Jeremy Hill looked so good as a rookie in 2014. He ran with speed, power and vision while filling in for a nicked up Giovanni Bernard. Fast forward to 2015 and something was off. The Bengals former offensive coordinator, Hue Jackson split the reps in the backfield pretty evenly with Hill and Bernard, with Hill losing a lot of touches in the second half of games.
There seemed to be a sense of entitlement with Hill where he thought he was the starter and was going to get the lion’s share of the backfield touches no matter how he played, but Bernard was having none of it. Look for a motivated Hill to reclaim the majority of backfield touches in 2016 with the added bonus of goal line work. Even in an admittedly down season Hill scored 11 touchdowns. 15 isn’t out of the question for 2016 if he comes in focused and motivated.
19. Dion Lewis- New England Patriots
Dion Lewis burst onto the scene in 2015. Possibly due to LeGarrette Blount’s suspension, possibly because he’s a mismatch nightmare, whatever the reason Lewis showed off his skills in the Patriot’s scheme. He is coming off a torn ACL, but if he’s completely healthy coming into the season he has legitimate 90-catch upside. You can’t ask for much more in a RB2 in points-per-reception (PPR) leagues.
18. DeMarco Murray- Tennessee Titans
DeMarco Murray had a really bad 2015 compared to what he did in 2014. There was talk of him not fitting Chip Kelly’s offense and subpar offensive line play but what the media didn’t harp on, and something I believed before the season started could be the reason his play suffered, was fatigue. Murray got a TON of touches in 2014 as Dallas ran him into the ground in his contract year just to let him walk in free agency.
In 2014, Murray had 449 touches an absolutely insane number for a running back in today’s NFL. Last season Murray only had 237 touches. I think with fresh legs and an emphasis on the running game by head coach Mike Mularkey, DeMarco will regain his form from his Dallas days. Probably not that magical 2014 season, but something along the lines of 1,100 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns with 50 catch potential.
17. Carlos Hyde- San Francisco 49ers
I was high on Hyde coming into 2015 and he didn’t disappoint in Week 1 with 175 yards on the ground, a couple touchdowns and a spin move that would make a ballerina blush. After that the road was rocky as inconsistent quarterback play and a struggling offensive line curtailed Hyde’s consistency. Hyde flashed brilliance at times in 2015 but eventually succumbed to a Jones fracture he suffered in the middle of the season.
Chip Kelly’s offensive scheme has produced fantasy studs during his time in the league. Hyde is just as good as Ryan Matthews and DeMarco Murray, who combined to have a solid stat line last year in Philadelphia while sharing snaps. The number two running back on San Francisco’s depth chart? Shaun Draughn. Expect Hyde to be fed the rock on an otherwise anemic offense.
16. Thomas Rawls- Seattle Seahawks
Rawls exploded onto the scene late in 2015 after Marshawn Lynch went down with an injury. That was around the time we as football fans started bawling because we knew it was the beginning of the end of Beast Mode’s time with the Seahawks. Rawls ended up suffering a devastating ankle fracture in Week 14 against the Baltimore Ravens but still led the Seahawks in rushing, only starting 6 games (appeared in 13 but was primarily used to give Lynch a breather). Rawls has a solid blend of power and vision and, although he isn’t used much on passing downs, he will get enough work to be a RB2 with upside.
15. Matt Forte- New York Jets
Matt Forte is in this second tier of running backs, but based on his skills as a running back he should be a lot higher. I always say “draft skills, not roles” but with Forte past his prime and turning 31 in December, I have some reservations about whether or not he will continue to be an elite NFL running back.
Forte didn’t look like the same player after an MCL sprain sidelined him for a few weeks in the middle of 2015. The Jets also brought in Khiry Robinson to presumably handle goal line and short yardage situations. This ranking is hoping he looks more like he did in the first half of 2015 rather than the latter half, and that he approaches 65-70 catches.
14. Latavius Murray- Oakland Raiders
Latavius Murray is big and fast, and showed some improved vision when he was finally given a more featured role. The coaching staff may not be fully sold on him as their 85% backfield touch guy, but he will be a 70% guy by default as the other running backs on the roster, Roy Helu, rookie DeAndre Washington and Taiwan Jones, are better served as change-of-pace guys and not full-time starters. Murray had 1,000 yards rushing last year, and while 1,000 yard rushing seasons don’t mean what they used to, he was one of only 7 guys that topped that mark last season.
13. Devonta Freeman- Atlanta Falcons
Not a huge Freeman guy. He was AWESOME between Week 3 and Week 8 but after that? Not so much. He plays in a good offense and is a threat to catch 75 balls (73 last season) but the reason I am not higher on Freeman, and conversely won’t own him in many leagues in 2016, is because Tevin Coleman.
Coleman opened Week 1 as the starter and was actually not bad in Week 1 against the Philadelphia Eagles. Coleman got hurt in Week 2 and Freeman ran the zone stretch play into the starting lineup to the delight of fantasy owners. I just think this will be closer to a 65% (Freeman)- 35% (Coleman) backfield split, whereas last year was closer to 80%-20%.
12. Eddie Lacy- Green Bay Packers
Fat Eddie has burned everyone reading this list at least once, and twice on Sunday. But as I stated in my quarterback rankings, I’m buying a Packers offensive bounce back in 2016. Lacy has never been an especially talented player, although when he’s got it rolling he has a devastating spin move for a 240 lb. running back, so Lacy needs offensive efficiency to do his damage. Some will buy back in on Lacy because of narratives like “contract year” and “P-90-X” but my belief is he will live up to this ranking because Green Bay will have one of the best offenses in the NFL.
11. Mark Ingram- New Orleans Saints
Ingram has a bit of an injury history having played all 16 games just once in his five-year career. He possesses a powerful running style and hits the hole hard but, to the delight of Sean Payton, the Saints coaching staff and fantasy owners everywhere, he added an element to his game in 2016 he had not shown in his first four years in the league. He started catching passes. After catching a combined 53 passes in his first four years, Ingram caught a whopping 50 balls last year in only 12 games, giving him added value in PPR leagues. That was with CJ Spiller also in the backfield, who is known for his prowess on passing downs. Ingram, if he can stay healthy, should produce RB1 numbers this year.
10. Lamar Miller- Houston Texans
Lamar Miller is a player I’ve always really liked. He’s got good size, (5’10”, 225 lbs.) speed and very little wear and tear on his treads. At only 25 years old, he’s yet to enter most running backs prime years. But, why didn’t the Miami Dolphins ever truly feature him in their offensive attack?
Amidst clamoring from fans, media and fantasy owners alike, Miller was often forgotten about in Miami. Is that an indictment on Miller’s maturity level? Is there something we don’t really know about that was going on behind the scenes a la Christine Michael during his first Seattle stint? It could just be a statement on the stupidity of Joe Philbin and his staff. A lot of Miller’s 2016 value will be tied to the arm of Texans’ new signal-caller Brock Osweiler.
9. Doug Martin- Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Martin is an enigma. He’s had two seasons where he looks like a top 5 running back in the league and two seasons where injuries have derailed his season, although he wasn’t particularly good before the various maladies forced him to the sidelines for a few of these games during the season. It was a contract year for Martin and while I don’t believe in that narrative, the timing was peculiar.
Martin will be given every chance to succeed in what could be a potent offensive attack including fellow teammates Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson and Austin Seferian-Jenkins led by NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, Jameis Winston. Charles Simms will continue to be a nuisance to Martin fantasy owners as he handles passing downs and hurry-up situations.
8. Jonathan Stewart- Carolina Panthers
The Daily Show gets forgotten about sometimes in fantasy circles. He spent the majority of his career in a frustrating role, sharing time with DeAngelo Williams where there was no clear lead back and Stewart dealt with a litany of lower body injuries. However, last year Stewart jumped right back into the RB1 conversation as the Panthers featured him early and often in what turned out to be one of the best running attacks in the league.
There was a stretch right after the Panthers’ bye in Week 5 where he had at least 20 carries in eight straight games. With so many NFL teams rolling with running back platoons, Stewart deserves this high of a ranking because of the volume.
7. Ezekiel Elliott- Dallas Cowboys
The biggest unknown in my top 20. Zeke was a monster at Ohio State after the first 3 games of his 2014 season. He spearheaded a rushing attack that was largely responsible for the Buckeye’s playoff run. He amassed 476 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns against Alabama and Oregon during a two-game stretch that helped Ohio State win the first ever College Football Playoff.
He ran into the hearts of scouts and fans alike with his smooth balance and shifty style, while becoming Cardale Jones’ best friend on passing downs because of his ability to pick up blitzes in pass protection. Behind the mammoth Dallas offensive line on a team that has stated time and time again that they want to run the ball, Zeke could put up a truly special season in his rookie campaign.
6. David Johnson- Arizona Cardinals
I have some fears ranking Johnson this high and it has nothing to do with the player. Johnson is a smooth athlete for his size (6’1”, 225 lbs.) and showed some great hands last year on his way to 4 receiving touchdowns. So the fear here is that I’ve seen this movie before; running back comes in for half a season and totally wrecks shit just to have a massive slump the next year (C.J. Anderson in 2015, Trent Richardson in 2013, Doug Martin in 2013).
I don’t know if Johnson is appreciably better than those guys, with the obvious exception being Trent Richardson, who will try and make the Baltimore Ravens training camp roster in 2016. There is a bit of unknown with Johnson and that’s why he’s ranked behind the guys with injury concerns, Gurley and Peterson.
5. LeSean McCoy- Buffalo Bills
Shady McCoy is one of my favorite running backs in the NFL. He is a menace with the ball in his hands and his lateral agility has defenders on roller skates. After the Philadelphia district attorney’s office declined to press charges against McCoy following a nightclub brawl in February, the NFL announced they will also not punish McCoy for his involvement.
Some might worry about the ascension of Karlos Williams last season and the massive touchdown streak he had to start his career, but I draft skills not roles and I believe McCoy is in line for a similar split with Williams that he had last year, which was about 68:32 in favor of McCoy.
4. Le’Veon Bell- Pittsburgh Steelers
Lev Bell is the most complete back in the NFL. He’s a threat for 2,000 total yards every season he plays 16 games. However, he didn’t play 16 games last year. Between the early season suspension for substance abuse and completely shredding his knee up (MCL, PCL, shredded up), Bell didn’t live up to his first round, in many cases first overall, draft selection in 2015. This ranking assumes he plays Week 1.
3. Jamaal Charles- Kansas City Chiefs
Jamaal Charles is a stud. Straight up superstar that has some of the best cuts and top end speed at the position. Alas, he’s coming off a second torn ACL (the first came in 2011). While he recovered from the first tear to post a strong 2012 season, he was 25 then. He will turn 30 in December and that’s typically when NFL running backs tend to have a major statistical drop off. Clearly, I am a believer. That’s because the skill set is so unique and he tore the ACL in Week 5, so he has had plenty of time to recover.
2. Todd Gurley- St. Louis Rams
Gurley was a monster last year down the stretch. He posted an incredible 1,106 yards and 10 touchdown season on only 229 carries. And he did this in only 13 games. The reason he’s not number 1 on this list, although he will supplant the dude ahead of him in the next couple years as “best running back in football”, is because the Rams offense is not very good. Sure, with a rookie quarterback and Jeff Fisher as coach, Gurley will get a bunch of carries but Jeff Fisher is also fighting to save his job and that means winning.
Handing the rock to Gurley 25 times per game is a winning formula but what happens when they are trailing by double digits in the second half? There were three occurrences last season where Gurley was given less than 13 carries in a game and he had a combined 105 yards and 1 touchdown. That offensive instability is why he’s RB2 and not RB1.
1. Adrian Peterson- Minnesota Vikings
This is a safety thing. Although, if you squint long and hard enough, you can find flaws with any of the top 20 running backs and Peterson is not without “flaws”. He has a lot of miles on his legs and turned 31 years old in late March. NFL players don’t typically progress/regress linearly; they take big jumps or they fall off a cliff (Marshawn Lynch in 2015). However, All-Day is a robot from another planet. He’s no sure thing because of the wear and tear on his body but he’s pretty damn close.