The advent of NFL training camps is almost upon us as rookies begin to report at the end of this week. With the return of football comes the return of our favorite form of legal sports betting, fantasy football. As you scour the internet for the latest news and rankings getting ready for your league’s draft, we’ll be providing you lists of the top fantasy prospects by position for this season. Today, we take a look at the guys with the best hands in the league.
Football fans and fantasy football fanatics in particular have had every reason to be bearish regarding the running back position for the better part of this century. Volatility among starters at the position is always high, quarterbacks and high-flying, aerial attack-minded offenses are in, and injury risk – as with any position but particularly your RB 1 – is always a concern.
Still, this year’s crop of potential RB 1s is a deep and potentially draft-changing one if you choose wisely. With that said, let’s dive right in and break down some of the positives, negatives and unknowns surrounding each of our projected Top 10 running backs for the upcoming NFL season.
All of last year’s point totals from CBSSports.com – Standard Format
1. Adrian Peterson
Last Year – 2nd, 230 Pts
I completely understand Peterson falling behind young and exciting backs like Le’Veon Bell and Todd Gurley on some draft boards, but in my mind Peterson is still the cream of the RB 1 crop for a few different reasons.
First of all, with Peterson – barring injury, of course – you know exactly what you’re going to get. You’re going to get a workhorse of a back who’s guaranteed to be the No. 1 guy in Minnesota. You know he’ll get 300-plus carries at least, tons of red zone opportunities and if you’re in a PPR (points per reception) league, you know he’ll haul in a fair amount of receptions and will be on the field in many passing situations even when you take into account the emergence of Jerrick McKinnon as a real threat out of the backfield.
On top of that, Teddy Bridgewater is anything but a sure thing at quarterback for the Vikings, meaning the passing attack is still unlikely to take away carries and touchdowns from AP, which should put him in double-digits in that category as he has been every year since he entered the league when injury or legal absences haven’t slowed him down.
Sure, taking a 31-year-old back with your first pick, which don’t be fooled, you’ll have to do if you want Peterson unless you’re in a QB-heavy league, is disconcerting. But Peterson showed no signs of slowing down last year and this year he should be in impeccable shape yet again and ready to lead the Vikings offense along with your fantasy squad should you put your faith in him.
2/3. Todd Gurley/Le’Veon Bell
Bell – Last Year – 47th, 86 Pts
Gurley – Last Year – 5th, 186 Pts
This one’s a true toss up between Gurley and Bell because they’re equal in so many ways and their major difference should prove to be a negligible one. By that I mean their receiving capabilities. Le’Veon Bell has proved himself to be a fantastic option out of the backfield for the potent Steelers passing attack, which adds a ton of value to Bell in a PPR format.
While Gurley showed he can be a solid option out of the backfield as well, he hasn’t proved it in the NFL just yet and will be dealing with the inexperienced Jared Goff at the helm of last year’s worst passing team in the league, as opposed to Ben Roethlisberger leading one of the best.
But where Gurley makes up ground on Bell is in the non-PPR format. Gurley will be a workhorse for the Rams this year especially as Jared Goff cuts his teeth at the NFL level. He and Jeff Fisher will lean heavily on Gurley and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get between 350 and 400 carries by the time it’s all said and done.
Dissenters of this school of thought will be quick to point out that Bell still had 834 yards receiving and well over 2,000 total in 2014, which still counts even if his 83 receptions don’t.
That’s true, but in 2015 in only three games of work, Bell’s average yards per catch were way down and defenses will now be prepared for Bell out of the backfield. Not to mention that Gurley will surely make up the difference between the two with a full 16-game season.
Of course, the biggest cause for concern right now with Bell is his possible four-game suspension, which would definitely drop him down the list strictly because he’ll be guaranteed to play in a maximum of 12 games.
On the injury front, both of these guys have a less-than-stellar injury history of late, especially Bell because he’s yet to return to regular season action from his season-ending torn MCL injury.
But as we’ve seen with Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles and countless other young running backs, coming back from knee injuries isn’t what it used to be for running backs and both of these guys should be primed for stellar years. You really can’t go wrong here.
4. David Johnson
Last Year – 7th, 173 Pts
Hear that sound? That’s the sound of the David Johnson hype train preparing to leave the station and it’s time to get on board. Now, let me reiterate – these are the Top 5 fantasy football running backs heading into 2016. There’s a difference between that and being the best pure running back. Ezekiel Elliott and Doug Martin (both of whom you’ll read about shortly) are likely better pure running backs for a multitude of reasons (pass blocking, pure rushing ability, short yardage situations, ETC…) but that doesn’t make them better fantasy options.
Johnson’s proved in a very short period of time that he has an elite combination of speed, size and vision to thrive at the NFL level in limited action last year and that he has the hands and the wear-withal to thrive in the passing game, so there’s no reason to think that he won’t fit perfectly into offensive guru, Bruce Arians’ plans for the 2016 season.
Last year he had over 500 yards rushing and nearly the same receiving in only five starts. Now that he’s the No. 1 guy heading into training camp, there’s no reason to think he can’t at least double both of those numbers with a full 16-game slate.
5. Ezekiel Elliott
On Friday a woman identified in reports as Elliott’s girlfriend accused the Cowboys’ running back of domestic abuse and posted pictures on Instagram of various bruises on her body along with a statement regarding domestic abuse.
Elliott has since vehemently denied the charges and has not been charged or arrested, but needless to say, these are serious allegations that would certainly keep Elliott off the field if they are indeed true – as they well should. So take the following with a grain of salt until more information regarding the charges is revealed.
From a pure football sense, Elliott has it all. He has a nose for the end zone (23 rushing TDs last year at Ohio State), great awareness, agility, speed, power… everything you could possibly want from a running back, Elliott has it.
On top of that he’ll be running behind one of the best offensive lines in all of football with the Dallas Cowboys and will likely be counted on to help relieve pressure that Tony Romo is sure to face throughout the year by way of the running game.
Romo will also be glad to know he’s an above average pass protector as well, but that won’t win you your fantasy league, now will it.
What will win it, will be the fact that Elliott will likely carry the ball over 300 times, can be a three-down back since he’s highly capable as a receiver and could eclipse 2,000 yards from scrimmage and double-digit touchdowns his first year in the league.
6. Doug Martin
Last Year – 3rd, 199 Pts
Everyone slept on Doug Martin, aka ‘The Muscle Hamster’, aka ‘The Dougernaut’, last season, but that’s not happening again this year. Martin proved to all doubters that he’s back and ready to be a consistent top 10 running back in the NFL once more after a 1,402 yard season rushing and as a full 16-game starter for the Buccaneers after missing most of 2015 due to injury.
If Martin can stay healthy in 2016, there’s no reason he won’t rush for close to 1,500 yards and catch between 30-40 balls out of the backfield. Touchdowns haven’t been easy for Martin to come by in his two healthy seasons, which is a slight concern, but assuming the Bucs are willing to ramp up his number of carries this year after a completely healthy season, he should be able to find pay dirt more than just six times like last year.
7. Lamar Miller
Last Year – 6th, 184 Pts
After four years being largely underappreciated in Miami, Lamar Miller has found a new home in Houston and could be poised for the breakout campaign we’ve all been waiting for since he entered the league in 2012. Don’t believe Miller has what it takes to be a true RB 1? Here’s why you’re wrong.
First of all, Miller’s best season came in 2014 when he got the most work of his career and that still wasn’t a whole lot for a starting running back. He had just 214 carries, which ranked him 15th among all running backs that year. He even averaged 5.1 yards per carry that season, which was second best of all running backs with 100 carries minimum to Justin Forsett.
Need more proof? Miller’s TD total has increased every year he’s been in the league as has his number of targets in the passing game as he continues to improve as a receiver. With Jonathan Grimes (118 career carries) as the projected No. 2 back behind him, a solid offensive line and an unproven commodity at quarterback in Brock Osweiler at the helm, you can pretty much guarantee this will be Miller’s busiest season as a running back and I’m expecting his best results as a byproduct of that.
8. Jamaal Charles
Last Year – 50th, 79 Pts
Charles has already proven that he can return from a devastating ACL injury once in his career and now as he nears the age of 30 he’ll be forced to do it again in 2016. It’s hard not to be slightly skeptical regarding Charles here and that’s the only reason he’s not in the top 5 as he has been every year that he’s been healthy since he emerged as the Chiefs’ starting back full time in 2009.
Every year of Charles’ career he’s averaged over five yards per carry and has been a consistent threat as a receiver out of the backfield for Alex Smith. Charles also has a knack for finding the end zone and was continuing the touchdown per game pace he set in 2013 and 2014 last year before he went down with an injury.
Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware are threats to steal some of Charles’ carries, especially with both coming off of 500-yard seasons last year, but look for Charles to return to form and thrive for the Chiefs yet again in 2016.
9. LeSean McCoy
Last Year – 16th, 146 Pts
It’s been anything but a great offseason for ‘Shady’ McCoy, but he avoided any major suspensions and should be ready to roll for the Bills when Week 1 of the NFL season kicks off.
McCoy, as with Peterson, regardless of his off the field issues, is one of the NFL’s top talents at running back when he’s healthy. Last year was a down year by his standards in terms of rushing attempts and yards on the ground (203 attempts, 895 yards), but his yards per carry average was actually up from his 2014 campaign with the Eagles to 4.4 from 4.2.
While his touchdowns were down as well with Karlos Williams punching in seven compared to McCoy’s four, that won’t likely continue this year, especially considering Williams will be suspended the first four games of the year while McCoy, miraculously considering the circumstances, won’t.
That gives McCoy a real chance to thrive in the early going and rack up some big numbers and momentum, which I think he’ll do in a bounce back season. Rex Ryan loves to run the ball and McCoy will be his only/best option early and often so look for a hot start and a big year for ‘Shady.’
10. Latavius Murray
Last Year – 10th, 163 Pts
Big things are happening in Oakland, both on and off the field for the Raiders. Free agent moves and a few strong draft classes in a row have the Raiders on the precipice of relevance for the first time since the Rich Gannon era and it couldn’t come soon enough for Raiders faithful.
Leading the charge on offense will be the power trio of youngsters: star QB Derek Carr, WR Amari Cooper, and last, but certainly not least, RB Latavius Murray. While Murray is probably the least sexy of the three names, he’ll arguably be the most important of them when it comes to the Raiders offense this season.
Murray stands alone in the Raiders’ backfield as far as viable options go and Year 3 should be his busiest year to date. Besides receiving more carries and an increasingly balanced offensive line, defenses will be paying lots of attention to the Carr-Cooper connection that emerged as one of the most prominent in the NFL last year.
Defenses’ preoccupation with Cooper should free up Murray as a pass-catching option out of the backfield as well as in the running game, so expect a strong 2016 from Murray and look to him as a solid RB 1 option/excellent RB 2.
Snubs/Others To Watch For
The unfortunate nature of the Top 10 list is its obvious limitation of only letting you select 10 people. Here are some other running backs to watch for that I like, but not as much as the aforementioned backs.
Last Year – 1st, 242 Pts
The only reason I snubbed Freeman after an incredible 2015 campaign is because Tevin Coleman is already expected to take on more work in the backfield in 2016. Remember, it was his injury that paved the way for Freeman’s breakout year, so don’t be surprised to see this as more of a 50-50 situation than a Freeman repeat of 2015. Still, he was a menace as a receiver out of the backfield with 73 receptions and three TDs, so count on him being used in passing packages and situations early and often.
Last Year – 25th, 119 Pts
Yes, he’s slimmed down, and yes, he has game-changing potential if the bruising back from 2013 and 2014 can return, but count me among the skeptics. The Packers are a pass-first team and always will be with Aaron Rodgers at the helm, which means that Lacy’s chances will always be somewhat limited. I just don’t see him getting more than 200 carries or doing as much with them as he did those years. Still, a great RB 2 option and he could of course prove me to be very, very wrong by year’s end.
Last Year – 15th, 152 Pts
Lots of people are high on Ingram coming off of last year’s productive campaign and think he’s turned a corner, but I think he’s maxed out. The problem isn’t even necessarily him, it’s the team he plays for. Like the Packers, the Saints are a pass-first team under Drew Brees. In fact, Ingram’s 226-carry campaign in 2014 was the highest by a Saints running back since Deuce McAllister carried the ball 244 times in the first year of the Brees era back in 2006. Point being, don’t count on Ingram getting as much work as you’d like your RB 1 to get, even with Brees aging.
Last Year – T-27th, 118 Pts
If you’re looking to put your faith in Thomas Rawls, just remember the names Robert Turbin and Christine Michael. Those were the two heir apparents to Marshawn Lynch before Rawls came along. Even though Rawls thrived when he got work last year, the Seahawks still drafted three – yes, three – running backs in this year’s draft, which could put Rawls in position to go the way of Turbin and Michael sooner than later. It also speaks volumes about the Seahawks’ confidence in Rawls to carry the load coming off of his season-ending injury in Week 14 last year. Rawls could still be a great RB 2 option, but I’m not putting him in the top 10 like some others are just yet.
Bryan Altman is, for some reason, an unabashed fan of the Rangers, Jets and Mets. If he absolutely had to pick a basketball team it would be the Knicks, but he’d gladly trade them for just one championship for any of his other three teams.