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Mike Tagliere’s Running Back Rankings and Tiers (2020 Fantasy Football)

by Mike Tagliere | @MikeTagliereNFL | Featured Writer
Aug 11, 2020

If you have the No. 1 pick in 2020 drafts, you should be selecting Christian McCaffrey

Ranking players is what we do at FantasyPros. It’s what you want as the fantasy player. “Tell me who to draft ahead of everyone else once I’m on the clock.” Does that sound like something you’d say? What if I told you that rankings aren’t the only thing you should be looking at?

I know I sit down and spend a lot of time creating projections, which then turns into me creating my own personal rankings. But why is it that every time I’m in a draft, I’m not drafting those players in the exact order of my rankings?

Tiers. That’s why. Rankings are just a general gauge for where a player should be going, but it doesn’t tell you the complete story about the role they’d fill on your fantasy team. If you don’t understand this concept, that’s what I’m here for today.

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Imagine having a taste for pizza and then going to a steakhouse. Does it mean that steak is no good? No, but it may not satisfy what you’re looking for that particular day. Not a good comp? How about having a stock portfolio with all of your life savings in nothing but high-risk stocks? Ask any financial advisor, you need balance in your portfolio, just as you need balance in your fantasy lineup.

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):

Quarterbacks
Wide Receivers
Tight Ends

The “Can’t Miss Studs” Tier (Round 1)

1. Christian McCaffrey
2. Ezekiel Elliott
3. Saquon Barkley

This is the top tier of running backs who are locked into 20-plus touches per week. If they’re on the field, they’re producing, period. They’re irreplaceable in a lineup, which is why they should go over someone like Michael Thomas or Davante Adams. McCaffrey is the no-brainer first pick and honestly deserves a tier of his own. Elliott has never finished as the No. 1 running back but has finished top-five in 3-of-4 years, with the only year he didn’t was one he played in just 10 games and still finished as the No. 10 running back. Barkley clearly tried playing through his ankle injury last year and it hurt his production, but he still finished as a top-10 running back despite missing three games.

The “Just Outside Elite” Tier (Round 1)

4. Alvin Kamara
5. Dalvin Cook

Some will say that they’re in the first tier, but the lack of truly elite touches for Kamara keeps him out, even if he does present just as much upside as they do given his efficiency. He was someone, like Saquon Barkley, who tried to play through an ankle injury that hampered his effectiveness. Don’t forget that he was a top-four running back in each of his first two seasons. Cook was someone who dealt with injuries the first two years of his career, but then exploded last year. He still wants a contract extension and that’s an issue in its own right, but it’s tough to trust him as a truly elite stud after one year of production, though it’s close.

The “Studs Who Don’t Get Enough Passing Down Work” Tier (Rounds 1-2)

6. Derrick Henry
8. Joe Mixon
10. Nick Chubb
13. Josh Jacobs

These running backs are often going in the first round, but I’m not sure if there’s room to get into the elite tier unless there’s a change in offensive philosophy and they start getting more work in the passing game. Henry makes up for a lot of that with his run-game prowess, but if he wants to finish as a top-three running back, he’d need more targets. Mixon is a fantastic receiver and has been underused to this point. With A.J. Green back in the fold, it’s hard to see him taking a huge leap in targets (45 last year), even though he should. Chubb will obviously share some of the workload with Kareem Hunt, especially targets. Jacobs only received 27 targets in 13 games his rookie season, and though the Raiders have said he’ll get more targets in 2020, they have a lot more mouths to feed on the roster. It’s unlikely he cracks the 50-target barrier. These guys are fine to have as RB1s but unless they get more work in the passing game, they aren’t going to belong in the elite category.

The “Three-Down Workhorses Who Might Turn Elite” Tier (Rounds 1-2)

7. Clyde Edwards-Helaire
9. Kenyan Drake
12. Miles Sanders

All three of these running backs have top-three upside. Drake was the No. 4 running back in fantasy football from the time he joined the Cardinals last year, and they liked him enough to place the transition tag on him, move on from David Johnson, and not draft anyone of significance. Not only did Patrick Mahomes ask the Chiefs to draft Edwards-Helaire, but Andy Reid said that Edwards-Helaire is better than Brian Westbrook on film. There’s a good chance he’s a top-five pick in fantasy drafts next year. I continually waited for the Eagles to draft a running back or sign one in free agency, but it never happened. They’re apparently going to trust Sanders in a three-down role, which comes with massive upside.

The “Potential Timeshare” Tier (Rounds 2-4)

11. Aaron Jones
15. Austin Ekeler
17. Jonathan Taylor

If we knew Jones would get 18-plus touches per game, he’d be in the “Just Outside Elite” tier, but we don’t know if that’s the case after they drafted A.J. Dillon in the second round. He should still be in the 15-plus touch range, though he does come with a bit of concern. Even with Melvin Gordon out for four games in 2019, Ekeler averaged just 14.0 touches per game. The Chargers also spent a fourth-round pick on Joshua Kelley, who is a bigger back that might steal some goal-line work. It helps that Ekeler added some weight/muscle this offseason. Taylor is likely going to start the year sharing some work with Marlon Mack, but it won’t take long for the Colts coaches to transition to Taylor in a workhorse role. He’s my discounted Nick Chubb.

The “If They Stay Healthy” Tier (Rounds 3-4)

14. Todd Gurley
18. James Conner
21. Chris Carson

There’s a lot of debate on these running backs, as all have red checks next to their name, but when healthy, they’re top-12 performers. If you’re okay with a little risk, the reward could be worth it with these running backs. Gurley is the clear-cut workhorse for a team that gave Devonta Freeman 17.4 touches per game last year, and one that’s continually a top-12 scoring offense. Conner struggled with health in 2019, but despite losing Ben Roethlisberger, he remained a rock-solid fantasy starter when in the lineup. Carson suddenly has a lot of competition with Carlos Hyde, Rashaad Penny, and DeeJay Dallas, but Pete Carroll has stuck with him through many fumbling issues.

The “Boring Volume” Tier (Rounds 4-6)

16. Leonard Fournette
19. Le’Veon Bell
20. Melvin Gordon
22. David Johnson
23. David Montgomery

These guys will never make you feel good when you draft them, but they do have a place in fantasy football. If you’ve taken some volatile receivers like Tyreek Hill, Mike Evans, or Amari Cooper, you need some stability throughout your lineup. Fournette is going to lose some of the elite workload he saw last year, but he’ll still touch the ball 18-plus times per week. Bell wasn’t sexy last year, but he finished as an RB2 or better 66.7 percent of the time, which was the 12th-highest percentage in football. Gordon is going to a new team and figures to be somewhat of a workhorse in Pat Shurmur’s offense, but the team is extremely young. Johnson is trying to regain fantasy owners’ confidence after his disappointing end to 2019, though the Texans offense hasn’t really fit his strengths as a player. Montgomery should have finished with the 15th-most fantasy points among running backs last year with his opportunity and where it took place. These are all players who should see 16-plus touches per game, even if they’re not on high-scoring teams.

The “Will He Lose the Job?” Tier (Round 6)

24. Mark Ingram
25. Ronald Jones

We finally have confirmation about Jones as the starter in Tampa Bay, though we mustn’t forget that Bruce Arians dubbed him the starter mid-way through the 2019 season as well. Still, it makes sense that he’d start with the job after Ke’Shawn Vaughn went to the COVID list and will miss most of camp. Ingram finished as the No. 8 running back last year, though it was on the back of 15 total touchdowns, a number that he’s unlikely to reach in 2020, especially when you look at the Ravens second-round pick JK Dobbins, who they apparently had a first-round grade on. These guys will start the year as the primary ball carrier, but they’re likely on thin ice, highlighting a lot of risk.

The “I Have Zero Clue How to Approach” Tier (Round 6-7)

26. Raheem Mostert

It’s not often I say that I have zero clue. Seriously, just ask my wife or any of my friends. But trying to figure out how Kyle Shanahan will use his running backs is a losing battle. However, what Mostert did down the stretch was phenomenal, and the 49ers did give in to re-work his contract, highlighting that he is, in fact, a big part of their plans. I can see him finishing outside the top 30 running backs. I can see him finishing as a top-15 running back.

The “Let the Best Man Win, But They Likely Have the Edge” Tier (Rounds 6-7)

27. D’Andre Swift
28. Devin Singletary
31. Cam Akers

These guys are in battles with others but are expected to come out with the bigger workload, at least to start the year. Swift is a true three-down back who’s good at everything, while Kerryon Johnson has been mediocre and struggled to stay healthy. Singletary got plenty of touches down the stretch and figures to be the running back with the most touches in Buffalo’s backfield, but there is a non-zero percent chance that third-round rookie Zack Moss is the better running back. Akers was drafted with more capital than Darrell Henderson and more recent, so he should have the edge in winning the job, though Sean McVay has stated it’s going to be more of a timeshare in 2020. Relying on any of them for RB2 production out of the gate may be a mistake.

The “Legit Pass Catchers with Solid Floor” Tier (Rounds 7-8)

29. Kareem Hunt
30. Tarik Cohen

These two should probably be in different tiers considering Hunt’s upside, but they’re both weekly RB3/flex-type options who’ll be RB2s at times as well, especially in PPR formats. We know that Chubb is the top guy in Cleveland, but Kevin Stefanski’s running backs averaged 32.5 touches per game last year. Even if Chubb gets a massive 20 per game, that would allow Hunt to get 12-13 of his own. If Chubb missed time, Hunt is an every-week top-five running back. Cohen is who he is and won’t see a crazy increase in touches even if David Montgomery misses time, but many have underestimated just how much of an impact he can have in a flex spot.

The “Boring and Lack of Upside” Tier (Rounds 8-10)

32. Jordan Howard
36. Sony Michel (stay tuned, as he keeps dropping down the ranks)
39. Adrian Peterson

These are all two-down backs who present minimal upside, but when on the field, should receive at least 12 carries per game with most of the goal-line duties. Still, they don’t do much of anything in the passing game and will drag your team down when they don’t score a touchdown. Howard will be playing behind the worst offensive line of his career. Michel may not have the starting job by the time you read this, as he’s still rehabbing. Peterson was promoted when Derrius Guice was cut, but there are still tons of running backs on that roster.

The “Wrong Side of the Timeshare, but Elite Handcuff Value” Tier (Rounds 8-10)

34. Latavius Murray
35. Phillip Lindsay
40. J.K. Dobbins
43. Tony Pollard

These running backs are likely to get touches, though they aren’t likely to have much consistency as a starter without injury. However, when on your bench, if you want upside, these guys have it. Should Melvin Gordon miss time, Lindsay would see 15-plus touches per game in an improved Broncos offense. Murray was the No. 1 running back in football during the two weeks Alvin Kamara missed last year. Dobbins was given a first-round grade by the Ravens, and though Mark Ingram is likely to be the starter, Dobbins will be waiting for his opportunity. Pollard flashed last year in a limited role, to the point where they may involve him more in 2020, but if Ezekiel Elliott were to miss time, Pollard would be a must-start on a weekly basis.

The “Lesser Handcuffs Who Would Be RB2s in Case of Injury” Tier (Rounds 9-12)

37. Darrell Henderson
41. Kerryon Johnson
44. Zack Moss
45. Tevin Coleman
49. Alexander Mattison
50. Marlon Mack

Some of these running backs have a chance to earn the starting job as the year goes on, but they’re likely starting on the wrong side of a timeshare. Henderson isn’t someone to forget about, as the Rams traded up to draft him in the third round last year, and it’s not like Cam Akers is a can’t-miss prospect. Johnson has experience in the Lions offense, but when the Lions used a pick on D’Andre Swift over Jonathan Taylor, it highlighted how much they liked Swift. Not many realize that Moss was drafted in the third round, the same as Devin Singletary. He can earn a big role on that team, including dibs at goal-line carries. Coleman is best served in a timeshare, as he’s never been particularly good in a workhorse role. Mattison will get work throughout the year, but if Cook were to miss time, he’d see a boost into the high-end RB2 territory. Mack is someone who we’ve seen in the primary role and he was an RB2. You don’t spend a second-round pick on Jonathan Taylor and have him evenly split carries with Mack.

The “Pass-Catching Options for Late-Round Approach” Tier (Rounds 9-14)

35. Matt Breida
38. Antonio Gibson
42. James White
46. Duke Johnson
48. Boston Scott
52. Nyheim Hines
53. Anthony McFarland
56. Chris Thompson

If you want to wait at the running back position and simply snag some running backs who offer a decent floor, particularly in point per reception formats, these are your guys. Some may think that Breida has more value than Jordan Howard, especially when you look at their average draft positions (Breida has a slightly higher ADP), but he’s going to be the complement back. Gibson isn’t someone who’s ever seen a lot of touches, but it seems that Washington will manufacture touches for him, especially with Derrius Guice now out of the picture. White would’ve been up in the “Legit Pass Catchers with a Solid Floor” tier if Tom Brady were still there, but the move to Cam Newton will negate a lot of pass attempts. Johnson racked up 62 targets last year and though he may lose some to David Johnson, he is not going away, as there are 150 targets left behind in Houston. The Eagles never have used a one-back system, and though it seems like Miles Sanders may change that, Scott proved he can be a rock-solid complement last year. Hines, McFarland, and Thompson are at the tail-end of this tier.

The “Rookies with Uncertain Roles” Tier (Rounds 12 and later)

47. Ke’Shawn Vaughn
54. Joshua Kelley
60. A.J. Dillon

It seemed like Vaughn would have a shot at the starting job right away, but after being placed on the COVID list and missing most of camp, he might actually start as third on the depth chart behind Ronald Jones and LeSean McCoy. The Chargers are likely looking for someone to help take over the Melvin Gordon role, and though Kelley was drafted this year, it was the fourth round, so nothing is guaranteed. Lastly, Dillon is nearly 250 pounds and most view him as a fullback, but the Packers may see him as a goal-line back despite Aaron Jones being ridiculously good in that role.

The “Sneaky Upside” Tier (Last Round Pick)

51. Justin Jackson
55. Damien Harris
58. DeAndre Washington

These are guys you can take in the late rounds, and you’ll be able to know what you have almost immediately. I think Harris has a chance to be the Week 1 starter for the Patriots, which would be insane value in the double-digit rounds. At the very least, he is Sony Michel‘s handcuff. Washington is likely to be in the mix for the Chiefs right away with Damien Williams out, and he is likely the clear handcuff to Clyde Edwards-Helaire in a high-scoring offense. Call me crazy, but it’s possible that Justin Jackson is this year’s Raheem Mostert. He’s been highly-efficient in the opportunities he’s had and there are a lot of touches suddenly available in the offense.

Here are the links to the other positional tier lists (as they’re available):

Quarterbacks
Wide Receivers
Tight Ends


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Mike Tagliere is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Mike, check out his archive and follow him @MikeTagliereNFL.

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