By: Jackson Kane (Twitter: @TheJacksonKane)
Updated: 8/20/2017

Rankings Leapfrog: RB Edition

The countdown is on to the start of the NFL season. Roughly 19 days separate us football-deprived fools from the sport we love so much. And with the start of football season comes the start of fantasy football season. Finding reliable depth at running back is paramount for any fantasy owner looking to emerge as top dog in his or her league.

Heading into the 2016 season, Melvin Gordon was ranked as Matthew Berry’s RB24 behind names like Matt Jones, Jeremy Langford, and Ryan Mathews. We all know how that turned out for Gordon, as he finished the season as RB7 in terms of scoring on Espn.com in just 13 games. Which backfield workhorses ranked outside the Top 12 have the best shot at surprising in 2017?

Isaiah Crowell – RB14 on FantasyPros.com
Entering his fourth season in the league, Isaiah Crowell has never been the sexy pick in your fantasy draft. He plays for the lowly Cleveland Browns. He’s never been a clear, three-down threat. He hasn’t received 200 carries in any of his first three seasons. Well, that’s all going to change this year (except the whole playing for the Browns part. Poor guy).
Crowell has improved every year during each of his first three seasons. He posted a career-best yards per carry average in 2016 (4.8), while setting career-highs in rushing yards, receiving yards, and receptions. Duke Johnson has reportedly made the transition to slot receiver for Cleveland, which should open the door for even more rushing opportunities for Crowell.

Don’t get this confused with Johnson being removed entirely from the backfield. He will surely still get plenty of third-down looks out of the backfield, but don’t expect him to receive more than five to seven carries a game. This will get Crowell more touches out of the backfield. According to Sportingcharts.com, Terrelle Pryor’s departure leaves 140 targets for this offense to account for. Johnson, Corey Coleman, and rookie tight end David Njoku are the likely beneficiaries of that situation, but even Crowell should see an increased amount of targets his way.

The Alabama State product showed reliable hands in 2016, nabbing 40 of his 52 targets, and totaling 319 receiving yards. With Brock Osweiler and DeShone Kizer battling for the play-calling duties this year, this passing game could be better suited for short to intermediate routes. That further enhances the intrigue for Crowell.

Pro Football Focus rated the Browns as the second-best offensive line in football heading into 2017 with the acquisitions of J.C. Tretter and Kevin Zeitler during the offseason. Combine that with everything stated above, and you can see why Crowell has a great chance at cracking RB1 status at the end of 2017.

Christian McCaffrey – RB15 on FantasyPros.com
We have seen Christian McCaffrey suit up for just one professional game so far, but it was an impressive debut for the rookie. His 33 yards on seven carries were a positive sign. Most pundits believe McCaffrey will produce when given the touches, but the question is, will the volume be there to elevate him into the RB1 ranks?

Jonathan Stewart is entering his 10th NFL season, and is the other back competing for work in Carolina. He finished last season with nine touchdowns, but his career is clearly on a downward trajectory. The Oregon product has failed to play in all 16 games in five straight seasons. After back-to-back seasons of 4.1 yards per carry or better, Stewart averaged just 3.8 YPC in 2016.

Carolina used the 8th overall pick on the talented McCaffrey from Stanford. Anytime a franchise uses a first-round pick on a running back, it usually means said franchise is looking for a revitalization at that position. There is clearly a plan in place to deploy McCaffrey on offense; we just may not see the full potential of that plan until a few weeks into the season.

It was clear that Carolina was conscientious about Cam Newton’s health in 2016 in regards to his running ability. Newton has faced criticism for taking unnecessary hits in the past, which could jeopardize his long-term health moving forward. Last season was the first time Newton didn’t rush more than 100 times in a season (90 attempts). Newton also set career-lows in rushing yards (359) and yards per carry (4.0). Adding a speedy receiving back like McCaffrey will be beneficial for Newton because he can get the ball out of his hands quickly without taking unnecessary hits. Newton and McCaffrey will also be quite a duo in option-type schemes.
He may not see a huge workload to start 2017, but I would take it to the bank that McCaffrey will be cracking 20+ touches a game by season’s end. Question marks about his durability have been raised, but you could say that about anybody. It’s a violent game. McCaffrey will be an RB2 at minimum at the end of 2017.

C.J. Anderson – RB22 on FantasyPros
A torn meniscus in Week 7 ended C.J. Anderson’s season prematurely in 2016, so what can fantasy owners expect from the presumptive lead back in Denver? The Broncos brought in Jamaal Charles this offseason, but what will his role ultimately be? Denver ranked 15th out of 32 teams in passing play percentage last season (59.8 percent of the time they threw) according to Teamrankings.com. A change in head coaches could alter the direction of this offense, but I have faith in Anderson moving forward.

Head Coach Vance Joseph stated earlier this summer that the backfield in Denver is likely to use a committee approach. However, at the end of July, Joseph said that Anderson is in his best shape in “three to four years.” Efficiency has never been a question mark with Anderson when healthy. He has averaged at least four yards per carry in every season he’s been in the league.

Some fantasy talking heads believe that certain amounts of talent around a player can depreciate their value. This is true, but you also have to examine the circumstances. If a football fan were to view the Denver offense, which positional unit would they say has the most talent? Wide receiver. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are arguably the best receiving tandem in the NFL. So wouldn’t their presence on the field affect the fantasy stock of their running back? Yes, but consider Denver’s quarterback situation. Their starting quarterback still hasn’t been decided heading into 2017, even with Trevor Siemian getting major time in 2016.

My viewpoint is this: Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders saw 43 red zone targets in 2016 according to NFLsavant.com. Of those 43 targets, 25 of them were completed. Only seven of them went for touchdowns. Outside of those seven touchdowns, the talented wideouts only garnered three other touchdowns in 2016. This tells me that Siemian is not a great red zone quarterback. He only completed 45 percent of his passes inside the 20-yard line, and just 44 percent inside the 10 according to pro-football-reference.com.

Joseph will recognize what works for his new group of players. Obviously, Thomas and Sanders are dynamic playmakers, but if your quarterback isn’t great at red zone completions, it may be best to stick to what works. Anderson has not been the most efficient red zone runner over the past two years, averaging no more than 1.8 yards per carry on attempts inside the red zone. However, Anderson did average 3.8 yards per red zone attempt in 2014 according to Espn.com. Which version of Anderson will we see in 2017? I believe the best version yet.

The Guy Getting “Leapfrogged” Marshawn Lynch – RB12 on FantasyPros.com

After putting up at least 1,200 rushing yards and at least 11 touchdowns in every season from 2011 through 2014, Marshawn Lynch put up a disappointing 2015 campaign. The Cal product managed just 417 rushing yards and three touchdowns in seven games. He was hampered by injuries for the majority of the season, which could explain the underwhelming season.
After his dramatic Super Bowl retirement announcement, Lynch sat out the 2016 season. He’s back in uniform for his hometown team in 2017 – the Oakland Raiders. Latavius Murray exited Oakland, leaving 12 rushing touchdowns behind in the process. Lynch is the obvious candidate to replace Murray’s production on the goal line, but how will he look in other situations?

The Raiders boast the 7th-best offense line in football according to Pro Football Focus. Derek Carr is coming off a marvelous 2016 campaign, and Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper are still on the outside for the Raiders. So what is there not to love about Lynch’s situation?
He spent a year away from the game. I think that tends to be forgotten. He’s coming off an injury-riddled season in 2015. The Raiders also possess two talented, young backs in Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington that could steal touches if Lynch starts the season slow. Derek Carr is also bound to regress, after throwing just six interceptions in 2016. This offense won’t be nearly as effective as their 9th-best points per game finish in 2016 (25.3). I think as a whole, the Raiders will take a slight step back, but still be a playoff contending team. I’m expecting around 800 yards and seven touchdowns from Lynch, which would leave him well short of his RB12 preseason ranking on FantasyPros.com.