Fantasy Football: Running Back Tier Rankings

Vikings Military Appreciation Day 2013
Photos by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Paul Santikko, Minnesota National Guard.

If you’re new to this series, here’s an explanation on what I mean by “Tier Rankings:”

Instead of numbering players off, I have decided to list similar players in groups I call tiers. These tiers are based on player’s floor value. I believe that players can finish anywhere in their tier but I HAVE listed them in the order I would draft them. 

This format allows you to get inside my head and realize how I am ranking these players. It shows you that I do see a big difference between the 4th best running back and the 5th best running back. But it also allows you to see that I view running back 14 and running back 20 as similar players who could have a very similar outcome. 

Running backs are by far the hardest position to draft in fantasy football. The elite talent pool is small and half of the really good backs always seem to end up on I.R. (injuries will be a common theme in this entire article). Every back seems to have some major flaw that could scare you away from drafting them.

So in all the madness, how do you differentiate between backs? You do so by opportunity. In the latest Love/Hate article by Matthew Berry, he spoke a few words of wisdom:

“Sometimes you don’t have to be the best-looking one left at the bar, you just have to be the only one left at the bar.”

The best looking one in the bar is always going to taken home early. Not everyone can have Adrian Peterson or Todd Gurley. Hell, all the “pretty ones” will be gone by the end of the third round. So that leaves us with a pool of talented players all fighting for snaps in crowded backfields.

Take these two running backs for example. Both of them are extremely talented backs on a playoff caliber team. If you made these two running backs into a bellcow like an Adrian Peterson, they would have finished with 1,524 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. They also would have added 64 receptions for 551 rushing yards.

Instead, one of the players received most of the receptions and receiving, the other received most of the rushing touchdowns, and they about split the rushing yards. They only scored double digit points together 3 times last season. Generally, when one of these backs had a good game, the other one had a rough fantasy outing.

So who are these two fantasy backs? Cincinnati Bengals backs Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard. Both backs are extremely talented but they are constantly fighting each other for snaps.

As a fantasy football player, you want to avoid timeshare backfields or running back by committees. Less talented running backs who get all the work will usually score more points than talented backs who are splitting snaps. Its not always about talent (or looks), sometimes you just have to be the only one left.

Once all the talent has been sucked out of the running back position, draft guys who could have the opportunity to carry a heavy workload for their team and do your best to avoid the 50/50 splits.

If you are seriously interested in drafting a great team, you can also check out our QB Tier Rankings and WR Tier Rankings.

The Elite

Adrian Peterson, MIN
Todd Gurley, LA
Lamar Miller, HOU
Le’Veon Bell, PIT

Adrian Peterson may not finish as the best running back in fantasy (he didn’t last year) but he’s the safest option at RB. Compared to other backs, AP stays relatively healthy and he’s guaranteed to have a heavy workload.

Los Angeles has themselves another star in Todd Gurley. By Los Angeles I mean the city not the Rams. The Rams have little talent behind Todd Gurley. Like Peterson, expect a heavy workload for Gurley.

Lamar Miller is my favorite running back in fantasy this season. He has legitimate potential to lead all running backs in fantasy points this season. Miller should see around 20 touches per game.

The Steelers were pretty confident Le’Veon Bell would win his appeal. Bell was suspended for missing multiple drug tests. Bell didn’t win his appeal BUT his suspension was reduced down to three games. This gives Bell plenty of time to recover from that MCL tear from last year and will ensure he is fresh for his 13 week season. Bell is my number one back after Week 3.

Running Back 1

David Johnson, ARI
Doug Martin, TB
Eddie Lacy, GB
Mark Ingram, NO
LeSean McCoy, BUF
Ezekial Elliott, DAL
DeVonta Freeman, ATL

You either believe in David Johnson or you don’t. I believe in David Johnson. If you watched Amazon’s All Or Nothing series you’d also know the entire Cardinals organization believes in Johnson as well. He’ll get the bulk of the carries in Arizona with Chris Johnson occasionally coming into the game.

Doug Martin is a solid RB1 in every format. Tampa will rely heavily on the run while Jameis Winston continues to develop. Martin will lose some passing work to Charles Sims but he’ll still get the bulk of the offensive snaps.

Eddie Lacy’s weight and draft stock have blank correlation joke. He dropped a ton of weight so I’m willing to invest a higher draft pick in Lacy.

The problem with Mark Ingram has never been talent. The problem is injury risk. Ingram is a top back in the league…when healthy. Staying healthy is key for the Saints’ running back. Even with health concerns, I think Ingram is worth a top 30 selection. Just be prepared for him to miss sometime at some point.

I’m not even through the RB1s and I feel like a broken record. Like Ingram, LeSean McCoy also has health concerns. The Bills entire offense is designed to run the football which means McCoy will be given the ball until he throws up (CJ Spiller joke).

Ezekial Elliott has plenty of talent and will run behind the best offensive line in football. So why do I have him ranked lower than most? He’s an unproven rookie. Plenty of backs coming out of college have been expected to take the league by storm only to fall flat on their faces (Trent Richardson, Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, Ron Dayne, etc). I think Elliott will be quite good but I wouldn’t trust him enough to spend a high pick on him (ADP).

DeVonta Freeman was last year’s fantasy football rushing champ. I don’t see that being the case this year. Freeman is a really good player but the Falcons plan on cutting back on his touches this season. That means less opportunity for Freeman to succeed.

Borderline RB1/RB2

Jamaal Charles, KC
Thomas Rawls, SEA
C.J. Anderson, DEN

Jamaal Charles is still on the PUP after tearing his ACL last season. He’s a 9 year veteran who still has some gas left in the tank. I think Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware will take touches away from Charles but KC runs the ball enough for Charles to be a very good fantasy running back.

Thomas Rawls just came off the PUP a few days ago. Seattle will likely play it safe and limit Rawls workload through camp and preseason. Rawls is the guy in Seattle and should be treated as such. If he can stay healthy he should be able to build off last seasons success.

When I originally set up my preliminary rankings I had C.J. Anderson listed in the tier below as a RB2. That didn’t sit well with me. I moved Anderson up to the RB1 tier. I felt like that was also a mistake. He finally settled in right here with Rawls and Charles.

I didn’t tell you that so you could see how awful I am at making final decisions (which I am). Anderson has a ton of potential. Gary Kubiak is known for taking a feature back and making him great (see Arian Foster and 2014 Justin Forsett). 1,500 total yards is a real possibility for Anderson with Mark Sanchez at QB. For Denver to win football games they’ll need to play like Kubiak’s Texans. Great defense and one of the best ground games in football. That means Anderson should have every opportunity to be great. I just don’t know if I trust him to remain healthy and consistent for 16 weeks.

Running Back 2

The groups are beginning to get larger and I won’t be breaking each individual player down from here on out. I’ll bring up guys I really like or major concerns I have about a player. If you have a specific question on a ranking or a player, tweet @ProFootball366.

Carlos Hyde, SF
Dion Lewis, NE
Arian Foster, MIA
Rashad Jennings, NYG
Matt Forte, NYJ
Latavius Murray, OAK
Jonathan Stewart, CAR
Frank Gore, IND
Jeremy Hill, CIN

I wrote about Carlos Hyde in my 5 Mind Blowing Facts About Running Backs article last month. I’m a big fan of Hyde’s upside in Chip Kelly’s offense.

Why am I so high on Arian Foster and Rashad Jennings? Foster is an RB3 on ESPN and Jennings is an RB4. So why do I have them both listed at RB2s? I went into detail on why I am so high on Jennings in my 5 Mind Blowing Facts About Running Backs (If you didn’t check it out a paragraphs ago I’m giving you one last chance to do so).

Running backs tend to score fantasy points in Adam Gase offenses. Jay Ajayi can’t handle a full workload (he’s struggled in camp). So Foster is going to get a chance to be “the guy” in Miami. Like I said in my introduction, opportunity is the most important factor when it comes to running backs in fantasy football and Foster will be a bellcow if he stays healthy.

Matt Forte might be the starter in New York but he certainly won’t be getting the full workload. Bilal Powell is actually expected to split touches with Matt Forte this season. So what does that mean for the two backs? Well it severely hurts Forte’s stock. Forte is being drafted in the middle of the fifth round. Powell, who is being drafted in 12th round, is an absolute steal.

Forte will get the goal line carries which makes him the more viable option but Powell will be involved in the Jets offense. And if Forte gets hurt (he’s already dealing with a hamstring issue), Powell’s value could skyrocket.

Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard took over the entire introduction. If you are in a standard league, Giovanni Bernard offers very limited upside and Hill is the easy choice between the two. If you are in a PPR league, Bernard has significant upside. Bernard caught nearly 50 passes last season. Hill still has more upside than Bernard because he will get the early down work and redzone carries but Bernard could find himself as an RB2.

Borderline RB2/RB3

Giovanni Bernard, CIN
Melvin Gordon, SD
Bilal Powell, NYJ

Giovanni Bernad (see Jeremy Hill)

Melvin Gordon had a rough rookie campaign. Another season like 2015 and Gordon may find his name in the list of first round busts (listed under Ezekial Elliott). I, however, don’t believe he will end up there. I think Gordon needed a year to develop but has all the tools to be a starting back in the NFL. He’s had strong camp and looks like he feels more comfortable. Gordon won’t cost you all that much either. He is currently going in the 7th or 8th round.

Bilal Powell (see Matt Forte).

Running Back 3

Matt Jones, WAS
Ameer Abdullah, DET
Chirs Ivory, JAC
Jeremy Langford, CHI
Justin Forsett, BAL
Ryan Mathews, PHI
Danny Woodhead, SD
DeMarco Murray, TEN
Duke Johnson Jr., CLE
James White, NE
T.J. Yeldon, JAC
DeAngelo Williams, PIT

I really enjoy helping people win their leagues. I will direct message people on Twitter to answer questions that are all about their own teams (if this interests you follow and send a tweet over to @ProFootball366). Sure, I will tweet back when you ask me to choose between two running backs. But that’s nothing compared to personalized fantasy advice.

I recently had this type of conversation with someone on Twitter about Matt Jones a little over a week ago. The person had some questions about keepers, they sent me screenshots of their entire team. We talked about different draft strategies based on different keepers. Honestly, the entire conversation inspired the introduction. Matt Jones is the player Matthew Berry is describing when he said, “Sometimes you don’t have to be the best-looking one left at the bar, you just have to be the only one left at the bar.”  

Matt Jones has a great opportunity to be “the guy” in Washington. Even with the shoulder injury, Jones is the clear starter in Week 1. Matt Jones has really high upside but he also has a really low floor.

Ameer Abdullah was supposed to be a stud last season. It didn’t happen and it isn’t likely to happen again. The Lions are going to spread the ball around to multiple running backs. Abdullah will get the early down work but he’s not by himself. Riddick will get work on 3rd down and passing situations and Zach Zenner seems to be lined up for the short yardage and goal line duties. Just because Abdullah won’t be getting all the work, doesn’t mean he isn’t worth owning. He still has the potential to make big plays and put up very solid fantasy numbers. Just don’t be surprised when you find yourself cheering on the wrong the wrong player when you see a Lions rushing touchdown.

I recently contacted one of our other writers about Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon . He’s a life long Jaguars fan (yes we feel bad for him too) but he’s been going to most of the camp practices, he follows all the news, and I am sure he will be reporting on them throughout the season. This is what he told me word for word:

“From what I’ve seen in camp it’s gonna be split about 60/40. Think Fred Taylor and MJD from back during MJD’s rookie year. So from a fantasy perspective I would avoid both of them (as starters). In theory you could have Yeldon do all the work one drive and then have Ivory cherry pick the TD or vice versa.”

Neither one of these guys are MJD or Fred Taylor. They won’t combine for 2,000 yards. This is the definition of a running back by committee.

Do you dare put your faith in DeMarco Murray this season? Murray looked like half the player he was from 2014 last season for Philadelphia. The Titans will run the ball a lot and Murray should benefit from the change in scheme. However, don’t expect another great season out of this injury prone running back. I think you can only trust Murray to be a solid RB3 in all formats.

Opportunity. That’s what it is all about. I honestly didn’t even expect to put James White on this list but a minor knee procedure will cost Dion Lewis the first 8-10 weeks of the season. At the earliest, Lewis will be back mid to late October. I don’t expect James White to put up huge numbers filling in for Lewis (he won’t have Brady for the first four weeks) but he is definitely worth drafting. White has RB2/Flex potential to start the season off.

DeAngelo Williams was great in the absence of Le’Veon Bell last season. Bell is suspended for the first three weeks of the season. If Bell loses his appeal, Williams will become a RB1 for the first three weeks of the season. With that being said, when Bell returns, Williams immediately loses all his value. Williams is a really good handcuff for Bell owners.

Running Back 4

Charles Sims, TB
Darren Sproles, PHI
Shane Vereen, NYG
LeGarrette Blount, NE
James Starks, GB
Theo Riddick, DET
Jay Ajayi, MIA
Chris Johnson, ARI
Derrick Henry, TEN
Christine Michael, SEA

At this point you (hopefully) have 3 running backs on your team. From now on, you will likely see many of these backs on the waiver wire. They are great plug and play guys based on match ups.

Charles Sims is an excellent option later in the draft, especially for PPR formats. The Bucs run the ball enough for Sims to stay relevant. With that being said, Sims earns his money in the passing game. He will get plenty of opportunities to show his talents as a receiver out of the backfield.

Darren Sproles is in the same boat as Sims, except Philadelphia doesn’t have an established back like Doug Martin on their team. Sproles is dynamic in the passing game and will also return kicks for Philadelphia.

LeGarrette Blount wasn’t even guaranteed a spot on the Patriots roster. He was battling Tyler Gaffney for the last RB spot on the team. With Lewis out for 10 Weeks, Blount and Gaffney should both make the Patriots’ roster. Blount was clearly winning the battle. Through the first four weeks, I think Blount has a big impact on the team. However, you never really know what Belicheck will do with his RBs and Blount is too inconsistent to trust every week.

Running back 5

Dion Lewis, NE
Alfred Morris, DAL
Terrance West, BAL
Tevin Coleman, ATL
Josh Ferguson, IND
Spencer Ware, KC
Jerrick McKinnon, MIN
Tim Hightower, NO
Paul Perkins, NYG

Five running backs is the absolute most you should carry. There just aren’t enough good ones out there that are worth a draft spot or a roster spot. These last few backs are guys who COULD be worth a spot if an injury occurs or they become that second half of the season breakout star.

Dion Lewis was a star in the making before tearing his ACL last season. Lewis was a top end RB2 for me heading into this season before another knee procedure set him back. He is a great playmaker that just can’t see to find the field. I don’t expect Lewis to be drafted BUT if you are looking for someone to keep on that IR slot, Lewis isn’t a bad option.

The Cowboys love to have one workhorse running back and they have that with Elliott. However, I think Alred Morris could steal some of his thunder, especially if the rookie struggles.

Josh Ferguson was probably my favorite deep sleeper in fantasy this year. Two awful preseason games changed that. Now he may not even make the Colts’ roster. Ferguson has plenty of talent and could be a Darren Sproles type player. He just has to find a way to translate it out on the field.


As always, you can tweet @ProFootball366  or my own personal account, Matt_D17, with any questions!

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