Fantasy Football 2019: Running Back Primer (Rankings and Tiers)
There are often times during drafts where my rankings may say one thing and I choose to do another. Why is that? Am I being disingenuous to readers? Did I have a change of heart and not adjust my rankings like I should have? No, what I’m doing is drafting off my tier list.
Why does one have a tier list and how is that different from rankings? Well, I’m glad you asked. There was a livestream I hosted on our YouTube channel about a month ago where I navigated my way through a draft, talking about who I targeted and why. There’s skill involved in building a roster and understanding how to construct a well-balanced team. I’d missed out on the top-tier options that had high upside, so I’d wound up with a lot of high-floor players but was lacking the week-winning upside needed to win a championship. Because of that, I went with some players in the middle rounds who offered more upside, but also more volatility.
By showing you this tier list, it should help you understand the importance of adjusting your mindset on the fly. I’ll explain the rounds that each tier should be targeted in, as well as the impact they’d have on your roster construction. These tiers are based on half-PPR settings in a 12-team league, as it gives us the widest range of usability in leagues.
Here are the links to the other positional tier lists (as they’re available):
Tier One (Round 1)
This tier is the cream of the crop, the guys you know who’ll be gone if you don’t have a top four pick in your draft. Some may wonder why Ezekiel Elliott isn’t this tier, and that’s fair considering he was my No. 1 player a few weeks ago, but his lingering absence from training camp as he holds out for a new deal is growing more worrisome by the day. If you’re lucky enough to get a top-three pick in your league, one of these three should be your pick. If Elliott shows up by the time you draft, he’d be in this tier.
Tier Two (Rounds 1-2)
I’ve always been of the mindset that you don’t take unnecessary risk in the first round of fantasy drafts, as you can’t win your league in the first round, but you can definitely help lose it. Because of that saying, I’d likely lean with Johnson over Elliott and Gurley, but it feels wrong to put them in a tier below this. As of right now, Elliott is the riskiest of the bunch, as it appears he and the Cowboys are at a stalemate in contract talks. I wouldn’t blame you moving him to the second round due to the risk associated with him. Newsflash for those who talk about Gurley’s arthritis in his knee: He’s had arthritis in his knee for a long time. Once you’re opened up in surgery for a torn ACL (he was in 2014), arthritis is present. Sure, they may dial back his workload, but understand that even if you took away 25 percent of his fantasy points over the last two years, he’d still be the RB3 over that time behind only Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey. We can’t pretend like Johnson doesn’t come with risk, either, but a new up-tempo offense will create tons of opportunity. All three of these running backs come with No. 1 upside.
Tier Three (Round 2)
Here’s the tier of running backs who should have plenty of volume on their plate, though they likely don’t present No. 1 upside like the tier two group did. Chubb showed off his RB1 upside last year and the addition of Odell Beckham to the offense should only make them more potent and higher scoring. No, you shouldn’t be worried about Kareem Hunt; he won’t see the field until Week 10. Bell plays for a low-scoring offense and behind a bad offensive line but should see 300-plus touches, giving your team a safe floor option. There’s been talk about more of a timeshare in Pittsburgh, but Conner is still in line for 15-20 touches per game. Cook is the lead back in what should be a solid offense, though he hasn’t been able to consistently show his upside due to injuries. With Latavius Murray gone, will he be able to remain upright and handle a bigger workload? Gordon would be in the tier above if we had any clarity on his holdout situation, but he’s moving closer and closer to the third-round. If he hasn’t reported by the time you draft, it’s wise to let someone else take on that risk.
Tier Three (Round 3)
I’ve separated these two into their own tier for a specific reason. They’re both extremely talented but have worrisome situations. Mixon has lost two starting offensive linemen and it wasn’t a good line to begin with. The Bengals are also going to be without A.J. Green for an undetermined amount of time, meaning their offense becomes less desirable. Fournette hasn’t been able to stay healthy during his two years in the league but has been an RB1-type producer when on the field. The addition of Nick Foles isn’t enough to boost the offense into a top-tier offense, limiting the overall potential, even if Fournette does stay healthy. If we knew Fournette would stay healthy for 16 games, I’d draft him over Le’Veon Bell.
Tier Four (Rounds 3-4)
The point of tiers is knowing that you shouldn’t feel bad to choose one player from this list over another, even if you’re a bit hesitant about it. It’s easy to make the case for any of them. Jones might have the most upside, as playing alongside Aaron Rodgers has its benefits, just ask Eddie Lacy. There’s talk of a potential timeshare, though, so he doesn’t come without risk. Williams also comes with plenty of upside in Andy Reid’s offense, but we’ve never seen him carry the ball more than 13 times in a regular season game, and he’s already dealing with a hamstring injury. Mack plays for a great offense with a great offensive line, but he’s not involved in the passing game as much as top-tier backs need to be. Johnson definitely flashed last year, but the Lions made it a point to go out and sign C.J. Anderson, who is no slouch. It’s possible he’s in more of a timeshare than we’d hoped. Carson was a monster down the stretch and while Rashaad Penny should work his way into more touches, we can’t forget that Mike Davis is gone, which frees up nearly 10 touches per game. Carson is an upside play who comes with a safe floor, should he avoid injury. Freeman is aging and coming off injuries, but with Tevin Coleman gone, he may find his way into 15-plus touches per game once again in a top-10 scoring offense. Again, you can make the case to take any of these running backs over the others, hence the reason they’re in the same tier.
Tier Five (Rounds 4-5)
Here’s the tier of running backs who don’t come without risk. While Michel was a stud in the NFL playoffs, he was extremely touchdown-dependent during the regular season and just had another knee scope this offseason. Jacobs was drafted in the first-round but plays for a mediocre-to-weak offense with a bad offensive line, and on top of that, we’ve never seen him in a workhorse role (even in college, where he was in a three-way timeshare). White isn’t so much a running back as he is a receiver, which doesn’t give the floor that most want at the position, though he was rock-solid in this offense last year. Lindsay is battling with Royce Freeman, and while you should expect him to lead the timeshare, it feels like it’ll be closer to a 55/45 split than the 61/39 it was last year.
Tier Six (Round 5)
These running backs arguably come with less risk than the running backs from tier five, but they also don’t present the upside that those guys do. Henry is a two-down back who will struggle to take on a big passing-down role, as Dion Lewis is simply better in that area of the game. It doesn’t help that Henry is already hurt and in a walking boot. Ingram will likely garner 15 carries per game but won’t be involved in the passing-game, either. In each of Lamar Jackson‘s seven starts last year, he never completed more than 14 passes, limiting the output of all pass-catchers on the team. Montgomery not only has to battle with Mike Davis, but Tarik Cohen is one of the better pass-catchers in the league. Miller might be the safest of the bunch, but he’s lacked upside while in Houston, so what makes us think that changes now that they have more pass-catchers than ever. If you’re looking for running backs who should present a solid floor, this is the tier for you.
Tier Seven (Rounds 5-6)
Here’s the tier of running backs who are in clear timeshares and unless there’s an injury, it’s unlikely they have the upside to reach top-12 territory. Cohen is going to play a similar role to the one he did last year that netted a top-12 finish in PPR leagues, but he’s not likely to have as many big plays. Still, he’s a solid bet for RB3 production more often than not. If Murray takes on the Ingram role, there’s enough scoring in that offense for him to finish top-20, though we can’t simply assume he walks into that role and excels (don’t forget Adrian Peterson wasn’t a fit for the Saints). Penny is clearly behind Chris Carson, but if they run the ball 30-plus times per game like they did last year, there’s enough production for both to be startable. The Eagles have had a full-blown timeshare under Doug Pederson, but will spending a second-round pick on Sanders change that? Reports out of camp suggest that no other running back is close to his level. Drake is splitting time with Kalen Ballage on a bad team, which is going to make production sporadic. The talent is there, but situation matters. Coleman played well under Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta, but it’s clear they’re going to have some sort of rotation. It’s worth noting he averaged 9.5 touches per game while playing second fiddle to Devonta Freeman under Shanahan.
Tier Eight (Rounds 7-9)
This is the tier of players who could present more than “just” a timeshare back, though I’d say they’re most likely on the wrong side of the timeshare or lack three-down potential. Many believe Ekeler would be a workhorse if Melvin Gordon continues his holdout, but I believe the Chargers cap him around the 15-touch mark. Guice was drafted to be a workhorse, but you don’t bring back Peterson and draft Bryce Love if you believe he still fits that role. That’s likely to be a mess of a timeshare. Jones is one who could be the primary running back, but his lack of talent in the passing game will limit his potential, and it’s not as if he’s guaranteed the starting job, either. Freeman is a solid player, but he’s not the three-down player Phillip Lindsay is, leaving me wanting more. All of these players can likely offer flex value most of the time, but to draft them expecting more would be setting yourself up for failure.
Tier Nine (Rounds 9-11)
Here are the high-end, high-priced backups who come with massive upside should anything happen to the starter. Some believe Henderson should be in the tier above, but my belief is that he’ll have a small role at the start of the season, though if anything happened to Todd Gurley, he’d share the workload with Malcolm Brown. Hyde is backing up Damien Williams who has never had more than 13 carries in a regular season game. The next man up in Andy Reid’s offense is one of the best handcuffs in fantasy football. Harris is the primary backup to Sony Michel, who has had two procedures on his knee over the last 12 months. We know that the early-down, goal-line role in the Patriots offense has RB1 upside. Davis is a wildcard that many haven’t thought about. Not only is he above David Montgomery on the depth chart right now (don’t see it staying that way), but even if he’s the backup, he would walk into the Jordan Howard role – that netted a top-20 finish in PPR formats – should anything happen to Montgomery.
Tier 10 (Rounds 11-12)
This is the tier of third-down backs who aren’t likely to net more than 10 touches per game, though they have some more usability than a strict handcuff. They can offer a place in your lineup during bye weeks, but they could also earn more touches should the starter be struggling or gets hurt. Johnson is now freed from the shackles of the Browns, but will they allow him to overtake Lamar Miller? Not likely, but he’s atop this list due to a certain degree of hope. Hill is going to have a tough time finding too many receptions in the Ravens run-first approach, but he has handcuff appeal, too. Hines is the clear-cut third-down back for the high-scoring Colts, but even with an injury, his role wouldn’t grow much. Ballage is a mediocre talent but it appears the Dolphins want to get him some work. Breida and McKinnon are fighting for what I’d consider a similar role, though McKinnon missing time at the start of camp has me leaning Breida. There’s no way David Johnson can be on the field for 70-plus plays per game, so Edmonds is going to see the field more than most think, and he has handcuff value. Bernard is not going to win you a fantasy league, but he can fill a flex-spot every now and then. Burkhead may do some slot work for the Patriots this year and they’ve given him goal-line carries in the past, so he shouldn’t be slept on.
The Remaining Running Backs
Once you get to this point in the draft, it’s all based on preference and how many running backs you typically draft. When you get outside the top 12 rounds, it’s typically handcuff-type running backs, though you should not be attempting to handcuff your starters at this time. You should, however, snag running backs who would walk into RB1/RB2 production should the starter go down. I’m talking about guys like Rashaad Penny, Damien Harris, and Mike Davis. If you’d like to understand how to value backup running backs, here’s an article I did on just that.