Tier 1: Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Ezekiel Elliott
Tier 2: David Johnson, James Conner, Le’Veon Bell, Nick Chubb, Joe Mixon
Tier 3: Dalvin Cook, Aaron Jones, Todd Gurley, Devonta Freeman, Josh Jacobs, Chris Carson, Leonard Fournette, Kerryon Johnson, Marlon Mack, Melvin Gordon
Tier 4: Damien Williams, Sony Michel, Mark Ingram, David Montgomery, Miles Sanders, Derrick Henry, Phillip Lindsay, Duke Johnson, James White
Tier 5: Tevin Coleman, Derrius Guice, Austin Ekeler, Tarik Cohen, Rashaad Penny, Latavius Murray, Darrell Henderson, Jordan Howard, Kenyan Drake, Kalen Ballage, Royce Freeman, Devin Singletary
Tier 6: Nyheim Hines, LeSean McCoy, Jaylen Samuels, Damien Harris, Dion Lewis, Matt Breida, Carlos Hyde, Jamaal Williams, Justice Hill, Ronald Jones, Tony Pollard, Giovani Bernard, Kareem Hunt
Tier 7: Mike Davis, Darwin Thompson, Peyton Barber, Carlos Hyde, Ito Smith, Dare Ogunbowale, Gus Edwards, Justin Jackson, Frank Gore, CJ Anderson, Chris Thompson, Rex Burkhead
Analysis & Draft Strategy:
Following the pattern of the past several years, elite running backs remain the most valuable commodity in fantasy football. Especially with the number of true bell cows near an all-time low, you will need to act with your very top picks in order to secure your RBs. I suggest going RB with your first round pick unless you’re picking towards the end of the first round, in which case I would go with the very top WRs (DeAndre Hopkins, Davante Adams, etc.) over the tier 3 RB options. But take at least one RB with your top two picks.
In an ideal scenario you will end up with at least one RB from tiers 1-2, plus your second RB from tier 3. But absolutely don’t force this if the right guys aren’t available. Depending on the way the draft progresses, it may make sense for you to draft WRs with two of your top three picks, and then shore up your RB spot among two of your fourth through sixth rounds picks. Just follow your draft board and don’t overdraft guys who don’t meet the value of the pick.
We’ve addressed the top heavy part of the RB draft strategy, but now for the rest of the game plan. After you’ve landed your top 3 or so RBs, spend the rest of your RB picks on upside. That means focus on upside guys like Rashaad Penny, Derrius Guice and Kalen Ballage and avoid low ceiling guys like LeSean McCoy, Giovani Bernard or Carlos Hyde. Play the lottery with the younger upside guys and see if any of them pop during the season, while also focusing on players who step into the team’s lead RB role upon injury to the starter.
Finally, quick hits on four RBs whom I expect will outperform their ADP, and are therefore reflected higher in my rankings:
Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers: As mentioned above, opportunity reigns supreme when it comes to RBs. Virtually everyone but Mike McCarthy saw that Aaron Jones, and not Jamaal Williams, was the Packers’ best RB in 2018. Over 133 carries, Jones averaged 5.5 yards per carry, while Williams averaged only 3.8 yards per tote over 121 carries. Jones simply possesses an explosiveness that Williams lacks, and has better ability to break off double digit yardage runs. Beware of some level of timeshare, as new coach Matt LaFleur has hinted at shared carries. But Jones should get the bulk of the work, and he’ll post strong RB2 numbers with upside for more.
Damien Williams, Kansas City Chiefs: Damien Williams sits on numerous sleeper boards, but that doesn’t mean he should be ignored in this space. Williams offered a glimpse of what’s to come when he took over as the Chiefs primary back last season following Kareem Hunt’s suspension. In the six games (including playoffs) with Williams starting in place of Hunt, Williams notched 376 yards and 6 TDs from 77 carries, along with 226 yards and 4 TDs from 28 receptions. While it’s unrealistic for Williams – or any RB – to maintain that pace, the key is that Williams will be the lead RB in a monster Chiefs offense. Williams has the necessary skills to shine, but more importantly, he has the perfect opportunity. And don’t be scared off by the Chiefs’ addition of Carlos Hyde – he’s not that good. I have no issue with drafting Williams as high as the top of the second round in 10-12 team leagues, or even at the back end of round 1 in deeper leagues. [NOTE: THANKS TO ANDY REID'S YEARNING FOR THE REMNANTS OF LESEAN MCCOY, DAMIEN WILLIAMS IS NO LONGER A SPECIAL BUY. THANKS BIG RED!]
Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles: Running back was a key need for the Eagles heading into the 2019 season, and the team addressed the issue via trade by adding Jordan Howard, and also through the draft with Penn State RB Miles Sanders. While the former is a solid addition, it’s the latter that should have you excited. Sanders took over Saquon Barkley’s role for the Nittany Lions last year and racked up 1,274 yards and 9 TDs, while averaging just under 6 yards a carry. Don’t be intimidated by the Eagles’ RB depth. While Howard is a proven back, he averaged a paltry 3.7 yards per carry last season. He’s solid but not spectacular. Other RBs Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood and Josh Adams are backups – nothing more. Sanders is the guy to own out of the Eagles’ backfield, and he’s got RB2 potential. Currently being drafted at the back of the 7th / top of the 8th round, Sanders has steal written all over him. He’s someone to target in rounds 5-6.
Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams: Mystery surrounded Todd Gurley’s usage and health during the final stretch of the 2018 season. We now have relatively undisputed information that Gurley is suffering from arthritis – which explains much from last year. Enter dynamic rookie RB Darrell Henderson, who led the nation last season at Memphis with 9.4 YPC. Once you get past your first four to five picks in the draft, you need to target upside. We know that the Rams drafted Henderson to take on part of Gurley’s workload. Well, what happens if Gurley needs to miss a few games – which is a distinct probability? In that case, Henderson becomes an RB1 in the juggernaut Rams offense. Give me the upside with Henderson over blah options like Lamar Miller and Jordan Howard.
And a bonus fifth RB to keep an eye on for deeper leagues:
Damien Harris, New England Patriots: We have more information to go off with Henderson, so he’s quite naturally in a higher tier. Now with Patriots rookie Damien Harris, the case is less simple. Harris served as the lesser known star RB at Alabama – behind Raiders’ selection Josh Jacobs. But watch Harris and you’ll see that the dude can play. Guessing to which RBs Bill Belichick will give carries is akin to guessing how Roger Goodell will mete out punishment to a given player under investigation. Yep, your guess is as good as mine. But looking at the Patriots’ backfield, you have an injury prone Sony Michel and a few guys who are more pass catchers than runners. Be mindful that Damien Harris is a lottery ticket , but one who can potentially pay off big dividends if you take him in the back part of your draft – think rounds 10 and later.
And two RBs whom I consider to be overdrafted with respect to their ADP, and are therefore reflected lower in my rankings:
Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers: Gordon has already begun dropping on draft boards, but I’m asking you to avoid drafting him altogether – at the very least until he has made a firm commitment to return to the Chargers. As of the time of this writing, it appears that Gordon’s holdout may lead into the season. The problem for Gordon is that he’s a good RB, but not an elite one. Gordon lacks top end speed to break off long runs, and has averaged under 4.0 yards per carry in each of his four years except for 2018. Note that the Chargers offense didn’t miss much with Ekeler replacing Gordon. With Ekeler and also capable third string RB Justin Jackson in-house, there’s a reasonable likelihood that Gordon will cede a meaningful number carries to his teammates even upon his eventual return. Stay away from Gordon and let another member of your league deal with that mess.
Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars: Fournette entered the NFL with massive hype after having a very successful collegiate career at LSU. After three seasons in the league, the LSU product hasn’t produced quite as hoped, with his 2018 season being a dud. Fournette averaged a paltry 3.X yards per carry last season, and spent too much time lumbering into his o-linemen instead of hitting the holes. Will we see an improved Fournette this year? Relative to 2018, sure – but don’t count on a return to prominence. His name outpaces his production, and you should view him as a low end RB2 and not any higher.
- Neema Hodjat is RealGM's Fantasy Football expect. Follow him on Twitter at @NeemaHodjat where he will also answer any question you have to help you win your league.