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Alvin Kamara stood on a practice field at the Pro Bowl in late January a little in awe of his running back peers. The rookie from the Saints had just finished an electric 2017 campaign, but Kamara was still slightly star struck surrounded by Todd Gurley, Le'Veon Bell, Kareem Hunt and LeSean McCoy.
Can you blame him?
This is a great time to be a fan of running backs – in Fantasy and reality – and Kamara wanted to soak in the greatness of the talent around him. He was genuinely excited to talk about some of the best running backs in the NFL, a group he's now part of heading into this season..
"I watch them every Sunday," Kamara said of the Pro Bowl running backs in an interview with CBS Sports. "I'd be a liar if I said I didn't. I'm like, 'Damn, these guys are good.' They're all great players."
While we're going to highlight my top-10 running backs – Gurley, Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson, Saquon Barkley, Hunt, Kamara, Melvin Gordon, Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook – this might be the deepest talent pool of running backs we've had in a while. And that's great for Fantasy owners.
It felt like the NFL was de-emphasizing the running back position, and the low point was the 2013 and 2014 seasons when no running back was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. There were still talented players taken in those years – Bell was the star of the 2013 class, and the 2014 class produced Carlos Hyde, Jerick McKinnon and Devonta Freeman – but the running backs added to the NFL over the past four seasons have brought the position back to prominence.
In 2015, we got Gurley, Gordon, Johnson and Jay Ajayi. In 2016, it was Elliott, Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake, Jordan Howard and Alex Collins. And last year, we were overwhelmed in a good way with Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Cook, Joe Mixon, Kamara, Hunt, Jamaal Williams and Marlon Mack.
Let's not forget that there were eight running backs selected in the first three rounds of this NFL Draft who added even more potential to the position with Barkley, Rashaad Penny, Derrius Guice, Ronald Jones, Sony Michel, Royce Freeman, Nick Chubb and Kerryon Johnson. Unfortunately, Guice (ACL) is out for the season, while Michel (knee) and Penny (finger) were hurt in the preseason, but this rookie class still has the chance to be special.
Including the past four NFL Drafts, we now have plenty of talented runners who could be starters and potential workhorses for their teams. Now, obviously not all these guys are going to pan out, and we'll always have our share of busts. But you have to appreciate teams continuing to tweak their backfields in an effort to find the right guy.
And these players, for the most part, aren't just plodding, one-dimensional rushers. As the game has evolved with more of an emphasis on passing, running backs have become more versatile as pass catchers.
"They tried to get rid of us," Gurley said about running backs to CBS Sports at Super Bowl LII. "The last couple of years it's been more of a passing game, so we had to learn that as well. It's fun for us. It just makes us dangerous."
The influx of talent gives Fantasy owners more options on Draft Day and allows you the flexibility not to reach for running backs in the early rounds. In fact, depending on your draft slot, you might be better off loading up on receivers with two or three of your early selections and then stockpiling running backs in the middle rounds.
But while it's no longer a priority to start your team with a RB-RB strategy, you might not want to pass on one of these top-10 guys, especially if you draft near the top of the first round where you have the choice of Gurley, Bell, Elliott or David Johnson. Barring injury, one of those four seems like the best bet to finish as the No. 1 Fantasy running back this year.
I asked several players and coaches this offseason who the best running back in the NFL is right now, and the choice came down to Gurley and Bell. Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley and safety Eric Weddle sided with Bell, while Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis and Packers defensive lineman Mike Daniels took Gurley.
Everyone agreed these are the top two running backs, and they will be the first players drafted in most Fantasy leagues. Weddle said the reason why is simple: "I like a running back you don't have to take off the field."
That won't happen with Gurley or Bell, and most of the top 10 are three-down running backs. It's part of the reason the position has improved. In 2017 we had seven running backs with at least 1,500 total yards and 14 with at least 50 catches, which matches the high for both of those stats over the past five seasons.
Based on the added talent at the position of late, we should see that number continue to rise, and someone like Kamara is a big reason why. He's excited that the running back position is being viewed as valuable once again.
"It's one of those things where you can't deny it," Kamara said. "Guys are going out there and balling."
Like Kamara, Fantasy owners can now look at the running back position the same way. We have great options once again, and that should lead to fantastic production in 2018.
The Top 10
- Stats to run with: He became just the third player in NFL history to have at least 2,000 total yards, 10 rushing touchdowns and five receiving touchdowns in a single season, joining Marshall Faulk (2000 and 2001) and O.J. Simpson (1975). … His 303 Fantasy points in a non-PPR league was just the third time a running back scored at least 300 Fantasy points since 2009, joining David Johnson (2011) and Chris Johnson (2009). … In the 2017 Fantasy playoffs (Weeks 14-16), Gurley combined for 103 Fantasy points in a non-PPR league with 56 carries for 366 yards (6.5 yards per carry) and five touchdowns. He also added 16 catches for 225 yards and three touchdowns against Philadelphia, Seattle and Tennessee.
- Quote to note: "Todd is an explosive guy. I always knew Todd was going to be a good player when he was at Georgia. You watched him and could tell what type of player he was going to be. This year, he kind of splashed on the scene in the receiving game. He added that to his game, too. He's a special player. I only expect him to get better as he gets older and gets more experienced." -- Bell talking about Gurley at the Pro Bowl.
- The breakdown: Gurley was great as a rookie in 2015 when he was the No. 4 Fantasy running back in non-PPR leagues, but he was a bust in 2016, finishing 19th. The addition of new coach Sean McVay, as well as improved talent around him, helped Gurley flourish in 2017, and we don't expect him to turn back now. He's the clear-cut No. 1 overall pick in the majority of leagues, and hopefully a repeat performance from last year is coming in 2018.
- Stats to run with: Bell is 4 yards shy of 8,000 total yards for his career. If he gets those 4 yards in his next outing, which would be his 63rd career game, he would be the fastest player in NFL history to reach that milestone, passing Eric Dickerson, who did it in 64 career games. ... Bell only played 12 games in 2016, but he was on pace for 1,690 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, along with 100 catches for 821 yards and three touchdowns. Had he reached those totals he would have had 2,511 total yards from scrimmage, which would have been the best season in NFL history, ahead of Chris Johnson's 2,509 total yards in 2009. ... Every time Bell has played at least 12 games in his career he has totaled at least 1,400 yards and eight touchdowns. The past three times he's played at least 12 games he has at least 1,800 total yards and nine touchdowns.
- Quote to note: "His playing style is not like any other player. The closest thing you can try to compare him to is, like, Barry Sanders with his elusiveness, but his playing style is just so different, so patient. You think you want to be patient with him and kind of move around with his linemen. Once you pick a gap then he moved, and he creates like three more holes. He's great as a receiver. He's an outstanding player." – Mosley on Bell at the Pro Bowl.
- The breakdown: Bell's contract situation is the only concern with him heading into this season, and it appears like he will hold out all of training camp. We hope he shows up by Week 1 and plays the way he did in 2017 when he ended up as the No. 2 Fantasy running back in all leagues. Unless you hear otherwise, Bell will be drafted after Gurley in all formats. It's hard to match Bell's ability as a receiver because he has three seasons in his career with at least 75 receptions.
- Stats to run with: Through 25 games over two seasons, Elliott has scored double digits in Fantasy points in a non-PPR league 24 times. He also has at least 20 touches in 21 games over that span. ... In 2016, he became the first rookie to lead the NFL in rushing yards since Edgerrin James in 1999 when he had 322 carries for 1,631 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and 15 touchdowns, along with 32 catches for 363 yards and one touchdown. ... Elliott is tied with Marcus Allen for the NFL record of most consecutive games with at least 80 rushing yards at 15. Elliott's streak ended in Week 2 last year when Denver held him to 8 yards on nine carries.
- Quote to note: "He has all the traits. He's big, he's strong, he's explosive, he's fast, he's powerful. But the biggest thing that I like about Zeke is that he's a smart football player. He understands the blocking schemes and where to go. He's a good protector. He's a three-down player. He has a bright future. He's had a lot of success in his first two years, and I think he's only getting started." -- former Cowboys tight end Jason Witten on Elliott at the Pro Bowl.
- The breakdown: Elliott's Fantasy stock should be safe now that his six-game suspension from last year is behind him. The only concern for Elliott this season is the potential lack of talent around him in Dallas, especially at the receiver spot. But Elliott will again be the focal point of the offense, and he should dominate touches, including hopefully more work in the passing game. He's the No. 3 overall pick in non-PPR leagues, but he might fall behind David Johnson in PPR. Elliott won't slip past No. 6 overall in PPR, otherwise he's a steal.
- Stats to run with: In 2016, Johnson had 15 games in a row with at least 100 total yards from scrimmage, which tied Sanders' record in 1997 for the longest single-season streak in NFL history. He injured his knee in Week 17 in the first quarter against the Rams and finished with just 44 total yards, which ended the streak. ... Johnson has scored double digits in Fantasy points in a non-PPR league in 19 of his past 22 games. The only time he failed to reach that total without getting hurt was Week 17 in 2015 when he had just five Fantasy points against Seattle. ... Johnson holds single-season franchise records for yards from scrimmage (2,118), rushing touchdowns (16) and total touchdowns (20).
- Quote to note: "I lost a whole year. And now that I'm back, there are all these young running backs who have come into the league. I have to go out and show my dominance again. I have to prove that the David Johnson of 2016 is back. That he's an improved David Johnson. That's the biggest thing." -- Johnson to arizonasports.com this offseason.
- The breakdown: Johnson missed nearly all of the 2017 season after suffering a broken wrist in Week 1 at Detroit, but he's fine heading into training camp and should again dominate touches for the Cardinals. He has a new coach in Steve Wilks, a new quarterback in Sam Bradford or Josh Rosen and questions on the offensive line, but Johnson should still be a standout Fantasy option in all leagues. He'll likely be the No. 4 running back drafted in non-PPR leagues and No. 3 in PPR.
- Stats to run with: He finished his collegiate career as Penn State's all-time leader in rushing touchdowns (43), total touchdowns (53) and all-purpose yards (5,538). ... Barkley became the only player in Penn State history and just the fourth player in Big Ten history to gain 3,000 yards rushing and 1,000 receiving yards in a career. ... He was one of just six FBS players to score four or more offensive touchdowns of 65 yards or more last season.
- Quote to note: "The thing that makes him different is he has the feet and speed of a little guy, with the power and strength of a big guy. That's what makes him so darn unique. He's different. It's like he was touched by the hand of God, frankly." -- Giants general manager Dave Gettleman following the NFL Draft.
- The breakdown: Barkley is in a good spot for success since the past three running backs taken first in their NFL Draft class (Gurley in 2015, Elliott in 2016 and Fournette last year) all finished as at least the No. 7 Fantasy running back in non-PPR leagues. The offensive line for the Giants will be much improved, and Barkley should get the chance at 300 total touches. He's worth drafting as early as No. 7 overall in non-PPR leagues and No. 9 overall in PPR.
- Stats to run with: Hunt became the second rookie in NFL history to top 1,000 scrimmage yards in his first seven games. Only Dickerson (1,045 yards) had more in 1983. ... Hunt was just the sixth rookie in NFL history to lead the league in rushing and the first player not drafted in the first round to lead the league in rushing since 1967. He was a third-round pick from Toledo. ... His 246 total yards in Week 1 at New England were the most ever in a NFL debut.
- Quote to note: "I had high expectations for myself, but I wasn't thinking about being the leading rusher. I was able to make an impact early. When Spencer Ware (knee) went down, I knew I had to step up from the start. From there, I just wanted to be a guy that took over." – Hunt on his rookie season at the Pro Bowl.
- The breakdown: Ware might return at 100 percent this season, but Hunt is the main option for the Chiefs, who should give him at least 300 total touches again. Hunt opened 2017 with double digits in Fantasy points in a non-PPR league in the first seven games, but he then went five games in a row with seven points or less. Thankfully, he closed the season with three of four games scoring at least 16 Fantasy points, and his worst game was nine points in Week 17. We hope he can avoid the lull from his rookie campaign, but Hunt is a guaranteed first-round pick in all formats. He should be drafted no later than No. 10 overall.
- Stats to run with: His 81 receptions were the third-most all time by a rookie running back. ... Kamara joined Gale Sayers (1965) as the only rookies in NFL history to have at least five rushing touchdowns (eight), five receiving touchdowns (five) and a kickoff-return touchdown. ... Kamara (1,554) and Mark Ingram (1,540) became the first running back teammates in NFL history to each record at least 1,500 scrimmage yards in the same season.
- Quote to note: "You get so caught up throughout the season that you don't get to look at what you've been doing. After the season ended, that's the first time I realized I had a good season. I credit it to being where I'm at in New Orleans and being around the people I'm around. It gave me all I needed to be successful." -- Kamara on his rookie season at Super Bowl LII.
- The breakdown: Kamara and Ingram were a dynamic Fantasy duo in 2017, with both finishing in the top six in non-PPR leagues. But now that duo is about to become a solo act, at least for the first four games of the season after Ingram was suspended for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Kamara now has the chance to build off his amazing rookie season with a bigger workload. He never had 20 touches in a game last season, but he still managed double digits in Fantasy points in a non-PPR league 10 times. And he really wasn't a featured part of the offense until Week 6 when Adrian Peterson was traded to Arizona. Kamara is an elite talent worth drafting in the top 10 overall picks in all formats, and he's a potential top-five overall selection in PPR.
- Stats to run with: Gordon became the first player in NFL history to follow a season with no rushing touchdowns with a 10-touchdown season. He failed to score as a rookie in 2015 but had 12 total touchdowns in 2016. ... Gordon had no games with double digits in Fantasy points in a non-PPR league as a rookie, but he's hit that total 21 times in the past 28 games that he's been able to finish (he was hurt in Week 14 in 2016). In four of the seven games where he scored fewer than 10 points over that span, he still managed to get at least eight Fantasy points. ... Only Bell (406), LeSean McCoy (346) and Gurley (343) had more total touches than Gordon (342) in 2017.
- Quote to note: "My archrival went crazy this year. That's all the motivation I need right there. Todd Gurley, we just been at it since college. We've been battling each other since college. Then got to the league. He wins rookie of the year. Second year, I got things going well for me. This year, he's up for MVP. It's some work to do. He's a good buddy of mine, but we're going to compete to the end." -- Gordon on chasing Gurley at Super Bowl LII.
- The breakdown: After his bust campaign as a rookie in 2015, Gordon has rebounded to become a Fantasy star the past two seasons. He should once again have another stellar year in 2018, especially with an improved offensive line thanks to the addition of center Mike Pouncey and return to health of right guard Forrest Lamp (knee). While the knock on him is his career 3.8 yards per carry, Gordon also doesn't get the credit he deserves as a receiver out of the backfield with 132 career catches. He's worth drafting in the first 15 overall picks in every league.
- Stats to run with: Fournette had the two fastest plays in 2017 based on Next Gen Stats. He had a 90-yard touchdown run in Week 5 when he went 22.05 mph at Pittsburgh and a 75-yard touchdown run in Week 6 when he went 21.76 mph against the Rams. ... He had at least 16 total touches in 15 of his 17 games as a rookie, including the playoffs, and he scored double digits in Fantasy points in a non-PPR league in 13 of them. ... Fournette scored a touchdown in each of the first six games in 2017 and joined Robert Edwards in 1998 as the only rookies in NFL history with at least one touchdown in each of their team's first six outings of a season.
- Quote to note: "He really did everything that we thought he would be able to do from the standpoint of being the power runner. I think the one thing that probably surprised us more that we weren't able to see was his pass catching ability. ... But we are still looking to get more, and he is looking to get more out of himself, too." – Jaguars coach Doug Marrone on Fournette at the NFL Combine.
- The breakdown: Fournette has to prove he can stay healthy because he battled nagging foot and ankle injuries last year. Otherwise, he's set up for a big season in 2018, especially after Jacksonville signed left guard Andrew Norwell to upgrade the offensive line. Fournette also will hopefully be more involved in the passing game, and he had at least three catches in six of his final eight games, including the playoffs. Fournette is worth drafting as early as No. 8 overall in non-PPR leagues and in the first 15 overall picks in PPR.
- Stats to run with: Prior to suffering a torn ACL in his left knee in Week 4, Cook was on pace for 296 carries for 1,416 yards (4.8 yards per carry) and eight touchdowns, along with 44 catches for 360 yards. If he reached those stats, he would have been a top-10 Fantasy running back in non-PPR leagues. ... Cook had double digits in Fantasy points in a non-PPR league in three of the four games he was able to play. ... Cook, Latavius Murray (six times) and McKinnon (five) combined for 14 games with double digits in Fantasy points in a non-PPR league, which showed the Vikings' running backs were extremely successful as a group in 2017.
- Quote to note: "He was phenomenal. All offseason, before we even put the pads on, you knew he was going to be special. He would probably be here (at the Pro Bowl) if he didn't get hurt. He's a special player." -- Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph on Cook's rookie season at the Pro Bowl.
- The breakdown: Cook is back from his knee injury and should be fine for Week 1, which is what matters most. He should return to the lead role in Minnesota's backfield, especially with McKinnon gone, and the Vikings offense should have the chance to be explosive with Kirk Cousins now the starting quarterback. Cook will likely be drafted in the second round of all leagues, but he has the potential to be a top-five Fantasy running back this year. As long as Cook is healthy, he should pick up where he left off in 2017.