Running backs will dominate the top of drafts of every format, with a clear top four (for now) and lots of difficult risk/reward propositions to parse at almost every juncture of the draft. It helps to understand the groups that represent similar ranges of outcomes or whose values hinge on similar factors. Understanding and navigating the 2019 running back landscape is the most important part of your draft strategy
The Triumvirate (Formerly the Four Horsemen, Maybe Again Soon)
Yes, I am not including Zeke here until his holdout is over. In a post-2018 Le'Veon Bell world, it’s clear that there’s more to lose by underestimating a holdout than there is to gain by fading it. I won’t go to the mat for the order of the three, but mine probably differs from most.
Christian McCaffrey, CAR - Priced Correctly
The only downsides here are the possibility that McCaffrey’s target share was out of necessity more than design and murmurs about another back taking short yardage carries to save him some wear and tear. The offense should be better across the board to compensate for, if not negate or be larger than any target volume drop in his value.
Saquon Barkley, NYG - Priced Correctly
Perhaps Barkley is so much better than the field at running back that having a bottom five quarterback situation won’t affect his value. The line should be better, but he didn’t produce like a #1 overall pick when Odell Beckham Jr was out last year.
Alvin Kamara, NO - Priced Correctly
Latavius Murray doesn’t have the history that Mark Ingram II had with this team, but appears to be taking over Ingram's 2018 role. The team likes Kamara's snap count where it was for the last 12 games of 2018, so he is a safe top four pick, but lacking #1 overall ceiling.
Go Big or Go Home
Three #1 backs with a great record of top-end fantasy value face difficult to quantify risk factors this year. While we are more holdout-sensitive in a post-2018 Le’Veon Bell world, the reality is that Bell’s holdout probably did change the optics and odds of players taking the tank to “E” to wrest control of their destinies away from teams. How much is basically a case by case question and one that we can’t have true insight into for Melvin Gordon III and Ezekiel Elliott. The longer they go without reporting, the more chance there is that they take the holdouts into the season and the more chance there is that they aren’t as prepared and injury-resistant going into the season as they would have been had they showed for camp day one, or even day ten. The Todd Gurley situation is also elusive, as it was clear he wasn’t right from a physical and maybe even mental (in terms of trust of his surgically-repaired and arthritic joint) in December and in the playoffs last year. He is practicing every other day and so far, so good. We’ll see if we can say that come December this year. Elliott is still going in the top four. Gordon usually falls to the mid-late second, and Gurley is often available in the third.
Ezekiel Elliott, DAL - Avoid at ADP Until Holdout Resolved
With each passing day, his holdout risk grows. His line and offense should be improved and he has a chance to set a new bar for fantasy production if he shows and plays the first few weeks without incident.
Melvin Gordon III, LAC - Avoid at ADP Until Holdout Resolved
Some outside observers believe Gordon has the will to take this well into the season. He would have first-round value if it wasn’t hanging over him, but he also failed to finish the season two of the last three years, and a prolonged holdout won’t make us feel better about the chances of that happening this year.
Todd Gurley, LAR - Priced Correctly
Gurley should get about two-thirds of the work in this backfield, which is enough to be a mid-low RB1 assuming the offense (especially the two new starters on the offensive line) is similar to last year’s. His ability to stay at top form as the season goes on is a question mark.
How Much Do You Trust Kliff and Kyler?
David Johnson, ARI - Priced Correctly
Johnson has the proven ability to produce with any back in the league but is coming off of a disastrous campaign. The offense and his usage will be better, and whether you take him or a top wide receiver (or Travis Kelce!) in the mid-first is mostly a bet on his raw talent and Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray’s ability to turn this team around.
Not Elite, but the Next Best Thing
The late first through the mid-second is chock of full of backs who could produce at or near the clip of the elite, which could serve to shrink the gap that drawing a top-four draft slot creates on first glance. Like the top four (for now), the order is somewhat interchangeable, let your beliefs about the player and situation quality dictate who you target.
Nick Chubb, CLE - Target
How much should we fear Kareem Hunt’s return after an eight-game suspension? If the Browns offense is as good as we hope, Chubb might do enough without Hunt to give plenty of slack for a slowdown in production in the second half of the year. The trade of Duke Johnson Jr opens a path for an even hotter start to Chubb's season.
Joe Mixon, CIN - Priced Correctly
Mixon’s situation looked good enough to vault him without shouting distance of the top four back in May. The Bengals have since lost their left tackle for the year and their #1 receiver for at least a few games in September. They are installing a new offense, although the new coaches could also see Giovani Bernard as worthy of a larger role than the previous regime. Mixon finished 2018 with his arrow pointing up, but hasn’t played a full 16 game season yet.
James Conner, PIT - Avoid in First
Conner is the lead back, but will the Steelers run their lead back into the ground now that they have Jaylen Samuels versatility and Benny Snell’s overall effectiveness in the backfield? If they revert to old usage, Conner is a value, but if they reduce him to 60% of the work, he’ll be a letdown at ADP.
Dalvin Cook, MIN - Priced Correctly
With no proven backup on the roster and a Kubiak/Dennison running game suited to his strengths, Cook just has to stay healthy to flirt with top-five running back value this year - something he hasn’t been able to do yet in his career.
Le’Veon Bell, NYJ - Avoid in First
Bell gets a big downgrade in situation from the Steelers plum spot and Adam Gase’s history of unpredictable running back usage looms. Ty Montgomery has had a good camp and might cut into Bell’s passing down work. This remains a proposition on Bell’s talent and Gase’s ability to maximize his value. Bell also had fewer explosive plays the last time we saw him play for the Steelers.
Potential RB1s available in the third round or later
This might be the most important decision in your draft. Maybe TY Hilton or Keenan Allen fall to the third round and make the call more difficult, but otherwise, the third round should be a running back round. There are a plethora of backs with the opportunity and history to make a top ten finish possible, if not better.
Kerryon Johnson, DET - Target
He looked like a beast before his injury last year, and the Theo Riddick release ensures that he will have all of the work he can handle in the passing game. Johnson is a true three-down back who seems to get stronger as the game goes on a la Derrick Henry.
Devonta Freeman, ATL - Target
Freeman is either going to make everyone who faded his injury risk because of his healthy offseason look smart or make everyone who avoided him because of his injury history look smart. He is a clear lead back in a good offense who has already shown that he can produce with the best backs in fantasy football.
Aaron Jones, GB - Priced Correctly
Jones has always looked like the best runner in the Packers backfield, but he might not be the best pass blocker. He was coming along as a receiver last year and the new outside zone running game should fit his strengths well. Jamaal Williams camp hamstring woes help Jones bid to be a clear lead back, and the offense could be revitalized after a coaching change. Jones also hasn’t stayed healthy for a whole season yet.
Chris Carson, SEA - Target
Carson should be a third-round pick with the role, offensive philosophy, and strong finish to 2018. He has some durability issues but is outplaying Rashaad Penny in camp, so don’t consider Penny a threat to overtake him this year.
Leonard Fournette, JAX - Avoid at ADP
Fournette could be a hit at ADP with increased passing game work and a better offense because a real quarterback is in the fold. The team could also flounder and give him fewer good game scripts, which were a key part of his 2017 triumph. Fournette also hasn’t stayed healthy for an entire season yet in his career.
Josh Jacobs, OAK - Priced Correctly
Jacobs is quickly establishing himself as a lead back for a head coach who destroyed Cadillac Williams with 290 carries in his rookie year. Jacobs also has the skillset to belong on the field in any situation.
This group has RB1 upside in any week that their team wins and controls the game, but they also lack strong passing game involvement and have other questions casting a shadow on their season-long ceiling. They will be suitable RB2s if you only take one back in the first three rounds, but have the potential to be a strength or a liability in your lineup depending on how the week and season unfold.
Marlon Mack, IND - Priced Correctly
Mack has top ten upside when the Colts win and play well on both sides of the ball, which should be a regular occurrence this year. He also has to stay healthy, and injuries were a regular occurrence last year. He will be a value if he plays 16 games.
Derrick Henry, TEN - Avoid at ADP
Henry is already sidelined with a mysterious calf injury. As long as he practices before the season without incident, we can restore his ranking to previous levels. He’ll be a boom/bust weekly option whose value depends on the Titans ability to feed him 20+ carries. Taking him is a bet on the Titans (read: Marcus Mariota and to a lesser extent new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith) to have a good year.
Damien Williams, KC - Avoid at ADP
Williams was a strong RB1 once he got the job last year, and the Chiefs appeared to be treating him as an entrenched incumbent until Andy Reid invoked the specter of RBBC. His hamstring injury in camp might have endangering that status. He will produce like an RB1 if he has the same role as last year, but he has never been a lead back for a whole season in the NFL and he has already broken the injury seal.
Mark Ingram II, NO - Priced Correctly
Ingram is in a good spot on a run-first team that will be throwing a lot of new wrinkles at defenses. He will yield some carries to other backs and of course Lamar Jackson, but he’s a good all-around back who can get more value out of the RB1 role than Gus Edwards did last year. Ingram is turning 30 and has a PED suspension under his belt, so a decline is possible.
Sony Michel, NE - Avoid at ADP
Michel is actually doing a lot more in camp than he did last year, and that means he could be a bigger part of the passing game. Rookie Damien Harris is an impressive all-around back in his own right and could lower Michel’s weekly ceiling while improving his chances to hold up all year. Michel mostly stayed healthy last year after a preseason knee surgery, but this type of knee issue only stays the same or gets worse over time.
Swing for the fences - First tier
Rookie backs always represent the thrill of the unknown and sometimes what is behind Door #3 is indeed the new car. Both of these backs are explosive talents and they are in offenses that prime the running back to succeed
Darrell Henderson, LAR - Target
Henderson will reportedly get the Chris Thompson role in Sean McVay’s offense, which Thompson turned into top 10-15 numbers at times in PPR leagues. He can deliver on ADP without a Gurley issue if he is as effective as Thompson and gets the role as promised. He needs to build some momentum after opening fifth on the depth chart and having a mixed preseason opener.
Miles Sanders, PHI - Target
The Doug Pederson Eagles have been committed to RBBC, but they’ve never had a back like Sanders. After being hurt this spring, Sanders has put on a show in camp. He would benefit from a great offense and maybe the best offensive line in football. A true lead back role could make him a league winner.
David Montgomery, CHI - Avoid at ADP
Montgomery has a great all-around skill set and he is the best at breaking tackles in the Bears backfield. He can rise to the top of the committee, but this will remain a multi-back backfield.
Limited Ceiling RB2/Flex
This group can provide RB2/Flex production (especially in PPR leagues) at a discount, but in no scenario can they deliver consistent RB1 numbers or otherwise vastly outproduce their ADP cost
James White, NE - Priced Correctly
White was outstanding when injuries depleted the Patriots backfield last year, but the addition of Damien Harris makes that less likely to happen this year. Sony Michel playing a larger role in the passing game also hurts. White could still have massive games when defenses make him the most attractive target, but the weekly ride could be rocky.
Phillip Lindsay, DEN - Avoid at ADP
Lindsay was a revelation last year, but Royce Freeman is healthier and will assume a larger role under the new coaching staff in a running scheme that better suits his style. The addition of Theo Riddick also eats up any upside he had via an increased passing game role. He remains a chunk play touchdown threat in any given week.
Tarik Cohen, CHI - Avoid at ADP
Cohen had a ceiling game with Chase Daniel that helped his season-end totals, but the addition of two backs who can catch the ball out of the backfield will likely lower his weekly and season-long ceilings and make him more boom/bust flex than RB2 with RB1 upside.
Austin Ekeler, LAC - Priced Correctly
Ekeler was actually just as productive with Melvin Gordon III in the lineup as without him last year, although that was before the emergence of Justin Jackson. He’ll be a solid RB2 if Gordon holds out into the season and a PPR flex if Gordon reports before the season starts.
Kenyan Drake, MIA - Avoid at ADP
Hopes of Drake getting another chance to be a feature back after he dazzled in December 2017 were quickly quashed after the Dolphins new regime gave Kalen Ballage first-team touches to begin camp. A Patriots style committee will limit his upside, but he will have the better role for losing game scripts - something that is likely to come in bunches for Miami this year.
Lead backs by default
This duo is difficult to get excited about, but they are set to be the lead backs to open the season because of either lack of competition or lack of healthy competition
Tevin Coleman, ATL - Priced Correctly
Kyle Shanahan loved Coleman back in Atlanta, and now they are reunited. He’ll share with another back or two, but likely get the bulk of the work to open the season against the weak Bucs and Bengals run defenses.
Lamar Miller, HOU - Priced Correctly
The Texans are almost certain to add a solid #2 before the season, but it won’t be someone that can threaten Miller’s job. Miller had a strong stretch last year before his tendency to wear down during the season reared its ugly head. He fits well in a zero-running back/upside-down approach.
Swing for the Fences - Second Tier
This group of young backs has similarly tantalizing ceilings as Henderson and Sanders, but they need a little more help to be consistent fantasy producers this year.
Rashaad Penny, SEA - Priced Correctly
Penny has been better in this year’s camp than he was last year, but still not better than Chris Carson. He’ll need a Carson injury to be more than a matchup flex.
Damien Harris, NE - Target
Harris has been impressing with his passing down ability and he might be the most well-suited back for short yardage carries on the Patriots roster. His role is uncertain and it might take injuries to make him relevant, but he’s not with a durable group. The Patriots overall backfield production makes him worth a bench spot.
Justice Hill, BAL - Target
Hill has been making some noise with his pass-catching ability in camp and he is the most explosive back in Ravens camp by a large margin. Whatever their plans are for Hill, he could cause the team to revise them when they see his ability to break long plays.
Royce Freeman, DEN - Priced Correctly
Freeman should get more work than he did last year and he’s a better fit for zone running than the scheme the Broncos ran last year, but he’s still going to be a touchdown-dependent flex play without injuries in the backfield
Matt Breida, SF - Target
Breida was actually very, very good last year in Kyle Shanahan’s running game, but he couldn’t stay healthy. This year, he’s likely behind Tevin Coleman to start the season, but Coleman isn’t known as one of the most durable backs in the league. He’s a patience play.
Carlos Hyde, KC - Priced Correctly
Hyde is in line to back up Damien Williams, who has been missing time with a hamstring, but he also needs to win his backup job in training camp and the preseason by some accounts. He has gotten praise from Andy Reid and certainly would be a difference-maker in fantasy leagues if he is the #2 back and Williams goes down.
Jaylen Samuels, PIT - Priced Correctly
Hopefully, Samuels will be used more in the passing game this year and he would be the most valuable back if James Conner goes down. Whether he will have standalone value is to be determined, but it would hurt Conner’s value if it comes to pass.
Justin Jackson, LAC - Target
Jackson could be a co-lead with Austin Ekeler for any games that Melvin Gordon III misses. He looked very good in the comeback win over the Steelers last year and might end up being the goal line back during the Gordon holdout. He’ll have Gordon injury upside when the starter returns.
Most exciting options in least-exciting backfields
Sometimes the most talented back in a backfield is still not worth our time. When the backfields are going to split three ways and dragged down by a poor running game, that back is a hard sell.
Derrius Guice, WAS - Avoid at ADP
This is going to be a three-back backfield in any scenario, running behind a line that is unlikely to have its best offensive lineman (Trent Williams). Guice is a tremendous talent and it will show at times, but not consistently enough to matter for fantasy.
Ronald Jones, TB - Avoid at ADP
Jones has rehabilitated his career arc under Bruce Arians, but he is still going to be mired in a committee and needs to improve a lot to contribute on passing downs.
Limited Ceiling Veterans
These players could save your bacon in a bye/injury/emergency situation, but they would need an injury to an equal or better back in their backfield to be more than that.
Jordan Howard, PHI - Avoid at ADP
Howard was looking like a Week 1 starter and solid value running behind the Eagles line before Miles Sanders grabbed all of the headlines in camp. He’s only going to matter consistently if Sanders gets hurt.
Latavius Murray, NO - Avoid at ADP
Murray might be first in line for goal line carries in a great offense and he would be the back to rack up carries in comfortable Saints wins. He’s a matchup flex/RB2.
Mike Davis, CHI - Target
Davis will have a consistent role in the offense and he’ll play on all three downs, but the work will be split up between three backs and unpredictable from week-to-week.
LeSean McCoy, BUF - Avoid at ADP
McCoy is the presumptive starter in Buffalo, but the line is a big issue, he’ll share with Frank Gore, and running back rushing scores were not easy to come by after Josh Allen took over. McCoy’s best path to value is a trade, or maybe even being released.
Peyton Barber, TB - Avoid at ADP
Barber is the starter by default - that is if Ronald Jones doesn’t seize the job - but we already saw last year that his weekly ceiling is low even when Jones is a non-factor and a third back should enter the mix this year.
Passing Down Specialists - first tier
This group can get you a backdoor cover in PPR leagues via an outsized role in the passing game due to a game script/plan that emphasizes no huddle, but all except Bernard are cemented in roles that won’t grow much, if at all even if the starter goes down.
Duke Johnson Jr, HOU - Target
Johnson has been explosive and an excellent passing down back, and now he will get the opportunity he deserves in Houston. He has a chance to level off as an everyweek PPR flex with RB2 upside.
Nyheim Hines, IND - Priced Correctly
Hines should be even better after his big contributions as a rookie, but there are only so many balls to go around in Indy and there are a lot more quality healthy players to catch them this year.
Giovani Bernard, CIN - Target
Bernard has the advantage of being a proven lead back if Joe Mixon misses time (and he has each of the last two years), and perhaps this new regime could give him a few more touches a week than the previous one.
Dion Lewis, TEN - Priced Correctly
Lewis will be relegated to role player status with a new offensive coordinator that is more likely to ride Derrick Henry.
Chris Thompson, WAS - Priced Correctly
Thompson has been productive on a per touch basis but rarely stays healthy for long. A mediocre offense could emphasize his short game passing skills, but he’s still just bench depth.
Darren Sproles, PHI - Priced Correctly
Sproles is back and a good bet to make the team. His role will be limited, but it could include red zone looks and touches.
Depth is nice, but a better use of bench spots is holding players who have a path to being more than mere depth.
Kalen Ballage, MIA - Avoid at ADP
Ballage is a good receiver and the team might even let him start. He would be the better back in Dolphins wins, which will be rare, but the team could also give him more looks as the season goes on if they have clarity that they will not re-sign Drake.
Darwin Thompson, KC - Target
Kareem Hunt, CLE - Check League Settings
Hunt is difficult to roster through eight games of suspension because we are still looking at a complementary role in the best-case scenario. He is obviously talented and will be coveted once he returns. The decision to draft him comes down to whether you’re in a deep or short bench league.
Malcolm Brown, LAR - Target
Brown would likely get a lot of early-down work if Todd Gurley’s knee acts up during the season, enough to be a solid flex if not more.
Devin Singletary, BUF - Priced Correctly
Singletary has LeSean McCoy and Frank Gore in front of him right now, but that can change as the season goes on. The line and quality of situation is a big drag on his ceiling, but the Bills have an incentive to get a longer look at him before this season is over unless they are pushing for the playoffs.
Tony Pollard, DAL
If Ezekiel Elliott misses regular-season games holding out, one or two Cowboys backs could have value in deep leagues. Pollard is the best talent and might have a fantasy relevant role when Elliott returns. He's the target late in drafts.
Injury Upside - First Tier
This group must have an injury to a starter to matter, but the makings are there for fantasy relevance if they do get a shot. The Packers situation isn’t clarified yet as Jamaal Williams struggles with a hamstring injury, and McKinnon might need two injuries to have value, in addition to an outside shot he doesn’t make the team. Anderson and Edmonds are the clearest handcuffs, and Kerryon Johnson did get hurt last year. Aaron Jones injury history makes the Packers situation even more important to monitor, and Wilkins is universally underrated behind an injury-prone (so far) Colts starter. Burkhead is tough to figure out with some role in the offense in any scenario, but the necessity of at least an injury to James White and probably another back to get to clear fantasy relevance.
Injury Upside - Second Tier
This group also has some injury upside, but the ceiling is more modest with the strong likelihood of sharing with a passing-down back and, in Edwards/Dixon’s case, another early-down back.
Waiver Wire Watch List
This group has little interest to us in typical leagues, but things change fast around here as Joe Bryant likes to say. Mostert is the one that stands out with the injury histories around him and the way he flashed when he got a chance last year. Snell and winners of the Minnesota, Atlanta, and Jacksonville back-up jobs will be backing up running backs who missed time with injuries last year. If there is clarity in any of those backup situations before the season starts, the winner of the battle moves up to injury upside first tier. Houston should sign another back who will end up in the injury upside tiers, but for now, the UDFAs are vying for that spot. Williams is interesting in Kansas City and he could get a lot more attention if he outplays his counterparts in the preseason. Someone will be the back to target in the very sad event that Saquon Barkley or Christian McCaffrey miss time. File Johnson’s name away as a long shot to be an Antone Smith type that generates some deep league value on very limited touches via chunk plays.
Raheem Mostert, SF
Benny Snell, PIT
Alexander Mattison/Mike Boone, MIN
Brian Hill/Ito Smith/Qadree Ollison, ATL
Alfred Blue/Ryquell Armstead, JAX
Damarea Crockett/Karan Higdon/Buddy Howell, HOU
Darrel Williams, KC
Wayne Gallman/Rod Smith/Paul Perkins, NYG
Frank Gore, BUF
Ty Johnson, DET
Cameron Artis-Payne/Jordan Scarlett/Elijah Holyfield, CAR
Passing Down Specialist - Second Tier
This group will all be limited to passing down roles, but as Richard showed us last year, with the right combination of injuries and game scripts, they can have some consistent PPR value.
Dontrell Hilliard, CLE
Waiver Wire Watch List - Second Tier
This group’s best path to value is probably being released and picked up by a running back needy team, but either their draft profile or in Yeldon’s case, NFL experience, show that there might be something there.