When Should I Draft a Running Back

Sunday, Aug 23, 2015 at 12:00 pm ET

This is a simple supply versus demand situation. The simple truth is that the supply of featured running backs is not enough to satisfy the demand. As we all know, the league has become much more of a passing league. There were more 6-TD passing games last season than the entire decade of the 90's combined. 5,000+ passing yards isn't such a stretch anymore. We're disappointed if our quarterbacks don't throw for 300+ yards in a game. The running back by committee approach has made the featured back something of a rarity. Not every running back is going to get 20+ touches a game any longer which makes drafting a solid running back crucial to the success of any fantasy team. We'll take a look at our options this year through the lens of our running back tiers.

When to draft a fantasy football running back

Tier 1 Running Backs

When we look at the Tier 1 Running Backs on FantasyFootballNerd.com, we're looking at guys like Adrian Peterson, Eddie Lacy, Le'Veon Bell, Jamaal Charles, and Marshawn Lynch. Obviously, barring injury, these guys are the safest picks and they (along with some of the Tier 2 guys below) are the kinds of workhorse backs that we expect to get 20 touches a game. Some, like Bell and Charles, are so ingrained in the passing game that they hold additional weight in PPR formats. In fact, even though he'll miss the first two games, Bell is clearly the #1 running back in PPR, although a great argument can be made for Peterson in Norv Turner's offense.

If you have one of the top 5 or 6 picks in your draft, you would be wise to grab one of these guys. In PPR formats, we've seen Antonio Brown go in this mix, and in 2-QB leagues, we've seen these guys fall further down into the first round, but generally it's best to grab one of the tier 1 running backs if you can. If you're drafting in the 10th – 12th spots, your best bet is probably an elite WR followed by a Tier 2 RB in the next round.

Tier 2 Running Backs

The tier 1 guys won't be there in the 2nd round, so if you drafted Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Julio Jones, or Odell Beckham Jr. with your first pick, the running back position becomes even more important to you. Obviously if an elite WR falls to you in the 2nd (perhaps a Julio and then Beckham), you take the WR and look for a RB with your next pick. If you got one of the elite guys in the first, an elite WR should be in your sights. For example, in an experts league where Joe's drafting in the 11th spot, he grabbed Marshawn in the first and followed that up with Calvin Johnson in the second. You can build a team around that.

All things being equal, a Tier 2 running back like C.J. Anderson, Jeremy Hill, DeMarco Murray, Matt Forte, LeSean McCoy, or Justin Forsett can help anchor your team. If you're drafting out of the first 5 or 6 spots, pairing an elite RB with a Tier 2 RB is a great start. The first few rounds are all about safety anyway and two workhorses is a safe play.

When we look at the projections for the players in this tier, we're really only talking about fractions of points per game difference. That changes a bit with PPR formats where a guy like Forte (even though he says he won't catch a lot of passes but is still projected to catch 65 of them) gets a bump in the rankings. These are all safe plays that you'll keep locked into your weekly lineups.

Tier 3 Running Backs

If you haven't drafted a running back out of the first 2 tiers, grabbing a guy like Lamar Miller, Frank Gore, Mark Ingram, Melvin Gordon, Alfred Morris, or Latavius Murray becomes mandatory. It's going to be awfully hard to reach the playoffs without at least one of the guys mentioned so far. In this group you should be targeting Gore and Miller if you can get them. We particularly like Gore's upside in the new Indy offense where he'll finally break free from an 8-man box. We anticipate Gore going all out this year and would love to have him as our RB2. As much as we love him though, if Gore is our RB1, we have limited options for a high-quality RB2. There are some (below), but we'd feel better with a Tier 3 guy as our RB2 each week.

Gordon is an interesting pick here, but certainly riskier than someone like Morris. Alf Morris may not be a sexy pick by any means, but he's consistent and should easily see another 1,000 yard season. The same situation exists for Ingram. Murray and Gordon have more question marks than Morris and Gordon, but their ceilings are also higher.

Tier 4 Running Backs

Fantasy backups abound here with Jonathan Stewart, Andre Ellington, Carlos Hyde, T.J. Yeldon, Joseph Randle, Ameer Abdullah, C.J. Spiller, LeGarrette Blount, Todd Gurley, and Chris Ivory. Some of these guys are starters while others are in committee situations. This group has some great potential, but as you would expect by virtue of their tier, they have question marks. Ellington has explosive speed, but with injury concerns and CJ2K nipping at his heels (ok - nipping in the sense that he's simply there), his ability to contribute significantly all season is questionable. Hyde's workload remains to be seen. Randle is dealing with a preseason injury and will likely share time with Run DMC. Abdullah has tremendous upside and should be targeted here. Gurley won't start the season healthy. Stewart has a history of injury concerns, but with DeAngelo Williams gone and Kelvin Benjamin out for the year, we expect Carolina to rely more on the run game giving Stewart a boost in this area. Stewart could be a solid value here.

The Best of the Rest

At this point you should be looking for your RB4 or RB5. Guys to target here include Doug Martin, Arian Foster, Ryan Mathews, Roy Helu, Danny Woodhead, and David Cobb. It feels weird to write Foster's name in this area, but in virtually every draft we've been involved in, Foster has been available. Based upon the limited information that we have right now, Foster is a must-target at this point. Some reports have him out for only a handful of games while others have him missing half the season. If we take an optimistic approach here, you could easily land a Tier 1 RB with a late round pick. That's a bet that could pay off big time. Of course, he could also regress in his rehab and not play at all. That's the very definition of a risk/reward scenario.

In this group, Doug Martin would appear to be the next best option here. He's a starting RB after all, and while he has been a major, major, major (have we stressed just how major this is…) disappointment over the past two seasons, all indications out of camp are that he's faster and playing better than he ever has. Considering his price at this point in your draft, he's easily a risk worth taking here. The rest of the tiers are all about handcuffs and fliers.


Jared Fogle has a better chance at successfully starting a daycare (too soon for this kind of joke?) than your fantasy team making the finals without a solid backfield. Perhaps no other position is as strategically important as the RB position. We are not fans of the Zero RB theory.

Outside of the tier 1 guys, the running backs to target include Anderson, Hill, Murray, Forte, McCoy, or Forsett as your RB1. RB2 and RB3 candidates are plenty and include Gore, Morris, Miller, Gordon, Stewart, Murray, and Ingram.

Some of the better lottery ticket guys (potential for high ceilings compared to where they're being drafted) include Abdullah (although the hype continues to drive his price upwards), Spiller, Martin, Foster, and Blount.

Guys that we're avoiding this year include Tre Mason, Devonta Freeman/Tevin Coleman, Fred Jackson, Reggie Bush, Chris Johnson, Zac Stacy, Toby Gerhart, Trent “I can't run through a wide gaping hole” Richardson, and anyone on the Browns.

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