Ah, the coveted prizes of fantasy football; running backs. There is a lot of glory in being the man who runs through eleven defenders, taking all the hits while dishing out punishment. However this combined with the following of general stats tends to overrate the importance of running backs relative to other positions. While I believe the top runners are indeed game-changing level players, many others at the position don’t have a complete game, offering one-dimensional skill sets. In my eyes, this devalues them relative to other positions who are playing more snaps while representing more than a decoy on every down.
NFL front offices seem to share this line of thinking, paying running backs less than most other positions, while spending fewer 1st round picks on them. Players such as the ones on this list are still coveted, but it can be very economical to find balancing skill sets in multiple players for less money. It’s also worth debating if scouting at the position is weaker than at other positions or if teams just realize they can get good prospects later in the draft; only three of the players on this list were taken in the 1st round, while the other seven were taken in the 2nd or 3rd round. Throw in the fact that the passing game is more valuable to an offense than the running game, and it’s not hard to see why teams are veering away from “bell cow” running backs towards tandems. As a result, this list is largely populated by great runners who also provide good value to the passing game.
Tier 1: LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles
1. McCoy: Shady McCoy is easily my favorite runner in the league, as he just seems impossible to tackle. Most backs try to run through you, not many can make a defender miss like Shady. NFL players are supposed to take hits, yet I have never seen this guy take a big hit. Somehow he is always able to react faster than his opponent, dodging the brunt of a hit, if not entirely. I think this bodes very well for his longevity, as it’s the accumulation of hits that truly wears down a running back. McCoy is consistently near the top of the league in missed tackles forced, resulting in career yard per carry average of 4.8. In addition to his elite running ability, he has exceptional hands and is a formidable receiver out of the backfield. His overall complete game gives him the #1 RB in the league ranking.
2. ADP: What is there to say about “All Day” that isn’t already common knowledge? He very well might be the best pure runner of the last few decades, combining elite strength with elite speed and quickness. It routinely takes two or more defenders to bring him down, with very few defenders capable of bringing him down one on one. When he tore his MCL and ACL in 2011, many feared it might take him awhile to get back to full speed. Just 8 months later he returned to the field, put together an MVP season, and came 9 yards short of breaking the NFL’s single season rushing record. As incredible of a runner as he is (perhaps the greatest ever) one has to wonder why his freakish athleticism doesn’t really translate to the rest of his game. His blocking is average at best, and he doesn’t seem to have any feel for running basic routes out of the backfield; he has just 527 yards receiving over the last 3 seasons combined. Based on how scary he is running the ball, it’s surprising to have him lower than #1. However, when you look at complete skill sets, and value added on every play, McCoy is the better player to me.
3. Charles: Extremely dangerous as a rusher and receiver. At the moment, he might be the league’s best home run threat, with the ability to go the distance on any play. His career yards per rush average is a whopping 5.6, actually brought down by last seasons meager 5.0! The hiring of head coach Andy Reid last season may have benefited no one more than Charles, as he put up career bests in total yards (1980) and touchdowns (19). That said, I am slightly more scared of Charles’ injury history than I am when it comes to the above two players. Ability to stay healthy is a skill, and so I have him lower than the McCoy and Peterson. It is worth noting that the difference in value between these three players is quite small, although McCoy and Charles are definitely better fits in a passing offense.
Tier 2: Eddie Lacy, Matt Forte, Marshawn Lynch
4. Lacy: I originally had Lacy in the above tier, but felt it was a bit too early to throw him in such a class. While Lacy already boasts a well rounded skill set, he has not established fear in his opponents as a home run hitter yet, something all of the above three have done. Lacy is a more physical runner, unleashing a beating on defenders every time he carries the ball. His forced missed tackles were right on par (56) with McCoy (57) and Peterson (58), while also impressing as a receiver and blocker. He seems like the most complete player on this list, but I need to see one more season out of him before I can bump him up to the top tier.
5. Forte: Before last season I wouldn’t really have thought about putting Forte this high. It had always been easy to notice him as a receiver (he has averaged 57 catches per year), but I never thought he was a special runner. However as soon as I started watching 2013 preseason games, it was clear; Forte was faster. Maybe he had just been unhealthy before, in a better scheme with a new coach, or was now gelling with a vastly superior offensive line. Whatever the reason was, Forte put up an incredible 2013 season and brought stability to an offense that experienced injuries to it’s starting QB.
6. Lynch: Lynch is a case similar to Peterson; very impressive runner, but not so impressive at his other jobs. While it may not seem like a big deal, a balanced game is very crucial to staying on the field as a running back. If opposing teams know that your running back is no threat to catch a pass or block efficiently, it gives their defenses a lot of unseen flexibility. Lynch is solid in pass protection, but is barely average as a receiver. This might seem like a nitpick, but I have him this low almost solely because of his poor receiving skills. The guy broke 75 tackles last year, wouldn’t you like to see him catch more passes and get into more 1 on 1 situations with defensive backs?
Tier 3: Frank Gore, Reggie Bush, Demarco Murray, Gio Bernard
Gore, Bush, and Murray are all very good players, but are unlikely to get better at this point in their careers. I keep waiting for Gore to regress, but the 49’ers have done a nice job, of limiting his snaps and getting the best performance out of him; he is still a very physical runner with great pass blocking skills while also contributing as a receiver. Reggie Bush may never have lived up to the billing of “the next Gale Sayers,” but he has firmly established himself as a dangerous rushing/receiving combo with incredible speed and quickness. DeMarco Murray has never had questions about his talent, boasting a great combination of speed, strength, and receiving skills. However every hit he takes seems likely to scare Cowboys fans, as he has missed time due to injury all three years in the league. Gio Bernard is the only young gun with a chance to rise on this list, and I think he is very likely to do just that. He has great quickness and strength to go along with good hands, and is a lock to become one of the leagues better running backs over the next few years.
Missed time or injured, but could bounce back: Arian Foster, C.J. Spiller, Shane Vereen
On the rise: Leveon Bell, Andre Ellington