2020 Fantasy Football RB Tiers: Austin Ekeler can win you your fantasy league (again)

Matt Harmon
·13 mins read

In my view, fantasy rankings are placing a linear thought process into an inherently fluid decision-making exercise. I often find there’s a heavy amount of frivolous debate on subjects like, “Why do you have Player-X at No. 12 but Player-Y at No. 15?” I don’t think it does the reader a service to try and take the numerical order as a one-to-one comparison, nor do we learn anything of use or substance about the players or how they will score us fantasy points on a week-to-week basis. For all the hype surrounding the event of the draft, winning weekly is still the name of the game in the vast majority of fantasy formats.

With that school of thought established, I do believe that using tiers by position helps offset some of the uselessness of rankings. It helps take some of the frivolity of arguing the difference of a few spots in the order. Most of the players in one tier have roughly the same value, whether they fall first in the set or last. The tiers provide more actionable information for fantasy gamers to use during drafts, specifically in terms of helping us imagine the range of outcomes for players from both a season-long and weekly standpoint. We get too caught up in where we think a player will rank at the end of the season, but tiering can help remind us that the goal soon enough will be all about constructing teams that are best set to win one week at a time.

The running back position remains the foundation for any healthy fantasy football contender. Toward the top of the position, you’ll find workhorse stars who can be the advantage your squad has over the rest of the field.

Tiering the running back position can help us find the late upside picks we’re all hoping to snare each fantasy season and perhaps more importantly, some guys with sneaky usability going later in the draft.

RB Tier 1 - Best candidates to finish as RB1 overall

1 - Christian McCaffrey

2 - Saquon Barkley

3 - Alvin Kamara

4 - Ezekiel Elliott

5 - Derrick Henry

The five running backs listed here are the frontline of the position. If you have one of them on your roster, you have an advantage: A hammer with which to pummel your opponents.

Christian McCaffrey will be the top pick in just about every fantasy draft this summer. He should be, but don’t be surprised if someone else finishes ahead of him in the running back ranks. Liz Loza recently hosted a podcast with Mauricio Gutierrez, the founder of Estadio Fantasy, and he noted that in the last decade, only three running backs who were No. 1 overall picks ended up repeating as a Top-5 back the next year. None of them repeated at the top of the position. It’s just a hard thing to do two years in a row. That said, there are no outright concerns in McCaffrey’s outlook. Just keep in mind that these other four backs also have excellent profiles heading into 2020 and could finish as the RB1 overall.

Alvin Kamara was averaging over 20 touches per game before getting injured in practice heading into Week 6. He has bankable positive touchdown regression after scoring on 6.5 percent of his touches in his first two seasons. He found the end zone on 2.3 percent of his total touches in 2019.

Derrick Henry is a tough case. He flat out needs more receiving work to maintain a more comfortable floor. Just 11 running backs out of the 301 to have cleared 250 PPR fantasy points since the merger recorded fewer than 20 catches. Henry snared 18, a career-high, last year. It would be hard to imagine he doesn’t clear that number with Dion Lewis out of the picture and rookie Darrynton Evans coming along slowly in camp. Still, you’re counting on deployment that no coaching staff has ever seen fit for Henry to this point. He’s a candidate to lead the NFL in carries and rushing touchdowns, so the monster upside will always be tempting.

RB Tier 2 - Strong RB1s

6 - Clyde Edwards-Helaire

7 - Joe Mixon

8 - Dalvin Cook

9 - Austin Ekeler

10 - Nick Chubb

Austin Ekeler has league-winning upside again this season. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Austin Ekeler has league-winning upside again this season. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Be bullish on Clyde Edwards-Helaire. He’s unlikely to see the raw volume of the backs in Tier 1 and maybe a few in this group. However, 55 to 60 percent of the backfield touches in Kansas City are worth far more than such a workload in just about any other offense. Wheels up.

Joe Mixon could challenge some of the guys in Tier 1 but he needs a receiving portfolio with a better target share than the seven percent he garnered in Zac Taylor’s first year running the show. It’s hard to project too much more with how crowded their receiver room is at the moment.

You should be ahead of the market on Austin Ekeler. How does one of the most efficient, productive rusher/receivers in the game fail in 2020? He should still maintain a hold on a solid target share; 80 to 90 looks is easy to project. And if the offense does run more, which seems like a lock, I feel like we’ll be doing “Remember when people thought Christian McCaffrey couldn’t run between the tackles,” Part 2. Straight up, I think he wins leagues for people again this year. Don’t overthink it — he’s the focal point of that offense.

Nick Chubb will push to lead the NFL in yards per carry every year because he’s a baller. Still, Kareem Hunt’s presence does cap his ceiling, but he’s not a full-on fade for me.

RB Tier 3 - Can be your top fantasy RB or a pristine RB2

11 - Aaron Jones

12 - Kenyan Drake

13 - Josh Jacobs

14 - Miles Sanders

You have to be at least a little worried about Aaron Jones. He’s flat out going to regress in the touchdown column after scoring on 6.7 percent of his touches in 2019. Now rookie A.J. Dillon and his monster calves are on the scene to snake some carries away along with longtime Jones running mate, Jamaal Williams. The Packers brass spent a Round 2 pick on Dillon for a reason and it’s probably not to put him on ice for a year. Jones is a fine second-round pick but keep the risk in mind.

Point blank, Kenyan Drake was one of the best backs in football once he arrived in Arizona. During his time with the team (Week 9 on), Drake was second in rushing first downs, second in runs of 10-plus yards, tied for second in rushing scores, and Top-15 among running backs in catches. The Cardinals offense should only be better this year with the arrival of DeAndre Hopkins and Drake remains the feature back there.

Jon Gruden reportedly wants to use Josh Jacobs as a receiver. Let’s hope so because a seven percent target share is not going to cut it.

The coaching staff was doing nothing to slow down the hype train on Miles Sanders. He was looking at a full workload. As of this writing, he’s week-to-week with an injury mere hours after the running backs coach once again affirmed his status as the feature back. The malady puts him at the bottom of this tier, for now, whereas he would have been competing with Jones for the top spot if not for the injury.

RB Tier 4 - RB2s with question marks

15 - Chris Carson

16 - James Conner

17 - Jonathan Taylor

18 - Melvin Gordon

James Conner remains a favorite pick. Not much has changed in his on-paper outlook from when he was a league-winning RB1 in 2018. He is far and away the most proven entity in a backfield tethered to what should be a strong offense, albeit one not as good as that 2018 unit. Injury risk for both Conner and Ben Roethlisberger is already baked into his ADP.

Jonathan Taylor looks like he’ll win at least the right to be the 1a in Indianapolis his first year. It’s worth taking the gamble that he might be stuck in a committee for access to a juiced runner plowing through defenses behind one of the league’s best offensive lines.

You can argue Melvin Gordon should be in the next tier. No major pushback there.

RB Tier 5 - Good luck to ya…

19 - David Johnson

20 - Todd Gurley

21 - David Montgomery

22 - Leonard Fournette

23 - Le'Veon Bell

Imagine having any sort of conviction about the players in this tier. Couldn’t be me.

All of the guys here are theoretically slated for big-time volume. We know that’s the biggest driver of fantasy goodness. However, it needs to be asked whether any of these backs are actually good enough, or at least for some good enough anymore, to continue to earn that volume over the course of 16 games. You need to rank them as RB2s because of that path to volume but no one can blame you for passing up on them in favor of guys in the next tier.

RB Tier 6 - RB3 candidates with usable outlooks

24 - Ronald Jones

25 - Kareem Hunt

26 - Devin Singletary

27 - D'Andre Swift

28 - Raheem Mostert

Never thought I’d say this, but I’m in on Ronald Jones. His consensus ADP is around RB30. This should tell you to be ahead of the curve. Maybe he won’t work out but the “pros” column way outweighs the “cons” for Jones this year.

I want to like Raheem Mostert but can’t shake the rumors of a committee approach in San Francisco. Mostert also has no resume as a receiver during his time in the NFL. That makes him an especially risky selection.

RB Tier 7 - Members of confusing committees

29 - Antonio Gibson

30 - Mark Ingram

31 - J.K. Dobbins

32 - Cam Akers

33 - Tevin Coleman

34 - James White

35 - Jordan Howard

36 - Darrell Henderson

37 - Marlon Mack

Antonio Gibson finds himself uncomfortably high at RB29. The explosive talent could easily walk into 70 targets with the state of Washington’s pass catchers beyond Terry McLaurin. The coaching staff has discussed his skills as a receiver. That usage would give him a solid floor to bank on while chasing a higher ceiling throughout the year in hopes he displaces Adrian Peterson entirely. The most likely answer is no one is going to be a difference-maker in Washington’s backfield but if someone is, it’ll be Gibson — hence the aggressive ranking here.

The Ravens duo being ranked back to back should give you the indication I don’t have any confidence as to how the roles will shake out. My best guess: If you need early season points because you went wide receiver-heavy, take Mark Ingram but J.K. Dobbins will end the year on a higher note.

The ADPs have seen Cam Akers well ahead of Darrell Henderson this summer. But nothing that’s come out of the Rams camp, whether through Sean McVay or reported reps, have shown us that the workload split will be that clear cut. Take the guy going later in this backfield. Both of their impacts may be made negligible by Malcolm Brown anyway.

Jordan Howard is only a player you should draft if you need some early season points coming at a fair ADP because you went receiver-heavy early. He doesn’t have much of a ceiling and could lose the starting gig to Matt Breida.

RB Tier 8 - Upside fliers that should offer standalone value

38 - Phillip Lindsay

39 - Matt Breida

40 - Zach Moss

41 - Damien Harris

42 - Latavius Murray

43 - Kerryon Johnson

44 - Duke Johnson

45 - Boston Scott

46 - Nyheim Hines

47 - Justin Jackson

This is a range where I have trouble finding many bold takes. Phillip Lindsay leads the crew and the gap between him and Melvin Gordon on my board, much less the ADP, could be way too wide. Lindsay is a favorite target on teams with established players in my running back slots, as we already know what he looks like as a lead dog should something happen to Gordon.

Zach Moss and Matt Breida are the No. 2 players on their depth chart right now. Don’t be convinced they stay there all season. You should look their way when searching for running back upside. Moss’ existence definitely made me tamper down the enthusiasm I expected to carry for Devin Singletary in 2020.

Damien Harris is a player I advocate going all-in on this year. Sony Michel is once again mired in an offseason filled with health questions. Harris, meanwhile, has been getting good run in Patriots camp. He could be a straight zero like he was as a rookie but he could just as easily lead a team that should be running a lot this year in backfield touches.

Duke Johnson, Boston Scott, and Nyheim Hines don’t have much feature back upside (sorry, Duke truthers). But they do offer a usable floor in half and full PPR formats. Even if I’m sky high on Miles Sanders, the murky receiver depth chart in Philadelphia leads me to think Scott remains involved as a pass-catcher.

RB Tier 9 - High-quality insurance players

48 - Tony Pollard

49 - Alexander Mattison

50 - DeAndre Washinton

51 - Brian Hill

52 - Bryce Love

53 - Ke'Shawn Vaughn

Odds are good that none of the running backs in this tier will have much standalone value. In your traditional 12-team head-to-head start league, you’ll probably never feel tempted to start these guys. However, if any of the starters ahead of these players were to miss significant time, almost every analyst out there would start advocating that you throw your entire free agent budgets, No. 1 waiver picks, whatever, on these backups.

Bryce Love is a guy I just bumped up. It looks like the former Stanford star is all-clear for football this year. That could be a significant development in the Washington backfield. Love could handle early down work if he’s healthy and makes more sense on a rebuilding offense than any of the veterans theoretically ahead of him. You should look for Love later in drafts rather than taking Adrian Peterson where he goes.

RB Tier 10 - Dusty veterans and second/third fiddles

54 - Chris Thompson

55 - Adrian Peterson

56 - LeSean McCoy

57 - AJ Dillon

58 - Carlos Hyde

59 - Sony Michel

60 - Joshua Kelly

It’s hard to imagine any of these guys having enough touches to make significant fantasy noise on their own. However, the veterans here will provide some sort of roadblock to the young players we’re excited about in the respective backfields.

Dillon and Kelly would be high priority waiver adds if chaos struck their backfields. They should see looks on early downs or in late-game situations while they marinate.

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