Tips for Drafting Running Backs

What is your plan for the 1st pick in your upcoming fantasy football draft? 

It’s most likely going to be a running back, and the first pick in your draft can make or break your fantasy season. Not to mention your overall happiness during football season!  

Top fantasy running backs have the ability to have massive fantasy days, especially in PPR formats.  

RB’s involved in the passing game

The top running backs on the board in Christian McCaffery and Dalvin Cook. They possess that elite ability to not only run for 100 yards on the ground. They will also get you 100 yards receiving as well while hauling in 10 catches.  

This makes for quite the game in any given week and can almost single-handedly win you a matchup.  

There are many different draft strategies around taking running backs. Finding those sleeper picks that fall down draft boards, and avoiding the big name or trending players that could prove to be busts. 

Let’s take a look into all of that in this one as we get into one of the most boom or bust positions in fantasy football.

Running back tiers

When drafting it’s important to understand RB tiers. This was you can make a call as your pick comes up as to whether or not you need to draft an RB.

If there are still plenty left within a tier perhaps you’re better off picking a higher ranked WR or TE and picking an RB in the next round.

If it’s likely there will still be RB’s available within the current tier. However, if you’ll be dropping into the next tier by your next pick it may be best to lock in an RB now.

Running Back (RB) Tiers Chart

Boom or bust RB’s

To start, let’s get deeper into the running backs projected to go first round in most leagues. For this article, we’re going to assume a 10 team PPR league.  

10 team PPR league mock draft

Out of the top 10 picks, probably 9 of them will be running backs, with the exception being Devante Adams going mid to late first round.  

As mentioned, the top two picks and running backs will be Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook. These two players have zero holes in their fantasy game.

However, for simplicity and logic of draft pick order we put all round 1 elite RB’s within tier 1. It’s not helpful for drafting to have a tier with just Christian McCaffery as the only tier 1 RB.   

The next would be tier within tier of running backs have one or two parts of their game that seperate them within tier 1. 

If you get pick one or two, consider yourself in a really good spot. Pick three is where it gets a little more tricky.  

Some may go for Derrick Henry, but Alvin Kamara in PPR leagues has that ability to rack up points with so many short catches. These short yard catches are essentially running plays in the New Orleans Saints offense.  

Then Derrick Henry makes sense at pick 4 with some more significant question marks around the following two guys, Ezekiel Elliot and Saquon Barkley.  

Zeke or Barkley?

Elliot is in a high powered Dallas offense but has regressed every year since 2018 in rushing yards, receptions, and receiving yards. Still, he would be worth the pick here if he stays healthy, a big if.  

Barkley is coming off an ACL injury in week 2 last season that caused him to miss the rest of the year. He might even miss the first couple of games this year.  

Due to load management, Barkley could be limited for the first part of the season, if not the entire season. This is the only red flag with Barkley, and otherwise, he would be right up there with the top tier backs, McCaffery and Cook, if not the number 1 back.  

Is Jonathon Taylor a Top 5 RB?

The last running back to consider in tier 2 is Jonathon Taylor. Taylor has the same skillset as McCaffery, Cook, and Barkley but isn’t as good yet as those 3.  

Could this be his breakout season into tier 1 running back status? Maybe, but he was just too wildly inconsistent last year that you could argue he could be a tier 3 back. 

Taylor’s stats in 2020 were inflated by an absolutely insane game late in the season. Taylor had 253 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns vs a terrible Jacksonville team.  

However, he also had 4 games under 28 rushing yards and only one game with more than 4 catches.

Remaining first-round RB’s

Tier 3 running backs that will wrap up the end of the 1st round are two or three of these guys in no particular order: Austin Ekeler, Nick Chubb, Aaron Jones, and Joe Mixon.  

You can’t go wrong with any of these running backs, and the consensus on them is that they have the ability to have big games. However, no one knows how consistent they will be.  

Some of the teams they’re on will not target them at all in a game as they go deep downfield. Or some will fall out of favour for an entire game in place of their number 2 back behind them.  

Out of those tier 3, I would say Joe Mixon is probably the safest to get his touches every week. Howeverm, my big hesitation with him is the matchups. He will have to face the Browns and Raven’s tough defense twice each.  

Mixon was held under 60 yards rushing and had no touchdowns vs both of them in 2020. He did still managed 4 and 6 catches which is why he can still be reasonably consistent. 

Hero running back draft strategy

After the 3rd tier of running backs, there is a strategy that many go by what’s called the “Hero Running Back” draft strategy.  

The Hero RB strategy requires drafting one of these top backs in the first round. You then don’t draft another running back until the 7th round.  

One scenario would be to take a top tight end in round 2, such as Travis Kelce. Then use the following 4 rounds to take a top quarterback and 3 wide receivers before going back to running back.  

This draft strategy works pretty well, especially if you can land a top 7 pick. Otherwise you’d be stuck with a tier 3 back as your “Hero Running Back”. It would be risky to try if you are pick 8 or later.  

RB’s in rounds 3 – 6

The data behind this suggests over the last 6 years drafting a running back in rounds 3 through 6 has provided negative value.

This makes sense because looking at running backs in that 3 to 6 round range, you are pretty much guessing that they will be the lead guy or have a breakout season. So why not take that risk in round 7 or 8 instead?

The RB dead zone round 7 and beyond

So now let’s look at some of those guys to target later in round 7 or deeper. 

Let’s start with a bang in Michael Carter of the Jets (Just kidding, not really a bang at all but quite the opposite). 

Please don’t sleep on Michael Carter. His ADP range of 65 to 70 in most drafts doesn’t mean you’re risking an early pick on him. He has the potential to be the starter and get a lot of carries as early as week 1.  

If you wait until the 7th round for your 2nd running back, you could find yourself with a week 1 starter getting 12+ carries per week. Carter averaged an absurd 8 yards per carry in his last season at North Carolina. He is one of the rookie’s fantasy players are most excited about. 

Additionally, his only competition for running back touches is ageing Tevin Coleman. Coleman averaged 1.9 rush yards per game last year and La’mical Perine, a lightly used rookie running back last season.  

49er’s running backs

Another guy to target in this 7 to 8 round range is Raheem Mostert, who surprisingly is this far down.  

In 5 of 8 games played last year, Mostert got 14 or more carries, and in some of the other 3 games. Mostert was cut short on carries due to injury.  He has number 1 running back status on a 49er’s team who loves to run the ball. 

Mostert could average 15+ carries per game this season. Not bad at the 5 yards per carry clip he averaged last year and for a guy who can take a handoff or catch the entire field on any given play.  

Is James Conner still good?

James Conner is the last guy you could pick up around 8 or 9 right now around pick 80.  

This year, Conner is on the Arizona Cardinals and looks to fill the spot of Kenyan Drake. Drake never got less than 10 carries in 15 games last year with the team.  

When healthy last year, Conner had three 100 yard rushing days in his first 5 games and is a good pass-catching back. Conner had back to back 5 catch games to end the year.  

In rounds 8 or 9, it’s crazy to get a guy who was going in round 1 or 2 most drafts in 2019 who still could produce at that level. 

This years RB rookie class

My round 7 targets started with a “bang” on rookie running back Michael Carter. I want to get back to that and talk more about this rookie class.  

At the top of the draft, we have a rookie in Nyjee Harris. I purposely left out Harris of my top tier running backs section for round 1 because I wanted to get to him in the rookie section.  

Part of the reason is he is a fringe round 1 pick but could be either really good and worthy of a top 2nd round fantasy pick. Or be a bit underwhelming as sometimes the Steelers forget about their running backs.  

Harris could easily put up those numbers mentioned for Conner last year on the Steelers. That definitely would make him worthy of a 2nd round selection. 

However, there’s not much else to say on Harris, as I think his ADP as an early 2nd round pick is fair. 

Javontae Williams or Melvin Gordon

Javontae Williams is a rookie running back that could have been in the conversation as a 7th or 8th round pick. However, seems a bit overrated on draft boards.  

Williams will compete with Melvin Gordon for touches. It seems Denver has wanted to go by committee at running back the past few seasons, so one may never overtake one another the entire season.  

The Broncos also ranked 22nd in running back touchdowns last year, which is not great. Obviously, all of this makes for a less than ideal situation as one week he could get 14 carries while on your bench and the next to get 3 carries once you put him in your lineup. It’s happened so many times to everyone.

Travis Etienne or James Robinson

The final fantasy running back worthy of mentioning pre-draft is Travis Etienne. Drafted first round by the Jacksonville Jaguars, they aren’t set on James Robinson. Even though Robinson had an excellent rookie season last year out of nowhere, racking up over 1,000 yards on the ground.  

Etienne seems like he can win this job week 1 and immediately get all the touches on a Jaguars team. The Jags needs to improve after drafting a franchise quarterback in Trevor Lawrence. 

However, Robinson did that on a terrible Jaguars team and seems more like a 3rd down back from now on. He’s not an every-down back like Etienne can be. 

If James Robinson can put up 1,000 yards in a season, what could Etienne do? Etienne is a little all over the place on fantasy draft boards. 

Some have him 5th round around pick 45, and some have him 8th as late as pick 75.  

Anywhere in between, there would be an excellent place to target Etienne.

Who are this year’s running back deep sleepers?

As we have already covered the top backs, some mid-round sleepers, and rookies, what’s left? 

Everyone’s favourite part: the deep sleepers. These are the guys who go in the late rounds or undrafted in some cases. 

A strategy to drafting late-round running backs is taking top running backs handcuffs. 

You could get a running back in one of the last rounds like Chuba Hubbard, another rookie, or Brian Hill, thinking McCaffrey or Henry could get hurt and become last year’s Mike Davis or Wayne Gallman. 

That’s one strategy for finding value but is unlikely to pay off. Besides trying to anticipate star running back injuries, players to look at are some guys currently in position battles or committees.  

A guy, a lot of people, are high on is Zack Moss of the Buffalo Bills. A good play could be to go contrarian, as at this point, it seems Moss and Devin Singletary are in a position battle and shared the workload last season. 

Who’s to say that Singletary doesn’t claim the bulk of the carries as he was drafted to do?  

Getting a lead back in that Bills offense would be a great pick around round 12 or 13 at pick number 120ish that could turn into something nice for you later on. While Moss is going as high as round 9 and pick 80 in some drafts.  

Cam Akers injury opportunity

After the injury to Cam Akers, many people think the Los Angeles Rams running back spot will go directly to Darrel Henderson.  

That may not be the case. It seems there will be an open competition for the running back spot in the Rams fast-paced offense.  

This is where Xavier Jones comes in, who is currently being drafted around pick 130.  

Darrell Henderson is being taken as early as 35, and some people may have wished that they went Jones instead of Henderson by midseason.  

Jones didn’t have one carry last season but could find himself in a significant role.  

Even at pick 130 or so, Jones is a risky pick. Jake funk is a running back who has been making strides in training camp and could compete for that spot coming out of nowhere.  

Funk will almost certainly be undrafted in most drafts unless some news comes out about him being involved in the offense. However, keep an eye on him on the waivers.

Running backs at the end of the draft

As your draft nears, it is essential to have a solid plan and strategy. Most strategies revolve around what happens after round one because, most likely, you’ll have a solid running back on your roster by the start of round 2. 

That’s when you have to decide if you’re going to try the “Hero Running Back” strategy or go with a 2nd running back to lock up a solid starting lineup of backs early.  

These seem like the 2 most used commonly strategies. Considering the value of backs in the 3rd to 6th round range falls off a cliff into the RB dead zone.  

While most RB’ are fair value based on their current ADP’s within that range, most backs are risky. 

As you get deeper into your draft, you shouldn’t necessarily be more willing to take risks on low percentage RB’s while outstanding receivers are still in rounds 3, 4, and 5.  

Undervalued mid-round runnings backs to draft

Now let’s just touch on some mid-round running backs who may be a little undervalued to close this one out. If you want to go with a completely different strategy than mentioned in this.  

Consider Mike Davis, now the lead back on the Atlanta Falcons, who took on 85% of Christian McCaffery’s role last season, filling in for the Panthers.  

Another to consider is Chris Carson, who used to be drafted 2nd or 3rd round not too long ago and is now being drafted around pick 35 this year for seemingly no reason.  

Conclusion

Whatever your draft strategy is, just know that loading up on running backs can never be a bad thing. Running backs are the most often injured fantasy position in football, and anything can happen during a 17 game season.

Tips for Drafting Running Backs