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Fantasy football running back primer: Everything to know heading into 2016

Is Ezekiel Elliott really going to be a star right away? Which mid-round back should you target? Tackling those and more in our comprehensive fantasy running back guide.

The running back position no longer dominates the fantasy football world, but then, that has been the case for a few seasons. It has taken the market a few years to reflect the fact that, as a group, receivers are a wiser investment in the early rounds of a fantasy draft. This season is the first that the lesson goes all the way to the top, with Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr. and Julio Jones as the top-three players by average draft position.

Don’t fall for the misguided notion that the pendulum has swung completely against running backs. There are still six coming off the board in the typical first round, and four more in the second. They may have given up their dominance early in drafts, but you’re still going to hear plenty of their names called in the first few rounds. And there is still no weapon in the fantasy game that quite measures up to an elite RB1.

If that’s the case, though, then why have receivers taken over the top of the draft and infiltrated the first two rounds like never before? It all comes down to risk. Running backs get injured more frequently and have higher bust rates than any other position in the fantasy game. It’s nearly impossible to win your fantasy league in the first two rounds, but it’s entirely possible to lose it if one of your marquee players goes bust. Running backs are far more likely to ruin fantasy dreams, and that’s why they’ve tumbled, on the whole, down draft boards.

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Getting in on the top tier of backs in the first round is all well and good, but picking your spots at the position is of the utmost importance. It’s absolutely crucial to find the value at the position in the middle and late rounds. In fact, it’s likely more important here than at any other position. Just like we know a handful of early-round running backs will bust, so too do we know that a few players no one is discussing now will turn into fantasy stars, just like Devonta Freeman and Thomas Rawls last year.

With that, on to a full overview of the position with our 2016 running back primer. My complete running back rankings, as well as those of fellow fantasy writer Pat Fitzmaurice, can be found at the bottom of the story.

Burning questions

Will Ezekiel Elliott really be that good that quickly?

Elliott couldn’t have asked for a better landing spot in the NFL. The Cowboys used the No. 4 pick to grab the talented running back out of Ohio State, making him the highest-selected back since the Browns took Trent Richardson third in 2012. Elliott will be a first-round pick in your draft, with some in the expert community already ranking him as the top running back.

It’s not hard to make that case. Elliott enters the league polished in all of the backfield arts. He ran for more than 1,800 yards in each of his final two seasons in Columbus and scored 41 total touchdowns over those 28 games. Elliott is also roundly praised as an excellent blocker.

Then there’s the team element. The Cowboys elite offensive line returns intact this season after paving the way for Darren McFadden to run for 1,089 yards in 2015 even though he started just 10 games. Put a runner like Elliott behind that line, the theory goes, and you’ve got an easy RB1 on your hands with No. 1 overall player upside.

The final piece to the puzzle is workload. It’s hard to imagine a team using the No. 4 pick on a running back if they didn’t plan on immediately making him a workhorse, but we still need to see that commitment from the coaching staff. As good as Elliott figures to be, he also needs to prove he can handle it. If both of those pieces fall into place, Elliott should be a top-five back with the potential for a historic rookie year.

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Who is this year’s draft-day RB1 bust?

Last year it was Jeremy Hill and C.J. Anderson. The year before that it was Montee Ball. C.J. Spiller broke hearts in 2013. It’s a guarantee that at least one back drafted with a top-15 ADP will go bust this season. Avoiding that player is just as important as hitting on your early picks and finding good value later in the draft. This year, the back you want to avoid is Devonta Freeman.

Yes, Freeman was the top running back in all fantasy formats last season. He rose to those heights thanks in part to an unusual set of circumstances, the most important of which was Tevin Coleman’s rib injury. That gave Freeman enough time to assert himself as the backfield’s dominant force. The Falcons are already saying that Coleman will get a lot more work this season—remember, the Indiana product who was tabbed the starter after training camp last year.

Freeman was great as a receiver all year, but he failed to top 90 yards rushing in his final eight games and ran for more than four yards per carry just once in the second half of the season. Even with his strong start, he finished the season with 4.02 yards per carry. Fantasy owners are still drafting him like the workhorse he was last season. If he loses that status, which he almost certainly will, and doesn’t improve his efficiency, he’ll be comfortably out of RB1 territory.

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Who’s the mid-round back you’re targeting in all your leagues?

My love for Melvin Gordon and Giovani Bernard is well-known, so I won’t go cover that again here. I’ll be going after both of them in this range, along with another favorite target, Cleveland’s Duke Johnson.

Johnson did nearly all of his damage during his rookie season as a receiver, catching 61 passes for 534 yards and two touchdowns, while running 104 times for 379 yards. However, he had 242 carries for 1,652 yards in his final season at Miami, so it’s not as though he’s a running back in name only. The Browns’ hiring of Hue Jackson had to be a welcome sight for Johnson; it isn’t hard to see the second-year player becoming the Browns’ version of Bernard this season. Jackson loves splitting work between two backs, and realistically, that’s the best Johnson could hope for with Isaiah Crowell still in the fold.

Just like last season, it’s possible Cleveland’s typical game flow will favor Johnson over Crowell. The former got about 100 more snaps in 2015, largely because the Browns were trailing so often. If that happens again this year, which seems likely, we should see plenty of Johnson in all situations.

The one issue could be Johnson’s place in the passing game. Last year, he really only had to deal with Travis Benjamin and Gary Barnidge. Benjamin is in San Diego now, but Josh Gordon will return in Week 5, and rookie Corey Coleman should play a big role in the offense right away. Still, that’s a risk worth taking given Johnson’s upside.

Which backfield will be fantasy’s greatest headache?

Just like there are early-round busts every season, so, too, is there a backfield that is more trouble figuring out than it’s worth for fantasy owners. There are a few candidates this season—including the Ravens, Dolphins and Giants—but thanks in part to the draft-day price tags of the players involved, I’m going to highlight the Titans.

DeMarco Murray is a potentially overworked back whose new team thinks so highly of him that it used a second-round pick to select last year’s Heisman Trophy winner. That back, Derrick Henry, is a rookie who starts training camp comfortably as a backup to a veteran who has an 1,800-yard season in his recent past, as well as one of the most expensive contracts in the league.

It’s simply too hard to see either of these players distancing themselves from the other and earning a significant majority of the touches. At the same time, Tennessee’s offense isn’t exactly shaping up to be a juggernaut. Delanie Walker is the only reliable pass catcher on the team, leaving Marcus Mariota nothing more than hopeful that some combination of Kendall Wright, Dorial-Green Beckham, Rishard Matthews, Harry Douglas and Tajae Sharpe can turn into a league-average receiving group. If that doesn’t happen—and it likely won’t—there will be a lot of pressure on a muddled backfield.

Henry’s ADP might make him worth a shot on draft day, but I can’t see myself taking Murray no matter the price. I’d bet on both being outside the top 30 at the position this season.

Fantasy profiles: Brees | Bernard | Barnidge | Decker | Melvin Gordon

Who’s the lottery ticket with the best chance to cash?

C.J. Prosise is my favorite rookie to target, but he’s a bit too popular (110 ADP) to call him a lottery ticket. Instead, let’s turn our attention to Wendell Smallwood, who has a real chance to carve out a significant role for himself in Philadelphia this season.

Smallwood, whom the Eagles selected in the fifth round of this year’s draft, starred in his final season at West Virginia, running for 1,519 yards and nine touchdowns. Famously fragile Ryan Mathews—he’s already on the non-football injury list thanks to a balky ankle—is penciled in as the Eagles starter. The only other competition comes in the form of Kenjon Barner and Darren Sproles. In other words, Smallwood has a great chance to break camp as the backup, and if he does so, he’ll be just one predictable Mathews injury away from the starting job.

You don’t need to squint to see the Smallwood’s path to fantasy relevance, and that’s half the battle for a lottery ticket. No one’s going to confuse him with Jamaal Charles, but new head coach Doug Pederson spent the last three seasons as the offensive coordinator in Kansas City, getting a close look at one of the most dangerous, versatile backs in the league. Having a guy like that designing the offense can only help all the backs on the roster, Smallwood included. Make sure you have his name in the back of your head.

Running back categories

Elite: Adrian Peterson, Vikings

Peterson isn’t the top running back on my board. That honor belongs to Todd Gurley, but it has more to do with his ceiling than his floor. Peterson may be 31 years old, but he also has the safest floor of any first-round running back. In recent years, the idea that a back on the wrong side of 30 had the highest floor at the position would have been met with derision. As is clear to anyone who has watched football over the last 10 years, though, Peterson is no regular back. He led the NFL with 1,485 yards last season, becoming the first 30-year-old back to win the rushing title since a 31-year-old Curtis Martin ran for 1,697 yards with the Jets in 2004. Peterson has never had fewer than 1,200 yards in a season in which he played at least 14 games. Excluding his suspension year, he has averaged 12.75 touchdowns per season and has hit paydirt at least 10 times every year. The Vikings undoubtedly want to get more out of Teddy Bridgewater and the passing game this season, but Peterson remains not only the team’s focal point but also one of the few true workhorses in the game today. Backs like Peterson come around only once a generation for a reason. Even at 31 years old, he combines a high floor with an almost limitless ceiling like no other back in the league.

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Breakout: Lamar Miller, Texans

In a way, Miller has already broken out. He was the No. 9 back in standard-scoring leagues in 2014 and the No. 6 back last season, making him one of two backs to finish in the top 10 in both of the last two seasons (the other was Matt Forte). Still, Miller left a little to be desired during his time with the Dolphins, through no fault of his own. He only got a chance to start two years ago because of an injury to Knowshon Moreno, and last season he was the most woefully underutilized player in the league, a development that contributed to Joe Philbin’s firing early in the year. Miller had just 194 carries last season, a total fit for a player in a committee backfield, and got 20 carries in a game once. By comparison, he had fewer than 10 carries six times, which almost makes it seem like the Dolphins were purposely trying to lose games.

He enters a great offensive environment in Houston, stepping into the role vacated by Arian Foster. Coach Bill O’Brien will get him the ball as often has he can handle it, so fantasy owners should expect him to comfortably climb north of 300 touches. The only factor that prevented him from being a top-five back the last two years was an inconsistent workload. Miller won’t have that issue with the Texans. He has the ceiling to be this season’s No. 1 running back, without question.

Value: Frank Gore, Colts

I’m going to be perfectly frank with you. There won’t be anything exciting about calling Gore’s name on draft day. He’s a 33-year-old, 12-year veteran whose best days have been behind him for years, playing in a pass-first offense. Gore will not be the best player on a fantasy championship team, and he’s not going to threaten the RB1 class. Here’s what else he won’t do, though. Gore’s not going to get hurt, and he isn’t going to give up many touches to the other backs in Indianapolis. Gore hasn’t missed a game since 2010 and has sat just 12 games in the first 11 years of his career. Playing 93.2% of his possible games is a remarkable streak of durability for a running back. Behind Gore on the depth chart are Robert Turbin, Jordan Todman and undrafted free agent Josh Ferguson, which is just another way of saying that Gore has unquestionable job security. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said that while the team will manage his touches, he will not be on a pitch count this year, welcome news in the fantasy community for any running back.

Gore failed to top 1,000 yards last season for the third time in his career, and the first in a season in which he played at least 15 games, but the Colts’ offensive line was a mess, and the offense fell apart when Andrew Luck suffered a season-ending spleen injury. On top of that, simply by staying healthy for a full season, Gore ended the year 12th among running backs in fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues. General manager Ryan Grigson focused on upgrading the line in this year’s draft, most notably by grabbing Alabama center Ryan Kelly with the No. 18 pick. The Colts will likely be one of the most pass-reliant teams in the league with Luck healthy again, but his return is a net positive for Gore. The back is better off getting fewer touches in an offense playing at full strength than getting more touches in an offense led by a backup quarterback. Gore’s ADP has him coming off the board at the end of the sixth round, outside the top 30 backs and behind Ameer Abdullah and Arian Foster. There’s little, if any, reason to believe he won’t give his owners another RB2 performance this year.

Fantasy football profiles: Blake Bortles, QB, Jaguars

Reach: Thomas Rawls, Seahawks

Rawls has an ADP in the middle of the third round and is the No. 16 running back and No. 37 overall player in the consensus rankings on FantasyPros.  No one can ever take away what Rawls did last season. The rookie out of Central Michigan stabilized Seattle’s backfield after Marshawn Lynch’s injury and saved a lot of fantasy teams in the process. Rawls ran for 830 yards and four touchdowns on 147 carries and racked up four 100-yard games, despite getting double-digit carries just six times. In those six games, he averaged 17.82 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues. Last year’s No. 1 running back, Devonta Freeman, averaged 16.26 points per game.

With that foundation and Lynch enjoying retirement, why is Rawls a reach? Well, to begin with, he’s still rehabbing the broken ankle that ended his season in the middle of December. Rawls started training camp on the physically unable to perform list, and coach Pete Carroll plans to be careful with him all summer. In other words, there’s a good chance your fantasy draft happens before any of us who aren’t part of the Seattle coaching staff has seen Rawls test the ankle. The Seahawks used a third-round pick on Notre Dame product C.J. Prosise, who’s already a more dangerous receiver than Rawls. Prosise is going to have a role in the offense, and one that could significantly eat into Rawls’s share of the workload. Finally, while Rawls was nothing short of excellent when given an opportunity last season, it cannot simply be dismissed that he came into the league completely devoid of a starter’s pedigree. We know he was capable of being that player in short bursts last season. We do not know if it’s something he can keep up for 16 games. As it stands now, you’ll have to use a third-round pick in a typical draft to make that bet.

Michael Beller’s rankings

Fantasy Football Rankings powered by FantasyPros

Pat Fitzmaurice’s rankings

Fantasy Football Rankings powered by FantasyPros