With free agency and the NFL draft approaching; it’s time to look at the 2017 RB situation for these backfield starters. At the beginning of every season, teams and fantasy owners alike seem to think they know exactly how each backfield will play out. Unfortunately, it’s not always how we planned it to be. Heck, sometimes wide receivers decide to become running backs and none if it seems to make any sense. That’s where I come in. I’m going to try to make sense of what has developed and what confidence level you should have about a lot of these backs you may own going into the 2017 free agency and NFL draft season. I will dig into starters, not passing or third down backs since those specialists are usually pretty safe.
My confidence zone is based on a few things; how good I feel the player is, how durable they have been, contract status, and how likely they are to be replaced or receive significant company heading into the 2017 season from free agency and this hefty draft class. The last time a draft was projected to be this deep was 2008 when Matt Forte, Chris Johnson, Ray Rice, Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Rashard Mendenhall, Jamaal Charles, Steve Slaton, Kevin Smith and Tashard Choice came out. Even Tim Hightower, Justin Forsett and Danny Woodhead came out that year and were late rounder’s or undrafted. All of the player’s above (besides Tashard Choice) are or were able to sustain fantasy usefulness (a season of RB2 production). To put it in perspective, the 2017 class is so deep that Barry Sanders wouldn’t be a Top-25 rated back. Sure, it’s Barry Sanders Jr., but still.
It’s time to turn our attention to the ‘Comfort Zone’:
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The Comfort Zone – 79-60% confidence in sustaining or growing a productive role in 2017
In most years this group of players would make you feel safe with your investment in them. This year is a little different. I’d be comfortable with this group, but I’m not making promises. These are your four-star resort players. Most of the time it’s great, but sometimes there are bed bugs. Hopefully you won’t need room service for:
8. Jordan Howard – Chicago Bears
Howard burst onto the scene week three against the Lions and never looked back. Despite a historically good rookie season, Howard is getting very little love from the dynasty community. All things considered, I thought Howard had the most impressive rookie season out of all skill position players. It sounds crazy to say that, but he finished second in the NFL in yards per carry (200 carry minimum) and did so with a sub-par quarterback carousel all season.
Although the Bears line was much better than anticipated, they were average at best as a whole. With that said, Howard’s success could be largely due to their terrific interior of Kyle Long, Josh Sitton and Cody Whitehair. With those three locked up through 2018, Howard should be licking his chops. He also proved capable in the passing game and that should quell much of our concern for a significant investment in a passing down back. Another promising sign is he did well (for a rookie) in pass protection from the handful of games that I watched.
Howard will undoubtedly see more attention in his sophomore campaign, so his efficiency might decrease some. As for his rushing touchdowns, he should be able to surpass his total of six from last season. He’d be much higher on this list if he had more draft pedigree and better passing game chops. I could see the Bears investing in someone like Travaris Cadet. I also don’t want to overreact to one great season from a day three draft pick. I’d consider Howard a strong buy if you can get him for a late first.
Confidence Zone: 79%
9. Todd Gurley – Los Angeles Rams
This is where things get tough for me. I don’t know what to make of Gurley’s putrid season and I don’t know what sort of player they add to the backfield. With Benny Cunningham a free agent, the Rams will undoubtedly bring in another runner. Does that mean a day two prospect, a day three prospect, a Danny Woodhead-type, or… Jamaal Charles? It’s all up in the air, but Gurley’s stranglehold on the workload will loosen a bit. That doesn’t mean his numbers will decline.
Frankly, I don’t think it could possibly get any worse than 2016 for Gurley. The hope is the Rams address the offensive line position and the quarterback play improves. Although Gurley fanatics will blame the line and the quarterbacks, there’s a lot of blame to be put on Gurley himself. My hunch says he was pressing too much and trying to make a big play every chance he got.
I went back ten years and I couldn’t find a single running back to have 250+ carries and average that few of yards per carry. That’s where my concern comes in. Maybe Gurley just isn’t as good as everyone thought he’d be? Everyone said Trent Richardson was basically bust proof, but that clearly wasn’t the case. I firmly expect Gurley to bounce back and have a solid season and career, but I also firmly expect Gurley to get more talented company than Benny Cunningham. Gurley should increase his efficiency, but I think his total touches decrease.
Confidence Zone: 75%
10. Melvin Gordon – Los Angeles Chargers
I promised myself and Twitter that I wouldn’t talk about Gordon until after the NFL draft, but I can’t leave him out of the article so I’ll make this short and sweet. I don’t think Gordon is as good as his touchdowns made him look. I will say, from week eight on he looked significantly better. He was finally turning his second level opportunities into bigger runs. He also had to do it behind a terrible offensive line again. A luxury he did have was his ex-Wisconsin fullback, Derek Watt.
If the Chargers can bolster their offensive line, Gordon can be a serviceable, but unspectacular running back. Why is he so low on my list? I feel he’s the least talented of the players mentioned so far. I also expect significant competition, his workload to decrease and his receptions to take a hit. At worst, they’ll re-sign Danny Woodhead. I think now is the time to sell Gordon, and there’s no way in King Tut’s tomb would I be actively buying “Mehlvin”.
Confidence Zone: 70%
11. Lamar Miller – Houston Texans
One of the biggest free agent let downs in 2016 was Miller. His efficiency as the lead back took a dip from his days in Miami. He finally had a backfield to himself with nobody breathing down his neck. He crept up to my RB6 in preseason rankings, and wasn’t even close to being reliable. In his defense, the entire Texans offense was pathetic. The line was worse than expected, Osweiler was a lot of words that I wouldn’t say around kids, and the play calling was beyond predictable.
The issue for Miller is that he didn’t show enough to be indispensable and it’s clear he’s not built for a full workload. I fully expect the Texans to bring in a solid back in the offseason and Miller will be looking at a RBBC for 2017. He’s only this high because of his $6.5 million dollar cap hit and they won’t just toss him aside. Look for Miller to finish around 200 carries in 2017 and settle as a mid-to-low RB2.
Confidence Zone: 66%
12. Mark Ingram – New Orleans Saints
Ingram finally stayed healthy and finally cracked 1,000 yards rushing. That’s also the reason he’s this low considering everything else that seems to be in his favor. Since being viewed as a bust in his four seasons, Ingram had a great showing when healthy in 2015 and followed that up with his healthiest and best season. He averaged over five yards per carry and caught 46 balls. With that said, he only had 205 carries and got benched a couple times in favor of Tim Hightower. It was difficult to anticipate his workload on a per week basis and that was with backup level talent as competition.
The Saints could go after Jamaal Charles for a contender’s discount, or a Jeremy McNichols/Donnel Pumphrey type in the draft. Regardless, it seems very likely the Saints bring in a back or two that are an improvement over Hightower and Cadet. If I’m an Ingram owner, I’m actively selling for a mid-first or even get forward thinking and target a 2018 first from a team you feel will struggle in 2017.
Confidence Zone: 65%
13. CJ Anderson – Denver Broncos
If you look at Anderson’s career numbers side by side with Carlos Hyde’s, you’ll be surprised by a few of the similarities. I bet if you asked 100 random dynasty owners, 95 of them would prefer Hyde to Anderson. While I’m very close on both, I’m giving the edge to Anderson in 2017.
Anderson’s team has half of the cap space and the same coaching staff. He also has a larger financial investment and he’s been slightly better on the field. Most would look at Devontae Booker as a concern, but I don’t think Booker is as big of a threat as what Hyde will likely see since the 49ers have a ton of money and a new offensive minded head coach that will want to make his own imprint on the team. The Broncos could bring in another back, but I think it’s a specialist more than an elite all-around back.
If you’re looking for a cheap RB2 for 2017, Anderson might be your guy. Try floating a late second or early third and see if you can get lucky. Remember, Anderson is significantly better than Booker in pass protection, so Anderson’s biggest threat is if the Broncos fall in love with an available back that they want to take the job immediately. Value vs potential production is in Anderson’s favor.
Confidence Zone: 65%
14. Isaiah Crowell – Cleveland Browns
Don’t close this window yet! Chill, let me explain. If the Browns hadn’t recently second round tendered Crowell, he’d be substantially lower on my list. The tender says enough about how the Browns feel about Crowell. He played very well, but he was the Rodney Dangerfield of running backs despite his great performances. Crowell performed exceptionally well against stacked boxes and showed much better patience in 2016.
The Browns have a nice thunder/lighting duo with Crowell and Duke Johnson, but they’re flush with cap space and there are plenty of free agent backs and rookies to be had. Despite the second round tender, I’m still concerned the Browns bring in a presence since Crowell is only due $2.81 million. The Browns investment in Crowell isn’t significant, so yours shouldn’t be either. I’d still look to buy, but I’d try a late second or early third and cross my fingers.
Confidence Zone: 61%
15. Carlos Hyde – San Francisco 49ers
To add/reiterate what I wrote in CJ Anderson’s section. Hyde is one of my least favorite running backs based on current value. I’ve never owned a single share of Hyde, and I doubt I ever will. I really like the idea of Shanahan being in town, but Hyde’s been hurt in almost every area of his body. When I hear my daughter sing “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”, I can’t help but think of Hyde.
Will he have a role in 2017? Absolutely, but there’s also absolutely no way he doesn’t get significant company this season. I think he’s talented enough to at least form a RBBC for as long as he stays healthy. Shanahan has turned Steve Slaton, Roy Helu, and Ryan Torrain into viable options, so Hyde owners should enjoy some production while it lasts. I wish I could have him higher, but durability and expected incoming competition leave me no choice. Plus, new coaching staff is never good for existing players that aren’t elite or durable. If I’m a Hyde owner, I’m selling before free agency and the NFL draft. Then I’d consider buying him back for cheaper after the 49ers acquire some competition. You might be able to sell for a mid-first and reacquire for a mid-second.
Confidence Zone: 60%
Coming in part three: The Anxiety Zone