Each fantasy football season the landscape of the skill positions change. One year offers more depth, while another turns into a studs and duds feel to the available player pool. Dissecting key drop off points in the positional average draft position (ADP) is critical to maximizing draft day value. Here are the key pivot points for 2018 at running back:
THE BIG FIVE (OR SIX?)
The top of redraft boards is littered with running backs in the typical draft season. The elite producers from the previous season, studs returning from injury, and ideal situations to thrive can compass their warranted profiles. 2018 is no different with Todd Gurley, Le'Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson, and Alvin Kamara as the general top-5 of positional ADP. The potential variables or quibbles with these backs include:
- Todd Gurley looks to match his elite season from last year, a tough task for any running back.
- Le'Veon Bell is reporting late and avoided in injury with a monster workload in 2017. Will he be so fortunate this season?
- Ezekiel Elliott lacks a supporting cast with an eroding offensive line situation and lack of projected passing game weapons around him.
- David Johnson is returning from injury, offensive line questions.
- Alvin Kamara had historic efficiency and touchdown production on lower-level touches last season. Will he hold up to more work, especially with Mark Ingram II suspended for the opening four games?
Again, these are the quibbles with the best fantasy running back bets this season.
Saquon Barkley is the glaring name not included in this top tier. Why? The elite ceiling is typically in question with rookie backs and having No. 1 overall upside is vital for these high-Round 1 draft picks. Barkley also has one of the strongest collections of skill position players around to soften his market share. Even the elite tier of top-10 drafted running backs typically peak in Year 2-3 with their best early-career season of production. The floor is high in Year 1, however, has top-10 drafted backs have averaged 14 PPR PPG dating back to 1999. Barkley headlines the next tier of running backs but is not part of the top grouping.
The potential No. 6 back to join this tier is Leonard Fournette. All signs point to an even better season than his 17.7 PPR PPG debut in 2017. Fournette has shed weight from his sledgehammer build to a more svelte and elusive version in the 220s. Also, Fournette news has the Jacksonville centerpiece discussed more as a true three-down back and involved in the passing game. Even being pulled on obvious passing downs regularly in 2017, Fournette collected 36 receptions. With 50+ catches in play and one of the few backs with double-digit touchdown upside as a reasonable projection, Fournette deserves to be mentioned with the top tier.
THE MARSHAWN LYNCH THRESHOLD
The next tier of running backs stretches down to RB25 or so in ADP. The goal is accumulating known roles and expected usage. There may be sub-tiers within this group for preference, but their RB1 status on the depth chart is not in question for Week 1 or the early part of the season. These preferred backs include:
- Melvin Gordon III: Not an elite talent, but an unquestioned floor of snaps and touches.
- Kareem Hunt: Same as Gordon, but Spencer Ware, the projected Week 1 starter in 2017, does return from injury as an added wrinkle.
- Dalvin Cook: Could be eased into high volume, but projected 1A.
- Christian McCaffrey: A consistent drumbeat of feature back status, plus elite receiving production.
- Devonta Freeman: Sturdy veteran with good, but not challenging 1B in Tevin Coleman.
- Joe Mixon: Saw flashes in 2017 and now looking for more efficiency, Giovani Bernard is a quality 1B, but not likely to challenge Mixon for work.
- Jordan Howard: Similar 1A/B situation as Joe Mixon, plus 'rising tide' optimism for Chicago offense overall.
- LeSean McCoy: Unquestioned starter with two clouds of off-field status and age decline question.
- Alex Collins: Back as 1A after breakout 2017 run of production.
- Lamar Miller: Can question the upside or innate talent from recent years, but until (if) D'Onta Foreman returns to form from a late-season Achilles injury, Miller's role is rock solid.
- Marshawn Lynch: Yet to see significant physical erosion and Doug Martin could be challenged more from rookie Chris Warren III for RB2 role than Martin challenging Lynch for touches.
Who are the running backs in this range with questions?
- Jerick McKinnon: Starting with an injury recovery, plus has yet to do much with advanced usage in his career to-date.
- Kenyan Drake: Frank Gore signing was significant and Drake is one of the least secure 1A projections heading into Week 1.
- Jay Ajayi: Known durability questions are likely to limit his usage in order to optimize his longevity. Ajayi at best is a 1A in a cluttered Eagles committee.
- Derrick Henry: The upside is huge, but Dion Lewis could be an even split and take some of Henry's needed receiving work away.
- Royce Freeman: Could easily turn into a dominant share usage early in the season, but not projected with the same confidence as 'Lynch Threshold' options.
- Kerryon Johnson: Same as Royce Freeman with early-season opportunity breakout possibility, but also the risk of LeGarrette Blount siphoning goal line carries and Theo Riddick sapping receptions.
- Mark Ingram II: While a committee in New Orleans, both Ingram and Alvin Kamara can produce top-10 numbers simultaneously. Holding Ingram out of the upper group is a four-game suspension to open season and variable of 2017 backfield dynamic shifting with another back into rotation and Ingram a pending 2019 free agent.
THE TELL THE STORY TIER BREAK
After Marshawn Lynch is gone, the next tier of backs stretches 30 deep and into Rounds 10-15 of typical leagues. All of them have stories to tell where they are mid-RB2 producers or better if things break right.
In general, gravitate to the easy stories in this range. Here are the easiest explanations how they are a weekly starter:
- Sony Michel: Slow start and behind with an injury, but Round 1 pedigree and chance to take over optimized Patriots backfield in the second half of season.
- Dion Lewis: Can he be a pass-catching dynamo and the yin to Derrick Henry's yang? Henry missing time would vault Lewis up but can he be an RB2 even with Henry collecting touches?
- Rashaad Penny, Ronald Jones, Nick Chubb: Rookies who have depth chart hurdles before turning into reliable fantasy options. Chubb has the most talented back of the trio ahead of him (Carlos Hyde), while Penny and Jones are looking for self-progress more than anything exterior.
- Jamaal Williams: May have the most simple story to the unquestioned lead gig. Aaron Jones' two-game suspension gives Williams a head start to run with the job.
- Rex Burkhead: Battling Sony Michel, the variable of a rededicated Jeremy Hill and Burkhead's own knee issue which may or may not limit him this season.
- Marlon Mack: May not be ready for Week 1 and, like Kenyan Drake, is one of the more uncertain penciled in (very light pencil) lead backs in the NFL.
- Isaiah Crowell, Bilal Powell: A clear top-two for the Jets, but who will emerge as the most valuable? Both have a reasonable ADP and RB1 upside if the other is out.
- Chris Carson: Like Jamaal Williams, will enter Week 1 with momentum for the lead job. How long does it last?
- Peyton Barber: Charles Sims is on injured reserve and Ronald Jones has done nothing to push for significant early-season work. Barber, like Chris Carson and Jamaal Williams, has run-with-the-job potential.
- Matt Breida: He flashed as a 2017 rookie and Jerick McKinnon is dealing with a hamstring injury. Breida has shown the explosive movement McKinnon has not since his early Minnesota years. Breida could step into optimized work and be the value play of the 49ers backfield.
- Adrian Peterson: Brought into the Derrius Guice-less Washington backfield and in-line for early-season 1A touches, at least as a rusher. Does he have much left and can he last most of the season?
THE CHASE THE UPSIDE TIER
This tier begins outside the top-50 or so running backs. The stories to fantasy prominence are murkier considering their profiles, depth charts, durability, or a combination of all three. Here are the leading candidates to hit big:
- Latavius Murray: A repeat of 2017's injury to Dalvin Cook would do it and surge Murray to a high-end RB2 or better in weekly projections.
- D'Onta Foreman: He was one of the significant rising running backs late in 2017. His health is all that stands in the way of challenging, and potentially surpassing, Lamar Miller in 2018.
- James Conner: A potential title-winner is Conner, who needs a Le'Veon Bell injury to rise into the RB1 role for the Steelers and fantasy football. Bell reported late in 2017 and turning in a monster season but can he do it a second straight season?
- Frank Gore: The ageless one was not brought into Miami as a clipboard holder or player-coach. The last time Gore averaged less than 15 carries per game in a season: 2005. Gore could end up being Plan A for the Miami's rushing attack.
- Jeremy Hill: The rededicated former 1,000-yard rusher has resurfaced at running back reclamation center, the New England Patriots. If Hill emerges as the primary power back and late-game clock-grinder option, he can push for 200+ carries and 10+ touchdowns.
- T.J. Yeldon: A run-first team and Yeldon looks impressive since shedding some weight between 2017 and 2018. A Leonard Fournette injury paves the way for Yeldon to be a fantasy darling.
- Rod Smith: Low-cost and an Ezekiel Elliott injury away from strong usage as Bo Scarbrough is more in danger of being cut by Dallas than challenging for the RB2 role early in the season.
- Chase Edmonds: Similar to Rod Smith, Edmonds has a vice grip on the RB2 job in Arizona and is a David Johnson injury away from auto-start status at a low ADP.
Finally, running backs on the deeper radar:
- Chris Warren III III (Preseason darling, has the look of a future lead back, can push for an RB2 role in Oakland)
- John Kelly, Malcolm Brown (Heated competition for an RB2 role behind Todd Gurley in a strong offense)
- Christine Michael, Robert Turbin, Jordan Wilkins (Any in this trio could benefit from Marlon Mack faltering)
- Wayne Gallman (Rising as Jonathan Stewart is declining in competition for Giants' RB2 role)
- Javorius Allen Kenneth Dixon (Allen is the steady veteran, Dixon the wildcard of Baltimore's depth chart beyond Alex Collins)
- Jonathan Williams (Likely to start the season in Mark Ingram II role, chance to build momentum early)
- Austin Ekeler (Not in prototypical lead back mold, but athletic with a two-way profile, college workhorse, needs Melvin Gordon III injury)
- Samaje Perine, Rob Kelley (Beyond Adrian Peterson, both could emerge as primary rushers in Washington)