The best running backs in Fantasy aren't the best just because of their upside; they're the best because they're also high-probability picks. You're pretty confident when you take Alvin Kamara or Saquon Barkley that, barring injury, they're going to be excellent options for you all season.
But the truth is, running back is a dangerous position. Injuries occur at a high rate, sure, but there's also just a lot of fluctuation from one year to the next. If you're targeting guys for "safety" outside of the elite players, you're probably dooming yourself to a seventh-place finish.
Whether you invest early or are going Zero RB, you need upside at this position, and there's plenty of it to go around. What I'm looking for today are running backs with No. 1 RB potential who aren't being drafted that way. I'm not saying you should draft any of these guys as your No. 1 — though in a Zero-RB build, you could do worse than the first two. But if you're looking for potential league-winning upside, here are seven to target who have a path to finish as a top-12 (or better!) option this season.
The 49ers don't project to be an elite offense, but they could be a pretty good one, and Coleman is obviously a pretty great fit for Kyle Shanahan's offense; they worked together in Atlanta, and the first time Coleman became available, Shanahan's team went after him.
In Shanahan's final season as the Falcons' offensive coordinator in 2016, Coleman saw 40 targets and averaged 13.6 yards per reception, as Shanahan often split him out wide to use him in the passing game. Coleman and Devonta Freeman combined for 105 targets that season, and you should expect the 49ers to get back to throwing the ball to their running backs more in 2019 — especially with some discouraging reports coming out of camp about their top wide receivers.
There was already production available in this backfield because Matt Breida, Jeff Wilson, Alfred Morris and Raheem Mostert combined for 1,769 rushing yards and 457 receiving yards on 364 carries and 66 targets last season. Breida isn't going anywhere, but Coleman should be the main option here. Coleman is best suited among this group to handle goal-line work, which makes him a good candidate to avoid what Ben Gretch calls the running back TRAP. If this offense jumps into the top 10 with a full season of Jimmy Garoppolo, it's not hard to see a 1,650-total-yard, 10-plus-touchdown season from Coleman with 50-plus catches — enough to be close to a top-six back last season.
This time a year ago, we were drafting Derrius Guice as a potential top-50 pick. He was a popular breakout candidate, and was viewed as a potential rookie star for Fantasy. Then he tore his ACL in the preseason and Washington's offensive supporting cast fell apart, dropping him to the seventh-round range in 2019 drafts. But assuming he has a pretty normal return from the injury, the things we got excited about with Guice last season haven't really changed.
Guice is big (224 pounds) and fast (4.49 40-yard dash), and was almost certainly a better prospect coming out of school than the likes of Miles Sanders and David Montgomery, two rookie running backs going ahead of him. He fell in the draft for pretty spurious reasons, none of which had much to do with what he could do on the field. Maybe the ACL tear has sapped him of his athleticism and strength, but he's been a full participant in training camp, and looked good in his limited preseason action, so it doesn't look like he's lost it.
The bigger question is the team around him. Case Keenum will be leading an offense short on playmakers in the passing game, so Washington will really need a lot from its running backs, and opposing defenses will know that. Adrian Peterson was productive in this offense last season, and he's still around, so there's certainly some question of whether Guice will be looking at a full-time role right away. Even if he doesn't in Week 1, it will happen eventually, and Guice has the three-down potential to emerge as a No. 1 running back. His situation isn't that different from Joe Mixon, and he was the No. 9 back in points per game last season.
And now here's the part where we get to guys who will need some help to make that leap. Henderson is expected to have a solid role from Day 1 as a Chris Thompson-type back, and that could make him viable in a 2018-Jalen Richard-way from the start of the season. But the real upside comes if Todd Gurley's balky knee becomes an issue.
So far Gurley has had a seemingly event-free training camp, which is exactly what we wanted to see. I personally think he's been a bit undervalued in a lot of our drafts, where he has been going toward the end of the second round, but we also can't deny the reality that he seems to be at higher risk for a significant injury than even your typical running back. If that were to happen, Henderson seems to be in line for a role as the team's go-to back, and we've seen both with Gurley and C.J. Anderson late last season what a valuable role that is.
Henderson is no lock to take on all of the work if Gurley goes down — the Rams brought back Malcolm Brown for a reason, presumably — but he'll at least dominate the passing downs. If Henderson finds 200 carries this season one or another, you're probably looking at a No. 1 running back. That's just how good this offense is.
Ekeler is in a similar situation to Henderson, except the starting running back on his team hasn't even reported — and may not be with the team for months. Regardless of whether Melvin Gordon is there or not, Ekeler is going to have a solid role — he finished 25th in points per game among running backs last season — but Gordon's potential absence could push him into an incredible position. The Chargers' offense relies heavily on running backs in the passing game, and Ekeler is probably the team's best option there. However, he also showed he can be a viable option in the running game, rushing for 554 yards on 106 carries last season. He had at least 17 touches in each of his three starts in Gordon's absence last season, and we expect a similar workload if Gordon is out. In this offseason, with his versatile skill set, that should lead to big things for Fantasy purposes.
Murray is a solid value as is, given that the Saints have already talked about how they want Alvin Kamara to see similar work to what he did last season. That means Murray could be looking at 225 touches even if Kamara stays healthy all season. If he doesn't, that means Murray could be looking at a massive workload in the best offense in football for Fantasy running backs.
You already know Murray is an effective goal-line option, and he should see a decent amount of work there even if Kamara is healthy. However, he's probably a better receiver than he gets credit for; he has averaged a decent 5.5 yards per target for his career, right in line with that Mark Ingram has done, and he had 74 catches across two seasons in his last two with the Raiders.
Murray isn't a superstar, but he could be in a superstar situation. His high floor isn't being taken into account in his current draft price; neither is his high ceiling.
I'm somewhat skeptical Samuel will ever see a full-time role as a true running back — it has never happened going back to high school. But it doesn't matter if I think that; the question is whether the Steelers do. He has seen work as a jack-of-all-trades weapon in the offense, lining up all over the place in training camp, but they've also used him as the backup running back, too. Benny Snell seems to be a bit of an unfinished product at this point — and he's being used on every special teams unit — so if something happens to James Conner, Samuels currently seems most likely to fill in. We saw what that meant for a Conner last season as an under-hyped prospect. This offense just churns out RB1 seasons.
Thompson showed his big-play ability in the preseason opener, and it's his potential as a pass catcher that really makes him the backup to target in Kansas City for me. Thompson has a lot in common with Damien Williams or Kareem Hunt, the two backs who starred in this offense the past few years. With the addition of LeSean McCoy, the top of the depth chart looks muddy here, as it's not clear if McCoy or WIlliams will be the No. 1 back for Week 1. However, with McCoy's age and Williams' lack of track, don't be surprised if Thompson gets his chance at some point. Like Pittsburgh and New Orleans, this is as much about the offense as the player.