Tiered running back rankings for fantasy football

Eric Karabell
ESPN PLUS


While participating in a recent 10-team, PPR draft on ESPN, I looked at the available players, in order of their ESPN ranking, and noticed something interesting, at least to me. There was what appeared to be a rogue running back on the screen and then a whole assemblage of wide receivers, a few tight ends and the top quarterbacks, and that was it.




The running back was Tennessee Titans acquisition Dion Lewis, and the mention of his name sparks conversation. Perhaps he will be more valuable than teammate Derrick Henry, perhaps not so much, but the timing and circumstances some 20 minutes into this particular draft intrigued me.


What had happened was I and the other fantasy managers had scarfed up the top 25 or so running backs in eager fashion -- great minds think alike -- and left myriad wide receivers on the board, so in order for me to find a comparable running back to Lewis, it took some scrolling. I had already secured two running backs and three wide receivers to that point, not necessarily presumed starters on this team, but a good base. As I have often stated, I ignore quarterbacks and tight ends in the first 10 rounds, in general, and aim to build a strong, deep base of running backs and wide receivers for the inevitable injuries and performance-related mess to come.


I do think Lewis will be a valuable player this season, but I have been aiming to avoid Titans running backs because there is little clarity, and in this case, the team's bye week matched one of my rostered running backs. Sure, it is a minor thing, but potentially relevant in a few months. Whatever the case, I still chose Lewis in the sixth round because he was the final running back in any reasonably comparable tier I could find and the drop-off after him was significant, but at wide receiver, whoa, I saw like six or seven options I viewed similarly.

That is why I favor a tiered system.

To me, knowing I would not get Lewis a round later but could find a wide receiver I liked made all the difference at that pick, and it was a key value judgement. It was not a top-five round, but it does not matter. I look at tiers as early as the second round, too, and use them for the flex-eligible positions and, I suppose if need be, at quarterback, though with so many options there it seems unlikely. I see a vast range of possibility for Lewis and Henry, incidentally, and perhaps I will never need to worry about it, but still, at that point of the draft, this seemed obvious. The tiered system steered me to a clear call.

Here are my PPR running back rankings in tiered form, subject to and quite likely to change at a moment's notice because things always change in the NFL. Players get hurt. Job situations alter sans notice. One random quote from new Titans coach Mike Vrabel could significantly alter how I view any members of his team for fantasy. Perhaps I would even rank Lewis after Henry if so inclined. The tiers, like the times, are always changing.




Tier 1: Top of Round 1



Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers

Todd Gurley II, Los Angeles Rams

David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals

Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys



Notes: This is my current order, but honestly, I can make a case to switch it around with any of the others first. I cannot make a case for Bell or Gurley after No. 2, though. Do not worry about holdouts. There is risk for all these fellows in some way, I suppose.



Tier 2: Round 1/2



Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs



Notes: Some will exalt the rookie to the top tier, but this is how I like it, and again, I can reasonably argue for these guys to move around the tier. I think people are scared of Hunt a bit. I think people think Kamara cannot possibly do that again. People should be a bit more concerned about the Giants' offensive line.



Tier 3: Round 2



Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers

Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars

Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons




Notes: This is a relatively safe tier. Argue that they should be part of Tier 2 and it makes sense. I worry a tad about McCaffrey getting the rushing attempts promised, but even without the extra volume, he is awesome.



Tier 4: Round 3



LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills

Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears



Notes: I have struggled to evaluate each of these fellows to some degree. In fact, I chose McCoy at pick No. 22 in a staff draft (12-team, PPR) just this week and got a full pummeling for it on Twitter. Was it fair? McCoy is not likely to get a suspension at this point for off-field controversy. Sure, he is approaching 30 years old, but he was also the No. 10 flex-eligible player in 2017 PPR scoring. He is not as efficient as in the past, and the Bills are going to be bad, but he will get volume. He will score touchdowns. I believe reports of imminent demise are unfounded and his ADP is precisely at pick No. 22, so it might not have been a value pick, but it made sense.



As for Howard, who I could have reached a bit for instead of McCoy, there is the issue of receptions. We think he will get more than last year because the Bears are saying that will be the case, but one never knows. Howard must catch more passes to be in a tier like this. Wide receivers are going heavy in the third round. These are perhaps the most polarizing, non-rookie running backs out there.



Tier 5: Round 4



Royce Freeman, Denver Broncos

Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

Jerick McKinnon, San Francisco 49ers



Notes: It does not matter to me that Mixon is more experienced than the rookie Freeman because I think Freeman is simply better and in a better situation, too. McKinnon is currently hurt, but that might not matter in a week. You might think McCoy is a terrible top-25 selection, but look how quickly the running back pool thins out. Are any of the fellows in this tier safe? Mixon was not good last year. McKinnon has not proved himself a three-down back.



Tier 6: Rounds 5-6



Alex Collins, Baltimore Ravens

Kenyan Drake, Miami Dolphins

Duke Johnson Jr., Cleveland Browns

Mark Ingram II, New Orleans Saints

Lamar Miller, Houston Texans

Dion Lewis, Tennessee Titans

Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans



Notes: Large tier here, and perhaps a few of the names do not match what other analysts believe. Collins and Drake could share touches for sure, but for now, they should be fine. Johnson is so underrated. The Browns brought in others for first- and second-down work, but they will not catch passes. Johnson catches many passes. I do not care how my running backs achieve their statistical greatness. Johnson was a shade behind McCaffrey in PPR scoring last year, the No. 11 RB. Today people ignore him. Ridiculous. People ignore Ingram because he will miss a month while suspended. Fair, I guess, but the Saints can support two top-20 running backs for sure, just like last season. I can be patient. I allude to Miller later. As for Tennessee, it is merely a guess.



Tier 7: Rounds 7-8



Marshawn Lynch, Oakland Raiders

Jay Ajayi, Philadelphia Eagles

Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks

Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks

Isaiah Crowell, New York Jets

Rex Burkhead, New England Patriots

Peyton Barber, Tampa Bay Buccaneers



Notes: So, you might not feel so good about this tier. I do not. Lynch is not young. Ajayi is not healthy. Each made my bust list. Seattle could easily share the touches. New England certainly will. Barber is a clear starter today but a rookie looms. If any of these players are your first flex option, you might not like it. That is why reaching a bit for a Tier 4 or 5 running back makes some sense.



Tier 8: Round 8?



Adrian Peterson, Washington Redskins



Notes: You do not know. You might think you know, but admit it, nobody does. There will be some big games for sure. In others, he will go nowhere running into his line. He will not break tackles. A pass-catching running back and a few plodders are still here on the Washington club. I avoid this, um, tier.



Tier 9: Round 9 and on



Kerryon Johnson, Detroit Lions

Tarik Cohen, Chicago Bears

Chris Thompson, Washington Redskins

Carlos Hyde, Cleveland Browns



Notes: A rookie, a few pass-catchers and a Browns running back walk into a bar and ... perhaps each will help fantasy teams. I can make the case for Johnson first among the Lions options, even if he barely sees the field in September. I think Cohen loses touches to Howard and Thompson is handled so carefully his value drops. And Hyde is not going to see near the touches he did last season.



It is important to note that while the section header states "Round 9 and on," that really does not mean much. If you believe Hyde is going to perform as he did last season, push Duke Johnson and the rookie aside and be a safe RB2, then do not wait until Round 9 and on. Secure him five rounds earlier. These rounds -- and the tiers, in some ways -- are just guides of what I would do. I think Hyde battles for touches all season. The point is, these are your teams, so do what you want. If you think Drake is a Tier 4 option, then go get him.



Tier 10



Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers

Ronald Jones, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Sony Michel, New England Patriots

Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts

Jordan Wilkins, Indianapolis Colts


Notes: A few of these options are appealing to me, and I might reach a bit. I think Jones should be Green Bay's starter, but his first game awaits in Week 3, so be patient. Jones has to learn to block and catch passes. Perhaps by Week 3. Michel is hurt and Bill Belichick knows it. Perhaps by Week ... do you see a pattern? Mack is hurt, too. Hey, this is the Week 3 tier!



Tier 11



C.J. Anderson, Carolina Panthers

Jamaal Williams, Green Bay Packers

Tevin Coleman, Atlanta Falcons

James White, New England Patriots

Theo Riddick, Detroit Lions

Doug Martin, Oakland Raiders



Notes: Uninspiring crew here. There is nothing wrong with choosing White or Riddick and enjoying the receptions in a PPR format. The upside just is not there. Williams has upside, I suppose. Raiders coach Jon Gruden might think Martin does, too.



Tier 12



D'Onta Foreman, Houston Texans



Notes: He is not a future Hall of Famer (well, probably not), but think about how alone he is in perceptions this late in the draft. Foreman cannot play the first 6 weeks, as he is on the PUP list. The team's starting running back did not reach 100 rushing yards in any game last season. Miller is vulnerable if Foreman returns healthy and strong. And I think he will.



Tier 13



Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns

Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts

Frank Gore, Miami Dolphins

Bilal Powell, New York Jets

Jeremy Hill, New England Patriots

LeGarrette Blount, Detroit Lions

Chris Ivory, Buffalo Bills



Notes: I simply do not see much upside to fantasy relevance here, whether the player is a rookie fighting to get on the field or a seasoned veteran who has proven to be past his prime. One note on Ivory, however: The NFL is notorious for announcing major news on Friday nights. I do not think McCoy is going to be punished anytime soon, but I do think about Ivory late if I already have McCoy. It is not the normal handcuff maneuver.



Tier 14



Corey Clement, Philadelphia Eagles

Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals

Rob Kelley, Washington Redskins

Samaje Perine, Washington Redskins

Devontae Booker, Denver Broncos

Kalen Ballage, Miami Dolphins

Darren Sproles, Philadelphia Eagles

Boston Scott, New Orleans Saints

Ty Montgomery, Green Bay Packers



Notes: Good luck!