Nate Hamilton’s Very Early Top 5 Running Backs for 2018

Nate Hamilton
@DomiNateFF

Hey, everyone! It’s not often I write for my own site but I figured I’d give you my early top 5 at each meaningful fantasy position for the 2018 season (RB, WR, TE & QB). Any stats or rankings I mention throughout the series will be with Half PPR scoring format in mind. I will give you my early favorites and will not include rookies as I feel it would be a stretch for anyone in this rookie class to reach the top 5 in their position regardless.

I will update these articles as new information becomes available so that you have the most accurate picture as to how these 5 RBs will be at the top of the ranks in 2018. So be sure to continuously check in as you hear about anything that could affect the value of my top 5 in each position.

In this edition, I will cover my top 5 running backs as early as it may be, and discuss my reasoning and process as to how I decided on this particular ranking. Please enjoy and as always, reach out to me on twitter if you have questions or want to share your own rankings with me. I am always open to an educated, friendly, back and forth as long as we can keep it productive. I don’t expect everyone to agree with my rankings and invite anyone to share with me their individual process as to why they may feel different.

So without further ado, here are my current top 5 RBs for the 2018 NFL season.

5.) Leonard Fournette 

Leonard Fournette had himself an impressive rookie season last year. He finished as the RB8 and was one of three rookies to finish the season as a top 10 running back. He saw plenty of volume in 2017 as he ranked 7th in attempts and 8th in rushing yards. Not bad considering he only played in 13 games. Workload will not be a problem for Fournette in 2018 as he is the most talented option in the Jaguars offense. Blake Bortles did just enough toward the end of the season and playoffs to remain the Jaguars quarterback, for now. This is good news for Fournette as this team will do everything in their power to keep the ball out of Blake Bortles’ hands by feeding Fournette as much as possible.

leonard

There are concerns that give me enough pause in ranking Fournette higher than 5th. He is on a mediocre offense at best which limits his scoring opportunities. If the Jaguars find themselves down and in need of passing the ball (unless they increase Fournette’s role in the passing game), he will not be very effective. Leonard Fournette was the least involved in the passing game among the top 10 RBs with only 36 reception on 48 targets. Ezekiel Elliott only had fewer targets and receptions because he played in just 10 games. Another concern is the off the field issues from his rookie season. He was benched for missing various appointments and was not in attendance for the team photo. Hopefully, he has learned from his rookie mistakes and comes back a more mature player in his sophomore season.

Fournette’s ankle is probably my biggest concern. His ankle issues have been a problem dating back to his days at LSU. It was already an issue last year as he worked through the injury for the most part. If his ankle continues to hinder him in 2018, he could very well fall outside of the top 5. Fournette has the pure talent to overcome these blemishes which is why I still have him in my top 5 despite all of my concerns. He is a hard runner and if he can remain healthy, he will find his way to the top 5 in 2018.

4.) Todd Gurley

Todd Gurley finished the 2017 season as the number one running back in the league and by a decent margin. Most will have him ranked at 1 or 2 for 2018, but I’m just not there yet. I understand the difference in his usage under coach Sean McVay vs what Jeff Fisher implemented 2 seasons ago and I too, am very excited for Todd Gurley and his production moving forward. A big component in Gurley’s success last season was his increased opportunities in the passing game. Gurley had 29 more targets and 21 more receptions than his 2016 season which resulted in more than doubling his receiving yards total from the previous season and 6 reception touchdowns vs his goose egg in 2016. There ‘s no doubt Todd Gurley took a major leap this past season.

gurley

We can’t simply say “Gurley has McVay now so he will continue to have monster seasons as long as he is the coach”. Gurley was very successful in his rookie season under Jeff Fisher and went on to have an off year as the RB17 in his 2016 season. He is a young running back with a lot of promise but has already shown us that he has the ability to be inconsistent in his short career. This is my biggest concern with Gurley. It’s only natural to expect some kind of regression from his amazing numbers last season. If you think his workload dramatically increased last year, you’re wrong. Although he saw increased targets as I mentioned, Gurley only increased his carries by just 1 attempt compared to his down 2016 season. If Gurley sees similar rushing attempts in 2018, then it’s not out of the realm of possibilities his production with that workload could fall somewhere between his numbers from his 2016 and 2017 seasons. All that said, Todd Gurley will see plenty of volume, is a versatile player, and has the raw talent to produce top RB numbers. I fully expect him to finish 2018 as a top 5 running back.

3.) Le’Veon Bell

When you are talking about your top five running backs, you could easily make a case for each of them as the possible number one RB and Le’Veon Bell is definitely no exception. Bell is far and away the best running back in the league. His running style is unmatched, he has great hands and catches a ton of passes, and his overall involvement and workload in the Steelers offense is insane. Bell just finished the 2017 season as the league leader in carries with 321 and the next closest was LeSean McCoy with 287. Did I mention Le’Veon Bell is a great pass catcher? He finished the season with 106 targets, which was second most among RBs (Chrisitan McCaffrey – 113 targets). Despite finishing second in targets, Bell was more efficient catching over 80% of his targets as he led the league with 85 receptions. Le’Veon Bell has been a top 3 RB in 3 of the last 4 seasons. The only reason he wasn’t in 2015 was that he fell to injury after only playing 6 games.

levbell

I could see Bell as the top RB in 2018 but I have him ranked 3rd because of some concerns. The uncertainty that Bell will return to the Steelers is my biggest concern. He is looking to make big-time money and has threatened to retire should the Steelers franchise tag him. I don’t believe he will do that, but it definitely isn’t something that makes me feel comfortable. Recently, the Steelers have made some cap space and I can assume it has something to do with getting a deal done for Bell.

Another concern I have is the variety of talent on this offense. There are so many ways the Steelers can score and although Bell is heavily involved, it is a possibility we see a dip in his touchdown numbers. Antonio Brown demands a lot of attention, the emergence of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant is another mouth to feed, and Ben Roethlisberger finally began utilizing the tight end position a bit more toward the end of last season. All of these reasons could justify Le’Veon Bell possibly taking on a lighter workload than what he has been accustomed to. Regardless, Bell is a top 3 running back in this league and I fully expect he will be once again in 2018.

2.) David Johnson

Just one season removed from his number one rank in fantasy football, David Johnson has fallen a few spots in many of the early rankings I’ve seen thus far. This man is a beast and easily takes on the heavy workload without showing signs of slowing down. However, I do understand the skepticism of the scenario we see DJ returning to in 2018. There is no sign of a decent QB to replace veteran, Carson Palmer’s production and the limited, young talent at the wide receiver position will not demand attention away from Johnson. There is plenty of time this offseason to address these issues in free agency, possible trades, and the 2018 NFL Draft. Until these matters are solved, the doubt will remain in the overall production expected from David Johnson in 2018.

DJ

The various concerns listed above is the only reason I do not have David Johnson ranked #1. In 2016, Johnson had over 1,000 yards rushing and led all RBs in targets and receptions. He ended the season with 879 receiving yards (best of all RBs) and expressed his disappointment of not achieving at least 1,000 yards in both, rushing and receiving before he went down with his injury. David Johnson’s wrist is now healed and he’s motivated to pick up where he left off two seasons ago among the top running backs in the league. Even though there are plenty of question marks in the Cardinals’ offense, David Johnson is the exclamation point.

1.) Ezekiel Elliott

If you know me, then you know that I am a Cowboys fan. This has absolutely nothing to do with me ranking Ezekiel Elliott as the number one running back for the upcoming 2018 season. I don’t let my “fandom” get in the way of analysis. For example, I have Dez Bryant ranked as the WR16 for 2018. The reasons I feel that Zeke can be the best running back in 2018 consists of multiple aspects.

elliott

As crazy as it may seem, Ezekiel Elliott missed 6 whole games in 2017, due to his suspension. That equates to almost 38% of the season. Elliott still managed to finish as a top 10 running back, regardless of the time he missed. The top 5 RBs played either 15 or 16 games on the year. It’s scary to think what Zeke is capable of in a full season. Just two years ago, in his rookie season, Elliott played in 15 games and was the number 2 RB ahead of Le’Veon Bell. He led the league in rushing attempts, rushing yards, he was 3rd in rushing touchdowns and fantasy points per game.

As this game evolves, a pass catching back is essential to any successful team in the NFL. There is no doubt, Zeke will see increased volume in the passing game in 2018. Elliott had already seen a significant increase in targets from his rookie season as he went from 40 targets in 15 games in 2016 to 38 targets in just 10 games in 2017. If you don’t have Ezekiel Elliott ranked number one for 2018, that’s fine, but he should be in the top 3 discussion at the very least.

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