I don't have to explain the importance of drafting the right running back in the first round, especially if you have the opportunity to take the first running back off the board. Anyone that drafted Eddie Lacy, Jamaal Charles, Le'Veon Bell, C.J. Anderson, DeMarco Murray, or Jeremy Hill, knows this all too well.
Running backs typically win and lose championships. The draft isn't the end all, be all for a championship season, but getting the correct RB early will put you ahead of the 8 ball. Speaking from experience, I had at least one or the trio of Bell, Anderson and Hill. More often than not, I had two of the three, along with Ameer Abdullah.
While the 2015 season is still fresh in my mind, I am going to make an argument for and against five running backs being the first back off the board in the 2016 draft. A lot could change between now and August, of course. If I had a crystal ball, well, I would be writing this from my island in the Caribbean (you know, Powerball). The best way to get a head start on next season is to get all the facts about last season.
Devonta Freeman (RB, Atl).
I love you - Freeman ended as the No. 1 running back in fantasy this season. Even better than that, he was a free agent in a lot of leagues. That doesn't really have any relevance for next season, but it is a cool fact. Freeman averaged 15.2* fantasy points per game (FPPG). That was the highest among RBs by almost a full point. Freeman scored 11 rushing TDs which tied for the most in the NFL. Freeman rushed for over 1,000 yards despite missing a game due to a concussion and not having a prominent role in the first couple of games. Freeman also catches the ball out of the backfield at an elite level. He had 73 catches for 578 yards and three TDs. Those reception numbers are at a Matt Forte/Le'Veon Bell level. Freeman is also in a great offense. Okay, "great" might but a little too strong. The Falcons offense finished 7th in the league, so maybe not great but still very good. Having a dual-threat back in a good offense is fantasy gold. Last, but definitely not least, Freeman only finished with fewer than 10 FPPG twice all season. That's my personal "good" week criteria in standard leagues for a running back. In summary, Freeman is a dual-threat back in a good offense, he is consistent, and he's proven he can do it. He's a pretty good bet to be the first back off the board.
I love you not - Freeman has competition. Tevin Coleman was drafted by this coaching staff to be the running back for Kyle Shanahan's one-cut system. Even with all Freeman's success, he is not the ideal fit for that system. Coleman averaged over five yards per carry (YPC) for the final four games of the season. Freeman averaged under four YPC from week 13 to the end of the season. Freeman had as many fumbles lost as rushing TDs from week eight on (2). Freeman only missed one game this season, but has an injury history going back to his college days. With that history, and no track record outside of the 2015 season, I would say that you would be reaching if you took Freeman as the first back off the board.
Adrian Peterson (RB, Min).
I love you - The best thing about AP is he's going to be on this list next season. He has been the most consistent RB in the league, and it hasn't been that close. Outside of a legal issue, he has been atop the RB ranks every season. This season was no different. He ended second in FPPG with 14.4. Peterson only had four games with fewer than 10 FPPG. Peterson was the leading rusher in the NFL (1,485 yards) and was tied for the lead league in rushing touchdowns (11). Peterson has the best track record of all the running backs on this list. He might not end up as the leader in FPPG next season, but he'll likely finish in the top five. The Vikings offense has been a run-first, AP or bust, offense since he's been in the league. That kind of consistency is what you are looking for when drafting your first running back.
I love you not - AP is an old man by NFL running back standards. He'll be 31 next season. He also has plenty of miles on that body. He's a bruising back, and all those hits add up. AP is the tradition I-formation back. He sets up deep in the backfield and runs downhill. He is by no means a pass catching back. He only had 30 catches for the season. That's fewer than two per game on average. That basically means Peterson is dependent on game flow. Luckily, the Vikings defense was good, so he was rarely flowed out of the game. After week 11, he averaged fewer than four yards per carry (YPC). Next season, there is a possibility that Norv Turner turns the offense over to Teddy Bridgewater. If that happens, AP will have a vast decline in touches. The biggest problem AP has is that he fumbles, and he has throughout his career. I don't see that changing much. There are too many variables for AP to be the first RB taken.
Todd Gurley (RB, LAR).
I love you - Man crush alert: I love young, high-upside running backs. Gurley checks both of those boxes. Gurley is just 21, hasn't even come close to tapping into his potential, and he ended as the 5th best fantasy back (11.7 FPPG). That's impressive, especially since he didn't start the season healthy. A lot of pundits have pegged Gurley as the next AP. That's pretty high praise. Todd Gurley was the 10th pick in the draft after ACL injury. He was the best RB in college when healthy. Gurley oozes pedigree. He plays in one of the few run-first offenses left in the league. Jeff Fisher is committed to the run, and Gurley has no competition. Gurley had a hefty 4.8 YPC and 10 TDs in 13 games (he played in another, but the Rams were getting his feet wet). Gurley has too much upside to pass up.
I love you not - If you've read closely, unfortunately I've used "healthy" a good amount. Gurley was coming off an ACL injury this season, and during his sophomore year at UGA, he also had a season-ending injury. Injuries could be an issue with Gurley. Gurley only had 21 catches this season. Prorating for 13 games, that's still fewer than two per game. The Rams ended the season as the worst offense in the NFL. Quarterback was a struggle all season, wide receivers were non existent, and I'm not sure the Rams have a tight end. There are a lot of holes to fill on offense, and, until they do, Gurley will see a whole bunch of stacked boxes. Injury concerns alone make Gurley too high of a risk to take with the first RB pick.
David Johnson (RB, Arz).
I love you - D.J. gets to play lead back in the NFL's best-ranked offense. Defenses are not going to load the box when Carson Palmer can throw the ball to Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and John Brown. That leads to a lot of running lanes for the talented young back. He ended the year with 4.6 YPC and 13 total TDs. As good as Johnson has been running with the ball, he might be better catching it. Johnson, who came on late, ended with 36 catches and four receiving TDs. Johnson, like Gurley, checks a lot of boxes. With the Cardinals offense, and Johnson's use in all facets of the offense, he shouldn't be passed up as the No.1 RB.
I love you not - I have two names: C.J. Anderson and Jeremy Hill. Both Anderson and Hill ended the 2014 season much like Johnson did in 2015. Any running back with a low work load early in the season is going to be better later in the season. Fresh legs (see Hightower, Tim). D.J. might have lost his legs toward the end of the season as well. In his last three games, Johnson averaged 35 rushing yards (including the Green Bay Divisional Round game). One thing we do in fantasy football is to try and limit our variables. Johnson is a complex equation with a lot of variables, so you can't take him No. 1.
Le'Veon Bell (RB, Pit).
I love you - Bell is the best all-around running back in the NFL, and I don't think it's that close. In 2014, he ran for 1,361 yards, caught 83 balls for 854 yards, and had 11 total touchdowns. Those are stupid numbers, reminiscent of LaDanian Tomlinson and Marshall Faulk. In six games this season, Bell averaged 4.9 per carry with 556 yards and caught 24 passes (more than Gurley in 13 games and 6 fewer than AP in 16). The Steelers offense finished as the third-ranked offense this season, and it could finish higher in 2016. Bell is just too good to pass up. He's undoubtedly the first back taken in 2016.
I love you not - Bell ended the season on IR. This is the second consecutive season that Bell was hurt at the end of year. He didn't start his rookie year either due to injury.Bell missed the first two games of 2015 because of a drug suspension. I mention that only because, if he gets popped again, it will be a much longer suspension. DeAngelo Williams ended the season as the 4th best fantasy back. Surely, Mike Tomlin will give Williams more carries regardless of whether Bell is healthy - maybe to keep Bell healthy. The Steelers were primarily a passing offense. Not a bad idea when you have guys like Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. This leads me to the variable talk again. Injury history, passing offense, and suitable backup are a lot of boxes you can check on the negative side. He might be a steal for someone, but he's not No. 1.
Now that I've laid out an argument for and against these five running backs, here are my top five:
- Le'Veon Bell: He's the best back in the NFL and checks all the boxes outside of health.
- Todd Gurley: He could be the best pure back in the league.
- Devonta Freeman: He's Bell light.
- David Johnson: No track record, but he's highly skilled and used correctly.
- Adrian Peterson: Top 10, but his age and decline manifest in 2016.
Who are your top running backs for next year? Obviously, a lot can change between now and then, but it is a fun conversation to have. Until then, happy fantasizing.
*All stats are based on standard scoring and team total offense.