While NFL teams seem to be under the impression that running backs are replaceable and interchangeable, fantasy football veterans know that the right choice of running back can make or break your weekly or season-long contest. Running back is a deep position since teams are sharing carries in the backfield, but there is a huge dropoff in reliable production after the elite few feature-backs. Check out my top-10 running backs headed into the preseason.
1. David Johnson – Arizona Cardinals
Last season, no other running back came close to matching Johnson’s total of 425.80 DKFP (Ezekiel Elliott was second with 347.40). Johnson appears to be lined up for another monster workload as the centerpiece of Arizona’s offense. Last year, he had 293 carries for 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns and added 80 catches on top of that for 879 yards and four more touchdowns. Johnson was healthy for all 16 games for Arizona and averaged about 23 touches per game. Coach Bruce Arians said he would like to increase that number and could see Johnson getting as many as 30 touches per contest this year. Especially with more touches coming his way, Johnson is clearly the top back to target this year since there are major question marks around the other elite backs coming into training camp.
2. Le’Veon Bell – Pittsburgh Steelers
Bell edged out Johnson in FPPG last season with 28.03 to Johnson’s 26.61, but Bell only played 12 games last year due to a suspension Weeks 1-3 and resting Week 17. He still managed to rush for 1,268 yards and seven touchdowns on his 261 carries and add another 616 yards and two more touchdowns on his 75 catches. Bell has always been a great option when he has been active, but he has struggled with injuries at times during his career in addition to last year’s suspension. The big question mark around Bell coming into the season is his contract situation. He has not signed his franchise tag yet, and Bell may not report until late in the preseason. There have even been reports that he’s willing to miss games if necessary. My guess is that the situation will be resolved in time for Week 1, but the risk of missing training camp is enough to drop him behind Johnson in my top-10.
3. Melvin Gordon – Los Angeles Chargers
After a disappointing rookie season, Gordon had a monster year last year in San Diego. He ran for 997 yards on his 254 carries in 13 games scoring 10 rushing touchdowns after being held out of the end zone for the entirety of his rookie year. Gordon also got involved in the Chargers’ passing game catching 41 passes for 419 yards. With Danny Woodhead out of town, Gordon will be the team’s primary three-down back this season under new head coach Anthony Lynn who has revamped the offensive line and switched to a zone running scheme. Those changes should result in more work and more success for Gordon based on the success Lynn had with LeSean McCoy the last few years. Gordon had a good year last season finishing fifth in FPPG, but he should be even better this year and jump to an elite level.
4. Ezekiel Elliott – Dallas Cowboys
Elliott burst onto the scene as one of the best running backs in the NFL behind an elite offensive line last year. He led the league in rushing with 1,631 yards on his 322 carries. He scored 15 rushing touchdowns which were good enough for third in the NFL behind David Johnson and LeGarrette Blount. Elliott is risky for season-long leagues because he could miss time due to a pair of off-the-field incidents. The NFL has yet to decide if he will be suspended or for how long, but Elliott should be among the elite options whenever he’s active due to a great offensive line in front of him. The only reasons to expect any regression is the famed “sophomore slump” or if the Dallas offense allowed second-year QB Dak Prescott to throw the ball more.
5. LeSean McCoy – Buffalo Bills
McCoy was the number-four running back last season even though he played for a team that struggled offensively overall. He averaged 5.4 yards per carry which was the best mark of any RB in the league with more than 150 carries. He only needed 234 carries to get his 1,267 yards while adding 13 rushing touchdowns and catching 50 passes for 356 more yards and another touchdown. McCoy isn’t quite in the elite tier with my top four options, but he’s still a very strong play almost every week.
6. Jordan Howard – Chicago Bears
After being drafted in the fifth round last year, Howard quickly emerged as the Bears’ feature-back after the departure of Matt Forte. Howard spent the offseason working on his speed and also had vision surgery. Howard finished with the eighth-most DKFP last year despite not playing Week 1 and having single-digit carries in three other games. As the season went on, though, Coach John Fox started giving him more and more work and eventually he finished with an average of 18.7 touches and 107.4 total yards per game. Coming into camp as the workhorse back in an offense that should be very run-heavy, Howard should be set up for a huge season and could lead the league in rush attempts and rushing yards. He could struggle to find the end zone more than the top five options on this list, though, since the Bears’ offense is still searching for answers under center.
7. Jay Ajayi – Miami Dolphins
Ajayi had three monster games last year running for 200+ yards twice against the Bills and once against the Steelers. He went from a healthy inactive at the beginning of the season to a key fantasy player by the end of the year. He finished 11th in DKFP and fourth in the NFL in rushing yards. He only found the end zone eight times, but he should be able to jump into the top-10 with a few more touchdowns, an improved offensive line and a full season as the feature back for head coach Adam Gase.
8. Devonta Freeman – Atlanta Falcons
Freeman broke through in 2015 with a massive 1,061 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. He seemed like a disappointment to some owners last year but nearly matched those totals with 1,079 rushing yards and 11 more touchdowns. He did lose some work in the passing game to Tevin Coleman who he will continue to share work with in the Atlanta backfield. With the Falcons trying to avoid a Super Bowl loss hangover, look for them to get the ball to Freeman for well over 200 carries again this season. Hopefully, he enjoys the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium as much as he did the Georgia Dome where he had 10 of his 11 touchdowns last year.
9. Todd Gurley – Los Angeles Rams
Last year’s rookies definitely made a big fantasy impact, and there is lots of buzz for this year’s draft class as well. However, don’t forget that two years ago, it looked like Gurley was set up to dominate fantasy football for years to come with a huge rookie year of his own. He was a top-five fantasy back in his rookie year producing 1,106 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns and five games with over 100 yards. Last year, Gurley burned his owners by only managing 885 yards rushing, six touchdowns and no games with 100 yards. After that horrific sophomore slump, Gurley will look to bounce back under new head coach Sean McVay who used his running backs successfully in Washington. So far, reports out of training camp have Gurley looking ready to return to the top-10.
10. Leonard Fournette – Jacksonville Jaguars
If you’re looking for this year’s rookie standout, look no further than number-four-overall pick Leonard Fournette who should be set up to step right in and produce for a Jaguars’ offense that has been improving under Blake Bortles. Fournette’s college numbers are ridiculous–40 touchdowns and 6.2 yards-per-carry with 40 total touchdowns in 32 collegiate games. He was involved as a pass-catcher as well as a rusher, and he should be able to step in and give the Jaguars a top threat out of the backfield. I think Fournette will run for over 1,000 yards, and if he does, he would be the first Jags’ back to reach that level since 2011.
In case you missed it, I ranked my top-10 Quarterbacks ahead of the 2017 season. Find them here.
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