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In my view, fantasy rankings are taking a linear thought process into an inherently fluid decision-making exercise. I often find there’s a heavy amount of frivolous debate on subjects like, “Why do you have Player-X at No. 12 but Player-Y at No. 15?” I don’t think it does the reader a service to try and take the numerical order as a one-to-one comparison, nor do we learn anything of use or substance about the players or how they will score us fantasy points on a week-to-week basis in the discussion. For all the hype surrounding the event of the draft, winning weekly is still the name of the game in the vast majority of fantasy formats.
With that school of thought established, I do believe that using tiers by position helps offset some of the uselessness of rankings. It helps take some of the frivolity of arguing the difference of a few spots in the order. Most of the players in one tier have roughly the same value, whether they fall first in the set or last. It provides more actionable information for fantasy gamers to use during drafts, specifically in terms of helping us imagine the range of outcomes for players from both a season-long and weekly standpoint. We get too caught up in where we think a player will rank at the end of the season, but tiering can help remind us that the goal soon enough will be all about constructing teams that are best set to win one week at a time.
The running back position gets murky in a hurry this year. Often, when the fifth-round arrives, I’m immediately turned off by the idea of selecting 90 percent of the options. This reality makes tiering even more important. Not only do they help prioritize where positional cliffs happen later in drafts, they should bring us the clarity needed to nail early round picks and not have to deal with needing many starting options after Round 5.
RB Tier 1 - Elite RB1s
1) Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
2) Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
3) Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
Any time I’ve been on the clock with the 1.01 pick, I have taken Alvin Kamara. Any time I’ve been at 1.02 and another back was taken first, I’ve gone with Kamara, no questions asked.
Drew Brees’ pass attempts have gone down in three straight seasons. This is becoming more of a Kamara-centric offense. He handled 275 touches last year and even if the Saints don’t want to push too much more work his way, he could still push 300 given the fact that Latavius Murray is not as good as Mark Ingram and there’s a lack of many viable receiving weapons in New Orleans beyond Kamara, Michael Thomas, and Jared Cook. One of the most prolific touchdown scorers with a secure role in what should be the best offense among these top-three backs, Kamara is the easy No. 1 overall pick in fantasy. If anyone has a monster 90-catch, 20-plus endzone visits season in their range of outcomes, it’s him.
Saquon Barkley could lead all running backs in touches this year but may do so on a dreadful offense. The Giants will either have a quarterback teetering on the cliff or raw rookie behind center. They lack any true vertical receiving presence in their small-ball offense. People wanted to “yada-yada” these very same concerns with Todd Gurley back in 2016 in the name of talent. The then consensus No. 1 overall pick finished outside the Top 15 at his position.
Christian McCaffrey is the picture of security. The emergence of younger wide receivers might take him out of the triple-digit-catch club but McCaffrey will remain a fixture of Carolina’s passing game. They’ll still lean on the run, as well, and there are no intriguing running backs on the roster to slice into his workload. If safety is what you crave, you should not hesitate to select McCaffrey at the top of your draft.
RB Tier 2 - Has access to Tier 1 upside
4) Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
5) David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
Ezekiel Elliott would join Tier 1 if he wasn’t in the middle of a contract holdout. Instincts and logic would indicate that Elliott reports before Week 1 but we’ve seen these situations go haywire before. Even if he does come back to the team right before the opener, the time away would inspire some fear of a decreased workload to start the season or a possible injury due to the lack of training.
David Johnson would have been in a tier all to himself had it not been for Elliott’s holdout. Given his workhorse role, the splendor of his receiving ability and the pace boost about to hit the Arizona offense, he has access to Tier 1 upside. None of the players in the following cavalcade can say that, for one reason or another. DJ is the locked-in 1.05 pick, depending on how your league treats Elliott in drafts.
RB Tier 3 - Strong RB1 candidates
6) James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers
7) Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
8) Le'Veon Bell, New York Jets
9) Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
10) Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
11) Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
12) Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
For complete transparency, I don’t feel truly comfortable with any player in this tier as a first-round pick. From the sixth pick on, I’ve been leaning toward wide receiver.
Nick Chubb and Dalvin Cook are two of my favorite second-round selections at running back. The Browns potential on offense gives Chubb wild upside while Kareem Hunt is out of the picture. Chubb has access to a workhorse role, especially with Duke Johnson shipped off to Houston. Take the scoring to start the season and figure out any second-half downgrade later, if one even comes at all. Cook should be the central figure of the Vikings offense now that they’ve fully committed to a run-heavy approach with the Kubiak coaching tree infecting their ranks. He’s a clear RB1 as long as he stays healthy.
Le’Veon Bell should have a clear path to a big workload and could lead the Jets in targets but Adam Gase’s slow-paced offense is a concern. Gase’s Miami teams ranked 32nd, 22nd, and 32nd in plays run per game. That’s a drastic change from Bell’s Pittsburgh days. Joe Mixon has overcome ugly offensive situations before but must drop a bit because of offensive line concerns and the limitations caused by A.J. Green’s absence.
Devonta Freeman is one of my slam dunk value picks. He lost his one true challenger in the backfield this offseason and has only received rave reviews from camp. If he’s healthy, he’s a workhorse back on a high-octane offense.
Do with Todd Gurley what makes you comfortable. We’ll never see him hit his prior workload again, and the touchdown pace is likely to slow down at some point, especially if the coaching staff is cautious. Gurley could either be a fast starter or red-hot finisher this season. Odds are he won’t be both, given his knee situation. He’s still the top back in a good offense and I’m cool with taking the plunge at the Round 2-to-3 turn.
RB Tier 4 - RB1 potential with some questions marks
13) Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars
14) Kerryon Johnson, Detroit Lions
15) Damien Williams, Kansas City Chiefs
16) Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
17) Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
It can take some time to come around to but Leonard Fournette is a strong bounce-back candidate. His top “competition” on the depth chart is (probably) Alfred Blue. You hate to see it. No matter what you think of Nick Foles, he’s a verifiable upgrade for this offense. With Fournette a candidate for 300 touches and double-digit total scores, he makes sense as a high pick ... even if it feels queasy.
Kerryon Johnson owns the passing game work in Detroit with Theo Riddick sent packing. That was a big win, even if it was expected. The Lions want to lean on the run and Johnson looked great when healthy as a rookie.
If you knew you were getting the Chiefs RB1 for 16 games, you’d slot him in Tier 2. It’s tough to have quite that degree of confidence with Williams, even if the drumbeat has largely been positive on him this offseason.
Melvin Gordon’s holdout sinks him this far. He doesn’t have much to gain by staying away but seems adamant. He would have been at the top of Tier 3 had he reported. We’ll see what happens.
RB Tier 5 - Comfortable RB2s
18) Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
19) Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts
20) Josh Jacobs, Oakland Raiders
21) Mark Ingram, Baltimore Ravens
22) David Montgomery, Chicago Bears
23) Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks
24) Tevin Coleman, San Francisco 49ers
The Titans have a questionable quarterback situation, talented running backs, and a coaching staff that wants to build around Derrick Henry. They could lead the league in rushing play percentage this season after ranking second last year. Henry needs to get healthy but has a tantalizing ceiling, one that includes him pushing for the NFL-lead in rushing scores.
The two top rookie backs are appealing picks and both find their way into Tier 5 as solid early fourth-round picks. Brad Evans and I recently debated Josh Jacobs vs. David Montgomery head-to-head.
Mark Ingram, Chris Carson, and Tevin Coleman have all emerged as some of my favorite picks at their respective values. Coleman especially has shot up in appeal. With Jerick McKinnon essentially out of the picture, Coleman looks like the clear lead back in San Francisco. That’s a juicy fantasy role. Ingram and Carson are lead backs on run-heavy offenses that have at least some role in the passing game.
RB Tier 6 - Potential RB2 options with some level of role clarity
25) James White, New England Patriots
26) Sony Michel, New England Patriots
27) Phillip Lindsay, Denver Broncos
28) Tarik Cohen, Chicago Bears
29) Kenyan Drake, Miami Dolphins
The Patriots running game has plenty of options, as usual. James White has a clear role and may be as appealing as ever. His 123 targets from 2018 may be tough to replicate but the dearth of reliable options in the New England passing game should keep his value afloat. Sony Michel is a riskier proposition. You can find plenty of discouraging variables at certain points of his offseason. Yet, he’s the lead back on a strong offense that plays fast and will lean on the run game. Michel makes sense on a risk-tolerant team that needs a high-ceiling RB3.
Tarik Cohen welcomes a more talented backfield mate this year than his old partner in crime. The incoming defensive regression for Chicago should secure Cohen’s targets and keep his value afloat. Such a role would also help Phillip Lindsay stave off a challenge from Royce Freeman. The same can be said for Kenyan Drake and Kalen Ballage in Miami.
RB Tier 7 - Split-backfield inmates with clear paths to upside
30) Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles
31) Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks
32) Lamar Miller, Houston Texans
33) Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers
34) Royce Freeman, Denver Broncos
35) Latavius Murray, New Orleans Saints
All of these backs inhabit some form of a committee. Unlike some players later down the list, there are scenarios where these players don’t just carve out a usable standalone role, but find their way to starting fantasy usage.
Miles Sanders has a chance to rocket up in value if he purely wipes the floor with Jordan Howard. Howie Roseman believes Sanders to be the best back they’ve drafted in years. If they treat him like that, he’ll be a tremendous fantasy asset on one of the NFL’s most well-stocked offenses.
Austin Ekeler was a tough pick to gauge but is routinely efficient with limited volume and has a clear role with or without Melvin Gordon in the picture. Yes, he flopped as a workhorse when Gordon missed time last year but he won’t have to reprise that role to have a strong fantasy appeal.
Latavius Murray would be a smash hit if anything happened to Alvin Kamara and even if they’re not as juicy as Mark Ingram’s old duties, Murray will have his own assignments in the meantime. Royce Freeman is going to make this a split backfield in Denver. He and Lindsay’s costs should be closer now than they were to start the offseason, but he does not have the passing down edge.
RB Tier 8 - High-end committee backs
36) Damien Harris, New England Patriots
37) Jordan Howard, Philadelphia Eagles
38) LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
39) Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams
40) Derrius Guice, Washington Redskins
41) Kalen Ballage, Miami Dolphins
42) Adrian Peterson, Washington Redskins
The RBs of Tier 8 are in what appear to be committee backfields but either have clear roles or have access to strong upside in the event of chaos. They should appear on your radar in the Round 8 range or later.
Damien Harris and Darrell Henderson are the rookies of this group and each plays behind a starter with a precarious knee. Harris could muck up the Patriots backfield in a hurry. You can take signs from his preseason treatment that New England views him as a priority player and he has drawn positive offseason reviews. Henderson’s usage isn’t as clear as his draft price would indicate but he averaged nearly 9.0 yards per carry in college and would be dropped into a perfect situation should Gurley go down. For both of these players, it’s hard to imagine their contending teams spending Top-100 picks on them this year if they didn’t believe a usage plan would come into focus.
Washington’s backs are placed close to reflect the lack of optimism for Derrius Guice. If you have a reason for liking him this year beyond that you liked his game in college, you’re generous. Adrian Peterson is there to siphon early down work, Chris Thompson will soak away targets, Washington is unlikely to be a good team, and Guice still hasn’t been cleared from a hamstring injury.
Kalen Ballage could be the opening week starter with Kenyan Drake currently injured. There’s a chance he never gives that job up. If you’re purely chasing volume, LeSean McCoy being as cheap as he is will surely tempt you. It never feels good but you can grab him as a RB4.
RB Tier 9 - Low-end committee backs
43) Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns
44) Dion Lewis, Tennessee Titans
45) Duke Johnson, Houston Texans
46) Matt Breida, San Francisco 49ers
47) Jaylen Samuels, Pittsburgh Steelers
48) Justice Hill, Baltimore Ravens
49) Ronald Jones, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
50) Peyton Barber, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
51) Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills
52) Chris Thompson, Washington Redskins
53) Justin Jackson, Los Angeles Chargers
54) C.J. Anderson, Detroit Lions
55) Frank Gore, Buffalo Bills
Just as with most backup running backs, the players in this tier do have access to starting fantasy roles if chaos hits. They just don’t have as much standalone value as players in Tier 8.
Kareem Hunt could certainly carve out a strong role in a split backfield with Nick Chubb and would without question have league-winning upside if Chubb was to get hurt. The trouble is, waiting eight weeks with dead weight on your roster to find that out is a precarious proposition, at best.
Dion Lewis feels quite undervalued as the RB56 in ADP right now. He is the No. 2 back on what could be one of the NFL's most run-heavy teams and could easily lead the backfield in targets. There were times in his career where he handled 15-plus touches and would have access to those duties in the event of a Derrick Henry absence. If you got burned last year, get over it. He goes outside the first 11 rounds, you’re not paying for anything.
Justice Hill, Matt Breida and Devin Singletary are favorite stash picks here. All could take over big roles in offenses with functional run games if something happens to the starter ahead of them. Hill’s speed and playmaking ability next to Lamar Jackson is particularly enticing. Breida might well be the best runner on San Francisco’s roster.
Tier 10 - Handcuffs who may earn some usable touches
56) Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals
57) Jalen Richard, Oakland Raiders
58) Carlos Hyde, Kansas City Chiefs
59) Alexander Mattison, Minnesota Vikings
60) Malcolm Brown, Los Angeles Chargers
All of these players make sense as end-of-bench stashes or priority waiver wire speed dial pickups. No, you do not have to be the one to draft their team’s RB1 to take these players. There is a chance we’re all collectively underrating Malcolm Brown in the Rams backfield if Todd Gurley’s role significantly decreases — or he gets hurt.