Whether you employ the "ZeroRB" 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 2017 campaign at their current ADP, for one reason or another. I'm not saying that if you draft Ameer Abdullah, he's going to win your league for you. But at his current asking price and with the potential to bounce back after missing 14 games with a foot injury, I think he's undervalued. Take a look at the list and breakdowns below, and feel free to slander my takes on Twitter dot com @MattFranchise. It's cool, I'm used to it.
The year was 2016. It was the first week of regular season NFL football, and the Miami Dolphins boarded a plane to Seattle. Jay Ajayi was not on that plane. You might remember that he didn't travel with the team, because Miami had named Arian Foster their Week 1 starting running back and Ajayi was reportedly upset about losing his opportunity after a poor preseason.
But in the NFL, life comes at you fast. By Week 6, Foster had retired because of injury. Ajayi took the wheel in the Miami backfield and put up two consecutive 200-yard games (he added another in Week 16). For what it's worth, I had listed Ajayi in last year's must-own running back article, but in a different category as a guy who had RB1 potential. Now, after a breakout season in which he finished as fantasy's RB11, he's a borderline first-round pick in fantasy leagues.
All offseason, there's been a steady, positive drumbeat regarding Ajayi's potential in his third pro season. Hyperbolic tropes have oozed from various sources. For instance, his receiving skills are "200 percent" better, he could see "350 carries," he is the "most improved" player on the Dolphins, he has looked "much smoother running routes" and one ESPN reporter even projected him for 1,900 yards from scrimmage.
I did say "borderline" first round fantasy pick, but when you toss in those kinds of accolades, Ajayi simply cannot be ignored. With the developing news surrounding Ezekiel Elliott and a potential suspension, the only backs who you might be able to argue drafting ahead of Ajayi (after David Johnson and Le'Veon Bell are off the board) are Melvin Gordon, LeSean McCoy and Devonta Freeman.
With a healthy offensive line and upgraded pass-catching corps that includes a more polished DeVante Parker, newly acquired tight end Julius Thomas, Kenny Stills and of course Jarvis Landry, there's no reason to think that Ajayi won't improve upon his 287-touch, 1,400-yard, eight-touchdown sophomore campaign.
Some may view the Packers' offseason moves as a sign that they don't fully believe that Ty Montgomery can be their primary back for the upcoming season. Green Bay selected three running backs in the NFL Draft: Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones and Devante Mays. Williams was one of my personal favorite sleepers in the 2017 class, and Jones is an all-around talent with potential to work his way up any NFL team's depth chart. But as we stand today, Montgomery is slated to be the Packers' number one guy out of the backfield to start the season.
A converted wideout who is still learning how to play running back, Montgomery was forced into the role last season due to injuries and a lack of depth at the position. That's exactly why I do not see these running back additions in the draft as a lack of confidence in Montgomery ... the team literally had nobody else in the backfield. Eddie Lacy was lost to the Seahawks in free agency, James Starks was released and Christine Michael ... well, that didn't work out.
We should get a better idea of how the Packers plan on deploying their running backs once training camp commences, but for now, Montgomery's current ADP has him going as the 21st running back off the board, in the middle of Round 6. Considering that he's a versatile dual-threat back with pass-catching abilities that rival (or are better than) Theo Riddick or C.J. Prosise, that's an unbelievable bargain.
Last year, when Montgomery was basically a running back in training, he ended up leading the entire league at the position with a 5.9 yards per carry average among backs with a minimum of 75 attempts, per NFL Research. The Packers' rushing offense was leaps and bounds more efficient and productive when Montgomery was starting:
And sure, he only has one game in his career where he's totaled 10-plus rush attempts. But in that game, Week 15 against the Bears last year, he destroyed Chicago's defense with 162 rush yards and two scores planting himself firmly on the map as an offensive weapon opposing defenses need to be aware of.
Think about it: Montgomery learned on the fly how to play running back midseason. After an entire offseason studying the nuances of the position, he'll likely see more volume, be better in pass-protection (something that kept him off the field at times last year, per Evan Silva of Rotoworld) and will be, hopefully, even more efficient with extra scoring opportunities.
Now, after a full offseason to hone his skillset at running back, all signs point to him out-producing his fantasy draft stock. Add in his ability to catch the ball out the backfield, plus taking snaps in the slot or out wide, you know, like a wide receiver would, and you have yourself a fantasy back with a sky-high ceiling.
I recently wrote that James White was a great late-round value at running back this season, and that still holds true. But another back in New England is being drafted much earlier based on his outlook as the Patriots' early down grinder, potentially assuming the role we saw LeGarrette Blount thrive in last year.
Mike Gillislee's rapidly rising ADP corroborates the immense amount of hype he's generated this offseason. Formerly LeSean McCoy's backup in Buffalo, Gillislee's move to New England was not a lateral one, but a promotion. Projected as the lead back in one of the most prolific offenses in the NFL, he should get goal-line looks and clock-salting duties late in games where New England has a solid lead (which will likely be often).
Last year with the Bills, when McCoy missed Week 8 with an injury, Gillslee stepped into the starting role against his new team, New England. He averaged 7.1 yards per carry in the game, taking his 15 touches for 94 total yards and a score. The Patriots apparently liked what they saw and snatched him up in free agency.
The biggest factor in Gillislee's rise among fantasy ranks heading into 2017 is his efficiency, albeit in a limited role. In the final five weeks of the 2015 season, he averaged a remarkable 9.1 yards per carry on 47 carries and scored three touchdowns. In 2016, he had a career-high 101 rush attempts for 576 yards and nine total touchdowns and averaged 5.7 yards per carry. Again, in the final five weeks last year, when many fantasy managers weren't paying close attention, Gillislee averaged 7.6 yards per carry on 47 carries.
The fact that he's set to assume the "Blount role" in New England's high-flying offense led by Tom Brady and a stacked pass-catching corps, makes Gillislee a must-own running back that fantasy managers should be able to draft in Round 7, with RB1 upside.
It isn't totally fair to call Abdullah a bust based on last season since he suffered a season-ending foot injury in Week 2. He was more a victim of health than a guy who simply didn't perform. When he was healthy for all of 18 total attempts, though, he was absolutely electric with a 5.6 yards per carry average. He collected 158 total yards in about 1.5 games before his injury and was rolling in Detroit's offense. As a rookie, he averaged 4.2 yards per carry on 143 attempts, but struggled with ball security issues (as rookies frequently do) and only managed three total scores in 16 games.
There are a few reasons Abdullah's arrow is pointing up for fantasy purposes.
First, the Lions made some high-profile moves to bolster their less-than-mediocre offensive line. And despite the recent loss of second-year tackle Taylor Decker due to injury, the team added Greg Robinson from the Rams and acquired T.J. Lang and Ricky Wagner in free agency this offseason. Any way you look at it, upgrades have been made.
Detroit didn't select a single running back in the NFL Draft last spring, and didn't acquire any backs in free agency either. This signals that the coaching staff is fully confident that Abdullah can be their primary runner in his third pro season. The bell-cow type volume upside isn't there, because Riddick remains a solid change-of-pace option and Zach Zenner remains a short-yardage power option. But a back like Abdullah doesn't need 250 carries to be a fantasy asset, especially when you consider his Round 8 asking price in fantasy drafts. At that price, he's a must-own with breakout potential.
Full disclosure, this was supposed to be where I caped up for Texans' rookie back D'Onta Foreman. Unfortunately, he's in the news for the wrong reasons, so I'm shifting gears to Redskins' back Samaje Perine. The Oklahoma product is poised for a huge opportunity in Washington. For now, it sounds like the primary role is incumbent Rob Kelley's to lose. But given Perine's background, he could easily supplant Kelley as the starter (sorry Rob, love you).
If you're not familiar with the fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma, his real strength is in his, well, strength.
The dude taped bricks to his dumb bells-at age 12-to add intensity to his workouts. In 2015, he lifted a 1,500-lb car off the ground so that a woman stranded on Oklahoma's campus could change a tire. And most recently, he paced every running back at the 2017 NFL Combine in bench press reps with 30 (225lbs). The best part is that he knows how to translate that strength to on-field productivity.
You might remember hearing about an Oklahoma back setting the NCAA record for rushing yards in a game with 427 in 2014--that was Perine. He's also the Sooners' all-time leading rusher. Perine profiles as a big power back who knows how to use his upper body to plow through defenders, break tackles and get big chunks of yardage after contact.
From what Washington's coaches have said about the rookie thus far, it sounds like they're more than pleased with their draft selection and have high hopes for him in his first season. Head coach Jay Gruden and running backs coach Randy Jordan have both praised Perine for his performance in offseason workouts. Gruden called him a "total package," while Jordan highlighted his ability to catch the ball and his exceptionally good feet, for a 233-pounder.
Kelley remains the favorite to start training camp as the primary back on the heels of a somewhat productive second-half of the 2016 season. But an entire 25 percent of his 120.6 standard fantasy points last year came in one, three-touchdown game. In the final five weeks of the season, Kelley averaged an unimpressive 3.1 yards per carry. So Washington went out and got themselves a better version of Kelley, in Perine. Fantasy owners should do the same on draft day.
(Perine gets bonus points for his stellar beard game, too.)
A season ago, LeGarrette Blount finished as fantasy's RB7. He led the NFL in rush attempts (299) and rushing touchdowns (18) and played a major role in the Patriots' Super Bowl-winning run. Now, Blount is with the Philadelphia Eagles, and fantasy owners are drafting him, on average, in Round 7 behind guys like Spencer Ware and Eddie Lacy. This leads one to believe that there's no faith in Blount repeating that 18-touchdown mark. Shocker. Given his draft price though, he's a must-own running back this season.
The Eagles needed a big power back, and they got their guy in free agency. At 6-foot-0 and 250 lbs., Blount dwarfs the other backs on Philly's roster. It's a perfect situation for a big, aging back like Blount who will split time with (also aging) Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood and rookie Donnel Pumphrey (if Ryan Mathews remains on the roster, we may have to revisit this scenario).
There is no doubt that Blount is going to rack up early-down snaps and will be the go-to guy in goal-line situations. In fact, according to ESPN's Matthew Berry, no player in the NFL has had more rush attempts inside the 5-yard line than Blount over the last two seasons (33 combined). That probably has to do with the Patriots being in scoring position frequently, and it's a trend that won't hold up in Philadelphia. But Blount should step into the early-down, short-yardage role we saw Mathews assume last year. Despite missing three games due to injury last year (and ghosting in others), Mathews still managed 16 rush attempts inside the 5-yard line which tied him for fourth-most among running backs.
The Eagles have added a game-changing player to their running back room; Blount forced the fourth-most missed tackles among running backs according to Pro Football Focus. If you can think of a better way to take the pressure off second-year quarterback Caron Wentz who ranked fifth in the NFL with 607 pass attempts as a rookie, please share.