Whether you employ the "Zero RB" strategy, or prefer to load up on high-volume running backs early in your draft, you should be on the lookout for must-own players in every round. Sometimes the running back you want falls into your lap, sometimes you have to reach for him, and once in a while, you can wait until the late rounds to scoop up a high-upside sleeper. Below, I have highlighted several options that I consider must-own fantasy running backs for the 2016 season at their current ADP, for one reason or another. I'm not saying that if you draft Melvin Gordon, he's going to win your league for you. But at his current asking price and with the potential to bounce back after basically hitting rock bottom in his rookie year, I think he's undervalued for the upcoming campaign. Take a look at the list and breakdowns below, and feel free to slander my takes on Twitter @MattFranchise. It's cool, I'm used to it.
The new elite fantasy RB
In short, Miller has everything fantasy owners look for in an RB1: Speed, power, pass-catching prowess, immense upside in a new offense and potential as a bell cow. He can run inside and outside. He can go out on deep passing routes or short ones over the middle, and make defenders miss with his elite change of direction skills. It's safe to say he will be a tremendous fit in Houston's zone-blocking scheme.
Miller is the sparkplug that the Texans ground game lacked last season following Foster's season-ending injury. To be blunt, Foster was not performing at a high level (for his standards) when he was on the field in 2015. The football gods had the odds stacked against the veteran last summer. He suffered a major groin injury during training camp that delayed his debut until Week 4. Once he returned, he averaged a mere 2.6 yards per carry in four games before bowing out for the season with an Achilles tear. Sans Foster, the Texans muddled committee backfield finished the season ranked 28th in the NFL, with a collective 3.7 yards per carry average. Ain't nobody got time for that.
As stated above, Miller definitely has the skill set to be great. And he has been great with the opportunities he's had during his four seasons with Miami. Among all running backs with 600 or more carries since 2012, Miller has the third-highest yards per carry average (4.6) behind only Jamaal Charles (5.1) and Adrian Peterson (5.1). That is, without a doubt, elite company. Miller has also been one of the NFL's most productive backs in the last two seasons in terms of scoring touchdowns: Only Jeremy Hill (20) and DeMarco Murray (19) have more rushing scores than Miller (16) over the last two seasons.
You've probably heard it over and over again: Miller was criminally under-utilized as a Dolphin. But he never complained about his usage. Fantasy fans who drafted him in the early rounds last year were burned in the first month of the season when he totaled just 21.8 standard points through four games while averaging a mere 11 touches per game in that span. But once Miami started putting the ball in his hands more, he blew up the box scores. Miller strung together a five-game run where he averaged 19 touches per game with seven total touchdowns and 622 yards from scrimmage. The best game during that insane run came against Houston. The then Miami back put up 236 total yards and two scores against his future team. It's safe to say, Houston's scouts were paying close attention.
Fantasy owners need to consider Miller as a late-first round, or early second-round pick depending on scoring format and depth of their league. Even in a 10-team standard league, one could make the argument to draft Miller at the back end of the first round over someone like Ezekiel Elliott who has all the talent and potential in the world, but has yet to play a snap in the NFL.
The dual-threat steal
Despite all of the success New Orleans had on the offensive side of the ball over the last few years, the team has gone nearly 10 seasons without a 1,000-yard rusher. Mark Ingram was primed to be the first Saints back to achieve the feat since Deuce McAllister did it in 2006, but, as has become a trend for Ingram, his season ended early.
For the first 12 weeks of the season though, Ingram's fantasy floor in standard scoring was 7.4 points and that was in a game the Saints lost by a score of 39-17 so they weren't focused on the ground game during the second half. He was extremely consistent as his team's lead back and averaged 16.6 touches per game, providing fantasy owners with a healthy dose of receiving yards week in and week out on top of his respectable rushing totals. He was a safe RB2 play each and every week, and despite his four missed games at the end of the season, he finished as fantasy's RB15 in standard scoring.
The big story last year with Ingram was his evolution as a three-down back who developed solid hands catching passes out of the backfield. He hauled in 50 receptions in his 13 games and averaged 4.6 targets per contest. For a bruising runner known for his early down work, that's quite the development and hugely increases his fantasy value going forward. Ingram had a better catch rate, 83 percent, than any of the Saints top wideouts last year and during the 13 games when he was healthy he ranked third on the team in receptions behind Brandin Cooks and Benjamin Watson.
Ingram isn't as much of a bargain pick as some of the other backs on this list, but there is still value to be had with his third round ADP since he has RB1 upside in the Saints offense. He's also a must-own in PPR formats given his involvement in the passing game which should continue into the 2016 season. If he can stay healthy for a full season, his reception total could creep up into the 60-70 range.
The mid-round RB1
In our recent 10-team analyst mock draft, Adam Rank drafted Jay Ajayi in Round 4 after selecting wide receivers with each of his first three picks. All offseason, I've had Ajayi pegged as an ideal running back to target in the middle rounds for anyone looking to employ the "Zero RB" draft strategy, and that's exactly what Rank did.
When profiling Year 2 running backs last month, Ajayi stood out as a breakout candidate in Miami. New head coach Adam Gase recently stated that he prefers to use a primary back on all three downs, rather than rotate a specialized player in on third-down situations. That's great news for anyone looking to draft Ajayi as a value play with RB1 upside.
Some analysts are quick to default to what Gase did with Matt Forte and Jeremy Langford late last year in Chicago: Following Forte's Week 12 return from injury, he and Langford split carries 82-70 respectively. Some of that split probably had to do with the fact that Forte wasn't 100 percent healthy (knee, back), and some of it definitely had to do with the Bears wanting to see what they had in their fourth-round draft selection from Michigan State. Either way, it sounds like Gase is going to veer from that strategy this year.
Gase said last month in regard to the running back position "you have to be able to do it all. It's not a one-trick-pony-type of offense. So we really don't believe in, 'Hey, you're just a first- and second-down back.' I don't know what that means. We look for guys that can stay on the field all three downs because we're not looking to sub personnel … If we need to switch somebody out because we're having a long drive, then so be it But really, whoever the guy is that we're starting with in the series, that's the guy I want to finish."
That small glimmer of information is extremely helpful when figuring out how to value Ajayi this year in fantasy.
Critics knocked the second-year back this offseason for his weakness as a pass-catcher following reports that he had dropped some passes during OTAs. But his ability to catch passes isn't the issue -- he hauled in 50 receptions during his final year at Boise State. The challenge for him has been learning all of the new routes, which are much more complicated than the ones he ran in college. Ajayi told our NFL Fantasy LIVE crew that he's been working on deeper routes and learning the entire route tree, which is much more involved than anything he did in college.
He's apparently up for the challenge, though, and fantasy managers need to take advantage of any opportunity that comes to draft a three-down workhorse type back in the middle rounds.
2015's bust = 2016's breakout
So why is the second-year Wisconsin product on this list of "must-own" running backs for 2016? Gordon presents tremendous value for where he's being drafted among running backs according to early ADP data. FantasyPros.com composite ADP data has Gordon as the RB26 going early in Round 8 thus far. For a back who is slated to see at least 200-plus rush attempts, that's the steal of the century.
The fear of Gordon floundering again has grown to epic proportions, but this fear is driven mainly by two factors: Gordon's disappointing rookie campaign (3.5 ypc, zero touchdowns and four lost fumbles) and the fact that he had microfracture surgery on his left knee back in January.
First, let's address Gordon's lack of touchdown scoring and overall abysmal production last season. Dating back to 2014, not a single Chargers running back has scored greater than three rushing touchdowns in a season. San Diego's backfield averaged a combined 3.4 yards per carry average in 2014 and totaled a mere six rushing touchdowns combined -- three for Ryan Mathews and three for Branden Oliver. And while ProFootballFocus has the Chargers offensive line ranked fourth-worst in the NFL heading into the season, it would be difficult for the group to perform as poorly as they did last year. The team acquired former Bears lineman Matt Slauson who will start at center and bolster a front that was decimated by injuries a season ago -- all of whom are returning healthy.
As for the knee procedure, while the history of NFL players who have returned with success following microfracture surgery isn't encouraging, the fact that Gordon was running and cutting during OTAs in June is a positive sign that seemed to go overlooked.
A huge part of winning in fantasy is being able to identify value picks in the later rounds to gain an advantage on your league mates. And while Gordon isn't going to win you your league, as Shawn Siegele (who created the "Zero RB" draft strategy and writes for RotoViz.com) recently pointed out, "Right now you're being provided one of the biggest discounts you'll ever see on any player."
Do you really want to pass up an opportunity like this?
The second-best rookie RB
As it stands now, the only Seahawks running back with a defined role heading into training camp is rookie C.J. Prosise. He'll be the team's third-down specialist, according to coach Pete Carroll. Despite how highly Thomas Rawls is valued in fantasy, his status for the season opener remains unclear as he recovers from a devastating ankle injury. That means Prosise should get plenty of reps with the first-team offense in camp and during the preseason. If he performs well, it's not out of the question for him to see work on early downs too.
The rookie back drew comparisons to David Johnson coming out of college, and now, Johnson is a fringe first-round pick in fantasy drafts following a late-season surge as Arizona's bell cow in 2015. As a converted slot receiver, Prosise offers unique versatility as an all-around threat on offense. And if Seattle can find ways to get him into space the way the Cardinals did with Johnson early last season, there may be big things in the future for the Notre Dame product.
No matter who Seattle's early-down back is, Prosise's role is locked in. It's not out of the question for him to share the field simultaneously with Rawls, Alex Collins, and Christine Michael either, as he will probably line up as a receiver often. Last year, we saw rookies with similar skill sets excel when given opportunities: Javorius Allen in Baltimore, Jeremy Langford in Chicago and Duke Johnson in Cleveland each provided PPR upside for fantasy owners. Prosise is a better player than all of them.
His ADP currently hovers around the mid-teen rounds in standard leagues and at the end of Round 11 in PPR formats, but the case has been made that he's worth reaching for earlier than that given his safe floor.
The red zone hero
Ivory was the Jets' go-to guy in the red zone in 2015, hogging 62 percent of red zone rush attempts (38 of 60) with six touchdowns. He'll play that same role in Jacksonville since T.J. Yeldon wasn't great inside the 20-yard line last year. Yeldon scored a single rushing touchdown in the red area on 22 attempts as a rookie, while quarterback Blake Bortles had two on eight red-zone rushes.
When he was healthy last year, Ivory was great in fantasy. He posted double-digit fantasy point totals eight times. But when he was hobbled, which was often, his production expectedly suffered; He posted single digits or completely missed games due to injury on eight occasions. Trying to predict when Ivory would go off, or when he would fizzle out was a frustrating game to play. His biggest weakness is evidently his durability.
Ivory racked up 277 total touches last year in New York but for a 28-year-old back, there is still a good amount of tread left on his tires with just 883 rush attempts through six pro seasons. That's probably part of the reason Jacksonville paid up to sign him, hoping to extend his career by keeping him fresh and rotating the younger Yeldon in when needed.
Ivory's ADP presents another bargain for fantasy owners that should be taken advantage of. He's being drafted in Round 8 as the RB27. For a guy who's going to get pretty much all of the red zone opportunities, he is a must-own running back at that price.
Matt Franciscovich is an associate fantasy editor for NFL.com. Follow him on Twitter @MattFranchise.