Welcome to Razzball’s Fantasy Football Preview series, where yours truly will guide you, caress you, perhaps even coddle you through your draft preparations and processes. Mmm, processes. And while none of this may be legal and I’ll end up with multiple restraining orders, rest assured that we’ll all be the better for it. Maybe. We’ll go in depth (that’s what she said) at every position… well, the positions that actually count (I’m looking at you Kickers and DSTs…), going over some analysis, the tiers, and any illuminating observations I might have. Because light bulbs are just the coolest thing. Said everyone from the 1800s. Before you get settled down, please refer to Razzball’s 2017 Fantasy Football Draft Rankings, and specifically for this post, refer to our Running Back Rankings…
There’s been a lot of clamoring this preseason, at least more than most (the CLAMOR: PART 2), of the dreaded Zero-RB strategy, or what the fancier Grey Poupon crowd is calling: “Contingency-Based Drafting”. There’s so much corporate synergistic lingo there, I just came fantasizing about applied nominal interest and a lowered capital gains tax. Look, I’m not a huge fan of having a strategy that heavily affects such an important position, but to be fair, it’d be hard to ignore the some of the merits… There’s injury risk at the position, to be sure, and the idea of drafting as a contrarian (the Kansas City Shuffle, as I’d refer to it) does have some appeal. With the emergence of half-PPR and PPR leagues into the ether the last five or so years, I’ll admit, there’s a lot to like with this strategy. But I’ll never fully commit to it, and here’s why: supply and demand. Because let’s get thirsty with economics. I just don’t like the depth of running backs compared to wide receivers and the fact that in-season, WRs will always be easier to find on the wire than RBs, especially with the league-wide attrition at the position. In addition, with early-round RBs steadily decreasing in popularity over the years, a counter-Kansas City Shuffle is in play. Poor Kansas City. In the end, I’m not advocating strongly either way, as our recent podcast going over the first two rounds of a generic draft attests, but the optimal draft strategy for this position, and more generally for the entire draft should be: Flexibility, know how to read trends, and take the best player for your team regardless of position whenever possible…
Tier 1: David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell.
There’s honestly not really much to be said here. I view both of these backs to the 1A and 1B of your respective drafts in any and all formats, and will be the first two off the board sans some tom foolery (what did Tom ever do?). Even in dynasty leagues. The very slight edge goes to David Johnson because Le’Veon Bell‘s offseason groin surgery (we’ve all been there… maybe) and current contract dispute that could cost him preseason reps. I’m not particularly concerned about these two things (though we should note that Bell has had some games missed in the regular season and NFL playoffs each of the last three years), and since Johnson has had no issues whatsoever, therein lies the reasoning of ranking Johnson number one for running backs and number one overall.
Tier 2: LeSean McCoy, Melvin Gordon, Jay Ajayi, Devonta Freeman, Jordan Howard.
While I’m not as thrilled with this Tier 2 group as I’ve been in past years, there’s still plenty here to be happy about for those of you drafting in the early first round.
There’s a lot of discussion on how good the Bills will be, and more specifically in this case, how good their offense will be, but no matter what, LeSean McCoy will be good. Unless his body parts start exploding, which is entirely possible since I’ve seen it in the movies. For PPR Formats, it should be noted that Buffalo’s new OC (Rick Dennison) has a history of targeting running backs and with Sammy Watkins relegated to the best SEC team in the NFL, I wouldn’t be surprised if McCoy led the Bills in receptions.
I’m sure my ranking of Melvin Gordon will bring back PTSD for those of you who’ve read Razzball for several years and remember the ranking of Ryan Mathews in my top-15 overall. While that was due to my reckless youth and Chargers homerism, we’ve all come so far over the years (Mathews isn’t even ranked this year, baby steps, woooo!) and the Chargers have a new city (or old) city… which actually doesn’t bother me as much as the 12 other fellow Chargers fans in the world. While none of those things has to do with Melvin Gordon the player, I’d like to at least try and say that it has nothing to do with my ranking of him either. Maybe. The simple answer is, I just feel safer with Gordon than Jay Ajayi, Devonta Freeman, and Jordan Howard, but all four are interchangeable to an extent. I get that 2015 still sticks out like a sore thumb, but I like the Chargers new HC (Anthony Lynn) moving to a zone-running scheme for the sole purpose of elevating Gordon’s numbers. Even with a dynamic offense, the team still understands the key to unlocking Philip Rivers passing game is to lead with Gordon, and I think this year’s numbers will reflect that.
Tier 3: DeMarco Murray, Leonard Fournette, Todd Gurley, Marshawn Lynch, Isaiah Crowell.
Call me crazy, call me sentimental, call me sexy (I know, I know, that’s usually nomenclature reserved for your mother), but I’m expecting Todd Gurley to reemerge. And I’m not sure why. It doesn’t seem that long ago, just two seasons, that Gurely established himself as the young power running back in the NFL. 1,106 yards, 4.8 YPC and 10 touchdowns led a Rams rushing offense into the top-10 in the league, something they hadn’t done since Steven Jackson was in the backfield in 2006. And then 2016 came, and with it 885 yards and just 3.2 YPC. But it wasn’t all on him, no, the receivers didn’t make the plays, I probably could have started at quarterback, and the offensive line was truely offensive. (See what I did there?) Basically, there was nothing you could say about the Rams offense that hadn’t already been said about Donald Trump’s presidency thus far. Look for offensive-minded head coach Sean McVay to make a bit difference here… And while not all of the Rams’ issues have been addressed, along with McVay, their new OC (Matt LaFleur) was part of a Falcons staff that finished with the fifth-best rushing stats in the league last year.
I’m probably higher than most on Marshawn Lynch, but, I mean, it’s Beef Moe. The last game we saw him play was in 2015, and in his case, the time off probably was a good thing. While being on the wrong side of 30 is never a good thing in the NFL, DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard being involved should keep Lynch fresh throughout the season, not to mention that the Raiders front-seven is better than anything the Seahawks have put out in recent memory. Basically: he’ll either be washed up and terrible, or amazing because he’ll be running with an actual offensive line for once. I don’t mind taking a chance on him in the third tier.
I know there’s a lot of Isaiah Crowell love out there, and I’m okay with that, love is love. But other than being a hopeless romantic, it should be noted that Crowell had fewer than 30 yards rushing in seven games in 2016. Take away just three (three!) rushes, and his YPC would have dropped by a full yard.
Tier 4: Joe Mixon, Dalvin Cook, Lamar Miller, Christian McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott, Carlos Hyde, Mark Ingram.
This is probably my least favorite tier of the group. I don’t see a lot of value here… maybe with Mark Ingram, maybe with Carlos Hyde… maybe-maybe, call me? Maybe. Yeah, we’ll just call it the “Maybe Tier” and be done with it. Maybe these backs are interesting, and Ezekiel Elliott carries that statement almost all by himself with his current predicament, and while I’m not opposed to seeing him drafted as a lottery ticket, but the second round (where I’ve seen him picked up the most) seems pretty high. I’m fine with picking him up in the third, but I doubt he’ll fall that far, thus I’m staying away, not by choice mind you.
Joe Mixon, Dalvin Cook, and Christian McCaffrey are intriguing in their own right, but if I’m staying away from the Cincinnati backfield because all three backs (Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill, and Mixon) will play, with Hill vulturing his fair share of red zone opportunities, I’m probably passing on the likes of Cook and McCaffrey too.
Tier 5: C.J. Anderson, Ty Montgomery, Spencer Ware, Ameer Abdullah, Mike Gillislee, Tevin Coleman, Terrance West, LeGarrette Blount.
This tier is pretty much what you’d call the “Redundancy Tier” or the “OH SH!T I FORGOT TO DRAFT A RB Tier”, and whichever situation you find yourself in, these backs will probably make you feel nausea if they’re your starters, but quite hungry if they’re part of your bench. I mean, I’m always hungry, but I just assume it’s the opposite of being nauseous, so there. SCIENCE!
Ty Montgomery and Ameer Abdullah (Detroit’s beat reporter projected 1000 yards!), and to a slightly lesser extent, Tevin Coleman and Terrance West are all backs that I’d love to have in some manner or form in PPR formats. C.J. Anderson and LeGarrette Blount seem like the best bench filler you could have at this point in the draft, and while you could get away with them as your RB2, both would probably need some handcuffs (oooh baby), Anderson for health concerns and Blount for some good ole’ ageism. Definitely look to Devontae Booker and Wendell Smallwood (see below) if this is the direction you go…
Tier 6: Bilal Powell, Danny Woodhead, Robert Kelley, Frank Gore, Doug Martin, Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte, Kareem Hunt, Derrick Henry, Eddie Lacy.
Continuing the bench fodder theme, I do like Bilal Powell a lot out of this group. Sans the minor neck injury (keep an eye on it), Matt Forte, Lorenzo Mauldin, and Daniel Williams aren’t exactly healthy either. Last season, he actually finished just three spots behind Forte in standard scoring and tied his career high in receiving yards and touchdowns. He may not be considered the primary starter on the depth chart, but should be for fantasy purposes.
Danny Woodhead always seems to be underrated… right until he goes on the IR, so just keep that in mind when drafting.
Eddie Lacy, Frank Gore, and Adrian Peterson all represent former upper-tier running backs who could do something, but are more likely to eat an entire buffet (Lacy), join AARP (Gore), or not win the father-of-the-year contest (Peterson). But this late, I don’t mind grabbing any of these guys just to see what happens…
Tier 7 and Tier 8+:
With the Eagles backfield consisting of two running backs (LeGarrette Blount and Darren Sproles) with the combined age of my great-great grandmother (who’s been dead for over 50 years), Wendell Smallwood might be a sleeper to keep an eye on late in your drafts. Though he only totaled 77 carries last season, he provided 4.1 YPC and has already secured a spot on the 53-man roster with Corey Clement headed to the practice squad. Donnel Pumphrey could prove to be an issue and the entire committee is murky at best, but Smallwood is still, at the very least, an intriguing handcuff for Blount owners, and at worst, probably the best inspiration for a fantasy team name since Isaiah Pead roamed the NFL.