Last week I began my 2016 Stream of Gut, or completely unbiased, gut feel fantasy football rankings, with the quarterbacks (the elite, the remaining QB1s, the leftover QB2s and fliers). We enter a spicier territory today with running backs, where point edges are both more difficult to find but increasingly important in this committee plagued era.
Below lie Tiers 1 and 2, which reflect the players I’m hoping to have as an RB1 next season. All seven are worth a Top-15 pick as near-lock producers in an otherwise uncertain field.
Tier 1: Three down workhorses in explosive offenses
Tier breakdown: The most valuable commodity in all of PPR Fantasy Football. An elite point source at a barren position, these backs are not only projected for voluminous workloads, including heavy receptions; they’re being fed by creative coaches in explosive offenses that’ll frequently reside in the red zone. Thus, one of these three is a heavy favorite to finish 2016 as the #1 PPR RB, while all have the fantasy set ups to be linchpins on championship squads across the Rotosphere.
1. Le’Veon Bell – I hate being that guy who overreacts to the early offseason blurbs, but here’s the facts. Everything on Bell’s recovery has been positive:
- Just yesterday OC Todd Haley noted, while raving about how 2016’s offense should be his best yet, he expects the workhorse back to “be good as new” for Week 1.
- In late May, Le’Veon told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he expects to be 100% by training camp.
- There’s also the all-important tweet of him dunking… sure looks healthy to me:
— Le'Veon Bell (@LeVeonBell) April 25, 2016
Meanwhile, David Johnson’s workload is subject to questions, as Arizona beat writer Josh Weinfuss predicts CJ2K will claim the starting gig. Though we think this borders on lunacy, it nonetheless hints at some risk and uncertainty I admittedly overlooked when deeming D.Johnson worth #2 overall consideration. Early round investments are all about minimizing risk; whereas a few months ago the guy coming off knee surgery appeared to be a shakier investment, the lack of certainty around Johnson’s three-down status makes Bell a more secure buy as things stand.
Keeping the focus on safety, we know exactly what we’re getting with Bell: a weekly favorite for the top-scoring RB every time he’s on the field. True, he’s missed time in 2 of 3 seasons to begin his Pro career and is still rehabbing. Health is always the risk that comes with feature backs and the absurd amount of hits they take.
Nonetheless, it’s a worthwhile, borderline necessary gamble. Hitting on the workhorse who holds up is often the key to a title in a fantasy landscape scarce on RB points, as the edge is massive. With Bell, we know exactly what we get if he makes it through 16 games: 2,215 total yards, 11 total TDs, 83 catches, 370 PPR points for 23.2 absurd points a game. D.Johnson’s fantasy set-up pegs him for a similar type of season, but there’s still far greater comfort in having already seen it actually done versus just speculating the future. Despite the injury risk, Le’veon Bell has taken my top RB spot.
2. David Johnson – Much of this is covered above, but I still clearly love Johnson with the #2 slot among my RBs. The set-up that made him worth #2 overall consideration is still largely the same, save a few recent “Opportunity” question marks. Nonetheless, coupled with the fact Johnson is #1 in Yahoo’s Brad Evans’ RB ranks (yuck), I’ve grown a little more leery.
I still project D.Johnson to be an explosive, three-down horse.. in a juggernaut offense… behind a strong line…that was further bolstered by the addition of Evan Mathis, PFF’s #1 run-blocking guard. With health, Johnson easily could challenge Bell for the #1 RB spot. I just think I underplayed his risk while all the sexy puff pieces were pumping out earlier.
3. Ezekiel Elliott – I already went into great detail about why Elliott became a no brainer first round fantasy investment the second the Cowboys drafted him. He’s running behind the best line in football, has as complete a three-down skillset as any draft prospect in the last 10 years, and plays in an offense that should be explosive and need a frequent dosage of rock-toting to protect a god awful defense. DeMarco Murray racked up 350 fantasy points and led the league in rushing while aboard this dreamboat situation; I think Elliott’s a superior talent to 2014 Murray.
Tier 2 – True RB1s with slight question marks
Tier Breakdown: Unlike the RBs above them, the following backs carry a few more question marks. Whether limited passing-game involvement, a lackluster surrounding offense, or workload uncertainty, something holds each of these guys back from elite, three-down monsters in high-powered attacks. Still, either a track record or a sexy situation keeps these guys locked in as appealing RB1s deserving of your late first, early second PPR consideration.
4. Todd Gurley – As the most elite pure rusher in the NFL, Gurley ranks as my #1 Standard League back. Questions about his offense’s overall effectiveness, a mediocre (at best) line, and his role in the passing game keep Gurley in my second tier… for now. I’m digging these reports of a trimmed down Gurley’s increasing his involvement in the passing game, and Goff’s insertion should make the entire offense more explosive; anything’s an upgrade over Case Keenum or Nick Foles, right?
These developments need a little more on-field, training camp evidence before I fully subscribe. But should Gurley’s elite talent see an expanded receiving role in more high-powered attack, I wouldn’t hesitate to propel him to top-two RB status. Plus you get the Hard Knocks bonus, which’ll make him a summer treat and provide some answers.
5. Devonta Freeman – The pint-sized dynamo is arguably the safest PPR investment of this tier. He proved both durable and explosive in 2015, playing all 16 games while still managing the highest RB per game average at 21.09 PPR points; Jamaal Charles, who only made it through five contests, was the only other back to average 20+ a week, trailing Freeman with 20.22 points.
Freeman’s combined vision, burst, and power proved a perfect fit for Kyle Shanahan’s always effective zone-blocking scheme; the addition of Alex Mack, arguably the best center in the game, to an already athletic line will ensure the gaps remain large for the diminutive back to zip through. Plus, Freeman offers a true three down skillset as a superb pass protector and receiver, ensuring he receives the all-important third down work.
So why is he not in the top tier? For one, workload questions. The team has hinted at a greater involvement from speedy sophomore Tevin Coleman, who did enter 2015 as the starter. While Freeman should hog the crucial receiving and red zone looks, his rushing yardage could dip if he finds himself in a 60 / 40 split. This may seem extreme, but Freeman did wear down over the stretch: he exploded onto the scene in Weeks 3-6 with a season-changing, completely absurd 148.5 points and 37.1 PPR points per game average (nearly double next closest Le’Veon Bell’s 85.7 points in that span); from Weeks 10-17 Freeman went on to average a still useful, but more commonplace 18.5 points per game.
Ultimately, in a slightly reduced role, I expect Freeman to produce consistent, reliable PPR numbers more in line with his last 10 games than his explosive debut. This still makes him well worth a late first, early-second pick, and his reputation as a gym-rat plus an ineffective Tevin Coleman could give him a far higher ceiling than most experts, including myself, are currently allowing.
Mini Debate #1 – AP vs. Lamar
Most of you probably think I’m insane for even considering a guy named Lamar Miller in the same breadth as the one they call “Purple Jesus.” In fact, that five backs have been ranked ahead of Adrian Peterson’s generational talent may cause vehement rage to boil in many of you. To that I say:
14 carries, 175 rushing yards, 1 TD + 3 catches, 61 yards, 1 TD = 38.6 PPR fantasy points.
In one half.
That’s what Lamar Miller did to… A Texans team that ran out to sign him as soon as free agency opened. A team who saw full well what he can do. A team who will not criminally underutilize him, given the monster workloads Bill O’Brien has force-fed his rushers: 5th in the league in 2015 rushing attempts despite an abysmal trio of Alfred Blue, Jonathan Grimes, and Chris Polk toting the rock. 1st in attempts the year before when Foster maintained health most of the year (Foster’s workload in 13 games? 260 carries, 59 targets — an absurd 24.5 looks per game).
After being incredibly efficient and yet still underutilized while in Miami, Miller was well aware of the massive workload offered in Houston. As soon as the ink dried, the talented and underutilized back noted, “I know in this offense, they get their running backs involved. I just wanted to be a part of that. I feel like with my skill set, I can help this offense.” Three days ago while observing OTAs, beat writer Aaron Wilson noticed Miller’s frequent involvement in all facets of the game, as well as a burgeoning chemistry with newly signed quarterback Brock Osweiler. The reporter stated, “With the Texans, he is slated for a versatile role as an inside and outside running presence who figures to be a healthy part of the passing game.”
Thus, we’ve got a near-perfect marriage of a high-end, still-fresh, versatile talent meeting some serious usage.
But for all these positives, let’s consider the inhuman specimen Miller’s contending with in this debate. A literal horse. D-linemen have brown stains streaming down their leg as the ground shakes and the Adrian Express approaches.
Now, I generally subscribe to the “better to avoid the vet a year too early than a year too late” theory. This is especially true of RBs over 30 or with heavy mileage. It’s cost me a couple of the latest big Marshawn Lynch and Calvin Johnson seasons, but also helped me avoid them universally in 2015.
AP’s the exception.
His generational talent seems ageless. Even more encouraging, the Vikings’ offseason focus was toughening up their offensive line. Adding a two-time Pro Bowl guard in Alex Boone and a massive, 73-game starter in Andre Smith will certainly do the trick, giving Adrian perhaps the best line he’s ever run behind. Tony Sparano’s intellect and intensity as one of the best line coaches also should be emphasized. Even with a somewhat limited third down role, the defending rushing champ has an excellent chance (cough Todd Gurley cough) to retain his crown, perhaps even producing a second 2,000 yard season.
In a standard league, this wouldn’t even be a debate. You’d take the horse All Day, every day, and twice on Sundays. Nonetheless, Lamar’s PPR edge is highly significant. This is potentially 30-40 extra points (roughly 6 TDs) on strictly catches, and the total yardage outputs might not be far off if Lamar’s workload goes as planned.
But will the added receiving work be enough to outscore the inhuman freak that is dubbed “All-Day?”
Ideally, I could scoop both these guys up around the 1-2 turn. Both have tremendously high ceilings at an otherwise barren talent pool.
If Lamar maintains his efficiency across the increased workload, he would be looking at a monstrous fantasy season. Hell, he’d never be considered around AP otherwise. Houston’s offense should be on the rise with the addition of Osweiler alongside some explosive draft picks in Will Fuller and Braxton Miller, making TD opportunities fairly plentiful. Plus, the defense should keep them competitive and in grind-it-out mode most weeks. Even if they fall behind, Miller’s receiving prowess keeps him in on third downs, making him a rare game-flow-resistant back.
We just have to see how Miller’s body and effectiveness hold up under such an increased load. This would seem the only obstacle to a gigantic campaign, but definitely one that needs consideration.
We already know how Adrian historically holds up, which gives him a higher floor for sure. Tossing out 2014, AP’s never been below double digit TDs even in a 12 game campaign. Yet, he is 30, and what if a Calvin Johnson type of cliff awaits?
This may be the allure of the unknown, but my gut screams Lamar. He destroyed the Texans for a career best game, they saw firsthand how he’s best used, and then sprinted out and grabbed him. I think he’s going to explode in Houston this year. Call me crazy but…
6. Lamar Miller
7. Adrian Peterson
— Roto Street Journal (@RotoStJournal) June 10, 2016
Disagree Lamar belongs over Purple Jesus? Am I too ambitious ranking a sophomore and a rookie in the Top Tier? Sound off below, and stay tuned as we roll out our lower-end RB1, elite RB2s and the rest of the running backs all weekend.