Moving on to the next segment of my Way-Too-Early Rankings for the 2017 season are the running backs. As everyone knows by now, this position is pretty much the make or break of your fantasy season as it seems like less and less RBs are workhorse backs that command a majority of their team’s rushes. So, you will see the four or five of the top backs go pretty early in your drafts, but never fear, for here is your cheat sheet for when your spot comes up in the draft.
1) David Johnson
2016: 293 Carries, 1,239 Rushing Yards, 16 Rushing TDs, 879 Receiving Yards, 4 Receiving TDs = 327.80 FP (RB1) (16 Games Played) (NFL.com Standard Scoring)
Analysis: David Johnson looked like a cheat code last year. Every game, he was a safe bet to net you double-digit fantasy points, and more often than not gave his owners over 20 fantasy points (20+ in 9 of 16 games). He is the ultimate RB in fantasy, able to run over and around defenders for rushing yards, catch the ball out of the backfield, and score touchdowns. Although he went down with an injury in the last game of the year, he’ll be back fully healthy for the season so don’t hesitate picking Johnson first overall this summer.
2) Ezekiel Elliott
2016: 322 Carries, 1,631 Rushing Yards, 15 Rushing TDs, 363 Receiving Yards, 1 Receiving TD = 293.40 FP (RB2) (15 Games Played)
Analysis: Well, he showed us. There were many fantasy enthusiasts, including me, who were wary of selecting a rookie running back in the first round last year, but Zeke proved us wrong, gashing out the most rushing yards in the league, while scoring 16 total times. Elliott was handed the rock 322 times! And I don’t think the Cowboys are going to shy away from giving him the ball anymore this year. If he stays healthy and gets anywhere near 322 carries, he’ll be well worth a top-3 overall pick in drafts.
3) Le’Veon Bell
2016: 261 Carries, 1,268 Rushing Yards, 7 Rushing TDs, 616 Receiving Yards, 2 Receiving TDs = 242.40 FP (RB4) (12 Games Played)
Analysis: Bell might just be the most talented running back in the NFL right now (sorry David Johnson). He missed 4 games last year and still finished 4th among all RBs in fantasy. His usage in the potent Pittsburgh offense is crazy, and allows him to put up ridiculous numbers. However, the only thing keeping him from being first on this list is his health concerns. He has missed 14 games over the last two seasons (albeit between both injuries and suspension), leaving his owners needy at the RB position, and without their first round pick. But, Bell is such an incredible talent and gives you such a big advantage at the position, that not picking him in the top half of the first round is just silly. When he plays, he is the best fantasy RB in the game, period.
4) LeSean McCoy
2016: 234 Carries, 1,267 Rushing Yards, 13 Rushing TDs, 356 Receiving Yards, 1 Receiving TD = 248.30 FP (RB3) (15 Games Played)
Analysis: Honestly, I was shocked to see just how good McCoy actually did last season. The man averaged 5.4 yards per carry, better than that of David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott, and everyone else but two players. And, those two players received more than 100 fewer carries than Shady. And when looking at his gaudy TD total (14), it may seem like he is ripe for a regression in that category, but don’t forget that goal-line vulture, Mike Gillislee, who scored 8 TDs himself in 2016, is now a Patriot. So, there can actually be more opportunities for McCoy to score in 2017. And just in case you were wondering, the next man up for the Bills at RB is Jonathon Williams, who had 27 carries last year.
5) Melvin Gordon
2016: 254 Carries, 997 Rushing Yards, 10 Rushing TDs, 419 Receiving Yards, 2 Receiving TDs = 209.60 FP (RB8) (13 Games Played)
Analysis: The love for Gordon stems from his insane volume. He played in only 13 games last year, yet still finished with the 10th most carries in the league. If he had played all 16 games, he would have had 312 carries, based on his averages up to that point, which would have been good for second most in the league behind Zeke. And all this production was because of his volume which was due much in part to Danny Woodhead’s season-ending injury. And guess what, Woodhead is now out of the picture for good, as he left for Baltimore. Although he may not be the most efficient RB, Melvin Gordon can be trusted since he is pretty much the only RB who will get carries in a very good Charger offense.
6) Jordan Howard
2016: 252 Carries, 1,313 Rushing Yards, 6 Rushing TDs, 298 Receiving Yards, 1 Receiving TD = 201.10 FP (RB9) (15 Games Played)
Analysis: This rookie seemed to come out of nowhere, only to churn out the second most rushing yards in the league. And while the Bears have lost most of their identity on offense from the departures of Jay Cutler and Alshon Jeffery, Howard remains, and there is no question that this is his offense and backfield this year. The great thing about Howard is that he only had 6 rushing touchdowns last season, a very low number for 252 carries. I see this as a positive thing because it looks like Howard could be in for some positive regression. If he continues to get fed like last seasons, Howard should easily increase that TD total by 2 or 3. If that were to happen, he could move in to the top-5 at the position. Volume is king in fantasy football, and Jordan Howard should get a ton of volume.
7) Devonta Freeman
2016: 227 Carries, 1,079 Rushing Yards, 11 Rushing TDs, 462 Receiving Yards, 2 Receiving TDs = 230.10 FP (RB6) (16 Games Played)
Analysis: A lot of people were down on Freeman coming off a year where he dazzled in 2015. However, Freeman quieted the critics by finishing as the RB6 in 2016 and becoming even more efficient as a runner. And yes, he now has backfield-mate Tevin Coleman taking snaps away from him, but if the Falcons are as potent on offense this year as they were the last, there is room for two fantasy-relevant backs in Atlanta. Plus, if Coleman were to go down with an injury (which is possible due to Coleman’s upright running style), Freeman would immediately catapult to the top of the RB position, as he has one of the highest ceilings in the league with the Atlanta backfield all to himself.
8) DeMarco Murray
2016: 293 Carries, 1,287 Rushing Yards, 9 Rushing TDs, 377 Receiving Yards, 3 Receiving TDs = 240.80 FP (RB5) (16 Games Played)
Analysis: Murray turned out to be one of the biggest steals in drafts last year, going on to finish in the top-5 at the position despite being drafted in the fifth round or later. And owners better take notice because the rejuvenated tailback is on a Titans team that many are pegging as a young threat to contend in the AFC. And this team will have to rely on the legs of Murray. The only threat to his numbers, and fantasy relevance, is the talented Derrick Henry out of Alabama. The behemoth of a runner received 110 carries last season with a very respectable 4.5 yards per attempt. So despite Murray’s great year, it would be foolish to think that the younger back, Henry, would not get an increase in carries after a successful rookie campaign, even if were just to give Murray extra breathers. Nevertheless, even if Murray’s carries were to go down, he has still been efficient enough in this offense to warrant a second or even first round pick.
9) Jay Ajayi
2016: 260 Carries, 1,272 Rushing Yards, 8 Rushing TDs, 151 Receiving Yards, 0 Receiving TDs = 188.30 FP (RB11) (15 Games Played)
Analysis: Ajayi was an afterthought heading into last year, a back-up to the oft-injured, yet talented Arian Foster. Early in the year, Ajayi was even considered a hazard to the team and left back on a road trip. Things change quickly in the NFL however, as Ajayi was thrusted into the starting lineup, only to tear the league up. The guy had back-to-back 200+ yard games! His ceiling is ridiculous. However, he sometimes can have quiet games which is what is keeping him from ranking amongst the best in the game. However, there is no real threat to his volume this year and the Dolphins are going to want to control the ball more as they are trying to return to the playoffs. Plus, there is more room to grow for him in the receiving game which can only enhance his fantasy standing.
10) Lamar Miller
2016: 268 Carries, 1,073 Rushing Yards, 5 Rushing TDs, 188 Receiving Yards, 1 Receiving TDs = 160.10 FP (RB18) (14 Games Played)
Analysis: This is where I feel the RB position drops off. There are a host of names that could easily have taken the 10th spot, such as Todd Gurley, Carlos Hyde, or even Leonard Fournette. However, I think Miller has the clearest path to cracking the top-10. First of all, he accumulated 268 carries in 14 games, a total that placed him sixth amongst all runners…and he missed two whole games. This means that if Miller actually played all 16 games (which he did in each of the last three seasons before 2016), he would’ve been given 306 carries, which would’ve been good for second in the entire league. Also, Miller scored only 5 TDs last season after scoring 8 TDs in each of the two seasons before. Thanks to the departure of Brock Osweiler, I would bet that the Texans will find themselves in more scoring situations in 2017 even if they have a rookie, Deshaun Watson, behind center.
Photo: Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images