Brandon Funston

The Funston Fives

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Murray, Martin Sputtering

Wednesday, December 27, 2017


Each week during the NFL season, I will offer up a variety of top-five lists because, well, who doesn’t love a top five list?  With that universal love of lists in mind, I look to the near future of the running back position, breaking down how the RB fantasy landscape might look heading into 2018 drafts.

Top 5 Running Backs for 2018 Fantasy Drafts

Le’Veon Bell, PIT – Bell, who will be 26 in 2018, is a time-tested elite fully-featured back, with 50 games of 10-plus fantasy points (in his 62 career regular-season contests), and he takes it to another level in PPR formats – 75-plus receptions, 600-plus receiving yards in three of the past four seasons. Pittsburgh has been a nurturing environment for Bell to operate in, ranking top 10 in points per game in each of the past four seasons, and the only potential fly in the ointment heading into next season would be if QB Ben Roethlisberger were to decide to finally follow through on his threats to retire. As long as we don’t have to cross that bridge, give Bell the slight edge over the three running backs below him on this list.

Todd Gurley, LAR – Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Gurley’s rebound campaign in ’17, in which he was the runaway leader at RB in fantasy points/PPG, is that Gurley’s strength of schedule at the RB position ranked as the second toughest in the league. Despite that schedule headwind, Gurley produced at least 11 standard-league fantasy points in every game save one (50 total yards, 0 TDs vs. Seattle in Week 5).  And in PPR formats, he moved into the big leagues (with the likes of Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson), leading all RBs in receiving yards (788) and receiving TDs (6), while also ranking top 5 in receptions (64).  Only 24 heading into next season, and the centerpiece of mastermind Sean McVay’s offensive system, Gurley is well positioned for another run at the top of the fantasy RB ranks.

Ezekiel Elliott, DAL – Serving a six-game suspension (Weeks 10-15) wasn’t ideal for his fantasy owners in ’17, but considering he averaged 26.4 touches in the nine games he did play, the mileage savings sets him up well for a fresh start in ’18, free of the off-the-field distractions that plagued him this past season. Among running backs with at least nine games played, Elliott ranked behind only Gurley in FAN PPG (18.3), giving him a top 3 finish in per game scoring at the position in each of his first two seasons – he was third at 19.7 PPG in his rookie season.

David Johnson, ARI – As the consensus No. 1 overall pick in ’17 fantasy drafts, Johnson’s broken wrist, suffered in Week 1 at Detroit, was a crushing early blow to his owners.  But, as is the case with Elliott, this sets him up well for a ’18 reset, as the injury kept miles off the odometer, and the injury is something that you can feel good about being water under the bridge heading into next season. If Arizona manages to keep the band (head coach Bruce Arians, QB Carson Palmer, WR Larry Fitzgerald) together, Johnson should be able to pick up where he left off, which would be as one the league’s premier rush/receiving combo talents at the RB position.

Leonard Fournette, JAX – Thanks to the sudden impact of an impressive ’17 rookie RB class (Fournette, Kareem Hunt, Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey, et al), and the talent-laden incoming ’18 rookie class, the RB position is going to be loaded for bear next season. And after the first four running backs are off the board, there is likely going to be some heavy debate about which running back deserves to have his name called next. No doubt, there’ll be a lot of defensible options. But, as it stands, my money is on Fournette, who scored a TD in nine of his first 12 games, and reached 100 rushing yards in five of those contests, third most in the NFL behind Gurley and Hunt (6).  He’s a road grader with a nitrous oxide engine, and he’s the sun of Jacksonville’s offensive universe.

Editor’s Note: Nobody hit FanDuel’s Golden 5 jackpot this season, meaning the prize has grown to a massive $340,000. And this week, regardless of whether or not someone hits a perfect lineup, they’re giving away that $340K to whoever wins this week’s final contest. Play FREE for your shot at $340,000!

 

5 Running Backs on the Rise Heading into 2018

Kenyan Drake, MIA – Drake played the featured role for Miami after the team traded Jay Ajayi and Drake’s platoon partner Damien Williams went down with a shoulder injury (Week 12). From weeks 13-16, Drake averaged nearly 23 touches per game and 126 yards from scrimmage.  His 4.3 YAC/attempt is tops in the league, ahead of Alvin Kamara, and his 4.8 YPC ranks fifth-best among qualified running backs. Miami will likely add a running back in the draft, or free agency (where Damien Williams is headed), but Drake has positioned himself as the back to beat in the Dolphins’ backfield heading into next season.

Alex Collins, BAL – It’s been quite the year for Collins, who was cut by the Seahawks in the preseason, then signed to the Ravens practice squad prior to the regular season. Early-season injuries to Danny Woodhead and Terrance West allowed Collins to quickly land a spot on the active roster, where he made an immediate splash, rushing seven times for 42 yards in his Week 2 Baltimore debut. Collins would follow that performance up with buzz-worthy back-to-back nine-carry, 82-yard performances in Weeks 4-5. Collins posted a 5.9 YPC mark in his first six games with Baltimore (through Week 7), but it wasn’t until Week 8 that Collins finally received a red zone carry or caught a pass. The opportunities near the goal line and in the passing game helped Collins finally become a serious player in the fantasy realm, as he netted out as the No. 16 fantasy RB (FAN PPG) from Weeks 8-16, putting a together a four-game TD streak in that span, while also sprinkling in five games of 20-plus receiving yards in that span. As it stands, Collins has positioned himself as Baltimore backfield lead heading into ’18, a far cry from where he was at to open ’17.

Marlon Mack, IND – Many thought that Mack would be playing a lead role in the Colts backfield at some point before the end of his rookie campaign, but that’s what you get for betting against Frank Gore,  who is on his way to his seventh straight season with 250-plus carries. Mack has had some shining moments in a backup role, with seven runs of 15-plus yards among his 86 total carries. To put his breakaway potential into perspective, Houston’s Lamar Miller has seven such runs on 230 carries. And Gore has just six runs of 15-plus yards on 237 attempts. Simply put, Mack’s got some serious juice as a runner, but he’s unrefined when it comes to the understanding the nuances of the position. So a season backing up a backfield master like Gore is hardly a bad thing. With an apprenticeship season under his belt, Mack should be in line to take over in the Colts’ backfield in ’18 with Frank Gore hitting free agency (and likely, retirement).

Chris Carson, SEA – The 249th pick in the ’17 NFL Draft, Carson entered Seattle’s backfield picture on the heels of a strong preseason. He played just the first four weeks of the season – suffering a broken ankle in Week 4 against the Colts - but through Week 16, he still ranks as Seattle leading rusher at the RB position. That’s more an indictment of the Seattle offensive line, than anything else, but Carson was the only Seahawks running back that showed a consistent ability to make lemonade out of the lemons that the offensive line was offering – in Pro Football Focus’ player grading system, Carson earned higher overall marks than Minnesota’s dynamic rookie back Dalvin Cook, who also played in just the first four weeks of the season before suffering a season-ending ACL injury. Without a doubt, Seattle will look to make upgrades on the O-line this offseason, and they will probably look at bringing in some backfield help, as well. But Carson has a very good chance to head into next summer as the odds-on-favorite for the lead role.

Jay Ajayi, PHI – Ajayi was a popular pick in ’17 drafts, but his stock took a hit early in the season as he averaged just 3.4 YPC, 76 YFS and failed to score a touchdown through the first seven games of the season. Then came a surprising trade to Philly, where he landed in a committee that limited him to less than 10 carries in each of his first four games with the Eagles. But he’s seen something more befitting of lead role duties in his past three games, averaging just over 15 touches. In total, his seven games with Philly has actually produced less YFS than in Miami (76 to 71.3), but Ajayi’s YPC has jumped dramatically playing behind one of the league’s most talented offensive lines (from 3.4 to 5.8). With LeGarrette Blount scheduled to hit free agency in ’18, Ajayi should be back in a clear lead role, like he was in Miami, heading into ’18, only this time in a much better offensive environment.


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Brandon Funston has been dispensing solid gold fantasy advice (with some fool's gold mixed in from time to time) for the past 20 years, formerly with ESPN, and Yahoo. You can send him questions/comments on Twitter @brandonfunston.



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