What a season 2016 was for running backs! As I said last week, it should be remembered as the season in which the pendulum swung back to tradition. What I meant by that was, in this era of quarterback driven outcomes, superstar wide receivers and running back tandems, somehow 2016 lent itself to a traditional fantasy football season of yore, with running backs driving the narratives each week. In comparison to 2015, this past season saw nearly double the amount of 1,000+ yard rushers and more than triple the amount of 1,200+ yard rushers. In terms of running back touchdowns, 2016 saw six times the amount of 11-plus touchdown scorers than its 2015 counterpart. A decade-long trend that seemed to peak in 2015 – running back irrelevancy and quarterback/wide receiver supremacy – it was certainly bucked this past football season and, in my opinion, the league was better for it.

Having said all of this, I will outline the best keeper options at the position going forward for fantasy football dynasty leagues. Identifying the best backs may be easy now, but putting them in a cohesive order may not be. Based upon a vague formula of this season’s ADP (Average Draft Position), 2016 production, impending free agency (contract status), and future evaluated potential, I give you my rankings…


1) David Johnson (ADP: 1st Round)

    2015 Keeper Ranking: 1st

If you listened to my advice last season and considered David Johnson as the number one keeper at the position in the league, then you would have likely only spared your 13th round selection in this past fantasy draft and you would have won your league two weeks ago. While that decision last season was much easier than this one, I still believe that Johnson is the top keeper option regardless of his incredibly high ADP. What it comes down to is that he was the highest scoring back in the league this season and it was by a pretty wide margin – especially in PPR formats. He is the focal point of his offense and his presence is more important to his team than any other back in the league. At only 25 years of age, the argument can be made that he has yet to even reach his peak. That is scary and is why he is my number one ranked keeper.

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*David Johnson: A full highlight, season in review*

2) Ezekiel Elliott (ADP: 1st Round)

    2015 Keeper Ranking: N/A

All of the things that I just said about Johnson could be said about Zeke, provided Johnson didn’t exist. It’s not to knock Elliott in any way, but as I explained last week, Johnson is just more relied upon statistically to produce in his offense than Zeke is at the moment. But enough of the negatives, as there is no reason to discredit anything that the potential league MVP and Rookie of the Year has done in his first NFL season. He’s given plenty of evidence of explosiveness, athleticism, consistency, toughness, longevity, intelligence, maturity, leadership, and clutchness. Building upon that, going forward Zeke is still merely a 21-year-old back – who after an historic rookie season – is still only scratching the surface of what he can do while running behind the best offensive line in football. His team is really good, really young, and loves to run the football. I expect that for the next decade or so, he will be considered the league’s best running back without much of a discussion. 

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*Ezekiel Elliott: A full highlight, season in review*

3) Le'Veon Bell (ADP: 2nd Round)

    2015 Keeper Ranking: 6th

Bell was chosen for the third slot here not because of his lack of production on the field – because quite honestly he may be the most productive back in the league since Marshall Faulk – but rather for other factors that are unique to his situation. First of all, Bell is a pending free agent next season, and while the Steelers are expected to at least use the franchise tag on him, that is far less encouraging “security” than the other two names above him. Secondly, Bell has a history of suspensions [suspended twice in his career: (5) total games] and injuries, including a serious knee injury last season. Thirdly, Bell has seen the largest workload out of the other two above considering his four-year veterancy in the league. Understand that I believe that Bell is a remarkable talent on par with or better than any other back in the league, however I just consider him a step below the previous two listed because of questionable reliability, accountability, and a more extensive workload history.

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*Le’Veon Bell: A full highlight, season in review*

4) Jordan Howard (ADP: 17th Round)

    2015 Keeper Ranking: N/A

Howard may appear here as a surprise to some, but the fact of the matter is that he finished 2016 as the league’s second leading rusher with 1,313 yards. Sure his team may be pretty bad right now, but there is no doubting that Howard emerged as the focal point of this Bears offense and as one of the toughest backs in the league to stop on a weekly basis. Most importantly about his ranking here is that Howard as a keeper this season will only spare you a 17th round pick in next year’s draft. That is incredible value for a 22-year-old back who just finished his rookie season as the league’s second leading rusher. 

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*Jordan Howard: A full highlight, season in review*

5) Jay Ajayi (ADP: 10th Round)

    2015 Keeper Ranking: N/A

One of the more exciting storylines to follow this season was the emergence of this Dolphins offensive line and of course J-Train. I talked about him in length last season and fully expected him to claim the starting running back job once Lamar Miller left, despite the addition of Arian Foster. Ultimately that occurred and Ajayi began to set the football world ablaze. His 2016 ended as a smashing success, as he tallied 1,272 rushing yards on a whopping 4.9 yards per carry to go along with eight rushing touchdowns. He finished as the number one ranked back according to Pro Football Focus, and also joined an exclusive club of three other running backs to ever rush for over 200 yards in a game three separate times in one season (Tiki Barber, 2005; Earl Campbell, 1980; O.J. Simpson, 1973), including two of such games in back-to-back weeks. He’s got little competition on his team at the position going forward, while the Dolphins as a team only seem to be trending upward. Considering that J-Train’s talent and excellent production will only cost a 10th round pick in next year’s fantasy draft, his standing in the top-five is more than warranted.

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*Jay Ajayi: A full highlight, season in review*

Just Missed the Cut

6) LeSean McCoy (ADP: 2nd Round)

    2015 Keeper Ranking: 12th

2016 was arguably Shady’s best season yet, however he still doesn’t crack my top-five running back keepers list. Mainly I will chalk it up to his advancing age (will be 29 by the time next season kicks off), however the fact that his team is in the midst of a regime change doesn’t help his case much either. I also view the emergence of Mike Gillislee as a potential threat to his stranglehold on the title of Workhorse Back, which may end up lowering his touches in 2017. Even so with all of these circumstances, it is still hard to deny his excellent season and terrific prospects for 2017. Because of that, here he sits as the sixth best running back keeper.

7) DeMarco Murray (ADP: 4th Round)

    2015 Keeper Ranking: Unranked

It was an unbelievable bounce-back season for Murray in 2016, so much so that he seemingly has erased the stain that his 2015 Eagles stint may have left on his career legacy. Considering his excellent numbers (1,287 rushing yards, 4.4 yards per carry, 53 receptions, and12 total touchdowns) this past season, it is a wonder why his name is even so far down this list. Ultimately what it came down to is that Murray expectedly wore down as the season wore on, while we began to see a heavier dose of rookie running back and former Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. Henry looked terrific in his own right down the stretch of the season and is likely the back of the future for Tennessee. While I accept this reality, I still see no reason that Murray can’t reach double-digit touchdowns and 1,000 rushing yards again in 2017. Keep in mind that this is a team that is committed to running the football more than any other, while in the worst case scenario (a complete backfield split in 2017) there is no doubt that Murray would retain the third down back role, as he remains one of the best receiving backs in the league. Considering all of this, I see his floor very high in this running back oriented offense going forward. That is why he remains in my top-10.

Rounding Out the List

8) Devonta Freeman (ADP: 2nd Round)

    2015 Keeper Ranking: 3rd

Freeman experienced a breakout 2015 in which he earned my Running Back MVP Award and number three on my list of keepers. To give you an idea of just how good the running backs have been this season in comparison to last, Freeman this year – without much argument – had a better statistical campaign than in 2015, yet wasn’t even considered in my MVP discussion and has dropped to eighth in my keeper rankings. It’s not too much of a knock on him per say, as he did register double-digit touchdowns and over 1,000 rushing yards once again, but the fact that the competition at the position has beefed up so much around the league and that his teammate Tevin Coleman has emerged as a potential threat to his touches, I cannot in good conscious consider Freeman a top-five keeper. It should be noted however that I do believe in his talent and will still be encouraged by his potential even if he continues to receive fewer than 20 touches per game.

9) LeGarrette Blount (ADP: 9th Round)

    2015 Keeper Ranking: Unranked

Blount is coming off of his best season by far, a season in which he led the NFL in rushing touchdowns (18), however the reasons as to why he is so far down my list make sense, trust me. First of all, he averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry (3.9), which is considered a benchmark statistic for mediocrity – think batting .270 in baseball. If you can’t rely upon a player to get you at least four yards per carry, it is not only going to be tough for you to trust them each week, but also that player also may not have a starting job for much longer. Secondly, Blount is a pending free agent, which in Patriots terms typically is code for “bye, bye.” Considering this, you should also understand that rushing touchdowns are often an arbitrary statistic in that depending on team personnel or the subjective opinion of a coaching staff, any assortment of running backs can get into the end zone around the goal line. Sure Blount is a bigger and more effective back around the goal line than most, however expecting him to ever score 18 touchdowns again would be naïve. If he is not a Patriot next season, expecting a coach to use him the same way that Bill Belichick did is not the soundest of logic. The Patriots – like every other team – have a unique roster build and offensive game plan. Blount fits their needs perfectly, while there is a large chance that he wouldn’t have the same role anywhere else in the league. The only other place that I can think of is with the Lions who may use him similarly because their best running back (Theo Riddick) is strictly a receiving back. To make a long story short, Blount has double-digit touchdown potential every season, however his usage rate will not be the same anywhere else he plays. If he leaves New England this offseason I believe his potential production will plummet. Fingers crossed on this one, but in any event I would be remiss to leave a guy with 18 touchdowns off my running back keepers list, given the fact that he will only cost a 9th round pick in next year’s draft.

10) Mark Ingram (ADP: 3rd Round)

     2015 Keeper Ranking: Unranked

Like a fine wine, Ingram seems to be getting better with age, as his season long numbers have improved in each of his last three years. 2016 marks the first season in which he has eclipsed the 1,000-yard barrier, while he also registered double-digit touchdowns for the first time as well. Over the last couple of years he has also established himself as a receiving threat, giving him the multi-faceted skill-set that fantasy owners so love to have. He’s not as talented, nor does he have the high ceiling of some of the other names on this list, however with a consistently upward trajectory and a reasonable claim on his starting job, Ingram offers the consistency that owners may consider useful out of a third round keeper.

11) Melvin Gordon (ADP: 5th Round)

     2015 Keeper Ranking: Unranked

It’s back-to-back seasons now for Gordon in which he could not complete a 16-game schedule. Durability concerns are often the number one factor when disregarding a potential running back keeper – well after potential production of course – so that’s already a strike against young Mr. Gordon. Also keep in mind that for the second straight season he averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry (3.9), a number, which I explained in length above, holds relevancy to coaches and fantasy owners alike. Thirdly Gordon failed to rush for 1,000 yards and scored only two touchdowns after Halloween, which lends to the thought that he began to run out of gas down the stretch even prior to his injury. Having said all of that, Gordon showed flashes of incredible talent, fell just three yards shy of 1,000 rushing yards, tallied 12 total touchdowns, and registered 41 receptions for 419 yards. Those numbers are good enough to make my keeper rankings list, especially when considering that he has almost no competition in that San Diego backfield.

12) Latavius Murray (ADP: 3rd Round)

     2015 Keeper Ranking: 10th

Like Melvin Gordon above him, it is no secret that I am not a fan of Latavius Murray. I have my reasons and most of all of them is because both players alike are physical freaks yet lack the nuances of good football players. In Murray’s case, he is built like a howitzer and has blazing speed to match it, yet features some of the worst vision by any starting running back in the league. He makes this list simply because of his touchdown vulturing skills. By all accounts, Murray regressed statistically this season in comparison to last. His yards were down, he averaged a mere 4.0 yards per carry on the dot, his receiving numbers were down, and his total touches were down. The presence of two other more skilled running backs in DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard attributed to Murray’s regression, however their combined lack of size actually led to Murray seeing more red zone opportunities. In all, Murray got into the end zone 12 times, which is good anyway you slice it, so I am willing to give him the nod here on my list provided the game plan remains the same. Allow Richard and Washington to move the chains, while the hulking Murray can finish off the drive inside the 20.