Since joining RotoViz in July, I’ve published two long-form article series1 that examine fantasy football from a macro perspective. The first of those series focused on how the NFL passing revolution has changed the fantasy football landscape. The second series explored how season-long game script affects running back PPR production.
In the conclusion to my Passing Revolution series, I provided an early-round draft day overview that focused heavily on roster construction dynamics and draft flow. In this article, I’ll be doing something similar — but perhaps in greater depth.
My Rankings Methods
I integrated my findings from both series in order to provide PPR running back tiers for the upcoming fantasy football season. What follows is an approximation of how I utilized my research to build these tiers:
- My Passing Revolution series serves as a mental roadmap in devising my general draft philosophy. I examined each fantasy position in great detail, and that body of research forms the basis for my roster construction.
- In particular, my three articles on the RB position provide statistically-derived modern archetypes for fantasy performers in each PPR tier.
- I used RotoViz’s Projections and Composite Redraft Rankings as a baseline evaluation for all fantasy players. I also leaned heavily on Blair Andrews’ Win The Flex Tool, Dave Caban’s NFL Projection Machine, and our new Range of Outcomes App in order to evaluate players’ upside potential, downside risk, and draft equity.
- If I may provide an extended metaphor, my rankings methods may be likened to a sailboat. If my Passing Revolution series is the ship’s hull, and RotoViz’s bevy of tools and projections are the sails, then my Game Script series serves as the rudder. My research therein highlights which backfield situations are most impervious to seasonal volatility and which players may suffer greatly from their team’s week-to-week game script. Thus, in situations where two players boast similar statistical profiles, projections, and draft capital investment, I lean on my game script research to break the tie.
How to Interpret Each RB Tier
Unlike typical tier-based articles, I will not be reporting player rankings and tier breaks in a vacuum. Instead, I will move sequentially through the draft round-by-round in order to discuss how specific players fit (or don’t fit) into your ideal roster construction.2
General position rankings are helpful, but they do not provide a clear path to identify when to select certain players and why. By focusing on draft flow in this piece, I hope to highlight the different “phases” of the draft, thereby helping you discern when it’s appropriate to reach and when it’s advisable to stay your hand.
I will also share my personal 2019 RB Rankings in a summary table at the bottom of this article. Those rankings reinforce which players I’m higher or lower on than the public.
Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott
If I draw an early-round draft position, I’m always targeting McCaffrey, Barkley, Kamara, or Johnson — depending on who is available. I know there’s a strong argument for DeAndre Hopkins or Elliott at 1.04. But, my research on teams with low Vegas win totals dismissed my anxieties over Johnson’s potential game script. In fact, that research suggests that Johnson may actually benefit from playing on a poor team. So, he gets the edge here.
Elliott is the only player for whom I give a Round 1 grade that does not typically find a spot on my rosters. And, no: It’s not because I’m overly concerned about his holdout situation. Instead, the real issue is his receiving potential.
I’m moderately concerned about Elliot’s receiving role in Kellen Moore’s offensive system. And, the emergence of Tony Pollard may threaten Elliott’s team target share. If that occurs — and Elliott’s target volume dips to around 50 season-long targets — then his PPR value would be closer to James Conner than David Johnson.
So, at 1.05 and beyond, I instead target wide receiver value with Hopkins, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Davante Adams, or Julio Jones. And, in rare situations when all of those players are unavailable at 1.09, I occasionally grab Travis Kelce in the back-half. However, we at RotoViz are higher on Smith-Schuster than most sites, so I usually end up drafting him most of the time.
Le’Veon Bell, James Conner, Joe Mixon, Dalvin Cook
In Part 5 of my Passing Revolution series, I firmly planted my flag in the “Early-TE” camp. So, if Kelce falls to me at the turn, it’s basically a lock that I’m going to draft him there.
However, if Kelce is unavailable early in Round 2, I have a bit of a dilemma on my hands. I desperately want to roster a top-three TE; but, I don’t want sacrifice too much early-round capital to attain it. George Kittle and Zach Ertz typically fall to the back half of Round 2 or the early half of Round 3. So, if I don’t draft a TE now, I will likely miss on the elite tier entirely.
If I’m drafting very close to the turn, I often draft Bell, Conner, or Mixon, because RB positional scarcity is too powerful to ignore. But, beginning around 2.04, I usually swallow hard and reach for Kittle. As a result, players like Cook, Tyreek Hill, and Mike Evans rarely find their way onto my roster.
Altogether, I have minimal exposure to Round 2 RBs, because I value elite TEs so highly. And, most of the RBs being selected in Round 2 are over-drafted to begin with.
Kerryon Johnson, Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Leonard Fournette, Nick Chubb, Damien Williams, Devonta Freeman
I love Kerryon Johnson. His statistical profile has fit nearly every single positive trend across both of my series. Ranking him above heavyweights like Gurley and Gordon is controversial, but I stand by it. Johnson has a near-ideal PPR split between rushing and receiving, he fits positive Quartile 4 game script trends, he was one of the most efficient backs in the league last year, and his 0-to-20 acceleration is on par with players like Kamara and Bell. If he’s available early in Round 3, I typically draft him regardless of my current roster construction.
However, after Johnson, I have minimal exposure to Round 3 RBs. I will occasionally pull the trigger on Fournette or Freeman if they fall to the back-half of Round 3. But, in general, draft conditions in Rounds 1 and 2 do not promote RB as a priority in the mid-to-late third round. Instead, I typically sweep up WR value, and if I can grab Stefon Diggs, I almost always do.
Aaron Jones, Marlon Mack, Josh Jacobs
I rarely draft a RB in Round 4. WR value is so bountiful in this range that it’s difficult to justify drafting any of the RBs that are typically available. Players like Jones and Jacobs have uncertain usage distributions, and players like Mack and Derrick Henry don’t provide enough receiving value to offer elite upside.
Meanwhile, you can easily sweep up WRs like Kenny Golladay, Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, or Chris Godwin depending on your specific draft slot. So, much like in Round 3, I typically pass on RBs in this range.
James White, David Montgomery, Tarik Cohen
Round 5 is consistently the most difficult round in each of my drafts. On one hand, high-upside potential breakout WRs like Calvin Ridley and D.J. Moore are usually begging for me to draft them. And, even if I miss on those players, Tyler Boyd, Tyler Lockett, and Mike Williams are also waiting to seduce me with their siren’s song.
However, if I go WR here, I typically miss out on RBs I truly love, like White, Montgomery, and Cohen. Montgomery is likely fairly priced in the fantasy market, but White and Cohen remain two of my favorite underrated RBs to target in the middle rounds due to their extraordinary receiving volume.
If I pull the trigger at RB in this round, I’m only considering those three players. But, it usually comes down to roster construction. Unlike many of my colleagues, I am not a Zero-RB advocate. However, even I admit that this season provides particularly juicy conditions for that strategy to flourish.
So, about 20%-30% of the time, I wind up with a strong Zero-RB start to my draft (especially because I prioritize TE in Round 2). In those situations, I will often accept White, Cohen, or Montgomery in the back-half of Round 5. However, if I instead opt for a balanced or RB-heavy roster construction through the first four rounds, WR becomes an absolute necessity in this range.
Derrick Henry, Phillip Lindsay, Tevin Coleman, Kenyan Drake, Sony Michel, Chris Carson
Round 5 is the most difficult round for me, but Round 6 is perhaps the most important. This is the range when I often have to go off-script to target specific players that fit my roster needs rather than accepting the “best value available.”
Why? Because, from my experience in countless offseason mocks and best ball drafts, this is the round that is most unpredictable. Some drafts go RB-heavy in this range before the more reliable RB options all vanish. Other drafts feature a run at TE, and top quarterbacks begin filtering more heavily into the mix. Additionally, while many drafters may not feel it quite yet, WR also begins to get uncomfortably thin around this time, and priority Zero-RB targets also begin to crest the draft horizon.
The point is: This is a big wildcard round. As a result, I typically accept reliable WR value. However, when I do draft a RB, it’s almost always Drake or Coleman. Coleman is a particularly high-priority target for me, because he fits three unique positive trends for Quartile 3 RBs. Meanwhile, Drake’s PPR distribution is phenomenal, and his potential offensive usage is criminally underrated.
Henry, Lindsay, Michel, and Carson also receive a Round 6 grade, but they are almost always all drafted in Round 4 or Round 5. If any of those players did fall to me in this range, I would accept that value. Nonetheless, I have exactly zero shares of each of those players in any of my offseason drafts.
Austin Ekeler, Miles Sanders, Latavius Murray, Mark Ingram
If I opt for a Zero-RB construction, this is the range when some of my high-priority targets finally make clear sense. Ekeler boasts immense upside if Gordon remains stalwart in his contract holdout, Sanders has an above-average shot to seize control of the Eagles backfield, and Murray boasts both standalone and antifragile value in a powerful offense.
Ingram also grades out as a Round 7 RB option, but he’s impossible to draft. I recognize his potential value and downside risk, but more importantly, he never fits into my roster construction due to his inflated ADP.
If I go RB-heavy early in the draft, I’m in WR mode here. If instead I have a balanced roster, I’m typically opting for upside with Ekeler or Sanders. And, even if I go Zero-RB and Ingram is available, he still doesn’t fit the mold of what I’m looking for in this range.
Jaylen Samuels, Royce Freeman, Kalen Ballage, Darrell Henderson, Tony Pollard, Darwin Thompson
By Round 8, WR value begins to dry up rather severely. At this point in most drafts, my roster construction looks like one of the following four paradigms:
Each of those constructions usually empowers me to draft my favorite RB on the board in Round 8. Samuels offers similar standalone and antifragile value to Murray, and Ballage could offer enormous upside with Drake hampered by a foot injury. Either of those players make an excellent addition to nearly any roster.
Henderson and Freeman also grade out in this range, but they rarely fall to me here. Instead, if I feel great about my seven selections so far, I often begin to take a strong look at Pollard or Thompson. I’m much higher on those two rookies than most of the fantasy public, but each of them could provide supreme leverage this season.
I’ve written multiple pieces on Pollard — each of which are linked in my Elliott discussion — and I don’t think it’s crazy to target him here. Sure, if you believe you can wait to draft him or Thompson in the next round, go for it. But, by targeting one of them in Round 8, I usually walk away with both of them on my roster at draft’s end.
If I’ve stuck to the playbook in the first seven rounds, this is the point at which I pivot towards upside. And, few players offer as much draft leverage as either Pollard or Thompson does this season.
Nyheim Hines, Lamar Miller, Rashaad Penny, Jordan Howard, Derrius Guice
From Round 9 onwards, most of your draft decisions will come down to roster construction and league dynamics. So, the next six tier write-ups are going to be thinner on analysis.
My best advice to you is to draft the players you want. Sure, you can stumble into RB value in the back-half of drafts (especially if you do so intentionally with a Zero-RB mindset), but most median projections aren’t particularly effective from here on out. Moreover, ADP becomes increasingly unreliable as the draft progresses, so you may miss out on drafting your list of sleepers or breakout candidates if you don’t target them aggressively.
Guice, Miller, and Howard all grade out in this range, but I have little interest in them and they’re typically gone by this point anyway. I like to draft high-volume rushers early, if at all. Down here, I’m looking for receiving upside. To that end, Hines fits the bill perfectly. Alternatively, if he’s unavailable I occasionally take a risk on Penny — but most often, I target WR value like Keke Coutee or Courtland Sutton.
Dion Lewis, Matt Breida, LeSean McCoy, Duke Johnson, Ronald Jones
Breida, Lewis, and Johnson stand out here as strong leverage plays, and Jones is a solid Zero-RB target if that’s more your vibe. To be frank, I rarely draft a RB in this range unless someone from the above tiers happens to fall to me. I like to target Samuels, Pollard, and Thompson earlier than most so that I can sweep up high-upside WRs late in the draft.
Still, the RBs in this tier are among the few remaining backs that could be called upon as rotational Flex plays from week to week. As we’ll see in the next few tiers, Round 10 is probably your last chance to grab reliable RB value if you desperately need it.
Justice Hill, Justin Jackson, Peyton Barber, Jalen Richard, Chase Edmonds, Jamaal Williams, Ito Smith
By this point, most drafters are scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to find additional depth. That’s not a game I’m interested in playing.
Instead, I start throwing darts from Round 11 onwards. Jackson offers similar upside to Ekeler due to Gordon’s holdout, Richard ranks among Shawn Siegele’s top Zero-RB targets, and Edmonds is one of my favorite handcuffs based on his rookie season statistical profile.
Adrian Peterson, Chris Thompson, Ty Montgomery, Ryquell Armstead, Devin Singletary, Damien Harris
If I need a security blanket, this round offers it in spades. Armstead is an excellent handcuff for Fournette, Singletary could win the RB1 job in Buffalo, and Harris could provide Flex value when Michel inevitably misses time due to injury.
Meanwhile, Washington’s RB situation is anything but clear-cut. Most drafters are targeting Guice early, but few analysts believe Guice truly owns that backfield. So, Peterson and Thompson both offer nice leverage plays in this range.
That being said, this group of RBs is not very sexy. More often than not in Round 12, I’m usually prioritizing my late-round QB or high-upside receivers like Mecole Hardman, Andy Isabella, and Tre’Quan Smith.
Kareem Hunt, T.J. Yeldon, Alexander Mattison, Dontrell Hilliard, Mike Davis, Giovani Bernard
Honestly, this group of RBs is just a slightly lesser version of the Round 12 tier. None of them will win you your league, and many of them will likely be waiver wire fodder in short order. So, the lesson is: Don’t expect meaningful RB value this deep into the draft.
Round 14 And Beyond
Benny Snell Jr., Brian Hill, Kenneth Dixon, Qadree Ollison, Dexter Williams, Ty Johnson, Mike Boone, Alex Barnes
If your league is particularly deep, WR and QB value is likely gone at this point. And, if you draft TE early, you likely miss out on breakout players like Mark Andrews or Mike Gesicki who could have made a reasonable backup. So, you might as well try your hand with some RB sleepers.
The Falcons backfield will likely be a frustrating committee for fantasy purposes, but Ollison or Hill could conceivably battle for RB2 status early in the season. Similarly, Snell makes a fantastic Conner handcuff, and Ty Johnson could offer more upside than C.J. Anderson if Kerryon Johnson suffers injury.
By this point in redraft, we’re mostly grasping at straws. Like in Round 13, don’t expect much value down here. Instead, it’s really Rounds 5 to 10 where RB stands out as a strong value play.
Happy drafting this season. Cheers.
My 2019 RB Position Rankings
|68||Benny Snell Jr.||PIT||217.5||14|
Image Credit: Steven King/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Kerryon Johnson.
- Long-form may be an understatement. Combined, the 13 articles from those series amount to 28,529 words, which is longer than The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. I highly advise that you read those articles as a basis for understanding these RB tiers, but know that it is not quick reading. (back)
- I assumed PPR scoring and roster settings — 1-QB, 2-RB, 3-WR, 1-TE, 1-Flex — drafting in a 12-team league. (back)