With many NFL teams using a running back by committee approach, the "bell cow" back who carries the ball 20 times per game has become a hot commodity in fantasy football.
According to consensus draft rankings in point-per-reception (PPR) scoring formats, 10 of the first 15 players taken in typical drafts are running backs. If you want to field a competitive lineup this season, focus on RBs early.
Todd Gurley, Le'Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott and David Johnson are usually the first running backs selected in typical drafts.
Gurley flourished in Rams coach Sean McVay's revamped offense last season, leading all RBs with 13 rushing TDs, and he posted 64 receptions. He's the major cog in a top offense.
Bell has been a top 3 fantasy RB three of the past four seasons, but he's expected to miss his second straight training camp due to a contract dispute with the Steelers. Missing camp last season may have contributed to his slow start. He'll likely have another productive season, but buyer beware; Bell's played the most snaps of any NFL RB since the 2013 season.
Elliott led all RBs in 2017 with 98.3 rushing yards per game and will be the centerpiece of a depleted Cowboys offense. He'll also likely play a bigger role in the Cowboys pass offense this season.
Johnson missed most of the 2017 season due to a wrist injury, but he'll be the focal point of the Arizona offense. He rushed for 1,239 yards, scored 20 total TDs and registered 80 receptions in 2016. He'll run behind a fullback this season to minimize injury risk. Expect him to approach 2016 rushing and pass-catching stats.
Alvin Kamara caught 81 passes last season, but the Saints may need him to play more snaps than he's accustomed to while Mark Ingram serves a four game drug suspension. He may not match last season's combined 13 TDs, however he'll play a big part in the Saints passing game.
Saquon Barkley is expected to have a big impact in his rookie season, both in the Giants run game and in their passing offense. He was going to have a big role anyway, but Barkley's pass protection abilities will ensure he'll be on the field for the majority of the Giants' offensive snaps.
Kareem Hunt led NFL RBs with 1,327 rushing yards and added 53 receptions last season. He'll be the Chiefs' primary back in 2018 and may see a slight uptick in receiving targets with inexperienced QB Patrick Mahomes potentially using him as a safety valve in pressure situations.
Melvin Gordon's 3.8 career yards per carry (YPC) may not impress, however he had the third-most red zone carries among RBs last season and has scored 24 TDs in his last 29 games. TDs are hard to predict, but the Chargers consistently provide Gordon with a high volume of scoring opportunities. Gordon caught 58 balls out of the backfield in 2017 and his reception totals have increased in each of the past three seasons.
The Jaguars run-first offense will provide Leonard Fournette plenty of opportunities. He rushed for 1,040 yards and scored 10 total TDs in his 2017 rookie campaign, but wore down as the season progressed. He's had a history of foot related injuries dating back to his college days, and may not have prolific ball-catching skills, but if Fournette's health holds up, he should post another 1,000-yard rushing season.
Dalvin Cook is recovering from a torn ACL, but should be ready for Week 1. Although Latavius Murray will have a role in the Vikings backfield, Cook will be their primary back. Barring setbacks, pencil him in for 1,000-plus rushing yards and about 40 catches.
Although he'll still have fantasy value in standard (non-PPR) leagues, Christian McCaffrey's 80 receptions from 2017 make him extra valuable in PPR. The Panthers have suggested he could get 25 to 30 touches per game. That sounds optimistic considering that C.J. Anderson is now in the mix, but if he approaches that workload, McCaffrey can possibly outplay his expectations of being a top 12 fantasy RB.
Falcons RB Devonta Freeman landed in the NFL's concussion protocol twice last season. He also sprained both his MCL and PCL. When healthy he is one of the top RBs in all scoring formats.
Jerick McKinnon never had more than 159 carries in a season, but he'll be the featured back in the 49ers offense. His outstanding pass-catching abilities make him valuable in PPR leagues, however his lack of experience as a bell cow back and smallish frame makes you wonder if he can withstand the rigors of a 16 game NFL season.
Bengals RB Joe Mixon has immense talent, however inconsistency, a bad offensive line and uneven usage contributed to his underwhelming rookie season. As the Bengals' primary back, if his offensive line improves its level of play he could enjoy a breakout season.
Jordan Howard has an outstanding career 4.6 YPC, however he's had problems catching the ball. The Bears insist he'll be their featured back, however Tarik Cohen's abilities as a pass catcher could cut into Howard's snaps.
LeSean McCoy's offseason troubles and the anemic Bills offense make him risky. Jay Ajayi may break some runs this season but he's an injury risk in a crowded Eagles backfield. Avoid the Seahawks backfield until there is more clarity regarding Rashaad Penny's and Chris Carson's playing time. Sony Michel is expected to miss the rest of the preseason due to a knee injury that could also affect his availability to start the regular season.
Royce Freeman is a very talented RB who may end up being Denver's featured back. Keep an eye on De'Angelo Henderson as well. Raiders RB Marshawn Lynch is a mid-level RB2 who is being drafted as an RB3.
ROTOEXPERTS TOP 15 RBS, PPR LEAGUES
David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs
Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars
Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
Jerick McKinnon, San Francisco 49ers
LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
Kenyan Drake, Miami Dolphins