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Running Back Keeper Rankings: Joe Bartel Offers Advice for the Long-Term

Joe Bartel

Joe Bartel is RotoWire's esports editor and a football contributor. When not at the office, he's probably playing a variety of Gen 4 console games or rooting on his beloved Green Bay Packers.

After going over the top quarterbacks, it's time to transition to the running backs. If your roster is starved for any semblance of depth, avert your eyes now. The running back position feels especially barren this year when looking at the respective depth charts. That should sort itself as the year progresses, whether it be to injury or natural talent surfacing to the top, but for now it's especially chaotic.

As a reminder, whenever I'm compiling rankings such as these, I find it best to break players into tiers. I'll focus on round designations for this exercise, but I'll be glad to address salary leagues in the comments below, provided I know the amount of cap an individual would have overall.

As a result, I will be doing these rankings assuming it is a 10-team league that would start 1 QB, 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE, with standard scoring included.

Tier 1 The No-Doubters (First round)

Ezekiel Elliott
David Johnson
Le'Veon Bell

I don't think this is spoiling too much, but in RotoWire's recent non-PPR magazine mock draft, this trio went off the board with the first three picks. I recognize any of these RBs could get hurt, and that the safer play - especially in a keeper league - is generally WR. But these three players are far above the pack, and all are young enough to have several strong seasons ahead if they stay healthy.

Tier 2 The "Don't Overthink This" (First or second round)

Todd Gurley
Melvin Gordon
Jordan Howard
Devonta Freeman
Lamar Miller
Jay Ajayi

There are reasons to dislike particular players in this tier, but they should still be considered near locks to go off the board in the first two rounds. I'm no fan of Jared Goff, but even I have to assume he'll improve somewhat, opening up running lanes for Gurley. Plus, the Rams offensive linemen can't be as bad as last year. Lamar Miller might not score touchdowns, but he's still a focal point of the Texans offense, at least for this year. I imagine D'Onta Foreman will take more of the running load in the coming years, but I don't think he's there yet. Howard should be the focal point of what looks to be a below-average offense which brings him down a bit, but he performed exceptionally last year with a relatively poor offense, so it's a handicap he should be able to overcome. Gordon and Ajayi just need to stay healthy, and Freeman just needs to stay with the Falcons.

Tier 3 The Time is Near Team (Second or third round)

LeSean McCoy
DeMarco Murray
Leonard Fournette
Derrick Henry
Christian McCaffrey
Dalvin Cook

Murray and McCoy are the old men among this tier, likely on their last legs after productive, albeit injury-prone careers. I think both will be top-15 fantasy options this season, but I wouldn't be willing to bet either hits that mark in years to follow. For what it's worth, I don't think Fournette or Cook will make an instant impact like Elliott did in his rookie season, but it's hard see players as talented as them not breaking through at some point. I'm also not worried about McCaffrey's position ambiguity. The Panthers drafted the Stanford product highly for a reason, and I believe it's because they have already game-planned for ways to use him.

Tier 4 The "I Might as Well" Group (fourth round)

Spencer Ware
Carlos Hyde
Tevin Coleman
C.J. Anderson
Ty Montgomery
Paul Perkins

We've already hit that mark, and we are only through 21 RBs. It's hard to focus on the positives with this tier, as their flaws are so prominent. Paul Perkins might actually have the highest upside of this group, as he should receive a starter's workload, though his merely passable 4.1-YPC average isn't especially inspiring. But the Giants' offense has room to improve and take Perkins with it. Hyde and Anderson appear to be headed out the door soon, but for now both have a chance for big workloads on run-heavy teams. Coleman could see his role rise significantly next year should the Falcons decide not to extend Freeman, but until then he's little more than an exciting insurance policy. And Ware and Montgomery appear to be the de facto starters, yet neither player has really earned the trust of his respective organization. I'm a devout Packers fan, and while I saw plenty of potential with Montgomery, even I don't believe he will be a suitable three-down back. I'm hard pressed to believe the Packers do either after drafting three rookie RBs last month.

Tier 5 Waiting For a Moment (fifth round)

Mark Ingram
Joe Mixon
D'Onta Foreman
Eddie Lacy
Devontae Booker
LeGarrette Blount
Marshawn Lynch
Kenneth Dixon
Thomas Rawls
Samaje Perine

These tiers will get progressively bigger, as there's a smaller difference between the top and bottom players the deeper you go. I love the potential of Foreman and Perine, but it's unclear when either player gets a starter's workload. Whatever Seahawks RB emerges from their logjam will likely be a solid fantasy option, but any of four players who could take that role. In other words, count me out. Blount is going to score plenty of touchdowns this year, but it's unclear if he'll get enough rushing yards to be anything more than a TD specialist. He's good value after the fifth round, but don't count on him being a true early-down starter. I don't share the same enthusiasm for Mixon as many of my fantasy colleagues. While Jeremy Hill could be out the door soon, he's still on the team, meaning he'll still get at least some carries. And if Giovani Bernard returns from a torn ACL in time for the regular season, he'll also be an option out of the backfield. If you're taking Mixon, do so under the premise that he will be the feature back in Cincinnati in future years, not this one.

Tier 6 Depth for Days (sixth round)

Jeremy Hill
Latavius Murray
Doug Martin
Adrian Peterson
Isaiah Crowell
Ameer Abdullah
Rob Kelley
Terrance West
Alvin Kamara

Upside players at this point in the rankings are thinning out. Don't count me among the Crowell "truthers" out there. While it seems to bode well for his future that the Browns didn't draft a back until the seventh round, that the organization wasn't willing to dish out a contract extension to the 24-year-old after he set career highs in carries (198), rushing yards (952), receptions (40) and receiving yards (319) speaks volumes about his long-term viability. Don't put me down in support of West, either. He'll likely start the year as the lead back following Kenneth Dixon's four-game suspension, but there's a reason West has been on three different teams the last three years, and it's not because he loves to travel. Moreover, Danny Woodhead will siphon off most of the RB targets. I believe Abdullah will make a productive run as the starting RB for the Lions, but time is running out to prove me right. Zach Zenner filled in admirably down the stretch last season, and then there's Theo Riddick who likely gives the team the most versatility on offense. It's make-it-or-break-it time for Abdullah this season.

Tier 7 Wait, This Isn't a PPR League? (Seventh round)

Matt Forte
Charles Sims
Duke Johnson
Danny Woodhead
T.J. Yeldon
Giovani Bernard
Bilal Powell
C.J. Prosise
Jeremy Langford
Jamaal Charles
Kareem Hunt
Frank Gore
Theo Riddick
Dion Lewis

The name of the tier basically explains this group. For what it's worth, if this were a PPR league, I would probably put Duke Johnson and Charles Sims ahead of this hodgepodge of dual threats and then keep the rankings relatively the same. For those not on board with C.J. Anderson/Devontae Booker ranked higher than Charles, that's simply because Charles is on his last legs.

Tier 8 Intrigue Waiting in the Wings (Eighth round)

Joe Williams
Kenyan Drake
DeAndre Washington
Marlon Mack
Chris Thompson
Ryan Mathews
Chris Ivory
Jamaal Williams
Jerick McKinnon
Charcandrick West
James White
Robert Turbin
Dwayne Washington
Javorius Allen
Jalen Richard

I'm telling you right now, I'm an irrational Mack fan, so much so that I would be stunned if he weren't starting for the Colts before year's end. He's a big play waiting to happen, as he averaged 6.3 yards per carry across three seasons at South Florida. Given Frank Gore's advanced age and the relative lack of depth behind him, Mack is a perfect player on whom to buy low if you have depth at the RB spot.

I suspect both Jamaal Williams and Joe Williams won't be available near this spot come the start of the season, as each could make a case for a starting role. But their value isn't only hindered by the incumbent starters (Ty Montgomery in Green Bay and Carlos Hyde in San Francisco) but also from each player's deficiency as a receiver. Nonetheless, both Williams would be tremendous values in the later rounds of keeper leagues and profile as players who could have bigger roles in future seasons. Should Jay Ajayi get hurt, Kenyan Drake could be an interesting option, particularly because fellow backup RB Damien Williams is an unrestricted free agent next offseason.

Other Options

Matt Jones
Shane Vereen
Cameron Artis-Payne
Donnel Pumphrey
Darren McFadden
Rex Burkhead
Jeremy McNichols
Kenneth Farrow
Aaron Jones
Tyler Ervin
Tim Hightower
Damien Williams
Mike Gillislee
Kenjon Barner
Zach Zenner
Alex Collins
Darren Sproles
Corey Grant
Alfred Morris
Jonathan Williams
Tarik Cohen
Lance Dunbar