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Dynasty Draft Strategy, Rankings & Tiers: Running Backs (2024 Fantasy Football)

Dynasty Draft Strategy, Rankings & Tiers: Running Backs (2024 Fantasy Football)

NFL running backs don’t get paid enough for being human battering rams, so they have my sympathies.

That said, running back is not the most important position in dynasty leagues, and I don’t want to build a dynasty team around running backs. Sorry, fellas.

That’s not to say running backs are unimportant in dynasty. We still want prolific point scorers in our RB slots, of course. But ideally, dynasty managers will acquire quality running backs in stealthy, clever ways. The goal is to build RB strength without making sacrifices at other positions.

Why should we cut corners at running back?

2024 Dynasty Fantasy Football Guide

Dynasty Startup Strategy, Rankings & Tiers: Running Backs

It’s partly because running backs have relatively short NFL life spans. They are the mayflies of fantasy football. Some running backs manage to have long, fruitful careers, but they are the outliers. Most running backs give us 2-3 years of peak production before flaming out.

It’s also because RB is a less predictable position than QB, WR or TE. We often see running backs come out of the fog and become major contributors even though they were afterthoughts in dynasty rookie drafts.

Kyren Williams was a fifth-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. His ADP in dynasty rookie drafts that year was RB15, 41st overall. Williams averaged 112.5 scrimmage yards per game last season and scored 15 touchdowns in 12 games. That sort of thing occasionally happens at wide receiver and other positions (hello, Puka Nacua and Tank Dell), but not nearly as often. At QB, WR and TE, what you pay for is usually what you get. At RB, we often get pleasant surprises.

The short life spans and the unpredictability of running backs explain why they’re paid less than players at other positions, and why it’s increasingly rare to see running backs taken in the first round of the NFL Draft. The league treats running backs as fungible assets. Dynasty managers would be wise to do the same.

In a dynasty startup draft, avoid the temptation to spend multiple early-round picks on running backs. If you want to draft an anchor RB while paying proper respect to other positions, cool. If you want to capitalize on a couple of RB bargains in the first 5-6 rounds, fine. But don’t build your dynasty team around a collection of running backs taken in the early rounds of a startup. Your team will be a house of cards.

Draft running backs opportunistically. Take value where you can find it in the middle and later rounds. And if you fall so far behind at the RB position in your startup draft that you can’t dig out of the hole, don’t panic. You’re playing in a dynasty league. People make a lot of trades. They want to make a lot of trades. There are few things in this world more overrated than positional balance in dynasty leagues. You can trade your way out of a hole. In neglecting running backs, you undoubtedly loaded up at other positions and will have areas of strength from which you can deal.

Dynasty Startup Draft Strategies

Before we go on, I’m going to repeat something I wrote in the Dynasty Startup Draft Primer for QBs because it also applies to RBs (and other positions, too). Before you start drafting in a dynasty startup, chart a course and then build a coherent draft strategy around it.

Charting a course means deciding when you expect your team to establish its dynastic reign over the league. Here are the three options:

  • Win now: Establish your dominance immediately. While your competitors focus on youth in the startup draft, scoop up proven veterans at discounted prices and build a roster that will be a favorite for the league title in Year 1.
  • Win in Year 2: Focus on youth but mix in some proven veterans. Your young roster might not have the juice to win right away, but you’ll have a collection of players whose value is likely to be higher a year from now, positioning you to contend in Year 2.
  • Productive struggle: (Hat tip to Ryan McDowell of Dynasty League Football for coining the term.) Commit to a slow build that will put you in title contention in 2-3 years. Focus heavily on youth in the startup draft and be willing to trade startup picks for picks in future rookie drafts.

The course you choose might have a slight impact on how aggressively you draft running backs. It will have a bigger impact on your willingness to draft older running backs such as Derrick Henry. At age 30, Henry might not have many productive years left in his career, but his outlook for 2024 is pretty bright.

If you’re in win-now mode, Henry is a logical draft target. He won’t be selected as early in dynasty startups as he will in redraft leagues because of his age. But if you’re aiming to win in Year 2 or committing to a productive struggle, Henry should not be on your radar.

Running Back Draft Strategies

Let’s discuss three popular RB strategies and their applications for dynasty startups.

  • Zero RB: Ignore running backs entirely in the early rounds and load up on pass catchers (and perhaps QBs in superflex drafts). It’s a controversial but viable strategy in redraft leagues. It’s an even more effective strategy in dynasty leagues if you’re building for Year 2 or beyond and not trying to win right away.
  • Hero RB: Get a top RB in the early rounds, then focus on other positions until the middle rounds. This strategy can work with a win-now or win in Year 2 approach. It doesn’t fit as well with a productive struggle, since RB career arcs are so short that your hero RB might be past his peak by the time your team is ready to contend.
  • Robust RB: Load up on RBs in the early rounds. For reasons outlined earlier, this strategy is not recommended for dynasty formats, although there’s a case to be made that it’s a viable strategy if you’re in win-now mode.

Let’s sort the top 15 running backs into baskets based on where they’re likely to be chosen in startup drafts. Estimated round values are based on league formats that require you to start 1 QB, 2 RBs, 3 WRs, 1 TE and 1 FLEX.

Running Back Rankings & Tiers

Elite

These guys are top-10 picks in 1QB leagues, top-20 picks in superflex leagues.

Robinson didn’t make quite the splash we were expecting from him in his rookie year, but that was largely due to the playcalling of Falcons head coach Arthur Smith, who was fired at the end of the season. There are few doubts about Bijan’s talent … After tearing his ACL in 2022, Hall was used lightly for much of the 2023, season, but he went nuclear in the final weeks of the regular season, raising expectations for a glorious 2024 campaign. … Gibbs shares work with David Montgomery, but his explosiveness and pass-catching ability are A-plus. He’s a jewel.

Foundational

Expect these guys to come off the board somewhere from the late first round to early third round in 1QB startups and in the second or third round of SF startups.

McCaffrey is entering his age-28 season, so he’s a target for the win-now crowd, not the productive strugglers. But CMC is still a hugely impactful fantasy performer when healthy. … Taylor’s last two seasons have been marred by injuries, but let’s not forget that he had 1,800 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns in 2021. The rushing threat posed by Colts QB Anthony Richardson could make Taylor that much more dangerous. … The speedy Achane averaged a ridiculous 7.8 yards per carry as a rookie. We didn’t get a good read on what a typical weekly Achane workload will look like, but no matter — the talent is irresistible.

Walker came into the league in 2022 as a highly regarded RB prospect and has done nothing to suggest that the initial reads on his talent were wrong. … Etienne’s productivity tailed off in the second half of the 2023 season, but he’s a versatile run-catch threat who finished RB3 in PPR scoring last year even with the late-season slippage. … Williams was the most pleasant surprise in fantasy football last season. The biggest concern is how the 5-9, 194-pound Williams will hold up if Rams head coach Sean McVay continues to feed him a bazillion touches.

High-Quality

Expect these RBs to go in the second or third round of 1QB startups and in the third or fourth round of SF startups.

Barkley escaped an unhealthy ecosystem with the Giants and could thrive in Philadelphia, where the Eagles have one of the better offensive lines in the league even after the retirement of center Jason Kelce. … Jacobs changed teams, too, going from the Raiders to the Packers. He’s been a reliable workhorse in the past and could thrive in an up-and-coming Green Bay offense. … White wasn’t an especially efficient runner for the Buccaneers last season, but he shouldered a massive workload, and he’s a very good pass catcher. … Cook rolled up 1,567 yards from scrimmage last year in his second NFL season and became a true workhorse late in the season.

Exciting, but …

Expect these RBs to go in the third or fourth round of 1QB startups and in the fourth or fifth round of SF startups.

Williams flashed big-time potential as a rookie, tore his ACL in Year 2, and was merely OK last year in Denver’s backfield-by-committee. He should be ready for a meatier workload in 2024, and it’s still worth betting on Williams’ talent. We just can’t be quite as certain about his future as we were in 2021 … A seventh-round pick in 2022, Pacheco has led the high-flying Chiefs in rushing in each of his first two NFL seasons. His hard-charging style makes him a bit of an injury risk, however.

Final Thoughts

A few final thoughts about drafting running backs in dynasty startups:

  • Once the top 20-25 running backs are off the board, draft opportunistically at the position. Bear in mind that RBs have relatively short career arcs.
  • The vast majority of dynasty leagues are PPR, so pass-catching ability is important. Favor running backs who’ll be on the field on obvious passing downs over early-down plodders who won’t draw many targets.
  • In the later rounds of a startup draft, don’t be afraid to backfill your RB room with older veterans who have limited but secure roles. A 28-year-old running back who’s in a committee is more likely to help you than a second-year RB who was drafted in the seventh round and spent his first NFL season on a practice squad.

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