Fantasy Football Draft Duels: Running backs

This fantasy football season, drafters will face many tough decisions among multiple players at certain positions.

Rankings and sleepers lists can’t always tell the full story: Sometimes, it makes sense to take a risk. That’s why fantasy football players could use input from numerous sources. 

We’ve gathered some RotoWire personalities to give their opinions on which fantasy running back they’d take when posed several matchups — or in some case, make some mini-rankings.

(Note: We used our NFFC PPR rankings to compare players.)

LeSean McCoy (7.79) vs. Melvin Gordon (10.47) vs. Devonta Freeman (11.47)

Assuming none of the top three running backs drops, the next tier at the position includes this trio. Taking regression into account for Gordon and the injury history of both Gordon and McCoy, Freeman is the choice among this trio. Freeman’s workload should remain steady with Tevin Coleman available to spell him, keeping the three-year pro fresh and in line for at least 1,500 yards from scrimmage and 13 total touchdowns for the third straight season. The duo of Gordon and McCoy have combined for just two such campaigns in 10 chances, both by McCoy.
Freeman, McCoy, Gordon -Eric Caturia

Losing stud guard Forrest Lamp to a torn ACL is a tough blow to Gordon’s stock. However, in 12 full games last year Gordon averaged 117.6 scrimmage yards and a score per game without Lamp, and not only did the Bolts avoid adding any backfield competition, but they also drafted Dan Feeney, perhaps the second best rookie guard. It’s splitting hairs between electric dual-threats, but McCoy hit double-digit rushing scores for just the second time in eight seasons while playing his best football (5.4 YPC), and then lost his run game engineer – coach Anthony Lynn – to, coincidentally, Gordon’s Chargers. Meanwhile, Freeman has produced at least 1,500 scrimmage yards and 13 TD’s in consecutive seasons and enters a contract year at just 25 years old.
Gordon, Freeman, McCoy -Luke Hoover

Aside from picking at the very top of the draft, McCoy’s my top RB, as he plays behind an awesome OL and alongside a mobile QB. Therefore, his 5.4 YPC was no fluke in 2016, and that was against a brutal schedule against the run. Meanwhile, Freeman exceeded 4.0 YPC for the first time in his career in Atlanta’s magic 2016, and he’s in a timeshare, and though he’s excellent, he’s second on this list. Finally, Gordon’s failed to reach 4.0 yards in either of his two seasons, and he’s simply not as good as McCoy and Freeman.
McCoy, Freeman, Gordon -Jim Coventry

This question boils down to how many times a fantasy owner wants to dance with danger. McCoy provides the highest ceiling, but his age and injury history since joining Buffalo will always scare me away. Gordon has two undrafted free agents behind him on the depth chart in an offense that utilizing its RBs to the fullest extent. He’s the clear front-runner from this group.
Gordon, Freeman, McCoy -Joe Bartel

Best body of work? McCoy. Buffalo’s offense runs through him, but there are concerns for buying him high. Most enticing ceiling? Gordon, with Anthony Lynn’s arrival and increasing reception opportunities. Of course, his underwhelming yardage per carry leaves plenty to be desired. But who has the best mix of what you want from these three? Freeman. The OC change won’t affect him as much as Matt Ryan. Plus, that line is killer, and Tevin Coleman steals from wideouts more directly than Freeman. Go with the highest PPR floor and, by these ADPs, return on investment.
Freeman, Gordon, McCoy -Tim Heaney

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Freeman, Gordon, McCoy

Jay Ajayi (14.5) vs. Jordan Howard (16.21)

The decision may be a tossup for many, but Howard is the guy for a few reasons. First, the Dolphins ran the most deliberate offense in the NFL in 2016, calling 47 fewer plays than the next lowest team (the Rams) and 54 less than the Bears. The Dolphins’ pace allowed Ajayi to receive at least 20 carries only five times, four of which he totaled 100-plus yards, but he also didn’t go past 61 yards in six of the last seven contests. Meanwhile, Howard managed at least 99 all-purpose yards in each of the final nine games of last season.
Howard -EC

Stylistically these backs are similar. They read their blocks well and rely on burst and power to gain chunk yardage. The big difference between these runners from a fantasy perspective, however, is their offensive lines. Howard has a guard-center trio that rivals those in Dallas and Oakland for tops in the league. The 2016 result: six 100-yard games in 13 starts. Ajayi, on the other hand, produced 57.8% of his rushing yardage in the four games his offensive line was intact. His production suffered (48.8 yards average in other games) in particular because center Mike Pouncey missed 11 contests. The blocking key for Ajayi, Pouncey, hasn’t played a full season since 2012.
Howard -LH

Howard plays for a coach who historically will ride an excellent RB, and after Howard ran for 5.2 YPC as a rookie, he’ll be the centerpiece of Chicago’s offense in 2017. In addition, his 1,313 rushing yards were earned on a 3-13 team, so there’ll be no worries about game script hurting him. Finally, the Bears have a strong OL, making this a trifecta in his favor. Conversely, Ajayi ran for 2.7 YPC (or less) in three of his last five games, and that was once defenses started treating the Dolphins like a run-first team. Howard’s the choice!
Howard -JC

I actually had this exact conundrum during the Sirius XM Fantasy Invitational draft and went the direction of Howard. I’m a bit leery that the Indiana alum is the ONLY offense in Chicago, but he’s much more consistent than Ajayi, and provides more of a PPR threat even with Tarik Cohen likely to cut into Howard’s 29 receptions from last year.
Howard -JB

It’s rough to buy high on either of these two, but that stellar Bears line does not get enough attention. While there’ll be a drop-off in his numbers, Howard’s situation is still plenty better than Ajayi, who relied on often big but starkly erratic game-to-game efforts last year and is saddled with the more questionable front five.
Howard -TH

Howard 5-0

Leonard Fournette (23) vs. Christian McCaffrey (35.53) vs. Joe Mixon (37.11) vs. Dalvin Cook (51.11)

Owners should always roll with a presumed bell cow, which can only be said of one of the four rookie running backs mentioned: Fournette. Although he wasn’t asked to participate much as a pass catcher at LSU, he’s impressed as a receiver since he was drafted fourth overall. Moving on to the remaining rookies, Cook seems to have the best chance for early-down work due to Latavius Murray’s injury woes, and while McCaffrey’s all-around skill set is expected to be on display all season, Jonathan Stewart’s presence will be a hindrance. Finally, Giovani Bernard’s intriguing return from a torn ACL gives me pause about Mixon’s potential in Cincinnati.
Fournette, McCaffrey, Cook, Mixon -EC

Mixon’s combination of size, speed, hands and vision puts him atop my rookie rankings (albeit narrowly) regardless of what role he’ll play Week 1. Both he and Fournette will approach 300 touches, but Mixon’s role as a pass catcher and efficiency overall will lead to better production. Like other great lateral movers McCoy, Freeman and Le’Veon Bell, Cook and McCaffrey possess that unique ability to teleport several feet in the span of an oncoming defender’s single step. Their vision, feet and receiving prowess give them huge yardage potential, and for drafting purposes they’re a total coin flip. For me, Cook came up “heads.”
Mixon, Fournette, Cook, McCaffrey -LH

The Jaguars have a decent OL and should finally have a strong defense, so Fournette’s in a great spot to be a fantasy force. Next, Cook’s potential to make plays on his own will make him a factor starting in Week 1, despite a weak OL. Coming in third is Mixon, who’s simply more talented than his RB teammates, and with the Bengals likely to spread the field, he’ll find space to break off plenty of big runs. Lastly, McCaffrey will be catching short passes from a QB who’s brutally inaccurate with horrible mechanics — not a good match!
Fournette, Cook, Mixon, McCaffrey -JC

Did you see McCaffrey juke out Luke Keuchly? No seriously, if you didn’t, go look it up. I was all in on Stanford product even before the video surfaced, especially in a PPR league, but I’m even more so now. Perhaps the biggest shock is that Fournette falls to No. 2 – and I was tempted to move Cook over him as well.
McCaffrey, Fournette, Cook, Mixon -JB

The GIF-immortalized McCaffrey has the most immediate upside of this group. Fournette has the steadiest role. Cook is close to steady with the Latavius Murray injury but must get better O-line play as they switch to a zone-blocking scheme, which suits his needs. Have we forgotten about Jeremy Hill and (whenever he gets back) Giovani Bernard? Mixon boasts plenty of two-way talent but is being counted on for a high price with much less clarity than the other rookies. I want McCaffrey the most of this group when cost comes into play, but Fournette is in the lead out of the gate.
Fournette, McCaffrey, Cook, Mixon -TH

Fournette, McCaffrey, Cook, Mixon

Isaiah Crowell (41.79) vs. Marshawn Lynch (47.32)

After stepping away from football for a season, Lynch enters an ideal situation in his hometown, with its established starting quarterback and a formidable offensive line. However, the Raiders were lacking in a true No. 1 back until Lynch arrived in late April. While his expected workload won’t resemble his 2011-14 peak with the Seahawks — 20.7 touches per game — he’s the best bet to fill Latavius Murray’s red-zone role from last season, which resulted in 12 touchdowns across 14 games. On the other side, Crowell still yields snaps to Duke Johnson in an offense that was ranked in the bottom three in yards and points in 2016.
Lynch -EC

Special circumstances: That’s what separates Lynch and Crowell this season. Sure, Crowell is a borderline RB1 who checks off most of the boxes: size, agility, balance, workload. And yeah, his offensive line should be quite good, and he’s even an underrated receiver. But Lynch is wearing silver and black this year. He’s an extremely proud Oakland native playing in “the Black Hole” trying to bring a ring to the city he’s from before they ride out into the desert. Supremely motivated and fresh-legged off a one-year hiatus, behind a mammoth offensive line, a touchdown crown could await the Hall-of-Fame talent.
Lynch -LH

Power backs never age well, and Lynch was starting his decline with injuries and only 3.8 YPC in 2015. Taking a year off doesn’t revive a player who’s breaking down physically, otherwise many would come back after short retirements. Meanwhile, Crowell projects to run behind an excellent OL after running behind a poor/injured one last year, though he still registered 4.8 YPC. He’s a player entering his prime, and despite playing for a bad team, his coach is committed to him and the running game. Choose the player on the rise over the one on the decline!
Crowell -JC

Don’t count me among the believers that Lynch will make a fantastic return from his retirement. But even if he did, I don’t think he’ll overtake Crowell, who should benefit from the Browns major offensive line overhaul. If he gets over 220 carries, he should crack 1,000 rushing – great value for a fourth-round pick.
Crowell -JB

These two run-blocking units don’t get enough credit, which complicates this decision. Crowell was not as efficient as his rushing average may say but will have plenty of volume. Lynch is coming off a long layoff but might be fresher because of it. I don’t think I’d be comfortable drafting either of these at this demand, but I’ll take the younger option.
Crowell-TH

Crowell 3-2

Ameer Abdullah (59.11) vs. Carlos Hyde (61.26)

Of the two, Carlos Hyde holds more promise due to past performance, but his medical chart is less than appealing, as he missed 12 total games in two seasons as the 49ers’ starting running back. During his offseason recovery from a torn MCL, the hype train also wavered, as GM John Lynch went on the record as uncertain whether Hyde could thrive in coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense and Tim Hightower earned the first carry of an early training camp session. Coming off a season-ending broken foot, Abdullah doesn’t have a perfect injury history, either, but is expected to get 200 carries, something that isn’t guaranteed for Hyde.
Abdullah -EC

Neither runner is in a good situation and both have much to prove: Hyde, that he belongs in San Francisco as the unquestioned lead back, and Abdullah, that he can stay healthy, protect the ball and save a dreadful Detroit ground game. Both are very different runners in different systems. Ironically, Abdullah could be perfect for Kyle Shanahan’s zone scheme while Hyde could be the physical force the Lions lack in a pass-happy offense. With an equal amount of wiggle and plenty more bulk, Hyde possess a better floor and ceiling in an offense that will favor the run.
Hyde -LH

Hyde missed 14 games in three years, and he hasn’t been used much as a receiver. He’ll be playing on a team that’ll be trailing most weeks, and game script will likely make a two-down runner like him a non-factor, and that’s if he’s even the team’s starter. Meanwhile, the Lions drafted Abdullah to be a three-down contributor, and his elite lateral agility and athleticism makes him a dangerous weapon against defenses geared to stop the pass. Also, he ran for 4.2 YPC as a rookie, but this year’s OL will be significantly better than the 2015 version.
Abdullah -JC

At Joique Bell’s peek, the former bruising RB for the Lions racked up 1,182 total yards and eight touchdowns. I don’t think Abdullah can match those numbers, especially with Theo Riddick and Zach Zenner around, but ironically enough those stats act as a good ceiling for Hyde if he can stay healthy.
Hyde -JB

These lead backs’ backups/alternatives (Theo Riddick and Joe Williams) have been getting more hype than they have, but both No. 1’s could wind up as big value picks. Abdullah was dogged because of a foot injury last year, but the Lions’ offensive line should improve, and he still has some explosiveness left. However, at this stage of the draft, pounce on the pick that can win your league. Despite the injury history attached, that points to the bullish but freakishly elusive back who just inherited the system that made Devonta Freeman a fantasy star.
Hyde-TH

Hyde 3-2

Additional polls

Mike Gillislee vs. Spencer Ware

Gillislee: EC, LH, JB, TH

Ware: JC

Gillislee 4-1

Paul Perkins vs. Tevin Coleman

Perkins: EC, LH, JC, JB, TH

Coleman: Nope

Perkins 5-0

Bilal Powell vs. Mark Ingram

Powell: JC, JB

Ingram: EC, LH, TH

Ingram 3-2

Eddie Lacy vs. Adrian Peterson

Lacy: EC, JC, TH, JB

Peterson: Nope

Lacy 4-0

Kareem Hunt vs. Samaje Perine

Hunt: EC, JB, TH

Perine: LH, JC

Hunt 3-2

Duke Johnson vs. Jamaal Charles

Johnson: EC, LH, JB, TH

Charles: JC

Johnson 4-1