Running backs, part 1

There is simply too much to cover on the subject of fantasy running backs, so I’m going to break this important segment into two parts. This week, we’ll cover the players who can be in your starting lineup every week. Next week, we’ll cover the rest of the crop. You will need to roster four or five of these bad boys, but they are going to be in high demand.

If you don’t employ a Zero-RB strategy, you have to get it right on your first running back selection. If you’re RB1 is a bust, it’s going to be almost impossible to win your league championship. I’m not talking about losing him to an injury, which is fate. Case in point, David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell were being drafted in the middle of the first round last year. They were both busts and are available in the fourth or fifth round.

My first piece of advice is to pray for the No. 1 overall pick. Drafting first, no one in their right mind would not select Christian McCaffrey. To understand how good McCaffrey was last year, consider that if McCaffrey had simply stopped playing football in Week 12, he would have still finished as the No. 1 running back. There are other three-down running backs, but there is no one in the same league with him. He’s truly in a class of his own.

McCaffrey was the NFL’s best fantasy player in PPR leagues and had the second-best fantasy season in NFL history. McCaffrey accumulated 471.2 fantasy points, 1,387 rushing yards, 1,005 receiving yards, and 19 total touchdowns. He also became the third player in NFL history to record 1,000+ receiving and 1,000+ rushing yards in the same year. He led all players in terms of yards from scrimmage, with nearly 2,400 total yards.

There’s not much debate about who should be the No. 2 pick in the draft behind McCaffrey. It’s another workhorse running back who is also used in both the passing and running game. Two years ago, Saquon Barkley was the No. 1 back RB1 PPR formats ahead of McCaffrey. Barkley was basically the entire Giants’ backfield that year. Even more impressive was that he did that with an offensive line that was close to the worst in the NFL.

Barkley was the No. 1 pick in many drafts last year, but then he sustained a high-ankle sprain in the third game. Barkley missed the next three games and performed poorly in weeks 7-14. He carried the ball 117 times for 373 yards, resulting in a mere 3.19 yards-per-carry. He only caught 30 passes on 42 targets for 218 yards. An improved Giants team is continuing to build their offense around him, and Daniel Jones should help Barkley be even more effective.

Ezekiel Elliott is likely to be drafted third in most drafts, and his track record justifies this. He’s never been the top fantasy back in the league, but in the last five years, he’s finished in the top six three times. In spite of these facts, the Cowboys are clearly putting more emphasis on the passing game. This will limit Elliott’s targets in the passing game, but it will also make it less likely that opposing defenses will be able to stack the box.

One of the things that makes Elliott attractive at No. 3 is his consistency. He’s posted RB2 or better numbers in 92.9 percent of his career games, which is better than any running back in recent history. Le’Veon Bell is second with 87.0 percent. Elliott has been healthy throughout his career, but there are a lot of miles on his 25-year-old body heading into his fifth season. If you select him, you need to add his handcuff, Tony Pollard, late in the draft.

The next running backs off the board in your draft will likely be Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara and Derrick Henry – but not necessarily in that order. In a PPR format, you may want Kamara ahead of Henry. In non-PPR, Henry, who led the league in yards gained last year, is the better option. However, I like Cook better than either one of them and might even take him over Elliott with the No. 3 pick. Cook runs fearlessly and is more difficult to bring down.

Another running back that may be taken in the first round of your draft is Joe Mixon. I’ve warned you repeatedly not to do this. Let me just say this about Mixon – I may be wrong, but I’m not in doubt. The pundits point to the idea of Mixon as a three-down back, but he seldom plays more than 60 percent of the snaps. He’s still playing for a terrible team, and you can even add some holdout risk. Joe Burrow under center won’t help him.

Moving on from Mixon, and you’ll still find some very good backs. Josh Jacobs, Nick Chubb, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Aaron Jones are all likely to come off the board in the second round. I favor Chubb and Jones, but both are limited by sharing back duties. Jacobs is limited by his low usage in the passing games. The rookie, Edward-Helaire gets a lot of hype because of his role in the Chiefs backfield. But he hasn’t played a down in the NFL.

I’m going to fade Miles Sanders and Austin Ekeler. Both will likely be drafted in the second round and both are overrated. The Eagles have had a committee approach since Doug Pederson took over. Sanders benefitted in the second half of 2019 after the injury to Jordan Howard and so many receivers but I don’t expect his volume to be as high this year. Although Melvin Gordon is gone, Ekeler is a still going to be part of a committee in Los Angeles.

If Kenyan Drake falls to me late in the second round, it would be hard for me to pass him up. Drake found new life after he joined the Cardinals in week 9. He averaged 15.4 carries for 80.4 rushing yards per contest in eight games. He was the No. 4 running back through the remainder of the fantasy season. The Cardinals trusted him enough to move on from David Johnson and not draft a running back until the seventh round, so he has a solid floor.

After the first two rounds, there are still some excellent backs left to draft. One likely to be taken in the third round is Todd Gurley. The No. 1 fantasy back in 2017, his skills seemed to be diminishing as injuries piled up. If Gurley still has some gas left in the tank at 26, he could have a revival in Atlanta. The Rams offensive struggled in 2019, which hurt Gurley’s production. This year, he’ll be running behind one of the better offensive lines in football.

Another interesting player is Leonard Fournette, who’s volume made him a great play last year. The only running backs who offered RB2 or better numbers more often than Fournette in 2019 were McCaffrey, Elliott, Cook, and Ekeler. The reason why he’s going as late as the third or fourth round this year is because of the injury risk and Jon Gruden’s tendency to favor the committee over the bell-cow approach. But that risk is baked in to his ADP.

If you take the Zero-RB approach, you can still get two good backs in the first five rounds. In addition to Gurley and Fournette, you’ll likely find Bell, Johnson, Chris Carson and Mark Ingram still on the board. All four are worth adding. Carson will likely be gone in the fourth, but Bell, Johnson and Ingram could all be available in the fifth round. Plan on rostering two backs in rounds three, four and five unless you took two early.

Running backs that I am fading in these three rounds are Melvin Gordon, Jonathan Taylor, James Connor and Devin Singletary for a variety of reasons. I fear the committee in Denver and Indianapolis and Buffalo will limit the upside of Gordon, Taylor and Singletary. The injury risk is simply too much for me to tolerate with Conner. I don’t think we’ll be seeing the player that replaced Bell and played so well in the first half of 2018.

Next week, I’m going to cover the rest of the running backs that you might consider adding later in your draft. Those not mentioned this week, or next, are not worth considering on draft night. Another caveat to mention here is that it’s unlikely that you will find an impact running back later than the fifth round of the draft unless there are some key injuries to the above-mentioned backs. Of course, that’s why you handcuff your big dogs.

Follow Thomas L. Seltzer, AKA Doubting Thomas, on Twitter @ThomasLSeltzer1.

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