The running back is arguably the most crucial of the four skill positions in fantasy football. It’s a top heavy position and not nearly as deep as the wide receivers. It’s a position ripe with one hit wonders, aging talents, and mysterious rookies. With the talent at the position not being as deep as the wide receivers, it has become notoriously difficult to recover from an early round bust at running back. For this reason, running backs have become the most difficult minefield for fantasy owners to navigate on draft day, as well as the most crucial. With that being said, here are three early round running backs that may warrant a second thought before pulling the trigger on them on draft day.
Early Round Running Backs to Avoid in 2017
(For the purposes of this article, only running backs with average draft positions (ADP) in the top 25 are being considered)
Melvin Gordon, LAC
ADP 8.7, RB5
Remember in 2015 when Melvin Gordon failed to score a single touchdown in 14 games? One year and twelve touchdowns later and Melvin Gordon is suddenly a first round pick. The issue is that touchdowns are the single hardest stat to predict in fantasy football and Gordon going from zero to 12 in one season makes his projected scoring that much more volatile. It would be nice if there were other areas of his game that owners could rely on to generate points but, in reality, he just missed out on 1,000 yards rushing last year and has yet to hit the four yard per carry mark over an entire season. He’s also not a major factor in the passing game, only averaging four targets last season for about 32 yards a game.
On the positive side, the San Diego Chargers made some moves to improve their abysmal offensive line. They added left tackle Russell Okung in free agency and drafted guards Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney in the second and third rounds, respectively. If one or both of the rookies can step up that ought to really help the Chargers run game, but that is a major “if”. The Chargers also drafted wide receiver Mike Williams out of Clemson with their first round pick.
Many people hoped that Williams would bring a major improvement to the Chargers passing game and, as a result, open up some more running lanes for Gordon. Unfortunately, he suffered a herniated disk in the spring which caused him to miss all of training camp. He is projected to return as early as October but, having missed training camp as a rookie receiver, it begs the question whether he can adjust to the flow of an NFL game and form some chemistry with quarterback Philip Rivers in time to make an impact on the offense.
Gordon’s high touchdown rate, combined with improvements to the offensive line and receiving corps, is a major reason why he is going in the first round of most drafts. The problem is that touchdowns are nearly impossible to predict and three of the four aforementioned additions are rookies, one of whom is coming off an injury that caused him to miss training camp. There is no denying that Gordon will maintain his high usage rate from last year. But, with an underwhelming yards per carry average and a heavy reliance on touchdowns, it is difficult to justify using an ever-so-valuable first round pick on him.
Jordan Howard, CHI
ADP 13.7, RB7
Heading into the 2016 campaign, Jeremy Langford was the starting running back for the Chicago Bears. However, a week three injury to Langford cleared the way for Jordan Howard to step in to the starting role. He never looked back. Howard rode that opportunity all the way to 1,313 rushing yards and six touchdowns. He benefited from a bell cow level usage rate and the receiving threat of Alshon Jeffery out wide. That usage will probably continue, if not increase, in 2017. He also has the benefit of playing behind one of the better offensive lines in the league. So what’s not to like here?
This past off-season, the Bears lost their number one receiver, Jeffery, to free agency. In all honesty, he was not very effective last year but teams would have been foolish not to game plan for him. Behind Jeffery, the Bears have Cameron Meredith and Kevin White. White showed flashes of what he could be before going down with a season ending injury in week four.
Meredith, on the other hand, was healthy for the entire year but was unimpressive when filling in for Jeffery after the latter’s suspension. Howard will undoubtedly be the focal point of that offense this year but, with either a sub-par vet or a rookie under center, teams will be daring the Bears to throw the football.
The reality is that this is a very different Bears offense from last season. Fantasy owners can’t bank on either Mike Glennon or Mitchell Trubisky to be effective enough to keep defenses honest, especially when they are throwing to Kevin White and Cameron Meredith. Kevin White may very well end up being a solid receiver, but he has less than four professional games under his belt, making his production a gamble. With highly questionable quarterback play and no reliable deep threats, opposing defenses will likely focus their game plan on Howard.
It is safe to say that Jordan is now “the man” in the Chicago. After what he did last season, fantasy owners have been jumping at the opportunity to draft him. However, a shaky offense may prevent him from producing at the level he did last season. Langford is also back at 100% to start the season. Considering he is more effective in the passing game and a bigger bruiser, he may very well steal some third down looks from Howard as well as vulture some touchdowns. All in all, it looks like it could be a rough season for Howard, making him a risky early round pick. However, if he comes out of this matching his production from 2016, he solidifies himself as one of best running backs in football. Owners, place your bets!
Jay Ajayi, MIA
ADP 15, RB9
No one expected Jay Ajayi to do what he did in 2016. His 2016 ADP was around 111 and there were many leagues where he was on the waiver wire a few weeks into the season. That is until breakout performance in week five where he rushed for 204 yards and two touchdowns against a solid Pittsburgh Steelers defense. He quickly became the top waiver wire target that week. Ajayi didn’t disappoint the owners who managed to snag him and came back with another 200 yard performance in week six. In his next game, against the New York Jets, he hit triple digits again, rushing for 111 yards on 24 carries. Suddenly, Ajayi was one of the hottest commodities in fantasy football.
However, after his week eight performance against the Jets (his third triple digit rushing total in three games), Ajayi came back down to earth. He only hit triple digits once more, a week 16 matchup against the Buffalo Bills where he posted 206 yards, but this time he need a whopping 32 carries to do it. Other than that, not only did he not hit 100 rushing yards, he never even made it to 80. Of the four games where he hit triple digits, two were against the Bills, who where a bottom five rushing defense in 2016.
On the year, Ajayi rushed for 1,272 yards and eight touchdowns. Approximately 58% of those yards came from four games and five of those eight touchdown came from the same four games. Obviously, those 200 yard outbursts cannot be relied on in 2017.
As if the questionable sustainability of his production is not enough, Ajayi has some major injury concerns as well. There are still the knee concerns that caused him to drop to the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Ajayi has a degenerative “bone on bone” knee issue that stemmed from a devastating knee injury that he suffered in 2011. Many scouts have described his knee as a ticking time bomb and questioned if he would be able to last more than three years in the league.
There is also the concern about the strength of the quarterback play down in Miami. Starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill is set to miss the entire season with a torn ACL. The Dolphins went out and signed Jay Cutler, reuniting him with his former offensive coordinator Adam Gase. Cutler was highly ineffective in his last couple of years with the Bears, but many are speculating that Gase can bring the best out of him. Whether or not that is true remains to be seen but, until then, there are major questions about how effective the offense can be under. If Cutler plays like he has the past two seasons, the Dolphins won’t be able to keep defenses honest through the air and Ajayi’s production will suffer as a result.
Ajayi’s average ADP of 15 suggests that he is being taken in the second round of most drafts. With some of his individual performances last year still fresh on many fantasy owners’ minds, Ajayi is now being overvalued. With the amount of question marks surrounding him and the team as a whole, he is way too risky to warrant using an early round pick on him.