Who Is The Best Running Back After Saquon, Zeke, Kamara, & McCaffrey? (Fantasy Football 2019)
Every fantasy football season, we see tiers develop among the different positions. That is certainly the case this year across the board. We’ve previously looked at top options beyond the ‘Big 3’ at tight end, and today we’ll focus on the running back position. Our expert consensus has Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Alvin Kamara, and Christian McCaffrey as the top four running backs — and overall picks — regardless of scoring format. While the order can change, our experts feel you should be targeting these four RBs at the top of your draft.
But what about after the top four? Where should drafters look at the running back position after these players are off the board? We’ve asked our writers to provide their top options at RB5.
Who is your RB5 after Barkley, Elliott, Kamara, and McCaffrey?
*Advice based on half-PPR scoring
David Johnson (ARI)
There is a clear “big four” at running back. I do not believe there is a “next :insert number here:” of RBs. Not right away. David Johnson is in a tier by himself at the five spot. We can definitively state that we saw DJ’s floor in 2018. The confluence of factors that impact an RB’s performance could not possibly have been worse than they were in 2018. The Cardinals’ offensive line, pace of play, offensive scheme, and scoring will all improve this year because they can’t possibly be worse. It remains to be seen how well Kyler Murray can execute Kliff Kingsbury’s air raid offense and how many plays this team can actually run. The ceiling is overall RB1, and if you’re taking a running back in the top half of the first round, he needs to have that sort of upside. The reason I love DJ is because his floor is still low-end RB1. He was the RB12 last year by average ppg. That has to improve. He will have more scoring opportunities and be given the ball in space, unlike last year where he was pounded between the tackles repeatedly, neutralizing his best abilities. DJ is going to have a bounce-back year and be back in the first-overall conversation for 2020.
– Jason Katz (@jasonkatz13)
I agree with Jason here, as DJ is the guy after Elliott, Kamara, McCaffrey, and Barkley. The ineptness that the Cardinals coaching staff exhibited in utilizing DJ last season was mind-numbingly painful. If Wilks, Leftwich, and McCoy were given access to a time machine that happened to be a Ferrari, I’m highly certain that they would have chosen to venture back to The Siege of Castel Gaillard in 1204 and ram their Ferrari straight into the portcullis repeatedly. Now that I got that out of my system, let’s get back to the present. The Cardinals have a new quarterback and head coach in Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury, who will employ and execute the spread-em-out, Air Raid offensive system. There will be fewer defenders in the box for DJ to deal with and Kingsbury will creatively get him touches, especially through the air. While Murray is a rookie, he’s comfortable with the system and his mobility will bring the numbers advantage back to the offense, which will get one more defender off of DJ. The Cardinals will also play at a faster tempo and should run more plays than last season, which could lead to more opportunities for DJ. In addition, if the offense is successful in sustaining drives and matriculating down the field, that could lead to more scoring opportunities. Let’s not forget that it’s only been three years since he logged a 2,118-yard, 20-touchdown season.
– Stan Son (@stan_son)
Johnson is arguably a part of Tier One for me, for a number of reasons. Due to the virtues of bringing in a more creative offensive coordinator and a mobile quarterback, Johnson will have more room to operate. In 2018, Johnson faced a stacked box on 31.8% of his carries, which was the seventh-highest rate in the league. Without creative play-calling, with no real wide receivers that are threats downfield, and with a pocket passer quarterback, defenses had to stop only one player — Johnson. Johnson is still a dominant force in the league at the RB position, racking up 77.5% of his team’s RB carries + targets (seventh-best in the NFL). He suffered from only the 44th-best run blocking in the league according to PlayerProfiler (due to multiple RBs on a team being ahead of Johnson). Johnson himself was unspectacular in terms of breaking tackles and creating yards, but with more room to operate, those numbers should trend up. Despite all forces conspiring against Johnson, he still saw 35 red zone touches (15th-best in the NFL among RBs). Even in a 2018 season that many consider him to be a “bust” (which is ridiculous), Johnson finished as the RB11 in PPR points per game. If Johnson’s floor is RB1, marginal improvements in play-calling, usage in the passing game, offensive unpredictability, and individual performance should combine to give Johnson legitimate RB1 overall upside. And all of those aspects should certainly improve from 2018 to 2019.
– Mark Leipold (@LeipoldNFL)
Last I checked, garbage time points still count just the same for fantasy purposes, correct? I thought so, too. It’s no secret that the Cardinals will have their fair share of struggles on the defensive side of the ball in 2019, especially when you consider that All-Pro corner Patrick Peterson will miss the first six games of the season serving a suspension. Can you hear that? That sounds like Check Down City for rookie quarterback Kyler Murray playing in Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense. A lot of folks like to lean Melvin Gordon at this spot, but I’m reluctant to spend an early first-round pick on a guy who is playing in a timeshare and hasn’t exactly been the beacon of health. Gordon has injured his right knee in three out of the past four seasons, and I’m far from convinced that his injury woes are behind him. Because of that, I’ll be targeting David Johnson, the number one overall fantasy player from 2016 when he was playing in a similarly favorable offensive scheme courtesy of Bruce Arians. Kingsbury’s Air Raid will be fantasy gold in 2019, it just won’t translate to many wins for the Cardinals in the NFC West. But who cares?! DJ will get you all the wins you need as the foundational piece of your fantasy team!
– Rob Searles (@robbob17)
Looking at new HC Kliff Kingsbury’s RB usage in college, one statistic that sticks out to me is his frequent use of running backs in the passing game. Last season, Kingsbury’s offense finished 10th in RB targets in the entire NCAA, and that bodes very well for Johnson, already one of the most prolific pass-catching backs in the NFL. The removal of Steve Wilkes and Mike McCoy will do wonders for him. The unimaginative duo completely destroyed Johnson’s fantasy value last year by foolishly running him into the line seemingly on every touch, resulting in McCoy getting fired in-season for his brutal play calling. When you add up all these points that my colleagues have made about the new “Air Raid” offense, having a more explosive QB at the helm, more passing plays, more passing targets, garbage time potential…it’s hard to not be optimistic! I for one am extremely excited about Johnson and his fantasy potential in 2019.
– Josh Dalley (@JoshDalley72)
While David Johnson finished as the RB9 in PPR scoring formats last season, his inconsistent weekly production provided more headaches for his fantasy owners than anything else. In fact, he only finished as a top-20 fantasy back in 9-of-16 games with his lone overall RB1 37.3-point finish in Week 10 over-inflating his actual 2018 worth. What makes matters worse is the fact that Johnson was being drafted as a top-four back in most spots entering the 2018 campaign. So why am I willing to double-down on Johnson in 2019? Change. Last season, Johnson was derailed by poor quarterback play, a lackluster supporting cast, and a play-caller — Mike McCoy — who shouldn’t even be in the league when considering his recent body of work as a head coach and as an offensive coordinator. Now, Johnson will open the year with a new head coach in Kliff Kingsbury, who brings with him his air-raid philosophy, which should open the running lanes up for Johnson as well as getting him more involved as a receiver. The 27-year-old rusher will also see a significant bump in his supporting cast including first-overall pick QB Kyler Murray, a healthy Christian Kirk, and Andy Isabella and Hakeem Butler, both upside wideouts acquired in the draft. Another under-rated acquisition that will help Johnson get back on track is Charles Clay, who is a much-better blocking asset than Ricky Seals-Jones. It’s not like Johnson wasn’t getting the workload. He finished third in carries and 11th in targets. Where Johnson faltered was in his efficiency, averaging only 3.6 yards per carry and 4.5 yards per touch, which were both career-lows when he plays in a full 16-game slate. Johnson also finished the year ranked 15th in red-zone touches (35) and 13th in goal-line carries (nine), which also didn’t help his fantasy stock. However, you can make the case that his red-zone usage, or lack thereof, has more to do with playcalling and playing on a bad offense than anything else. If Kingsbury can get a Cardinals offense that finished 2018 ranked 31st in plays per game (56.4) back on track — he could bring them from a bottom-10 team to a top-10 team in that category in his first year in the pros considering his collegiate track record — Johnson will not only make for a prime bounce-back candidate, but he will also return value if you take him at as the RB5.
– Anthony Cervino (@therealnflguru)
Over his last two healthy seasons, we’ve seen David Johnson’s ceiling as well as his floor. In 2016 DJ had as dominant a season as we’ve seen in recent years, finishing with 82 (!!) points more than the next best running back. After missing the following season with a wrist injury, Johnson posted an RB9 finish in 2018 despite playing in an offensive system that would make season 8 of Game of Thrones look like a creative masterpiece. After it was all said and done, Johnson had just two games where he did not post more than 65 (total) yards or a touchdown. Despite the limitations of the offense, he had nine games with more than 12 points in standard-scoring leagues. Melvin Gordon will be a popular pick here, but he has a similar floor and has yet to finish higher than RB5. Kliff Kingsbury and his Air Raid system should allow Johnson to challenge for the RB1 crown, and he has to be considered in the same tier as the top 4.
– Elisha Twerski (@ElishaTwerski)
Melvin Gordon (LAC)
This is a hard one for me because there are a ton of other good running backs that could go in this spot. Everyone above has detailed David Johnson’s merits. Los Angeles Rams RB Todd Gurley has been a top-five fantasy running back three of the last four years, and he led the league in fantasy points in both 2017 and 2018. Cincinnati Bengals RB Joe Mixon was ninth among fantasy running backs, and he is only entering his third season. He will be playing in a new offense with a new head coach that is running back-friendly, and his usage could increase even more this year. Pittsburgh Steelers RB James Conner runs behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, and he was sixth among fantasy running backs last year. The reason I took Gordon over these other tremendous players is that he has been eighth, fifth, and sixth among fantasy running backs the last three years. He is a more proven commodity than Mixon and Conner, who have only had one great fantasy season. He does not have an arthritic condition in his knee that clouds both usage and durability like Gurley. Gordon has scored 38 touchdowns the last three years, he has topped 50 receptions the last two years, and he averaged a career-high 5.1 yards per attempt last year. He did have some durability issues last year, as he missed four games, but he was still sixth among fantasy running backs and at 26-years old he should have as good of a chance to stay healthy as any player in the league. The top five is about having both a low amount of risk and tremendous upside. While every running back is a carry away from having his season end, Gordon seems like the least risky running back to round out the top-five. Given his success in that offense the last three years, the returning talent around him, and his ability to score touchdowns, he is the player that has both tremendous upside and a high enough floor to be a top-five fantasy running back.
– Derek Lofland (@DerekLofland)
As FantasyPros’ own Mike Tagliere pointed out in a recent piece, the last seven years have seen 42 top-six running backs in fantasy football, none of whom came from a team that finished as a bottom-half scoring offense. The Chargers have finished as a top-six scoring offense in each of the past two seasons, proving to be a fertile ground for fantasy goodness. Melvin Gordon has collected double-digit TDs in three straight years while posting back-to-back campaigns with 50-plus receptions. Of the top-12 fantasy RBs in 2018, only three averaged less than five targets per game. Gordon sat comfortably at 5.5. He’s a great PPR option. There are reasons for concern, of course. The 26-year-old rusher has missed nine games (including fantasy playoff time) over the last four years, and head coach Anthony Lynn has discussed lightening his load this year. The Chargers also face a tough slate of Run Ds in 2019 and backup Austin Ekeler has proven to be hyper-efficient when given the chance. In short: we probably shouldn’t expect another 225-touch season. But Gordon has a nose for the end zone, converting nine of his 12 rushes inside the 10-yard line for scores last year, and the Chargers are projected to be a top offense once again. His double-digit TD upside and involvement in the passing game offsets an expected decrease in workload. And while the Arizona Cardinals are expected to take an offensive leap, they’re still too unproven to fully trust David Johnson at No. 5 just yet.
– Brandon Katz (@great_katzby)
Melvin Gordon took a leap in 2018 into the elite tier of running backs. It is not difficult to imagine him as a top-five running back because he finished as one on a points per game (23) basis in 2018. His absence from the playoffs may have left a sour taste in owner’s mouths, but do not be mistaken that he led teams there in the first place. He has become more efficient each year of his career (5.1 yards per carry in 2018) and has been integrated seamlessly into the passing attack with over five targets per game during the past two seasons. He paired his efficiency with elite big-play upside and premier elusiveness, ranking ninth in breakaway run rate and fifth in juke rate (per PlayerProfiler.com). He is also on an offense that was third in DVOA last season (per FootballOutsiders.com) and projects to remain in the top 10 in 2019. As detailed by Mike Tagliere earlier this week, top offenses have a significantly higher likelihood of producing top running back performers in fantasy. This offers positive game scripts and frequent red zone opportunities. After a rough rookie season where he never saw the end zone, he has had 38 touchdowns in 41 games. Gordon offers a safe floor with his high volume, consistent workload, and involvement in the passing game. His efficiency and ability to lead the league in touchdowns can offer the upside of being the top finisher in fantasy at the position.
– Tom Burroughs (@ff_tomB)
Todd Gurley (LAR)
What’s great about this is the fact that I don’t even have to take Gurley as my number five RB. He has been going in the second and third round of many drafts, and I truly believe that people are way overthinking this injury. Yes, it is scary, but we’re talking about a guy who was the most dominant player in fantasy last season. He actually dwarfed the field and even if he’s only seeing 75 percent of his usual workload, there’s still a good chance he’ll finish as a top-five back. There’s just as good of a chance that one of these other guys will get injured too, so there’s really not as much risk here as people think. I’ve seen many owners win fantasy leagues without their third-round pick and the potential to land the best player in fantasy outweighs that potential downside.
– Joel Bartilotta (@Bartilottajoel)
Aaron Jones (GB)
I understand that this will create some backlash. Aaron Jones is currently at an ADP of 30 and being drafted as RB16. David Johnson or Melvin Gordon would be more practical choices here with all the facts stated by other writers. Gordon and Johnson make a great choice to take as the fifth RB off the board, but I want to make the case for Aaron Jones. Is he my No. 5 RB? No, because he can be drafted in the late second or early third round in drafts. But do I think he has the potential to be a top-five fantasy RB? Absolutely. Let’s look at why he can be that RB that surprises a lot of fantasy expert expectations. For starters, Jones is in a good offense. The Green Bay Packers had the 12th-highest yards in the NFL last year under Mike McCarthy’s very simple, non-creative offensive scheme. Much of their success was due to Aaron Rodgers’ high-level play and ability to create, which helped take attention off the running game. Due to McCarthy’s poor season and what seemed to be a riff between he and Rodgers, Green Bay fired McCarthy and appointed Matt LaFleur as their head coach. LaFleur came from the Rams as their offensive coordinator and if you recall, had Todd Gurley, who finished the year as RB3 in fantasy after missing the last two games of the season. His replacement in those two games was C.J. Anderson who scored a combined 47 fantasy points in PPR formats. This production alone bodes well for Aaron Jones’ fantasy value in LaFleur’s system he brings to Green Bay. Looking at Jones last season, in the four games he played before his Week 7 bye, he was averaging just 21.75 snaps and 8.2 fantasy points. After the bye week, he averaged 40.29 snaps and 19.7 fantasy points in the seven games he was healthy. Want to take a guess where he ranked in fantasy points in those seven weeks? RB5. In that time, Jones also had the highest yards per carry (5.5) among all running backs with 100 or more attempts. Jones wasn’t just a bell-cow running back. He was also involved in the passing game, catching 35 passes for 206 yards in the 11 games he finished. Reports coming out of Green Bay that LaFleur wants to involve their running backs even more in the passing game provides another example of Jones’ upside. You may not take Aaron Jones as the fifth RB in drafts, but he shows promise of breaking his ADP this year in Green Bay and becoming an elite running back.
– Kevin O’Connor (@22koconnor)