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The good news about running back this year is that it’s deep, and you’ll probably like what’s available to you at any point in the first three rounds better than you have in previous years. The bad news is that the choices are still tough at the moment of truth, and it will serve you to have clarity on your rankings instead of figuring out your running back targets and willingness to pass on running back early and then have to rely on later running back picks while you are on the clock.
The Gold Standard
If you draw the first or second pick in a 1QB, PPR league, your choice is basically made for you.
Even in a lost season, McCaffrey was still far and away the #1 PPR running back on a points-per-game basis. He’ll rightfully be the #1 pick in 90+% of leagues.
Cook is at the intersection of a perfect alignment between talent, skill, system, and role. We don’t even think of him as injury-prone anymore.
Established Foundational RB1s
8/26 UPDATE: Elliott is a more distant third now with the Prescott shoulder uncertainty
I won’t argue strongly against any order of these three, and I’m not sure it’s clear that they are better picks than Travis Kelce, Davante Adams, or Tyreek Hill. Still, I’m willing to take one of them over the elite WR/TE because of position scarcity and the increasing unattractiveness of running backs compared to their peers at other positions as you go through your draft.
Henry is #3 overall because I’m excited to see what he does in an offense with two legit #1 wide receivers. His workload might come down slightly, but with even better efficiency against stressed defenses. There’s some risk that comes with a heavy workload the last two years and the change from Arthur Smith to Todd Downing as the play-caller.
Kamara could flirt with 100 catches now that Michael Thomas will be sidelined for some part of the season. Still, there is uncertainty about the quarterback and overall quality of the offense with no proven producers projected to play Week 1 at wide receiver or tight end.
Elliott has the potential to lead all running backs in total touchdowns, and he looked like a player with a renewed commitment to conditioning this offseason. But he might be slightly past his peak as a player, and Tony Pollard is champing at the bit for more work.
Established RB1s with Ceiling Caps
Aaron Jones, GB **Target at ADP**
If you get one (or two) of these backs, you should feel good about how you used your picks. Both are just as proven as the backs going ahead of them, but their weekly and season-long ceilings aren’t quite as high by design.
Jones will get Aaron Rodgers back and he's a good player at his peak. I was worried about A.J. Dillon coming on, but realized he's no more a threat to Jones value than Kareem Hunt is to Nick Chubb's. Jones and the Packers offense are both good enough to merit a first-round pick.
Chubb was in rarefied air last year in efficiency, and his touchdown rate was outstanding. His passing game involvement and overall workload size are lower because of Kareem Hunt, but let’s remember that Chubb instantly becomes a top-five overall fantasy running back if Hunt goes down.
Ekeler should still get the biggest target share at running back this side of McCaffrey and Kamara, but he is rarely in at the goal line. That could change a bit with a new head coach and play-caller, but even if it doesn’t, Ekeler is a rock-solid PPR RB1.
Fantasy RB1s If...
Jonathan Taylor, IND
Joe Mixon, CIN **Target at ADP**
Antonio Gibson, WAS **Target at ADP**
8/26 UPDATE: Robinson is in this tier now after Etienne went down. Taylor has moved back up to the top with Wentz on track to start Week 1.
All of the members of this tier have RB1 potential as long as a few things go their way. They aren’t quite as proven as the backs going ahead of them, but all of this group can equal the scoring of at least a few backs taken ahead of them. They are all better second-round picks than first-round picks, but doubling up on your two favorites at or near the 1-2 turn is a fine strategy considering the depth at wide receiver this year.
Mixon will get the largest opportunity of his career in the best offense of his career. There’s some reasonable durability skepticism about him, but luckily the backup Samaje Perine is very cheap. He has been looking in camp, especially in the passing game.
Gibson only really went off against the Cowboys defense last year, but he played with a toe injury later in the season. This spring, the news about him matched what we wanted to hear about a second-year running back with little experience at the position when he entered the pros. He should be more involved in the passing game this year, too.
Taylor is trending down after Carson Wentz and Quenton Nelson both had to have foot surgery. He could get off to a slow start. Taylor also racked up points on poor defenses at the end of the year, so the degree of his breakout might be a bit overstated.
Barkley will be brought back slowly, and you are still counting on the playcalling of Jason Garrett and an offensive line that only got weaker in the offseason. He’s the kind of player that you feel better letting someone else take the chance on him in the first round.
Harris will get first-round opportunity and is a first-round talent, but the Steelers offensive line is second-rate. Receptions and touchdowns should make up for an inefficient running game, but this won’t be a ceiling year for Harris.
Robinson will get to have a lead back role again after Travis Etienne went down with a foot injury and the Jaguars offense can't get worse.
Carson is a clear lead back in what should be a quality offense. He will get as much work as he can handle and only needs to stay healthy to deliver above the discounted investment it takes to secure his services for your fantasy team.
Second Year Breakout Backs?
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