While the dreaded Running Back by Committee (RBBC) makes sense in real football, it continues to frustrate fantasy owners. As the majority of NFL teams split carries between at least two backs, the number of true running back workhorses continues to shrink. As a result, a handful of elite running backs will fly off the board early in the first round.
Arian Foster, Ray Rice, and LeSean McCoy will likely be the first three overall picks in your draft. You could make a case to take any of these three with the first overall pick (although we’re still taking Foster), so if you happen to get any of these guys with a fourth or fifth overall pick consider yourself lucky.
After the top three are off the board you’ll have to make the decision to take a second-tier running back or a top-tier player at another position. Depending on your league settings, size of the league, or where you fall in the draft order, there are many different strategies on when to draft your running backs in the early rounds. If you still prefer a running back with your first pick you’ll still have several solid options in Ryan Mathews, Maurice Jones-Drew, Chris Johnson, Marshawn Lynch, Matt Forte, DeMarco Murray, and Darren McFadden.
Just outside of our top ten are Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles; a couple of first round picks from a year ago who are recovering from knee injuries. Both of these players could have nice fantasy value, but may see limited touches early in the season so be sure to have a backup plan if you draft either of them. Backups Toby Gerhart and Peyton Hillis could see an increased workload at the start of the season, but both have limited long-term value.
Trent Richardson is the first rookie on our list. He should see the bulk of the carries for the Browns and his fantasy value will come more from quantity of touches as opposed to quality of the Cleveland running game. If you are targeting him be prepared to use a second- or third-round pick. Our second rookie, who you’ll likely be able to get a couple rounds later, is Doug Martin. He should get plenty of opportunities to make an impact as the Buccaneers seem to be loosing faith in LeGarrette Blount.
A few household names that continue to drop down our rankings from a year ago are Frank Gore, Steven Jackson, and Michael Turner. These three backs have seen heavy workloads in the past, but will likely be in more of a timeshare with their younger backups; Kendall Hunter, Isaiah Pead, and Jacquizz Rodgers. These youngsters are worth a look in deeper leagues as nice late-round upside picks, or as handcuffs to their respective starters. Another young back to target later in the draft is rookie Ronnie Hillman. He should begin the season as the third down back for the Broncos and he could be a popular target for Peyton Manning.
In the mid- to late-rounds of the draft, finding players that will outperform their draft position can go a long way to building a championship roster. A few undervalued players worth targeting include Shonn Greene, Roy Helu, James Starks, Donald Brown, and Jahvid Best. These players are far from a sure thing, but for where you can get them in the draft, they could offer great value.
If you get a chance at any of the top three backs including Foster, Rice, or McCoy with a first-round pick, take it. These guys are as “safe” as they come at any position. If you pass on a running back in the first round in favor of an elite quarterback, wideout, or tight end, you should strongly consider targeting a running back in the second round. Regardless of your early-round strategy, it is always a good idea to draft for depth and upside at the running back position. In 12- and 14-team leagues it is also not a bad idea to use a late-round pick on a stud RB handcuff.