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 cut to the chase with the ‘Safety Zone’:
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The Safety Zone – 80-100% confidence in sustaining or growing a productive role in 2017
This group of players should safely see out their 2017 seasons as starters. The only thing that should get in their way is injury. If you own the group listed below you should feel as safe as possible… for running backs that is. Here are the bell cows that should milk the competition:
1. Ezekiel Elliott – Dallas Cowboys
What an animal. I planted my flag on Zeke as the RB1 preseason despite never sniffing an NFL field. I admittedly said at one point that Todd Gurley was the superior talent so this is my formal apology to Zeke. You can make a legitimate case for David Johnson or Le’Veon Bell, but for my money, it’s Zeke based on a few things.
He has the best situation by a country mile. He has a dominant offensive line to go along with a solid, young quarterback. Not only that, but the Cowboys know what butters their offensive bread so they run the ball more than any other team in the league. Very few top five draft picks exceed expectations, but Zeke did. His talent, versatility, and situation make him the number one dynasty back to own and also the safest for 2017. If it weren’t for off the field red flags, he’d be as close to 100% as they come.
Confidence Zone: 98%
2. David Johnson – Arizona Cardinals
Johnson finished as the top fantasy asset by 40+ points in PPR leagues, comfortably ahead of Aaron Rodgers. Amazingly, he did it without clearing 300 carries on the season. In fact, he carried the ball 99 times less than DeMarco Murray did in his monstrous 2014 campaign and still outscored Murray despite that.
If it wasn’t for Le’Veon Bell’s presence in the league, Johnson would be substantially better as a dual-threat running back than any other back in the league. The only worry I have for Johnson is when the Cardinals go into rebuild mode. His efficiency could take a massive hit. He’s under contract through 2018, but an extension well before then wouldn’t be a surprise, but the main concern is an unlikely significant reduction in workload in order to increase Johnson’s longevity.
Confidence Zone: 98%
3. Le’Veon Bell – Pittsburgh Steelers
I know, I know. I stated that contract status matters and so does durability, but Bell is an exception to the rule because the talent is otherworldly. Not even his off the field concerns have me considering anybody higher than him outside of Zeke and DJ from a 2017 confidence perspective. He’s undoubtedly the best running back in the league when on the field, which has happened only 73% of the time throughout his four year career.
In 2016, Bell averaged 157 total yards per game and was the first player in NFL history to average over 100 yards rushing and 50 yards receiving per game. Although he’s a free agent, he’ll likely re-sign with the Steelers. Even if he doesn’t, he’ll have no timeshare to worry about and a fat contract to boot. With players like Bell that have had substance abuse problems in the past, the off-season is always a concern, but Bell has proven to be worth the risk. That said, he’s not a bad candidate to sell if you can’t stomach the risks.
Confidence Zone: 90%
4. Devonta Freeman – Atlanta Falcons
Now, if this was a long-term stability ranking, I’d have Freeman a couple of spots lower since he’s set to become a free agent after the 2017 season. For now, he’s firmly in my top five running backs for 2017. The main reason he’s this high is that despite his production decreasing from 2015 to 2016 and the presence of Tevin Coleman, his efficiency increased and he finished as the sixth overall running back in PPR scoring.
This list is about maintaining or increasing your role and production, and Freeman should have no problem doing that. Interestingly enough, when Tevin Coleman missed three straight weeks this season against Green Bay, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia, Freeman’s production was actually well below his season averages.
He averaged 17.6 touches per game on the season, and with Coleman sidelined, he only averaged 16.3 touches per game. That further validates my confidence in Freeman as an RB1 for the 2017 season and it’s a bonus that he’s played 47 out of 48 career regular season games. My one concern is the unknown with Kyle Shanahan’s departure and how that changes the timeshare distribution.
Confidence Zone: 88%
Note: Tevin Coleman also this high and is a low-end RB2 when playing.
5. LeSean McCoy – Buffalo Bills
Left for dead and tumbling down draft boards in the 2016 off-season was Shady McCoy. After a tumultuous 2015, McCoy owners couldn’t get a sack of potatoes in return for the potential future Hall of Famer. He had his third best fantasy season of his career, second most touchdowns and best yards per carry mark. There was a ton of juice left in Shady’s legs as he finished fourth in fantasy point per game at the running back position.
McCoy might be a contender’s dream if they’re looking to attain an elite back at a good price before free agency and the draft. With a hefty contract and the largest cap hit at the running back position in the league, McCoy is safely entrenched as the lead back in Buffalo. Many other veterans can be had for cheap, but very few have this much job stability this early in the off-season. If McCoy can be had for a late second, I’d purchase with confidence for 2017.
Confidence Zone: 85%
6. Jay Ajayi – Miami Dolphins
There wasn’t a bigger fan of Jay Ajayi than myself during the 2015 NFL draft process. He was my number two back on the board behind Gurley, but I admittedly lost faith when the 2016 off-season rolled around and Adam Gase was looking for anyone with a pulse in free agency to take the starting gig. Arian Foster was the prized signing, and I danced around my house naked in excitement. Not because Foster is my all-time favorite player, but that I knew Ajayi would soon have the backfield all to his own. I put the over/under at 3.5 games before injury, and Foster only made it two.
Gase didn’t know what he had in Ajayi until week five when he stampeded all over the Steelers for 204 yards and then did it again the following week against the Bills. From that point on, there was no looking back. He added a third 200 yard rushing game against the Bills later in the season. He joined Earl Campbell, OJ Simpson, and Tiki Barber as the only players to do so. He also did it with one of the worst offensive lines in the league. A healthy Mike Pouncey in 2017 should have Ajayi owners salivating.
The only concerns I have for Ajayi is Kenyan Drake capping his ceiling by taking significant snaps in passing situations, and the Dolphins bringing in another body to hedge against Ajayi’s knee becoming an issue. Other than that, it should be all systems go for the Jay Train.
Confidence Zone: 82%
7. DeMarco Murray – Tennessee Titans
Much like the number five player on this list, Murray was written off after an abysmal 2015 in Philly. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that Murray isn’t a back suited for carries out of a shotgun set. It wasn’t just Murray as Adrian Peterson showed that he wasn’t suited for carries out of the shotgun in 2015 either. A change of scenery to Tennessee was a gift from the football heavens and the Titans brass built their offensive line better than almost any other team in the NFL.
Murray owners were left stunned when Derrick Henry was drafted in the second round and any value Murray had was gone in an instant. What transpired during the 2016 season surprised every football fan alive as Murray carried the ball 293 times and was good enough for third most in the NFL. When I heard Mike Mularkey claim they would run a smashmouth in an exotic fashion, I assumed Henry would see at least 50% of the attempts. Boy was I wrong. Murray ended up with 72.7% of the carries and finished fifth in fantasy points at the running back position.
Rumors early this off-season suggest that Murray will see a similar workload in 2017 since his versatility is an advantage over Henry. Even if his touches decrease a bit, Murray should see a healthy enough of a workload to put up RB1 numbers once again. With a contract chunkier than Vince Wilfork, the Titans will get their money’s worth for another season. My only concern (outside of Henry’s obvious presence) is how ineffective Murray became in his last six games of the season. If that was end of season fatigue, fine. If that was the beginning of the end of his juice, not fine. Similar to McCoy, if you can get Murray for a late second, he’s worth reinforcing a contending dynasty team.
Confidence Zone: 80%
Coming in part two: The Comfort Zone