Fantasy Primers

  • Quarterbacks
  • Running Backs
  • Wide Receivers (Thursday)
  • Tight Ends (Friday)
  • Defenses (Saturday)

Running Backs

“Zero-RB” was a trendy approach in fantasy football last season, but it didn’t exactly deliver many championships. The philosophy, which says running backs are volatile and it’s better to spend early draft picks on wide receivers – then load up on runners later in the draft – proved to be ill-advised, with high picks like David Johnson (the first overall selection in many leagues), Ezekiel Elliott, and Le’Veon Bell carrying owners to glory.

Will we see a swing back to the old philosophy of loading up on running backs in the early rounds during this year’s fantasy drafts? Time will tell, but an examination of the talent pool reveals there are intriguing players available at all stages of the draft.

It’s important to remember that these primers are not intended to be tiers for drafting. You can view our complete running back rankings here.

The trifecta

David Johnson, Cardinals – Johnson scored an NFL-best 20 touchdown in 2016 and would have produced at least 100 yards in every game had he not suffered a minor injury in the finale. The Cardinals didn’t bother adding any meaningful depth behind him this offseason. Fantasy nirvana is so close that Johnson’s owners can taste it.

Le’Veon Bell, Steelers – The most efficient runner in football, Bell finished 2016 as fantasy’s RB4 despite playing just 12 games. Assuming he avoids injury (and another suspension) and plays a full slate, his first RB1 finish could be in the cards.

Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys – The NFL’s leading rusher as a rookie returns to a plum situation, but a few changes along the Cowboys’ elite offensive line could make the yards slightly harder to gain this year.

Steady vets

LeSean McCoy, Bills – Only two running backs scored more fantasy points than McCoy last season. If he can stay healthy, there’s no reason he can’t produce at the same level.

Devonta Freeman, Falcons – Freeman has done everything the Falcons have asked of him and earned his big-money extension. The loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan could hurt a bit, but Freeman remains an excellent bet to produce high-end RB1 numbers.

DeMarco Murray, Titans – Murray returned to fantasy stardom with the Titans last year following a dud of a season with the Eagles. He now returns as the starter behind one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, but Derrick Henry lurks in the background.

Believe the hype?

Isaiah Crowell, Browns – The Browns aggressively upgraded their offensive line in free agency, which should be music to Crowell’s ears.

Jordan Howard, Bears – Elliott wasn’t the only rookie sensation last season, as Howard finished second in the rushing race despite not starting for the Bears until Week 4. However, the sophomore’s touchdown potential could be limited by a Bears passing attack that appears far from dangerous.

Melvin Gordon, Chargers – Gordon scored double-digit touchdowns as a sophomore, but fell just short of 1,000 yards rushing. He should reach that mark this year.

Jay Ajayi, Dolphins – Ajayi emerged from the Dolphins’ doghouse to produce three games with more than 200 yards rushing last season, yet curiously struggled to find a rhythm in other weeks.

Ty Montgomery, Packers – The Packers added a pair of rookie running backs in the later rounds of the draft, but the diminutive Montgomery will be given the chance to prove he can hold up to a starter’s workload.

Paul Perkins, Giants – More impressive as a rookie than you might think, Perkins should benefit greatly from the Giants’ decision not to add a veteran running back in free agency. This will remain a pass-first offense, but Perkins has appealing upside at his ADP.

Bounce-back candidates

Todd Gurley, Rams – Is Gurley really Trent Richardson 2.0? Their numbers across their first two seasons are eerily similar. Sure, Gurley has run behind a brutally bad offensive line, but his failure to break any long gains should terrify fantasy owners.

Doug Martin, Buccaneers – Suspended for the first three games of the season, Martin could explode in Week 4 if the glowing reports about his offseason workouts prove true.

Ameer Abdullah, Lions – His second season was a write-off due to injury, but the Lions apparently still have enough faith in Abdullah’s abilities to pass on adding any competition.

C.J. Anderson, Broncos – There are plenty of reasons to believe Anderson will never consistently display the potential he’s infrequently flashed, but it’s not like the Broncos have a better option in their backfield.

Fresh legs

Leonard Fournette, Jaguars – Can this year’s fourth overall pick follow Elliott’s instant rise to superstardom? The Jaguars hope so, but their offensive line isn’t in the same stratosphere as the Cowboys’.

Christian McCaffrey, Panthers – The Panthers spoke about evolving their stale offense, and they found the perfect player to make it happen. McCaffrey is lethal in space and as a receiver. His fantasy value will be determined by whether he can make plays between the tackles, too.

Joe Mixon, Bengals – The Bengals overlooked Mixon’s shameful past to add a player who could be one of the draft’s biggest values. He has a three-down skill set and should have little trouble taking jobs away from both Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard.

Dalvin Cook, Vikings – Once considered a candidate to be the first running back drafted, Cook slid to the second round after a terrible combine. His fantasy value could be capped by what looks like a timeshare.

Kareem Hunt, Chiefs – A far lesser-known name than the four listed above, Hunt is someone fantasy owners should study up on. He has a very real chance to start over Spencer Ware.

Samaje Perine, Redskins – A highly productive grinder with somewhat limited athleticism, Perine could gain the upper hand over the uninspiring Robert Kelley in the Redskins’ backfield.

Not for long?

Spencer Ware, Chiefs – The Chiefs traded up to select Hunt in the third round. Ware’s starting job is in jeopardy.

Robert Kelley, Redskins – Kelley was a useful waiver wire find for fantasy owners last season, but he’ll have to fend off Perine in camp to keep his job.

Lamar Miller, Texans – Always more sizzle than steak, Miller could cede touches (particularly near the goal line) to third-round pick D’Onta Foreman.

Carlos Hyde, 49ers – There are whispers that new 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan isn’t a big fan of Hyde. The 49ers drafted Joe Williams in the fourth round, and the rookie could end up as Hyde’s replacement.

Mark Ingram, Saints – No running back lost more fantasy value since last season’s conclusion than Ingram, who watched New Orleans sign Adrian Peterson and then trade up to draft Alvin Kamara.

Jeremy Hill, Bengals – Hill’s dynamic rookie season feels like a distant memory. If Mixon plays as advertised, it’s hard to see why the Bengals would give Hill anything more than mop-up work.

Change of scenery

Adrian Peterson, Saints – Peterson expected a bidding war for his services, but was ultimately forced to sign a cheap deal with the Saints for what could be a role backing up Ingram. Peterson’s ceiling remains sky high, but the chances of him getting there are slim.

Latavius Murray, Vikings – The Vikings added the former Raiders runner early in free agency, but fantasy owners had to lower their expectations for Murray after the Vikings drafted Cook. Don’t forget that this offensive line was a mess last season.

Eddie Lacy, Seahawks – If Lacy can keep his weight down (and that’s an “if” nearly as big as Lacy himself), he should be the Seahawks’ early-down and goal-line runner.

Marshawn Lynch, Raiders – While Lynch seems refreshed after a year away from football, and running behind the Raiders’ excellent offensive line should be a joy for him, fantasy owners should also probably expect some rust.

Jamaal Charles, Broncos – Charles had a hard time finding a new team, likely because his knees are shot.

LeGarrette Blount, Eagles – After a lengthy stay on the open market, Blount found a nice fit with the Eagles. He should lead this team in touches, but it’s extremely unlikely he’ll repeat his 18 rushing touchdowns from a year ago.

Mike Gillislee, Patriots – Don’t overlook this signing. The Patriots went out of their way to steal Gillislee, a restricted free agent, from their divisional rival in Buffalo. He could be in line for LeGarrette Blount’s old role, which is highly fruitful for fantasy owners.

Danny Woodhead, Ravens – Woodhead is coming off a major injury, but has the chance to cement himself as more than just a receiving back while Kenneth Dixon serves a suspension.

High-upside handcuffs

Tevin Coleman, Falcons – Coleman carries independent value, but would instantly be an RB1 if Freeman misses time.

Derrick Henry, Titans – Murray has a lot of wear on his tires, while Henry remains a high-end prospect. A changing of the guard might not be likely, but it’s far from far-fetched.

C.J. Prosise, Seahawks – Lacy and Thomas Rawls are in the mix, but it’s Prosise whose receiving skills make him the most intriguing player in this backfield.

Kenneth Dixon, Ravens – The sophomore is suspended to start the season but could return to a starting role if the Ravens fail to establish a strong rushing attack in his absence.

Devontae Booker, Broncos – Very disappointing as a rookie, Booker could find new life under a new head coach.

Fading vets

Frank Gore, Colts – Now 34 years old, Gore’s fantasy value is entirely dependent on the fact that Indianapolis has very little behind him on the depth chart.

Matt Forte, Jets – Bilal Powell nearly matched Forte’s fantasy value last season. This could be the year he surpasses him. Neither player is anything to get excited about on an offense that could be the NFL’s worst.

Jonathan Stewart, Panthers – McCaffrey is the future, but Stewart should retain a role in 2017. If he holds on to goal-line work, he could also keep some fantasy value.

PPR darlings

Darren Sproles, Eagles – Blount will score the touchdowns, but Sproles should catch enough passes to carry his usual PPR value.

Theo Riddick, Lions – It’s now plainly clear that Riddick is a limited runner, but he has 80-catch upside.

Fantasy Primers

  • Quarterbacks
  • Running Backs
  • Wide Receivers (Thursday)
  • Tight Ends (Friday)
  • Defenses (Saturday)

(Photo courtesy: USA TODAY Sports)

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