1. Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Missing the first four games of the 2016 season, Bell has now missed three-plus games (suspension and/or injury) in three of his four seasons as a pro. When on the field last season, however, the (now) 25-year-old back was better than ever as he was on a 16-game pace of 2,512 yards from scrimmage, 100 receptions and 12 touchdowns. (The single-season YFS record is 2,509 by CJ2K in 2009.) Failing to reach a long-term deal prior to the July 17th deadline, Bell will play the season on the franchise tag, but he has yet to sign it and there's a good chance he'll sit out all of the preseason.
2. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
In his breakout sophomore campaign, Johnson led the NFL in yards from scrimmage (2,118) and total touchdowns (20) and led running backs in receptions (80) and fantasy points scored (in both standard and PPR-scoring formats). DJ's 2017 goal is to become the third player to record a 1,000-1,000 season. Listed 1-2 in my rankings, Le'Veon Bell and Johnson are more like 1(a) and 1(b) or even both T-1st.
3. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
Only two running backs -- Johnson and Elliott -- scored more fantasy points (standard scoring) than McCoy in 2016. In 15 games, McCoy had 1,267 rushing yards (a career-high 5.4 YPC), 50 catches for 356 yards and scored 14 total touchdowns. With the potential suspension for Ezekiel Elliott, the gap between RB3 and RB4 isn't that large.
4. Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
Despite averaging less than 4.0 YPC and missing the final three games, Gordon made huge strides in terms of fantasy production -- RB8 (RB7 in PPR) -- last season. Just three yards shy of 1,000 rushing yards, MG3 averaged 10.2 Y/R and scored 12 touchdowns. The Chargers plan to use more of a zone-based run scheme, which could help the run game overall and MG3 in particular improve efficiency.
5. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
Despite getting 57 fewer touches year-over-year, Freeman finished as a top-six fantasy running back in both standard- and PPR-scoring formats in 2016. Setting career highs in efficiency (4.8 YPC and 8.6 Y/R), Freeman now has back-to-back seasons with 1,000-plus rushing yards, 1,500-plus YFS, 50-plus receptions and 13-plus touchdowns.
6. Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins
There were four 200-yard rushing games last season and Ajayi had three of them. (Le'Veon Bell had the other.) Getting double-digit carries every week starting in Week 5, only Bell (243) had more carries than Ajayi (242) from Weeks 5 to 17 last season. Only Ezekiel Elliott (1,219) rushed for more yards than Ajayi (1,197) during that span. Entering 2017 as the team's bellcow back, Ajayi could challenge for the league lead in carries in 2017.
7. Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears
The Bears did not have much on offense last year, but Howard was the clear exception as the rookie finished second in rushing (1,313 yards on 252 carries). Along with Matt Forte (1,339 in 2013), it was just the second 1,300-yard season for the Bears in the past decade. Howard may not finish second in rushing once again, but he should see an even larger workload in his second season.
8. DeMarco Murray, Tennessee Titans
Exceeding expectations last season, Murray touched the ball 346 times for a total of 1,664 yards and 12 touchdowns as the clear lead back in the team's "exotic smashmouth" offense. Murray showed remarkable consistency as he finished as a weekly top-20 back in his first 14 games of the season. In fact, he finished as a top-10 weekly back in 10 of those 14 games as he averaged 22.7 touches per game over that span. Even if Derrick Henry's role expands in 2017, Murray remains "the guy" and should be in store for another top-10 fantasy season in Tennessee's run-based offense.
9. Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars
Using a top-four selection on Fournette, a back with a rare combination of size, power and speed, the Jags should make him a workhorse sooner rather than later with the possibility of seeing 20-plus touches per game. Given their strong defense, the Jags are likely to shift to a run-heavy approach after calling a run on only 37.26% of their plays (seventh-fewest) in 2016.
10. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
Leading the NFL in rushing attempts (322) and rushing yards (1,631) as a rookie, Elliott had a minimum of 80 rushing yards in every game from Weeks 2 to 16. Finishing second to Johnson in fantasy points scored, Elliott had a minimum of 10.7 fantasy points (standard scoring) in all 15 games played. Suspended six games by the NFL, Elliott is appealing the suspension and it could be a long drawn-out process, but a reduction to four games seems very possible (assuming he serves the suspension this year). If it gets cut to four games, it's certainly possible that he still finishes as a top-five fantasy running back -- Le'Veon Bell finished as fantasy's RB4 following a four-game suspension in 2016.
11. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
A disappointment to those that took him in the first round last year, Gurley's numbers were consistently bad throughout his sophomore campaign. Averaging only 3.2 yards per carry on the season, Gurley averaged more than 4.0 YPC only once and never exceeded 85 rushing yards in any game in 2016. Some of the same concerns remain from last season, but a more creative offensive approach should bode well for Gurley.
12. Lamar Miller, Houston Texans
One touch shy of 300 in 14 games played, Miller was inefficient in his first season with the Texans as he set or tied career lows in YPC (4.0) and Y/R (6.1). With the team using its third-round pick on D'Onta Foreman, perhaps his addition helps to keep Miller fresh(er) and lead to a bounce-back in efficiency.
13. Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland Browns
Crowell had single-digit carries in five games and less than 30 rushing yards in six of 16 games, but he set career highs in rushing yards (952), yards per carry (4.8) and receptions (40) in 2016. Not only did the Browns improve their offensive line in the offseason, but Hue Jackson expects to run the ball more often and the team added no real threat to Crowell's workload in the offseason.
14. Marshawn Lynch, Oakland Raiders
Coming out of retirement to play for his hometown Raiders, Lynch was a top-five fantasy running back in each of his past four full seasons. It would be unreasonable to expect that kind of production from him, but he should be viewed as an RB2 with plenty of weekly upside in Oakland's high-powered offense.
15. Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers
Through three NFL seasons, Hyde has played 34 of 48 games and missed multiple games each season. Aside from durability concerns, how he fits within Kyle Shanahan's offense could be an issue for Hyde. Earlier this offseason, many beat writers speculated that Hyde's role atop the depth chart may not be secure. Phrases coming from beat writers now vary from "Hyde is ready like never before for the upcoming season" to "I still don’t see how he fits this offense."
16. Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
With 4.5 speed at 226 pounds, Mixon has the talent and versatility to stay on the field on all three downs and has drawn some comparisons to David Johnson. For the Sooners, Mixon carried the ball 187 times for 1,274 yards (6.8 YPC) and 10 touchdowns and added 37/538/5 (14.5 Y/R) receiving in 2016. Marvis Lewis has talked up Mixon's on-field ability this offseason and he should become the team's lead back by the end of the season, if not sooner.
17. Tevin Coleman, Atlanta Falcons
Once again, Coleman has missed multiple games, but he showed his big-play ability when he was on the field. While Freeman will continue to lead the backfield in usage and production, Coleman had double-digit touches in 11 of his 13 games last year and finished the season as a top-20 fantasy running back.
18. Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints
The good news is that Ingram played a full 16-game slate for the second time in his career while posting career highs of 1,043 rushing yards, 5.1 yards per carry and 10 total touchdowns. With Ingram taking a back seat at times to Tim Hightower, the threat of losing an even larger share to Adrian Peterson is a real concern even if Ingram is earning more money and going into the season as the "starter."
19. Spencer Ware, Kansas City Chiefs
Ware averaged 17.6 touches and 97.7 scrimmage yards per game last season. Averaging 4.6 YPC and 11.6 Y/R in his two seasons in Kansas City, Ware seemed to wear down at the end of the season in his first year as a starter. Ware averaged 4.86 YPC through his first nine games but only 3.41 YPC in his final five regular-season games. Even with the selection of Kareem Hunt in Round 3, Ware is expected to enter the season as the starter. Will he keep the role, however?
20. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
Cook did not slip to the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft due to his on-field production at Florida State. While he didn't perform well in agility drills at the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine, Cook looked more explosive on the field as he exceeded the 100-yard rushing mark in nine of his final 10 games for the Seminoles with an average of 190.7 YFS per game during that stretch.
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