The influx of rookie running backs in 2017 that dominated the fantasy season seems to follow a trend that is showing no signs of slowing down as another major crop breaks into the league in 2018. Last season saw FOUR rookies finish the year in the top 10 in PPR scoring (Kamara, Hunt, Fournette, McCaffrey), setting the table for an interesting follow up year. As dynasty players can note from early rookie drafts, it hasn’t been uncommon to see eight running backs go in the first round. With a base that deep, there are several players ready to turn heads and send veteran values into a tailspin.
You could make the argument that the position has never been deeper than it will be heading into 2018, but there are plenty of question marks that seem to be arising which could haunt position battles across the league to the likes of nothing we have seen before. Despite several teams moving to a multi-back approach, the leaders of the pack remain – the only concern that remains is if they can avoid a severe injury (or suspension) that can demolish your team.
Again, no surprise at the first four names atop the list. Gurley single-handedly won millions of fantasy football leagues with back to back monster performances in Week 15 and 16, and as for Bell, Elliott and Johnson, they’re more than capable of doing the same – specifically Elliott who sees Indianapolis and Tampa Bay in the final weeks of the fantasy playoffs. Speaking of Johnson, is anyone that overly concerned about his return from the wrist injury that sidelined him for the season? It has been interesting to see the lack of news on it, even if it was a freak injury.
Just past the top dogs is a stretch of seven players than includes five backs that are either in their rookie or second season. The lowest of that stretch, Leonard Fournette, provided some cause for concern in his first NFL season as he saw his yards after contact, breakaway percentage and elusive rating all drop a considerable amount according to Pro Football Focus. Minus a few long breakaway touchdowns, you could even argue it was a disappointing season for the LSU alum.
Rounding out the top 15 is a group that you could say underperformed in 2017 in one way or another. Devonta Freeman? Injuries. Jordan Howard? Disappearing act. Christian McCaffrey? Awful YPC. Joe Mixon? Injuries and awful offensive line. With each team making some significant changes to personnel and even coaching for some, it’s easy to group this bunch together in taking a leap forward this season.
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Here’s where the real fun begins.
With the exception of RB16, Alex Collins, who I believe is ready to break out and could easily finish top 10 in 2018, the rest of this group is best considered a crapshoot. Few saw Jerick McKinnon as a stud running back to the likes that San Francisco is about to set him up as, and the signing of Dion Lewis in Tennessee has done nothing but muddy the value of both the former Patriot and Derrick Henry.
There are a couple interesting names floating in the 20s this season, specifically a rookie who should have a wide-open door to nab the starting spot in Denver, Royce Freeman. A lot of teams were scared off by the amount of mileage on the Oregon product, but you cannot deny the talent he has which could make him a three-down force in the pros.
Speaking of Denver, their recently dismissed starter C.J. Anderson finds a new home in Carolina and could easily be a sleeper 1,000-yard rusher this season. He is an immediate upgrade over Jonathan Stewart who touched the rock 206 times last season. If Anderson receives a similar workload, there’s little to question in whether he could hit 850 yards and six touchdowns as a floor. I don’t think 1,100 yards is out of the question for a back who is still only 27 years old.
The next tier is a haven for what really gives the position depth in PPR leagues. Cohen, Johnson, Burkhead, White and Riddick should all carve out a decent passing role but could also infuriate owners with inconsistency week to week.
The most interesting name on this list for me is Marlon Mack. The Colts made a significant investment in their offensive line this offseason to keep returning quarterback Andrew Luck upright, and the same should be said for opening new holes in the running game which should be led by Mack this season. Chances are he will lose a chunk of snaps to some combination of Nyheim Hines, Jordan Wilkins and Robert Turbin, but this is Mack’s backfield to lose.
Our RB32, Lamar Miller, could have fallen further down the list but not because of his play – but because of the offensive line that will be blocking for him. Houston will come into 2018 with hands down the worst offensive line in the league. Just reading the starters off will make anyone cringe, and for a player like Miller who averaged a paltry 3.7 yards per carry last year, there wouldn’t be much shock if that number dropped.
The further we go down the rankings, each group seems to have a theme attached with the bulk of the players. This group? The “Why won’t you just go away?” tier. Now of course not everyone in this group is on that list but we’ll set aside LeGarrette Blount, Doug Martin, Frank Gore and Jeremy Hill for those honors. It’s easy to speculate that Matt Patricia will put Blount in the same role he had in New England, Doug Martin may very well beat out another aged back in Marshawn Lynch, rumors have swirled that Frank Gore may keep Kenyan Drake from touches and if you can correctly guess what Jeremy Hill will do from week to week as a Patriots running back, then I would appreciate your help pulling next week’s lottery numbers.
The pair of NFC West players on this list, Chris Carson and Matt Breida, may not be the most valuable assets to start the year, but early OTAs seem to put both players in good standing to at the very least be a change of pace back while waiting for an injury or incompetence to bestow the players in front of them.
We wrap up the top 75 with a group of lottery tickets this upcoming season. Chris Ivory could carve out a nice little role and even be a very solid pickup if LeSean McCoy misses a game or two, same goes for Austin Ekeler who put up some respectable lines last season even while Melvin Gordon was healthy.
Jordan Wilkins and Robert Turbin will be the matchup to watch this summer. If Marlon Mack falters in any way, whoever nabs that spot behind him will have a chance to become top dog.
UP NEXT: WIDE RECEIVERS AND THE CHANGING OF THE GUARD
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