Updated: August 24
I ranked the top seven running backs going into 2016 here, but I want to update it since it’s been a month. So, with fantasy drafts around the corner, here is my updated list going into the season.
#1: David Johnson (Arizona Cardinals)
2015 stats (rookie): 125 carries/581 yards (4.6 y/a), 8 touchdowns. Receiving: 36 receptions/457 yards, 4 touchdowns.
If you’re an Cardinals fan, you’re expectations are high coming off an NFC Championship loss – it’s Super Bowl or bust in Arizona. Second-year stud running back David Johnson will be key if those expectations are met. Johnson finished 8th in the NFL with 1,637 all-purpose yards, and he didn’t even start half of the season. Granted 600 of those yards came on kick returns, Johnson still managed over 1,000 yards from scrimmage, showing plenty out of the backfield for me to mark him at no. 1 with Bell set to miss the first three games of the season. He can pretty much do it all – running and catching. At 6’1, 225 lbs, Johnson is your prototypical NFL RB – he’s powerful, well balanced, fast and smooth – and did I mention he can catch the football? Put simply, Johnson is exciting with the ball in his hands.
Johnson will be the lead back in an explosive offense, similar to Bell. The difference is the Cardinals’ defense is superior to the Steelers’, which will most likely lead to more running plays for Johnson to protect their in-game lead. Unlike Johnson, we’ve seen Bell perform at the highest level for 16 games in 2014. Johnson is entering his second season, so time will tell what kind of load he can handle in the backfield for a full season. My bet is he’ll be able to handle it just fine, and he will finish the season as a top-tier fantasy running back.
Johnson stat: He was the first rookie since Gale Sayers (1965) with multiple rushing touchdowns and receiving touchdowns, as well as a return touchdown, in the first five games of his career.
#2: Todd Gurley (Los Angeles Rams)
2015 stats (rookie): 229 carries/1,106 yards (4.8 y/a), 10 touchdowns. Receiving: 21 receptions/188 yards.
The Rams made the move from St. Louis to Los Angeles this offseason, and they will need a franchise player to be the face of their organization. Some may argue that’s why they drafted Jared Goff no. 1 overall in the draft, but I’m of the belief that player is already on their roster. He is Todd Gurley.
Gurley will be 22 in August, and he only has 12 starts under his belt. Adjusting his numbers for a full season starting at RB, Gurley was on pace for just under 1,500 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns. The 2015 Rookie of the Year finished third among RBs with 85 yards per game. If you watched him in college, you’re not surprised at all by his early production. Like me, you’re also expecting an even better year this season.
Gurley is big, fast and agile. A torn ACL kept him sidelined for the end of his tremendous college career, but he is coming off a full year of health and I expect big things from the RB in a big market. Despite only playing in 13 games, he finished 3rd in rushing last season. Imagine what he could do with a fully healthy 16 games?
I believe Gurley is on his way to becoming the best pure runner in the league, but his situation concerns me. The Rams aren’t that good, and neither is their offensive line. Defenses main focus will be stopping Gurley, and while they may not be able to completely do that, they can at least focus on limiting his production.
Gurley stat: At Georgia, he tied Herschel Walker as the only freshman to run for over 1,000 yards.
#3 Lamar Miller (Houston Texans)
2015 stats: 194 carries/872 yards (4.5 y/a), 8 rushing touchdowns. 47 receptions/397 yards, 2 touchdowns.
Miller is the first change from my original list, where I had him underrated at #6. It’s a shame Miller didn’t get the number of carries he deserved while in Miami, but that should change in Houston this season. Miller is extremely elusive, and the 25-year-old back has a ton of playmaking ability – just watch this run in 2014 against the Jets, the 5th longest run in NFL history.
Or watch this one from last year against the Giants…
Get the picture? I’m excited to see what the young stud can do with over 250 carries. He’s coming off back-to-back seasons with eight rushing touchdowns and over 800 yards (1,099 in 2014). He also has 3 receiving touchdowns in the past two years. He’s never eclipsed 216 carries, but he certainly will in 2016 in Houston. With his playmaking ability and new, better home, I’m taking him at three.
#4: Ezekiel Elliott (Dallas Cowboys)
Yes I’m a Dallas Cowboys fan. No I am not crazy. Go ahead and look at fantasy RB projections around the world. You will most likely find Elliott in most people’s top five, and for good reason.
Zeke dominated in college, and he certainly possesses the traits to be a successful NFL running back. He’s 6’0, 225 lbs, and he is an absolute beast. He may only be 20 years old, but he is going to be the #1 back in Dallas, and that’s not a debate. Elliott will be running behind a top three offensive line, and the Cowboys will certainly look back to DeMarco Murray’s career year in 2014 when looking to replicate that year’s success. Elliott can also catch out of the backfield, and he will probably see over 350 targets (running and catching) in the 2016 season. Seriously, how many guys are you going to take over Zeke? I certainly won’t pass on Elliott if he falls to me in the first round and the above three guys are gone.
#5: Le’Veon Bell (Pittsburgh Steelers)
2015 stats (6 starts): 113 carries/556 yards (4.9 y/a), 3 touchdowns. Receiving: 24 receptions/136 yards.
To me, Bell is the best running back in the NFL. He can do it all besides stay on the field. Despite only playing in six games last season, the 24-year-old’s numbers in 2014 showed me enough to determine he’s the best player at his position when he’s healthy. In 2014, he recorded 2,215 yards from scrimmage (1,361 running, 854 receiving) and scored 11 touchdowns. He was second in the league with 288 fantasy points (NFL Standard Scoring), only six points behind DeMarco Murray.
Bell missed most of 2015 with after suffering a season-ending knee injury (MCL, PCL) in week 8 of the 2015 season, but he’s been practicing and expected to be fully ready to return in week 4. You can actually argue the three-game suspension may work in Bell’s favor; he will have more time to recover and ideally come back completely healthy. Bell can pretty much do it all on offense – he can arguably be an NFL wide receiver if it weren’t for his elite running skills keeping him in the backfield. Bell would probably be my #1 running back no matter where he was playing, but it helps that he will be the lead back in a top three offense in the NFL.
Bell stat: he’s only fumbled once in 35 career regular season games, and it came in his rookie season.
#6: Adrian Peterson (Minnesota Vikings)
2015 stats: 327 carries/1,485 yards (4.5 y/a), 11 touchdowns. Receiving: 30 receptions/222 yards.
It’s pretty remarkable what Peterson has been able to accomplish since entering the league in 2007. Peterson’s played in 14 or more games in every season but one (ignoring his suspension year in 2014), and in each of those seasons has rushed for over 1,000 yards. At 30 years old last season, he still led the entire league in rushing yards. Quite frankly, Peterson has been incredible.
The reason I have him at #6, despite finishing as the #2 fantasy football RB in 2015, is because 1) he’s old for an NFL running back, and 2) All five players ranked before him are 25 or younger. In essence, those guys are entering the peak of their NFL career, while we may start to see the inevitable decline of Peterson’s. As we did last year, we can expect to see Vikings’ backup RB Jerick McKinnon more and more. If you have Peterson on your team next year, that’s great. But I would definitely considering stashing McKinnon as a late-round handcuff.
Peterson also fumbled the ball seven times last season. For a guy like Peterson to be putting the ball on the ground that often, this late in his career, it’s definitely worth noting, but won’t affect his draft stock at all. The Vikings are transitioning to a shotgun offense, where Peterson struggles the most. He’ll still be the lead back, but I’d rather a younger guy who will be on the field more often.
Peterson stat: Peterson is the 17th all-time NFL rushing leader at 11,675. With another 1,000 yard season, he will jump into the top nine.
#7 Eddie Lacy (Green Bay Packers)
2015 stats: 187 carries/758 yards (4.1 y/a), 3 touchdowns. 20 receptions/188 yards, 2 touchdowns.
All eyes have been on Lacy this offseason, and he’s done nothing but impress. He’s taken a lot of criticism for gaining too much weight coming out of college, and it showed on the football field last year so much that Lacy had to use P90x workouts to get back in shape. Lacy’s first two years in the league were nothing short of remarkable: he had back-to-back seasons with over 1,100 yards rushing and 11 or more touchdowns.
The Packers’ offensive line is the third-ranked unit in Pro Football Focus’ rankings. Jordy Nelson is set to return to the lineup, and if Lacy returns to form, the Packers offense should be one of the best in the league. I expect them to constantly move the football, and Lacy will have a ton of opportunities to get back to his 2013-2014 production. This is definitely a huge year for him after last year’s disappointing season, and I expect him to step up and produce and help lead the Packers back to dominance.