10. Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars
Over the past few weeks there have been multiple backs that have occupied the 10th spot on my list, including Lamar Miller and Todd Gurley, but after watching week one of the preseason I had to make room for the Jaguars first-round selection. Fournette looked powerful and explosive on every run, even showing off some spin moves that were quite effective.
Normally, I am hesitant to put a rookie running back above proven veterans because I would rather take a player where I know their ceiling and floor in the NFL. However, after his first game, Fournette showed a lot of promise that could push him even higher on this list. The Jaguars running back might not have the incredible season that Ezekiel Elliott had last year, but do not be surprised if he comes close to that production.
9. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
After signing a new six-year contract for $43 million, Devonta Freeman looks to continue his success from last season. Freeman ended the year with just over 1,000 yards rushing with 11 touchdowns, along with 54 receptions for almost 500 yards. The Falcons know that they have something special in Freeman, especially with his pass catching ability.
The Falcons have arguably the best passing offense in the league with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, and when you add in Freeman out of the backfield, they are nearly impossible to stop. The only thing that worries me is that Tevin Coleman is the backup to Freeman, and with his talent, Atlanta surely will want the ball in his hands as much as possible. Freeman still is the number one back on the depth chart, but it likely will end up being split between himself and Coleman, 1A/1B.
8. DeMarco Murray, Tennessee Titans
DeMarco Murray earned Pro Bowl honors after rushing for over 1,200 yards and nine touchdowns for the Titans. Even though DeMarco had another incredible season last year, his number might end up decreasing a small amount this year. The Titans still have one of the best offensive lines in football, but Murray is approaching the dreaded age 30 for running backs and Derrick Henry is looking to get more playing time after a solid season as a change-of-pace back.
Tennessee looks to rely less on the run game after drafting Corey Davis in the first round and picking up Eric Decker in free agency. The offensive scheme will still implement the run game to set up play action passing, but overall I expect there to be a decrease in the amount of run plays called over the year. Murray should still end up being a top 10 running back this season, even with a declining workload and a change in scheme.
7. Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins
Adam Gase decided to leave Jay Ajayi behind when the Dolphins traveled to Seattle week one of last year after Ajayi struggled in camp. That moment must have lit a fire under Ajayi, because during week two Ajayi claimed the starting position and never looked back. Midway through the season, Ajayi became the first back since Ricky Williams to rush for 200 yards in back-to-back games.
Jay Ajayi finished the 2016 season with over 1,200 yards rushing and was in the top five for yards after contact. Typically seen as a power rusher with the ability to pound for yards in the trenches, he showed another side of himself last season with his explosiveness after hitting the hole. Year three should allow for similar stats, but suspect offensive line play and a new quarterback after Tannehill’s injury leave him just out of the top five.
6. Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
After Melvin Gordon’s rough rookie season, he made the jump into Pro Bowl caliber running backs in year two. Gordon finished 2016 with 997 yards and 10 touchdowns and earned his first pro bowl appearance. Last season is not as good as it gets for Gordon though. There were injuries all over the team and if the offense can manage to stay a little healthier this season, then there will be less teams willing to load the box against Gordon and give him more room to run.
The Chargers decided not to bring back trusty receiving and third down back Danny Woodhead, which will be great news for Melvin Gordon fantasy owners. Expect Gordon to become a bell cow three down back and increase his already impressive 41 catches from last season.
5. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills offense loved to run the ball last year, finishing at the top of the league in total rushing yards. It seemed like last season nobody could stop the Bills rushing attack, no matter what back was in, and LeSean McCoy took advantage, rushing for over 1,200 yards and 5.4 yards per carry.
The problem with McCoy is that he is now 29 years-old, so the Bills might start to decrease his workload just slightly in order to keep him fresh throughout the season. If this happens, McCoy will likely see less short yardage and goal line situations, meaning his touchdown total might decrease. “Shady” McCoy also has a history of injury, and he has yet to play a full 16 game season for the Bills. If Shady is able to play in every game this year, even with a decreased workload, he could end up being a top five running back again.
4. Jordon Howard, Chicago Bears
Last season saw the rise of many great runners, but probably the most surprising of the bunch was Jordon Howard of the Bears. Howard turned into leader of the offense for the Bears by the end of his rookie season, and looks to continue leading the Bears in 2017. Jay Cutler and Alshon Jeffery have left the windy city, which forces John Fox’s hand to run the ball even more than last year.
Howard ended the season with 1,300 yards and 6 touchdowns, while only starting in 13 games! His numbers will increase this next year when he will be starting all 16 games, and the offense will be designed to better fit his skill set.
3. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
The 4th overall pick from 2016 had one of the best rookie seasons in the history of the league for a running back. “Zeke” Elliott led the league in rushing yards and attempts, and was third in touchdowns. Leading the way for the young explosive runner was the best offensive line a season ago, but do not let that take away from how great Zeke was.
Elliott also came into the league with another great rookie on offense, quarterback Dak Prescott. Zeke and Dak took the league by fire and made great use of setting up the pass game with great running. It seemed as if no defense could stop the Cowboys offense last season, and I would expect more of the same this season.
With the league recently announcing his suspension, it makes it tough to decide whether or not he is fantasy viable missing the first six games of the season. I fully expect the suspension to drop to only four games which leaves Elliott available for about eight or nine games in the fantasy season plus playoffs, which are more important than weeks one through four.
2. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
David Johnson was the best dual threat running back in the NFL last year and is looking to be the first back since Marshall Faulk to run and catch for 1,000 yards. Those numbers may seem far-fetched for a running back in the modern era, but Johnson got within 120 yards of accomplishing it in 2016.
The two main worries for David Johnson are injury and scheme. He does not have an extensive injury history, but if he is looking to have over 30 touches per game, the concern is definitely there. The other concern is that he is in a pass-heavy scheme in Arizona and that is unlikely to change any time soon. This would be great if you are in a PPR league, but for normal fantasy owners, Johnson’s rushing totals might not top the league.
1. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburg Steelers
The top running back for fantasy in 2017 will be Le’Veon Bell. After somewhat of a disappointing season due to a threes game suspension, he still put up numbers that were better than some players that played all 16 games. Bell ended the season in the top 5 for rushing yards with 1,268 yards, while averaging 106 yards per game and leading the league with 21.8 carries per game.
The Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger love to use Bell in the passing game as well, as he caught 75 passes for over 600 yards. The screen plays for the Steelers work extremely well due to the fact that it utilizes one of Bell’s strongest abilities, patience.
If Le’Veon Bell is able to stay on the field throughout the entire year, then expect him to lead all running backs in total rush yards and touchdowns.