Fantasy

Fantasy Football 2017: Early Running Back Rankings

Ezekiel Elliott

The incentive to draft a running back this fantasy football season is simple: do so early, or else you’re going to struggle.

Yeah, things are desperate this season, at least that’s what we’re being told, anyway. Fantasy owners go through pre-draft strategies faster than ESPN goes through employees. Zing! But no, seriously, each year there seems to be some new strategy to live by, and if we’re not being told to draft a wide receiver first, we’re being lectured on the importance of snapping up a running back post-haste.

It’s always hard to argue with proven track records, I guess, and outside of the guys on this list (and perhaps a few others), your options range from A-grade elite, right down to ‘absolute-bum’ level pretty quickly — mainly because there’s a handful of guys that probably won’t even touch the ball at that much this season.

Drafting a good running back is quite literally money. We all want it, but it’s never really there when we need it. Let’s face it, running backs get hurt, and so do our feelings when they suck, so if you’re looking to find some kind of reliability, pay attention to the following:

1. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers

Yeah, there’s 50% worry and 50% “Bell is the man don’t tell me otherwise” going on here. On the worry side, he’s fresh off surgery on his core muscles and was slapped with the franchise tag this season. On the other side, well, Bell scored 10-plus fantasy points 85.3% of the time over the last three years, so he’s kinda good.

Bell has been referred to as “all round” more times than I’ve had hot dinners this offseason. It is somewhat true, though. He played in 73.5% of third-and-long yardage situations last season, so you know he’s good for carries. Oh, and if he has another season of magnificence, he’ll sit third on the Steelers; all-time leading rushers behind Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis.

So how do you solve a problem like owning the first pick? Easy. Le’Ve-o-w-n Bell.

2. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals

Okay, this is your alternative.

Like the former option in Bell, Johnson comes with some ouchies and owwies as well. He hurt his knee in the season finale last season, and even though we’re told it’s fully recovered, it’s still something you want to be sure of when you’re drafting a first-round back.

With Johnson, you’re getting pretty much everything and more. He led the league in touchdowns last season and posted 100-plus yards from scrimmage in each of his first 15 games. The thing that separates Johnson from his counterparts, though, is the fact that he was the Cardinals’ second leading receiver last year, and he pretty much always guarantees you double-digit touches in every game.

3. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

We’ve definitely found the go-to fantasy replacement for Adrian Peterson, that’s for sure. We’re also reminded why teams still need to draft a running back with the first five picks in the draft, because hey, if we think optimistically for a change, maybe not everyone will turn out to be the next Trent Richardson.

That may be the only time I’ll ever get to mention those two names in the one sentence, but when it comes to Zeke, I’m really a “glass half full” kinda guy. It’s absurd, I know, what more does he have to offer? Well, some pass-catching would be nice, and if the Cowboys actually left him on the field in key situations, we’d possibly be looking at quadruple the production this season.

There are a thousand fun stats to amuse yourself with when it comes to Zeke. The one I love the most, though, is this: his 4.66% touchdown scoring rate was the most efficient in a rookie season, right behind only Clinton Portis, Fred Taylor, and Mike Anderson. Zeke can easily be No. 1 on this list if he shows us some surefire hands in the receiving department this year.

4. Melvin Gordon, San Diego Chargers

Instead of spending quality time with my family, I spent most of September-December watching highlight after highlight of Melvin Gordon doing his thang. Safe to say, I regret nothing.

There seems to be a big misconception that Gordon’s numbers are a facade. A knee injury cost him, but he was fantastic in the red zone last season, rushing for 93 yards and eight touchdowns, so really, if you’re a keeper league owner who drafted Gordon in the fifth or sixth rounds last season, you’re laughing all the way to the bank.

Gordon is easily in the elite tier of running backs now, and couple the fact that he averaged a lazy 16.6 fantasy points per game last season with a replenished Chargers offensive line, this could be another wham-bam kind of season from a strong downhill runner.

5. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills

It might not be today, but there could come a time when we’re left saying (or singing I hope) “Oh boy McCoy, what could’ve been.” It was another season of on-again-off-again injuries last year, and since he is turning 29 this month, there’s a lot of people worrying about just how much pulp this juicy orange still has left to squeeze.

The Bills have done McCoy a favor by adding Mike Tolbert to help out with short-yardage situations, but losing Mike Gillislee probably won’t be the only “gimme” the Bills hand down to the Patriots this year. I kind of like McCoy as a sell-high right now if you’re a dynasty owner, and if you do want to draft him early, just hope that he stays healthy and the Bills actually use him smartly.

6. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons

Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 1,599 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. That’s great for real life football, but if you want the same kind of production out of Freeman in fantasy realm again this year, he needs to see at least 70% of the snaps.

Freeman is probably the most likely to leapfrog a bunch of his predecessors on this list. He’s 25 years old and beaming with testosterone and pure athleticism. The great thing is, you can snatch him up in the first round nice and late, and still know that you have a tidy RB1 that could explode again this year.

7. DeMarco Murray, Tennessee Titans

The situation in Tennessee is a bit muddled. Murray is the man for now, while Derrick Henry sits idly by in the background making cups of tea.

Despite what you think, Murray is still a first-round pick, and I still think he’s one of your next best options behind Bell/Johnson/Zeke. To put this rumor to bed, he does stay healthy, and he even managed five plus 100-yard rushing games last season.

The Titans are another team with a pretty formidable offensive line. Mariota will throw A LOT more this season, but the Titans gave up the seventh fewest sacks last year, so you pretty much know Murray is going to have plenty of holes to slip through again this year.

8. Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins

Playing well for eight weeks out of the sixteen used to be Ryan Tannehill’s full-time job, but Ajayi took over quite nicely last season.

Big things certainly do come in small packages, because Ajayi put up 1,272 rushing yards in half a season last year. He might have less to do with the receiving game in 2017 now that Damien Williams has emerged as a reliable set of hands, but those three 200+ yard rushing games last year make Ajayi a really nice early second-round pick if he actually, y’know, falls that far.

9. Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears

Weren’t the Bears supposed to be a running back by committee or something?

Yeah, turns out they’re really just an “I’ll do what I want” by Jordan Howard one-man band.

Last season he took part in 70% of the rushing attempts, and if you look at the numbers, sure, you could convince yourself he’ll post over 1,300 yards again. If you’re more of a superstitious person, though, or should I say, a realistic person, one quick glance at the Bears’ overall offense spells out a whole bunch of trouble (Deja Vu!). The Bears are manned by Mike Glennon, fresh off two years warming the pine. They’re also minus Alshon Jeffery, don’t forget. This might not equal total disaster for Howard, but the Bears offense will be … um … something, this season.

10. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams

Howard could easily take over from Gurley’s awful 2016 season if things don’t go according to plan. In the meantime, the projection for Gurley is everything and anything you can ever imagine.

It really comes down to the Rams’ offensive line, and since Gurley spent most of his time dusting himself off in the backfield last year, who knows what sort of protection the Rams’ front men will dish up this time around. One thing is for sure, though, Gurley has to rush for at least a handful of 100+ yard games this year. He failed to achieve that even once in 2016, and with 27-year-old Lance Dunbar right behind him (plus a few other youngsters) there’s no room to be trippin’ again this season.

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