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2017 Fantasy Football Running Backs Strength of Schedule Preview

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Take a look at which running backs face the toughest opponents, and which backs face the easiest opponents.

Last week, we looked at the projected strength of schedules for quarterbacks in the upcoming 2017 season. It gave us an idea of how to adjust the tiered rankings I posed nearly a month ago, and this week I’m going to continue with the running backs around the league.

The Data

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Just like last week, the method used is taking every team’s 2017 schedule and summing up the opponents’ average points allowed to running backs per game. The most important column once again is the last, the “Total” column— if the number is higher, the schedule is easier.

Discussion

Unlike the quarterback strength of schedule (SoS) analysis, the presence of a dominant or porous run-defending division isn’t as strong. However, it is worth noting that all four AFC East teams have top-16 schedules, and all four AFC West teams have bottom-12 schedules.

  • Arizona Cardinals: David Johnson is pretty much the unanimous No. 1 pick for next year, so nothing new here.

  • Atlanta Falcons: Assuming OC Kyle Shanahan stays, this offense is gold. Devonta Freeman will be the lead back and can contribute with both his rushing and receiving abilities, making him a low-end RB1 and second-round pick. Tevin Coleman provides inconsistent production, and with the sixth hardest SoS, Coleman sounds like a low-end RB2, getting drafted around the fifth round.

  • Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens have the fifth best SoS, making it a backfield worth investing in. However, the starting job is still uncertain between Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon, who looked to take over the starting role. At this point, until the preseason, both backs are just outside of the RB2 category and have fifth or sixth round value.

  • Buffalo Bills: LeSean McCoy is a workhorse running behind a good line, making him a RB1 and first-round pick. The Bills are built to run, so even with newly appointed HC Sean McDermott, their offense shouldn’t change much. In addition, the 11th easiest SoS makes Mike Gillislee a valuable handcuff to be taken in the late rounds.

  • Carolina Panthers: Jonathan Stewart has been a pedestrian RB2 for two years now, limited by his abilities as well as usage. Panthers have the second best SoS in 2017, but their 2017 opponents are actually harder than Stewart’s 13 opponents last year (allowing 19.33/game vs. 19.95/game). This suggests that Stewart just isn’t that great, despite an easy schedule. With Cameron Artis-Payne in the mix and rumors of the team looking to draft a RB, my current projection for Stewart truly is a shot in the dark. 

  • Chicago Bears: Jordan Howard had an outstanding rookie year, finishing second in rushing yards (1313 on 5.2 ypc), despite starting just 13 games behind an injured O-line. With the 10th best SoS, Howard is a RB1 for me next year with an ADP in the second round.

  • Cincinnati Bengals: A new three-headed monster composed of Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard, and Rex Burkhead emerged in 2016. With the eighth best SoS, there’s a lot of potential in this backfield. Hill is still the clear lead back and will have goal line upside, making him a RB2 and a fourth/fifth rounder. Bernard is a RB3 (sixth round) if nothing changes before preseason or if Burkhead gets released. However, Burkhead still has value if Bernard were to get injured. Only time will tell how this backfield will turn out.

  • Cleveland Browns: The Browns have the fourth worst SoS next year, and they’re a team that will find themselves locked in a pass-first game script. Starter Isaiah Crowell can be a RB2 and as he was underused in 2016, getting just 12.4 carries a game at a solid 4.81 ypc. He could be a solid pick at the fifth. Duke Johnson had a disappointing year, and is just drafted in the late rounds as a handcuff if Crowell were to get injured.

  • Dallas Cowboys: Ezekiel Elliott is a top-3 pick for me, with Dallas’ 14th best SoS not being a factor. Alfred Morris is also a top handcuff option to be drafted in the late rounds.

  • Denver Broncos: I love C.J. Anderson every year, and I think he’ll have the starting job in 2017, given Devontae Booker’s subpar running. His injuries are starting to be a concern, but his burst and vision makes me love his fourth/fifth-round, high-end RB2 value, especially with Denver having the ninth best SoS. Booker will remain a mediocre handcuff, given how he played this year, to be drafted in the late rounds.

  • Detroit Lions: The Lions are still one of the most pass-happy teams, finishing second in percentage of pass plays at 64.6% (behind Baltimore’s 66.0%). Ameer Abdullah will go into the season as the lead back, albeit behind the 19th best offensive line per PFF. Detroit also has the eighth toughest SoS, so Abdullah is a low-end RB2 for me, a fifth round value at best. Theo Riddick is the team’s receiving back, with a consistent RB2 value (sixth round) in PPR and RB3 (eighth round) in standard. Dwayne Washington and Zach Zenner were relevant but are now just backups/handcuffs.

  • Green Bay Packers: The Packers have the ninth hardest SoS in 2017. The backfield situation is quite messy, but Eddie Lacy will probably get the Week 1 start, provided his weight is back down. Lacy is a RB2, fifth-round value for me. Backups James Starks and Christine Michael may be late-round flyers. Ty Montgomery’s role is uncertain as his production (while excellent) didn’t exist until his teammates started hitting the IR; this could be something to watch out for in the offseason.

  • Houston Texans: Lamar Miller is a solid RB1 (late first round) given his high usage and lack of a talented backup. The Texans have a more-or-less average SoS, at 19th best. Miller’s TD will likely regress back up, and hopefully, Houston’s passing attack can keep opposing defenses off balance.

  • Indianapolis Colts: As a Colts fan, I don’t think Frank Gore will perform well next year, and his age showed in his 2016 season. Per FootballOutsiders, Indy’s run blocking was third best, but in second-level yards and open-field yards, the Colts were bottom-five. The Colts have the 20th best SoS, which doesn’t say much. I’m lowering Gore to high-end RB3 status (sixth round), as I’m predicting that the team gives more touches to Robert Turbin and a rookie RB

  • Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars offense is a mess, and that certainly is true for their backfield. Bringing in Chris Ivory was supposed to add power to T.J. Yeldon’s agility, but both underperformed in 2017. Despite having the sixth best SoS next year, the Jaguars offensive line was among the worst in run blocking per Football Outsiders. Furthermore, it’s tough to gauge how much, and in what ways either backs will be used, but they’re both RB3s (sixth/seventh round) at most right now, with Yeldon slightly higher.

  • Kansas City Chiefs: Jamaal Charles will no doubt start Week 1 if he’s healthy, but with so many recent injuries, he’s a low RB2 (third/fourth round). If Charles starts, Ware becomes a valuable handcuff, with possibly seventh round value. If Ware is the Week 1 starter, he’s a low RB2 (fourth round) as well, since his production is just mediocre and very touchdown-dependent. The Chiefs do have a decent SoS at 12th best though.

  • Los Angeles Rams: Todd Gurley was quite a “bust” last year as the entire Rams offense played historically bad. Gurley’s talent and role will still make him a RB2 (third round) despite having the 21st best SoS next year. The Rams have no fantasy-relevant backup RBs.

  • Miami Dolphins: Jay Ajayi had three games of 200+ rushing yards in 2016, catapulting him to RB1 status. It goes to show how good Miami’s line can be if they (Branden Albert and Mike Pouncey, specifically) stay healthy. With an average SoS at 15th, Ajayi is a solid RB1 and first-round pick in 2017. Backup Damien Williams will vulture the occasionally goal-line TD, but he’s undraftable.

  • Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings have the seventh best schedule, but behind the third worst run blocking line, the run game is a mess. Even if Adrian Peterson isn’t released, he will be 32 coming off of knee injuries. Backups Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata both ran below 3.5 ypc, making them RB3s even with Peterson out of the picture. It’s definitely a backfield worth watching out for, but with such a bad line, even a work horse back here might not be worth much. 

  • New England Patriots: The Patriots have the best schedule for a running back next year. Dion Lewis will likely be the running back to own for 2017, despite LeGarrette Blount having a league-leading 18 rushing TDs. Lewis is a RB2 and arguably a fourth/fifth round pick. Blount will regress from his career-high 299 carries and 1161 yards (for a poor 3.9 ypc), but as the primary goal-line back, he still has RB2/RB3 value in the sixth round.

  • New Orleans Saints: For some reason, the Saints just don’t like to use Mark Ingram, getting just 12.8 carries/game despite 5.09 ypc. The Saints have the 22nd best SoS, only slightly harder than average. Ingram is an RB2 (fifth round) due to his inconsistent usage, but with the best run blocking line and good hands, he once again has the potential to thrive as a work horse. Tim Hightower is simply a late-round flyer, whose value is simply as Ingram’s handcuff.

  • New York Giants: The Giants have an average SoS at 18th best. This offense just isn’t built to run, whether it’s Rashad Jennings or Paul Perkins with the ball. At the end of the season, it does seem like Perkins has taken over the starting job, and if it stays that way, he is a RB2/RB3 player with a sixth round value. 

  • New York Jets: The Jets have the third best SoS, which bodes well for Matt Forte, who was used as a workhorse while healthy last season. However, at age 31, Forte might have his workload decreased for receiving back Bilal Powell, who ran well in Forte’s absence. Forte is a good RB2 to take in the fourth/fifth rounds, and Powell is a good RB3 in standard leagues (RB2 in PPR). Forte may not even be with the team this coming season.

  • Oakland Raiders: The Raiders have the third worst SoS, but with their solid offensive line, it might not affect their running back committee much. Latavius Murray is the clear lead back — I believe his decreased workload last year was just to light a fire in him — as well as goal line back. But with the difficult schedule and the committee, Murray isn’t as good of a pick as Matt Forte or Thomas Rawls. He’s still a RB2 to be taken in the fifth though. Backups DeAndre Washington, Jalen Richard, and Jamize Olawale only have handcuff value.

  • Philadelphia Eagles: Ryan Mathews will be the lead back in this backfield, but his health will be an issue. The Eagles have the 10th worst SoS, which somewhat lowers the RBs’ values. Mathews is a RB3 to be taken around the sixth. Speedster Darren Sproles is valuable as he provides receptions and yards, as well as returning TDs. He’s a RB3 to be taken in the late rounds.

  • Pittsburgh Steelers: Le’Veon Bell is a top-3 fantasy pick regardless of the Steelers’ fifth worst SoS. DeAngelo Williams remains a top handcuff behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.

  • San Diego Chargers: Melvin Gordon was a TD monster last year, and will look to continue being the lead back, making him RB1 with second-round value.  The Chargers have an exceedingly average 16th best SoS next year. If the Chargers re-sign Danny Woodhead, he becomes a RB3 with an ADP in the seventh round.

  • San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers have the worst projected schedule for running backs in the upcoming season. San Francisco was also the poorest run blocking team in the league, per FO; both are bad news for Carlos Hyde. With recent injuries, Hyde might be someone worth avoiding as a low RB2 (fourth/fifth round).

  • Seattle Seahawks: Thomas Rawls will be the lead RB for the Seahawks, but with their poor offensive line, he’s a boom-bust RB2 with a fourth-round value at most. He’ll also be sharing the backfield with C.J. Prosise and Alex Collins. Seattle’s SoS is pretty average at 18th best so it won’t come into play.

  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Buccaneers have the seventh toughest SoS in 2017. Doug Martin’s PED suspension could lead to his release by the team (for money reasons). If he’s not released, he’s a high-end RB2 (when he’s on the field) worthy of a fourth-round pick or so. Charles Sims, the receiving back, is a RB2 if he starts and a RB3 as the secondary option giving him a good sixth round value.

  • Tennessee Titans: DeMarco Murray benefited from a great run blocking line and he could feast again next year, as the Titans have the fourth best SoS. He’s a solid RB1 with first-round value arguably. Derrick Henry is more of a low end RB3 as his inconsistent usage makes him boom-bust. But his role as Murray’s handcuff gives him a sixth round value. 

  • Washington Redskins: Matt Jones was the starter until he was injured, and Rob Kelley had a strong second half to make his case for the starter role. The Redskins might approach this as a committee to start the season, since both ran well (though Jones had a higher ypc). The Redskins also have the second worst SoS, in addition the committee, so Jones and Kelley are RB3s in the sixth round for me.

Many teams still have a very murky running back situation that will clear up as the 2017 season gets closer. Specifically, it’s worth noticing how the Baltimore Ravens, Carolina Panthers, Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers manage their rosters and depth charts. But until then, there’s not much for owners to do in fantasy football. Enjoy the NFL playoffs, and may the best team win!

Edited by Joe Sparacio, Emily Greitzer, Vincent Choy.

SQuiz
Which team's defense allowed the fewest rushing yards in the 2016 NFL season?
Created 1/17/17
  1. Dallas Cowboys
  2. Seattle Seahawks
  3. Baltimore Ravens
  4. New York Giants

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