With training camps in full swing, here’s a look at the top 20 running backs to target in upcoming fantasy football drafts.
1. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
In his first four seasons, Bell has played in all 16 games just once — 2014 when he compiled 2,215 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns. Despite missing four games last season (three because of a PED suspension), Bell still managed to rush for 1,268 yards and seven touchdowns and had 75 catches for 616 yards and two touchdowns. Bell is recovering from March surgery to fix a core muscle injury, and he likely won’t arrive at training camp for a while because he hasn’t signed his $12 million franchise tender. But barring another injury or violation, Bell should be on the field all season. He averaged a league-high 28 touches per game last season.
2. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said he wants Johnson to get 30 touches per game this season. Johnson, 25, rushed for 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns, and was equally impressive as a receiver. He led running backs in catches (80) and receiving yards (879) and added four touchdowns. The third-year back did all of that while averaging 23.3 touches per game. A jump to 30 touches would be a heavy increase, and while it could pay off with a massive season, it also could be detrimental down the line.
3. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
After an injury-ridden 2015 season, McCoy bounced back in his second year with the Bills. He ran for 1,267 yards and 13 touchdowns and had 50 catches for 356 yards and a touchdown in 15 games. The speedy McCoy missed a game with a hamstring injury, but he also showed his toughness playing at times with a dislocated thumb. In a pass-happy league, the Bills had the highest percentage of rushing plays with 50.9 percent, and of their 492 rushing attempts, McCoy had 234.
Entering his age 29 season under a new head coach and offensive coordinator, McCoy won’t be carrying the ball 300-plus times like he did in his final two years with the Eagles, but his dual-threat ability as a runner and receiver make him a big fantasy asset in PPR and non-PPR leagues alike.
4. Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears
The Bears didn’t miss a beat in the run game in their first season without Matt Forte since 2008. Howard, the Bears’ fifth-round pick in 2016, quickly worked his way up the depth chart after Jeremy Langford suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 3.
Though Howard didn’t take over the lead back role until Week 4, he rushed for 1,313 yards — second to only Ezekiel Elliot — and six touchdowns and added 29 catches for 298 yards and a touchdown. From Week 4 on, Howard rushed for at least 100 yards seven times and had at least 15 touches in all but one game.
With Mike Glennon, who hasn’t started a game since 2014, slated as the Bears’ starting quarterback, and rookie Mitch Trubisky behind him, the Bears likely will rely heavily on the run.
5. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
For a second straight season, Freeman rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns. The fourth-year back also has proven to be a commodity in Atlanta’s dominant passing game, amassing 54 catches for 462 yards and two touchdowns. With Tevin Coleman’s increased workload last season, Freeman’s touches dropped from 264 in 2015 to 227 in 2016, even though he played in all 16 games last season compared with 15 in 2015. Freeman undoubtedly is the lead back in Atlanta and will continue to get the bulk of the red-zone carries — he got 50 carries inside the 20 compared with Coleman’s 21 — but Coleman’s strong play cuts into Freeman’s value. If taking Freeman in the first couple of rounds, it might be worth spending a later pick on Coleman as well.
6. Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
Gordon has yet to stay on the field for all 16 games in his first two seasons, but after a disappointing rookie year, he broke out last season. The former first-round pick rushed for 997 yards and 10 touchdowns on 254 carries despite missing the last three games with hip and knee injuries. He also added 41 catches for 419 yards and two touchdowns.
The Chargers hired Anthony Lynn, the former Bills assistant head coach/running backs coach, as their new head coach. They also revamped their offensive line, drafting offensive linemen with two of their first three picks. Both rookies Forrest Lamp and Dan Freeney are expected to start as guards.
With all that help, Gordon should be in for a big year.
7. DeMarco Murray, Tennessee Titans
After taking a drastically decreased role in Philadelphia in 2015, Murray was back to more than 300 touches in 2016 with the Titans. He rushed for 1,287 yards and nine touchdowns on 293 carries plus added 53 catches for 377 yards and three touchdowns.
Murray had double-digit carries in every game last season, but with Derrick Henry entering his second year and Murray approaching 30, it could start to become more of a split. Henry only had more carries than Murray once last season, in a Week 17 win over the Texans. Still, coach Mike Mularkey has called Murray his “workhorse,” and as long as that’s the case, he should have another big year.
8. Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins
After starting the season on the inactive list in Week 1 with Arian Foster ahead of him, Ajayi emerged as the Dolphins’ lead back last season, rushing for 1,272 yards and eight touchdowns on 260 attempts. Ajayi isn’t exactly a boom-or-bust, but he did run for more than 200 yards three times last season and only broke 100 one other time. The Dolphins are returning four starting offensive linemen.
Ajayi has missed a week of training camp with a concussion and is unlikely to play in the Dolphins’ preseason opener against the Falcons on Thursday, but that shouldn’t affect his standing as a top-10 fantasy running back.
9. Lamar Miller, Houston Texans
In his first season with the Texans, Miller combined for 1,261 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns on a career-high 299 touches in 14 games, despite battling through injuries and lousy quarterback play. Miller’s 268 carries accounted for about 59 percent of Houston’s rushing attempts. He’s expected to lose some of those to third-round draft pick D’Onta Foreman, who’s faced some off-field trouble this summer, and Alfred Blue. That shifted workload could help Miller by keeping defenses on their toes and him on the field.
10. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
The Rams have an almost entirely new coaching staff under the league’s youngest head coach in history, Sean McVay. The Rams struggled with a piecemeal offensive line last season, but they added three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth during the offseason. After breaking out with 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns in 13 games as a rookie in 2015, Gurley rushed for just 885 yards and six touchdowns last season. His average per carry dropped from 4.8 yards to 3.2 yards. With a slightly improved offensive line and Jared Goff entering his second season, some of the pressure should be taken off Gurley. He’s a bit of a risky pick, but a turnaround seems likely.
11. Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland Browns
Crowell has continued to improve in each of his first three seasons, rushing for a career-high 952 yards and seven touchdowns and adding 40 catches for 319 receiving yards in 2016. He’ll now be running behind one of the league’s best offensive line units — Pro Football Focus has Cleveland’s O-line as No. 2. Joe Thomas, a 10-time Pro Bowler, remains at left tackle, and the Browns signed guard Kevin Zeitler and center JC Tretter during the offseason. Crowell had 198 carries last season and should see more work this year with questions at quarterback and behind an improved offensive line.
12. Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars
Don’t expect a rookie year like Ezekiel Elliott had last season. Fournette, the No. 4 overall pick in 2017, rushed for 3,830 yards and 40 touchdowns in three seasons at LSU and has top-five potential, but the Jaguars are still the Jaguars. They did improve their offensive line by selecting Alabama tackle Cam Robinson in the second round, but it remains to be seen if Blake Bortles can take a step forward this season.
13. Marshawn Lynch, Oakland Raiders
Beast Mode is back. Lynch, 31, hasn’t played in an NFL game since 2015, and he was limited to just seven games that season because of hamstring and abdomen issues. But Lynch came out of retirement to play for his hometown Raiders after the Seahawks traded his rights and a 2018 sixth-round pick for a 2018 fifth-round pick.
Lynch rushed for 417 yards and three touchdowns in those seven games in 2015, but he had eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark and double-digit touchdowns in his previous four seasons with the Seahawks. With Latavius Murray gone to the Vikings, Lynch should be the Raiders’ lead back. He’ll be running behind one of the best offensive lines in the game, so as long as he stays healthy, he should have room to run.
14. Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs
With Spencer Ware out for the seasona after suffering a torn PCL and LCL, the Chiefs officially have named the rookie their lead back. The third-round pick out of Toledo proved he could carry the load and make an impact in the passing game last season. Hunt rushed for 1,475 yards and 10 touchdowns on 262 carries and had 41 catches for 403 yards. Charcandrick West and C.J. Spiller are expected to get their fair share of touches, but look for Hunt to carry the load in Andy Reid's run-heavy offense.
15. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys couldn’t have asked for a much better rookie season from Elliott, but his value took a massive hit after his suspension over a domestic violence case was upheld Tuesday. Elliott will be able to play Week 1 against the Giants because NFL arbitrator Harold Henderson's decision came too late in the day, NFL attorney Daniel Nash said. Elliott will serve his suspension from Week 2 to 8 (the Cowboys have a bye in Week 7), depending on the ruling of a temporary restraining order, which will come Friday evening, after the conclusion of fantasy drafts. Basically, he's a risky pick.
Running behind one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, Elliott had a league-high 1,631 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns plus 32 catches for 363 yards in 15 games last season. Elliott had 354 touches, second to only David Johnson.
The Cowboys, who had rookies at both quarterback and running back, ran the ball 50.8 percent of the time last year. Look for the Cowboys to continue that trend with their elite offensive line, with Darren McFadden, who's worth taking as a handcuff to Elliottt, and Alfred Morris to start the year.
16. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
Jonathan Stewart has been the lead back for the Panthers the past three seasons, but that could change with McCaffrey in the mix. Stewart has had mroe than 200 carries each of the past two seasons, even after missing a combined six games. While the versatile McCaffrey figures to be more of a part of the passing game, he'll surely cut into Stewart's carries. The No. 8 overall pick dominated in his three seasons at Stanford, accumulating 3,922 rushing yards, 21 rushing touchdowns, 1,206 receiving yards and 10 receiving touchdowns. He's a solid RB2 with big upside in PPR leagues.
17. Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints
The Saints added Adrian Peterson during the offseason, and it appears the two will be splitting carries. But for now, Ingram remains atop the depth chart. Ingram got the bulk of the carries last season with a team-high 205, but backup Tim Hightower got 133. That might be closer to a 1-2 punch with Ingram and Peterson, not to mention rookie Alvin Kamara is expected to have a role in the offense.
After struggling to stay on the field throughout his career, Ingram played in all 16 games last season for the first time since 2012. That led him to a career-high 1,043 rushing yards and six touchdowns. He also recorded 46 catches for 319 yards and four touchdowns — his first receiving touchdowns in his six seasons. Ingram is a complete back who will rack up yards even while sharing the load with the 32-year-old Peterson, and he look to be the go-to option in passing situations.
18. Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers
Hyde struggled to stay healthy during his first three seasons in the league — he’s missed a combined 14 games in that span — but he turned in his best season to date last year despite injury trouble. Hyde eclipsed 1,000 yards from scrimmage for the first time as he combined for 1,151 yards and nine touchdowns. The MCL injury Hyde suffered in December is a concern, and it’s unclear how he’ll fit into new coach Kyle Shanahan’s scheme, especially with new additions in the backfield. The 49ers signed Tim Hightower, traded for Kapri Bibbs and added rookies Joe Williams and Matt Breida. With those risks, Hyde’s looking more like a fourth-round pick than a second- or third-rounder.
19. Robert Kelley, Washington Redskins
After Matt Jones lost the Redskins’ starting role because of fumbling issues, Kelley stepped right in and didn’t look back. Now he could be the one fighting for his job as rookie bruiser Samaje Perine, a fourth-rounder out of Oklahoma, has stood out at training camp. Kelley rushed for 704 yards and six touchdowns on 168 carries last season and is expected to be the team’s lead back. But the Redskins struggled in the red zone last season — 46 percent touchdown rate — and Perine could get the team’s red-zone carries. After taking over as the starter in Week 8, Kelley rushed for 601 yards, so at that rate, in a full season he would’ve eclipsed 1,000 yards. If he can keep up that production, he should stay in the starting role and be a solid fantasy back.
20. Frank Gore, Indianapolis Colts
Yes, Gore is 34, but if he continues to do what he does year in and year out, he should be a strong fantasy contributor yet again. Gore hasn’t missed a game since 2010, and he had at least 255 carries and 1,025 rushing yards for the fifth time in six seasons. In his two seasons with the Colts, Gore has regained some of his pass-catching ability. He’s combined for 72 catches, 544 receiving yards and five touchdowns with the Colts. The Colts kept Robert Turbin and drafted Marlon Mack in the fourth round of this year’s draft, so Gore will have some competition for carries. Still, he’s an RB2.