At this point, it's safe to say the running back position is back, and it isn't going anywhere. It doesn't look anything like it used to even five years ago — only one back had more than 261 carries in 2018, compared to six in 2014 — let alone a decade-plus ago, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. That's because NFL teams have gotten so much smarter about how they use their backs than they used to be.
Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, and Alvin Kamara personify the new reality at the position, as they don't waste as much of their time running for low-value yards between the 20s. Rather, they are making their hay in the red zone and in the passing game, the most efficient and valuable plays a running back can have.
That is where the gap between the great running backs and everyone else lies. Volume still matters, but the days of guys racking up 1,300 yards on 350-plus carries are gone; only four of the top-10 backs in non-PPR scoring in 2018 even had 250 carries in 2018. If you aren't getting high-value touches, do you even matter?
Of course, there are those who will argue running backs don't matter at all anymore. I wouldn't go that far. There aren't many backs who can do what Kamara or McCaffrey does, after all. Talent matters, and perhaps just as importantly, so does versatility.
But scheme and support matter perhaps more than ever before in Fantasy. It's no longer enough to just look for the projected leaders in carries and draft accordingly. If someone can't catch passes, they'd better be in a great offense if you're going to invest an early pick in them. If they don't have either, don't bother.
It's not that running backs don't matter. They do. A great deal. They just don't matter in the way we used to think. If your draft strategy hasn't evolved with the times, you'll get left behind. That's the state of the position in 2019.
We'll be focusing on the running back position all week here on CBS Fantasy, as we get you ready for your 2019 drafts. We'll have sleepers, breakouts, and bust picks from our experts, as well as in-depth features on Saquon Barkley, Le'Veon Bell, Todd Gurley and more. To kick off the week, here's a six-pack of questions from our six Fantasy analysts, on the state of the running back position heading into 2019.
Here's who will be answering those questions:
- Jamey Eisenberg, CBS Fantasy Senior Writer
- Dave Richard, CBS Fantasy Senior Writer
- Heath Cummings, CBS Fantasy Senior Writer
- Adam Aizer, Fantasy Football Today host
- Ben Gretch, CBS Fantasy Editor
- Chris Towers, CBS Fantasy Senior Editor
1) How many starting NFL running backs do you feel confident will keep their job?
- Jamey Eisenberg: I'd say 20 is a good number. There are just so many teams where the "starter" doesn't matter, however. We could see a situation where the backup is the better running back in places like Miami, Tampa Bay, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, New England ... should I go on? When drafting running backs outside of the first couple of rounds, look for the better player in a good situation at a good price. That's the way to draft.
- Dave Richard: I see 22 running backs who have a pretty clear path to keeping the starting job all season, assuming they stay healthy/don't hold out/manage their arthritis. How many of them do I think can stay healthy and make, say, 14 starts? That number looks more like 13.
- Heath Cummings: Starting doesn't mean what it used to. More than half teams are using a committee approach, so they might have more than one starter. I'll say 2/3 but that seems generous.
- Adam Aizer: Somewhere around 20, which means more than one-third of NFL backfields could have some predictable shakeup in them. Make sure you draft high-upside RBs late in your drafts. D'Onta Foreman comes to mind.
- Ben Gretch: Take your first instinct, then cut it in half. "Games started" is a somewhat dubious stat, but there were just five running backs who started 16 games in 2018; 34 over the past five seasons combined. Between injuries and attrition, my answer would be in the single digits.
- Chris Towers: Honestly, probably only about 10-12. For instance: I really like Damien Williams and Nick Chubb this season, but I can't honestly say I can't see either of them losing their jobs this season. Most teams have at least one viable option behind their "guy" at this point.
2) You've got the No. 1 pick. Who are you taking?
- Jamey: Saquon Barkley in PPR and Ezekiel Elliott in non-PPR. Let's just hope Elliott ends his contract holdout soon. If that lingers, I'll take Barkley at No. 1 in both formats.
- Dave: I can't ignore Alvin Kamara's hyper-efficiency and potential for gaudy numbers week after week, including 100-catch potential in a great Saints offense. That's my guy in PPR. In non-PPR, it's Ezekiel Elliott, who has 2,000-yard, 12-touchdown potential.
- Heath: Zeke in non-PPR and Barkley in PPR. I could entertain an argument for either in either format, but no one else.
- Adam: Ezekiel Elliott in non-PPR and Saquon Barkley in 0.5 PPR or full PPR. Both of these guys will get more touches than Alvin Kamara, and I have Christian McCaffrey decidedly fourth in this race. Also, I wouldn't be surprised to see Zeke's catches come down.
- Ben: It's been Saquon most of the offseason but Christian McCaffrey actually comes out atop my PPR projections, while Ezekiel Elliott is at the top for non-PPR. I don't have a hardline stance here, and it will likely depend on how much exposure I have to each.
- Chris: I still don't know. I'm really struggling with it this season. I think I'm leaning Elliott in non-PPR for the guaranteed workload, and Kamara in PPR with Mark Ingram out of the picture. Saquon Barkley might just be No. 2 in both for me.
3) Which player currently being selected outside of the top-10 at RB has the best chance to make the leap to the elite tier?
- Jamey: I'll take Kerryon Johnson now that Theo Riddick is gone from Detroit. He just needs to stay healthy, but he could be exceptional now as a true featured running back for the Lions.
- Dave: The running back with young legs, a hot rookie season, and no injuries since 2016 in a dynamite offense probably has the best odds to be great for Fantasy. That would be Nick Chubb.
- Heath: Gotta be Kerryon Johnson with the release of Theo Riddick. Johnson averaged 85 yards per game with Riddick on the team. He may catch 75 passes and top 1,600 yards.
- Adam: Among the next tier of running backs, Josh Jacobs and Kerryon Johnson have the best chance to become every down backs who can make a real impact in the passing game. There is plenty of Kerryon hype, but where is the love for Josh Jacobs? He is a first round draft pick who may be running behind a good offensive line, and we've seen how rookie running backs have impacted Fantasy in recent seasons.
- Ben: Kerryon Johnson after Theo Riddick's release, Damien Williams, and Dalvin Cook sitting at RB11 are all options I like.
- Chris: You can't make the leap into the elite tier if you aren't on a good offense. You can't make the leap into the elite tier if you don't catch passes. Those two guiding principles help narrow the field down quite a bit, and mostly leave Damien Williams, Aaron Jones, and Devonta Freeman to pick from. I'll go with Williams, who has sky-high upside.
4) Who is the top-10 RB you aren't touching this season?
- Jamey: Le'Veon Bell makes me the most nervous. I don't love the downgrade in talent he has from leaving the Steelers, and his workload might not be the same with the Jets. I would only draft him in Round 2, but he has a Round 1 ADP, which is troubling.
- Dave: Todd Gurley. The Rams are doing the right thing by managing his knee and making sure he's capable of contributing for as many games as possible. It'll mean fewer 20-touch games, and it makes him an injury risk every week from now until who-knows-when.
- Heath: Probably Bell, though I feel nervous about it. Adam Gase is not someone I feel confident in.
- Adam: Le'Veon Bell has big bust potential if he is taken in the first round. The touches will certainly go down, but what really concerns me is how his unique running style will play behind a worse offensive line than what he had in Pittsburgh.
- Ben: Le'Veon Bell. I still love his talent, but the team situation will potentially be worse in three different ways: total team volume, percentage of team touches, and scoring opportunities. He also may not have the same massive receiving role. He doesn't necessarily need to be as good as years past to justify his ADP, but I'm still fading at cost due to what I see as limited top-three upside.
- Chris: I'm not quite on board with Joe Mixon. He's an inconsistent contributor in the passing game who plays in what will likely be a bad offense, so I'm not sure the upside is there at this point.
5) What is your strategy when it comes to handcuffing?
- Jamey: I'd only prioritize the backup to one of my early-round picks if I felt that guy would become a weekly starter if given the chance to start on his own team. For example, I'm not drafting Wayne Gallman as a handcuff to Barkley, but I would consider Latavius Murray, at the right price, if I drafted Alvin Kamara.
- Dave: When the backup running back has the potential to be 80 percent as good as the starter, won't cost an expensive draft choice and would be in very high demand off waivers in case the starter goes down, I try to add him to my bench.
- Heath: Mostly I don't. If I do it's because I'm in the double digit rounds and I can't find anyone else I want to take.
- Adam: I like to handcuff, but only when I feel like the backup running back will be great if given the chance to start. You should be drafting handcuffs for Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Todd Gurley and a few others.
- Ben: I typically avoid doing it, though I might grab multiple backs in the same offense if it's an unsettled situation. But if I'm drafting a superstar in the first round, my season already probably hinges on him being healthy for at least the first half of the year. If things are going well, I'll typically scoop up his backup, if I can, around Week 8 or 9. Otherwise, I'm using those roster spots to take home run swings on other backfields.
- Chris: I generally don't make a point to target my starters' backup, unless that player has independent value of their own. When talking about someone like Tony Pollard or Chase Edmonds, you need an injury for them to get on the field, and even then, there's no guarantee either will be effective. Give me someone like Latavius Murray or Dion Lewis, who has a defined role and the potential for workhorse touches if something happens to the starter.
6) Who is one RB drafted outside of the top-150 everyone will be adding at some point this season?
- Jamey: I find myself drafting Justice Hill a lot, and he's another running back to consider as a handcuff for Mark Ingram. The Ravens are going to run, run and run some more, and Ingram is turning 30 this season. Should something happen to him, Hill could get plenty of touches in a bigger role.
HEART: Say Darwin Thompson! Say Darwin Thompson!
BRAIN: I can't help but think as soon as Devin Singletary makes some plays this preseason that Fantasy managers will go crazy trying to draft him.
HEART: You idiot!
- Heath: I'll stick with Bruce Anderson. The Bucs like his receiving chops and we aren't sure any of the backs in front of him are actually any good.
- Adam: I see Qadree Ollison having a real chance to produce in Atlanta. They will definitely use two backs, and there's no indication that Ito Smith is not replaceable. Factor in Freeman's injury history and I see Ollison having sneaky upside.
- Ben: A lot of that depends on injury, but I'll go with a deep cut: Rex Burkhead. Assuming he's on the roster, I still expect Burkhead to be involved as a second receiving back behind James White. We know the Patriots have targets available and Tom Brady loves to throw to his backs. He'll work his way into being PPR-viable at some point this year.
- Chris: Kalen Ballage would be a good answer, but after watching him take first-team reps through the first week of training camp, I suspect his ADP is going to skyrocket. I'll go with Darwin Thompson, then. I don't think Carlos Hyde is a particularly good player, so if Thompson gets a 15-touch role somehow, he could be a league-winner.