Although the role of the traditional running back has been noticeably diminished recently, athletes at the position have expanded their unique skill sets to become more versatile in quarterback driven offenses. While there are still plenty of purist rushers who pride themselves on carrying the rock and busting through stout defensive lines, when it comes to fantasy football, the most coveted running backs are efficient as both runners and pass catchers. As a result, exceptional running backs have elevated their value on both the field and in fantasy football as vital contributors to their respective teams.
In terms of deciding where to select a running back in your draft, you should take comfort in the fact that you do not have to be hasty to acquire an elite rusher. While there are certainly prospects that are certainly worth taking with a #1 pick, the immense depth at the position gives you the liberty to be more selective in how you pick a running back that perfectly fits the overall make up of your fantasy squad.
10. Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland Browns
Okay, so you’re probably asking yourself this obvious question: how can any player on the Cleveland Browns be considered a top-10 fantasy prospect? While this is a fair inquiry, a closer look at Isaiah Crowell’s sneaky impressive output will certainly alter your understandable albeit short-sighted assumption. Rushing for 4.8 yards per carry in 2016, Crowell proved to be one of the more efficient rushers in the league last year. His elusiveness allowed him to gain 3.3 yards before contact, which was essential to Crowell’s success considering he is not the best at absorbing contact. While Crowell may not be your first choice at the position, he definitely has one of higher floors as a reliable running back.
9. Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars
For anyone that followed the 2017 NFL Draft, it was readily apparent that there were several franchise running backs to be had within the first couple of rounds. However, Fournette was the first to be selected at the position and considering what he did while attending LSU there is every reason to expect Fournette to be just as dominant in the NFL. At six feet and weighing in 240 pounds, Fournette is a monstrous rusher that accelerates quickly out of the backfield while using his immense size to bulldoze over opposing defenders. While Fournette struggles as a pass catcher for now, he will get an extremely high volume of carries considering how poor the quarterback play is in Jacksonville.
8. Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears
At the beginning of last year, Jordan Howard was a relatively unknown rookie running back who opened the season third on the Bears depth chart at the position. One year later, Howard is now the bears featured back and will look build off his impressive rookie campaign where he garnered 5.2 rushing yards per carry. As a receiver, Howard was effective in terms of yards after the catch (2.2), but struggled mightily when it came to keeping his hands on the ball consistently (position-high eight drops). Still, Howard will get plenty of opportunities to be the Bears go-to offensive work horse as Chicago’s quarterback situation is dicey at best.
7. DeMarco Murray, Tennessee Titans
After a debacle of a season with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2015, Demarco Murray got a new lease on life last season as the featured back for the Titans. His versatility as both a decisive runner (4.4 yards per carry, nine rushing touchdowns) and trusted receiver (377 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns) has allowed him to become one of the most trusted running backs in fantasy football. While there is some concern that Murray could see his role slightly reduced as second year back Derrick Henry continues to develop, the 29 year-old rusher should continue to confidently stave off Henry’s ascension in the Titans offense this season.
6. Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins
Similar to Jordan Howard, Jay Ajayi started out the season with a massive chip on his shoulder after he lost the starting rushing job to Arian Foster. After Foster’s season-ending injury and eventual retirement, Ajayi exploded on to the scene as a fierce runner who effectively utilized his physicality to gain extra yardage (2.5 yards after contact, fifth at the position). While some will point to Ajayi’s three game stretch where he had consecutive 200 rushing yard showings as a sign of potential regression this year, his intimidating toughness and persistence to fight for every valuable yard cannot be taught and will definitely be one of the many reasons why the second year rusher will be just as effective in 2017.
5. Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
One of the most dangerous red-zone threats last year, Melvin Gordon was a scoring machine as he racked up 12 total touchdowns during a resurgent 2016 campaign. Despite being below average when it came to yards per carry (3.9), his ability to garner two extra yards after contact per carry allowed him to make up somewhat for this particular drawback. His effectiveness as a receiver elevated Gordon’s worth in fantasy to elite heights and will undoubtedly become a much more prominent part of his game in 2017.
4. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
If you’re looking for one of the most dynamic running backs in the league, it’s hard to ignore McCoy’s coveted output as a high-scoring fantasy weapon. Rushing for 5.4 yards per carry, McCoy proved to be one of the most elusive backs in the league last year and took his abilities to the next level as he became a trusted receiver coming out of the backfield(caught 91% of passes thrown his way). Considering McCoy posted a top-10 fantasy week during 53% of his 15 outings, his elevated projected floor will allow him to be one of the best rushers in the league even if he gets less carries under a head coach that is not Rex Ryan.
3. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
Despite accruing 52 less touches, Devonta Freeman produced only 32 less fantasy points in 2016. His 4.8 yards per carry is impressive by itself, but when you combine it with 3.2 yards before contact it becomes clear that Freeman is in an ideal situation in Atlanta where he is the beneficiary of terrific run blocking. On top of that, Freeman was a top-5 rusher and receiving running back last year, which will allow him to accumulate points in a plethora of ways this season. While the presence of running back Tevin Coleman could detract slightly from some of Freeman’s potential contributions, it’s abundantly clear that Freeman will continue to be the favored rusher in Atlanta.
2. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
While Le’Veon Bell missed four games in 2016 due to suspension, he still managed to finish fifth at the position in rushing yards and finished second in targets, receptions and receiving yards as well. His coveted elusiveness combined with his production as a dynamic offensive asset will make Bell one of the most valuable fantasy weapons in 2017. While Bell has yet to show up to practice with the Steelers, fantasy owners should not be concerned as Bell has proven that he can miss time with his team and still produce at an elite level when he is present.
1. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
While it’s fair to assume that David Johnson will most likely be unable to replicate his 20 total touchdowns scored number from last year, the immensely productive running back will certainly come close to being that dominant when it comes to finding the end zone. His 2,118 total yards more than made up for his pedestrian 4.2 yards per carry statistic, which was in part the result of the garnering 293 rushing attempts. However, what really allowed Johnson to register a top-10 fantasy week during 75% of his outings (position best) was his adeptness as a receiver. His 80 total receptions and 879 receiving yards were far and away the best amongst running backs in 2016 and this same type of production will allow him to be the best running back in fantasy football in 2017.