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“Big Rigg’s” Top 20 Running Backs for 2018

For the first time in seemingly a few years, there is an abundance of talented running backs worthy of first round consideration.  It’s more or less a toss up for who the top player off the board should be this year.  You have to ask yourself if you can really go wrong taking Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, Zeke Elliott or Todd Gurley.  You can look at the debate from several different angles.  You can consider historical usage, you can consider projected usage, or you could simply roll with the guys in the best offensive situation.  Zeke Elliott should see an uptick in passing game usage this year after Jason Witten retired and Dez Bryant got cut, but at the same time, opposing defenses may key in on Zeke more because those guys are gone.  David Johnson is going to get the rock a ton down in Arizona this year, but the offensive line isn’t great and they don’t have a proven guy at the quarterback position, because Sam Bradford will inevitably get hurt, and the keys to the O will be handed over to the rookie, Josh Rosen.  Todd Gurley is in a great offense, but there is sure to be some touchdown regression from his 2017 campaign.  That being said, in my view, Le’Veon Bell is a good bet to end the year as the #1 running back in fantasy football.  The Steelers have a solid offensive line, a future Hall of Fame QB in Big Ben, and a solid supporting cast in Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.  The Steelers also lost Martavis Bryant in the offseason which means there is one less mouth to feed, albeit Bryant wasn’t fed a lot last year, but he was still a weapon.  Yes, Todd Haley did leave this offseason, but at the end of the day, talent wins, especially when you have that much talent.

With a number of high end running backs going in the first round of the draft this year, it’s pushing guys like Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr. and AJ Green down on draft boards.  As such, there will be several high end wide receivers staring you in the face in your draft and you will need to make a decision whether to load up on running backs or pull the trigger and get the stud wide receivers.  At the end of the day, it’s your decision what you do, but if you look at the running back talent pool, things drop off in a hurry after you get through the top 20 running backs.  You need to do some mock drafts to see how things play out, because you need to get a feel for how far down the draft board some of these running backs will fall and at what point the elite wide receivers dry up.

I did four mock drafts to help show how the draft may play out.  All of these drafts were done in a 12 team 1/2 PPR format.  To keep things simple for comparison sake, I took Cam Newton in the 6th round and Delanie Walker in the 7th round in each of these drafts.  In the first draft, I was in the 1 hole and I went RB with my first 3 picks and WR with my 4th and 5th picks.

QB – Cam Newton, WR – Brandin Cooks, WR – Marvin Jones, RB – Ezekiel Elliott, RB – Jordan Howard, TE – Delanie Walker, Flex – Devonta Freeman

*Doug Baldwin and Mike Evans were still available in the 3rd round when I took Devonta Freeman.  In the 4th and 5th rounds, when I took Brandin Cooks and Marvin Jones, guys like Derrius Guice, Jay Ajayi and Mark Ingram were still available.

In the second draft, I drafted from the 1 hole again and went RB 1st, and then WR 2nd and 3rd.

QB – Cam Newton, WR – TY Hilton, WR – Josh Gordon, RB – Ezekiel Elliott, RB – Rashaad Penny, TE – Delanie Walker, Flex – Brandin Cooks

*Christian McCaffrey, Joe Mixon, Jordan Howard and Jerrick McKinnon were available when I took Hilton and Gordon.  When I took Rashaad Penny and Brandin Cooks in the 4th and 5th, Robert Woods, Jarvis Landry and Marvin Jones were the best receivers still available.

In the third draft, I went best player available from the 12 hole.

QB – Cam Newton, WR – Michael Thomas, WR – AJ Green, RB – Derrius Guice, RB – Sony Michel, TE – Delanie Walker, Flex – TY Hilton

*I went Michael Thomas and AJ Green back to back to start things off.  I bypassed guys like Devonta Freeman, Joe Mixon and Leonard Fournette to grab the two stud wide receivers to start.  Brandin Cooks and Marvin Jones were still there for me in the 5th and 6th rounds, but I already loaded up on wide receivers, so I took Sony Michel and Cam Newton in those back to back picks.  In hindsight, I would have preferred to have a guy like Mixon or Freeman as my RB1, Hilton as my WR2 and a guy like Brandin Cooks or Marvin Jones as my flex.

Based on the way those drafts played out, I quickly realized it may benefit to take a more balanced approach, so I did one more mock draft from the 1 hole with the idea that I would balance the team out a little bit more.  Here is how it played out.

QB – Cam Newton, WR – TY Hilton, WR – Golden Tate, RB – Ezekiel Elliott, RB – Joe Mixon, TE – Delanie Walker, Flex – Brandin Cooks

*This squad has two solid bellcow running backs, two high volume wide receivers and one boom or bust big play wide receiver in the flex.  I was happy with the way this team turned out.

1 – Le’Veon Bell – Le’Veon Bell is coming off a season where he had over 400 total touches and logged just under 2,000 total yards from scrimmage.  Let’s not overthink this one, if you have Le’Veon Bell on your team it’s like having Jordan Howard and Randall Cobb combined in to one player and he will be a difference maker in your fantasy football lineup.  As long as Big Ben remains healthy and defenses need to respect the passing game, teams will need to pick their poison and decide whether to stop the running game or Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster and that passing game.  Even though Bell had a fantastic fantasy season, there was still room for improvement.  Bell only broke 18.9% of his runs longer than 15 yards for a total of 244 yards.  If Bell can break a few more long ones, which is a possibility behind that tremendous offensive line, it could push him over 2,000 total yards, and if you recall, Bell had a touchdown slump last season.  If Bell scores more in 2018 it those TD’s will push him over the top.  Bell is still only 26 years old and shows no signs of slowing down as he continues to chase a big money long term deal from the Steelers.

2 – Zeke Elliott – Entering his third year in the league, Zeke Elliott will only be 23 years old when the 2018 season starts.  In 2017, Elliott saw his yards per carry drop to 4.1 after an impressive 5.1 yards per carry mark in 2016, but much of that can be attributed to the shake up the Cowboys had on the offensive line and the injury to their left tackle, Tyron Smith.  With Zeke’s suspension talk in the rear view mirror, he should be able to get to work and rebound.  Elliott should also be a little fresher as he logged 80 less carries in 2017 as he did in 2016, missing 6 games due to suspension.  Moreover, Zeke only broke 8 runs of 15 or more yards in 2017, gaining 172 yards off those 8 runs.  The year prior, Zeke broke 22 runs of 15 or more yards for a total of 550 yards.  If the Cowboys offensive line can be a little bit more consistent, Zeke should be able to break more long ones and should return to more of his 2016 form.

3 – Todd Gurley – In 2016, Todd Gurley played in a junior varsity offense and only broke 7 runs for longer than 15 yards.  In 2017, Gurley broke out and looked like he did as a rookie in 2015, breaking 15 runs for a total of 377 yards running behind an improved offensive line, coupled with an innovative player caller in Sean McVay.  Gurley had 2,093 yards from scrimmage in 2017 which is more than Le’Veon Bell, and he did it while handling the ball 63 less times than Bell.  If the Rams feed Gurley the rock a little bit more, or if he breaks a few more long ones, he could be even better in 2018.  However, Gurley did have 19 total touchdowns last year which isn’t exactly sustainable, so some touchdown regression is expected.

4 – David Johnson – David Johnson’s 2016 season was very similar to Todd Gurley’s 2017 season in every regard, even the number of touchdowns.  Unfortunately, Johnson broke his wrist last year which most likely devastated your season if you used the first overall pick to take him last year.  David Johnson should be fine heading into 2018, but the Cardinals offensive line is less than an ideal unit.  As it stands right now, the Cardinals will roll DJ Humphries, Mike Iupati, AQ Shipley, Justin Pugh and Andre Smith out there as their starters.  The guards are ok, but Andre Smith is aging, DJ Humphries is looking like a bust and AQ Shipley has been a career journeyman with short arms (to qualify that statement, his arms are short by NFL standards, he could whoop me).  If Josh Rosen is forced into action, which will likely happen as Sam Bradford is extremely brittle, the Cardinals offense may stall under the rookie behind a subpar offensive line.

5 – Kareem Hunt – In 2017, 39.3% of Kareem Hunt’s yards came on 19 of his 272 carries.  When Kareem Hunt had his slump during the middle of the year, it’s because he didn’t score and he didn’t break any long runs.  When Hunt breaks the long one, he comes through.  It’s safe to say that Hunt probably won’t break as many long runs in 2018, so some regression is expected.  Keep in mind, Hunt’s stats from last year are a little skewed because of that monster game he had against the Patriots in the 2017 opener.  Hunt is, however, the lead back in an Andy Reid offense, so he will end the year as an RB1 barring injury.

6 – Alvin Kamara – In 2017 Alvin Kamara was as elusive as you can get.  Kamara avoided 29 tackles on just 120 rushing attempts and averaged 3.83 yards after initial contact.  Similar to Kareem Hunt, a large percentage, 41.5%, of Kamara’s rushing yardage came off just 13 runs which went for 15 or more yards.  Kamara’s fantasy production is dependent on the big play, period, but he should see higher volume early on while Mark Ingram sits out due to his suspension, so he could actually exceed his 2017 stat line.

7 – Dalvin Cook – Dalvin Cook will be 23 years old at the start of the season and only played in 4 games as a rookie due to a torn ACL which he sustained in week 4 against the Lions.  In a very limited sample, Cook showed dual threat ability and had a decent yards per carry.  As long as reports on Cook’s knee are positive during training camp, there’s no reason to think he won’t pick up exactly where he left off when he went down last year.  Although Cook’s offensive line isn’t the greatest, he shouldn’t see too many stacked boxes as Kirk Cousins will be leading the offense in 2018 with one of the best WR combinations in the NFL commanding respect from opposing defenses.

8 – Saquon Barkley – In 2017, Pat Shurmur fed Dalvin Cook the rock early and often as an every down back and he should do the same with Barkley in 2018.  Saquon Barkley is better than Dalvin Cook across the board talentwise and Cook exploded on the scene early in the season before tearing his ACL.  If you are a believer in drafting players on teams with successful play callers, then you are comfortable projecting Dalvin Cook’s 2017 usage to Saquon Barkley in 2018.  Comparing Barkley to Cook, Barkley is a better talent than Cook across the board, and with Eli Manning under center, Barkley is paired with a better QB than Cook was with Case Keenum in 2017.  Moreover, with the addition of Nate Solder and Will Hernandez this offseason, Barkley has a better offensive line blocking for him than Dalvin Cook did in 2017.  I basically just made an argument to draft Barkley over Cook, but the fact is we have seen Cook have success at the NFL level, and as of July 15, 2018 we haven’t seen Barkley play an NFL snap, therefore, I have Cook one spot ahead of Barkley, but if Barkley has a good preseason that may change.

9 – Melvin Gordon – Once again, Melvin Gordon logged under 4 yards per carry in 2017, but once again, he was fed the rock a lot, logging 342 total touches in 2017.  Without any competition in the Chargers backfield this year, Gordon is a good bet receive similar volume again in 2018.  Hunter Henry is out for the year, which may free up some targets in the passing game if nobody from the wide receiver or tight end corps steps up.  Finally, the Chargers have an improved offensive line as they got their 2017 second round pick, Forrest Lamp, back from injury.  According to PFF, Gordon broke the second most tackles in the league in 2017 behind only Kareem Hunt and he was able to gain an average of 2.54 yards after initial contact.  The 2018 upgrade to the offensive line should only help Gordon have an even better 2018 season.  Only 28.3% of Gordon’s 2017 rushing production came off long runs, so there is definitely room to grow in that area.

10 – Joe Mixon – The Bengals offensive line was absolutely terrible in 2017 and the team made a significant effort to improve that unit in both the draft and the trade market, acquiring Billy Price and Cordy Glenn this offseason.  With a better offensive line, it should open up holes for Mixon allowing him to get more yards before contact and it should keep Andy Dalton cleaner, which will help the offense sustain drives.  When Andy Dalton was not under pressure last season, he threw for 2,509 yards and 19 touchdowns, compared to only 811 yards and 6 touchdowns while under duress.  Dalton was under duress over 30% of his dropbacks last year, and he really doesn’t have success when he feels the pressure.  Historically, Dalton is at his best when he’s able to get the ball out quickly and remain in a rhythm so if the line keeps him cleaner, this should mean more touches for Mixon, who also has less competition in the backfield this year now that Jeremy Hill has departed for New England.

11 – Devonta Freeman – Devonta Freeman came back down to earth a little bit in 2017 after he exploded in 2016, and it was expected as Kyle Shanahan departed prior to the 2017 season.  Sark took some time acclimating to calling plays in 2017 as the entire Falcons offense took a step backwards, and Freeman missed some time due to a concussion which didn’t help his final stat line. Although Freeman had a down year, he still missed 36 tackles which was good for 9th best in the league and averaged 2.66 yards after contact.  Due to the missed games, Freeman didn’t accumulate as much wear and tear in 2017 which is another positive for him heading into his 2018 campaign.

12 – Leonard Fournette – Leonard Fournette wasn’t really an exciting player to watch last year as he averaged just under 4 yards per carry in his rookie campaign but he did get a lot of volume, and there is no indication he won’t continue to receive a high volume of touches heading into 2018.  Fournette does have some lingering foot and ankle issues which makes owning him a little concerning, but at the end of the day he’s talented and he gets volume, so it makes sense to draft him as an RB1 or high end RB2.  Fournette isn’t a complete zero in the passing game but he’s not going to haul in 80 grabs a year either.

13 – Jordan Howard – Jordan Howard is one of the worst pass catching running backs in the NFL if he’s not the absolute worst.  Although he offers very little in the passing game, Howard has proven to be a bruising runner who can handle a large workload.  In 2017 Howard broke 15 of his 276 runs for 15 or more yards and averaged over 4 yards per carry in a very predictable offense that was playing from behind most of the season.  In 2018 under Matt Nagy, even if the Bears aren’t playing with the lead more, they will definitely not be playing from behind almost every week like they did last year, they should be more competitive.  When the Bears fell behind last season, Howard seemingly disappeared from the running back rotation.  If Howard can stay on the field this year, meaning not get subbed out of the game, he is a good bet for over 300 carries, over 1,200 yards rushing and around 10 touchdowns.  Howard broke 34 tackles in 2017 and averaged 2.52 yards after initial contact, so he can create for himself.

14 – Christian McCaffrey – McCaffrey is an elusive runner but he’s more in the mold of Alvin Kamara, he won’t get a heavy rushing workload.  Although he won’t get 20+ carries a game, he is a good bet to push for 80+ grabs a year.  The Panthers get Greg Olsen back from injury this year and drafted DJ Moore who can take the top off a defense which should free up McCaffrey more underneath.  Although McCaffrey will see volume in the passing game, he needs to improve on his pass catching efficiency, which he should.  In 2017, McCaffrey only averaged 1.45 yards per route run, while Alvin Kamara averaged 2.84 yards per route run.  McCaffrey had 106 pass targets in 2017 which was more than Kamara’s 96 targets, but he did much less with them, only gaining 651 yards compared to Kamara’s 826 yards.

15 – LeSean McCoy – Even before the domestic violence allegations against McCoy surfaced last week, I suppressed McCoy’s 2018 ranking now that he’s on the wrong side of 30, but with these recent domestic violence allegations, if there’s any more smoke than already exists come draft day, stay away from this dude.  At some point, any player is a value, which is why I have him ranked here still, but this just doesn’t look good.  If you draft McCoy, and he’s suspended, you will be looking back at your draft in January kicking yourself, saying that you will never draft another player with potential litigation against them ever again.  However, if he slips down the draft board and you snag him in maybe the 4th or 5th round and he’s able to stay healthy at his age, then you could catch lightning in a bottle similar to the way people snagged Todd Gurley last year.

16 – Derrius Guice – Derrius Guice is a man, and he should be the running back that the Redskins have been looking for the last few years.  Rob Kelley is not the answer, Samaje Perine was not the answer either, Guice can do it all and the Redskins offensive line should be better in 2018 after getting Trent Williams back from an injury plagued 2017 campaign which really hurt the unit as a whole.

17 – Mark Ingram – Mark Ingram’s value is suppressed because he’s suspended for the first four games of the 2018 season.  Ingram should hit the ground running when he returns from suspension and you shouldn’t hesitate drafting him around the 5th or 6th round.  If you draft Ingram, hopefully you take him as your flex, so you can draft a wide receiver shortly thereafter to fill in for him while he’s suspended.  If not for the suspension, Ingram would be drafted around the Dalvin Cook and Joe Mixon range.

18 – Lamar Miller – It’s safe to say that the Miami Dolphins knew what they were doing when they let Lamar Miller walk via free agency in 2016.  Miller, who just recently turned 27 years old, simply cannot be that bellcow back the Texans signed him to be.  Miller averaged less than 4 yards per carry in 2017 and he simply doesn’t get the looks in the redzone.  D’Onta Foreman is looming in the background, albeit he’s coming off a torn achilles and still not fully healthy, he should be nipping at Miller’s heals once he returns.  Miller isn’t very elusive either, he only broke 8 runs for 15 or more yards in 2017 and missed just 21 tackles which is in the same neighborhood as Isaiah Crowell, Ameer Abdullah and Jay Ajayi.  All that being said, at this time, Miller has very little, if any competition for carries in the Texans backfield and he should be the man down in Houston, therefore, he can be drafted as an RB2.  Disclaimer – I am not targeting Lamar Miller in any drafts, but if he slips far enough, I will take him.  Also, if D’Onta Foreman’s recovery speeds up, my evaluation on this situation may change.

19 – Kenyan Drake – I don’t like Kenyan Drake this year, I am going to stay away from him, and here is why.  47.7% of Drake’s 644 rushing yards in 2017 came off of 9 carries.  On one hand, after reading that statistic, you could say that Kenyan Drake is a breakaway threat any time he touches the ball, but on the other hand, you could make the argument that Drake cannot consistently get the job done as he’s never carried a full workload for an extended period of time.  If you draft Drake as your RB2 or Flex, you are taking a leap of faith that he can get it done over the course of the entire 2018 season.  I have him ranked here because he did come through when given the opportunity in 2017 and at this time, he’s the lead back in Miami, but if this turns into a timeshare with Frank Gore, you will be regretting using a 4th or 5th round pick on him.

20 – Jerrick McKinnon – Jerrick McKinnon is a very intriguing player heading into 2018 because he’s always been banged up and his career yards per carry is under 4, but now he’s now playing in Kyle Shanahan’s offense which makes him very appealing.  My view on this guy is that regardless of the offense he’s playing in, durability is a concern, so even if he does explode for 100+ yards in a few games, it’s not likely he will be able to sustain that over an entire season.  I have McKinnon ranked in the top 20 because the talent drops off considerably here, and he’s still an intriguing pick warranting consideration based on the play caller.  At a certain point, he will be a value you cannot pass on.  I would draft McKinnon as my flex, but unfortunately he’s being drafted as a RB1 or RB2, so I am not likely to get him at all this year.

Follow me on Twitter @Coachriggall if you care about winning.

Major League Fantasy Baseball Radio Show: Join host Brian Roach, Jr, and Cole Freel live on Sunday July 15th, 2018 from 8-9:30pm EST for episode #129 of Major League Fantasy Baseball Radio. We are a live broadcast that will take callers at 323-870-4395. Press 1 to speak with the host. We will discss the latest information in the world of fantasy baseball.

Our guest this week is Joe Iannnone. Joe has been a writer with majorleaguefantasysports.com since 2014. His articles publish every Sunday and he focuses on spot starts for the coming week.

Major League Fantasy Football Radio Show: Join host Corey D Roberts, and James Wilk live July 12th, 2018 from 8-9:30pm EST for episode #84 of Major League Fantasy Football Radio. Call in number is 323-870-4395 press 1 to speak with the host. This is our kick of show for the 2018 fantasy football season. We will hit free agents, rookies, and fantasy football as a whole for each team for 2018. This week we will discuss everything  AFC South!

I've been coaching lacrosse since 2002 and playing fantasy football since 2006. I've racked up several championships over the years including a 4th place finish in the Kentucky Fantasy Football State Championship in 2016.

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