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BACKFIELD TIERS: Usage Analysis

With NFL training camp on the horizon, I’ve organized the backfields of all 32 NFL teams into tiers based on the expected usage of each starting running back. Like anything in the NFL, running back situations are fluid, and a given backfield could jump up or fall down a tier at the drop of a hat based on injuries or coaching/personnel decisions.

Tier-1 Backfields

These teams feature backfields with clear-cut three-down workhorses who have little competition for offensive touches. The starters listed here are expected to have a commanding snap share over their backfield mates and should see around 25 offensive touches per game as excellent cornerstones for any fantasy football team.

Starter: David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
Projected Backup: Chase Edmonds

Johnson logged 83.75 percent of the Cardinals’ offensive snaps in 2016 before the majority of his 2017 season was wiped out due to injury. The team already appears set on 2018 fourth-round pick Chase Edmonds (averaged 153.8 total yards per contest as a four-year starter at FCS Fordham University) as Johnson’s backup — though the rookie’s fantasy value will be strictly that of a handcuff.

Starter: LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
Projected Backup: Chris Ivory

Out of necessity, soon-to-be 30-year old McCoy will be relied on as the Bills’ offensive engine for at least one more season. Having tied Kareem Hunt with an NFL-leading 12 rushes that went for 20+ yards in 2017, McCoy hasn’t yet lost a step as he enters the twilight of his career. While concerns about the putrid state of the Bills’ offense are well warranted (unsettled quarterback situation, lack of viable pass-catchers), you can at least hang your hat on the fact McCoy is going to be fed the ball. Chris Ivory‘s chance to be an NFL starter has come and gone, so he’ll take the field only when McCoy needs a breather.

Starter: Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
Projected Backups: Bo Scarbrough, Rod Smith

One could argue there’s room for Elliott to exceed the 24.9 offensive touches per game he’s averaged thus far in his NFL career, as the Cowboys are woefully devoid of any other established offensive game-breakers. Expect Elliott to rarely come off the field after he saw roughly 87 percent of the Cowboys’ offensive snaps in 10 games played a season ago. In the event Elliott breaks down, the team would likely turn to 2018 seventh-round pick Bo Scarbrough on early downs, while veteran Rod Smith would slide back into the change-of-pace role he inherited last season when Elliott was suspended for six games.

Starter: Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars
Projected Backups: T.J. Yeldon, Corey Grant

In 13 healthy contests as a rookie, Fournette logged about 65 percent of the team’s offensive snaps while touching the ball 23.4 times per game. With Fournette reportedly in better shape this off-season, having reportedly slimmed down when the Jaguars convened for OTAs last month, his rookie year usage can be looked at as a baseline. Yeldon and Grant may steal some passing down work here and there, but make no mistake the Jags intend to give Fournette all he can handle so long as health cooperates.

Starter: Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
Projected Backups: Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson

Last season marked the first campaign Gordon was able to remain on the field for all 16 games, as he logged 70 percent of the Chargers offensive snaps and touched the ball 21.4 times per game. In fact, the Chargers may rely on Gordon even more in the short passing game this season after TE Hunter Henry (knee) was lost for the year. Ekeler should remain in play as Gordon’s change-of-pace option, while rookie seventh-round pick Jackson would need an injury to one of the other two in order to achieve relevancy.

Starter: Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
Projected Backup: John Kelly

Gurley finished the 2017 season second in rushing yards and second in receiving yards among all NFL running backs while remaining on the field for roughly 80 percent of his team’s offensive snaps (taking into account he did miss Week 17 for rest purposes). Not yet 24 years old, Gurley is entrenched as the Rams’ offensive nucleus, and a lock to touch the ball 21-24 times per contest while rarely giving way to a change-of-pace option. The Rams chose John Kelly in the sixth round of last April’s draft, whose dual threat rushing/receiving prowess should be enough to fend off journeymen Lance Dunbar and Malcolm Brown for backup duties.

Starter: Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
Projected Backup: Jonathan Stewart

Averaging 1,679 total yards per campaign as a three-year starter at Penn State, the Giants made Barkley the second overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Given the draft capital the Giants used to acquire Barkley, it stands to reason he will be used in every way similar to the other backs in this tier, as Barkley gives the Giants a multidimensional backfield threat the team hasn’t had since Tiki Barber. Free agent signing Jonathan Stewart may vulture a goal line score here or there, but not much more should be expected.

Starter: Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Projected Backup: James Conner

Over three of the past four NFL seasons, Le’Veon Bell has put up at least 1,800 total yards as one of the League’s premier do-it-all running backs whom all others try to emulate. Bell can line up in the backfield, in the slot, or out wide as the Steelers have schemed all sorts of various ways to get him the ball. Last season, Bell handled a whopping 83 percent of the team’s running back touches while playing a 90 percent of the offensive snaps (excluding Week 17). Conner, a third-round pick in 2017, should return as Bell’s primary handcuff, and will continue see a minuscule number of snaps per game.

About Will Weiler

An NFL Red Zone addict and all-around data nerd, I've been obsessed with the NFL and stats ever since I started playing the virtual pigskin game in 2005.