A great part about doing a bazillion fantasy football drafts is that you get to see trends develop. A quarterback run here, a drop off in talent there; you start to see the ebbs and flows of the draft. It’s a hard-earned dataset, gotten through endless hours of mock drafting and poring over the data. Or, you take 20 minutes on 4for4 and snag their ADP data and break it up into tiers… Anyway, here are the fantasy football running back tiers as broken up by average draft position data for a 12-team league, as well as some thoughts on the players going inside said fantasy football running back tiers. ADP data are for 12-team leagues and 6.03 means the sixth pick of the third round, 12.12 means the twelfth pick of the twelfth round, et cetera.
This is part one of two since these tiers have an astonishing 65 running backs! Part two of running back tiers will be available tomorrow! My favorite player or players in each running backs tier is in bold (except CMC for obvious reasons).
Fantasy Football Running Backs Tier 1: The Big Six
These guys are foundational pieces of your roster in pretty much all settings. It’s hard to get mad at having any of these guys on your roster and they have three mini-tiers inside that if you get outside of them, you might be getting too cute (CMC/Saquon-Zeke-Kamara/Cook-Henry). Personally, my only adjustments to the ADP are having Kamara second, and Zeke fourth. Saquon Barkley and Alvin Kamara’s differences are splitting hairs, and I defer to the more high-powered and focused offense in New Orleans with Drew Brees than the Giants’ offense with Daniel “18 fumbles” Jones. Ezekiel Elliott has two-straight seasons of 300+ carries. No running back in the last decade has done it three times in a row.
Christian McCaffrey is the smash 1.01 in all 1QB drafts, though Bryan Sclar has some other thoughts if you want to get cute about it.
Fantasy Football Running Backs Tier 2: The Turn
While these guys don’t exactly make for slam dunk starters to your squad, they will likely be set-and-forget starters for you. Unlike The Big Six, The Turn running backs all carry some question marks that might depress their incredible production potential. Nick Chubb has Kareem Hunt, Joe Mixon has a rookie quarterback and a shaky offensive line. CEH has as many snaps in the NFL as I do, though he has incredible upside at his draft slot, given his role in the Chiefs’ offense. Miles Sanders has a “lower-body injury” that renders him “week-to-week.”
None of these are enough to really divest from any of these guys, especially when considering the upside. Before Derrick Henry went nuclear at the end of last season, Chubb had the inside track on leading the league in rushing, for example. Joe Mixon ended the season hot, averaging 124 rushing yards per game in the last eight games of the season, so he has some tremendous upside as well. Andy Reid made Clyde Edwards-Helaire his first running back ever taken in the first round and heaped incredible praise on him; then, Damien Williams opted out for 2020 and cleared the runway for CEH to run roughshod over the league. Miles Sanders went off after Jordan Howard suffered a neck stinger, averaging 98 yards per game and scoring ten touchdowns in seven games to end the year.
Fantasy Football Running Backs Tier 3: Nice 2019, Can You Do it Again?
The guys going in the middle-to-back end of the second had great 2020 campaigns but never reached those heights before. Josh Jacobs averaged about 97 yards per game and is either catching 60 balls or getting shoved out of the passing game. He was the RB13 per game last season, but going eleventh assumes a step-forward: he finished top-twelve just five times.
Aaron Jones is fun because he certainly isn’t scoring nineteen touchdowns again, but we aren’t drafting him like he will. I like to get out when the writing is on the wall, not squint at the writing and go “but what if…” The Packers drafted Jones’ replacement (A.J. Dillon), and the future could come quickly. I’m not enthusiastic about Aaron Jones.
The next two guys are absolute money. Let’s start with Kenyan Drake, who hit the ground running Arizona last season, totaling 162 yards against the 49ers. He never slowed, averaging over 100 yards per contest with Arizona, and let’s check that health… a walking boot you say? Kenyan Drake’s sudden footwear decision is supposedly precautionary, but until I start to see every NFL player walking around with a walking boot, I’m going to be cautious. It’s at least enough to him behind Ekeler.
That’s not fair to Drake; Austin Ekeler is my favorite player in this range by far. I’m taking him with every second-round pick I can when he is available. There’s a lot of hullabaloo about Ekeler once Melvin Gordon returned last season, but in the last eight games, Ekeler averaged 99 yards per game.
Fantasy Football Running Backs Tier 4: Bets on Vets
All I have to say about betting on Todd Gurley is that a week ago he was limping and earlier this week we heard he could get somewhere from 15 to 25 touches a game (a part-timer or a bell cow). I am out on Gurley because degenerative arthritis doesn’t get better with time!
Leonard Fournette’s death is greatly exaggerated. People are freaking out about Chris Thompson (misses five games per season on average) and Ryquell Armstead (doesn’t pass the line of scrimmage at an alarming rate) as reasons to fear Fournette. Very few like to talk about his historically bad touchdown luck evening out his fantasy points.
Chris Carson is coming off of an injury, but so is his backup, Rashaad Penny. Carson has a serious case of fumblitis, but it hasn’t gotten him benched in the past. I don’t know what changes now that they have plodder/sudden journeyman Carlos Hyde.
James Conner is the man in Pittsburgh and plays like it… when healthy. The guy can’t stay on the field to save his life, but he averages 113 yards and a touchdown whenever he plays over 60% of snaps. The Steelers want him to be the man, and snatching him up in the fourth round could be a league-winning move.
Melvin Gordon and Le’Veon Bell are both hands-off for me. “But what ab—” No. Hands off. Gordon has to split with Phillip Lindsay (who might be better) and Le’Veon Bell has a coach who actively hates him. Oh and there’s this. And this.
Fantasy Football Running Backs Tier 5: Things Get Spicy
This is is a mix of guys whose value could fluctuate wildly. Let’s start from the top: we could get the first six games of David Johnson in 2019: over 100 yards per game on 17.7 touches, or we could get the second half of 2019 DJ: 24 touches for 102 yards over the last seven games.
I have four words for Jonathan Taylor at this ADP: Smash that draft button.
Devin Singletary and Mark Ingram have the same problem: an extremely talented rookie running back breathing down their necks that could cause some serious touch split issues for them. Singletary has Zack Moss who Buffalo wants to give the Frank Gore role (14.2 touches per game in the first 9 weeks). Mark Ingram has J.K. Dobbins looming, but the RB-first Ravens offense has plenty of running back touches to go around. If they slip from this ADP, I would jump on either of them.
David Montgomery injured his groin in practice while I was writing this, and the extent of his injury is unknown. If he’s okay, he is the platonic ideal of RB25, going at RB25. He won’t hurt you, but he won’t blow up.
I am a 49ers fan, so I have seen first-hand how Kyle Shanahan handles his running backs. Mostert is fine at this ADP, but don’t think he has RB1 upside like others on the internet might tell you. The 49ers love to shotgun touches to all their running backs, and Jerick McKinnon is finally healthy.
Check out Part Two!
Rather than drop a second 3,000+ word article on you fine folks this week, I split this into two parts.