Note: This article was originally published on July 19 and updated on August 27. Updates are at the bottom of each writeup in bold.
Top fantasy target: David Johnson
Others in the mix: Chase Edmonds, T.J. Logan, Elijhaa Penny
Johnson — the #1 overall pick in loads of fantasy drafts last year — made it just 46 snaps before suffering a season-ending dislocated wrist. He was back to 100% by January, and that injury shouldn’t be a factor in 2018. It’s worth noting, though, that Johnson sprained his MCL in the 2017 season finale and has a 57.5% chance of missing time with injury this year, according to Sports Injury Predictor.
When Johnson is on the field, he figures to be 1 of the busiest RBs in the league. He racked up 373 touches (293 carries, 80 catches) in 2016 and 17 in less than 3 quarters of action last season. This year’s Cardinals have even fewer proven offensive weapons, with a bunch of question marks behind Larry Fitzgerald at WR and Ricky Seals-Jones, owner of 12 career catches, slated to start at TE.
The concerns for Johnson: a new system under OC Mike McCoy, a shaky offensive line and a potentially bad Cardinals offense. Arizona ranked a mediocre 17th in Football Outsiders’ 2017 Adjusted Line Yards and checked in at 28th in our 2018 Offensive Line Rankings. On top of the concerns with the O-line and pass-catchers, the Cardinals also have questions at QB with the injury-prone Sam Bradford and rookie Josh Rosen.
When Johnson totaled 20 TDs and led all RBs in fantasy points back in 2016, Arizona finished 6th in points and 9th in yards. This year’s Cardinals offense won’t be nearly as good.
There won’t be any other fantasy value in this backfield as long as Johnson is healthy. But the battle for backup (and handcuff) duties will be worth monitoring this summer.
The job should be Edmonds’ to lose. The 4th-round rookie was a 4-year starter at Fordham, averaging 6.2 yards per carry and totaling 86 receptions. His competition for the #2 spot on the depth chart consists of D.J. Foster, T.J. Logan and Elijhaa Penny. It’ll be a disappointment if Edmonds can’t beat those guys out.
Update: We haven't seen much of Johnson this preseason. But what we have seen has looked like, well, David Johnson. He's tallied 50 yards on 8 carries -- good for 6.2 yards per -- with 3 runs of 10+ yards. DJ sits 3rd among RBs in our PPR rankings and 4th in non-PPR.
Edmonds has seemingly locked up the #2 spot on the depth chart with a strong August. The rookie has averaged 4.1 yards per carry this preseason and drew the start in the 3rd exhibition with Johnson resting. Edmonds would be a fantasy starter if Johnson misses time this season.
Top fantasy target: Devonta Freeman
Others in the mix: Tevin Coleman
The Falcons offense was generally disappointing last year, ranking just 15th in points and yards after finishing top 2 in both categories in 2016.
The ground game also suffered, sinking from 5th to 13th in yards. Atlanta’s RBs actually combined for 3 more carries in 2017 vs. 2016 (382 to 379), but their yards per carry dropped from to 4.64 to 4.25. That was particularly disappointing considering the Falcons’ offensive line remained strong, ranking 8th in Football Outsiders’ 2017 Adjusted Line Yards.
That said, Atlanta still landed 2 RBs inside the top 22 in both PPR and non-PPR points. Freeman finished 13th, despite missing 2 full games and all but 2 snaps of a 3rd. Coleman, meanwhile, ranked 22nd in 15 games.
Freeman remained the clear lead dog in this backfield. In their 12 healthy games together, Freeman out-carried Coleman by an average of 14.3 to 8.1. Freeman was also the man near the goal line, finishing with 21 carries inside the 10-yard line and 14 inside the 5 vs. Coleman’s 13 and 6.
In the passing game, the RBs’ share of targets was down under 1st-year OC Steve Sarkisian. The position combined for 19.5% of the targets in 2015 and 19.9% in 2016. That sunk to 16.8% this past year.
Freeman’s share of the RB targets was also down to 52.8% after sitting at 80.2% and 60.7% the previous 2 seasons. Coleman, meanwhile, saw a career high 43.8% of the Falcons’ RB targets.
With Freeman, Coleman and Sarkisian back for 2018, expect a similar division of labor. In those 12 healthy games together last year, Freeman averaged 14.3 PPR points and Coleman 9.8. Those marks would have left them 11th and 26th, respectively, among RBs. Freeman is currently being selected at RB12; Coleman at RB29.
Both look like fine values at ADP. Of course, if either guy misses time this season, the other becomes an easy RB1.
Update: Freeman has yet to appear this preseason, presumably because of the MCL and PCL sprains he suffered late last year. We haven't heard that he's been limited in training camp, though, so consider him safe to draft as a borderline RB1. He's still being drafted as RB12 on average.
Coleman has looked explosive in exhibition action, ripping off 5.4 yards per carry. He remains a RB3/flex option who would become a RB1 if Freeman goes down. Coleman's ADP has sunk a tad to RB32.
Top fantasy target: Christian McCaffrey
Others in the mix: C.J. Anderson
McCaffrey’s rookie season was a mixed bag. He was as advertised in the passing game, finishing among the top 5 RBs in catches (80), receiving yards (651) and TDs (5). Pro Football Focus ranked McCaffrey 3rd among 49 RBs in their receiving grades.
It was a struggle on the ground, though. McCaffrey averaged a disappointing 3.7 yards per carry — 34th out of 47 RBs who carried 100+ times. An offensive line that finished 25th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards didn’t help. But McCaffrey also finished just 36th out of 73 qualifying RBs in missed tackles per attempt and 62nd in yards after contact per attempt, according to Pro Football Focus.
The good news: He averaged a strong 4.7 yards per carry over the season’s final 8 games after mustering just 2.4 over the first 8. That’s encouraging as we look ahead to 2018. Remember that McCaffrey was a productive workhorse at Stanford, averaging 23.6 carries per game and 6.1 yards per carry over his final 2 seasons.
We’ll see exactly how many carries McCaffrey gets alongside new backfield mate Anderson. The former Bronco toiled on the open market for 3 weeks before inking a 1-year, $1.75 million deal with the Panthers. After averaging 4.8 yards per carry over his first 3 NFL seasons, Anderson has posted just 4.1 over the last 2.
Anderson still looks like an upgrade over Jonathan Stewart, who operated as Carolina’s lead ball-carrier last year. In 15 games together, Stewart averaged 13.2 carries to McCaffrey’s 7.4. The veteran also dominated goal-line work, out-carrying McCaffrey 12 to 2 inside the 5-yard line.
If Anderson steps into that role, he’d have a good shot to best Stewart’s 42nd-place PPR finish last year. Just know that there’s not a ton of upside beyond that because McCaffrey will continue to dominate passing-game work. There’s also a chance McCaffrey takes on a bigger ball-carrying role at Anderson’s expense. All told, Anderson is a decent but unexciting pick at his RB40 ADP.
McCaffrey, meanwhile, might need more carries to pay off his RB11 ADP. He finished 9th last year but will have trouble garnering another 113 targets. (That led all RBs and was tied for 12th most by a RB in NFL history.) Greg Olsen is back after missing 9 games and being limited in 2 others last season. And Carolina added 1st-round rookie WR D.J. Moore.
McCaffrey feels a tad overvalued at his mid-2nd-round price tag.
Update: McCaffrey might be the biggest winner of the preseason. He's seen a workhorse role, playing 89% of the Panthers' 1st-team snaps. McCaffrey averaged 7.2 yards per carry on 21 attempts, caught 8 passes and even received goal-line carries. If this usage continues in the regular season -- and we suspect it will -- McCaffrey will be an easy RB1 with top 5 upside in PPR leagues.
Anderson, on the other hand, is looking more like a handcuff than standalone fantasy option now. He played just 7 snaps (11% of the total) with the starters this preseason.
Top fantasy target: Jordan Howard
Others in the mix: Tarik Cohen
The big storyline in Chicago is the arrival of HC Matt Nagy and OC Mark Helfrich. This offense figures to look much different than the one we saw under HC John Fox and OC Dowell Loggains last year.
Nagy is a rookie HC, spending the last 10 years under Andy Reid. He took over play-calling duties in Kansas City late last season, helping the Chiefs average a strong 27.3 points over their final 6 games (including playoffs). That was up from 24.7 points per game over their first 11.
Helfrich might be an even more exciting addition. He spent 4 seasons as Chip Kelly's OC at Oregon before serving as the Ducks' HC from 2013-2016. Helfrich is expected to bring a Kelly-esque up-tempo attack to Chicago.
That has many folks believing that Cohen is the better fit in this offense. The pint-sized but dynamic 5’6, 181-pounder racked up 53 catches as a rookie and averaged a solid 4.3 yards per carry.
Nagy has spoken glowingly of Cohen all offseason.
In April: “He’s a run threat and then he can catch the ball in space in broken formations. That’s an advantage for the play callers and the play designers to be able to do some different things. We can move him around and try to get an advantage. … He’s dynamic.”
In May: "He runs every route the right way. He catches most balls. He doesn't make a lot of mistakes. He’s a player that, for me, you get giddy about.”
And in June: “He’s able to run routes. Sometimes that can be a disadvantage to a defense because they’ve got to cover him all over the field. You can’t just put him in the backfield and say to the middle linebacker, ‘Cover him.’ So we’ll try to do some things there. He’s an athletic kid who does a lot of things well. We’ll have some fun with him.”
What’s flown more under the radar, though, is that Nagy has also called Howard the “featured” back and “the main guy.” Howard, of course, has been excellent on the ground through his first 2 NFL seasons, racking up 2,435 yards on 4.6 yards per carry.
Nagy and Helfrich both bring run-leaning backgrounds to Chicago. Nagy’s 5 most recent seasons with the Chiefs produced finishes of 13th, 9th, 6th, 13th and 18th in run rate. Helfrich’s 11 college offenses — 8 with Oregon and 3 with Colorado — averaged a big 59.1% rushing share.
Don’t expect that much running from the Bears, but this does shape up as a run-first offense with 2 quality backs and a young QB.
We’ll see if and to what extent Cohen’s ball-carrying role grows in 2018, but expect Howard to safely lead the squad in rushing attempts. Even with a modest receiving projection, he’s in play at a RB16 ADP. (He sits 18th in our PPR rankings.)
Cohen, meanwhile, is an exciting fantasy pick considering his skill set and what should be a much more modern Bears offense. He’s still reasonably priced at RB30 for now. Just be careful not to chase him too hard if that price spikes in August.
Update: HC Matt Nagy talked up Howard's 3-down ability all summer and has backed it up with his preseason deployment. He played 72% of Chicago's 1st-team snaps and matched Tarik Cohen with 3 third-down snaps. We're still expecting Cohen to handle the majority of the passing-down work this season, but any growth in Howard's role there will help his week-to-week reliability. He's up to 15th in our PPR rankings -- but is also up to RB13 in ADP.
Cohen has had a quiet August. But he had a quiet August last year before catching 8 balls in the regular-season opener. He remains an intriguing PPR pick -- although he's still pricey with an ADP sitting in the early 7th round.
Top fantasy target: Ezekiel Elliott
Others in the mix: Rod Smith, Bo Scarborough, Tavon Austin
A 6-game suspension loomed over Elliott all last season and finally struck in November. Perhaps that whole ordeal played a part in his yards per carry sinking a full yard from 5.1 in 2016 to 4.1 last year.
But it didn’t stop him from producing as a high-end RB1 on a per-game basis. Only Todd Gurley averaged more non-PPR points per game and only Gurley and Le’Veon Bell averaged more PPR points.
Volume was the main driver for Zeke. His 24.2 carries per game easily led the league — 2.8 more than any other back. Elliott toted it 21+ times in 9 of 10 games, including 5 outings of 26+ attempts. So, despite that mediocre 4.1 yards per carry, Elliott averaged a league-high 98.3 rushing yards per game.
He wasn’t quite as elite in the passing game, ranking 27th in targets per game (3.8), 32nd in catches per game (2.6) and 15th in receiving yards per game (26.9).
The good news is that all 3 of those marks were up from Elliott’s 2016 rookie campaign, when he averaged 2.6 targets, 2.1 catches and 24.2 yards. His target share climbed from 6.6% in 2016 to 11.7% in his 10 games last year. Only 12 RBs in the league grabbed higher shares last season.
And Zeke remained super efficient, ranking 14th in yards per target among 54 RBs who saw 30+ looks. That followed a 3rd-place finish in 2016.
So his receiving role deserves to grow in 2018. And there’s plenty of room for that to happen with the departures of WR Dez Bryant and TE Jason Witten. Those guys combined for 219 targets last year. Look for Zeke to pick up some of those leftovers.
The wild card in this backfield is Tavon Austin, who’s listed as a RB on the Cowboys’ official website. The front office, coaching staff and QB Dak Prescott have talked up Austin’s role since he arrived via trade in late April.
“He's a guy we get the ball in his hands, he'll score some points and get a bunch of yards in this offense,” Prescott said in May.
We’ll be keeping a close eye on Austin in training camp and the preseason to see exactly how big a role he’ll play. For now, though, we’re not concerned about his impact on Elliott’s production. And we’re not drafting Austin outside of the deepest of best-ball leagues.
If you’re looking to handcuff Elliott, Smith looks like your guy. The former undrafted free agent out of Ohio State averaged just 3.6 yards per carry during Zeke’s 6-game ban last year. But he scored 4 times and averaged 11.1 yards on 14 receptions.
Smith will need to hold off rookie Bo Scarborough. The 6’2, 235-pounder with 86th percentile athleticism certainly looks the part. But he struggled with myriad injuries at Alabama and dropped to the 7th round of this spring’s draft.
Update: Elliott hasn't played this preseason as he prepares for another year as Dallas' workhorse. There have been multiple reports in August of a bigger pass-catching role for Zeke.
The Cowboys' offensive line has become a concern, though, with C Travis Frederick diagnosed with an auto-immune disease and G Zack Martin sidelined with a hyperextended knee. It's a situation to monitor, but Elliott still sits 4th among RBs in the PPR rankings and 3rd in non-PPR.
Smith and Scarborough both struggled this preseason, averaging 3.5 and 2.6 yards per carry, respectively. Smith will open the season as the #2 RB.
Austin has been used almost exclusively as a WR in preseason action, catching 2 balls with no rushing attempts.
Top fantasy target: Theo Riddick
Others in the mix: Kerryon Johnson, LeGarrette Blount, Ameer Abdullah
This has not been a source of big rushing production recently. Under OC Jim Bob Cooter the past 3 seasons, the Lions have ranked 32nd, 30th and 32nd in rushing yards. Volume has been the biggest problem, with finishes of 30th, 31st and 31st in rushing attempts. But Detroit has also failed to crack 3.8 yards per carry in any of those years.
So, not surprisingly, no RB has topped 597 rushing yards under Cooter. And Riddick is the only RB to rank better than 40th in PPR points.
Speaking of Riddick, he should return as the Lions’ primary pass-catching back in 2018. Among RBs, only Duke Johnson has tallied more catches or yards over the past 3 years than Riddick (186-1,512). He owns a nice 78.5% catch rate and 8.1 yards per catch during that stretch.
Riddick’s volume did dip last year, from over 6 targets per game the previous 2 season to 4.4. But his 71 total looks were still good for 10th among all RBs. And he still finished 26th at the position in PPR points.
The division of labor on the ground will be worth monitoring closely in August. Detroit traded up in April’s draft to snag Johnson with the 43rd overall pick — notably ahead of Derrius Guice. The Auburn product has lead-back size at 6’0, 213 pounds and tested as a 63rd percentile athlete at the Combine. Johnson was named 2017 SEC Offensive Player of the Year after rushing for 1,391 yards and 18 TDs on 4.9 yards per carry and tallying a 24-194-2 receiving line.
This is Johnson’s job to lose. If he stumbles, Blount is around as veteran insurance. The 31-year-old inked a 1-year, $2 million deal with the Lions in free agency. Blount remained effective in Philly last year, averaging 4.4 yards per carry and finishing 3rd in yards after contact per carry, according to Pro Football Focus.
Abdullah is still hanging around for now but could be a summer trade candidate. Both he and the Lions would probably benefit from a change of scenery for the former 2nd-round pick.
Whoever is toting the rock for Detroit should benefit from improved offensive line play. This unit lost LT Taylor Decker for half of last season and finished dead last in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards. Decker is healthy now, though, and the Lions added G/C Frank Ragnow in the 1st round of April’s draft.
Update: Detroit's backfield usage this preseason has been strange, with Johnson, Riddick, Blount and Abdullah all receiving 1st-team work. Johnson has looked best of the group, averaging 4.5 yards per carry and 8.6 yards per catch. (Blount has averaged 3.6 yards per carry; Abdullah 4.1.) We're still expecting the rookie to emerge as the lead ball-carrier, but his Week 1 role is a bit murky.
Riddick caught 5 balls for 57 yards (11.4 YPC) this preseason and remains the best bet to handle most of the passing-down work. He's a big value at his 14th-round ADP in PPR drafts.
Green Bay Packers
Top fantasy target: Jamaal Williams
Others in the mix: Ty Montgomery, Aaron Jones
One of the top fantasy storylines of the summer will be the Packers backfield. It’s a wide-open situation in an offense that’s ranked top 10 in points in 7 of Aaron Rodgers’ 8 healthy seasons.
Jones was easily Green Bay’s most efficient runner last year. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry, ranked 14th among 78 qualifying backs in Pro Football Focus’ yards after contact per carry and 21st in tackles avoided per carry. Jones struggled in the passing game, though. He hauled in just half of his 18 targets and averaged 2.4 yards per catch. Jones ranked 78th among 79 RBs in PFF’s yards per route run and received negative grades in both pass catching and pass blocking.
Williams was the inverse, impressing in the passing game while underwhelming on the ground. He averaged just 3.6 yards per carry, ranked 49th in yards after contact per carry and 47th in tackles avoided per attempt. PFF ranked Williams 33rd among 51 RBs in rushing grade.
But Williams corralled 25 of 34 targets (73.5%) and averaged a big 10.5 yards per catch. He finished 9th at his position in yards per route run. And, perhaps most importantly, he ranked 5th among RBs in PFF’s pass-blocking grades.
Montgomery opened last season as the Packers’ feature back, handling 41 carries and 23 targets over the first 3 weeks. He was sitting 4th among RBs in PPR scoring at that point — despite averaging just 3.0 yards per carry and 7.2 yards per catch.
Montgomery went down with broken ribs in Week 4, though, and then missed the rest of the season after aggravating that injury in Week 10. He ended up averaging just 3.8 yards per carry across 8 appearances. Montgomery trailed both Williams and Jones in yards after contact per carry and tackles avoided per attempt. But it’s worth noting that he received the best receiving grade from PFF among the trio.
So Montgomery should maintain a pass-catching role in 2018 — especially with the Packers thin at WR behind Davante Adams and Randall Cobb.
“We have to take advantage of Ty's skills, and there's no question about that,” HC Mike McCarthy said in June. “The offense is suited for that.”
The lead ball-carrying role will likely come down to Williams vs. Jones. Jones will start behind the 8-ball after being slapped with a 2-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. That’ll give Williams a shot to take the job and run with it — although he’ll need to be more efficient on the ground in order to do that.
The concern here is that this turns into a 3-headed committee in a pass-heavy offense. For all their success, the Packers have produced a top 20 PPR RB in just 2 of Rodgers’ 8 healthy seasons.
Still, all 3 of these guys are worth shots at relatively cheap price tags. Since Jones’ suspension was announced, Williams is going at RB36, Jones at RB42 and Montgomery at RB43.
Update: It's been a good month for Williams. He's operated as Green Bay's clear lead back in preseason action, notably getting the night off alongside QB Aaron Rodgers in the 3rd exhibition. Williams will open the year as the starter and could hang on to that title all season. He's climbed to 27th in our PPR rankings and is still just RB33 in ADP.
Jones made his debut in that 3rd preseason game after missing a couple of weeks with hamstring trouble. He figures to return as the #3 RB after that 2-game suspension and is just a late-round flier in fantasy drafts.
Montgomery has averaged just 2.8 yards per carry and 4.7 yards per catch this preseason. His exact role remains a bit unclear -- but we're still expecting him to see significant action in the passing game. He's a fine shot to take at his 11th-round ADP.
Los Angeles Rams
Top fantasy target: Todd Gurley
Others in the mix: John Kelly, Malcolm Brown
Gurley’s 387.3 PPR points last year were the 2nd most by a RB over the past 7 seasons. He led all RBs in both total yards (2,093) and TDs (19).
That, of course, followed a disappointing 2016 season that saw Gurley total 1,212 yards and 6 TDs while averaging 3.2 yards per carry.
HC Sean McVay deserves a lot of credit for the turnaround. He led the Rams to a 1st-place finish in total points and specifically did a good job getting Gurley the ball in the passing game. His targets spiked from 58 to 87 and his yards per catch from 7.6 to 12.3.
Gurley also benefitted from an improved offensive line. After ranking 29th in Football Outsiders’ 2016 Adjusted Line Yards, the Rams climbed all the way to 3rd last year.
McVay is back for 2018. And the Rams return all 5 offensive line starters. It all bodes well for Gurley, who will again be a workhorse. Expect some natural regression from that massive 2017 campaign, but Gurley sits atop our PPR and non-PPR rankings.
Kelly and Brown will duke it out this summer for the right to be Gurley’s handcuff. Brown mustered just 3.9 yards per carry last year, so the door is open for Kelly to win this job. The Tennessee product boasts some of the most exciting tape in this year’s RB class, with an impressive combination of burst, wiggle and tenacity. Kelly also caught 37 balls last season.
Update: The Rams put Gurley on ice this preseason. He'll be plenty busy when the real games start and remains atop our RB rankings.
Kelly has shined in exhibition action, averaging 4.3 yards per carry and scoring 3 times on 46 totes. It's certainly worth noting that the rookie has continued to play behind RB Malcolm Brown. But we have to imagine Kelly would step in as the lead back if Gurley misses time this year. Brown has mustered just 2.1 yards per carry this preseason.
Top fantasy target: Dalvin Cook
Others in the mix: Latavius Murray
It sure looked like Cook was in store for a massive rookie season before going down with a torn ACL in Week 4. In 3 full games, he’d compiled 288 rushing yards, 10 catches, 82 receiving yards and 1 TD. Only 7 RBs scored more PPR points over that stretch.
Post-Cook, Minnesota’s backfield remained productive. Jerick McKinnon ranked 10th at the position in PPR points from Week 5 on. And Latavius Murray ranked 15th. Combine their numbers and the McKinnon-Murray Frankenstein would have scored 50 more PPR points than any other RB over the season’s final 13 weeks.
Now, OC Pat Shurmur deserves plenty of credit for that. He’s off to coach the Giants and will be replaced by John DeFilippo. The 40-year-old’s only OC experience came with the Browns back in 2015. He spent the past 2 years as QB coach in Philly. The good news is, like Shurmur, DeFilippo is a West Coast guy and plans to call the run game “pretty much the exact same.”
So don’t expect a big change in the play-calling in Minnesota. Cook should be plenty busy — barring injury.
Durability stands as his biggest issue. On top of last year’s torn ACL, Cook has 3 shoulder surgeries, a hamstring injury and a sprained ankle in his medical history. Sports Injury Predictor has him as the 13th most likely RB to miss time with injury this season.
Couple that with the fact that we’ve seen less than 4 games of him at the NFL level, and Cook carries plenty of risk at his early-2nd-round ADP.
Murray is locked in as Minnesota’s #2 RB but will likely need Cook to miss time to be a fantasy factor. He was effective near the goal line last year, converting 6 of 13 carries inside the 5-yard line into TDs. But he averaged just 3.9 yards per carry and ranked a middling 25th among 51 RBs in Pro Football Focus’ rushing grades.
Update: Cook made a brief preseason cameo in Week 3, carrying twice for 1 yard. It was his 1st game action since tearing his ACL last October 1. Cook's rehab has been setback-free, but it's possible the Vikings ease him back in early on this year.
That'll be easier to do with Murray looking good this month. He's carried 20 times for 79 yards and a score in 3 preseason outings, adding another 32 yards on 3 catches. Murray could be a thorn in Cook's side this season, especially near the goal line.
New Orleans Saints
Top fantasy targets: Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram
Others in the mix: Jonathan Williams, Trey Edmunds, Boston Scott, Shane Vereen
This has long been 1 of the most productive fantasy backfields in the NFL.
The Saints have finished better than 16th in rushing yards in just 4 of 12 seasons since HC Sean Payton arrived. But they’ve ranked top 10 in rushing TDs in 10 of those 12. And Payton regularly churns out big receiving numbers from his backfield. Saints RBs have combined for at least 100 catches in all 12 seasons since Payton arrived, with over 140 in 7 of those.
Last year’s backfield was Payton’s most productive. The Saints ranked 5th in rushing yards and 1st in rushing TDs — despite finishing just 13th in attempts. Only the Chiefs averaged more yards per carry. The result for fantasy owners: Both Kamara and Ingram landed inside the top 6 RBs in PPR points.
A dominant offensive line that ranked 2nd in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards played a big part in that. All 5 starters return for 2018, which is excellent news for the RBs.
Kamara and Ingram also benefitted from the Saints’ 44.4% run rate last year — the team’s highest since 2009. Expect some snap back in 2018. But that can be offset from an uptick in overall play volume. The Saints’ 1,000 offensive snaps last season were their fewest in the Payton Era. Their average over the previous 11 seasons: 1,076.
Of course, we’ve buried the lede here. And that’s Ingram’s 4-game suspension to begin the season for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
That’ll leave Kamara as the clear lead back for at least September. That’s a role he’d already assumed down the stretch last year. Over the final 5 games, Kamara averaged 17.4 opportunities (carries plus targets) vs. Ingram’s 14.4.
Don’t expect Kamara to see a huge uptick in volume with Ingram sidelined. Payton said in May that it’d “be a mistake” to hand all of Ingram’s work to Kamara. But even a few extra touches per game for a guy with his talent is noteworthy. Kamara has the potential to be fantasy’s top-scoring RB over those first 4 games. And he’s a good bet for RB1 production the rest of the way. Kamara is fairly priced at his mid-1st-round ADP.
Ingram’s value has obviously taken a big hit with that suspension, which accounts for nearly one-third of the regular season in most fantasy leagues. There’s also some risk that he returns to a diminished role. Ingram’s volume already took a hit late last season. And we just saw WR Willie Snead remain phased out of the offense after returning from suspension last year. We’re not expecting that to happen to Ingram, but we’re mostly avoiding him at his current mid-4th-round ADP.
There could be some spot-start — or at least DFS — appeal behind Kamara during those first 4 games. It’s entirely unclear who those leftover touches will go to, though.
Edmunds has the advantage of a year of experience in Payton’s offense, although he carried just 9 times last season. Williams was 1 of our favorite sleepers in the 2016 RB class but disappointed as a rookie and didn’t see the field last year. Scott is a 5’6, 199-pound rookie who projects as a change-of-pace back. West has mustered just 3.9 yards per carry across 4 NFL seasons. Vereen has topped 40 catches 4 different times — including last year — but seemingly has an overlapping skill set with Kamara.
None of these names are overly exciting, but the fertile RB ground in New Orleans makes the battle for early-season playing time worth monitoring in August.
Update: Williams looks like the favorite to serve as the #2 RB during Ingram's 4-game suspension. He was the 2nd RB into New Orleans' 2nd preseason game (behind Ingram; Kamara didn't play), carrying 8 times for 37 yards. That momentum was halted in the 3rd exhibition, though, when Williams played behind Shane Vereen and finished with negative 3 yards on 3 totes.
None of the Saints' other options have impressed, so it should be Williams' gig. But we'll need to re-evaluate the situation after the season opener.
New York Giants
Top fantasy target: Saquon Barkley
Others in the mix: Wayne Gallman, Jonathan Stewart
The question here isn’t whether Barkley will immediately assume feature-back duties in New York. The question is just how much volume he’ll see.
Barkley is just the 4th RB over the last 10 years to be selected with a top 5 pick. Here are the other 3 and their rookie-year touches:
So draft capital says Barkley is a good bet for 300+ touches this season — a territory only 6 RBs reached last year.
So, too, does new HC Pat Shurmur’s history. In 9 years as a HC or OC, Shurmur has had a RB tally 318+ touches 5 times. That includes that 318-touch season from then-rookie Trent Richardson. (And rookie Dalvin Cook was on pace to zoom by that mark under Shurmur last season before tearing his ACL in Week 4.)
Barkley is deserving of big volume. He puts big checkmarks in the size, athleticism and college production boxes. He checked into the Combine at 6’0, 233 pounds and registered a 98th percentile SPARQ score. That followed a brilliant Penn State career that saw him average 5.7 yards per carry and rack up 102 catches over 3 seasons. Barkley is a ready-made 3-down back.
The concern you’ll hear for Barkley is the Giants’ offensive line. But that might be overblown. The unit actually ranked a respectable 15th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards last year. And they added LT Nate Solder and rookie G Will Hernandez this offseason.
We’ll keep an eye on the depth chart behind Barkley this summer. Stewart is the veteran who netted a 2-year, $6.9 million deal from the Giants in free agency. But the 31-year-old looked like "a plodding veteran” this spring, according to insider Matt Lombardo. Lombardo believes Gallman is the favorite to back up Barkley.
Of course, neither guy will be a fantasy factor without an injury to the rookie, so neither is worth drafting outside of the deepest of fantasy leagues.
Update: Barkley took his very 1st preseason carry for 39 yards. He tweaked his hamstring in practice on August 13, though, and didn't play in the 2nd or 3rd exhibition. The good news is that Barkley was cleared for individual drills on August 22 and appeared to be a full-go in practice on the 26th. The rookie is on track to be 100% by the start of the season.
Gallman has been the lesser of 2 evils behind Barkley. He's averaged 2.8 yards per carry this preseason vs. Stewart's -.5. (Yes, that's right -- Stewart's 10 carries have gone for negative 5 yards.) Neither guy is a threat to Barkley's workhorse role. If Barkley misses time, Gallman might be the better fantasy option.
Top fantasy target: Jay Ajayi
Others in the mix: Darren Sproles, Corey Clement
The biggest question in Philly’s backfield is just how big a carry share Ajayi will garner. There have been hints from both the team and media that he’ll serve as the clear lead back — if not quite reaching workhorse status.
RB coach Duce Staley said in June that Ajayi is “excited about being able to go out there and dominate and being able to be that guy.”
Insider Jimmy Kempski wrote just last week that the Eagles “will look to get their money's worth” out of Ajayi, who’s set to hit free agency next offseason.
A true workhorse role for Ajayi would go against what we’ve seen from HC Doug Pederson’s Eagles offense so far. 2016 saw Ryan Matthews lead the way with just 155 carries, while Darren Sproles toted it 94 times and Wendell Smallwood chipped in with 77. Last year, LeGarrette Blount led the team with 173 carries, Clement saw 74 and Ajayi 70.
It’s worth noting, though, that Ajayi’s volume spiked down the stretch. He averaged just 7.3 carries over his first 4 games with the Eagles but 13.8 over his final 6 (including the playoffs). 13.8 carries per game would have ranked 19th league-wide last year.
There are 173 carries up for grabs with Blount’s departure. Note, too, that Blount ranked 9th league-wide with 10 carries inside the 10-yard line last year.
The biggest concern for Ajayi is passing-game usage. He averaged just 2.5 targets per game over the last 6 games of last year — a full-season pace of 40 that would have ranked 33rd at the position. Ajayi figures to lose passing-down work to both Sproles and Clement this year.
Sproles’ 2017 campaign ended in Week 3 with a torn ACL and broken arm. His rehab has gone well, though, and the Eagles re-signed him to a 1-year, $1.4 million deal in April.
Sproles was playing a major role before going down last year, leading Philly RBs in snaps in both of the first 2 games and compiling 50 rushing yards, 7 receptions and 73 receiving yards. Insider Elliott Shorr-Parks wrote in May that it wouldn’t be surprising to see Sproles lead this backfield in snaps this season. He’s basically free in PPR drafts right now, with an ADP sitting in the 18th round.
Clement is the biggest threat to Sproles’ pass-catching role. The undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin flashed with 4.3 yards per carry and 12.3 yards per catch during the regular season last year. Then he exploded for 10 catches, 139 yards and a score in 3 playoff games, including a 4-100-1 line in the Super Bowl.
Whoever is getting the ball in Philly’s backfield will benefit from playing in an offense that finished 3rd in points and 7th in yards last year — and from running behind an offensive line that we rank the league’s 2nd best.
Update: Ajayi looked good on his way to 4.3 yards per carry in the first 2 preseason games. But he missed the 3rd with a "lower-body injury." We'll keep an eye on that over the next couple of weeks. If healthy, Ajayi looks ready to return solid RB2 production.
Clement also missed time this month with a left leg issue. He carried 5 times for 30 yards and caught 2 balls for 2 yards in his only preseason appearance.
Sproles, meanwhile, has been held out of preseason action. But he's drawn raves for his training-camp work and still seems set to play a significant pass-catching role this year.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Top fantasy target: Peyton Barber
Others in the mix: Ronald Jones, Jacquizz Rodgers
Tampa’s running game was abysmal last year, finishing 28th in yards, 25th in TDs and 28th in yards per carry. So they invested the 38th overall pick of this spring’s draft on Jones.
The USC product is coming off a huge 1,550-yard, 19-TD 2017 campaign, earning the highest overall and rushing grade in the nation from Pro Football Focus. PFF ranked Jones 3rd in the draft class in missed tackles forced, behind only Nick Chubb and Rashaad Penny.
The concerns with Jones are his slight frame and lack of pass-catching experience. He checks in at 5’11, 205 pounds. And, although he missed just 1 game across 3 college seasons, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll be able to handle workhorse rushing loads.
In the passing game, Jones totaled just 32 catches at USC. He lost passing-down work to freshman RB Stephen Carr last year. And he struggled in pass protection, allowing 6 pressures in 77 pass-blocking snaps.
We’re expecting Sims to stick as the Bucs’ primary pass-catching back this year. He’s totaled 110 grabs and averaged 9.1 yards per catch over the past 3 seasons.
Losing that work obviously hurts Jones’ upside. We’ll also need to see how big a share of the rushing workload he assumes. The rookie looks like the most talented RB in Tampa, but we’ve heard from multiple sources that Barber will remain a big part of the offense.
HC Dirk Koetter labeled Barber his #1 RB coming out of June minicamp. The Tampa Bay Times’ Greg Auman expects Barber and Jones to “share the load at the start of the season.” Scott Reynolds of Pewter Report wrote in June that Barber will "likely start” and “form a one-two ‘Bash and Dash’ combination” with Jones.
Barber is averaging 4.0 yards per carry for his career and finished at 3.9 last year. But it’s worth noting that he spiked to 4.3 as Tampa’s lead back over the final 5 games.
We’re projecting Jones to easily lead the 2018 backfield in carries, but any work Barber steals will be bad news for a guy who probably won’t add much value in the passing game. The rookie sits 27th among RBs in ADP but just 37th in our PPR rankings.
Update: Jones has been 1 of the biggest disappointments of the preseason. He's received very little 1st-team action and has averaged an ugly 1.0 yards per carry. He's also dropped a couple of balls -- although he did reel in a 37-yarder down the field in Tampa's 3rd preseason game. The rookie is still capable of earning a larger role over the course of the year, but it doesn't look like he'll be an early-season fantasy option.
Barber, meanwhile, has been impressive. He's ripped off 87 yards and 2 TDs on 15 carries (5.8 YPC). He's the clear lead ball-carrier heading into Week 1.
Charles Sims landed on IR with a knee injury suffered in the 2nd preseason game. That could open up some pass-catching work for Barber, although it sounds like the Bucs want to use Jacquizz Rodgers in that role.
San Francisco 49ers
Top fantasy target: Jerick McKinnon
Others in the mix: Matt Breida, Alfred Morris
This entire offseason has been a long love letter from Kyle Shanahan to McKinnon. First, McKinnon got a big 4-year, $30 million deal in free agency that made him the league’s 4th highest paid RB in average annual salary. And since then, Shanny has been head over heels.
"There's so many things I liked about him, just visualizing how I would use him and the stuff that we would do," Shanahan said in March. "What is a huge bonus on him is when you talk about the pass game. When it comes to separating and beating linebackers and safeties in man-to-man coverage, I definitely think he’s an issue for teams.”
Shanahan later applauded McKinnon’s 3-down ability. And he also revealed that there were a bunch of teams gunning for McKinnon in free agency.
"We liked Jerick more than anyone," Shanahan said of this year’s free-agent RB class. "He was our top guy. It surprised me too, because anytime someone doesn't have a ton of stats and everything, I'm always thinking I'm the only one who's going see him that way and we'll get this guy middle of the pack compared to all the other free agents but we'll be excited because we think he's the best one. Then you go through negotiations like that and other teams saw it on tape too. But he was our target. That's the guy we wanted.”
McKinnon has certainly flashed through 4 NFL seasons, especially in the passing game. He’s racked up 94 catches over the last 2 years — 9th most among RBs — and averaged a strong 8.3 yards per catch last year.
On the ground, McKinnon has managed just 4.0 yards per carry for his career, including 3.6 over the last 2 seasons. But note that he ranked 8th among 73 qualifying RBs in missed tackles forced per attempt last year, according to Pro Football Focus. A 99th percentile SPARQ (athleticism) score certainly hints at untapped rushing upside.
Most importantly, McKinnon finds himself in a fertile spot for RB production. In 10 seasons as a OC or HC, Shanahan has produced 5 top-8 PPR seasons from his lead back.
McKinnon’s ceiling extends into that territory. But you’ll need to pay up to land him. His ADP is currently sitting in the late 2nd round as the 14th RB off the board.
Breida is the heavy favorite for backup duties. He captured that gig last year as an undrafted rookie and averaged 4.4 yards per carry and 8.6 yards per catch. If things go according to plan in San Francisco, though, Breida will be more handcuff than standalone fantasy option.
We’ll see if Williams can work his way into any playing time. The 4th-round pick that Shahanan reportedly banged the table for last spring struggled in training camp and spent all last season on IR with an ankle injury.
Update: This backfield looks a lot shakier now than it did a month ago. McKinnon went down with a strained calf on August 12 and has yet to return to practice as of this writing. Breida has been sidelined since hurting his shoulder in the preseason opener on August 9. Both guys are tentatively expected to be ready for Week 1, but the missed time adds risk -- especially since neither has proven capable of holding up with a big role.
The 'Niners added Alfred Morris in mid-August as an insurance policy. He has experience in HC Kyle Shanahan's offense and averaged 4.8 yards per carry in Dallas last year. Morris took 17 carries for 84 yards in the 3rd preseason game and looks capable of making a fantasy impact this year if given an opportunity. Put him on your early-season waiver-wire watch list.
Top fantasy target: Chris Carson
Others in the mix: Rashaad Penny, C.J. Prosise, Mike Davis, J.D. McKissic
The Seahawks made 1 of the more surprising picks of this year’s 1st round, selecting Penny with the 27th overall pick. GM John Schneider later said that he was set to take Penny at #18 if he wasn't able to trade down.
So Seattle is clearly sky high on the San Diego State product. Penny is coming off a massive 2017 campaign that saw him rack up 2,248 yards and 23 TDs on a 7.8 yards-per-carry average. He led all draft-eligible backs in Pro Football Focus’ Elusive Rating and missed tackles forced.
Penny is less proven in the passing game, where he totaled just 42 catches over the past 3 years (including 19 as the feature back last year). He also struggled in pass protection, allowing 9 pressures on 62 pass-blocking snaps.
HC Pete Carroll liked what he saw from Penny in the passing game this spring and confirmed that the team views its rookie as a 3-down back.
Penny will be tasked with turning around a running game that ranked 23rd in yards, 21st in yards per attempt and 31st in TDs last year. The offensive line was a big part of the problem, finishing 31st in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards. And it doesn’t look much better heading into 2018, coming in at 29th in our Offensive Line Rankings.
The good news for Penny is that the ‘Hawks seem committed to pounding the rock. On top of spending a 1st-round pick on him, Seattle also hired Brian Schottenheimer as OC. In 9 seasons as an OC, 6 of his squads have ranked higher in rush attempts than pass attempts.
If Penny stumbles, Carson would be next in line for carries. He flashed early as a 7th-round rookie last year, averaging 4.2 yards per carry before going down with a broken ankle in Week 4. Carroll highlighted Carson as a guy who stood out in spring practices.
Prosise and McKissic are hanging around as passing-back options if Penny proves unready in that facet. Prosise, of course, has been unable to stay on the field, missing 21 of 32 games over the past 2 seasons. McKissic hauled in 34 of 46 targets for 266 yards and 2 scores as Seattle’s primary pass-catching back last year.
Update: Carson opened training camp as Seattle's lead back and has remained there. He's averaged 4.3 yards per carry and scored once on 20 rushes this preseason, while also catching 3 balls for 26 yards. Seattle's offensive line remains a major concern, but Carson will open the season as a volume-fueled fantasy starter.
Any chance Penny had of passing Carson on the depth chart before Week 1 died when he underwent surgery on August 15 to repair a broken finger. He returned to limited practice about a week later. The rookie appears on track to play Week 1 but won't be startable in fantasy. He's just an upside bench stash right now.
Prosise missed some time this month with a hip injury but compiled 70 yards on 15 touches (including 8 catches) across the 2nd and 3rd exhibitions. He could still play a significant pass-catching role if he can stay healthy.
McKissic suffered a Jones Fracture in his foot in mid-August and will miss the start of the season.
Top fantasy target: Chris Thompson
Others in the mix: Rob Kelley, Adrian Peterson, Samaje Perine
Guice unexpectedly hung around until the 59th pick of this spring’s draft. But he landed in a nice spot — at least for immediate rushing volume.
The rookie joins a RB room with Thompson, Perine and Kelley. Thompson is a 191-pounder who’s never topped 68 carries across 5 NFL seasons. Perine slogged his way to 3.4 yards per carry as a rookie last year. And Kelley has averaged just 3.9 yards per carry over his first 2 NFL campaigns.
Guice arrives in Washington after a brilliant LSU career. He broke out for 1,387 yards and 15 TDs on a sparkling 7.6 per-carry average as a sophomore in 2016. And despite being hampered by a left knee injury last year, Guice still tallied 1,251 yards and 11 scores. The violent runner has drawn comparisons to Marshawn Lynch.
The biggest question mark on Guice is his pass-catching ability. He totaled just 32 grabs across 3 college seasons. But it’s worth noting that only 3 LSU RBs have reached 20 receptions in HC Les Miles’ 13-year tenure, so the position just isn’t a big part of his passing game. Most recently, Leonard Fournette hauled in 36 balls in 13 games last year after totaling just 41 receptions in 3 seasons in Baton Rouge.
Guice did rack up 617 yards and 8 TDs receiving as a high school senior. And he impressed as a pass-catcher in spring workouts.
The problem for Guice’s receiving projection is Thompson’s return. Prior to breaking his leg in Week 11 last year, he’d compiled 38 catches for 494 yards in 9 games. That followed his 84 total receptions over the previous 2 seasons.
So Thompson is the favorite for passing-down work in Washington this season. But it’s worth noting that he carries an extensive injury history and has played a full 16-game slate just once in 5 tries. It’s also possible that the ultra-talented Guice forces his way into pass-catching work at Thompson’s expense. We’re generally avoiding Thompson at his early-7th-round ADP.
Guice also feels a bit overvalued at his price, which sits at the 3rd/4th-round turn at RB17. He sits 22nd in our PPR rankings, largely because we have him projected for just 24 catches. If he can finish in the 35- or 40-catch range, he could certainly be worth his current price tag.
Update: Guice's season-ending torn ACL has this backfield in flux heading into Week 1.
Kelley was clearly ahead of Perine on the depth chart even before Perine went down with a sprained ankle in the 2nd exhibition. His availability for the start of the season is uncertain.
The lead job might just belong to Peterson, though. The future Hall-of-Famer signed with Washington on August 20 and ran for 56 yards on 11 carries in the 3rd preseason game 4 days later. Kelley played just 3 snaps with the starters in that one and finished with 19 yards on 8 carries.
This might be a wait-and-see situation in Week 1. Peterson and Kelley are both fine later-round targets with more value in non-PPR leagues.
Thompson remains locked in as the pass-catching back, although he admitted at the start of training camp that he doesn't expect to be back to 100% from last year's broken leg until November. His ADP has actually climbed a bit into the late 6th round.