Fantasy Football Running Back Tiers

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June is here and with it comes fantasy football draft season. Here is the first look at my Running Back Tiers for 2019.

Tier-based drafting has been a strategy I have employed with success, both in redraft and keeper leagues. It helps to develop clear gaps between the value of two players and as you go down the tiers, these gaps materialize. Using a straight list makes it difficult to establish player value relevant to your current pick when in the draft room. Tier-based drafting helps to eliminate confusion and develop a clear vision for getting the most value out of your selections. Let’s take a look at some of the running back tiers for this upcoming season.

Tier 1: Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffery, Ezekiel Elliott, Alvin Kamara

No surprises here as the fantasy community generally considers this group the top four running backs, and I agree. My preference at 1.01 is to go with Saquon Barkley as his projected work in the passing game sans Odell Beckham supplements the already immense touchdown and rushing equity.

In PPR formats the case can be made for Christian McCaffery to go #1 overall, but that really comes down to player preference. My projections for McCaffery come in around 300 total touches, which is down about 1.5 touches per game from his 2018 numbers. Still, he is one of those rare combinations of a WR1 who also happens to be a RB1.

Assuming his increased role in the passing game is no fluke, Ezekiel Elliott may finish as the overall RB1 in 2019. A bump in his Red Zone usage (he only received 59% of the Cowboys carries – for reference, Barkley was at 69% and Gurley 64%) would only enhance his outlook. Coming off a season with 381 total touches, the Cowboys may look to lighten his load some but he should still be the focal point of the offense.

Alvin Kamara has perhaps the highest ceiling of any running back in fantasy but of these four, his weekly role is the least certain. Though not a true bell cow, Kamara ranked 2nd in the NFL in Red Zone carries in 2018 which kept his floor intact despite never exceeding 19 carries in a single game. In best ball formats I am inclined to rank Kamara #1 overall as he prone to blow-up spots where he can exceed 40 fantasy points in a given week.

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Tier 2: Melvin Gordon, James Conner, Joe Mixon, David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell

Dropping down to this tier might be the most profitable strategy in 2019 as you can grab a top WR and potentially get one of these guys in the 2nd Round. Melvin Gordon just turned 26 and is coming off a year where he ended up with 1300 total yards and 14 TDs in just 12 games. Health is a concern with Gordon but the same could be said for anyone playing the position. Over the last three seasons, Gordon has emerged as one of the most under-appreciated running backs in football. He is a true three-down back who averages 100 total yards per game with 3-4 receptions.

Of all the guys in this tier, James Conner is the one who sticks out as having the best chance of finishing in the top-3 among fantasy running backs. Prior to a Week 13 injury, Conner was on pace for 336 touches in 2018 and with the Steelers offense losing Antonio Brown I’m optimistic on his outlook. Conner is being massively undervalued by the public right now because of the presence of Jaylen Samuels and 3rd Round pick Benny Snell. I’ll continue to grab him in the mid-2nd Round.

Joe Mixon’s outlook is enhanced by new Bengals head coach Zac Taylor who was part of a staff that unleashed Todd Gurley in Los Angeles. Mixon is the best weapon Cincinnati has, so that plus Andy Dalton’s limitations, should make him the centerpiece of the offense. Like Gordon and Conner, Mixon is a three-down stud who has guaranteed Red Zone usage. The only thing capping his ceiling is the overall ineptitude of the Bengals’ offense, though Taylor should help to remedy that.

The Kliff Kingsburg era begins in Arizona with David Johnson poised for a big year. Johnson’s skill set fits nicely with what Kingsbury wants to do offensively and with Kyler Murray taking over at quarterback, he should be heavily involved. There are red flags with age (Johnson will be 28 in December), health, and an ugly 3.6 YPC in 2018, but Johnson has the ability to catch 80+ passes to supplement his rushing equity.

Of all the players in this tier, Le’Veon Bell has by far the widest range of outcomes. After skipping all of 2018 and getting the guaranteed contract he was looking for from the Jets, Bell finds himself in a much different offensive environment than what he had in Pittsburgh. The skills that made Bell a top-3 fantasy running back are still here so that isn’t the issue; system and the Jets’ overall offensive talent are.

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Tier 3: Todd Gurley, Dalvin Cook, Nick Chubb, Devonta Freeman, Leonard Fournette

This tier contains running backs who have some blemishes but could also be league winners. The health of Todd Gurley will be one of the biggest stories of training camp and the 2019 season. If he is 100%, he will be a steal at his current ADP. The selection of Darrell Henderson and reports from the Rams seem to point in the other direction, however.

Is this the year Dalvin Cook finally stays healthy? If it is, Cook has the potential to be a top-3 running back based on talent and opportunity. With the departure of Latavius Murray, the Minnesota backfield is Cook’s to own.

The Browns have a loaded offense that now includes Odell Beckham Jr. and, after the first eight games, Kareem Hunt. For the first eight games, Nick Chubb could be a positional difference maker, especially if Duke Johnson gets traded in August. Chubb was a league-winner last year as he rushed for 823 yards over the final 10 games of 2018.

An injury cost Devonta Freeman almost all of 2018 but with Tevin Coleman now in San Francisco, Freeman should be a feature back in 2019. The Falcons have one of the best offenses in football and getting Freeman back should provide a big boost. An able pass-catcher, Freeman is best deployed in PPR formats as he should catch 40+ passes.

Not a whole lot went right for Leonard Fournette and the Jaguars last year but 2019 provides a prime buying opportunity. Fournette will be a three-down workhorse who should approach double-digit touchdowns. With the departure of TJ Yeldon, he will get a boost by his role in the passing game too.

Tier 4: Kenyan Drake, Derrick Henry, Aaron Jones, Kerryon Johnson, Chris Carson, Sony Michel, Marlon Mack, Josh Jacobs, Damien Williams

Running backs in this tier should all be looked at as an RB2 or best deployed in a best ball zero-WR strategy. I already wrote about Kenyan Drake but to reiterate, this is an undervalued play-maker. Stuck behind Frank Gore and playing for an inept staff, Drake was criminally underused in 2018. I am all aboard the Drake Train in 2019 and I see a PPR-dynamo here.

Derrick Henry went over 1,000 yards for the first time in his career in 2018. This was made possibly by a memorable December which was highlighted by a monster Week 13 performance (238 yards/4 TDs) against Jacksonville. Henry averaged 6.3 YPC over the final five games of the season and should continue to improve.

The arrow for Aaron Jones is pointing up. After averaging 5.47 YPC in 2018, Jones should be the primary ball carrier in the Green Bay offense. He has plenty of touchdown equity and is a threat in the passing game as well. From Week 8-14, Jones averaged 96 total yards per game and scored 8 TDs.

Will someone in Detroit tell Matt Patricia to free Kerryon Johnson? Last year it was LeGarrette Blount and this year it looks like CJ Anderson will be the one to take work away from the talented Auburn product. Given that, Johnson is being over-drafted right now so I would stay away unless the price drops to somewhere in the 5th or 6th Round.

What if I told you Chris Carson averaged more carries per game than Saquon Barkley and David Johnson? What if I also told you Carson had a better YPC average than James Conner and Alvin Kamara? Both of those statements are true. I see Rashaad Penny getting a lot of love, but Carson was a stud last year in Seattle and I’m in on him again this year.

Marlon Mack and Sony Michel similar players: They have very little involvement in the passing game but their touchdown equity makes up for it. The problem is they are both game flow dependent, making them somewhat risky week-to-week. Mack tore up the Houston defense in the Wild Card game but was an afterthought for much of Divisional Round game in Kansas City the next week. Michel plays for a New England team that typically plays with a lead but his absence from mandatory mini-camp looms large. Michel has knee issues stemming from college and an undisclosed injury would be a tough blow to his value.

Rookie running backs can be a risky investment but Josh Jacobs has a chance to be the feature back in Oakland. At the very least he should handle the early down work, putting him in a position for 200 carries. There is obviously room for more here, though it would take Jacobs supplanting Jalen Richard to get the third down work.

One of the more polarizing running backs in fantasy right now is Damien Williams. One one hand, Williams was a stud once he entered the lineup in Week 15 as he averaged 26 fantasy points per game including the playoffs. On the other, Williams has never had to be a feature back and the sample size is incredibly small. Still, betting on Andy Reid running backs has been a winning strategy over time.

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Tier 5: Derrius Guice, Phillip Lindsay, Mark Ingram, Tevin Coleman, James White

This group is the last I am comfortable going with as my starting RB2 right now. All five of these guys are likely to flash at some point in 2019 with Derrius Guice and Mark Ingram having a direct path to 225+ carries. Guice may end up being the best player in this tier if he is completely healthy.

Phillip Lindsay could move up a tier if he is 100% by Training Camp. I have long been a James White supporter and I have found myself with him in a lot of mock drafts I’ve done so far. Obviously he is only PPR-viable. As for Tevin Coleman, the 49ers backfield is really crowded but he has a history with Kyle Shanahan.

Tier 6: Tarik Cohen, Latavius Murray, Lamar Miller, David Montgomery, Jordan Howard, Peyton Barber, Ronald Jones, Royce Freeman, Rashaad Penny, Miles Sanders, Darrell Henderson, LeSean McCoy

This tier is full of RB3/RB4 types who could be more if a few things break right. Each one of them have a path to greater value, but they also have considerable roadblocks as well.

Tier 7: Kareem Hunt, Matt Breida, Jerick McKinnon, Austin Ekeler, Carlos Hyde, Jaylen Samuels, D’Onta Foreman, Nyheim Hines, Ito Smith, Dion Lewis, Chris Thompson, Jamaal Williams, Kalen Ballage, Damien Harris, Justice Hill, Jalen Richard, TJ Yeldon, Devin Singletary, Chase Edmonds, Elijah McGuire

This is the lottery ticket tier. Take a flier on these guys late as most of them are an injury away from fantasy relevance.

You can follow me on Twitter @JasonKamlowsky to talk about anything with fantasy football or fantasy baseball. Also, be sure to follow @DynastyFBDigest and @IDPGuys  for everything fantasy football related. 

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