Last year we saw the death of the Zero-RB theory with LeVeon Bell, David Johnson, and Zeke Elliot all finishing well above Antonio Brown and the leading receivers. Expert rankings and ADP agree that the cream of the crop in this year’s draft are running backs. Last year they were Brown, Beckham, and Julio, and you were made fun of for trusting a back over one of them. It’s hard to say if backs will continue this trend of dominance, but one thing is certain: you want a workhorse back on your team. While there are ways to manage without, you’re swimming treacherous waters if your squad’s RB1 is Theo Riddick. Of the top 20 scoring running backs, 17 of them were top 20 in rushing attempts. While that may seem entirely too obvious, there are some who believe that satellite backs like Riddick are all you need to get by in your PPR league. Only Latavius Murray, Bilal Powell, and Tevin Coleman were top 20 scorers at the position without being top 20 in rushing attempts, and Murray was 21st in that category. They replaced Jonathan Stewart, Jeremy Hill, and Matt Forte in scoring, and those three finished as RB28, 22, and 21. Attempts lead to points… Who’da thunk!?
The fact of the matter is that guys like Tevin Coleman and Bilal Powell are exceptions to the rule. The RBBC (running back by committee) approach that’s taken the NFL by storm is yielding fewer workhorses every year, and guys like Mark Ingram and Latavius Murray from last year’s top 20 scorers are now in defined committees. That means that the Jay Ajayis of the world, who have no backfield vultures circling their workloads, are more valuable than ever. Grab one of them for your team this year. Here are a few ways you can have your cake/workhorse and eat it too… no workhorses were harmed in the writing of this article).
*Based on drafting position in a 12-team PPR snake draft*
Picks 1-3: You should probably take one of the big three backs here. It’s a no-brainer to have someone who will touch the ball 20+ times in a game. Bell and Johnson are going to get at least a handful of targets and 15 carries every week, and Zeke is supposedly in for a bigger role in the passing game this year. With one of these three, you have guaranteed touches and, in theory, production every game. You’re not dependent on quarterback play or game script because they are key cogs of their offenses, both running and passing. The big three backs outscored the top three wide receivers 1050.6-863.8 in PPR leagues last year, even with Bell sitting out the first three games. That’s an average of 62 points or more by your first round pick if you took one over receivers. Don’t think too much. Draft the touches and grab guys with high ceilings and a bit of upside in the 22-27 spots. Gronk, Demaryius Thomas, and lots of high-profile receivers are going there. Those are all very viable WR1 candidates… and THE Gronk. Your points are all but guaranteed because of their elite target shares. When you pair them with a locked and loaded RB1, your team has fewer holes to fill in the later rounds. Your league mates will most assuredly hate you for your personal buffet to get points from.
My optimal roster after 3 picks-David Johnson/Rob Gronkowski/Demaryius Thomas (1 RB, 1 TE, 1 WR)
Picks 4-8: This is my personal favorite drafting spot. Why? Because here we find 5 receivers who are slam-dunk first-round selections, three of which were touted as the top overall picks going into last season. Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr, Mike Evans, and AJ Green are waiting for you, and you don’t want to leave them for the buzzards at the end of round 1. In PPR, these guys are a lock for 250+ points if they play even 13 games. The combination of elite target share and top-notch talent translates directly into fantasy points. Other than fleeting concerns over Jameis Winston and Eli Manning, these guys are as consistent and reliable as they come. You will feel good for having one, I promise. When you’re picking in Round 2 you’ll have a selection of nearly top talent/workload running backs and receivers to compliment your first pick. That’s something the first few picks can’t claim. After Tier 4 players are gone, it becomes harder to have confidence in your selection’s production. With picks 4-8 you’ll end up with elite production from your first round receiver and land a Jay Ajayi, Michael Thomas, or Todd Gurley in the second round. All three of those guys, and a couple more, are also in the conversation for 250+ points, and their upside is first round value. You’ll clean up the straggling talents in the middle of Round 3 before the guys drafting from the 9-12 spots are left to even more guesswork and risky business.
My optimal roster after 3 picks-Mike Evans/Jay Ajayi/Golden Tate (1 RB, 2 WR)
Picks 9-12: Chances are you’re taking guys like Shady, Jordy, or Melvin Gordon in these spots. Much is left to chance because you never know how people will draft in the first round. The beauty of this spot is the volume of top picks you’ll receive. You have the opportunity to grab two of the top 16 talents here. That’s big, especially because we can’t tell the future. Fantasy picks are bets, and you want to put your money on as many high-probability producers/high-volume players as possible. Naturally, you’re less likely to nab one of the very best if you’re choosing further down the line, but two smart selections can make “the turn” the best place to draft from. There’s certainly less room for error here, but there’s hope for your team. Jordy Nelson finished as the WR2 last year and looked better as the year went on. He’s still Aaron Rodgers’ best option, and I love him around picks 10-13. I also love Melvin Gordon, who is now a 3-down back for a high-powered offense in LA. LeSean McCoy, Devonta Freeman, Demarco Murray, and TY Hilton are also great picks here, but all come with a little less confidence than your Julio Jones or LeVeon Bell. If you draft wisely, your squad will be every bit as star-powered as the teams with the bigger names, but you won’t be picking again until the back of round 3, so make it count!
My optimal roster after 3 picks-Melvin Gordon/Jordy Nelson/Joe Mixon (2 RB, 1 WR)
Of course, you’ll shape your team as you see fit, and there are so few ways to lose a season with your first three picks. Stay fluid and grab the best guy available. At the end of the day, you’re looking for points. Draft the most potential points at whichever position you can get them from, but don’t forget that the running back by committee approach is real in today’s NFL and looking more and more like the rule than the exception. You’d be wise to take at least one of the workhorses in the first three rounds before backfield touches disappear after round 4.
When in doubt, remember the three Ts. Touches, targets, and talent will lead you to the promised land. Putting tiers with rankings lets you know who has the best combination of these regardless of position. These rankings are based on my presumption of how those three Ts interact this year. Touches and targets are more important than talent for fantasy purposes, and the rankings reflect that.
Drop a line @SamwiseTheGrey7 and let me know where we differ! Rankings are fluid and always subject to change, especially after Training Camp.
|6||Odell Beckham Jr.||WR3|
|84||Duke Johnson Jr.||RB33|