Fitz on Fantasy: An In-Depth Look at Running Back Rankings

Running backs are currency in fantasy football. No, wait … that doesn’t do them justice. Running backs are currency, stocks, funds, precious metals and real estate. Your RB portfolio is critical to your success.

During fantasy drafts, a lot of owners focus on putting together the best possible starting lineup, sometimes filling in every lineup spot except maybe kicker and defense before turning their attention to backups. That sort of approach can work, but it tends to leave an owner short on RB depth. An early-season injury or benching then has a crippling effect, leaving these owners unable to adequately fill the vacancy, with insufficient leverage to improve their situation via trade.

Capable running backs are appreciating commodities: Their value increases as the season wears on and attrition begins to eat away at the player population.

It’s a numbers game. Most fantasy leagues require you to start two RBs. That’s 24 RBs in a 12-team league. In leagues with flex spots, there might be more than 30 RBs starting in a given week. Roughly half of the 32 NFL teams have an identifiable workhorse who’ll get the vast majority of his team’s RB touches if healthy. The other half divide touches between two or more RBs, and some teams will inevitably scramble their RB usage in ways that fantasy owners will find maddening. So there are maybe about 45 RBs with a chance to be useful in a given week, and about 24-30 RBs who’ll be starting in your league in a given week. RB distribution in your league will be uneven, of course, and you you’re far better off having a glut than a shortage.

Quarterbacks are much more plentiful. Most leagues require you to start only one. There are at least a dozen very good fantasy quarterbacks — enough to cover a 12-team league — plus a large group of competent fantasy backups. Useful fantasy receivers are abundant. Nearly every NFL team has at least two. Some have three. A handful might even have four. Most of the owners in a 12-team league will have no problem finding capable performers to fill their WR spots, even if they’re required to start three and can flex in a fourth. Tight end is a deep position. It’s thin at the top, but there are more than enough good-to-adequate TEs to fill lineup spots in a 12-team league.

With a strong portfolio of running backs, you’ll wield enormous power in the trade market. Owners dealing with injuries or inadequacy at running back will be desperate for upgrades, and their relative strength at QB or other positions will be worth pennies on the dollar to them. But for you, Mr. Running Backs, the league will be your oyster. You’ll be able to cash in your RB strength for some real pearls. It’s not inconceivable that you could flip Eddie Lacy for Drew Brees several weeks into the season, or deal off Daryl Richardson for Colin Kaepernick. It’s amazing what sort of in-season buying power RB strength gives you.

So can we agree that running backs are hugely important? Good. Now let me show you how I’m tiering my RB rankings. And please remember that these rankings are based on standard scoring. A PPR format will obviously deflate the value of RBs such as Alfred Morris and Stevan Ridley while inflating the value of RBs such as Darren Sproles and Reggie Bush.

Tier 1

Adrian Peterson

Doug Martin

C.J. Spiller

Trent Richardson

Ray Rice

Jamaal Charles

LeSean McCoy

Arian Foster

Alfred Morris

Marshawn Lynch

It’s simple: If you have the chance to take one of these 10 backs in the first round, take one. Resist the impulse to bypass one for Calvin Johnson, or Jimmy Graham, or Aaron Rodgers, or Drew Brees. You would immediately be behind the curve on RBs, and it would be hard to get back ahead of it. These are the cornerstone RBs. Get one.

Peterson is a fairly easy choice for No. 1 overall (though there are pockets of disagreement among fantasy experts). There’s no expert consensus on how the rest of this tier is ordered — it’s a cacophony of varying opinions. But I agree with the plurality of experts who have Martin at No. 2. Then comes Spiller, an electrifying playmaker who’s in line for a career-high number of touches.

I rank Richardson and Rice a little higher than most other experts, Charles and McCoy a little lower. Richardson’s physical well-being is a concern, but he was remarkably productive last season despite his various ailments, and he’ll now be playing for an offensive coordinator, Norv Turner, who has presided over some historically great seasons by running backs. Rice is a safety play. Some people are concerned that Bernard Pierce will threaten his workload, but those concerns are overblown. Rice has already ceded some carries over the past two seasons and has shown that he can still be highly productive with a more modest workload. I like Charles and McCoy and would happily take either. But realize that there will be weeks when Andy Reid will completely abandon the running game. Yes, Charles will play a prominent role in the passing game, but you’ll still be miffed in those weeks when he takes 10 or fewer handoffs. (And trust me, it’ll happen.) My reason for not ranking McCoy a bit higher is simple: fear of the unknown. I suspect that McCoy owners will be quite satisfied with his usage in Chip Kelly’s offense, but there’s not a lot of information to go on.

Foster has dropped from No. 3 to No. 8 on my list. An overreaction? Maybe. He’s a proven stud, but I’d rather that my first-rounder not have any sort of extraordinary medical risk. Morris and Lynch are similar: Heavy-duty rushing studs who lack the upside of their top-tier brethren because they don’t catch as many passes.

Tier 2

Matt Forte

Chris Johnson

Frank Gore

Demarco Murray

Stevan Ridley

Steven Jackson

Maurice Jones-Drew

Reggie Bush

Ideally, you’ll get your RB2 from this group. And if you can somehow get your RB3 from this group, you’ll be loaded. There’s superstar potential to be found on this tier, and the only real downside with any of these guys is injury potential — which, admittedly, there’s a fair amount of here. The break between Tier 1 and Tier 2 is where I could condone drafting Calvin Johnson or Jimmy Graham (but not a quarterback). But personally, I would draft Forte before either Megatron or Jimmy. Depending on league format, I might draft Chris Johnson before those two as well (he says as he ducks a lightning bolt from the fantasy gods). The RB position is that important to me in this year’s drafts.

I’m higher on Gore and Murray than most (especially Gore), lower on Jackson and Jones-Drew. Gore is now old by RB standards, but he’s been used judiciously over the years, and he runs behind the best offensive line in football. Murray need only stay healthy to turn in a career year. I’m skeptical that a move from St. Louis to Atlanta will coax a big season out of Jackson. As with Gore, age is a concern. But while Gore plays with a road-grading offensive line, the Falcons’ offensive line isn’t very good and might be one injury away from outright sucktitude. Jones-Drew has long been one of the most foolproof properties in fantasy football, but I fear those days may have ended. He’s coming off a serious foot injury, and his talent may no longer be enough to overcome a faulty supporting cast.

Tier 3

Eddie Lacy

David Wilson

Lamar Miller

Small tier, isn’t it? It’s a boutique of prodigious but unproven talent. These three young backs have enormous potential but are still in the process of earning workhorse roles.

Lacy’s ADP has been soaring, and I’m somewhat torn on whether he or Wilson possesses the higher ceiling. I had an interesting conversation about Lacy the other night with Nolan Nawrocki, who spent a decade as the draft analyst for Pro Football Weekly before PFW shut down in June. (I, too, am a PFW alumnus.) Nawrocki sees Lacy as something of an injury risk and questions his dedication to football — red flags indeed. But Nawrocki was also duly bowled over by the talent Lacy displayed during Alabama’s stretch run last year and seems to think he’ll perform very well for the Packers if healthy. Despite his concerns, I interpreted Nawrocki’s assessment of Lacy as a thumb-up, and his opinion carries a great deal of weight in my book.

I have more trust in the way the Packers will handle Lacy than in the way the Giants and Dolphins might handle Wilson and Miller, respectively. Tom Coughlin is a fine coach (and Wilson a fine talent), but I worry that one or two ill-timed Wilson errors will prompt Coughlin to cut the youngster’s playing time. Bumbling Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland has been talking up RB Daniel Thomas in a misbegotten attempt to convince people that trading up to take Thomas in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft wasn’t a completely ham-handed move. (Note: It was.) Miller is clearly a better player than Thomas, but Ireland’s bluster bodes poorly for Miller’s job security as Miami’s No. 1 back.

Tier 4

Darren McFadden

Montee Ball

Darren Sproles

Daryl Richardson

Ahmad Bradshaw

Ryan Mathews

Chris Ivory

DeAngelo Williams

There’s a lot of variety in this group — some very different styles and some very different risk/reward profiles. Perhaps the best way to play this tier is to wait for one of these guys to fall a bit in your draft. These guys aren’t worth reaching for, but any of them could represent good value if they start to slide.

Sproles, Richardson and Williams are probably the safest plays. You can pencil in Sproles for something in the neighborhood of 700 receiving yards, 400 rushing yards and 8 TDs. Richardson has some competition for touches but appears to be the Rams’ lead man for now, and it’s possible that he could surprise with top-15 RB numbers. Williams has failed to fulfill the promise of his watershed 2008 season, but Jonathan Stewart’s ankle woes might finally free Williams from the shackles of an irritating two-man timeshare.

I wrote about Ball in an earlier TFG column, confessing that I’m finding it hard to assess his prospects for rookie success even though I’m an avid fan of Wisconsin football and have seen virtually all of his college carries. Though I’m unsure whether Ball can seize a majority share of the RB workload in Denver, I do think he’s a better running back than either Ronnie Hillman or Knowshon Moreno.

McFadden, Bradshaw and Mathews are versatile backs with front-line talent, but all three are major medical risks, and they run behind offensive lines ranging from questionable to atrocious. Ivory is a medical risk and isn’t as versatile as these other three, but his offensive line is pretty decent, and I suspect that he’ll get all the carries he can handle.

Tier 5

Rashard Mendenhall

Giovani Bernard

Shane Vereen

BenJarvus Green-Ellis

Andre Brown

Pierre Thomas

Now we’re down to the useful part-timers, other than Tier 5 “headliner” Mendenhall, a full-timer of modest talent who’ll be running behind a wobbly offensive line. A lot of people believe it’s only a matter of time before Bernard relegates Green-Ellis to a bit role in Cincinnati, but I’m not so sure. I tend to believe the Bengals will deploy their running backs’ complementary talents in a manner that will give them roughly equal fantasy value. Brown is tricky. His value could range from substantial to miniscule, depending on whether the far more talented David Wilson can seize his opportunity. Thomas is useful bye-week filler who has the potential to do more but is log-jammed in a three-man RB committee.

Tier 6

Ben Tate

Bernard Pierce

Mark Ingram

Danny Woodhead

Ronnie Hillman

Bryce Brown

Vick Ballard

Michael Bush

Roy Helu

Joique Bell

Shonn Greene

Isaiah Pead

Jonathan Stewart

Isaac Redman

Jonathan Dwyer

Bilal Powell

LaMichael James

Daniel Thomas

Jacquizz Rodgers

Fred Jackson

Knile Davis

Christine Michael

Chris Polk

Mikel Leshoure

Toby Gerhart

Lance Dunbar

Robert Turbin

Knowshon Moreno

Our final tier is also the largest, populated mostly by handcuff options, but also by the two backs who’ll get first crack at replacing injured rookie Le’Veon Bell in Pittsburgh, Redman and Dwyer — and I’m finding it hard to handicap their battle for playing time, by the way. This tier also includes perhaps the worst starting running back in the NFL, Ingram, a powerless plodder whom I suspect might be the fourth-best running back on his own team, behind even New Orleans fourth-stringer Tarvaris Cadet. Actually, Ronnie Hillman might also open the season as a starter for Denver, but that won’t last.

Some thumbnail notes on just a few of these guys:

* A lot of experts consider Tate and Pierce “must-have” handcuffs to Foster and Rice, respectively, but Tate and Pierce will make appealing targets for the RB vultures in your league after the top-tier talent is gone, and the opportunity cost of making an early grab for one of these guys might be too much for you to bear. (Personally, I’ve never been a handcuff-at-all-costs drafter. It if makes sense, great; if not, the hell with it.)

* The Eagles’ fast-paced, run-based offense could give either Brown or Polk some fantasy value independent of their handcuff value for LeSean McCoy owners. But pick the wrong backup, and you just drafted yourself a third-stringer.

* LeShoure will be overdrafted because of last season’s TD total, but fellow Lion Joique Bell is the better fantasy play.

* Roy Helu has looked really good for the Redskins lately. Remember: He was the favorite to start for Washington at about this time last year. Helu isn’t going to steal Alf’s job, but he’s a valuable and affordable insurance policy for Morris owners.