Running Back Shuffle Up: David Johnson could rule the world

Scott Pianowski
David Johnson could blow up fantasy football in 2016 (AP)
David Johnson could blow up fantasy football in 2016 (AP)

Somewhere along the way, I started to hate running backs.

I hate their rate of injury. I hate how platoons have taken over the NFL. I hate the unpredictability, the uncertainty.

And yet, at some point, you stop worrying and learn to love how much easier running backs are to handle these days. Yes, I said easier.

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Our expectations have come down for what a typical RB1 provides, and they’ve come down significantly for what a RB2 gives us. Flex players might be wide receivers or tight ends these days; the running backs used to own that domain. I’ve never felt as comfortable waiting on this position, or bargain-shopping at this position, as I do in 2016.

To be clear — and this should be obvious to anyone with even a little bit of fantasy experience — you want a lot of bites of the backfield apple. You want lottery tickets, upside plays, stash-and-hopes. I’m all for putting plenty of resources to the position, they just won’t be many of my early picks (or big-ticket resources).

There are many paths to a fantasy title, and as my friend Gene McCaffrey said many years ago (this is often repeated; seldom credited to Gene), any strategy can work if you pick the right players. My preferred path is to start off with three or four early wideouts, maybe one back in the first 3-4 rounds (but I better love that back). It’s all a rough guide, of course. If someone silly slips a round, I’m never afraid to change on the fly. You shouldn’t, either.

Usual Shuffle Up disclaimers apply. The prices are unscientific and just a way to compare the players. When players are at the same price, it means they are considered even. I do not compare prices with other shuffles (or compare prices between different positions), and I do every shuffle from scratch. Season to taste, and your own particular league rules and parameters.

Tier 1 – Even a WR guy like me will consider them
$45 David Johnson
$42 Adrian Peterson
$41 Todd Gurley
$41 Ezekiel Elliott
$40 Lamar Miller

What box doesn’t Johnson hit? Age, check. Versatility, check (remember, he’s a converted receiver). Loaded offense that will score often, check. Respected offensive guru in charge of it all, check. Even in a season where I am going to pound wide receivers early and often, I am willing to shift away from that and consider Johnson at any point after the Big 3 receivers are gone . . . I can spin Peterson in a couple of ways. On one hand, when have you ever lost money on him? On the other hand, wouldn’t you rather be a year early than a year late? . . . Encouraging for Elliott to get a validation cameo in the third preseason game, remind us of why we were excited in the first place. But Elliott owners certainly want a healthy Tony Romo; the offense could get derailed if Romo suffers another major injury.

Tier 2 – Perfectly capable of being an RB1
$37 Devonta Freeman
$36 Le’Veon Bell
$34 Mark Ingram
$32 Jamaal Charles
$31 LeSean McCoy
$30 Doug Martin
$30 Eddie Lacy

Freeman’s efficiency fell through the floor in the second half, but he’s still in a RB-friendly setup and capable of playing on all three downs. It’s interesting to note that the team prefered Tevin Coleman 12 months ago, but no one seems to see this as a competition any longer . . . Because Bell can’t play more than 13 games, I won’t consider him in the first round or probably the second. If you’re in a cushy social league where the playoffs are a slam dunk for you, I can see being more aggressive on Bell. But most of my early selections will be on players who, theoretically, have a solid chance at a full season . . . Bell and Charles were both on the non-Wallet list, you might recall. It’s no fun panning players at this level, but I’m trying to be useful and topical, not take the easy way out . . . Ingram’s turned into a much better receiver than we expected early in his career, and the Saints remain a fantasy carnival (bankable offense, sketchy defense, even the indoor setup helps).

Tier 3 – Some fleas but they’re still carrying expectations
$27 Latavius Murray
$26 C.J. Anderson
$24 Jeremy Hill
$23 Matt Forte
$22 Thomas Rawls
$22 Carlos Hyde
$20 Giovani Bernard
$19 DeMarco Murray
$18 Frank Gore

While Oakland’s Murray doesn’t have special talent or silly upside, he is tied to an ascending team that’s loaded in two key areas — the defense and the offensive line. There’s a very safe weekly floor for Murray’s volume . . . Rawls was terrific in his limited sample last year, so we know what the upside is. But he’s coming back from a busted ankle, he’s done little this summer, Christine Michael is flashing again, and Seattle’s offensive line is a mess. Rawls also might be a two-down player; he was scarcely used in the passing game last year. I’ll consider Rawls if he slips into dart-throw territory, but that’s not Round 3 or 4, where he’s often gone in my pools . . . Gore’s medical history is upside down: he was a heavily-injured player in the early days, but he’s been rock-solid in the second half of his career. Welcome to the Ibanez All-Stars, the boring, unsexy depth plays. The depth chart strengthens the case for Gore; there’s nothing impressive behind him right now . . . Hill’s sophomore year was a disappointment to all, and yet he still led the NFL in touchdown runs. And then he reflected on his season and accepted that he had to work harder, prepare better. I love seeing that in a player. Hill’s a nice high-floor target for the middle rounds.

Tier 4 – Vanilla types with tangible upside
$16 Jonathan Stewart
$15 Jeremy Langford
$14 Duke Johnson
$14 Ryan Mathews
$13 Rashad Jennings
$13 Melvin Gordon
$12 Danny Woodhead
$11 Chris Ivory
$11 Isaiah Crowell

Stewart isn’t a pass-catcher and doesn’t have a huge touchdown upside, but he’s the established starter on a good team; game flow will usually be in his corner . . . Mathews is generally good when he’s on the field, but you’ll surely lose him for a bunch of games, and one week he’ll probably go down in the first half and break your heart. I’m also worried about the success of Philly’s offense overall; if a team isn’t moving the ball and threatening to score consistently, it can be awfully hard on the team’s main back unless he’s also a staple in all the hurry-up packages . . . Ivory isn’t expected to be a true bell cow in Jacksonville, but at least there’s no third back pushing him and Yeldon for touches. Ivory is a slam dunk to lead the team in carries and touchdowns, assuming no major injury, and there’s a nice floor that comes along with that. Jacksonville’s slanted TD ratio last year is descriptive, but it’s not predictive; with Ivory in town and a much better defense, we’ll probably see something a lot more conventional this year.

Tier 5 – Plausible upside but I’d hate to depend on them
$9 Matt Jones
$9 Derrick Henry
$8 DeAngelo Williams
$8 Charles Sims
$8 Arian Foster
$7 Bilal Powell
$6 Christine Michael
$6 Justin Forsett
$6 T.J. Yeldon
$6 LeGarrette Blount
$5 James White

The hope is that Sims and Powell will be fantasy-playable even if the starters don’t get hurt, and potential difference-makers if they come into a starting gig. There’s a big difference between a lottery ticket that’s merely a stash, and a lottery ticket who can give you flex appeal immediately . . . I’d be much higher on Henry if the Titans didn’t also throw a major contact and commitment behind Murray. They’ll both play, but short of a Murray injury, I can’t see Henry just taking over immediately. Sure, I like the upside, too, but I just want to keep Murray in mind as I price Henry . . . Pretty much everyone sees Foster in a more optimistic prism than I do. That’s been true for three years.

Tier 6 – Preferred Lottery Tickets
$4 DeAndre Washington
$4 Tevin Coleman
$4 Javorius Allen
$4 Theo Riddick
$4 Ameer Abdullah
$4 Spencer Ware
$3 Jerick McKinnon
$3 Dion Lewis
$3 Alfred Morris

Ware’s my most common own in this pool; I love what he did around the goal last year, I like his camp to this point, and the alphabet soup on Charles’s injury file makes me nervous . . . Abdullah isn’t the Detroit goal-line back or pass-catching back, so what are you hanging your hat on? . . . If you must handcuff in Dallas, at least we know now Morris it the guy.

Tier 7 – Secondary Lottery Tickets
$2 Jay Ajayi
$2 Tim Hightower
$2 Shaun Draughn
$2 Mike Gillislee
$1 Jordan Howard
$1 Kenneth Dixon
$1 Shane Vereen
$1 Darren Sproles
$1 Devontae Booker
$1 James Starks
$1 Terrance West
$1 Chris Johnson
$1 Chris Thompson
$1 Cameron Artis-Payne