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8 Top Fantasy Running Backs To Target Outside of the Elite 3

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Top Fantasy Running Backs

Fantasy Football 2016If you have been mock drafting or have been putting any research into your 2017 Fantasy Football draft one thing is for sure, running backs will fly off the board and the drop off between the top-tier and the second-tier is a steep one.

Anyone who plays fantasy football, especially those who compete in redraft leagues, know David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell and Ezekiel Elliot will more than likely be gone by pick five if you are drafting with a group of people who know what they are doing.

So after the big three are off the board, what does the pecking order look like?

First off, you are drafting YOUR team and no one else’s, assuming you aren’t drafting for a friend, so you have to be comfortable with the players that eventually fill out your roster. With that being said, there are certain factors to consider when choosing between two backs that could produce similar numbers.

When I first look at the running backs listed after DJ, Bell and Zeke according to their Average Draft Position (ADP), the first name of the list is LeSean McCoy. The rest of tier-two shakes out like this as of May 11: Melvin Gordon, Jordan Howard, Devonta Freeman, DeMarco Murray, Jay Ajayi, Todd Gurley and Lamar Miller. Quite a list.

If you are like me, it’s a difficult task differentiating between which of these eight backs you want on your roster assuming you choose one of the backs off the aforementioned list, here is how they shake out.

LeSean McCoy

RB | Buffalo Bills | 28-years old

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Lets first examine McCoy’s fantasy potential for the 2017-2018 season. Shady plays in a system that loves the run. The Bills ran the ball an NFL-high 50.93% of the time in 2016 making him seem like a logical pick with Mike Gillislee out of town in New England. What McCoy and many of the names have going against their impressive resumes is age.

Shady is 28 years old and turns 29 July 12. Critics LOVE to point at a back’s age, especially when they are knocking at the door of 30 or have surpassed the advanced age threshold for the position. He also has the sixth most carries among active NFL players with 1,898 attempts. The names above him; Frank Gore, Steven Jackson, Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte and Chris Johnson are either all but finished or are playing their next to last season in the league.

In 2016, McCoy dislocated his thumb, a common football injury, but pulled his hamstring in week 7. He missed week 8 as well with the injured hammy. Hamstrings are nothing to mess with, especially when you are a running back that relies on this part of the body and take more hits than any other skilled position. Shady has a 29% chance of suffering another injury according to SportsInjuryPredictor.com, putting him in the middle of the pack.

Despite the injury history, McCoy has played in at least 15 games all but two seasons so far in his eight-year NFL tenure. He also rushed for 13 touchdowns in 2016, the second-highest total of his career.

Overall LeSean McCoy is a solid pick in the later first round of drafts, as he has been for the past six seasons. The only things to keep in mind when using a first round pick on Shady are his hamstring issues and age. Invest a late round pick in a handcuff for McCoy to ease your stress and the pick will look even better.

Melvin Gordon

RB | LA Chargers | 24-years-old

We all know of Melvin Gordon’s miserable rookie year in the former Sand Diego Chargers’ offense, 641 yards on the ground for zero scores. The former badger broke through in his sophomore campaign, accumulating 12 total touchdowns and 1,608 yards from scrimmage. So he’s obviously the back to choose behind McCoy, right? Not so fast.

Despite going over 1,500 total yards last season Gordon failed to gain 1,000 yards on the ground, falling just three yards short. A big reason for Gordon’s second season surge was Danny Woodhead’s departure to the IR. Depending on whether or not Los Angeles decides to take one of Gordon’s backups and make him the new Danny Woodhead will determine Gordon’s value for 2017-2018.

The Wisconsin product is just 24 years old and is one of the faster running backs in the league, but he isn’t a bruiser. Last season Gordon matched his jersey number in terms of where he ranked in yards per carry, ranking 28th at 3.93. On the bright side, he was ahead of Frank Gore (29th) and LeGarrette Blount (30th). Depending on how his 31 ranked offensive line improves blocking for him this season, Gordon has a chance to be a top 10 fantasy back again (he was 8th last season with 209.6 total points).

Jordan Howard

RB | Chicago Bears | 22-years-old

The name Jordan can now get Chicago fans excited for reasons off of the hardwood. Jordan Howard surprised in his rookie campaign, supplanting Jeremy Langford for good in week three, arguably week 2, and ran away with the job on his way to a Chicago Bears’ rookie rushing record of 1,313 yards. He also added in six touchdowns for good measure ranking him as the 9th back behind Gordon with 201.1 points on the year.

After moving on from Matt Forte, the Bears desperately needed to find a back to shoulder the load for an offense that decided to click the restart button with the departure of Jay Cutler in the off-season, and it appears they did just that.

At 6 feet 222 pounds, Howard is built to carry the load for Chicago but will need the opportunities to produce. After an abysmal 3-13 season, the Bears need to be competitive and stay in games to give Howard a chance. He will certainly see opportunities early on in games, but with a 24th ranked defense in terms of points allowed per game, things don’t seem like they will be getting better anytime soon in the Windy City with the Bears playing catch up most of the time.

Chicago had just five draft picks this season and used only one on a defensive player, but did make some other offseason moves in an attempt to strengthen its weak defense. Only time will tell if the moves will pay off.

Howard is young, 22 years old, and proved he is a beast with the rock, 5.2 yards per carry average. His defense and injury risk, a 50% chance after suffering knee and ankle injuries in college, provide a low floor, but there is no doubt Howard has a high ceiling. As the great Jordan before said, “The roof is the ceiling.”

Devonta Freeman

RB | Atlanta Falcons | 25-years-old

Devonta Freeman is a stud as shown by his coming out party in 2015 when he rushed for 1,061 yards and 11 touchdowns. He added another 578 and three scores through the air, ranking him as the second-best player in all of fantasy football.

Fast forward to 2016 and insert a healthy Tevin Coleman and Freeman’s stock plummets from the second best fantasy player to the sixth best fantasy back. Freeman actually posted better running stats, going for 1,079 yards and 11 scores, but his receiving yards went down to 462 with two touchdowns. Coleman rushed for 520 yards and eight touchdowns, while accumulating 421 yards through the air with three touchdowns.

Essentially every fantasy owners knows to avoid a backfield with a timeshare, but with the way the modern day NFL is trending it is getting more and more difficult to avoid. In reality, Freeman ranking as the sixth-best running back and holding off a talented Coleman while still producing makes him a solid pick. Odds are the same split will be used next season for the NFC champs, but as shown, that won’t stop Freeman from putting up top 10 numbers.

 

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DeMarco Murray

RB | Tennessee Titans | 29-years-old

He did it yet again. For the second time in three seasons, DeMarco Murray proved he can stay healthy for 16 games while putting up top three rushing numbers.

After a tumultuous year in Philadelphia, Murray ran as fast as he could out of the City of Brotherly Love and fell in love with the Tennessee Titans and their run-heavy approach. The Titans ranked third in the league in rushing attempts last season, going with the ground and pound 48.57% of the time.

Despite being 29 years old Murray is entering just his seventh season in the NFL, but that hasn’t stopped him from ranking tenth among active running backs in career carries with 1,420. The Cowboys had a big hand in his top ten ranking, feeding him the ball 392 times in 2014 when he won the league rushing title.

Plenty of tread has been worn off the tires between Murray’s four years at the University of Oklahoma and his six years in the league (this season is number seven), but the real question is how much longer can he be a top five or ten running back?

Tennessee clearly asked themselves the same question after signing Murray, choosing to draft Derrick Henry immediately after. Despite investing a second-round pick in the former Crimson Tide back, he recorded less than 1/3 of the Titans carries on the season. Quarterback Marcus Mariota actually recorded over half of the carries Henry produced. This is a telling sign that Tennessee has every intention of feeding Murray as much as he can eat for as long as he can. Barring injury, a top ten season is on the near horizon.

Jay Ajayi

RB | Miami Dolphins | 23-years-old

Ajayi went from a sleeper to keep an eye on entering the 2016-2017 season to a top four rusher, recording 1,272 yards on the ground and eight touchdowns.

Ajayi is just 23 years old and should have the backfield to himself this time around after Arian Foster’s departure. He has yet to prove he can handle the load for more than one season, however, recording just 49 carries during his rookie campaign. The 260 he logged for Miami last year proved he’s ready to attempt to handle whatever the Dolphins throw his way, but they need to be careful.

Ajayi tore his ACL at Boise State in 2011 and missed time during the 2015 preseason with hamstring issues. After Adrian Peterson came back from ACL surgery and won the rushing crown, everyone seems to have forgotten just how career-threatening major knee surgeries are – ala Jamaal Charles last season.

Ajayi is seven years younger than Charles and is entering just his third year in the league, so you’d figure his body has better odds of staving off another injury. According to sports injury predictor, Ajayi has a 52% chance of injury compared to Charles’ 32%. Charles will also be in a timeshare next season, helping his odds of staying on the field for 16 games.

Another mark against Ajayi, he will play the fourth-most difficult schedule among running backs. Last season he was the definition of a bottom feeder, preying on defenses ranked in the bottom seven for 697 yards and six touchdowns while running for 575 yards and two touchdowns to go with four fumbles against all other defenses.
Ajayi will be one of the select few trusted with a team’s backfield, so he has top 10 upside on that fact alone. Others may surpass him in PPR leagues, as the Dolphins may lobby to pull the bruiser on third down situations to keep him healthy, but he is still going to eat yards and get goal line work.

Todd Gurley

RB | LA Rams | 22-years-old

Todd Gurley was a victim of circumstance last season. After drafting Jared Goff as the future of the franchise last season, it was obvious Gurley was going to have to shoulder the load for the Rams as they brought the former Cal product along in his development. Unfortunately for Gurley, all other NFL franchises knew this as well.

As teams stacked the box to slow down the former St. Louis Rams, Gurley was stuffed at the line of scrimmage time and time again. Even with the 27th ranked offensive line, the Rams ran the ball 41.16% of the time.

Los Angeles’ lack of ability to win at the line of scrimmage was evident by Gurley’s embarrassing 40th ranked 3.18 yards per carry. Despite the lack of production, former Head Coach Jeff Fisher kept feeding his feature back, as the former Georgia Bulldog tallied the fifth-most carries among running backs last season.

The Rams didn’t draft a single offensive lineman and have made nearly zero off-season moves. Gurley is a talented back, there’s no doubting that, but a running back can’t produce without blockers in front of him. Maybe Los Angeles has a trick or two up its sleeve, but for now, I don’t see them coming close to competing for an NFC West title as they run their could-be-star into the ground much like they did the great Steven Jackson.

Lamar Miller

RB | Houston Texans  | 26-years-old

The last back on the list is one many expected to be a possible number one overall finisher when it came down to running backs last year. Up until last season, Lamar Miller had played his entire career in Miami. After he was “freed” and went to Houston, it was a foregone conclusion that the Hurricane product was going to become a fantasy star.
Miller had no such luck. In his first year in the lone star state, Miller finished as the 17th best running back in terms of total fantasy points produced. He did, however, produce the tenth best season on the ground, racking up 1,073 yards and five touchdowns, but had a disappointing 188 yards and one touchdown through the air.

Many point to Miller’s size and say at 5’10” 220 pounds he isn’t built to handle a bell cow role. His size is very similar to Elliot’s 6’0” 225 frame and Elliot didn’t seem to have any issues during his rookie season.

Now that Osweiler is out of town, other teams may not key on the run knowing that was the only chance the Texans had at staying in a ball game. Tom Savage may not be leaps and bounds better than Osweiler, but as soon as Deshaun Watson hits the field I see a turnaround in Huston. Watson is a winner and should immediately develop chemistry with DeAndre Hopkins, alleviating some pressure from Miller.

Rankings & Other Great Reads

  • Check out Jody Smith’s 2017 Dynasty Rookie Rankings. Get a full recap of all of the top players you should target in the first round of your rookie dynasty draft and highlight some gems you should stash for later
  • Stay up to date with Gridiron Experts NFL Depth Charts for 2017. We are constantly updating projected team rosters to help you narrow down which players to draft and when
  • Rookie Profile articles: Learn more about WR Corey Davis from the Titans, John Ross the newest Bengal Wide Receiver or the Buc’s newest weapon O.J Howard.

 

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About the author

Ethan Lillard

Ethan Lillard

Ethan is a lifelong sports fan and has been involved in sports for as long as he can remember. He played football in high school and was a part of two Class 3A State Championship football teams in Illinois at Illini West High School. He is currently the sports editor at the Hancock County Journal-Pilot in Carthage, IL and is trying to get more involved in fantasy and professional sports journalism. Ethan has played fantasy football since he was 14 years old and considers himself an admitted fantasy addict, but sees no problem with this. He competes annually in fantasy football, basketball and baseball leagues with his friends and has even accomplished a three-peat in one of his football leagues, winning three-straight seasons. He nearly had another three-peat in the same span in another league, but got third in 2015. Writing about and covering sports is his passion. After entering the sports journalism field in 2015, Ethan knew covering sports was his calling and will never turn back.

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