Today we will revisit the running backs, arguably the most important position in fantasy football. Keep in mind that I rank using a half point per reception (.5ppr) scoring system so if that’s not what you use this list might seem a little whacky as pass catching running backs are a little higher than guys who come off the field on third down.
The top 20 has had some movement since we last did this in May. Also, these rankings are fluid and subject to change before the last weekend in August, which is when most of you have probably scheduled your fantasy drafts for. Check back for more updates, and make sure you subscribe to our new podcast, The Fantasy Bias which will make its debut on ITunes this week.
20. Ryan Matthews- Philadelphia Eagles
Ryan Matthews was difficult to leave out of the first version I did of the top 20 but this go-around he makes the cut. It was either him or his former teammate in Philly the much maligned DeMarco Murray. Matthews got the nod because he looked better than Murray the last time we saw him on the field. He did battle nagging soft tissue injuries down the stretch and that’s something Matthews is seemingly always dealing with but when he’s right he’s right. There isn’t 19 running backs in the NFL with better skills than Matthews so if he turns in a healthy season, like he did in 2013, he will be a nice draft day bargain.
19. Jeremy Hill- Cincinnati Bengals
Jeremy Hill had a rough sophomore campaign after bursting onto the scene as a rookie in 2014, following an injury to Giovani Bernard. However, even in his down year, he scored double digit touchdowns. Look, I was all in on Hill last season; He looked explosive in his rookie year with multiple touchdown runs over 60 yards and I was always jealous that LSU had Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Jeremy Hill on the same team. This year I am lowering my expectations for him slightly and hoping he holds onto the football and shows the explosion he did in his rookie year, instead of the plodding he showed last year.
18. Thomas Rawls- Seattle Seahawks
Thomas Rawls came out of nowhere last year and proved to be a valuable waiver wire pick up in most leagues, before fracturing an ankle late in the regular season. The undrafted free agent gave Seattle fans hope that life after Marshawn Lynch wouldn’t be so rough. He’s not all that active in the passing game and Seattle drafted a couple running backs in C.J. Prosise (Notre Dame) and Alex Collins (Arkansas) to push Rawls in camp. So the job will have to be earned in typical Pete Carroll fashion. But assuming he gets the job, there will be plenty of early down work Rawls will receive that will help him return value on your investment.
17. Dion Lewis- New England Patriots
Dion Lewis was a revelation last year. It started against Pittsburgh on the opening Thursday of the season and carried through the first week in November before Lewis tore his ACL. Reports are that Lewis is progressing nicely from the surgery and should be ready for Week 1 vs Arizona. If Lewis can stay on the field for 13+ games this season I think he will be a valuable commodity for your fantasy team. With Jimmy Garoppolo slated to start the first 4 games of the season while Tom Brady serves suspension, look for Lewis to be targeted plenty in the screen game and as a safety valve. He will never be a 15 carry per game guy. But Lewis getting 12-15 touches per game is well within the realm of possibilities.
16. Matt Forte- New York Jets
Matt Forte is a player I love. Loved him ever since I saw him dominate the competition at Tulane. He’s a big smooth glider in the Arian Foster vein but, unlike Foster, has been remarkably consistent staying on the field in his career. That is, until last season when he sprained his MCL. He’s also dealing with a hamstring injury right now and is aging fast. Forte should slot in very nicely with the Jets offense as he’s always been a great pass catcher and a reliable runner. If the Jets offense is as good as we think it could be then Forte will have plenty of chances to justify the draft capital being spent on him.
15. Carlos Hyde- San Francisco 49ers
Carlos Hyde gives me some pause ranking him this high. He has dealt with various maladies in his two-year career missing 11 of the possible 32 games his team has played. That’s nearly 1/3 of the time he hasn’t been active and that’s concerning. That’s the bad. The good is that he’s a good athlete for his size and is in a system that he’s very familiar with, dating back to his time at Ohio State. If he can stay healthy, and the 49ers solve their quarterback conundrum, then Hyde should put together a breakout season in 2016.
14. Latavius Murray- Oakland Raiders
Latavius Murray really intrigues me. He’s a big smooth runner with good-to-great straight line speed and just enough wiggle to plant and cut up the field after seeing a cutback lane emerge. His vision is so-so but hopefully after a full season of being the starter, he’s getting more comfortable with the Raiders run blocking scheme. Oakland boasts one of the most talented offensive lines with the addition of Kelechi Osemele from Baltimore in free agency last March. If Murray cleans up some of his runs and improves his reception total from 2015, he will be a valuable commodity in fantasy circles this year.
13. Doug Martin- Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Doug Martin was great last year. He had the most yards after contact in the league with over 900 of his 1400 rushing yards coming after contact. He truly was a special talent on the football field, reverting back to his 2012 rookie form. The problem for me and why Martin isn’t firmly in my top 10 is because he’s played four seasons in the NFL. He’s been prodigious in two of those seasons and been a bum in the other two. Which Martin will we get in 2016? That risk is why Martin is a little lower on my list than he will be on most lists. If he replicates his 2015 he will make me look foolish but I’m going to hedge a little bit on him because there are some major downsides to him if things go wrong.
12. Eddie Lacy- Green Bay Packers
Fat Eddie had a rough go of things in 2015, as the entire Packers offense took a step back from the uber-elite levels we were accustomed to seeing from them. Whereas with Martin I’m knocking him for those years where things went wrong, I am somewhat giving Lacy the benefit of the doubt. Lacy just had a terrible season. For me, he’s a borderline RB1 in 12 team leagues this year because I have faith that Aaron Rodgers will turn it around this year and Lacy will be a big beneficiary of that. Before the disastrous 2015 campaign Lacy averaged 1,150 yards rushing and 10 rushing touchdowns. Lacy garnered a measly 187 carries last year but if that number goes back up to the 250+ he got the previous two years he will be firmly in the discussion as weekly starter and a staple of your fantasy team.
11. Devonta Freeman- Atlanta Falcons
Devonta Freeman burst onto the scene last year and rewarded fantasy owners that drafted him late or picked him up off the waiver wire. He finished as the RB1 ahead of Adrian Peterson and Todd Gurley. So why am I ranking him as a borderline starter in 2016? Well, after his monster 4 week stretch from Week 3 – Week 8 he just wasn’t that impressive as a runner. He will still retain value because he should average about 5 catches per contest, making him a pretty nice play in leagues that reward receptions, but I want my starting running back to actually have talent running the football and I don’t think Freeman is all that talented of a runner.
10. Jonathan Stewart- Carolina Panthers
Jonathan Stewart might seem high to some of you, but to me he would be even higher if I thought he was a threat to catch even 35 passes, which he hasn’t done since 2011. The one knock on Stewart is that he rarely plays 16 games. He’s still only 28 (even though it feels like he has been in the league forever) so he’s not that old in terms of running backs. Stewart burned some folks last year by being really good and consistent for the entire regular season and then missing the fantasy playoffs after suffering an injury. I’m still on the Stewart train for 2016. I’m hoping he turns in his best season as a pro and finishes as a top 10 option at the running back position. If he can stay on the field, he has as good of a chance as anyone on this list at being a building block for your fantasy squad.
9. Mark Ingram- New Orleans Saints
Mark Ingram had a solid 2015 campaign. He showed good short area burst and had some explosive plays for the first time in his career, including a 59-yard reception and a 70-yard run. But Ingram just can’t manage to stay healthy. He is always nicked up and misses time just about every season. He was good last season and still only had 769 rushing yards. His real value came from showing the world he had soft mitts in the passing game. Coming into 2015 he had 53 receptions and in 2015 alone he had 50 receptions. Some people are down on the Saints offense as a whole but I’m in the camp that says this might be one of the best offenses Drew Brees and co. have had at their disposal in the Big Easy. Much of that offensive upside rests on Ingram’s shoulders as he will need to consistently keep Brees in manageable passing down situations.
8. Lamar Miller- Houston Texans
Lamar Miller is an enigma. He’s been very solid the last few seasons in Miami but he was never featured the way you’d think someone as talented as Miller deserved to be featured. There’s a disconnect somewhere that I’m not seeing. When I watch him I think “imagine what this guy could be with 300 touches in a season” but why has it never happened? Miller’s only 25 and just now entering what should be the prime of his career, so this could possibly be the best season we’ve ever seen from him. The Texans sure did spend a lot of money to pry him away from the Miami Dolphins, so hopefully we’ll finally see what Miller does with a feature back workload. Miller is a solid option if you want to grab a superstar wide receiver with your first pick.
7. Le’Veon Bell- Pittsburgh Steelers
Le’Veon Bell should be ranked #1 on this list based on talent and situation. He’s at #7 because he loves weed. There’s nothing wrong with loving weed when it’s prescribed by a doctor or legal in your state of residence, but when you’re in the NFL you just can’t get away with being a pothead. Regardless, Bell is super talented and can hurt you running and receiving. If his suspension gets reduced or overturned after his August 18th appeal, he will move into pole position in these ranks for me.
6. Ezekiel Elliott- Dallas Cowboys
Ezekiel Elliott is pure conjecture at this point of the process. We’ve never seen him do it at the NFL level before and that will scare some of you off from drafting him. He threw down some nasty college tape, particularly the last 3 games of his sophomore campaign as he led the Ohio State Buckeyes to a national title. He was drafted into literally the best situation he could have asked for, as Dallas is tailor made for a player of Zeke’s abilities. He’s nursing a hamstring injury at the moment but that news hasn’t scared me off from having him firmly in the top half of RB1’s for the 2016 season.
5. David Johnson- Arizona Cardinals
David Johnson had an amazing rookie season. Despite only starting a handful of games, he scored 11 times and did so in every imaginable fashion, including a kickoff return. He had a true coming out party on Sunday Night Football against Philadelphia where he accounted for 229 yards and 3 touchdowns, which grew his legend even more. So there’s the upside and obviously it’s immense. Thus, the fear here is that I’ve seen this movie; running back comes in for half a season and totally wrecks shit just to 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 exception of 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 a little lower than his talent and situation dictates he should.
4. LeSean McCoy- Buffalo Bills
LeSean McCoy was good, but not great last year. I’m expecting him to be more like the Shady that torched the league in 2013. He still has the “it” factor and routinely leaves defenders holding their jock straps when he puts a subtle jump cut on them in the open field. Some might be worried about Karlos Williams stealing touchdowns and carries away from McCoy, but that’s not a concern that overrides my views of McCoy as one of the true game-changing feature backs we have in the NFL. Shady needs to turn in a healthier season than he did in 2015, but if he does I have full faith you will be handsomely rewarded for where he’s currently going in drafts according to ADP.
3. Jamaal Charles- Kansas City Chiefs
Jamaal Charles, along with Shady McCoy, are two of my favorite offensive players in the league at this moment. Neither are built like prototypical running backs, but they have both shown they can carry the mail, as well as your fantasy team. Charles isn’t as shifty as McCoy but he has Olympic sprinter speed and some of the choppiest and best feet in the league. If he’s right after knee surgery to repair his torn ACL which knocked him out of the 2014 season, then he can contend to be the #1 RB in all of fantasy this year. He truly is that special of a talent.
2. Todd Gurley- St. Louis Rams
Todd Gurley was a monster last year down the stretch. He posted a 1,106 yard and 10 TD season on only 229 carries, and he did it in 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 I don’t think the Rams offense is very good. Sure, with a rookie quarterback and Jeff Fisher as coach he will get a bunch of carries, but Jeff Fisher is also fighting to save his job. 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 TD. That offensive instability is why he’s #2 and not #1.
1. Adrian Peterson- Minnesota Vikings
Adrian Peterson isn’t a sure thing but he’s pretty darn close. There are some red flags here but I’m surprisingly okay with them. Frankly, if you squint long and hard enough, you can find flaws with any of the top 20 running backs. AD 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 (see: Marshawn Lynch 2015). However, All-Day is a robot from another planet. Even though Peterson has never been much of a pass catcher, he’s still guaranteed 300+ carries assuming he can stay healthy.