If you’re not taking a running back first overall, you’re either in a PPR league, a 6-point passing touchdown league, or you’re crazy. A do-it-all feature back is the backbone of nearly every successful fantasy roster. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the top running backs for the 2017 fantasy football season.
1. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Bell and the 47 standard points he unleashed in the first round of the 2016 fantasy playoffs still haunt the dreams of fantasy owners everywhere. And that wasn’t Bell’s only impressive game, either. He was an all-around beast in the 12 games he played, tallying 1,884 scrimmage yards and 9 touchdowns. That was good for 242 standard fantasy points. That’s 20 points per game, folks. Bell will touch the ball 25 times per game for one of the best offenses in football. Draft him first overall with confidence.
2. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
Johnson was actually ahead of Bell in per-game production last year, but only slightly. The majority of his points came from a league-leading 20 touchdowns and a critical role in Arizona’s passing game. I almost ranked him as 1B to Bell’s 1A, but there are a few concerns I have with Johnson that I don’t have with Bell. Carson Palmer is ancient and on the decline, and Arizona appears poised for significant personnel turnover on offense.
Yes, the Cardinals’ offense runs through Johnson. But so does Pittsburgh through Bell, and the Steelers are simply a better offense. Secondly, Johnson suffered a nasty-looking knee injury in Week 17. He should be fine, and I might even consider moving him to the top spot if he looks strong in camp. However, it is a situation to be monitored, as are his workload and the lack of talent around him. Regardless, last year’s fantasy MVP also should be drafted with confidence.
3. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
A high draft pick spent on Elliott might have the highest floor of any option in the first round. I say that because running backs, as we saw in 2015, can be injury-prone. Elliott, with a strong offensive line and two capable backups behind him, is perhaps the most handcuff-able of all stud running backs. His lack of impact in the passing game prevents his production from being Bell or Johnson-caliber, but he’s not far behind and is certainly a safe pick.
4. Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears
If any second-tier running back has a chance to vault into the first tier, it’s Howard. Without much talent around him, Howard arguably had a more impressive rookie season than the previous guy on this list. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry and finished 2nd in the league with 1,313 rushing yards despite starting just 12 games. The Bears have a new quarterback, and Alshon Jeffery signed in Philadelphia. Howard is poised to become the centerpiece of the Bears offense, a prospect that should excite fantasy owners. If I’m not able to get one of the elite running backs, I’m grabbing Howard as early as 4th overall.
5. Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
Gordon enjoyed was enjoying a breakout campaign as the Chargers’ feature back when a hip injury ended his season in Week 14. His efficiency (3.9 yards per carry) leaves a lot to be desired, but all that matters in fantasy football are yards and touchdowns. Gordon had plenty of both, with 1,411 total yards and 12 touchdowns in 12 full games before his injury. With Danny Woodhead in Baltimore, Gordon now has a stranglehold on the feature back role for Los Angeles’ newest team.
6. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
Shady had one of his best fantasy seasons in 2016, coming on especially strong in the fantasy playoffs. His strong play led many fantasy owners (including this writer) to the promised land. However, durability concerns nagged McCoy once again, as he failed to finish a game on 3 occasions. This led to some lousy weeks, but he still finished as RB3 on the season thanks to some big performances. At 29, Shady is nearing the age when NFL running backs inevitably break down. However, he’s never had a huge workload, nor does he need one to produce fantasy points. I’m banking on one more big year from McCoy.
7. Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins
Ajayi was an enigma last season. He famously posted three weeks of 200+ rushing yards, averaging 29 fantasy points in those games. However, he had just three other double digit fantasy outings on the season. As mercurial as he was last season, Ajayi still showed big-time, explosive potential. If he can become a more consistent performer for the improving Dolphins attack, he can rank much higher on 2018’s list.
8. Lamar Miller, Houston Texans
Lamar Miller and the rest of the Houston offense was rescued from the hot, steaming, burning dumpster fire that was the Brock Osweiler experiment. I firmly believe that the Texans would have been a 2 seed with anyone other than the worst quarterback in the NFL. The volume was always there last year for Miller, but it never converted into consistent production due to Osweiler’s incompetence. I expect that to change with a different signal-caller this year. Miller is 27 and still has plenty of tread on his tires. Expect a solid year from the 6th-year pro.
9. Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers
Last year, Hyde flashed some of the potential that has made him a popular breakout candidate in the past. He finished as RB14 despite some bad weeks and 3 games missed due to injury. With Kyle Shanahan calling the shots, look for Hyde to be utilized in ways that Chip Kelly never explored. If he can stay healthy, “El Guapo” could be in for a big fantasy season. This might be higher than some are willing to take him, but don’t hesitate to grab Hyde if he falls to the middle second round.
10. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
Not many expected Freeman to repeat his breakout 2015 season, but he did exactly that. As a key part of Atlanta’s league-best offense, Freeman improved his efficiency by nearly a full yard per carry. His touchdown production (13) also remained elite as he finished the year as RB6. So why is he ranked here? Well, Kyle Shanahan is no longer in Atlanta, and Freeman was a perfect fit for his system. Additionally, Tevin Coleman developed a habit of siphoning touchdowns from Freeman’s tank. As a whole, I expect Atlanta’s offense to take a slight step back. I also expect a healthy Coleman to continue to form a 1-2 punch with Freeman. He’ll be productive, but he’s more of an RB2 than a bona-fide RB1.
11. DeMarco Murray, Tennessee Titans
I almost left Murray off this list entirely. I’m that sure he’s headed for the cliff. He benefited from a cakewalk of a schedule last season, yet his efficiency and volume waned in favor of Derrick Henry down the stretch last season. Like McCoy, Murray (also 29) is approaching the age that all running backs dread. Tennessee’s offense should be good, and Murray can still play, but Henry’s presence and Murray’s decline down the stretch last year are concerning. For now, I’ll rank Murray here. I could see him being a lot lower by the end of the season, and not much higher.
12. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
Gurley is too talented to have another dud of a season. Regarded by many as the top running back heading into last season, Gurley disappointed, averaging 3.2 yards per carry. He finished as RB20 despite starting every game, albeit for the abysmal Rams. I’m counting on a second year leap for Jared Goff and the arrival of Sean McVay to help Gurley produce a season befitting of a player with his talent.