While no one questioned Gurley's talent, few expected him to burst onto the NFL scene with such authority less than one year after tearing his ACL. In Gurley's first real action (he only received seven touches in his first start), he torched the Cardinals stout defense for 161 total yards. Gurley kept climbing from there, eventually racking up 1,106 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in 13 games to finish as the RB5 and take home Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Gurley was far and away the best player on the Rams offense in 2015, and figures to once again be the focal point in 2016. With his combination of size, game-breaking speed and power, there isn't much that can stand in Gurley's way of another top-tier fantasy season (even in the tough-as-nails NFC West). He notched double digit fantasy points in 10 of his 12 games (once again throwing out that first "start"), which bodes well for his week-to-week consistency. Furthermore, Gurley accomplished this owning just over 60 percent of the total backfield touches, a number that should almost assuredly rise with the Georgia product playing a full season. When fantasy drafts roll around this fall, Gurley should be one of the first few names called in standard leagues, though his ceiling might be a bit lower in PPR formats.
What is the real reason for David Johnson being anything less than a top-five pick in fantasy drafts regardless of format? Johnson proved himself as a feature back in the second half of his rookie year when finally given a full complement of touches. The Cardinals flamed out in the playoffs, but should still be one of the better offenses in the NFL. Johnson might already be the best route-running back in the NFL, and his pass catching ability should lift him to the highest heights in PPR leagues. When you objectively look at his ability and situation, it clearly spells out a first-round pick. Let your leaguemates worry about things like "proving it" and other bogus factors that lead away from David Johnson and take him confidently on draft day.
Peterson had fantasy owners worried after a 5.2-point season debut against the 49ers, but he quickly righted his fantasy ship and by season's end had sailed to an NFL-leading 1,485 rushing yards and a second-place fantasy finish. Peterson owned 75 percent of the backfield touches in 2015, a number that could regress a bit as Peterson suits up for his age 31 season. The team could deploy Jerick McKinnon a bit more on passing downs to keep Peterson fresh, but make no mistake, this is A.D.'s backfield. He's scored double digit touchdowns in every full season he's played, and only missed the 1,000 yard mark once in that span (2012, when he played just 12 games). There are no sure things at the top of fantasy drafts, but A.D. carries the lowest risk of the first-round options. Fantasy owners should look to take Peterson with one of the first few picks in standard leagues this fall.
Fantasy dreams came true in the first round of the NFL draft when the Dallas Cowboys selected Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall selection. It was a win-now move for a team with an aging quarterback, and one that should have fantasy owners fighting each other for the right to draft Elliott. The Cowboys are the only team to field a 1,000-rushing yard, 300-receiving yard back in each of the last three seasons, setting up Zeke for a big workload. While Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris are on the roster, Dallas didn't draft Zeke to have him sit on the bench as a rookie. He's a superior player to both McFadden and Morris, and will likely only be spelled occasionally for a series or two. Since 2014, Dallas has given its No. 1 back an average of 71 percent of the total backfield opportunities (carries plus targets) per year. Elliott will be an RB1 in Dallas this year, so fantasy owners who want to recruit his services will have to draft accordingly.
Miller finished 2015 as the sixth-highest scoring running back in fantasy. But don't let that standing fool you, his production wasn't even close to consistent. After four weeks, Miller was shaping up as one of the biggest busts of the year, but a coaching change in Miami led to a higher volume of touches for the talented runner. That notion faded away quickly though, with five single-digit games and five double-digit outings in the final 10 weeks of the season. Miller has been a victim of poor coaching and lack of volume, but all of that should change now that he's with the Texans. In his tenure as the Texans' head coach, Bill O'Brien has given one running back 15-plus touches in 26 of 32 possible games, and that'd like be higher had Arian Foster not been injured so much. With the volume he deserves, playing in an offense on the rise, Miller's fantasy ceiling is sky high in 2016.
Devonta Freeman enjoyed a torrid stretch in late September and mid-October where he went absolutely nuclear. That string was so dominant that it landed him the RB1 overall status, even if he did slow down toward the conclusion of the season. Freeman was solid down the stretch, but only averaged 87.8 total yards in the final eight games and scored just four times. There's a chicken or egg discussion to have with whether the offense's decline ruined Freeman's outlook, or whether his own inefficiencies helped precipitate the unit's decline. Freeman handled 22.5 touches per game in 2015, one of the more secured workloads in football for a running back. If he loses even a tick off that volume next season, owners may end up regretting drafting Freeman as high as he likely goes. However, until Tevin Coleman actually starts stealing touches, Freeman has the upside of a low-end RB1 for 2016.
Ask any fantasy owner who the biggest disappointment from 2015 was and one of the first names off their lips will be Eddie Lacy. And it's a fair assessment, too. Lacy was a surefire first-round pick and presumed to be among the safest picks of the elite running backs given the offense he operated in. Well, no one foresaw Lacy getting wildly out of shape, and even losing starting reps for missing curfews. All told Lacy posted career lows across the board, and finished as the RB25, though that's only because so many players were injured. However, hope springs eternal among cheeseheads as Lacy has been working out with Tony Horton (creator of P90X) and already appears to be slimming way down. Lacy has established he can play in the NFL and deliver fantastic fantasy results (RB6 in 2013 and 2014), making him a prime bounce-back candidate in 2016. Lacy is already slimmer, plays in a great offense (that gets a healthy Jordy Nelson back) and is gunning for a new contract (his rookie deal expires after this season). Adding all of that together it's difficult to not be excited about Lacy's prospects this fall.
Charles was off to a roaring start to 2015, scoring double digit fantasy points in each of his first four games before tearing his ACL in Week 5. This is the second time Charles has torn an ACL, with his first coming in 2011, but the injury is no longer a career-ender for running backs. Case in point, Charles rushed for 1,509 yards in 2012 coming off his first major knee injury. The Chiefs did re-sign both Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware this offseason, but once Charles is fully healthy he figures to return to his bell-cow role, despite the fact that he'll be 30 years old before the season is over. From 2012 to 2014, Charles received nearly 65 percent of all the backfield touches in games where he was fully healthy. Even if he loses a few more touches as he ages, Charles will remain an RB1 as long as he's healthy and should be one of the first 10 runners drafted this fall.
For a long stretch of the fantasy season Mark Ingram was the second-highest running back scorer in PPR leagues. He was as steady as they come, averaging 97.8 yards from scrimmage and 4.2 receptions per game. A shoulder injury cut his season short after 12 games, but he shouldn't feel many ill-effects from that in 2016. There's little reason to believe anything but that Ingram comes right back as the feature back for New Orleans this season. He's a great low-end RB1 target again, and if you can get him at a slight injury discount, beautiful.
Fantasy managers were cautious with Martin during 2015 draft season since he was coming off two straight disappointing and injury-plagued seasons following an amazing rookie year in 2012. Well, Martin responded by recording the second-most rushing yards in the NFL for the year (trailing only Adrian Peterson) and averaged 13.1 fantasy points per game in standard leagues. He averaged 18 carries per game as the feature back in Tampa Bay and registered a career-best 4.9 yards per rush on his way to over 1,600 all-purpose yards. The fact that he was able to remain healthy all season coupled with the attrition at the running back position in 2015 all factored into Martin being fantasy's third-highest scoring runner of the season, rewarding fantasy managers who believed that he was far from done after just three seasons in the NFL. While coaching changes in Tampa Bay could affect Martin's usage, the team's former offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter, was promoted to head coach so we'd still feel comfortable drafting Martin as an low-end RB1 this year.
The issue with LeSean McCoy in 2015 was health. He missed four games and left multiple others with a wide array of ailments. However, when he did play, McCoy was effective. From Weeks 9 to 14, McCoy averaged 22.5 touches and 120.5 yards from scrimmage. He looked every bit the hungry and dynamic talent that fantasy owners grew to love early in his career. With the injury bug plaguing him, McCoy could be a draft bargain yet again in 2016. If he stays on the field, this could be one of his better seasons with the offense improving around Tyrod Taylor. However, age, continued injury worries, and the presence of Karlos Williams make him still a bit of a risk.
As was the case in 2014, 2015 was a tale of two seasons for Anderson. He entered the year with sky-high expectations, but toe/ankle injuries and a committee backfield with Ronnie Hillman turned the first half of his season into a perpetual fantasy nightmare. However, from Week 8 on, Anderson was actually the far more effective back. He put up a statline of 85-540-5 on the ground, compared to Hillman's 141-540-5 (and Hillman played in all 10 games). This offseason, the Broncos signed Anderson to a four-year, $18 million dollar extension which should (hopefully) end the committee approach. Fantasy owners will have to determine whether or not they can take a leap of faith with Anderson again in 2016 after he burned so many people a season ago and the team drafted Devontae Booker. However, this is a case to trust the player and not the past production. Anderson is an excellent running back who could become a draft steal if owners let his 2015 season and committee fears cloud their judgment on draft day.
Rust Cohle's quip of "Time is a flat circle," from HBO's first season of "True Detective," feels a little too real when looking at Le'Veon Bell this year. After serving a two-game suspension to start the year in 2015, Bell now faces a four-game suspension to start the 2016 season. Sigh. Bell played in just six games last season, averaging 14.5 fantasy points per game with three touchdowns and at least 100 scrimmage yards in each of the five games he finished. Unfortunately, his season ended in Week 8 when he left the game with a torn right MCL. Yes, it was a sad time for everyone. If there's one positive to Bell being suspended, it's that we now won't have to worry about his recovery time as much, as he will most definitely be reading to go in Week 5. The Michigan State product now falls to somewhere around the third round in terms of draft price, while DeAngelo Williams rises to the middle rounds.
It feels like about 1,000 years ago that Carlos Hyde had his apparent breakout game in Week 1 of the 2015 season, barreling through the Vikings for 168 rushing yards and two scores. The talent was never in question for Hyde, but the 49ers offense was so horrendous he scored more than seven fantasy points just one more time before his season was cut short with a nagging injury. The hiring of Chip Kelly brought renewed optimism to Hyde's future stock, however. During the first two years of the Kelly era his rushing offense ranked first and ninth in the NFL and averaged 4.65 yards per carry. There will be the same concerns about Hyde as last year, the 49ers offense still doesn't project as a consistently effective unit, and the team is bad enough to knock him out of favorable game script on the regular. Yet, Kelly brings a note of optimism to Hyde as mid-round RB2 pick.
After eight underrated seasons with the Bears, Forte has traded in the Windy City for the Big Apple to join the New York Jets. Forte is coming off a great season (despite missing three games with injuries), as he was able to finish as the RB9 thanks to his do-it-all skills on the ground and in the air. While Forte is now 30 years old (a warning sign for rushers), he demonstrated in 2015 he still has plenty left in the tank. Throwing out the game he got injured (Week 8 vs. Minnesota) and his first game back (Week 12 at Green Bay) where he was barely used, Forte averaged 14.4 standard fantasy points per game, which was the same as Adrian Peterson (the overall RB2 in standard scoring). In New York, Forte joins forces with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Eric Decker and his former teammate Brandon Marshall to form an older, but extremely effective offensive core. While Forte's age and past production (2,522 career touches) might deter some, he has landed in a situation that should allow him to put up at least one more great fantasy season. He's a solid RB2 option this fall.
Despite looking like the most effective back on the offense in 2015, Mathews was treated as the third fiddle, ending up behind both DeMarco Murray (237) and Darren Sproles (138) in total touches. However, with Murray now in Tennessee and Doug Pederson at the helm instead of Chip Kelly, Mathews' stock is seriously on the rise. There will be ample opportunities for Mathews to return to the lead back role he once owned in San Diego, and fantasy owners should be salivating at his potential. Last season, Mathews finished as the RB33 on just 23 percent of the total backfield touches, so even a modest workload increase should push Mathews firmly into the RB2 tier. Mathews' 5.1 yards per carry behind the Philadelphia offensive line in 2015 were the second-most in the NFL among backs with 100-plus carries (Thomas Rawls, 5.6). As the offensive coordinator in Kansas City, Pederson funneled nearly 65 of the backfield touches through Jamaal Charles, and while Mathews isn't that caliber of player, if he receives close to that market share of the backfield he could be one of the steals of fantasy drafts.