It's draft season and that means you are scrambling to collect every shred of information in order to make the 15 most important decisions of your life. 15 choices provide the foundation of your self-worth for an entire year. 15 choices determine whether your significant other will leave you OR tolerate your addiction for another season. Every draft pick counts. But have no fear. I have assembled the most perfect tiered fantasy rankings that you will ever see in your entire life. These tiers are derived from a projection model that implements all the necessary factors of fantasy evaluation: Coaching Tendencies, Career Efficiency Data, Injury Risk, Strength of Schedule, Calf & Thigh Girth, and Astronomical Analysis. Behold, the 100% accurate 2020 Running Back Tiers.
Legendary Hall of Famers CMC and Saquon are guaranteed fantasy supernovas. Both RBs hold the potential to threaten for the top spot regardless of position. It is a blessing and a privilege to watch Marshall Faulk and LaDainian Tomlinson reincarnated. Do not blink. Enjoy the ride.
Both Zeke and Kamara are obvious choices for this Elite tier of RBs capable of breaking the 20 PPG threshold, but Austin Ekeler is being underrated as a top tier value in PPR formats. Ekeler's insane efficiency from last season (1.29 Points Per Opportunity) was the second-highest mark since 1994. The top player in that category? Alvin Kamara (2017).
Last season, Ekeler was the sparkplug for the Charger offense. This year, we can expect him to be the engine. Los Angeles traded for McCaffrey's lone Pro Bowl offensive lineman (5-time Pro Bowl OG Trai Turner) and refused to add any significant threat to Ekeler's status as the top back. If Ekeler didn't go undrafted as a rookie, there's no chance he would be available in the second round of fantasy drafts. While working as a committee runner, David Johnson finished as the RB8 in 2015. The following season he would go in the first round of fantasy drafts at RB5. While working as a committee runner, Alvin Kamara finished as the RB3 in 2017. The following season he would go in the first round of fantasy drafts at RB5. Both players were 3rd Round NFL Draft picks. In 2019, Ekeler finished as the RB4 while playing just 56% of his team's snaps and is now available at RB11, going behind Joe Mixon and Kenyan Drake - NFL 2nd and 3rd round picks who have never sniffed what Ekeler did last season. Take advantage of this subconscious bias, because lightning is about to strike twice.
Although I have Ekeler rated in the top 5, waiting to grab him in the second round after taking another top player in the first is a sound draft day strategy. The purpose of these tiers is to identify and categorize player targets. Playing along with ADP can help generate additional value. It's perfectly reasonable to start your draft with two players from this tier. Ekeler is the early round upside play that immediately turns your team into a fantasy juggernaut.
First Round Studs
The highest projected player in this tier (PPG) also carries the highest injury risk. Dalvin Cook's unrepaired labral injury and ACL history is noteworthy enough to warrant an injury flag and drop him a few spots in my full season projection due to missed games. Beyond Cook's injury risk though, this entire class of backs presents as a group of explosive runners who have lead-back level volume locked down. I'm projecting all of them to cruise past 320+ opportunities.
Beyond the injury gamble you'd be taking with Cook, my favorite high risk/reward play is Kenyan Drake who is staring at the opportunity to finally unleash his potential. As soon as he took the field with Kingsbury, he dominated the backfield and smashed defenses to the tune of 19.9 PPG across 8 games, a number that would have registered him as the RB3 in 2019.
The four backs in this group look like they are in line for significant volume, yet each has his own question that keeps him out of the true RB1 category.
Fellow Astronaut, J Moyer has been loudly campaigning against the Miles Sanders hype this offseason, and he's not without good reason. From a matchup standpoint, the rushing fantasy points that Sanders was able to generate during his rookie year rated 58th out of 58 RBs in Rushing Productivity Over Matchup Expectation (2017-2019). He's the opposite of matchup proof. Although his rookie season revealed serious flaws in his game, the situation in Philadelphia is too fantastic to fade drastically. At the moment, it appears he will continue to be a key component of the aerial attack, and playing behind an elite offensive line may cover up some of the issues he has with navigating traffic in the run game. Until the Eagles add Devonta Freeman, Miles Sanders' potential volume will keep him in this tier of fantasy bellcows.
Former superstars from the 2015 draft class, Todd Gurley and David Johnson are lumped together as similar fantasy assets, whose recent inability to impress landed them in new situations. While their medium level injury risk drops their overall projection rank, I have them both generating rock-solid RB1 PPG numbers as volume hogs in intriguing offenses.
For Gurley, repeating last season's double-digit TD effort seems well within reach. If 2019 first-round picks Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary take the next step in their development, Gurley can be lethal in his hometown after struggling behind inadequate blocking in LA.
Following his 2016 breakout season, David Johnson has been relatively underwhelming as a runner behind similarly weak offensive line play. Despite averaging an unimpressive 3.6 YPC over the last two seasons, he's been dynamite in the passing game and was even able to post 20.9 PPG over the first six (healthy) games of 2019. In Houston, he might be able to unlock past success with a group that just had Carlos Hyde break 1000 yards on the ground. While the presence of Duke Johnson will prevent him from approaching triple-digit targets, David will continue to be a key component in the passing game after Bill O'Brien sacrificed his best weapon to acquire the versatile running back.
With his ADP at RB10, Nick Chubb presents a PPR dilemma. In 2019, Kareem Hunt neutered Chubb's fantasy numbers dropping him from a dominant 20.4 PPG to an RB2-caliber 14.5 PPG. Chubb is an elite running back. He's a monster, lining up behind a monster offensive line. I'm projecting him for a generous 278 carry, 1445 rush yard, 11 TD statline at an outstanding 5.2 YPC clip, but his receiving volume plummets, and he cedes a good amount of work to Hunt in that area just like he did in 2019 when he dropped from a 64 target pace to a 36 target pace.
Having two prime Pro Bowl running backs on the same team is rare, so I compared Chubb and Hunt to four similar tandems:
New Orleans Saints - Mark Ingram & Alvin Kamara (2017-2018)
Carolina Panthers - DeAngelo Williams & Jonathan Stewart (2008-2014)
Miami Dolphins - Ricky Williams & Ronnie Brown (2005-2010)
Jacksonville Jaguars - Maurice Jones-Drew & Fred Taylor (2006-2008)
In the 17 seasons that these four duos played together, here's what I found:
Both players finished as Top 12 RBs - 1x
Both players finished as Top 24 RBs - 4x
One player finished as Top 6 RB - 6x
One player finished as Top 12 RB - 8x
One player crossed 290 opportunities - 4x
Both players crossed 220 opportunities - 4x
Average opportunities per game - 14.8
Average PPG - 12.4
Average fantasy finish - RB30
Average opportunities for lead back (whoever was better) - 245
Average PPG for lead back - 15.1
Average fantasy finish for lead back - RB16
Using these backfields as a corollary, we can see that it's certainly possible for Chubb to provide return on investment and finish as an RB1 (8/17 - 47%). Top 6 finishes were actually surprisingly high as well, so according to the data, I don't think we can say that his ceiling is capped. But the real value for Chubb lies in the early 3rd round of drafts. He takes on the upside of a smaller-volume Derrick Henry, pushing him down into this tier of RB2 Workhorses despite being just as talented as anyone in the Elite tier.
RB2 Lite Tier
James Conner, Josh Jacobs, Leonard Fournette, and Chris Carson all possess similar prowess on the ground like the backs in the RB2 Workhorse Tier, but the projected volume of this group separates them enough to form their own class. All four RBs are Pro Bowl talents on teams that will be focused on establishing the run. Conner and Carson have proved untrustworthy with lengthy injury histories, and Jacobs and Fournette are not going to reach quality passing target numbers. I'm happy to gamble on any of the four to fill my RB2 spot, but the price tag remains key. James Conner is my preferred play in this tier, as I look for Conner unload the clip during his contract year in his hometown. He has the highest ceiling of this group and getting a potential Top 12 player in the 3rd round is a bet I'll take all day.
If Volume is King, these fellas are princes. Very talented princes. Their coach doesn't love them or they're guaranteed to have clingers, so they are kept from the throne.
It breaks my heart to place Aaron Jones this low. He's the best Aaron on the Packers, and the definition of versatility. But I can't be paying the RB14 price tag for a running back whose team just added serious competition by way of a 2nd round pick, no matter how special he is. The initial fear surrounding Jones was efficiency regression. After the addition of AJ Dillon, it's also volume regression.
Conversely, I'm simply ecstatic about the value that Jonathan Taylor and Raheem Mostert offer this late in the draft. Two or three rounds after Aaron Jones, you can get an explosive tank or an electric barracuda as your ideal RB3. JT's NFL landing spot could not have been more perfect. I have him projected for 245 attempts for 1154 yards and 10 TDs, but he could easily surpass that 4.7 ypc behind this line. He's such a beast that he might be able to carry Philip Rivers' limp arm to the playoffs. Colts HC Frank Reich says he wants to ride the hot hand? Jonathan Taylor is the Hot Hand.
In the same way, Raheem Mostert lives his life on cruise control while running between the lanes created by Kyle Juszczyk and Co. After bulking up this offseason, the former punt gunner and fastest lead back (21.87 mph) since Chris Johnson will have a chance to become a household name.
Melvin Gordon is a hardcore fade for me in all non-PPR formats. While I don't expect Phillip Lindsay to beat him out for touches, I also don't think there's enough separation to warrant a top 20 price tag. There will be a true committee in Denver, with Gordon's PPR value bolstered by his superiority in the pass game. The rest of the players in this cohort find themselves competing for reps in crowded RB rooms. While each of these rookies should lead their team in backfield touches, their upside is ultimately limited by the incumbent.
New Dolphins RB Matt Breida slides in as one of my favorite PPR values. While he's got the juice to contribute regularly on 1st and 2nd downs, he will certainly be taking the 3rd down role for a team that will be throwing the ball plenty while playing from behind. My projection model has Breida splitting the carries with Jordan Howard at a share of 39% (Breida) / 52% (Howard) and breaking through to relevance with 400+ receiving yards on 65+ targets.
Fantasy Backup Tier
Tarik Cohen is a potential TD regression candidate after only scoring 3 touchdowns on 168 opportunities. While David Montgomery stole a third of Cohen's 2018 rushing volume, Cohen's targets actually increased and were the 3rd highest mark among running backs last season (104 targets). Bears OC Matt Nagy makes it a priority to keep Cohen on the field, giving him 543 snaps compared to Monty's 625. Surprisingly, Tarik was 2019's RB27, and a subtle TD bump could bring him into that low-end RB2 category.
The Buccaneers will start the season with Ronald Jones at the helm. Although Jones made huge strides during his sophomore season in terms of aggressiveness and confidence, this backfield is sneaky competitive. We all have dreams of Bruce Arians' lead RB developing into the next David Johnson, but Arians has a history of relying on committees to do the work and Brady will have no problem lining up alongside rotating personnel. I don't mind Jones' current ADP cost, but I'm making sure he's a depth piece, not a fantasy starter.
The Buffalo backfield is another group that I'm generally staying away from. While both Devin Singletary and Zack Moss have likable traits in their game, I have them projected at 50/50 workload share and fail to see how one will be able to truly separate from the other, not to mention their sledgehammer of a quarterback who casually steals 8+ rushing TDs each year. Singletary projected higher because of theoretical satellite back looks in the pass game, but I have Moss leading the team on the ground.
Beyond the typical handcuffs for Kamara and Zeke, Boston Scott and Chase Edmonds provide sneaky value behind relatively unproven leaders. Both players should find their way onto the field even if the starter stays healthy.
As with the Bills, I'm avoiding all Redskin runners this season. Adrian Peterson will lead this group in the run game and won't break 10 targets. Bryce Love will mix in and rookie Antonio Gibson has a ways to go after taking just 33 rush attempts during his time at Memphis. Peyton Barber whatever whatever. Whole thing is gross.
Finally, if you want to win your league, don't go ZeroRB. If you just enjoy being different and don't care about winning, by all means.