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DEEP DIVE: Top 10 Fantasy Running Backs

This is a list of who I regard as the Top 10 fantasy running backs at the moment. The analysis below is intended to offer contrarian perspectives, so it may appear as there is some excessive negativity surrounding these guys, mostly once you get past the Top 3. While I am not saying don’t draft any of these players, I would just like to bring areas of concern for each of them to the forefront.

1. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

 Zeke Run

A solid argument could be made to take any of the Top 3 running backs with the No. 1 overall pick. However, I would give Ezekiel Elliott the edge based on several factors.

2016 Season: Elliott easily led the league in rushing with 1,631 rushing yards (5.1 yards per carry) and 15 touchdowns, despite sitting out the meaningless preseason finale. In addition to his 2016 rushing totals, Elliott caught 32 balls for 363 yards and an additional score, which equates to an 11.3 yard-per-catch average (only Kansas City’s Spencer Ware and Atlanta’s Tevin Coleman had higher yard-per-catch numbers than Elliott).

Offseason Buzz: Earlier this month, the Cowboys running back coach hinted that he was looking to incorporate Elliott into the passing game more, which only bolsters his already immense upside.

Expected Workload/Handcuffs: Elliott is a true three-down back who will rarely come off the field. Darren McFadden is the next man up should anything happen to Elliott. Scat back Lance Dunbar is no longer with the team to poach passing down work, and the Cowboys have not signed anyone to replace him. I am assuming Alfred Morris will be cut or traded sometime in the near future.

Supporting Cast: The offense Elliott plays in has a run-first mentality and succeeds despite opposing defensive coordinators knowing what’s comingDak Prescott is a capable quarterback, but at this point it is safe to assume the coaching staff would prefer he be more of a game manager. On the offensive line, tackle Doug Free’s retirement and guard Ronald Leary’s departure via free agency are not insignificant losses (as of this writing, 2013 draft bust Jonathan Cooper is penciled in to start at left guard … yikes).

Health Concerns: None currently. Elliott enters training camp fresh, whereas the next two backs on this list are coming off serious injuries that required surgery. Elliott will be 22 years old to start the 2017 season, which is three years younger than David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell.

2. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals

Image result for david johnson cardinals gif

I love David Johnson. He’s a hard worker and an overall genuine good guy. In a points per reception league setting, there’s solid arguments for taking Johnson at No. 1 overall.

2016 Season: Johnson had 1,239 rushing yards (4.4 yards per carry) and 16 touchdowns to go along with 80 catches, 879 yards and four touchdowns statline. Johnson was actually the second-leading receiver on the Cardinals in terms of catches and yards behind ageless wonder Larry Fitzgerald. In every game except the season finale (in which he bowed out of early due to injury), Johnson eclipsed 100 total scrimmage yards.

Offseason Buzz: Coach Bruce Arians has hinted that he has no plans to curb Johnson’s workload going forward. Johnson’s personal goal this season is to reach 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving (which as we know, Cardinals general manager Steve Keim once compared Johnson to Marshall Faulk).

Expected Workload/Handcuffs: Johnson is a true three-down back who will rarely come off the field. Backup Andre Ellington may steal a few receptions, but he’s never really shown that he’s capable of extended run at the running back position. Former backup Chris Johnson was not re-signed by the team during the offseason, and fifth-round rookie T.J. Logan appears buried on the depth chart for the time being.

Supporting Cast: Here is where things get dicey with Johnson. Carson Palmer is 38 years old and coming off a mediocre-at-best 2016 season. The Cardinals did not address quarterback in the draft, only signing Blaine Gabbert in the offseason to compete for a backup gig. Should anything happen to Palmer, the Cardinals offense could end up sputtering significantly. The Cardinals pass-catchers are relatively unproven behind stalwart veteran Larry FitzgeraldJohn Brown is a former 1,000-yard receiver, but health issues severely limited him in 2016, and the Cardinals need him to bounce back. Third-year wide receiver J.J. Nelson is expected to fill Michael Floyd’s absence, and it is unknown how suited Nelson is to for an increased workload. I would not be surprised if David Johnson was the team’s second-leading receiver once again this year.

Health Concerns: Johnson suffered a sprained MCL in Week 17 last season. Fortunately for him, the injury was not nearly as bad as it looked on film. As of this past March, Johnson proclaimed himself “full throttle.” Given the man’s work ethic in the training room, I have no reason to doubt him.

3. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers

Bell Run

If the first two running backs on this list are taken, Le’Veon Bell is an outstanding consolation prize. He would be my choice if the first two running backs on this list are taken.

2016 Season: Bell had 1,268 rushing yards (4.9 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns to go along with 75 catches, 616 yards and two touchdowns. Bell accomplished this feat despite missing the first three games of the season due to suspension and being held out of the season finale as a precaution.

Expected Workload/Handcuffs: Bell is a true three-down back who will rarely come off the field (are you sensing a theme here?). The coaching staff has suggested they may look into reducing Bell’s workload to keep him fresh for the postseason; however, it is not clear from the roster how they plan to accomplish that. Last season’s backup running back DeAngelo Williams was not re-signed, so third round rookie James Connor appears most likely to be the next man up if Bell suffers another injury. Fitzgerald Toussaint is a career backup who will most likely be remembered for this.

Supporting Cast:
 Bell plays in one of the most high-powered offenses in the NFL. Antonio Brown is arguably one of the best wide receivers since the days of Randy Moss and Marvin Harrison tormenting opposing secondaries, and Ben Roethlisberger will most likely be heading to the Hall of Fame one day. Roethlisberger does have some injury concerns given his propensity for absorbing big hits (he hasn’t played a 16-game season since 2014). Regardless, in the last 5-of-6 games Bell played without Roethlisberger, Bell averaged better than 100 scrimmage yards. Also, with the return of Martavis Bryant from suspension and the addition of JuJu Smith-Schuster, one has to wonder about Bell’s pass catching role diminishing slightly.

Health Concerns:
 Bell reportedly played with a groin injury during the final stretch of the 2016 season, which culminated in him being unable to finish the Steelers playoff loss to New England. Last March, Bell elected to have surgery to repair a core muscle. While it is anticipated that Bell enters training camp with a clean bill of health, he has now endured groin, foot, and several knee injuries during his young NFL career.

4. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills

McCoy Run

Here is where the gap between running backs widens. Whereas I look upon the first three running backs on this list as 1A, 1B and 1C options, there is a clear gap between them and the rest. If the three running backs on this list are already taken in your draft, I would start looking at some receivers before drafting McCoy. I’d feel comfortable drafting McCoy in the late first/early second round.

2016 Season: McCoy had 1,267 rushing yards (5.4 yards per carry) and 13 touchdowns to go along with 50 catches, 256 yards and a touchdown. McCoy’s seven 100-yard rushing games are the same as Ezekiel Elliott, despite McCoy missing one game due to injury and being hobbled in several others. The 5.4 yards per carry was McCoy’s highest since averaging 5.2 in 2010.

Offseason Buzz: The Bills recently hired Rick Dennison as their offensive coordinator, whose running back resume includes orchestrating Arian Foster‘s breakout (2010-13). Dennison has made a living out of involving his backs in both the rushing and receiving games, so McCoy could be in line to improve on his 356 receiving yards from last season.

Expected Workload/Handcuffs: Assuming he’s healthy, McCoy should be on the field a ton. Dennison is no stranger to pounding the rock with his featured back, as in addition to his tenure in Houston, he served on the Denver coaching staff under Mike Shanahan from 1995-2008. Second-year running back Jonathan Williams is expected to be the primary backup, and could post solid numbers should McCoy’s hamstrings fail him again. I’m not sure what the Bills are doing with both Patrick DiMarco and Mike Tolbert on the roster, as both seem to offer identical skill-sets.

Supporting Cast: McCoy’s quarterback, Tyrod Taylor, has a cannon arm and can also keep defenses honest with his scrambling ability. Keeping defenses honest can be difficult, however, when your best receiver can’t stay on the field, as Sammy Watkins has missed a total of 11 games the past two seasons. A healthy Watkins can only open up more running lanes for McCoy, as well as one of either DiMarco or Tolbert as his road-grading fullback.

Health Concerns:
  McCoy is no stranger to injuries. He missed one game last season due to a hamstring strain, and was ineffective in another due to it (8 carries for 11 yards against Miami in Week 7). McCoy also suffered a high-ankle sprain in Week 17. During the 2015 season, hamstring injuries limited him to only 12 games. That said, he is expected to report to training camp healthy. Just know that if you draft McCoy, you should plan to spend some time on Sunday mornings sifting through injury reports.

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.