It is never too early to start planning for the next fantasy football draft. At this point, most free agents have signed with their new teams, and only minor changes in rankings will occur for players. Unlike the past few seasons, there are no top running backs projected in this year’s rookie draft class. That means it is the perfect time to start ranking out running backs to target for the next fantasy season.
This is the final installment of a four-part series that separates the running back class into four tiers and counts down to the top back.
Fantasy Football: Tier Two Pre-Draft Running Back Rankings
7. Le’Veon Bell
Le’Veon Bell will undoubtedly be the riskiest back on the list. However, his talent can’t be denied. Sure, James Conner filled in nicely for Bell, but those who watched the games could tell that Bell is far and beyond the better back. It is tough to predict how Bell will do with the New York Jets after sitting out for a year, but he is only a year removed from averaging 17.1 points-per-game and finishing as the RB2.
As one of the best dual-threat backs in the league, it is tough not to trust Bell. He comes onto a Jets team with a great foundation as well. Sam Darnold had a solid first-year as a passer but just needs some more options at wide receiver. There is a good chance they address this in the first few rounds of the draft.
Still, Darnold is young, so the Jets have a good shot at handing the ball off to Bell a ton. Not only that but with a lack of established wide receivers, Bell is sure to keep up his receiving numbers as well. The only question is his availability. Bell has only started 16 games in a season once in his career.
The reward will be high though, as Bell has a chance for a top-three finish if all goes well for him.
6. Melvin Gordon
Melvin Gordon was on his way to a top-five season prior to getting hurt in week 12. In fact, Gordon had the second highest fantasy points-per-game with a whopping 20.8. His floor was ridiculous as well, as he never had a game with less than 15 points. If the season ended week 12, Gordon would have finished as the RB4.
Unfortunately, The Los Angeles Chargers decided to run a trick play early in the second half while blowing out the Arizona Cardinals. Gordon went down and missed the next three weeks. He came back week 15 but didn’t look the same for the rest of the year.
Still, even with missing four games last year, Gordon finished as the RB6, and he remained the second-highest scorer in terms of points per game. Gordon’s ceiling is as high as any running back in this tier in terms of a game-to-game basis. What hurts him is his availability. He’s only started 16 games in one of his four seasons.
5. Christian McCaffrey
Probably the most surprising running back of 2018 was Carolina Panthers runner Christian McCaffrey. He spent his first season splitting time with veteran Jonathan Stewart. McCaffrey demonstrated great skills catching the ball, putting up 867 yards and five touchdowns receiving.
His rushing prowess left something to be desired though. He only rushed for 435 yards on 117 carries, good for 3.7 yards-per-carry. Even though Stewart was sent packing for last year, many weren’t sure what to expect from McCaffrey. But, he ended up having a huge jump from year one to two. He increased his YPC to 5.0, rushing for over 1,000 yards in the process. He also built on his receiving, catching 107 passes for 867 yards.
McCaffrey ended up leading the team in receiving yards. Next up was D.J. Moore, with almost 100 yards less. Moore showed promise as a rookie but didn’t play well enough to establish himself as the number one target. Devin Funchess was third in receiving yards but signed with the Indianapolis Colts. Tight end Greg Olsen has been Cam Newton’s favorite target for years, but injuries have piled up on him the past few seasons.
With all this considered, McCaffrey could have to put the offense on his back again in 2019, leading to gold for his fantasy owners.
4. Alvin Kamara
The entire NFL world got a taste of what Alvin Kamara could do as a feature back during the first week of the 2018 season. With Mark Ingram suspended the first two weeks of 2018, Kamara exploded for 34.1 points in standard leagues. However, this came with Kamara only carrying the ball eight times for 29 yards. But, week two he came back down to earth with only 11.9 points. Still, if that is his floor, fantasy team owners will take it.
When signs pointed to Ingram leaving for greener pastures in the offseason, it looked like the backfield would belong solely to Kamara. However, the New Orleans Saints decided they wanted to stick with what had worked best the past two years: a tandem of backs.
Latavius Murray came in as Ingram’s replacement, and will undoubtedly get a solid share of snaps. He was the starter for a few years with the Oakland Raiders, boasting a 1,000-yard season back in 2015. He’s filled in nicely as a rotational back with the Minnesota Vikings, putting up solid stats when he starts as well. This rotation probably keeps Kamara in about the same position he was in last year.
3. Ezekiel Elliott
Interestingly enough, last year can kind of be considered a down year for Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott in fantasy. He finished as the RB5 in standard scoring leagues, accumulating a career-best 2,001 scrimmage yards. What hurt Zeke were his touchdown numbers. He only managed nine touchdowns, the same number he had last season, where he played five fewer games. To put that in perspective, he had 16 touchdowns as a rookie. That year he finished as the RB2.
Some may argue players like Kamara and McCaffrey would be better picks, but Elliott has proven himself to one of the safest picks fantasy team owners can grab at the top of the draft. Aside from the six games he missed due to suspension, Elliott has only missed two other games in his career so far. Those two games were week 17 bouts where the Cowboys rested him for the playoffs. In other words, he can be counted on to suit any week.
From there, he has zero competition for snaps. Dallas has built their offense around a strong running game. He will be helped by the fact that Amari Cooper will be fully acclimated to the team this season. This will force teams to respect the deep ball, opening up lanes for Zeke to run through. Of course, he will also stay heavily involved in the run game.
Elliott “falling” to someone as the number three back will not be disappointing at all.
2. Todd Gurley
Many will be scared away from Todd Gurley after the hearing the news that he has arthritis in his knee. This leaves a ton of questions for his long-term value; however, he should still have a few top seasons left in him. Independent doctor Jesse Morse says that Gurley has likely peaked, but “could possibly have one to two more years of elite top-five running back talent.”
Gurley’s decline is inevitable, but he is unlikely to fall off a cliff as early as next season. For the past two years, he has been above and beyond the best running back out there. In 2017, his 319.3 points were over 60 points more than the number two running back. He picked up right where he left off in 2018, racking up 313.1 points despite missing the final two weeks of the season.
Though his workload might be managed moving forward, Gurley is far to talented to not take at the top of 2019 drafts.
1. Saquon Barkley
Saquon Barkley has a chance to be the net Gurley. He had an awesome first season in the league. In addition to his 1,307 rushing yards, Barkley also put up 721 receiving yards. This made him only the third rookie running back in history to put up over 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Barkley is a threat to score any time he gets the ball, boasting five touchdowns of over 50 yards.
He will have to put the offense on his back this season too. The New York Giants decided to part ways with superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. in the offseason, trading him to the Cleveland Browns. Sterling Shepard will be the number one receiver now, but he is nowhere near the talent that Beckham was. Eli Manning isn’t getting any younger either, and the Giants will probably run the ball as much as possible to mask his regression.
Barkley finished as the RB2 in his rookie season, only behind Gurley. This was despite an offensive line rated 29th in run blocking by Football Outsiders. Barkley often had to do it all on his own. However, the line should be much better in 2019. For one, the team traded Olivier Vernon for one of the top guards in football, Kevin Zeitler. Nate Solder had a rocky start to 2018 after being paid big bucks to at left tackle. But he improved drastically during the second half of the year. If the line can at least improve a little, Barkley should have no problem getting back to 2,000 scrimmage yards.
Last Word on Tier One’s Pre-Draft Fantasy Football Running Back Rankings
And here ends the pre-draft fantasy football running back rankings. These backs got their spot due to the ridiculously high ceiling on a week-to-week basis. Honestly, any one of them has a chance to be the top back, but a few have a little bit more of a chance to be the number one back.
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