2017 Fantasy Football Running Back Preview: In Stereo!

by Richard Savill
2017 Fantasy Football Running Back Preview

In recent years, the position of running back in fantasy football has undergone a reactionary change. Not in the actual mechanics, but in the perception. Theoretical concepts of drafting your fantasy team, both old and new, always have running backs surrounding the central theme. How you decide to shape and section those vital RB slots, either by a Heavy or Zero RB drafting style, has a profound effect on the structure and theme of your roster throughout the season.

The Greeks have a word for it. Stereotomy. Which is the art of "solid cutting" - and that's how you should treat your running back team selection. Like cut diamonds. Whether you decide to draft them ready-made from Fifth Avenue or from the rough,  prepare your insurance and work hard in whichever route you decide on.

Yes, running backs are so important to our fantasy team structure that we often protect the parts by keeping a ready replacement on hand. Just ask owners of LeSean McCoy how important Mike Gillislee was to them in 2016. When news comes up of any running back sidelined for whatever reason, sometimes including those cuff backs, you can almost count on a stampede to the waiver pool for the next man up.

2017 Fantasy Football Running Back Preview

So who's the new guy for 2017?

We came out of the NFL draft without an overall presumed first round fantasy rookie this season, but Leonard Fournette is close. He starts his career in Jacksonville, where no running back has exceeded 1000 yards rushing since Maurice Jones-Drew in 2011.

There's a new optimism emerging with the Jaguars. Tom Coughlin returns as VP of football operations after a successful tenure in building the franchise as head coach in the early days. Doug Marrone takes over from Gus Bradley as an in-house promotion to head coach. Blake Bortles continues to grow as a franchise quarterback. The defense is improving; especially with the guys up front like Malik Jackson getting high grades from Pro Football Focus. And now... there's Fournette.

The Jags are working on making Leonard Fournette an every down back. He's a big guy with very high speed. At 6' and 240, he still did the 40 at the combine in 4.51. Here's some highlights of what he did at LSU when he breaks it.

There is nothing too overreaching about taking Fournette late in the first round of a snake. The Jaguars are at least average on the offensive line and Pro Football Focus are more optimistic for the guys up front than even the devoted fans of the team. I won't drop stereotypical name comparisons about Fournette, but I'll say this, something exciting is brewing besides Budweiser in Duval County.

How are the veteran guys stacking up?

Marshawn Lynch, Oakland Raiders

Lynch returns to football with the Raiders and has the best set of fantasy china on the shelf. He'll compete with himself for the workhorse role in Oakland. A full year of rest from no bruising contact can only mean one thing - Beast Mode may have a song or two left to sing. Near the goal-line, I think you can almost count on Lynch getting the ball every time in Oakland home games.

Adrian Peterson, New Orleans Saints

Peterson seems like a ghostly draft choice in the early mocks. Fantasy has put a firm thumbs down on his move to the New Orleans Saints. First of all, it puts Mark Ingram into a fantasy straight-jacket and secondly, you have to wonder where the fantasy points for Peterson are going to come from. Touchdowns? Yardage? Red Cross packages?

I have concerns about the fuel left in the tank too. He showed no spark in his brief 2016 appearance with the Vikes. Drafting Peterson will present you either with a white elephant or an unexpected bonanza. No one really knows the floor. Honestly, I think Ted Ginn comes to the Saints with more upside.

 Frank Gore, Indianapolis Colts

Gramps did it again in 2016. He is only one of three different players in the modern era to surpass 1000 rushing yards at age 33 or older. He joins John Riggins and Franco Harris. Gore is getting into some pretty elite company with several other records and achievements. How Frank can still be this good is baffling everyone. If you draft him, I'd still hedge and cuff with Marlon Mack. The end has to happen sometime.

Jamaal Charles, Denver Broncos

And finally, Charles goes to the Broncos with injury baggage. We went through a similar thing last season on recovery timescales with Charles, remember? As far as flier picks at running back go however, Charles is at a fairly sound level for taking a chance on. CJ Anderson has shown unsteady reliability despite maintaining a 4.56 YPC average over the years. You might even consider Charles a high-upside cuff because Devontae Booker is currently on fantasy unemployment relief.

Which backfields are big riddles?

Baltimore Ravens

Once again the Ravens are without a secure backfield for any running back. Kenneth Dixon starts 2017 on a four game suspension for performance enhancers. A big reason this backfield remains unsettled. One bright spot for PPR leagues is Danny Woodhead finding some fertile ground for his talent. However, without a cohesive running back stable, Woodhead's perceived upside is cold comfort. As things stand, we are looking at another year of "hot hand" in a musical chairs backfield. Terrance West has enough talent to keep these frustrations going.

New York Giants

Why is Paul Perkins not generating better interest after all the news of him having the clear number one role? It's because people aren't buying it; his current ADP is 10 spots off the ECR - practically an entire round. Perkins is almost exactly at the same level as Rashad Jennings (RB1 in Dancing with the Stars) last season.

In 2016, Perkins had one game (Week 17) of 18+ carries. It translated into a 100 yard rushing day. How many 18+ touch games will Perkins get in 2017?

This is a team we would have loved Adrian Peterson to land; with Perkins as the perfect cuff. Then we'd be fairly certain of several games with high volume carries. Even so, Perkins is a low-risk drafting venture who could still pay off big - even with just a modest level of extra volume. The sleeper running back of 2017.

San Francisco 49ers

This backfield boils down to two players. Carlos Hyde and Joe Williams. We have a volatile situation here. Joe Williams is a dynasty magnet and could unseat Carlos Hyde sometime in 2017 as the number one back in San Francisco.

We can suspect this about Williams with some circumstantial signals. First, the 49ers traded up in the draft to get him. Second, Carlos Hyde is in a contract year. Third, they were quick to sign Joe Williams - the first rookie signed in 2017 from the entire class. I think we get the hint.

Training camp and the preseason will help us surmise where things really stand with Carlos Hyde. It would be rash at this stage to definitively assume the 49ers are going to move on from Hyde after the season. I'll watch this closely, but I still don't like Carlos Hyde or any 49ers in fantasy football for that matter. The offense lags near the bottom of the league and I want my fantasy players on the football field putting drives together. Three and out offenses just don't cut it with me.

What about some other rookies?

Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

The fantasy relevant rookies acquired by the Panthers don't fit the team dynamic we recognize. McCaffrey is a guy we'd normally see on teams like the Patriots, Saints, Chargers, Chiefs or Lions. Cam Newton went from the top rushing quarterback in 2015, down to number five in 2016. Might sound like the positive direction the team wants, but the Panthers had the best record in football in 2015 at 15-1 and a Super Bowl appearance. 2016 was a disaster (6-10). So they're trying something else - we think.

Team personalities are slow to change. Even new head coaches barely make a difference in the short-term. I observed this phenomenon most recently with the Seahawks. It takes about three or four seasons to proactively revise a team dynamic.

This puts McCaffrey as the highest rookie most likely to bust in my book. Might not happen, but I'm all too aware of the clash of systems that affect a team in transition of their offensive philosophy. I recommend you read Evan Silva's take as he absolutely gets this team dynamic stuff I often talk about.

Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

Timeworn and ineffective. That about sums up the running back by committee (RBBC) system at Cincinnati. Now the Bengals finally look like they may modify the idea and rewire the RB rotation scheme.

This would put Joe Mixon into a great situation. The Bengals running attack had satisfactory NFL fantasy value fused with two heads, so it must certainly go higher with a single primary. Mixon is a high RB2 with very strong RB1 upside. Much depends if the team does indeed scale back the secondary roles. I won't count on anything as long as Marvin Lewis is head coach.

Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

Another name making noise in the fantasy world is Dalvin Cook. Like Mixon, he also enters the league as a lead back. Is it just as good?

The Vikings were dead last for team rushing in 2016. I'm concerned about a contributing problem here that must stem from the Vikings run blocking. Defenses were shutting down Jerick McKinnon in game after game - even in good matchups. Okay, he's not the greatest, but every dog has his day and McKinnon never broke a big game once.

Obviously the team is addressing this problem, but how far from the bottom would you count on a rookie to take the team? 10 spots maybe? How about 15? I want to project a nice high ceiling of improvement for 2017, but I just can't. I'm getting off the hype train for Dalvin Cook at the next stop.

Samaje Perine, Washington Redskins

Now here's a real competition! Rob Kelley showed promise in 2016, but skidded in the latter part of the season. Obviously he knows if he wants to stay in front, he'll have to push himself. Kelley has shown he is up for it. One thing that no one can argue is that this is good for the Redskins if the running backs are both challenging each other to be the best.

Samaje Perine may be just a bit too formidable for Kelley to keep up. His combine numbers don't really turn any tricks, but he may carry an advantage on Kelley with tackle breaking. Kelley himself is working on a number of these things intensely and if you add in that extra experience, some of it evens out.

If you want me to predict this, I really can't say until I see some preseason games and camp. The ADPs could be in for a real shift depending on the actual eye test. Currently, the consensus is hedging on a committee. Looking at how the Redskins often use Chris Thompson on 2nd as well as 3rd downs, what kind of committee would it be?

Draft Strategies

Selecting a method for drafting your running backs depends on a lot on your personal choice and the type of league you are competing in. The two main types people employ are conventional and Zero-RB.

Conventional, by loose definition, implies a running back heavy strategy in the first three or four rounds. It's where you have your RB1 covered by the first or second round and the RB2 covered on or before the fourth.

Zero-RB avoids drafting a running back until after the 4th round or even later. There are variations, but purists wouldn't call it the same thing. It is more suitable for PPR leagues, though many employ this strategy for Standard leagues as well.

I generally favor conventional forms.

You can test out your different draft strategies by doing five-minute mock drafts using the Fantasy Pros Mock Draft Tool.


Eddie Lacy, Seattle Seahawks

First, credit where it's due. Eddie has stuck to his off-season regimen of weight loss. That's all well and good, but the Seahawks aren't the same offense as they used to be. In 2016, a running back on the Seahawks had only four games with 18+ carries. It hasn't gone below eight games since 2010. It went as high as 13 in 2012.

I just don't think Lacy will have many games with high volume carries. I would guess 12 carries may be typical. The involvement of Thomas Rawls and CJ Prosise will ensure to keep volume modest again in 2017. I'm not saying Eddie Lacy is a player you should not draft. He's going to produce, and perhaps amply, just don't expect Beast Mode workloads.

Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams

Okay, last year I said before the season that I thought the Rams needed to improve their overall offense to help Gurley stay on the field and score fantasy points. Well, their offense ranked last. Again. Gurley had a bad season, as expected. His attempts went up, but the yardage came down. So did the touchdowns.

I think Gurley is a fantastic running back, I really do. His gliding style is something strong and unique that I've never seen before. But if the Rams are 32nd in the league for first downs, then how can you get production? You don't get fantasy points when your guy is standing on the sidelines. Once again in 2017, I hold my expectations in check with Todd Gurley.


Bilal Powell, New York Jets

His rushing yardage alone from 2016 doesn't really tell the whole story about Bilal Powell. He is the unsung hero of PPR flex running backs. He has survived a cleaning house coaching change, numerous challenges for his job and still got a three year contract in 2016 for pretty much just being there.

The coaches love Bilal Powell. Yet, over the years he's been a fantasy head scratcher. We've always thought of him as second or third fiddle to guys like Shonn Greene, Chris Ivory and Matt Forte. Finally Powell finds himself king of the hill and the top of the heap. It could only happen in a little place called New York, New York. Right?

I think I know why the Jets have kept him. He is one of those special players that make the most out of opportunity. Eager to make his team proud of his contribution. However, the numbers overall are unimpressive. Except for one. His YPC has never fallen below a 4.0 average since his rookie season. He remains a reliable match-up based flex running back.

Mike Gillislee, New England Patriots

The Bills wanted to keep Gillislee, but couldn't match the lucrative offer the Patriots made. It is obvious that the Patriots had their eye on this guy and were going to have him no matter what. The Bills had to let Gillislee walk, because the offer was nearly double of what the Bills were expecting to pay.

The Bills really goofed up and they only have themselves to blame. I also think the Karlos Williams debacle really didn't help the cause either. It may have severely bruised the Bills mentality on their backups behind McCoy, so they weren't going to chance a higher level of restricted tender on Gillislee. Bad move. For an extra $1m or so, they might have kept a great running back.

And now back to fantasy football...

As I mentioned at the top, LeSean McCoy owners who cuffed Mike Gillislee in 2016 got their money's worth. Yes, the Patriots frustrate people with their game plan rotations of running backs, but last season Blount was an absolute touchdown monster. That's the role Gillislee comes into. Every season is different, but knowing the talent of Gillislee, you can comfortably draft him at his ADP with big upside.

2017 Fantasy Football Position Previews
QuarterbacksRunning BacksWide ReceiversTight Ends

For more F6P preseason coverage please visit our 2017 Draft Kit section.

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1 comment

2017 Fantasy Football Bye Week Draft Strategy: To Care or Not to Care? - Fantasy Six Pack July 18, 2017 - 7:30 am

[…] one and two. I don’t mind Isaiah Crowell in the fourth round and Mike Gillislee is getting plenty of buzz as a breakout […]


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