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.
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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.
5 Running Backs on the Decline Heading into 2018
DeMarco Murray, TEN – Murray will hit his 30s as he heads into the ’18 campaign, and he’s starting to show his age. His 2.03 YAC/attempt was the lowest among all running backs that handled at least 50 percent of his team’s backfield rushing attempts. Murray also tied for last among that same RB group in runs of 15-plus yards (4). Scheduled to make $6.25 million next season, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Titans, who have a luxury backup in Derrick Henry, move to get out from under that contract next season. And if that happens, you can add Henry’s name to the top “RBs on the Rise” list (above).
Doug Martin, TB – Because of a draft-day discount due to Martin’s suspension for the first three games of the season, many felt the Bucs’ back would return to deliver a solid return on investment. That narrative got some validation early in Martin’s return, as he scored in each of his first two games of the season and averaged 75.3 YFS in his first four games. But from Weeks 9-16, Martin would find the end zone just one more time, averaging a mere 32 YFS and 2.3 YPC in a six-game span that included him being a healthy scratch in Week 15. There seems to be little chance of Martin returning to Tampa Bay next season, and he’ll be lucky to find anyone who will sign him to be its featured back.
Isaiah Crowell, CLE – Crowell was the No. 12 running back, taken on average, in ’17 Yahoo drafts. Unfortunately, there’s been little return on investment for his fantasy owners, as he sits at No. 30 in fantasy points at the position through Week 16. It’s not that he’s been a complete disaster (he’s averaged 5.5 YPC over his past eight games), but he’s been a wallflower in a season when fantasy owners pinned RB1 hopes on him. With two of the top 5 picks in the ’18 NFL Draft, there’s been a lot of talk about the Browns targeting Penn St. superstar RB Saquon Barkley for one of those picks. Even if the team misses out on Barkley, it will likely move on from Crowell, who is a free agent this offseason. And Crowell probably can’t get out of Cleveland fast enough. Going into just his age 25 season, it’s possible that another team signs him to fill its featured role. But until that happens, all we have to go on is a ’17 season that left many owners wanting.
Ty Montgomery, GB – It’s hard not to look back at the ’17 season and not feel like Montgomery missed out on a major opportunity. Montgomery opened the season in fine form, scoring three touchdowns and averaging 101.5 YFS through the first two games of the season. But things went south for Montgomery after that, scoring just one more touchdown and averaging 40.5 YFS over his next six contests. Along the way (Week 4), he suffered a wrist injury that dogged him until the Packers shut him down after Week 10 – he ultimately landed on the IR and opted for surgery on the wrist. In the meantime, Packers rookies Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams showed themselves no worse than capable, and often, excelled when filling in for Montgomery. Montgomery could return to a lead role in ’18, but it seems like some sort of time-share is on the horizon. There’s little chance that Montgomery will be able to re-capture the buzz that made him a popular “reach” pick in the early rounds of ’17 drafts.
Ameer Abdullah, DET – Selected, on average, on the back-end of the RB2 bubble, this was to be the year that Abdullah’s career would finally start to launch. But saddled with what Football Outsiders grades out as the second-worst run blocking offensive line in the league, Abdullah has seen his career take a big step backwards – his 3.4 YPC is easily a career low and, while his coach wouldn’t come straight out and admit it, he clearly lost his handle in the starting job during the final month of the season. Even as the Lions look to improve their offensive line this offseason, it’s unlikely that Abdullah will be the one most benefitting from any of those changes. He is likely headed for a complimentary role in ’18, the final season of his rookie contract.
Top 5 Most intriguing NFL Draft WR Prospects for '18
Saquon Barkley, Penn St. – Barkley is a special talent, and the unquestioned top RB in the ’18 class. At 5-foot-11, 230 pounds, he’s similar in size and style to Ezekiel Elliott, though Barkley’s overall skill-set (speed, quickness, lateral agility, hands, etc) trumps Elliott. Barkley is very capable of handling a fully-featured role, and should make a sizeable fantasy impact no matter where he lands – and there are plenty of teams expected to pick in the top 10 that have a need at RB (CLE, NYG, IND, TB, DEN, NYJ, to name a handful).
Derrius Guice, LSU – Guice is going to be a nice consolation prize for the team that hoped for Barkley, but missed out on him. He’s stout, he’s got good vision, can cut on a dime and all that plays up with a hair-on-fire running style. Simply put, Guice is a tough one to bring down, as his 6.6 YPC mark over the past three seasons in the country’s top collegiate conference (SEC) would indicate.
Ronald Jones, USC – Jones looked like the next Jamaal Charles when he arrived at USC as a freshman. And while that comparison seems a little off the mark now, that’s only because Jones has developed into more than just the slim, game-breaking speed demon that conjured those comparisons in the first place. That’s not to say that Jones can’t still blow the lid off the defense, but he has filled out and has added impressive physicality to his game. Jones, with his ability to hit the hole in a hurry, should excel in a one-cut and go NFL system.
Damien Harris, Ala – A strong, balanced, runner with good vision and burst, Harris is not unlike former ‘Bama Heisman winner Mark Ingram. And like Ingram, Harris runs well between the tackles, making it easy to project his style into an NFL scheme. With Crimson Tide backfield partner Bo Scarbrough also entering the NFL Draft, Alabama has two soon-to-be backs with a high likelihood of making a positive impact on fantasy leagues next season.
Bryce Love, Stanford – Love will get knocked for his size (5-foot-9, and shy of 200 pounds), but don’t let that fool you into thinking he’s just a speedy change-of-pace back. Watch highlights from his 30-carry, 166-yard, 3-TD effort against Washington in mid-November before you rush to judgment. Then considered that the Huskies are the nation’s top-ranked run defense, and he did all that on an injured ankle. Love’s got speed to pay the bills, for sure, but he also brings some power to his game. He could end up handling a role in the not unlike the RB he replaced at Stanford, Christian McCaffrey, though he’ll have to show that he can excel in the passing game during the offseason evaluation period as Stanford rarely threw him the ball. Other intriguing running backs that you’ll want to be sure to note where they land in the NFL include Rashaad Penny (SDSU), Nick Chubb (Georgia), Royce Freeman (Oregon), and Scarbrough (Alabama).