RB Primer 2016: Heavy debate on fantasy's top rushing dog

David Johnson is one of many tugboats being debated at RB1. (Getty)
David Johnson is one of many tugboats being debated at RB1. (Getty)


Predictable considering physical demands, the bust rate for RB1s (Rushers drafted inside RB top-12 tha finished outside top-15) over the past six seasons is 45.2 percent (58 percent in ’15), the highest at any position in fantasy football.

Arian Foster is far and away the fastest rising RB in drafts according to average draft position (ADP) values tracked at Player Profiler. His value has climbed from 92.6 to 70.4 since August 1.

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On the flip side, outside Jay Ajayi, Seattle rookie C.J. Prosise has seen the biggest value decline. He’s slipped behind Thomas Rawls, Christine Michael and Alex Collins on the ‘Hawks depth chart due to ongoing injuries and critical missed time. Over the past 30 days his ADP has fattened from 115.7 to 134.6.

In 2015, the biggest RB kings of consistency, players who ranked inside the RB top-12 and totaled the most above-average performances (over 12.2 points per game average) were Devonta Freeman (12/15, 80.0%), Todd Gurley (10/13, 76.9%), Adrian Peterson (12/16, 75.0%), Matt Forte (9/13, 69.2%) and Doug Martin (10/16, 62.5%)

Le’Veon Bell is arguably the most difficult RB to properly evaluate. Insiders closely following his suspension appeal are divided on the expected final result. Fantasy owners unwilling to take chances in Round 1 or even a little later in 12-team exercises have driven down his ADP from 9.7 to 15.1 over the past two weeks.

Below are five pressing questions about RB nearing the heart of draft season.

The fanalyst community is very divided on what RB should fall first off draft boards. Who ya got, DAVID JOHNSON, ZEKE ELLIOTT, TODD GURLEY or ADRIAN PETERSON?

Dalton – Adrian Peterson isn’t in this conversation for me, but the other three are extremely close. All have the potential to finish with 2,000 yards from scrimmage with 15 touchdowns, yet each has question marks as well (Elliott is a rookie currently dealing with a hamstring injury; Johnson has a small track record and might be in a timeshare; Gurley doesn’t catch many passes and plays in a poor offense). I’m giving the ever so slight edge to DAVID JOHNSON, who’s extremely talented both as a runner and receiver and should approach 300 touches in an offense that led the league in yards-per-game (408.3) last season and should score more points than any other team in football in 2016.

Andy – I’ve got TODD GURLEY at the top of my ranks for standard formats, but I’m not going to argue with any of the top-four RBs. They’re all great. Gurley is the unrivaled centerpiece of his team’s offense, and he’s already seen a season’s worth of stacked boxes, so we know he can thrive despite meh team context. I consider him the favorite to win this year’s rushing crown.

Liz – TODD GURLEY. David Johnson is giving me all sorts of fantasy feels, but Gurley’s beastliness can’t be discounted. Running in a ball control offense with zero options behind him, the Hard Knocks star is the safer bet. Yes, opposing defenses will try to expose the team’s deficiencies under center and stack the box, but Gurley’s volume, experience, and studliness will keep him producing.

After 58 percent of RB1s busted last year, ZeroRB, the idea of waiting several rounds to draft a running back, is a strategy growing in popularity. In your estimation, is the approach SMART or SILLY for 2016 purposes?

Andy – I think the idea of denying yourself access to any of the top 20-25 running backs is … well, it’s just unnecessary. Needless. SILLY. Minimizing risk is a nice goal at the top of a draft, but it can’t be your only goal. Of the top 100 yards-from-scrimmage seasons in NFL history, 97 belong to running backs. I just can’t imagine deliberately choosing to avoid the players who are most likely to produce all-time fantasy campaigns. But hey, I’m happy to keep playing experts leagues in which I get my choice of RBs.

Liz – SILLY. Shawn Siegel popularized the Zero RB strategy back in 2014. Finally reaching the masses, it’s become one of this summer’s hottest trends … along with Pokemon GO and DJ Khaled’s Major Key. And, like those, it’ll be gone in a month. True FF aficionados don’t subscribe to any given dogma… they’re willing to zag when everyone else zigs (as Siegel proved years ago). Go after the best player available, and commit to working the waiver wire throughout the season.

Scott – It’s SMART, for a handful of reasons. Here are two: running backs get hurt more often than wide receivers, and the middle-round backfield options are surprisingly pleasant, in part because our expectations have come down significantly for what constitutes a playable RB2. I don’t mind one early back if you find someone you’re completely sold on, but all of my 2016 teams will be built on significant receiver foundations.

DeMarco Murray showed vintage form in his Titans debut. (Getty)
DeMarco Murray showed vintage form in his Titans debut. (Getty)

What tarnished rusher emulates Doug Martin 2015 and bounces back biggest this fall?

Liz – DEMARCO MURRAY. After churning out 2,261 total yards in 2014, expectations in Philly were high for the former Cowboy. But everything from heavy legs to personality conflicts contributed towards an underwhelming campaign for Murray. With another fresh start in Nashville, a year to recover from a 400 touch grinding, and in a smashmouth offense, Murray’s stock is on the rise. He’ll share time with Derrick Henry, but as evidenced by the 71-yard TD he broke off in the preseason opener… the burst is back.

Scott – GIOVANI BERNARD scored 15 touchdowns his first two NFL seasons. Last year, despite a new high in yards per rush and yards per reception, he managed a paltry two. Now we all know Jeremy Hill gets the chippies in the Cincinnati offense, that won’t change. But Bernard’s touchdown column is likely to see positive regression, and he’s a great target if you’re angling for discount running backs (or even if you’re not).

Brandon – EDDIE LACY. One of the keys for Martin last season was shedding weight and reporting to camp in great shape. Lacy, by all accounts, has followed suit this season, reporting to camp 20 pounds lighter than last season. After finishing top 7 among fantasy RBs in each of his first two seasons, Lacy fell out of the top 20 last season. But, to be honest, Lacy was far from the only wheel to fall off the Packers’ wagon last season. I’m giving Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb and the entire Green Bay offense a mulligan. Look for Lacy to push back into the RB1 class.

What overlooked RB is the virtual game’s most undervalued?

Scott – Jacksonville’s touchdown ratio was a mess last year, in part because of a horrible defense and a mistake-prone quarterback. This year, the defense will be a lot better, Blake Bortles might take a step forward, and CHRIS IVORY is around to punch in the short touchdowns. Another affordable back to scoop up, after you’ve set that juicy WR baseline.

Brad – MELVIN GORDON. On the surface, Gordon’s 3.5 yards per carry, zero touchdowns and Wisconsin affiliation would lead any prospective investor to shield their eyes. It’s understandable. But, as stated previously, dig deeper and a hidden gem is revealed. His 0.18 tackles avoided per attempt according to PFF was top-10 at the position and his 89.2 catch percentage ranked No. 3. Mix in the fact Chargers GM Tom Telesco did nothing this offseason to address the RB position and it’s safe to assume Gordon will receive upwards of 280-300 touches. Even if San Diego trails early and often, the sophomore RB will be involved. At his 78.9 ADP (RB29), fall in love.

Brandon – JUSTIN FORSETT. Forsett’s probably the fourth-buzziest running back on his own team. That’s alright, I’ll be looking to take advantage of the draft day discount (going well outside the top 100, if he’s even getting drafted at all) on a player that finished No. 8 in RB fantasy points in ’14. It should be pointed out that Marc Trestman-directed offenses have finished in the top 5 in RB receptions each of the past two seasons and, not only does Forsett have excellent hands, he’s also a stalwart in pass protection. Coaches tend to like protecting their $20 million quarterbacks, so don’t count on anyone taking away much of Forsett’s passing down work. And as for the early down carries, consider that Forsett has lost just one fumble in his eight-year career. Coaches also love ball security – Buck Allen and Terrance West both lost two fumbles last season alone.

Liz – MELVIN GORDON. Gordon’s rookie campaign was a statistical disaster, but on tape the kid flashed, as evidenced by his secondary metrics. Despite running behind a ramshackle offensive line, the former first round pick avoided an impressive 34 tackles (the ninth best at the position for that statistical category, per Pro Football Focus). Plus, the Chargers did nothing to address the situation, showing their confidence in him and keeping him atop the depth chart. Revel in the value, bargain hunters!

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Conversely, what rusher is the most overvalued?

Brad – DEVONTA FREEMAN. The No. 1 ranked RB in 2015 is about to circle the drain. People will continue to point to superficial stats, but his 3.1 yards per carry and 40-plus contributions in yards after contact and tackles avoided per attempt from Week 9 on last year suggest he’s not built to withstand the rigors of 22 touches per game. Tevin Coleman will ingest significant chunks this season, possibly wresting some 10-12 grips per contest. At Freeman’s 19.8 ADP, you’re pulling a Talib.

Brandon – MATT FORTE. Let’s see … Turns 31 in December. Missed three games last season with a back injury … has missed most of the preseason with a hamstring injury … team just shined your three years younger backup for almost the same three-year deal ($11.25 million compared to Forte’s $12 million). That’s a pretty heavy cloud hanging over the head of a player pushing top 40 overall status in drafts.

Dalton – ADRIAN PETERSON. I’m just not willing to spend a top-five pick on a 31-year-old running back with 2,497 career rushing attempts (counting the postseason). He recorded three receptions for 33 yards over the final four games last season, and while never a big receiver, that sure seems like a sign he may be slowing down. Peterson has been one of the best running backs in NFL history, but I’d rather be a year too soon than a year too late when spending a top pick on an aging back with this much mileage on his tires.

Play the Powerball. What late-round lottery ticket (100-plus ADP) could have deep-leaguers rolling in greenbacks come year’s end?

Andy – TEVIN COLEMAN for me. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if Atlanta gave us a committee backfield this year; the team’s coaches have raved about Coleman during the offseason. Also, it won’t surprise me a bit if we see KEITH MARSHALL leapfrog Matt Jones in Washington. Jones was a brutal watch last season, and his signature move is the goal-line fumble.

Liz – TERRELL WATSON. At 6-foot-1 and 242 pounds, he’s a big-bodied bruiser who comps similarly to the Bengals’ Jeremy Hill. A member of Cincy’s practice squad in 2015, Watson was the first free agent signed by the Browns after Hue Jackson was named the team’s head coach. If Crowell were to struggle or go down with an injury, Watson would likely be his replacement, receiving work on early downs and at the goal line

Brad – JOSH FERGUSON. The Colts ground game performed miserably in its first preseason game. As a result, Fergie notched just three yards on eight attempts, an effort that led knee-jerkers to promptly dismiss the rookie. Mistake. Ferguson’s strength isn’t running into the teeth of the defense. He’s an evasive, sure-handed RB who aligns more with Theo Riddick or Dion Lewis. Ultimately, Frank Gore will handle the dirty work, relegating the youngster to tally chunk yardage in the pass game. Reportedly the star of Colts training camp, he’s a strong bet for 50-plus receptions and remains available around pick No. 175 overall.

Scott – I’ve lost track of my SPENCER WARE shares this summer. Look at how successful he was around the goal last year. Look at the juicy YPC. Look at Jamaal Charles’s medical file again. Stash, stash, stash. Or let me keep drafting him, I don’t care. Greed is good.

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