First Tier: 1. Le’Veon Bell, Steelers; 2. David Johnson, Cardinals.
Commentary: This is a pretty short list. One could even argue that Johnson could be in the top tier by himself considering Bell’s injury history. But Bell has a higher upside playing on a better team.
Second Tier: 3. DeMarco Murray, Titans; 4. LeSean McCoy, Bills; 5. Devonta Freeman, Falcons.
Commentary: Don’t sleep on the Titans. Quarterback Marcus Mariota is an emerging superstar, there are plenty of receivers to throw to, the offensive line is one of the best in football … all of that adds up to continued big numbers for Murray. I would feel better about McCoy if the offense hadn’t changed so much around him; still, I expect a nice year. Freeman is good but only rates higher than the guys in the third tier because of the quality of the offense he finds himself in.
Third tier: 6. Melvin Gordon, Chargers; 7. Jay Ajayi, Dolphins; 8. Jordan Howard, Bears.
Commentary: The strength of the teams comes into play here. The Chargers aren’t good, but Gordon should get his share of touches, especially around the goal line. Ajayi is a better runner but doesn’t have the hands (and now has a halfway-out-the-door Jay Cutler as his QB). Howard was second in the league in rushing (behind the now suspended Ezekiel Elliott) as a rookie last season. He’ll be hard pressed to duplicate those numbers now that the element of surprise is gone.
Fourth tier: 9. Christian McCafferty, Panthers; 10. Leonard Fournette, Jaguars; 11. Dalvin Cook, Vikings
Commentary: McCafferty projects to be a Dave Meggett type weapon, except I think he’ll be an even better runner than the former Giants sparkplug. Of the rookie crop, Fournette is the best pure runner, although he’s stuck on a team with Blake Bortles as his QB. Cook is a mix of both McCafferty and Fournette, but his biggest problem figures to be Minnesota’s questionable offensive line. He’ll also have Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon pressing him for time.
Fifth tier: 12. Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys.
Commentary: Chances are, the Cowboys fan in your fantasy league will reach for him earlier than this. Still, missing the first four games — then figuring he’ll need to shake off the rust for a game or two more – will seriously hurt the defending league rushing leader’s production.
Former Raiders RB Darren McFadden should get the majority of the carries in his absence.
Sixth tier: 13. Todd Gurley, Rams; 14. Isaiah Crowell, Browns; 15. Lamar Miller, Texans; 16. Carlos Hyde, 49ers.
Commentary: Gurley had a very disappointing sophomore season, but being that he is the youngest of this trio and has the most upside, he jumps to the top of this tier. Crowell is a good back stuck on a bad team. Miller ran for over 1,000 yards last year, but as he enters his sixth NFL campaign, will the wear and tear catch up to him? Hyde has the chance to be very good, and a fresh start with a new offense could help him reach that potential.
Seventh tier: 17. Mike Gillislee, Patriots; 18. LeGarrette Blount, Eagles; 19. Marshawn Lynch, Raiders; 20. Frank Gore, 49ers; 21. Ty Montgomery, Packers; 22. Jeremy Hill, Bengals; 23. Ameer Abdullah, Lions; 24. Adrian Peterson, Saints; 25. C.J. Anderson, Broncos.
Commentary: You know ex-Bills runner Gillislee will be the next find of Bill Belichick’s who’ll become a star. Formers Pats RB Blount, meanwhile, might not carry for a lot of yards but should still be solid in the red zone. The year off could either do wonders for Lynch or prove fatal to his comeback bid; the jury is still out. The 34-year-old Gore is a possible Hall of Famer and a true warrior, but he can’t produce another 1,000-yard season, can he? While Green Bay’s passing attack shows no signs of slowing down, the Packers haven’t forged a consistent ground game for years, and I’m not sure Montgomery will be the answer. Hill is still a decent back, but look for his touches to decrease; not only is third-down back Giovanni Bernard still around, but now there’s also rookie Joe Mixon, who enters the league with his share of off-field baggage. Abdullah showed promise in 2015 but was limited to just two games last year due to injury. Peterson might still have something left in the tank, but between Drew Brees’ 50 pass attempts a game and splitting carries with Mark Ingram, his fantasy value takes a hit. Anderson seems to have been around forever in Denver, but never posts spectacular numbers.
Eighth tier: 26. Thomas Rawls, Seahawks; 27. Matt Forte, Jets; 28. Terrence West, Ravens; 29. Doug Martin, Buccaneers; 30. Paul Perkins, Giants.
Commentary: Rawls was handed the reins as Seattle’s No. 1 back after Lynch retired and underwhelmed. Forte had a good first half of 2016 in his initial season with the Jets, who somehow stopped giving him the ball in the second half. West is average and is only started because Danny Woodhead is banged up. Martin would be much higher but he’s suspended the first three games of the season (and could lose his job if fill-in Jacquizz Rodgers excels). Perkins is a can catch and run a bit, but still has a lot to prove … and is running behind a line that has to step up after a dreadful 2016.
Sleeper: Watch for injured players and their subs. Specifically, focus on the Kansas City situation, where promising Spencer Ware hurt his knee the other day in a preseason game and is out for the year. Kareem Hunt fills in.