2016 was the year of the wide receiver during fantasy drafts. It was a drastic change from the “norm” in which running backs dominate the first round of drafts. Players like Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr and Julio Jones comprised the top three spots in most 2016 drafts. Despite putting up first round worthy numbers, those receivers were outproduced by the top running backs in the league. In this article, we take an early look at the 2017 rankings, focusing on the top ten fantasy football running backs. Expect 2017 to go back to the “norm” where running backs become the focus at the top of fantasy football drafts.
2017 Top Ten Fantasy Football Running Back Rankings
David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
David Johnson has amassed a total of 1,820 yards and 24 rushing touchdowns in his first two seasons in the NFL. Those numbers are even more impressive considering Johnson didn’t take over as the starter for the Arizona Cardinals until week 13 in 2015. Johnson has shown explosive speed and quickness and an uncanny ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. The former college standout at Northern Iowa caught 80 passes on 120 targets for 879 yards and four touchdowns in 2016. His dual-threat ability makes him the top running back target in 2017 and most likely the number one overall pick in fantasy drafts next season.
Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
There is no questioning the ability of Le’Veon Bell. The Pittsburgh Steelers running back exudes patience and skill. The only knock on Bell is his ability to play a full 16 game season. Whether it be injury issues or off-the-field issues, the multi-talented Bell has yet to complete a full 16 game slate. His health showed up in the AFC Championship Game when he left in the first quarter with a groin injury. However, after posting 1,268 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground, along with 616 yards and two touchdowns on 75 catches in only 12 games, Bell stands near the top of the list for 2017. The Steelers are expected to either put the franchise tag on Bell or lock him up long term. Either way Bell could be the key to a 2017 fantasy championship.
Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
Ezekiel Elliott was a trendy first round pick in 2016 fantasy drafts. Even though the rookie running back was dominant at Ohio State University, there were still some fans questioning the hype. After four 100+ yard rushing games in his first six, that questioning was put to rest. Elliott, running behind the best offensive line in the NFL had an historic rookie season. His 1,631 rushing yards rank third behind George Rodgers (1,674) in 1981 with the New Orleans Saints and Eric Dickerson (1,808) in 1983 with the Los Angeles Rams. It’s safe to say that Elliott lived up to the hype during his rookie campaign and as long as he keeps running behind that offensive line, he will do the same during his sophomore season.
LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
The man they call “Shady” was once again the focal point of the Buffalo Bills offense. LeSean McCoy put together another impressive season rushing for 1,267 and 13 touchdowns. There is so much unrest in Buffalo over who is going to be the quarterback that McCoy is almost certain to produce again in the 2017. Like Bell and Johnson, McCoy also has the ability to break off big plays in the passing game. He caught 50 of his 57 targets for 356 yards. If you miss out one of the top three McCoy is more than capable of anchoring your fantasy backfield in 2017.
Melvin Gordon, San Diego Chargers
After a lackluster rookie season, Melvin Gordon burst onto the scene in 2016. An early season injury to Danny Woodhead opened the door for Gordon to become the main guy in San Diego. For many fantasy players that follow the concept of “zero running back”, Gordon more than delivered. The former Wisconsin Badger ran for 997 yards and ten touchdowns. He also caught 41 balls for 419 and two scores. Gordon suffered a late season injury that stopped him from reaching the 1,000 yard mark. Despite falling three yards short of that mark, Gordon will turn his 2016 season into a late first round pick in 2017 fantasy drafts.
Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears
Lost in the shuffle of the Ezekiel Elliott hype was the sensational season put together by Jordan Howard in 2016. The Chicago Bears rookie ran for 1,313 yards good enough for second only to Elliott in 2016. Howard did not enter the season as the starter but after Jeremy Langford got off to a slow start as well as getting injured, Howard took over. Howard put together seven games with 100+ yards and had six touchdowns for the season. He is the unquestioned #1 running back entering 2017 and will offer plenty of late 1st, early 2nd round value.
Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
Devonta Freeman is one half of the Atlanta Falcons two-headed monster with Tevin Coleman. According to playerprofiler.com, Freeman owned a 62.8% snap share compared to 44.7% for Coleman in 2016. Despite the near 60/40 split with Coleman, Freeman cracked 1,000 yards rushing (1,079) and ran for 11 touchdowns. He also shined in the passing game, catching 54 passes on 65 targets for 462 yards and two touchdowns. The Falcons have one of the best offenses in the league with Freeman being an integral part of that. 2017 will be another big year for him and the Falcons.
DeMarco Murray, Tennessee Titans
After a non-productive one year stint with the Philadelphia Eagles, DeMarco Murray returned to his all-pro form in his first year with the Tennessee Titans. Murray ran for nearly 1,300 yards (1,287) and nine touchdowns in 2016. Even with Derrick Henry in the fold, Murray provided fantasy championship caliber numbers last season. While his rushing numbers may take a slight dip as Henry gets more touches, Murray’s pass catching skills keep him in the top ten for 2017.
Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins
Jay Ajayi burst onto the scene week five against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ajayi torched the Steelers defense for 204 yards and two touchdowns. What we didn’t know at the time was that would be the first of three 200+ yard performances for Ajayi. He would do it the following week (214) at home against the Buffalo Bills, and yet again (206) against Buffalo in week 16. The second year back finished the season with 1,272 yards and eight touchdowns. He enters 2017 as the starter and should only build off his impressive 2016 campaign.
Lamar Miller, Houston Texans
With his move to Houston from Miami, Lamar Miller finally got his chance to shine as a number one running back. While the Texans offense struggled most of the year, Miller cracked the 1,000 yard mark for the second time in his career. His five touchdowns were a little low for fantasy owners to accept, but that number should improve in 2017. Miller rounds out our top ten and will offer plenty of upside next season.