • Jamaal Williams
  • Sony Michel
  • Carlos Hyde
  • Tevin Coleman
  • Kerryon Johnson
  • Rex Burkhead
  • Marshawn Lynch
  • Chris Carson
  • Dion Lewis

If you’re hitching your wagon to one of these players as your top back, you’re either gambling on a ZeroRB strategy or you’re in trouble. There’s plenty of value here, and most of these players are available in the middle rounds, but there’s a lot of risk associated. This is where the dinged up, the third down specialists, and the suspended backs reside. Draft for the upside, but have a backup plan if you’re not deep at the position.

BACKUPS and PRAYERS Tier

  • Rashaad Penny
  • Isaiah Crowell
  • Adrian Peterson
  • Alfred Morris
  • Chris Thompson
  • Tarik Cohen
  • Duke Johnson
  • Aaron Jones
  • LeGarrette Blount
  • Matt Brieda
  • Theo Riddick
  • Ronald Jones

I won’t go so far as to say these guys don’t have some upside, but they are your depth and roster pieces if you’ve drafted properly. A lot of these guys fill a roll on their respective teams that may not expand, so using them in your flex spot or on bye’s should be the plan. Of course, there are a few young players and suspended backs who could steal a larger time share, but should be viewed with tempered expectations prior to the season.

DEEP DRAFT Tier

  • Latavius Murray
  • Doug Martin
  • C.J. Anderson
  • Peyton Barber
  • Corey Clement
  • Kalen Ballage
  • Jordan Wilkins
  • Nick Chubb
  • James White
  • Nyheim Hines
  • Jeremy Hill

As a bonus, this tier is a group of backs worth targeting as late round fliers or handcuffs in deeper formats. Much like Alvin Kamara last year, there’s a handful of young backs and backs on new teams who may carve out a larger role once the season starts. It’s more likely they’re waiver adds in standard formats, but for those in keeper leagues or deeper dynasty formats, these are guys to look at.

Week 1 Thoughts

While week 1 featured several stellar performances by high-profile rookies, it also featured some dream killer injuries along the way. I’ll be brief, but below are the highlights of the Fantasy Seasons kickoff week.

Rookie Running Backs Shine

huntThe incoming group got off to a blazing start in the NFL opener in New England as Kareem Hunt stepped into the void following Spencer Ware’s injury and dropped almost 250 total yards and three touchdowns. His 41 points in standard leagues paced the NFL.

Also turning in solid performances were Leonard Fournette (124 yards, TD) and Dalvin Cook (137 total yards), Deshone Kizer (239 total yards, 1 Passing and 1 Rushing TD) , Tarik Cohen (110,1 TD), Kenny Golloday (69 yards, 2 TD), Cooper Kupp (76 yards, 1 TD) and Corey Coleman (53 yards, 1 TD).

Major Injury Woes

The injury to David Johnson (dislocated wrist) was a huge blow to fantasy teams as Johnson was, for all intents and purposes, the #1 pick in fantasy this year. At this point he’s expected to miss 8-12 weeks which would put his return right at the fantasy playoffs with no promises on what he may be able to produce.

Also injured: Allen Robinson (ACL injury, placed on IR), Danny Woodhead (Hamstring Injury, no timetable), Kevin White (Shoulder Injury, placed on IR).

Struggling to Get Going

While there were many players who surprised in week one, the more important story line are the players who failed to meet expectations.

Tom Brady: Brady’s value skyrocketed in the preseason thanks to a strong supporting cast, but an 8 point week 1 in a blowout loss against KC was not what owners were hoping for.

Russell Wilson: This was supposed to be a bounce back year for Russell but less than 200 yards against a GB defense that wasn’t the stingiest last year was awful for the former top 5 QB.

Le’Veon Bell: While David Johnson had an uninspiring week one prior to his injury, Bell had a disastrous one. 47 total yards and a 3.2 YPC line isn’t good enough for a player many believed was the best player in fantasy.

Joe Mixon: Maybe it’s not fair to read into his first NFL action, but Mixon’s opening stat line was borderline embarrassing as he managed only 9 yards on 8 carries. After a strong preseason saw Mixon jump up rankings, this should temper the expectations surrounding him for a bit.

Adrian Peterson: While I wasn’t very high on him coming into the season simply because of the crowd already in the NO backfield, I didn’t expect him to struggle in the run game to the tune of 6 carries for 18 yards. While Mark Ingram wasn’t impressive either, it appears that Peterson will play third fiddle to Ingram and rookie back Alvin Kamara going forward.

Brandon Marshall: With OBJ missing Sunday nights game, many expected Marshall to be heavily targeted, but he turned in a dud with only one reception on the final drive of the game.

Jamison Crowder: A popular preseason pick to elevate his game, Crowder’s struggles in week one may have been because Cousins couldn’t seem to hit open receivers. Still, it’s not encouraging going forward.

Martavis Bryant: It shouldn’t come as a surprise considering that Bryant hadn’t played much football in the past two years, but his 2 catches for 14 yards certainly contributed to fantasy losses in week 1.

 

Monday Quick Hits

Joe Mixon, RB – CIN: With only one pre-season week in the books, any and all mixonobservation must be taken with a grain of salt, but Mixon certainly impressed in his NFL debut, rushing 6 times for 31 yards and hauling in one reception for 11 more. Mixon’s draft position has been slowly climbing as the hype machine gets louder, but a few more performances like this and the fears surrounding Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill’s presence on the roster will lose their weight.

Andrew Luck, QB – IND: The news out of Indianapolis is that Luck will be ready “around” the time of the season opener. This situation is sticky at best, considering that Luck is still being drafted as high as the #4 QB. Forecasting a QB’s effectiveness following his return from a lengthy recovery like Luck’s is difficult but I’ve already dropped Luck to #9 on my QB rankings as I anticipate some rust as he works his way back to game shape. If Luck misses any significant time, it could be even worse for owners who invested in him earlier in the preseason on the promises of Jim Irsay and the Colts front office.

Jordan Matthews, WR – BUF: Newly acquired wide out Jordan Matthews found himself injured following his very first Bills practice with what the team is reporting as a chip fracture in his sternum. At this point, he’s been labelled as week to week which makes for a messy situation as Matthews has to still learn the offense and his new role. While he may return from this injury quickly, it’s important to note that Zay Jones could very likely lead the passing game early on, and can be had for next to nothing at the end of drafts. If you’re high on Matthews in the Bills offense, just understand it could be a while before he pays off on the score sheet.

Alfred Morris, RB – DAL: Most (myself included) looked at Darren McFadden as the obvious stand in for Ezekiel Elliott’s 6 game suspension, but after a fine performance from the once-starter Morris, the waters are certainly muddied. I’m not suggestion that a single pre-season game would change the entire outlook on the Dallas backfield, but it’s far from the realm of possibility that Morris at least steals enough carries from McFadden to render either of them a flex starter at best. If I were forced to bet on either of them getting the bulk of the carries for 6 weeks, it’s still on McFadden, but I’d monitor the situation if you’re a Zeke owner who’s keen on snagging his handcuff.

Gio Bernard Questionable to Start Season

 

GBernard

With Giovani Bernard’s knee surgery taking longer than expected to recover, the news out of Cincinatti is that he may be questionable for week 1 (possibly beyond that). Joe Mixon figures to be the starter on day one, so Bernard was little more than a flex option in deeper leagues and for PPR formats, but this news seriously impacts his value.

If Hill can compliment Mixon, then expect the Bengals to take their time with Bernard. Temper expectations going into your draft, and pending a miraculous recovery, draft Bernard as a late round flier only.

It Takes a Committee – RB Review

After looking at the middle round gems for QB’s, we turn our attention to the muddled mess that is the middle to late round “committee” backs. While studs like David Johnson and Ezekiel Elliot will dominate the backfield touches for their respective teams, there are plenty of potential stars slogging through the expanded depth charts of “RB by Committee” coaches.

Mostly Committee

New England Patriots: There’s little doubt to the risk one assumes when drafting a NE running back. Gillislee projects to man the bulk of the running downs, but White is my early pick for passing downs (Lewis and Burkhead will likely battle for the last roster spot). Back to draft: Mike Gillislee 

Cincinatti Bengals: Despite the addition of Joe Mixon at the draft, the Bengals have bucked conventional wisdom and rolled with a mostly effective committee over the last two years. With Bernard and Hill still on the roster, none of the three can be counted on to have an early fantasy impact. Back to Draft: Joe Mixon

Cleveland Browns: While the jury was out prior to last season on whether Duke Johnson could steam meaningful touches from the Crow, the biggest question mark this year is do they remain in a nearly 50/50 split? Crowell is likely to man the bulk of the rushes but Johnson is more than effective with the rock (4.9 ypc and 55 receptions for 500 yards). Your leagues format should dictate who you draft – Standard Scoring, Crowell – PPR, Johnson Jr.

Philadelphia Eagles: If the waters were muddled enough last year with both RBs often on the sidelines with injuries, the Eagles have added short yardage specialist LeGarrett Blount to the fold. Don’t expect 300 carries from the plodding back either, but he should syphon the bulk of the goal line carries effectively ending Ryan Mathews as a fringe RB1/RB2. Sproles will still garner some attention in PPR leagues, but even then he’ll cede some 3rd down touches to Dalton Pumphrey. Back to Draft: LeGarrett Blount

Seattle Seahawks: While things look a bit more stable with the addition of former stud Eddie Lacy, the talent of Rawls and Prosise behind him on the depth chart mean that Seattle will offer a short leash on Lacy’s tenure as the lead back. If he struggles early, Prosise will likely get the first shot at the lead role but his health could impact as well. Back to Draft: Eddie Lacy

Possible Committee

Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jags drafted Yeldon and added Ivory in an attempt to add both a dynamic between the 20’s RB and a head down goal line back. The addition of Fournette could make both obsolete as the massive rookie has both the speed and size to play three downs. Still, if the rookie finds a lack of footing in the NFL, Yeldon could still steal a chunk of carries.

Denver Broncos: The Broncos seem to make things interesting every year. First it was Montee Ball and whatever other bum he was fighting for time with, then it was he and Anderson, then Anderson and Booker. To make matters worse, the Broncos took a flier on the ultra talented (and oft-injured) Jamaal Charles. By all reports he’ll be ready for the start of the season, but it’ll take a rough patch early for Anderson to really lose out on touches.

Detroit Lions: Abdullah missed all of last season to injury but the Lions front office is saying they expect the young back to return at the top of the depth chart. He has the goods, but with Riddick eating away at the passing downs, there is a risk of a true two headed committee in Detroit.

Minnesota Vikings: When AP finally left town, the Vikings shelled out 15 million to land the athletically gifted Latavius Murray out of Oakland. Then, to make us all wonder aloud what the heck is going on, they trade up to select potential superstar RB Dalvin Cook in the draft. I would expect that the supremely talented Cook shows up atop the depth chart early, but with Murray waiting in the wings it could be a while before he really sees meaningful fantasy touches.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Any committee list isn’t complete until you discuss whether or not the Muscle Hamster can retain his tenuous hold on the starts role in Tampa Bay. Charles Sims (like Theo Riddick) is an obvious bet to see a lot of third down work, so Martin will have to have a monster year again to remain relevant as a RB1/RB2.