Fanelli’s Fantasy Football Rankings: Top 12 Running Backs

Fanelli’s Fantasy Football Rankings: Top 12 Running Backs

by August 23, 2020 3 comments

It’s August, and that means the 2020 NFL season is just around the corner. The preseason and even the season won’t be the same as in the past thanks to Covid-19. However, as long as we have football, we have fantasy football. I recommend you wait to do your drafts for redraft leagues until the last possible moment because of Covid-19. But, for those of you who draft early, I offer the July edition of my redraft rankings. Next up in the series, here are my top 12 running backs.

Please note, all rankings and stats are based on PPR scoring.

BE SURE TO CHECK OUT ALL OF FANELLI’S FANTASY RANKINGS

1) Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

Last season McCaffrey had a year to put in the history books. He finished the year as the RB1 in PPR, half PPR, and non PPR scoring. CMC finished 156.4 fantasy points ahead of Aaron Jones in PPR, 122.9 ahead of Jones in half PPR, and 78.6 ahead of Derrick Henry in non PPR. For comparison, the 156.4 fantasy point gap between CMC and Jones in PPR would have finished the year as the RB20. McCaffrey’s 471.2 fantasy points last year were the highest since LaDainian Tomlinson had 481.1 fantasy points in 2006; the year he set the NFL record with 28 rushing touchdowns. Furthermore, over the previous seven seasons (2012-2018), only six running backs have come within 100 fantasy points of CMC’s 471.2 from last year.

A big part of McCaffrey’s fantasy success was his role in the passing game. He broke his own record with 116 catches last season. He was also only the third running back in league history to have over 1,000 yards receiving. Of CMC’s 471.2 fantasy points from last year, 240.5 came in the passing game. The 240.5 fantasy points alone would have made him the WR12 last year while his 230.7 fantasy points on the ground would have made him the RB13. In addition to getting two players in one with CMC, he is consistent for your team. Last season, he finished as a top 12 running back 88% of the time. He had more games (three) finishing as the overall RB1 than he did finishing outside the top 12 (two).

2) Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

After suffering a nasty looking high ankle sprain in week three, Barkley was expected to miss several weeks with the injury. However, Saquon missed just three games. He struggled as he played with the injury. In the two games before he got hurt, he averaged 7.8 yards per carry and 20.2 fantasy points per game. By comparison, he averaged just 3.2 yards per carry and 14.4 fantasy points per game in his first seven games back from the injury. The good news is Barkley closed out the year on fire, averaging 6.2 yards per carry and a monster 31.6 fantasy points per game. Despite the night and day season because of the injury, Saquon still finished the year as the RB10, averaging 18.8 fantasy points per game.

As a rookie in 2018, Barkley finished the year as the overall RB1, averaging five yards per carry and 24.1 fantasy points per game. In the offseason, the Giants did a lot to improve the offensive line. They spent three picks on the offensive line, including the fourth overall selection on Andrew Thomas. Daniel Jones enters year two, and the wide receiver group is still led by Golden Tate, Darius Slayton, and Sterling Shepard, while Evan Engram is back at tight end. While the receiving core is solid, there isn’t an elite guy in the group. That means the offense will once again flow through Saquon. He has the build and talent to take on that workload and should finish the year as a top-two running back.

3) Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

Zeke might be the most boring name on the list and the one some fantasy players might not love drafting, but that would be a mistake. During his four year career, Elliott has finished as an RB1 every year, including 2017 where he missed six games due to a suspension. In the other three seasons, he has finished as a top-five running back each year. He went over 1,350 rushing yards in each of those three seasons. Despite losing Travis Frederick with a surprise retirement, the Cowboys still have arguably the best offensive lines in the league. The only concern with Zeke is not his talent or his offensive line, but the questions around his workload.

For his career, Zeke has averaged 20.9 rushing attempts and 3.4 catches per game. The Cowboys re-signed Amari Cooper and Blake Jarwin, and then selected CeeDee Lamb with their first-round pick. Last season, the Cowboys were 10th in passing attempts and eighth in rushing attempts. With all the weapons, will they focus more on the passing game at Zeke’s expense? Yes. Furthermore, Zeke has one season with more than 55 catches, while Tony Pollard was impressive in limit snaps last year. Mike McCarthy used two running backs when he was in Green Bay, and he could do similar with Zeke and Pollard. Now is that enough to knock Zeke out of the top five picks? No, but it is enough to keep him out of the CMC and Saquon tier.

4) Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

Last season Kamara had a down year as he battled a high ankle sprain. Coming off an excellent 2018 season where he finished as the RB4, Kamara missed two games in 2019 and finished as the RB9. The biggest difference in his production was the touchdowns. In 2018 he had 14 rushing and four receiving touchdowns. Last year he had five rushing and one receiving touchdown. He is expected to be 100% for the start of the 2020 season and once again a critical role in the Saints’ offense. However, while Kamara is elite, there is some risk with drafting him in the top five.

His biggest concern is the lack of work on the ground. In three seasons, Kamara has never topped 195 rushing attempts or 885 rushing yards. A lot of his production comes in his rushing touchdowns. As you can see below, Kamara’s rushing touchdown production took a big hit last year, and it impacted his fantasy scoring. In 2017, he scored 314.4 total fantasy points while in 2018, he scored 354.2 total fantasy points. However, in 2019, he scored just 248.5 fantasy points.

Rushing Yards

Rushing Touchdowns

Rushing Fantasy Points

Rushing Touchdown %

2017

728

8

120.8

39.7

2018

883

14

172.3

48.7

2019

797

5

109.7

27.3

Will the touchdowns bounce back this year? Probably. However, even if they don’t as much as we all hope, his passing game role offers his fantasy owners a safe floor. Ironically, Kamara has caught exactly 81 balls in each season of his career. However, much like his rushing touchdowns, his receiving touchdowns dropped last year. After catching nine in his first two seasons, Kamara caught just one last year. Bottom line, assuming Kamara is healthy this season, his touchdowns should rebound to his career averages and if they do, he will finish the year as a top-five running back.

5) Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

Assuming he is ready to go for week one, Cook should be a top-six pick. While he hasn’t played all 16 games in a season, he played in 14 last year after playing in just 15 over the first two years of his career. Cook finished as the RB6 last year but as the RB2 on a points per game basis, averaging 20.9 per game. His health has always been the big concern with Cook. However, when he is on the field, he has been a consistent fantasy scorer.

Last season, Cook scored 15.5 or more fantasy points in 11 of his 14 games (78.6%). Over his first two seasons, he scored 12 or more fantasy points in 11 of 15 games (73.3%). Last season, he was an RB1 in eight games (57.1%) and an RB2 or better in 13 games (92.9%). The only game he failed to finish as a top 24 running back was week 15, where he played the lowest percent of snaps of the season (43%) and left early with an injury. Cook’s handcuff, Alexander Mattison, is the most valuable in fantasy football. I’m not a big fan of drafting handcuffs, but if you draft Cook, you need to make sure you draft Mattison as well.

6) Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals were awful last year. You may say “no duh” as they had the top pick in the draft and didn’t win a game till week 12. However, the team got their act (somewhat) together in the second half of the season and fed Mixon the ball. Over the first seven games of the season, Mixon really struggled. He averaged just two years per carry in four of those games. Mixon had zero rushing touchdowns and two receiving touchdowns. He also scored over 12 fantasy points just once! Then over the last nine games, Mixon dramatically changed. He averaged over 5.3 yards per carry in four games, and under 3.7 just twice. He had five rushing touchdowns and scored 17 or more fantasy points seven times.

Attempts Per Game

Yards Per Carry

Rushing TDs

Fantasy PPG

Games 1-7

12

3

0

8.9

Games 8-16

21.6

4.6

5

18.1

As you can see the 2019 season was one of two dramatically different halves for Mixon. His rushing attempts almost doubled, his yard per carry went up over 50%, he had all of his rushing touchdowns in the second half, and his fantasy points per game (FPPG) more than doubled. Furthermore, the Bengals upgraded at quarterback by drafting Joe Burrow. The offensive line should be improved with the return of 2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams, while defenses won’t be able to stack the box anymore with A.J. Green back. Lastly, the Bengals spent a lot of money in free agency to improve the defense. Hopefully, with an improved unit, the Bengals won’t be in a negative game script very often, allowing them to feed Mixon the ball.

7) Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles

For me, this is where we have a tier drop off. The top six guys are all elite fantasy players and should be drafted in the top seven or eight picks. Tier three is thin as it includes just Sanders, Josh Jacobs, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire. First off, repeat after me, Sanders is THE guy in the Eagles’ backfield. Boston Scott isn’t a threat to Sanders’ touches. Despite Sanders’ rookie year being a season of two different halves, he finished the year as the RB15, less than one fantasy point behind Todd Gurley.

In the first nine games of the season, Sanders didn’t play more than 54% of the snaps in any game. He didn’t get 14 or more rushing attempts in any of those games and only scored more than 13 fantasy points twice. By comparison, in the last seven games, Sanders played 56% or more of the snaps in six games and over 82% in four games. He had 15 or more rushing attempts in four of those games and scored more than 21 fantasy points in almost half of his games in those seven games.

The loss of Brandon Brooks, who tore his Achilles and is out for the season, certainly hurts Sanders. However, the Eagles re-signed Jason Peters and he will take over at guard. Furthermore, the Eagles added several wide receivers, including vertical threat players. This should allow Sanders to see fewer stacked boxes. Lastly, while Scott will have a role in the passing game, Sanders caught 50 balls on 63 targets (tied for 13th in the league) for 509 yards and three touchdowns last season. Sanders has the talent and role to be a true three-down back this season. He should easily top 1,200 rushing and 700 receiving yards with 11 total touchdowns if he plays all 16 games.

8) Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders

Last season Jacobs got off to a strong start, scoring 24.3 fantasy points in week one in large part thanks to two rushing touchdowns. While Jacobs dealt with a shoulder injury that cost him three games as a rookie, he held up till the end of the season and the Raiders only shut him down when their playoff chances were almost zero. During the season, he was their workhorse back. He had 17 or more touches in 10 of the 13 games he played. Furthermore, he had 24 or more touches in nearly half of his games. The best part about drafting Jacobs is you know his floor thanks to his proven and consistent workload, week in and week out.

In the offseason, the Raiders did everything to help Jacobs’ fantasy value. First off, they didn’t re-sign his backup DeAndre Washington, who had 144 touches last season and scored 7.6 fantasy points per game. He was replaced with cast off journeyman Devontae Booker, whose roster spot isn’t guaranteed. The addition of Lynn Bowden Jr. doesn’t concern me as he is more of a do it all gadget player than a traditional running back. If anything, he threatens Jalen Richard‘s role in the passing game. Next, the Raiders added several wide receivers, including first-round pick Henry Ruggs III, who will keep defenses from stacking the box thanks to his incredible speed. Most important of all, the Raiders re-signed Richie Incognito and have the same dominant offensive line as last year.

Jacobs finished the year as the RB21 overall and the RB16 on a points per game basis, averaging 14.7 per game. However, if you look at the games he played 45% or more of the snaps, Jacobs’ production is much better. In those games, he averaged 16.6 fantasy points per game, which would have made him the RB7 for the year over a full 16 game slate. Jacobs’ ceiling isn’t great because he isn’t expected to have a big passing game workload with Richard and Bowden around. However, his floor is one of the best this year, and he is the ideal safe pick at the beginning of the second round.

For more on Jacobs be sure to check out the latest episode of the Mile High Salute podcast, where I was a guest and we talked about the Raiders’ fantasy relevant players.

9) Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs

Everyone’s favorite pick in rookie drafts just got a major boost for the 2020 season. With Damien Williams deciding to opt-out this season because of Covid-19, CEH is now clearly the starter and feature back for the Chiefs. The other running backs on the team like Washington, Darrel Williams, and Darwin Thompson will all battle it for the backup role but should zero impact on CEH’s role. When Andy Reid has had a bell cow back, they have been fantasy gold. Everyone will point to Kareem Hunt‘s rookie season and expect similar production for CEH. While that may be lofty expectations for him, let’s look at the two other times Reid has had a bell cow back in Kansas City and their numbers on a per game basis.

Touches

Scrimmage Yards

Touchdowns

FPPG

Jamaal Charles

19

109.9

0.9

20.8

Kareem Hunt

19.7

110.6

1

19.5

Now before you scream at your phone, “who the hell is comparing CEH to a future Hall of Famer”, I’m not. I am showing the volume and success a featured running back gets under Reid’s coaching. In both cases, Charles and Hunt averaged roughly 110 scrimmage yards and a touchdown per game with Reid. In his final year at LSU, CEH averaged 6.9 yards per touch and 124.5 scrimmage yards per game. Obviously, the NFL game is different from the college game and the lack of offseason certainly doesn’t help the transition. However, CEH showed he can handle a full-time workload including a role in the passing game.

Taking any rookie running back this early is a risk and given the lack of offseason practice, it’s even riskier. However, with Williams out of the picture and the Chiefs’ high powered offense combined with Reid’s history with a bell cow running back, I believe CEH has the upside to finish as a top-five running back and I am willing to risk taking him at the end of the first round in PPR drafts.

10) Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers

This is where things start to get a little dicey for me. Ekeler starts off tier four, and it runs through the rest of the top 12. Everyone in this tier has tremendous upside but also come with a major risk. For Ekeler, it’s the one year of elite production. Before last season, Ekeler was the change of pace backup to Melvin Gordon. Over his first two seasons, Ekeler had a total of 153 rushing attempts and 66 catches. Last season, those numbers exploded with 132 rushing attempts and 92 catches. However, his touchdown rate remained the same at 5%. The huge uptick in usage, especially in the passing game is concerning, yet he was very productive in the games without Gordon.

While Ekeler’s 92 catches last season was 26 more than his career total entering the 2019 season, the number is a little inflated. In week five against Denver, the Chargers couldn’t get anything going aside from dump off passes to Ekeler. He had 15 catches in that game or 16.3% of his catches for the season. He averaged 5.75 catches per game, however, if removing the Denver game, he averaged 5.1 per game. At the 5.1 average over 16 games, Ekeler would have had 82 catches. That would still have been the second most among running backs last season but down 11% from his 92 total. The ratio of rush attempts to catches isn’t normal but the difference isn’t as bad as it seems at first glance.

The encouraging news is Ekeler was very productive when Gordon was holding out, yet still productive when he returned. In the four games without Gordon, Ekeler had all three of his rushing touchdowns and three of his eight receiving touchdowns. Furthermore, Ekeler had 12 or more rushing attempts in three of four games without Gordon, but under 12 attempts in 11 of the 12 games with Gordon. Lastly, Ekeler averaged 26.8 fantasy points per game without Gordon compared to 16.8 with him active. Over a 16 game slate, Ekeler would have scored 428.8 fantasy points without Gordon, easily finishing as the RB2. However, over a 16 game slate with Gordon, Ekeler would have scored 268.8 fantasy points, finishing as the RB7. He actually finished last year in between as the RB4.

Rushing Attempts

Catches

Fantasy Points

Snaps

Without Gordon

(4 Games)

56

(14 per game)

24

(6 per game)

107

(26.8 per game)

194

(48.5 per game)

With Gordon

(12 Games)

76

(6.3 per game)

68

(5.7 per game)

202

(16.8 per game)

415

(34.6 per game)

As you can see in the chart, aside from his catching, Ekeler’s productivity took a major hit when Gordon returned. However, when he did, the snaps were almost a true 50-50 split as Gordon played 433 snaps last year. On top of the lack of major workload history, we don’t know how the offense will change with Tyrod Taylor and Justin Herbert at quarterback. Scrambling quarterbacks don’t throw to the running back as often, but young quarterbacks tend to trust their check down option a lot. The lack of history is a concern, but the numbers suggest Ekeler should be a low-end RB1 at the worst this season.

11) Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns

I’m going to throw a little bit of dynasty advice in here. Go trade for Chubb while everyone is overthinking Kareem Hunt‘s role. Yes, Hunt will be a Brown this season but he won’t be in 2021. In fact, I’ll predict he is in Tampa Bay this time next season. Now back to redraft leagues, Chubb did have a season of two halves last year thanks to Hunt being suspended for the first eight games of the season. However, despite Hunt’s presence in the second half of the season, Chubb was in line to be the rushing leader till the Titans gave Henry a billion rushing attempts in a meaningless week 17 game (more on that later).

Rushing Attempts

Targets

Fantasy Points

Snaps

Without Hunt

(8 Games)

154

(19.3 per game)

32

(4 per game)

151.4

(18.9 per game)

395

(49.4 per game)

With Hunt

(8 Games)

144

(18 per game)

17

(2.1 per game)

103.8

(13 per game)

336

(42 per game)

As you can see with the chart, Chubb’s role didn’t change with Hunt active. His passing game impact took a hit but his rushing attempts dropped by just over one per game and his snaps decreased by just over seven per game. The biggest difference was the touchdowns as Chubb had six of his eight rushing touchdowns in the first eight games of the season. However, the running game as a whole struggled in the second half as Hunt had just two rushing touchdowns. If you look at Hunt’s numbers, a big chunk of his fantasy production came in the passing game.

Last season, Hunt had 43 rushing attempts but 44 targets. Why? The Browns played him a lot in the slot to make up for the lack of pass catches behind Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. Last year Hunt scored 71.5 fantasy points receiving compared to just 29.9 on the ground. Hunt is expected to have a similar role this season but with the addition of Austin Hooper, the Browns are expected to use more two tight end sets. So Hunt will likely cut into Chubb’s rushing attempts a little more this season and will steal a few more targets on screen plays. However, Chubb will make up the difference at the goal line.

The Browns were awful in short yardage situations and at the goal line last season in large part due to a bad offensive line. In the offseason, they went out and signed one of the best run blocking tackles in Jack Conklin. Then they spent their first-round pick on left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. and a fifth-round pick on Nick Harris. The offensive line as a unit should be much better this season. With the improved unit and a goal line back role locked up, Chubb should hit double-digit touchdowns this season and finish the year as an RB1, even in PPR scoring.

12) Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

After closing out the 2018 season on a hot streak, scoring 30 or more fantasy points in two of the three fantasy playoff games, Henry finally put together a full season of fantasy production in 2019. Last season, Henry scored 11.5 or more fantasy points in 12 of 15 games. He also scored 23.5 or more fantasy points in seven games, including six of the final seven of the season. Henry also won the rushing title thanks to a big week 17 game, in which he scored a season-high 39.1 fantasy points. However, most fantasy leagues don’t play week 17 and that performance seriously impacted Henry’s fantasy finish as he was the RB5, averaging 19.6 fantasy points per game.

If you remove the week 17 game, Henry’s average drops to 18.3 fantasy points per game. This would make him the RB8 on points per game basis last season as 13.3% of his fantasy production came in week 17. In addition to the big week 17, Henry has easily the least to offer in the passing game among my top 12 running backs. Last season he had a career-high 18 catches on 24 targets for 2016 and two touchdowns. The problem is his week one 75 yard screen pass for a touchdown, accounted for 28.7% of his receiving game fantasy stats.

Lastly, the Titans were one of the most efficient rushing teams last year but lost stud right tackle Conklin to the Browns in free agency. In addition, outside of A.J. Brown, there isn’t a receiver on the Titans’ roster that will scare opposing defenses. This means Henry should see plenty of stacked boxes again this season and with a weaker offensive line, that concerns me. With one year of season-long success, no passing game upside, and a big question mark at right tackle, Henry is the one running back in my top 12 I’m the most afraid to draft in PPR scoring leagues.

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Mike Fanelli is the Editor in Chief and fantasy football expert for Prime Time Sports Talk since 2018. He is a featured writer for FantasyPros. Follow him on Twitter @Mike_NFL2 and reach out anytime with any fantasy football questions.

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