2018 Positional Rankings: Top Ten RBs PPR

2018 is officially the year of the running back! Welcome into the first installment of our annual positional rankings. Each week from here until August we will be releasing a top ten positional ranking article to help you get prepared for your league drafts. To kick things off we are going to break down the top position to own in fantasy football and tell you who we feel are the top ten running backs to target.

What was once a lightning rod of criticism and a position that led owners to adopt a Zero RB drafting policy in early rounds because of its volatility, has now become the IT position to target early and often. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the overall ADP data from Fantasy Football Calculator mocks and you will see that 16 of the first 24 picks are running backs. You compare that to just a year ago when only 11 of the first 24 picks were running backs. This isn’t a fluke. First, the historic 2017 RB class produced  4 of the top 36 fantasy performances last year and in their sophomore year that number can easily balloon up to five if not six. Secondly, 2018 saw 3 RB’s drafted in the 1st round Saquon Barkley 1.02 to the Giants, Rashaad Penny 1.27 to the Seahawks, & Sony Michel 1.31 to the Patriots. No RB has been drafted as highly as Barkley since Reggie Bush was taken 2nd overall way back in 2006. On top of that, both he and Penny have already been penciled in for starting roles. Third and lastly, the influx of workhorse dual-threat running backs have provided some insurance for fantasy owners, a safety net, if you will. Pass catching helps offset some of the flaws that scare so many fantasy owners off like inefficient running schemes, poor running blocking, and negative game scripts.

Opportunity share is king when it comes to selecting a running back in the early rounds. Just take a look at the final PPR standings from last year;

Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, Kareem Hunt, Melvin Gordon, LeSean McCoy, and Leonard Fournette all had over 300 total touches last year and Ezekiel Elliott was on pace to join them if he had played a full 16 game season. David Johnson who had a league-high of 413 total touches in 2016 would have also made this list if he hadn’t been hurt back in week 1 & was lost for the season. What you also see is that the ability to pass catch helped elevate the fantasy values of Alvin Kamara, Carlos Hyde, Christian McCaffrey, and most notably Duke Johnson Jr. All 4 of them had 80+ targets in the passing game and McCaffrey went over the century mark with 113 targets. This level of activity in the passing game helped keep their fantasy values alive as each of them saw less than 125 rushing attempts last season. This was especially evident in the case of Duke Johnson Jr. who only saw 82 rushing attempts, the lowest of any running back to finish as an RB1 last year.

So what does all this information tell us? It tells us that a player’s total percentage of a team’s touches matters, high volume pass-catching running backs have a safer floor, and touchdowns are still impossible to predict. Chase the opportunity share as touchdowns will traditionally follow.

The sophomore season of the historic 2017 draft class, the depth of the 2018 draft class, and the emergence of new pass-catching threats in starting roles across the NFL have this year’s running back group shaping up to be its best yet. With all that being said let’s get started with our countdown of the top ten running backs starting with number ten.

10. Kareem Hunt – Hunt exploded onto the fantasy scene like a climax in a Peter North movie. He shocked the nation opening night going off for 246 total yards and 3 touchdowns. Hunt continued his domination all season ending the year as the rushing leader (1,327 yards) while racking up 7 RB1 performances on his way to finishing the season as the RB4 with 295 fantasy points. The concerns of Spencer Ware being healthy, a change at quarterback to Patrick Mahomes and the difficult to predict play calling of Andy Reid are legit and could impact Hunt’s chances to reproduce a top 5 fantasy performance. In the end, he will continue to have a double-digit per game rushing share and his ability to be a threat in the passing game should help offset any production lost with touches to Spencer Ware or what were you thinking moments by Andy Reid.

9, Leonard Fournette – The L Train brought old-school Emmit Smith / Adrian Peterson style running back into fashion last season. Asking for contact and not looking to avoid it helped Fournette pile up over 1k yards on 268 carries and got Jacksonville within one-quarter of the Super Bowl. Fournette finished the season as the RB9 with 230 fantasy points but his reception total of 36 had him finish as the 24th ranked running back, the lowest of any running back to finish as an RB1 last season. In PPR scoring leagues Forunette has a capped ceiling but in standard scoring, the number you want to look at is 527. That is the number of rushing attempts the Jaguars had in 2017 which was the most in the NFL. Jacksonville likes to run the ball more than they like to throw it and remember what I said above, opportunity share is king. You buy Fournette because he is the clear bell cow on a run-first offense, that’s it! Anything he can give you in the passing game is whip cream on your sundae.

8. Dalvin Cook – One of the most productive running backs to ever come out of Florida State, Go Noles, Cook looked like the steal of the 2017 NFL Draft before an ACL injury in week 4 cut short his season. With back to back weeks with a touchdown, it looked like Cook was ready to finally show off his unique ability to be an elusive runner on both inside and outside carries as well as an exceptional pass catcher. Before his injury Cook was showing the stat-stuffing ability that he showed at FSU as he had already amassed 354 yards on 74 carries. If you average those two numbers out and calculate them over the remainder of the season that Cook missed he would have ended the year with a stat line of 1,416 rushing yards on 296 rushing attempts. There is no way to know if McKinnon or Murray would have eaten into either of those numbers or what his pass catching stats would have been but what we do know is McKinnon left to go to San Francisco and Murray is one year older. Cook looks to be ready for training camp where he will take over the lead back role on a Vikings team that had the 2nd most rushing attempts (501) last season and just upgraded their quarterback with the free agent signing of Kirk Cousins. The Vikings are an offense you want to buy into and Cook will be a major piece to their success.

7. Alvin Kamara – Kamara is one of the most polarizing players as we head into league drafts this August. On one hand, Kamara finished the 2017 season as the RB3 with 320.4 fantasy points, he had 100 targets in the passing game, scored 13 total touchdowns (8 rushing & 5 receiving), and plays for one of the NFL’s highest-scoring offenses. The Saints finished last year 2nd in total yards (6,259), 5th in passing yards per game (261.8), 5th in rushing yards per game (129.4), and 4th in both total pts (448) & pts per game (28.0). So the Saints are a really good offense to invest in, got it. The major concern begins with the low opportunity share (220 total touches) vs the high touchdown output (13). Based on last years numbers, Alvin Kamara scored a touchdown on every 15.46 touches. Compare that to another running back on our list Todd Gurley who scored a touchdown on every 18.05 touches. As you can see Kamra was the most effective running back in the NFL last year and even though his efficiency numbers will come down which should mean his touchdown output will as well, the increased workload due to the Ingram 4 game suspension should help raise Kamara’s total touches to help balance out lack of efficiency.

6. Melvin Gordon – Melvin Gordon get’s no respect by the fantasy community but over the last two years Gordon has put together back to back double digit touchdown seasons and with it back to back RB1 finishes. Last year Gordon was the RB8 & the year before that he finished as the RB5 with 288 fantasy points. There is so much to be excited about with Gordon as we head into the 2018 season. He is the clear-cut lead back with no competition for touches which is an area he dominated last year ending with 342 total touches (284 rushing attempts & 58 catches). He was able to increase his activity in the passing game going from 41 catches on 57 targets in 2016 to 58 catches on 83 targets in 2017. Lastly, Gordon eclipsed the 1k yard rushing mark for the first time in his career. In 2018 Melvin Gordon may flirt with a top 3 finish if he continues to improve as a runner and is able to be as effective in the passing game as he was last year.

5. Saquon Barkley – I haven’t been this excited for a running back prospect since LaDainian Tomlinson back in 2001 and it’s fitting because 17 years later no player reminds me of LT more than Barkley. The first thing that stands out to me is how great a receiver Barkley is already coming out of Penn State. On a team with limited weapons, Barkley in his Junior season was able to haul in 54 receptions for 632 yards and 3 TDs. This was the cherry on top of his 1,271 rushing yard, 18 TDs, on 217 rushing attempts, on the ground. These numbers are not outwardly but they paint a picture of a player who dominated both as a runner and as a pass catcher even when everyone knew it was coming and behind one of the worst offensive lines in all of college football. On top of his excellence in both running and pass catching, Barkley blew away the combine posting one of the best performances we have seen from a running back in some time. Coming in at 6’0 233 pounds, Barkley ran a 4.40 (97th percentile), had a 41 inch vertical, 134.7 Burst Score (96th percentile) and 29 Bench Reps (96th percentile). This performance put Barkley in rare air as he completed his testing with a 149.8 (99th percentile) SPARQ-x score. So you have college dominance, elite level athleticism, high draft capital (2nd overall), and you enter the NFL with zero competition for the starting job. Barkley, like Elliott a few years back, is as clear cut a rookie pick as you will get and I can’t see a scenario in which he fails to deliver, baring an injury.

4. David Johnson – In today’s instant gratification culture we live in, recency bias is at an all-time high and after a year away due to an injury people are forgetting that David Johnson led everyone in PPR fantasy points in 2016 with 416.8. Johnson is one of the premiere workhorse running backs in the NFL and in 2016, he handled a league-high 373 total touches. What everyone should be getting excited about was when DJ was healthy in 2016 he saw a position high in targets (120) & catches (80) and led the league in total touchdowns (20). You take what you saw in 2016, you factor in that he was able to take a year off from being hit & it was his wrist not his knees or ankles that took him out for the year and David Johnson has as good a shot as anyone to finish the season as the #1 overall player in fantasy football, again.

3. Ezekiel Elliott – Over the past two season Ezekiel Elliott has scored 25 total touchdowns and has rushed for 2,614 yards. That is more rushing yards than Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, & Todd Gurley and only Gurley has as many touchdowns over that same span as Elliott. Heading into 2018, not only does Zeke not have to worry about getting suspended (knock on wood…..do it!), he also won’t recognize the offense. This offseason the Cowboys HOF Tight End Jason Witten retired and they released Dez Bryant. The departure of two of the Cowboys’ cornerstone pieces meant that 219 targets had been vacated and were up for grabs… literally. What does that mean for Zeke? In 2018 it’s not crazy to think that he may see close to 400 rushing attempts and that he will be asked to help out more in the passing game. Over his first two years in the league, Zeke has only seen 77 total targets which average out to about 38 receiving opportunities per year. If that number climbs to say 50 or 60 targets the sky is the limit to how dominant Elliott may be this season. If we are to chase opportunity share as it traditionally gives fantasy owners the greatest return on their investment, then no running back presents a better value than Ezekiel Elliott.

2. Todd Gurley – What more can be said about Todd Gurley’s 2017 season that hasn’t already been said? Gurley was great throughout the entire year and was able to capture the top spot at the running back position by finishing with 383.3 fantasy points. The LA Rams brought in Sean McVay in 2017 and went from the worst scoring offense in the league (14.0) to the number one scoring offense (29.9). This increase in offensive dominance mixed with McVay’s desire to help get Gurley in space & more involved in the passing game helped Gurley finish 3rd in total touches (343) only behind only LeSean McCoy (346) & Le’Veon Bell (406). Gurley’s 19 total touchdowns led all positional players last year and with a touchdown regression most likely in store for 2018, the Rams once again have one of the leagues most explosive offenses which should help give Gurley plenty of opportunities to continue and try to fight the narrative that his touchdown total will dip. The reason Gurley isn’t number 1 is that he hasn’t shown the consistency we look for in our top pick.

1. Le’Veon Bell –  Consistency is king is as true a statement about our number 1 running back of 2018 Le’Veon Bell as it is to say Dwayne Johnson has made some terrible movies but no one seems to care (Hercules, Rampage, Skyscraper, San Andreas)! Bell is a Rock (see what I did there?) as he has produced back to back 1260+ rushing yard, 600+ receiving yard, 9+ total touchdown seasons. The common thread of our top tier running backs is that they are all bell cows who handle the largest opportunity share at their position and Bell was the definition of a workhorse back with his 406 total touches which led the NFL in that category. What helps make Bell such a consistent fantasy player is that he continues to increase his production in the passing game. This past season the Steelers had the 3rd most passing yards per/g (273.8) but were 20th in rushing yards per/g (104.2). The 106 targets which were 2nd most at the position last year showed that Bell’s fantasy value didn’t disappear even if  Pittsburgh struggled to run the ball. As long as Big Ben is under center and AB is lined up on the outside, Bell will continue to see less stacked boxes than some of the other elite running backs and it will allow him to have more favorable matchups in the passing game. For us, it’s a no-brainer that Bell is the clear cut number one pick for the second year in a row.

Well, that will do it for the first installment of our 2018 positional rankings. What did you think? Do you agree with the rankings? Did I do a good job? Let me know by tweeting me @trotta23 or @tffgurus our company handle. While you are at it go check out our new podcast page @trophytimepod. That will do it for this installment but make sure to come back next week as we count down the top ten WRs.

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