Tiered fantasy RB rankings: David Johnson rules the field

David Johnson has a strong case to be the No. 1 overall pick in fantasy drafts (AP Photo/Matt York)

Matt Harmon’s 2018 fantasy football position tiers
Quarterback tiers.
Running back tiers.
Wide receiver tiers.
Tight end tiers.
Live cheat sheet for tiers.

In my view, fantasy rankings are taking a linear thought process into an inherently fluid decision-making exercise. I often find there’s a heavy amount of frivolous debate on subjects like “why do you have player-x at No. 12 but player-y at No. 15?” I don’t think it does the reader a service to try and take the numerical order as a one-to-one comparison, nor do we learn anything of use or substance about the players or how they will score us fantasy points on a week-to-week basis in the discussion. For all the hype surrounding the event of the draft, winning weekly is still the name of the game in the vast majority of fantasy formats.

With that school of thought established, I do believe that using tiers by position helps offset some of the uselessness of rankings. It helps take some of the frivolity of arguing a few spots difference in the order. Most of the players in one tier have roughly the same value, whether they fall first in the set or last. It provides more actionable information for fantasy owners to use during drafts, specifically in terms of helping us imagine the range of outcomes for players from both a season-long and weekly standpoint. We get too caught up in where we think a player will rank at the end of the season, but tiering can help remind us that the goal soon enough will be all about constructing teams that are best set to win us one week at a time.

Tier 1 – Unfair advantage bell cow RB1s

  1. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
  2. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
  3. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers

Any of these three players would be more than acceptable picks at No. 1 overall this season. Johnson, Gurley and Bell stand head and shoulders above the other members of their position. Johnson sits at No. 1 for three reasons. Rejecting that Gurley is the consensus 1.01 based on the useless information that he was the RB1 overall last year. Johnson’s 367.8 Yahoo standard fantasy points 2016 season bests anything Gurley or Bell have offered to date. Lastly, I wish to remind that placement within tiers, and the arguments based on them, is meaningless. Nevertheless, if saddled with the 1.01 pick this year, I’m personally going to take the dominant David Johnson and the unique workload he’ll own in the Cardinals offense. Receptions are worth more than carries in fantasy scoring formats and Johnson remains the most dynamic receiving back in the NFL.

Tier 2 – Difference-makers just a step off the top-tier RB1s

4. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
5. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
6. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

Legitimate questions regarding his passing game usage are all that keeps Ezekiel Elliott off Tier 1. Elliott’s routes per game saw a jump to 15.3 in 2017, right in range of players like Alvin Kamara and Duke Johnson. However, he still averages a measly 3.8 targets per game. We have no proof that Dallas’ musty offensive approach includes featuring their star running back in the passing game.

While Kamara’s per-touch efficiency numbers are a lock to regress, he has plenty of room for error. Kamara is a candidate to clear 100 targets in the Saints passing game in 2018. He also gets a head start to own feature back duties with Mark Ingram spending the first four games on the suspension list. It’s hard to find realistic reasons as to why he’ll fail. Don’t be a sheep and fade Barkley because he’s a rookie. The second-overall pick is everything we look for in fantasy backs. He’ll handle passing game work on an offense bound to improve this season.

Tier 3 – Rock-solid RB1s

7. Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
8. Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs
9. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
10. Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars
11. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons

Any of these running backs make for appealing picks in the last first, early second-round. Leonard Fournette is a pick I’m warming to in this tier. The Jaguars have the easiest defensive schedule in 2018, according to Sharp Football Stats efficiency metrics. Jacksonville already ran the sixth-fewest percentage of their plays (31.4 percent) while trailing last year. On a team that is perfectly set up to control the script, only health can cause Fournette to trip.

Kareem Hunt may carry a bit more risk than advertised, as it seems he’s unlikely to out-rush the No. 2 back in Kansas City again by 254 carries again this year. Yet, you’re picking nits. For what it’s worth, I selected Melvin Gordon over him at 1.08 in recent best-ball draft against the solicited advice of Yahoo Fantasy’s lead editor while boarding a plane. Some travel partner I am.

Devonta Freeman is the contrarian placement here. While he doesn’t necessarily get first-round consideration like his fellow Tier 3 mates, he’s priority target in the second. Freeman handles goal line and pass-catching work on an offense that should find the end zone more after finishing second in yards per drive (36.9) but just 15th in total points scored.

Tier 4 – High-end RB2s with a glaring flaw to keep them off RB1 territory

12. Jerick McKinnon, San Francisco 49ers
13. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
14. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
15. Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears
16. Alex Collins, Baltimore Ravens

The 49ers made a massive investment in Jerick McKinnon this offseason, giving him the sixth-highest average annual salary among running backs. It appears fantasy owners are ready to do the same. McKinnon has not been an efficient runner the last few seasons but his skills as a receiver are what appealed to Kyle Shanahan and company. That’s what will bring home the bacon in fantasy. While I have McKinnon projected for 266 total touches and over 1,400 total yards from scrimmage but rarely have the stones to take him at his second/third-round turn asking price when players like A.J. Green, Rob Gronkowski and Davante Adams inhabit the same turf.

You can pretty much take that analysis word-for-word and apply it to Christian McCaffrey. Just add the concerns of two other proven rushers in his backfield with C.J. Anderson in tow and Cam Newton always lurking.

Baltimore Ravens running back Alex Collins has more fantasy appeal than the public assumes. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

LeSean McCoy is appealing because he hasn’t fallen off the cliff just yet and faces little competition for rushes or targets. He is terrifying because he will handle that massive workload in what is likely the worst offense in the NFL and the specter of a legal investigation. Jordan Howard gets dinged for his utter lack of viability in the passing game but should be the lead back in an improved offense that ranked 32nd in pace of play in neutral situations last season (33.3 seconds).

Alex Collins’ placement may feel aggressive but it is justified. The Ravens back balled out last season, averaging 5.3 yards against stacked boxes and ranking top-10 in evaded tackles per game, per Player Profiler. Collins has little to no competition for touches and has the potential workhorse status of strong RB2 in fantasy.

Tier 5 – RB2s that could go one way or another

17. Dion Lewis, Tennessee Titans
18. Jay Ajayi, Philadelphia Eagles
19. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
20. Lamar Miller, Houston Texans
21. Derrius Guice, Washington Redskins

Dion Lewis is one of the few running backs that consistently goes off the board in Rounds 4-5 that I actually want to select. Obviously, Lewis should snag pass-catching work in the Titans offense but is an underrated interior runner. Only Todd Gurley had a higher successful play rate (per Sharp Football Stats) among backs with 100-plus carries. Derrick Henry is a fine pick in this range too but Lewis should come with less weekly volatility.

Jay Ajayi should have early down work locked-up in a high-flying Eagles offense. He’s far from a safe pick but offers high-scoring weeks as an RB2. Lamar Miller is a prime value after the first four tiers of backs. While he isn’t an exciting player anymore, he has zero serious competition for touches in Deshaun Watson’s offense.

I’m bullish on Washington’s offense this year but Derrius Guice’s price stands out as far too expensive relative to his teammates. He should lose passing game work to Chris Thompson, as well. This relatively low placement could look foolish soon because the rookie is in an admittedly pristine situation.

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Tier 6 – Plenty of appeal here but pricing can be a deal breaker

22. Kenyan Drake, Miami Dolphins
23. Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
24. Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks
25. Rex Burkhead, New England Patriots
26. Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints
27. Marshawn Lynch, Oakland Raiders
28. Jamaal Williams, Green Bay Packers

Kenyan Drake was marvelous down the stretch last season after getting a shot to be the Dolphins feature back. In his limited sample Drake checked out as one of the most elusive backs in the league, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats tracking data. While Drake should share some of the load with the ageless Frank Gore, Adam Gase admitted he has “ulterior motives” in naming them co-starters on the team’s first public depth chart.

My read on the hotly debated Seahawks running backs split has been simple all along; pass on both. Even in the likely situation that Rashaad Penny leads the backfield over Chris Carson, he’ll handle touches in a dysfunctional offense that ranked last in drive success rate (among quarterbacks who manned 50-plus drives) last year and lost pieces in the offseason.

Joe Mixon’s inflated cost in fantasy is tough to understand. He was ordinary by any objective measure as a rookie, the Bengals are unlikely to be a top-tier offense and he has little chance to be a true workhorse with Giovani Bernard still there. Bernard should push for 140 to 150 touches again this year and straight up outplayed his backfield mate in 2017. If Mixon was going as RB21-23 in the fifth round and not RB14-15 in the high-third, he’d be an awesome pick. At current ADP you’re paying for all the hope of his “talent” to be actualized and the theoretical upside. Red-light pick at cost. Andy Behrens also made the case that relying on Mixon as a workhorse is a fool’s errand.

Rex Burkhead, Marshawn Lynch and Jamaal Williams are my favorite draft values in this group. Burkhead and Williams aren’t the sexy names in their respective backfields but both offer the reliability and all-around skill set that is like catnip to NFL coaches. They will get a head start on their competition to earn feature back duties in offenses tethered to elite quarterback play.

Lynch looked fresh and ran hot toward the end of last season and should blow past annual summer hype-bunny Doug Martin. He has a frightening weekly floor but offers touchdown upside.

Tier 7 – Committee backs with weekly upside.

29. Tevin Coleman, Atlanta Falcons
30. Kerryon Johnson, Detroit Lions
31. Ronald Jones, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
32. Sony Michel, New England Patriots
33. Chris Thompson, Washington Redskins
34. C.J. Anderson, Carolina Panthers
35. Royce Freeman, Denver Broncos
36. Isaiah Crowell, New York Jets

Rookies like Kerryon Johnson, Ronald Jones and Royce Freeman have a chance to outkick this tier if each ends up being the clear lead back of their team. When targeting them in drafts, that’s more order of preference. Johnson is risky but has an appealing ceiling in his range of outcomes for his ADP. Yahoo Sports Senior NFL Writer Terez Paylor wrote a good piece detailing how Johnson could be the key to the Lions’ hope to evolve on the ground. Sony Michel should be ranked higher than this trio but fell to their depths after news of a cleanup surgery on his knee that will cost him valuable preseason time.

Chris Thompson and C.J. Anderson are two RB3 targets of mine after securing more stable assets early. Thompson ranked top-five in routes run per game (18.8) according to Player Profiler and is a feature, not a bit piece of Washington’s passing game when healthy.

While I have Christian McCaffrey leading to Panthers in carries over Anderson (167 to 163), that could easily be an overestimation. It’s unwise to build a running back corps around a player like Anderson with questions in the passing game and scoring areas but he is a fine flier in the eight to ninth-round.

Tier 8 – High-end satellite backs and upside backups

37. Tarik Cohen, Chicago Bears
38. Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals
39. Duke Johnson, Cleveland Browns
40. Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts
41. Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
42. Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks
43. Matt Brieda, San Francisco 49ers
44. Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts

Giovani Bernard Matt Brieda should be far more consequential thorns in the side of their team’s projected starters than ADP suggests. Brieda was a strong runner last year and could split early-down work with Jerick McKinnon. If McKinnon flops as a runner or gets injured, Brieda inherits a juicy role. He provides upside along with sneaky standalone value and should be drafted in all leagues.

Bernard is a highly-regard asset as a pass-blocker, was third on the team in catches last season and straight up outplayed Joe Mixon to end 2017. There’s no reason he won’t siphon off high-leverage touches in this backfield.

Nyheim Hines is my favorite back in the likely Colts committee backfield. He’s running routes from the slot in camp and could be Andrew Luck’s version of Dion Lewis in his early days with the Patriots. Marlon Mack’s price assumes way too much about how the work in this backfield will be distributed and is a clear red-light. Aaron Jones may be the more talented runner in the Green Bay backfield but talent doesn’t score fantasy points. Williams has the upper hand in earning early opportunity. Jones is a player you should target after whoever drafts him drops him, not in August drafts.

Tier 9 – Draftable muddled backfield mates with impediments to relevance

45. Jordan Wilkins, Indianapolis Colts
46. Carlos Hyde, Cleveland Browns
47. Corey Clement, Philadelphia Eagles
48. Bilal Powell, New York Jets
49. Devontae Booker, Denver Broncos
50. Theo Riddick, Detroit Lions
51. Frank Gore, Miami Dolphins
52. Latavius Murray, Minnesota Vikings
53. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns

Jordan Wilkins is dirt cheap and has just as much of a chance as Marlon Mack to win the early down role in Indianapolis. He’s on my radar in the late rounds of every draft. Corey Clement is an excellent deep sleeper after flashing last year and runs behind a far from secure RB1 in Jay Ajayi. I have yet to think “Yes, I’d love to draft this Browns running back in fantasy football,” since the calendar turned to May.

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