Fantasy Football Running Back Dynasty Rankings: Ezekiel Elliott tops the list but uncertain futures cloud middle tiers

I want to be clear. I am very excited to be back in the the dynasty rankings business. This is my favorite format and by far the most interesting, in my opinion. 

So last month when we started with quarterback rankings, I was pretty pumped. This is not that.

Re-establishing dynasty running back rankings in mid-February can be maddening. While talent matters more than anything, there are a ton of running backs in less-than-predictable situations right now. There are backs that don’t have teams, backs that are reportedly getting cut, backs that currently look like starters but will probably get replaced over the next six months. 

All of that is my way of saying, these rankings will be changing as much in the coming months as they will at any time this year. They will also be expanding to a top 60 shortly after the NFL Draft.

The one advantage of doing tiers is I can feel pretty confident in this first group. Feel free to tell me why I’m wrong about the rest of them though.

The Undisputed
Ezekiel Elliott Dallas Cowboys RB
The tiebreaker is the Elliott’s age. He’s still not even 22.
David Johnson Arizona Cardinals RB
Is there anything he can’t do? My No. 1 back in 2017.
Le'Veon Bell Pittsburgh Steelers RB
No one was more impressive in 2016, but his status in league’s drug program drops him to the bottom of the tier.

While I don’t believe you can make a reasonable argument against these being the three best RB assets in dynasty, you can certainly argue over the order. I may have actually ranked them in reverse of what I believe their talent level to be, which is not something I really ever like saying about dynasty rankings.

Here is what Twitter thinks:

Bell’s suspension risk, age and lack of a guaranteed future in Pittsburgh do just enough to lower him to the bottom of this tier. But the bottom of this tier is no insult. The chasm between Bell and tier two is much larger than the difference between Bell and Elliott. 

They Might Be Elite
Devonta Freeman Atlanta Falcons RB
A young back with all the tools in an elite offense. I’m done questioning him.
Melvin Gordon L.A. Chargers Chargers RB
Gordon made us look silly last year and he’s still one of the youngest backs in the league.
Carlos Hyde San Francisco 49ers RB
If Kyle Shanahan can turn San Francisco into Atlanta, Hyde could jump into the first tier.
Jordan Howard Chicago Bears RB
I’m not sure I totally buy Howard’s 2016, but he’s still 22 years old and that was a less than ideal situation.

This is such a fascinating second tier, and I expect plenty of disagreement with it. It wasn’t that long ago that I was questioning the talent of both Freeman and Gordon. On the flip side, I’ve long considered Hyde as one of the most talented backs in the NFL. Then you get to Jordan Howard, who everyone else seems more confident in than I am. 

Yes, Howard is younger than everyone above him besides Ezekiel Elliott. He’s also coming off a phenomenal rookie season where he topped 1,600 total yards and ran for better than five yards per carry. He’s also less than 12 months removed from being evaluated as a fifth round talent by the NFL and I’m not sure that situation in Chicago is getting better any time soon.

I would rather have either of the two backs in the next tier in a redraft league in 2017, but Howard’s age gets him into this tier. 

Win Now
LeSean McCoy Buffalo Bills RB
He’s a top-five back in 2017, but that will be his last before age 30.
DeMarco Murray Tennessee Titans RB
How soon do the Titans want to hand the reigns to Derrick Henry?

This is pretty simple. McCoy and Murray are solid No. 1 RBs in 2017, but they’re infinitely more valuable to a team that has a legitimate shot at winning the title this year. For more than half of the league, these are the guys you try to sell to a contender to help you rebuild.

The best case scenario is you get 1-2 No. 1 RB seasons out of them, they age gracefully and give you a few more years of No. 2 production. Unfortunately, at this stage of their career they have a floor of one misstep turning them into Jamaal Charles

Borderline No. 1s
Todd Gurley L.A. Rams Rams RB
Admittedly, Gurley has more upside than anyone in this tier.
Lamar Miller Houston Texans RB
Much like Gurley, Miller would really benefit from better quarterback play.
Jay Ajayi Miami Dolphins RB
Thirty six percent of Ajayi’s career rushing yards came in a three-game stretch.
Mark Ingram New Orleans Saints RB
Ingram is still just 27 years old and has three straight solid No. 2 RB seasons.
Thomas Rawls Seattle Seahawks RB
It’s quite possible had Rawls been healthy this year that he’d be in the top five. It’s also possible he can’t stay healthy with his style.

I actually expected recency bias to cause a lot of Todd Gurley doubt. It hasn’t among my Twitter followers:

If anything, it looks like I’m too low on Gurley. I agree that his situation was awful last year, but we need to come to terms with the fact that he wasn’t good either. If he truly belonged in the upper echelon on Fantasy running backs, he’d do more with less.

Speaking of needing to do more with less, there is Jay Ajayi. The contrast between Ajayi’s performance when his line was whole and when it wasn’t was striking. It becomes more striking with the Dolphins releasing Brandon Albert. Maybe they won’t lose much, but it’s also hard to imagine that group staying healthy for all of 2017.

Let’s remember that staying healthy is still quite a concern for Ajayi. It’s one of the only reasons he wasn’t drafted higher in the first place. I don’t think it’s fair to treat Ajayi like the average 23 year old, which only adds to the risk of treating him like a bona fide No. 1 back.

Give Them the Job!
Derrick Henry Tennessee Titans RB
Henry could make a huge leap the second Murray gives way.
Ty Montgomery Green Bay Packers WR
Montgomery should get a number change in 2017, let’s just hope the Packers don’t draft someone better.
Tevin Coleman Atlanta Falcons RB
Coleman can be a No. 2 back sharing the load with Freeman, but just wait until he gets his own gig.
Paul Perkins N.Y. Giants Giants RB
The Giants are going to add someone after dropping Rashad Jennings. Will it be a replacement for Perkins or a complement?
Kenneth Dixon Baltimore Ravens RB
See above. I believe Dixon could be a great Fantasy RB, but have no idea if Ravens will give him the shot.

One of the main reasons I did these polls was to check my perception vs. public perception. Well, we both love Derrick Henry:

Henry’s 64 percent was the largest portion of the vote that any RB got in any of these polls, and I get it. He is an elite talent in an offense that wants to run the ball down opponents’ throats. His situation is not that far from Ezekiel Elliott, other than the fact he has DeMarco Murray there.

That’s a pretty big qualifier, and the reason Henry finds himself this far down my rankings. My expectation is that Henry is a starting running back by 2018, but there is no guarantee of that at all. Of course, there’s also no guaranteed money for DeMarco Murray in Tennessee after 2017.

If you’re a team in complete rebuild mode with no hope of winning in 2017, I would bump Henry up to the Carlos Hyde range of these rankings.

Almost Certainly Wrong
Rob Kelley Washington Redskins RB
Kelley is more secure than most on this list, and he’s young. I just don’t believe in his talent.
Jeremy Hill Cincinnati Bengals RB
Assuming the Bengals stick with Hill and Giovani Bernard isn’t ready for the start of the year, he’ll probably fall into No. 2 RB production.
C.J. Anderson Denver Broncos RB
I have a lot of questions about Anderson, but the Broncos don’t have other good options.
Latavius Murray Oakland Raiders RB
Everyone undervalues Murray, but now that “everyone” reportedly includes the Raiders, you have to downgrade him.
Giovani Bernard Cincinnati Bengals RB
I believe in Bernard’s talent enough to leave him in my top 25 even with the likelihood he may not be 100 percent by the start of 2017.
Dion Lewis New England Patriots RB
I really wish Lewis had shown us a little bit more this year, but he still has top 15 potential in PPR.
Isaiah Crowell Cleveland Browns RB
Crowell is just 24 years old and just had his most productive year. But, these are the Browns. 
Doug Martin Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB
Another player whose talent I believe in a lot more than his current situation.
Eddie Lacy Green Bay Packers RB
I’m skeptical that Lacy stayed in shape while immobilized after his ankle injury. Let’s see what the Packers decide.
Spencer Ware Kansas City Chiefs RB
Some of the luster came off when Ware was given a full workload. 
Jamaal Charles Kansas City Chiefs RB
Charles could make you look silly for giving up on him. He could also be dead weight on your roster.

I would assume this is the part of the rankings that will inspire angry tweets. Everyone has a favorite RB in this monster tier, and most of these guys have given their fans plenty of ammunition. Kelley, Hill and Anderson have the most stability (we think), so they vault to the top of the tier. It’s possible that multiple running backs in this group will vault into my top 20 or fall out of the top 40 in the next couple of months.

The one other back than should be fairly stable is Isaiah Crowell. The better question may be about his upside. Crowell has been in and out of the doghouse in an offense that has struggled ever since he arrived. But he did take a big step in 2016 with his pass catching and nearly topped 1,000 yards for the first time in his career.

Hue Jackson would love to run the ball more and it’s possible the Browns improve their defense, find a quarterback and get themselves into a position in 2017 where they can do just that. In that possible (if not likely) scenario, it’s not hard to see Crowell becoming a borderline No. 1 back. Maybe his greatest asset is that his acquisition cost should be dirt cheap right now. 

Probable Placeholders
Matt Forte N.Y. Jets Jets RB
He’s on his last leg, but I still believe he’ll be the starting RB for the Jets in 2017.
Adrian Peterson Minnesota Vikings RB
Much like Charles, it’s hard to completely give up on him.
Ryan Mathews Philadelphia Eagles RB
Not as old as the rest of this group, but with his injury history he might as well be.
LeGarrette Blount New England Patriots RB
Will rocket up the list if he re-signs with Patriots. May disappear if he doesn’t.
Frank Gore Indianapolis Colts RB
Gore lost a step in 2016 and doesn’t have many left to lose.

There is nothing exciting about this group. At all. Then again, you would have said the same thing about Blount heading into this year and he could have very easily contributed to a championship run. This is the level of running back who you can’t really get anything for if you want to rebuild, but that can make them excellent values if you’re just trying to add depth on a contender. 

At Least They Have Their Youth
Duke Johnson Cleveland Browns RB
Still just 23 years old, but not good enough to make an impact as lesser half of committee.
Jerick McKinnon Minnesota Vikings RB
There’s still reason to believe but he needs an opportunity and a brand new offensive line.
Ameer Abdullah Detroit Lions RB
We’re one preseason injury away from me completely giving up, but he’s got talent.
Charles Sims Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB
Not as young as the rest of this group, but could jump several tiers if Bucs cut Martin and committed to Sims.
DeAndre Washington Oakland Raiders RB
Rumors have the Raiders cutting Murray. I believe Washington is the best young back in Oakland.
Jalen Richard Oakland Raiders RB
Richard’s big-play ability will keep him in the rotation at the very least.

This is where my mind was blown. I had no idea so many of Ameer Abdullah’s family members followed me. 

In all seriousness, this group of running backs is young ...and that is about it. They still have their believers, but I have deep skepticism whether any of them could handle the role of feature back well in the unlikely event that role was handed to them.

 I’m most optimistic about Charles Sims, but he isn’t exactly young and the Bucs have had plenty of opportunities to give him extra work. The most likely upside of this group is a change of pace back who is efficient (and healthy) enough to produce No. 2 RB numbers. 

Senior Fantasy Writer

Heath Cummings is a Senior Fantasy Writer that covers Daily Fantasy Sports of all types. Before coming to CBS Sports he was a staff writer for Footballguys and the host of The Fantasy Football Show on... Full Bio

Our Latest Stories