The National Football League is about to get very interesting.
The start of free agency is almost here and the NFL Draft is just around the corner, so we're going to see a lot of player movement in the weeks and months to come (ain't it grand)! One of the offensive skill positions that figures to be affected the most also happens to be the most important position in fantasy football. That's right folks, the running backs are back ... and with a bunch of talented players heading into both free agency and the 2018 draft class, we are about to head into a time when backs could dominate in the stat sheets much like the days of Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith.
(I'm smiling like a Cheshire cat while writing this).
So, let's take a look at all 32 backfields before the storm of player movement begins and answer the questions ... what sort of value do the current backs have now, and who can we expect to be on the move? Also, I examine some of the moves that would make the most sense for each team from a fantasy football perspective, as well as some names for fans to watch when all the madness begins.
New head coach Steve Wilks wants to center his offense on the running game, which is music to the ears of fantasy owners who love David Johnson. He should see enough touches to produce at a high level and will be worth a top-five selection. The Cardinals are likely to part ways with Adrian Peterson, so the team could look to upgrade over Elijhaa Penny and D.J. Foster in the 2018 NFL draft.
The Falcons backfield will be status quo, as Devonta Freeman will continue to lead the charge. He'll be a high No. 2 fantasy running back and worth a second-round selection in most re-drafts. Tevin Coleman will continue to see enough touches behind him to be a viable flex starter and one of the best handcuffs in all of fantasy football. He'll likely come off the board in the middle to late rounds.
Alex Collins looked good in a featured role for the Ravens last season, averaging 20 touches and 89 all-purpose yards while scoring six touchdowns in his final nine games. I'd like to see him retain that role, which would put him on the radar as a No. 2 back or flex starter. I consider Danny Woodhead a potential cap casualty, so Kenneth Dixon and Javorius Allen would battle for the No. 2 role in camp.
The Bills will continue to lean on LeSean McCoy, who turns 30 in July, as their featured back and offensive centerpiece. That's good news (as long as he doesn't fall off the cliff due to age). Regardless of the scoring system, McCoy will be no worse than a second-round pick. The team signed Chris Ivory to a two-year deal in early March, so he will be the clear handcuff if McCoy is forced to miss any significant time in 2018.
The Panthers have their pass catcher in Christian McCaffrey, who will be worth a second or third-round selection in PPR drafts. The release of Jonathan Stewart means the team will add another back either in the draft or free agency. Jeremy Hill makes sense, as he's sort of a younger version of Stewart and he wouldn't take value from CMC in football leagues. If the Panthers draft Derris Guice or Nick Chubb, some of the shine would come off McCaffrey;s overall value headed into 2018.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Jordan Howard has done well for fantasy fans in his first two seasons as a pro, and he should continue to see the lion's share of the work under new head coach Matt Nagy. I like him as a high-end No. 2 fantasy back. Tarik Cohen is a playmaker with some Darren Sproles to his game, and there's some definite PPR value there if Nagy gets him more consistent touches.
Joe Mixon is the projected starter for 2018, but how much of the workload will Giovani Bernard take from him? During the course of last season, the veteran averaged 0.35 more PPR points per touch than his rookie teammate and was a strong fantasy option during the time Mixon was out due to injuries. Still, the Bengals would be wise to allow Mixon more touches as an NFL sophomore.
Based on their recent trades, I would like to see the Browns take Saquon Barkley with the top pick in the NFL draft. He'd be a potential No. 1 fantasy runner under offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Such a move would hurt Duke Johnson's value, though he could become a trade candidate (Titans?) in that scenario. If Barkley isn't selected, the Browns could go with another running back like Guice or Chubb at the top of the second round.
Call me a Cowboys homer, but I think Zeke could lead all running backs in fantasy points next season. He'll be motivated after a mess of a 2017 season, and Dallas will no doubt get him a ton of touches in the offense. With Darren McFadden retired and Alfred Morris set to become a free agent, I'd love to see Rod Smith emerge as is the clear-cut handcuff, in case Elliott misses time. He'll be drafted late in most leagues as insurance for Zeke.
I don't understand why the Broncos would sign C.J. Anderson to a nice contract and then mess with his touches, but I'm just a fantasy analyst. Now there's talk he could be released, which would open up the door for Devontae Booker to take over as the featured back. In that scenario, Booker would move into the flex starter conversation. If Anderson sticks, he'd obviously be the better pick.
Who else is tired of Ameer Abdullah? I think the Lions should lick their wounds and move on to a new running back ... soon-to-be free agent Carlos Hyde. He had his best fantasy season as a pro in 2017, and he'd fit in well with what Detroit does on the offensive side of the football. Hyde would be a No. 2 back in Hawaiian blue. That would leave Abdullah and Theo Riddick with late-round value.
Green Bay Packers
If I had a wish for the Packers backfield, it would be that Aaron Jones takes over the top spot and runs with it. Unfortunately, that's unlikely to happen with Ty Montgomery and Jamaal Williams also in the mix. In reality, this will be a three-headed backfield monster that will frustrate even the most seasoned fantasy owner. Strong rotations are good in fantasy baseball, but not in fantasy football backfields.
I've seen reports that the Texans could cut ties with veteran Lamar Miller, but can the team hand the baton to D'Onta Foreman with confidence? Sure, he looked good in limited time as a rookie. But the Texas product is also coming back from a serious Achilles tear. If he's free of setbacks and back in time for the start of training camp, I'd expect Foreman to push Miller for the top spot in Houston.
I would love to see Andrew Luck back at 100 percent and under center for the Colts in Week 1. I'd also love to see them draft Barkley with the No. 3 overall selection. If that doesn't happen, though, there are other options I like. Chubb would be atop that wish list, but a potential sleeper is Kerryon Johnson. Either running back would be the immediate favorite to start ahead of Marlon Mack in 2018.
This one is much ado about nothing, as Leonard Fournette has cemented his role as the featured back in Jacksonville after a successful rookie campaign. He'll be worth a first-round selection in all 2018 drafts. The Jaguars released Ivory (Bills), so the No. 2 running back on the depth chart will be a battle between T.J. Yeldon and Corey Grant. Neither will be worth more than a late-round flier.
Kansas City Chiefs
Kareem Hunt exploded onto the scene as a rookie, posting top-four PPR numbers among backs. There's no reason to believe coach Andy Reid will get cute with his backfield (though he's been known to do that at times), so even the potential return of Spencer Ware shouldn't keep Hunt from a featured role. Charcandrick West would remain his handcuff if Ware were to suffer any setbacks.
Los Angeles Chargers
One of the more undervalued running backs in fantasy football, Melvin Gordon put up 1,105 rushing yards, 12 total touchdowns, and a top-five PPR finish at the position last season. While rookie Austin Ekeler looked in his limited work, I don't see him as a major threat to Gordon's workload next season. He'll be more of a late-round flier and handcuff for fantasy owners who take Gordon in the first round.
Los Angeles Rams
Todd Gurley is coming off a brilliant season, as he compiled over 2,000 scrimmage yards and 19 total touchdowns on way to outscoring all other players at the running back position. While such a magical season will be hard to duplicate, Gurley is going to be no worse than a top-three overall pick in 2018. The Rams might add a veteran to compete with Malcolm Brown, but Gurley is the main man.
Kenyan Drake was awesome in a featured role last season. In fact, he averaged 4.9 yards per rush attempt and more than 0.90 points per touch during a three-week stretch in December. But with Damien Williams set to be a free agent, the Dolphins have to make a move to add depth at running back. The hope for fantasy fans is that it's not a back like Anderson or Isaiah Crowell, which would cause a potential committee. As the top back, Drake would have No. 2 runner appeal.
The Vikings backfield is set in stone, as Dalvin Cook will return as the top back on the depth chart ... assuming there are no setbacks in his return from an ACL tear. With Jerick McKinnon set to become a free agent, Minnesota will turn to Latavius Murray as it's No. 2 runner and a nice handcuff for owners who land Cook. The Florida State product could be worth as much as a second-round pick in drafts.
New England Patriots
Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead are set to become free agents, and I don't see the Patriots shelling out the dough to pay the former. So, what if the team brought back LeGarrette Blount and paired him with Burkhead to form a nice one-two punch? Another scenario could have them pursue Anderson if the Broncos decide to release him. Regardless, James White will remain a late-round PPR selection.
New Orleans Saints
New York Giants
The G-Men are in desperate need of a running back, so much that there's talk Barkley could be their target with the No. 2 overall pick (if the Browns don't take him first). If that happens, Barkley will be a first-round pick in re-drafts. If the team passes on Barkley, however, I'd like to see the G-Men target Guice or Chubb at the top of the second round. A starting role would be in the cards for either.
New York Jets
The retirement of Matt Forte means the Jets will be looking for a running back. Bilal Powell isn't going to be the top man, and Elijah McGuire has potential but I don't see him filling a featured role. Instead, I'd like to see the Men in Green take Ronald Jones II at the top of the second round. He improved in the passing game last season and would be a potential top-50 fantasy pick in New York.
There's been no concrete news that Marshawn Lynch is coming back, but let's assume he does. This wouldn't keep the Raiders from going after a running back in the NFL draft, and I like Sony Michel as a potential fit. Comparable to Kamara in terms of his size and skill set, he'd be a nice add in Round 2 as an offensive spark. Coach Jon Gruden could use him like former fantasy star Charlie Garner.
The best fantasy scenario here is for the Eagles to move Jay Ajayi into a featured role while allowing Corey Clement to become the team's new pass-catching complement. Of course, this would mean a parting of ways with Blount. At 31, he would have more fantasy value if he went back to New England or even his other former team, the Bucs. Staying in Philadelphia would create a headache for fans.
This one is a no-brainer, as Le'Veon Bell is in the mix to be the No. 1 overall pick in 2018 fantasy football drafts. But if he returns on the franchise tag and the two sides can't find common ground on a deal, there's a chance Bell could skip training camp for the second straight season. That's not ideal, despite what he did in a similar situation in 2017. James Conner would remain the top handcuff for owners.
San Francisco 49ers
The Niners backfield looks like it's going to see a shakeup, as reports suggest the team may not keep Hyde. In that scenario, I'd like to see them sign Lewis. He's a good fit for the offense, and he knows Jimmy Garoppolo well from their time in New England. The team could also address the position in the draft, which is very deep with talent. Kerryon Johnson could be an option as well if he falls down into the third round.
The Seahawks won't bring back Eddie Lacy, and both Thomas Rawls and C.J. Prosise have proven to be unreliable. That leaves Chris Carson, who showed flashes of potential before going down with an injury as a rookie. He will have some sleeper appeal as the projected early-down runner in Seattle, but the team could also add a versatile, veteran complement. McKinnon may be an option for coach Pete Carroll, and he would look pretty good catching passes from Russell Wilson.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers have released Doug Martin, leaving them with limited options at the running back position. Peyton Barber looked at times last season, but I see Tampa Bay making a move for a rookie in the draft. That could be Guice or Chubb at the top of Round 2 if either is available, or the team could go with Michel if he's still on the board. Regardless, the Bucs are likely to have a potential featured back with some fantasy upside in 2018. A veteran like Hyde or Crowell could be a fit too.
This one is as cut and dry as it gets ... DeMarco Murray is done in Tennessee, so it's time to move Derrick Henry into a featured role. The Alabama product could now move up into the top 20-30 overall picks in all fantasy drafts. The Titans will look to add a complement this offseason, and that could be the versatile Jaylen Samuels in the draft or Duke Johnson in a trade. Regardless, this is now Henry's backfield. Giddy up!
The Redskins want to upgrade at running back, as neither of Robert Kelley or Samaje Perine showed well as a starter in 2017. That could happen in the draft with a Day 2 back like Kerryon Johnson or Rashaad Penny. Regardless, this is going to be a committee situation as long as Chris Thompson returns from a broken leg without setbacks. He'll be the most valuable fantasy back in Washington, even more so in PPR formats.