Of course we do. Le'Veon Bell, Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott are a few of the elite running backs who will be great assets to our 2018 fantasy football rosters. Unfortunately, building an entire team loaded with playmakers can be difficult once we get out of the first few rounds of our upcoming drafts.
Or is it?
To find out, we need to determine which statistical categories are most important in determining what makes a "playmaker" in terms of his skill set. At the running back position, I believe an athlete has to find success in the following categories: broken tackles per touch (rush/catch), yards per rush, rushes of 10 or more yards, receptions (PPR), yards after catch and receptions of 20 or more yards. I weighed these categories on importance, so broken tackles (for example) would be seen as a more valuable physical asset than rushes of 10 or more yards.
Why did I choose these stats, and not for example red-zone opportunities or touchdowns? Well, those don't give us a picture of what a player can do with his physical tools. Touchdowns are hard to predict, and scoring a bunch doesn't make someone a playmaker.
Remember when Matt Asiata scored nine rushing touchdowns during the 2014 season? That's a nice total, right? But when you look deeper, you'll find that he scored six of those touchdowns inside the five-yard line and all nine from the 10-yard line or closer.
Does that make him a playmaker?
No, it just means that the Vikings trusted him deep in the red zone and gave him those opportunities. Overall, he averaged a modest 3.5 yards per rush. That's not impressive. What we really want is a runner who makes the most of his rushes, extends plays with speed and elusiveness, breaks tackles and moves the football downfield. In this age of PPR scoring systems, which are prevalent in the industry in formats including high-stakes and daily fantasy leagues, we also want a runner who can catch the ball out of the backfield.
Alright, so who were the top playmakers based on this criteria during the 2017 campaign? Well, I'm not going to bore you with the obvious names like Gurley, Bell, Elliott, or any other running back who was in the top 10 in PPR points per game average last season. That list also includes the likes of Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, Melvin Gordon, Leonard Fournette and Mark Ingram.
Instead, I'm going to throw out the "non-elite" runners who were impressive in all or most of the seven categories I listed above. These are the backs, all of whom saw 140 or more touches last season, who had the look of a playmaker based on this research. Does that guarantee success in 2018?
Duke Johnson, Cleveland Browns: Johnson's skills as a pass catcher are a big plus, but did you know that he also ranked second in broken tackles per touch and in carries of 10 or more yards? He was also third in receptions of 20 or more yards. Unfortunately, the additions of Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb in the backfield and Jarvis Landry in the pass attack will be a hindrance to Johnson's stats this season. He's on the flex starter radar in PPR formats, but regression is almost guaranteed.
Dion Lewis, Tennessee Titans: Lewis' last season in New England was an impressive one, as he finished second in yards per rush and rushing yards after contact while also ranking in the top 10 among backs in broken tackles per touch and runs of 10 or more yards. Lewis' overall upside is limited, however, as he will share the backfield work in Tennessee with Derrick Henry. With that said, grabbing the versatile Lewis as a PPR flex starter in the middle rounds still makes a lot of sense.
Kenyan Drake, Miami Dolphins: Fans of Drake absolutely love his skills as a playmaker. He ranked first in rushing yards after contact, third in broken tackles and tied for third in yards per rush among qualifies running backs last season, and now he's seen as the favorite to start for coach Adam Gase. If there's one downside, it's his situation ... Frank Gore isn't there to simply be a mentor, and rookie Kalen Ballage is also in the mix. Drake is talented, but a committee is possible.
Marshawn Lynch, Oakland Raiders: Lynch remained in "Beast Mode" during his first season in Oakland, finishing seventh in rushing yards after contact and third in broken tackles. The problem was that he wasn't utilized as much has he should have been ... Lynch averaged fewer than 12 touches over his first nine games. Will that improve in 2018? Maybe not, as the Raiders added Doug Martin to a crowded backfield. I expect Lynch to lead a committee, but a featured role seems unlikely.
Alex Collins, Baltimore Ravens: Collins rated well in a number of categories, including yards per rush, carries of 10 or more yards and receptions of 20 or more yards. He also ranked seventh in yards per rush among our qualifiers with an average of 4.59 per attempt. While Javorius Allen and Kenneth Dixon are also in the mix, Collins looks like the clear lead back for the Ravens. Based on his playmaker rating, he's a good target for owners who prefer to take wideouts in Rounds 1 and 2.
C.J. Anderson, Carolina Panthers: Anderson, a younger version of former Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart, ranked fourth in rushing yards after contact and was in the top 20 in both broken tackles per touch and rushes of 10 or more yards a season ago. He was non-existent as a pass catcher, however, and will be hard pressed to make an impact in that space with Christian McCaffrey on the roster. Anderson might be in line for six to eight touchdowns, but his ceiling is much lower.
Jay Ajayi, Philadelphia Eagles: Ajayi, who is entering a contract year, finished last season tied for sixth in broken tackles per touch and 11th in rushes of 10 or more yards. In his seven regular-season games with the Eagles, he averaged an impressive 5.8 yards per rush. While the presence of Darren Sproles and Corey Clement will limit his totals as a receiver out of the backfield, Ajayi should see a far bigger workload with LeGarrette Blount in Detroit. He's a viable RB2 in drafts.
Tarik Cohen, Chicago Bears: Cohen ranked in the top 25 among backs in yards per rush, rushing yards after contact and was tied for sixth in broken tackles per touch a season ago. New coach Matt Nagy will use Cohen's skills as a playmaker much more effectively than the previous regime, and the team's expected use of RPO (run pass option) just makes Cohen even more attractive. Keep in mind, however, that his ceiling is limited behind Jordan Howard. Still, Cohen is a potential draft steal.
Jerick McKinnon, San Francisco 49ers: McKinnon further proved his chops as a receiver last season, finishing 12th in receptions, ninth in yards after catch and fourth in receptions of 20 or more yards. He was also tied for eighth among qualified runners in broken tackles per touch. Now slated to see the "Devonta Freeman" role in the offense of coach Kyle Shanahan, McKinnon offers high RB2 value in PPR formats. If he can handle the increased workload, he's a surefire breakout candidate.
Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans: Henry's limitations as a pass catcher are well documented, which brought on the offseason addition of Lewis. However, he's a talented playmaker as a runner. He ranked in the top 20 in yards per rush, rushing yards after contact, carries of 10 or more yards and broken tackles per touch a season ago, and he put the Titans backfield on his shoulders during their short postseason run. A high-touchdown candidate, Henry would be a tremendous flex starter.
Notes:Aaron Jones didn't meet our requirements, but he averaged 5.53 yards per rush and had 12 carries of 10 or more yards in limited time. Despite his two-game suspension, there's still some upside for the second-year runner. ... Breakout candidate Dalvin Cook averaged 4.8 yards per rush and 0.11 broken tackles per touch during his four games as a rookie. With almost 11 months time to recover, he should be good to go for the start of 2018 and would be an attractive RB1/RB2 in the second round. ... Marlon Mack ranked second among running backs with at least 100 touches in rushing yards after contact last season. He also tied for 11th in carries of 20 or more yards, though his overall yards per rush average (3.85) wasn't overly impressive. Mack's competition against rookies Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins is one to watch. ... Joe Mixon saw 60 more touches than Giovani Bernard as a rookie, but the latter was better in terms of yards per rush and averaged just 0.61 fewer PPR points per game. While Mixon is the projected bell cow for coach Marvin Lewis, his featured status in the offense will be based on keeping Bernard in more of a complementary role. ... LeGarrette Blount ranked tied for eighth in yards per rush and broken tackles per touch among qualified runners last season, making him more elusive than you might think. His presence could put a wrench into the sleeper/breakout potential of rookie Kerryon Johnson, who has a higher average draft position (ADP).