Where It All Began: Top 40 Fantasy Running Backs 2018
I can remember as a kid my dad would disappear for a day in mid-August each year to attend his fantasy football draft. He’d come home late being a little buzzed and in a good mood, talking about how great his team will be, and talking smack about the teams his buddies drafted. One of the funniest stories I remember hearing from him was one about this guy who got way too drunk and drafted the waitress and the Virgin Mary with consecutive picks. If I remember correctly, that guy actually made the playoffs that year.
Being raised around it and being a huge football fan in general, fantasy football was always something of interest to me. And in 2007, I finally got a chance to play for the first time. I was 17, and my dad’s work league had someone drop out last minute. I had the $150 to buy in (or whatever it was) saved up already and told him I wanted in. He approved of the idea – and I’m sure the other guys in the league were more than happy to take the easy money from a kid. But I had been training for this day for a couple years at that point, conducting fantasy draft after fantasy draft in whatever Madden game I owned at the time. Sure, Madden and fantasy football aren’t the same, but it familiarized teenager-me with depth charts, the pecking order at each position, injury reports and injury recovery times, and gave me surprisingly accurate stat projections I used to help me as a fantasy footballer in real life.
That video game must have given me a deeper insight into fantasy football than I realized at the time, or maybe it was just beginner’s luck. My first-ever first-round selection was Shaun Alexander. In 2005, the Seahawks star running back ran for an absolutely absurd 1880 yards and 27 touchdowns. In 2006, Alexander sustained an injury, limiting him to 10 games, 896 yards and 7 touchdowns. For me in 2007, I still thought he had something left in the tank. If I recall correctly, I had the tenth and final selection in the first round that year. The pick turned out to be a bust, Alexander never getting back to where he was before the injury.
His season ended with only running for 716 yards and 4 touchdowns in 13 games. Mine ended with a Super Bowl win. Me, a first-timer. I recovered from swinging hard and missing big on my first-round selection by nailing the rest of the draft and making the right calls on waiver-wire pickups. Perhaps it wasn’t just beginner’s luck. Turns out, it was just something I had a knack for.
I returned the next season to draft LaDainian Tomlinson in the first round, then guided my 2008 squad to the Super Bowl again, narrowly losing by about 4 points. In 2009, I wasn’t invited back. Guess they didn’t want to lose anymore to some angsty-looking youth with long ‘emo’ hair, a bad goatee, and baggy pants. I hadn’t yet made the full transition to skinny jeans when I was 17.
Fast forward to 2018, I still play fantasy football. In fact, I write about it on the internet. I’m also happy to say I look nothing like I did in 2007-08. Oh, and aside from my ‘college fling’ with wide receivers (next article), first-round running backs are still my bread and butter. Running backs with plus receiving ability, in particular. In fantasy, there is no weapon more valuable. Adding some skill in the passing game can turn a running back with 1000 rushing yard potential into a running back that can run for 1000 yards and catch 400 more. The latter is a significantly more valuable player to target.
We’re lucky, as fans and fantasy footballers, to live in an era where there is such a considerable number of running backs with potential to be great. So, without further ado, here’s my top 40 fantasy running backs for 2018. Same as the quarterbacks, I’ll state my reasoning for each player in 288 characters or less.
These are my top 4 players in general. You could argue for any of them at #1 overall.
1. Todd Gurley, LAR – Here’s the reigning OPOY, and if I had one, would have been my vote for MVP. Gurley put up just stupid numbers in 2017 with nearly 2200 total yards and 19 touchdowns. It appears 2016 was a fluke. This dude is the real deal. Bye 12
2. Ezekiel Elliott, DAL – If I have the #2 overall pick, I’m stoked knowing the consolation prize is getting Elliott minus the distraction of a looming threat of suspension. Going into his third season, he will only continue to get better, which is scary for his opponents. He’s my pick to lead the NFL in rushing. Bye 8
3. Le’Veon Bell, PIT – Bell is a pretty safe bet for near 2000 combined yards and double-digit combined touchdowns, which would usually be a ridiculous statement to make. Plus, nothing is more valuable in fantasy football than a dual-threat workhorse running back. He happens to be one of the best. Bye 7
4. David Johnson, ARI – The top selection of pretty much every fantasy draft last year got hurt week one and did not return in 2017. I’m expecting a back who’s the centerpiece of his offense with 1000/1000 potential and fresh legs to absolutely go off this year. Bye 9
Here, we will see running backs I see as being just a notch or two below those listed above. The question I asked to decide where to draw the line between tier 1 and 2: “Can I argue for this player to be selected first overall?” These were ones I couldn’t do it for.
5. Kareem Hunt, KC – I attend the same university he played for and saw firsthand how good of a player he is, so I was ahead of the media on this one. He was my all-in guy last year. I’m all-in again. As a rookie, he led the NFL in rushing and has plus ability as a receiver. This dude is money. Bye 12
6. Alvin Kamara, NO – I prefer Hunt over Kamara because he doesn’t have a Mark Ingram to share reps with. Still, the OROY helped many, including me, win their leagues last year (but so did Hunt). He has four games to prove he can be the workhorse in the N-O while 22 serves his suspension. Bye 6
7. Melvin Gordon, LAC – He can’t seem to break the 4.0 YPC mark but still collected nearly 1600 total yards and added 12 TDs in 2017. Gordon has steadily improved each year he’s been in the NFL. Fun fact: he went to the same high school my mom did, Mary Bradford in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Bye 8
8. Saquon Barkley, NYG – This year’s most hyped-up rookie 100% looks the part and his college resume backs the hype up. This kid is an absolute freak athlete and has the potential to be one of the best backs in the NFL. Said that, the hype has been over-the-top. Sometimes feels like a trap. Bye 9
These are the running backs that, to me, stand out from the ones found in the incredibly subjective middle-of-the-pack we’ll cover in the next tier.
9. Christian McCaffrey, CAR – Even if he only rushes for say 600 yards, 800-900 yards receiving is not out of the question. I’m not too worried about the presence of CJ Anderson on the roster, as McCaffrey will be deployed all over the field, not just as a runner. Bye 4
10. Leonard Fournette, JAX – After a rock-solid rookie campaign, I see no reason there can’t at least be a repeat performance in 2018. Fournette’s violent running style will lead him to get beat up and miss a few games, as shown last couple years going back to his days at LSU. Bye 9
11. Dalvin Cook, MIN – I would be higher on Cook if he wasn’t returning from a non-contact torn ACL. He was lighting it up before going down with that injury though. Hopefully he returns to form, but I am approaching with caution. Don’t reach too far for him. Bye 10
12. Jordan Howard, CHI – Where’s the love for Howard? Here’s a back that’s had seasons of 1300 and 1100 rushing yards the last two years. Sure, he took a slight step back in 2017 but he did increase his TD count. With the new offense in Chicago, I expect a leap forward for Howard. Bye 5
13. Devonta Freeman, ATL – I was very bullish on Freeman last year in what ended up being an all-around down year for the Falcons’ offense. Still, 2017 wasn’t terrible for Freeman and while he probably won’t, having shown he can go 1000/500 with double digit TDs, I like his potential. Bye 8
As mentioned before, this next group is highly subjective. I see these players as likely to be fairly even, statistically speaking. This is simply where I value each player to begin the year.
14. Alex Collins, BAL – I would break my rule against drafting Ravens offensive players for Collins this year. In 12 starts last year, he racked up nearly 1000 rushing yards, adding close to 200 through the air. Going into the year as the clear starter, I see those numbers increasing. Bye 10
15. Derrick Henry, TEN – With Demarco Murray gone, the former Heisman Trophy winner finally has a shot to prove he’s lead back material. While Dion Lewis’ presence will eat into Henry’s reps, Henry’s a hell of a runner who rushed for 750 yards as a backup for most of 2017. Bye 8
16. Kenyan Drake, MIA – After the Dolphins traded Jay Ajayi and Damien Williams got hurt, Drake was promoted to de facto starter where he ended up flashing thousand-yard potential. He’s a competent receiver, too. I can see 900/400 being obtainable, assuming he’s healthy. Bye 11
17. Jerick McKinnon, SF – After living in the shadows of other RBs his whole career, McKinnon now has an opportunity to prove he can be a workhorse back. He put up nearly 1000 total yards as a replacement for the injured Dalvin Cook, splitting time with Latavius Murray. Bye 11
18. LeSean McCoy, BUF – Shady’s career numbers follow an interesting pattern. Starting in ’09, he’s had a three-digit rushing performance followed by two years over 1000 yards, back to three digits again. Assuming the pattern continues, he won’t break 1000 yards rushing in 2018. Bye 11
19. Jay Ajayi, PHI – With LeGarrette Blount playing in Detroit now, Ajayi is the clear starter in Philly. Despite only scoring two TDs in 2017, he picked up over 1000 yards from scrimmage in a chaotic season that saw him traded at midseason. Bye 9
20. Lamar Miller, HOU – Miller had a pretty solid season in 2017 despite all the problems the Texans had, so he could be better this year. Last year, he had about 1200 total yards and 6 TDs. Totally respectable numbers. Maybe I’m valuing him too low here. Bye 10
This group is a bit of a mixed bag. The majority of the running backs ranked in the 20s here are young and unproven, but are potential stars, whether they’re rookies or just stepping into starting roles after beginning their careers as backups. There are a few high-value backups featured in this tier too.
21. Joe Mixon, CIN – I’m possibly valuing Mixon too low here. It may all just fall into place for him and he’ll dominate in his second season. Or maybe he maintains a similar 3.5 YPC and loses passing downs to Gio Bernard. I’m undecided, dropping him a few spots. Bye 9
22. Rashaad Penny, SEA – The biggest surprise first round pick… until the Steelers’ selection came in a few picks later, at least. Penny was favored by the Seahawks over a crowd of similarly-rated RBs in the draft for a reason. Interested to see how much success he can have behind that O-line. Bye 7
23. Ronald Jones, TB – Quite simply, Jones was drafted to start. And aside from with Peyton Barber, he won't have to share many carries. Preseason has been rough for him but I think he’ll be pretty good and was my #3 running back in this year’s draft class. Bye 5
24. Royce Freeman, DEN – I’m still unsure what to expect from the Broncos in 2018. While I’m not avoiding their players, I’m approaching with caution. Freeman might be the safest on the team though. CJ Anderson ran for over 1000 behind that O-line last year. Freeman is more talented. Bye 10
25. Mark Ingram, NO – You’re already drafting him knowing he’s taking a seat on the bench for the first four games. Alvin Kamara will continue to progress, too, earning more touches as the year goes on. Will Ingram get a slow start after suspension? Bye 6
26. Marlon Mack, IND – I may be a little too bullish on Mack. He’s flashed some skill for the last two seasons as a backup to and learning from a legend in Frank Gore. The Colts have been quietly heavily investing in the offensive line lately too. Get this guy on your roster. Bye 9
27. Dion Lewis, TEN – I figure he will serve as the third-down back for the Titans while Derrick Henry takes the lead on first and second down. But Lewis is a high-caliber do-it-all gadget player and a good coach will find many ways to get the ball in his hands. Bye 8
28. Tevin Coleman, ATL – He’s one of the best backup running backs in the game. He’d start on more than a few teams. In the event of a Freeman injury, Coleman steps right in and puts up solid numbers. And, he offers flex value. In 2017, he totaled over 900 yards and scored 8 TDs. Bye 8
29. Sony Michel, NE – I normally avoid New England’s RBs like I avoid potholes. Well, I have a truck now and potholes are no longer so scary. And Michel was drafted in the first round because he’s got the talent to be a lead back at this level. He will get coached up right in Foxborough. Bye 11
If you don’t already have 2-3 RBs on your team at this point, I’m not sure what to tell you. This final, and largest, tier consists entirely of players I see as having occasional flex value. You won’t want to regularly rely on them but they’re worth a roster spot and I feel confident about them if I need a spot-starter.
30. Marshawn Lynch, OAK – Lynch put up respectable numbers for the Raiders after a year of retirement, in a year where nothing went right for Oakland. Still, he’s in decline phase and I’m opting for the players listed above over Lynch in any scenario. Bye 7
31. Jamaal Williams, GB – I’ve long been a Williams fan and I think he’s the best running back on the Packers’ roster. He finished 2017 very strong, taking over as the lead back late in the season. He also looked good in his first preseason game. Aaron Jones begins 2018 suspended, too. Bye 7
32. CJ Anderson, CAR – He’s not going for over 1000 yards again while splitting carries with Christian McCaffrey. I could see him racking up a respectable yardage count as an active backup and getting some goal line chances, however. Bye 4
33. Carlos Hyde, CLE – I’m on the Cleveland hype train. I think they’ll win more than zero games! Seriously though, Hyde could be fantasy relevant. Here’s a back who ran for over 900 yards with 8 TDs last year. He can have a similar year behind a good O-line at the Factory of Sadness. Bye 11
34. Isaiah Crowell, NYJ – Crowell picked up over 1000 total yards in an all-defeated season for the Browns. Now he’s splitting carries with Bilal Powell in New York. I see both as possible flex options but nothing more. Bye 11
35. Kerryon Johnson, DET – If anyone is going to emerge from the Lions’ backfield, it’s this kid. His highlight reel is impressive, and he’s clearly got the ability. Still, Detroit’s backfield will look incredibly convoluted to start the year with four viable RBs fighting for touches. Bye 6
36. Nick Chubb, CLE – The Browns wouldn’t draft Chubb in the early second round if they didn’t have big plans for him. The former Georgia star will get his share of carries, though probably beginning the year as Carlos Hyde’s backup. Bye 11
37. Samaje Perine, WAS – I’m convinced a ligament-tearing curse descends upon the NFL each season, randomly selecting players to remove for the year. Rookie stud RB Derrius Guice was randomly selected, so in steps Perine. Get excited, Washington. Bye 4
38. Corey Clement, PHI – The backup to Jay Ajayi in Philly is an injury away from the spotlight. Plus, he is a better pass catcher than Ajayi and will have added value as a receiver. He’s displayed big play ability and is one of the essential backups to have on your roster in 2018. Bye 9
39. Tarik Cohen, CHI – As a rookie, Cohen picked up over 700 combined yards and added three touchdowns. He’s one of the better backups in the game and has passing down value as a receiver. A solid player to stash away on your bench. Bye 5
40. Latavius Murray, MIN – Hey, why not? The former Pro Bowl running back receives no love, being the backup to Dalvin Cook. But if Cook is slow to start the year or gets hurt again, Murray, who ran for 842 yards and eight TDs in 2017, steps in. Bye 10