- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Time to talk about running backs! When pondering a tiered system -- and you should be pondering this, because it's a key part of draft preparation -- this is the prime position where it makes the most sense to rank the running backs and decide how much of a difference there is between sections. After all, not that it was ever a major challenge to place running backs into tiers to start with, but these days, with so few safe, reliable and consistent options at our disposal, it seems as if the position provides more tears than tiers to fantasy owners.
With the quarterback position having been covered in this space last week, we move on to running backs, a position that no longer dominates the entire first round as it used to. For those new to what a tiered system brings, check out the quarterback rankings blog. As always, your own drafting strategy might differ, but having a strong running back base can really set a fantasy team apart, so don’t ignore the position, as ugly as it might be after a few rounds.
Tier 1: Top-of-first-round value
1. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers: For perspective, I ranked him first even before his suspension was recently reduced from three games to two. There’s nobody better to rely on for production and, trust me, you can live without him for the first two games.
2. Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers: The word many use for him is "safe," but that’s selling him a bit short. Lacy puts up numbers, good enough to rank first overall. Sure, quarterback Aaron Rodgers is the face of this elite offense, but Lacy is special too.
3. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs certainly didn’t appear to overwork him last season, but the yards and touchdowns remained. Trust me, it’s almost better this way. If he got 350 touches, he’d probably get hurt, and that helps nobody except Knile Davis.
4. Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks: Yeah, he’s approaching 30 years old, but do his numbers look like they’re sliding? They look fine to me. Still, I wouldn’t draft him in this spot in a dynasty format. The end could come quickly. For now, Skittles for everyone!
5. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings: If you wish to select him first overall, just like last season, go for it. I’m still more concerned than most, I suppose, thanks to his age and many, many career touches, but that said, he’s my No. 5 player. I’m clearly not all that concerned.
Tier 2: First round
6. Matt Forte, Chicago Bears: The record holder for most receptions in a season by a running back, let’s acknowledge he’s trending toward being a third-down back, but it’s not happening yet. He’s still extremely productive.
7. C.J. Anderson, Denver Broncos: This might seem like a generous rank, but he was fantasy’s top running back the final five weeks last season, and the skills and elite offense remain. Sure, now quarterback Peyton Manning is healthy and he’ll be throwing a ton, but that doesn’t hurt Anderson as much as one thinks.
Tier 3: Second round
9. DeMarco Murray, Philadelphia Eagles: Moves on to NFC East rival Philly from Dallas, where the change in offensive line and quarterback could be balanced by the volume of offensive plays. But Dallas didn’t have Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles to compete for touches.
Tier 4: Third round
12. Alfred Morris, Washington Redskins: Don’t believe talk he’ll suddenly catch a lot of passes. He’s hauled in 37 total in three seasons. That’s like three weeks for Forte. The rushing numbers are legit enough, but I’m not sure anyone actually targets Morris in fantasy, either.
13. Justin Forsett, Baltimore Ravens: He’s on myriad bust lists, but I’m not sure what really changes here. The Ravens will run. Forsett’s the guy, and while not particularly young for the position, his body hasn’t been abused. Why can’t he thrive again?
15. Lamar Miller, Miami Dolphins: A bit like Ingram in that he’s been a bit frustrating to own and the team has another option to help with at least the pass-catching duties. Miller could be a top-10 running back or lose the job. Nothing would be too shocking.
Tier 5: Fourth round
18. Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers: Gore’s former teammate projects as a star, but there’s a bit of doubt because Reggie Bush is here and the team used a fourth-round pick on South Carolina’s Mike Davis.
Tier 6: Fifth round
19. Todd Gurley, St. Louis Rams: I moved him up this week as reports of pristine health to his recovering knee have surfaced. Before I thought he’d miss the first six games. Now I don’t think that. Gurley should be a star, and I’m OK with him missing the first week or two, especially because Week 1 is a meeting with Seattle.
20. Latavius Murray, Oakland Raiders: What, you think the signing of Trent Richardson endangers his playing time? LOL! Murray remains largely unproven and hardly a lock to succeed -- he boasts 99 touches from scrimmage in his career -- but I do like his chances. I don’t like Richardson’s.
21. Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers: I’ve purposely placed him just outside of RB2 status for 10-team formats and admit when it’s time to select him, I’m not fully on board. After all, the track record is a relative mess. I know he’s got the job to himself and did quite well the second part of 2014, but expecting disappointment from Stewart, it’s a hard habit to break.
22. Joique Bell, Detroit Lions: I’ve ranked him worse than colleagues, just a tad concerned about injuries that held him back last season, along with a speedy rookie and accomplished receiver competing for touches.
Tier 7: Sixth round
25. Giovani Bernard, Bengals: His first two seasons look awfully similar statistically, but much more was expected in Year 2. Not so much is expected now in Year 3, with Hill on board. Move Ellington and Bernard up in PPR formats, though.
26. Joseph Randle, Dallas Cowboys: We’ll see how many yards he leaves on the table. I want to be positive and the offensive line couldn’t be better, but it can’t just be that easy to step in and replace what DeMarco Murray did. Be a bit cautious.
Tier 8: Seventh round
27. T.J. Yeldon, Jacksonville Jaguars: Here’s another rookie, and it’s always dangerous to rely on them initially, but Yeldon sure appears to have upside and a chance for stardom, even in this offense. He’s no Denard Robinson or Toby Gerhart.
Tier 9: Eighth round
30. Ryan Mathews, Eagles: Has to be considered one of the prime handcuffs in the league due to the Philly offense, and Mathews does have multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons to his credit.
33. David Johnson, Cardinals: Rookie from Northern Iowa has the size to be a three-down back, perhaps the next Jeremy Hill, and could push Ellington into the Bernard role. I could see it happening, which is why I rank Johnson better than most. By late August, Johnson could be top-25.
34. C.J. Spiller, Saints: People seem to love him every season, and do again because Brees will likely target him quite a bit. But Spiller has never topped 43 receptions in a season, for various reasons. Don’t love him too much.
Tier 10: Ninth round
35. Fred Jackson, Bills: He’s so much more productive than people realize. Yes, the Bills traded for McCoy and Jackson is not a particularly young man for the sport, but they’re not going to suddenly forget about him.
36. Ameer Abdullah, Lions: Rookie from Nebraska isn’t likely to be a three-down back due to his size, but one has to think the team will use him right away.
37. Duke Johnson, Browns: Rookie from Miami also figures to see more work on passing downs than as the team’s lead runner, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t upside.
Tier 11: 10th round
38. Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: I’ve been off the bandwagon for quite a while, but there’s no denying he could be the starter and thrive like it’s 2012 again. But I doubt it. Ah, remember that glorious afternoon in Oakland his rookie season? Good times.
39. Charles Sims, Buccaneers: I actually think Sims is more likely to have a big season than Martin, if that matters. The Buccaneers probably don’t agree, thus this ranking order.
40. Shane Vereen, Giants: He’ll catch the passes, but can’t see him playing a large role rushing the football.
41. Reggie Bush, 49ers: Ditto. See Mr. Vereen.
43. Bishop Sankey, Titans: And here’s last year’s rookie. You might want to just avoid the Titans this year.
Tier 12: 11th round
44. Devonta Freeman, Falcons: Freeman appears to be ahead of the rookie Coleman on the depth chart, but most people believe the rookie will end up the top option.
45. Darren McFadden, Cowboys: Hey, if you want to go down this road again, be my guest.
46. Jay Ajayi, Dolphins: Rookie from Boise State has skills, but major knee concerns. He’s likely to at least scare Lamar Miller owners some.
47. Tre Mason, Rams: When reports on Gurley weren’t as positive, Mason looked like a nice September fill-in. As for now, he doesn’t look so appealing.
Tier 13: 12th round
48. Knile Davis, Chiefs: He sure looks like he can play, but will need an injury to Jamaal Charles to make it happen. Davis is an obvious handcuff.
49. Jerick McKinnon, Vikings: Here’s another obvious handcuff, though when he got chances last season, they sure weren’t near the goal line.
50. DeAngelo Williams, Steelers: Well, he should see touches the first two weeks, so he’s got that going for him. We begin and end the top 50 with Steelers.
Tier 14: 13th round
51. Zac Stacy, Jets: Crazier things have happened, you know. The Jets don’t have an obvious running back star and Stacy had some good times in St. Louis.
52. Roy Helu, Raiders: Mainly a third-down back who catches passes, but if the starter doesn’t stay healthy, who knows?
53. Daniel Herron, Colts: Indy's starter is not a young man, but still, Herron mainly catches passes.
54. Stevan Ridley, Jets: Once upon a time, he had game. Let’s see if he’s healthy.
55. Danny Woodhead, Chargers: Legit pass-catcher and likely third-down guy. Move him up in PPR leagues.
56. Branden Oliver, Chargers: Had his chance to shine and wasn’t special.
Tier 15: 14th round
57. Lorenzo Taliaferro, Ravens: For those who think Forsett will fall apart, go get this guy.
58. Darren Sproles, Eagles: Even in PPR play, he didn’t do nearly what he was supposed to.
59. Terrance West, Browns: Had his chances last season, but hard to see how he gets a shot to start again.
60. Theo Riddick, Lions: Receiving option who could matter if Joique doesn’t.
61. Montee Ball, Broncos: Wow, how the mighty have fallen. Viewed as first-rounder last year. Definite sleeper, in theory.
Others: Denard Robinson, Jaguars; Chris Polk, Texans; Andre Williams, Giants; Buck Allen, Ravens; Alfred Blue, Texans; Jonas Gray, Patriots; Lance Dunbar, Cowboys; Ronnie Hillman, Broncos; James Starks, Packers; Antone Smith, Falcons; Matt Asiata, Vikings; Matt Jones, Redskins; Khiry Robinson, Saints; Ka’Deem Carey, Bears; Robert Turbin, Seahawks; Trent Richardson, Raiders; Christine Michael, Seahawks; De’Anthony Thomas, Chiefs; Josh Robinson, Colts; Bilal Powell, Jets; Marcel Reece, Raiders.
Coming up next week, it’s the many riches at the wide receiver position.