First let's look at the 2015 Top-10 running backs in fantasy points per game:
With the amount of running back injuries we had in 2015, we knew this list would look odd with four running backs playing less than six games. But I don't think the Top-10 per-game running backs explains enough of the picture. So let's check out Nos. 11-20:
A single running back is no longer the focus of any offense, well, the Vikings maybe. This season, there were five running backs who had 250 or more carries, compared to eight in 2014, 11 in 2013, 14 in 2012, 12 in 2011 and 11 in 2010. There were a crazy 17 in 2004, 2005 and 2006, and 19 in 2002. This won't be a huge shock to anyone, but it's a fact of the NFL now.
That brings us to the question, how do we decide which running backs to pick and where should we draft them? This is what we decided at the beginning of the 2015 season. The Top-10 ADP for running backs:
There were some misses to be sure, but it's tough to see big holes in the logic that went into our draft preferences. It's just tougher to pick running backs than it used to be. Does that mean you don't try to find those top guys? No, they are scarce and you want to be the one that rosters them, and not every season will be as full of injuries as this one. But, I have no qualms at all with going for a safer wide receiver option before you try for a top running back in fantasy drafts. There is still scarcity at wide receiver, and the top guys don't split work and don't get as injured as often.
But let's take a look at the running backs who have a shot at leading you to championships next season.
Le'Veon Bell, RB, Steelers
Bell is easily the No. 1 running back in fantasy when healthy. He's an electric runner, pass catcher and on a team that moves the ball well and scores a lot of points. The trouble so far in his career has been injuries and a suspension. I'm in no way worried about another suspension, but of course, another injury is always a possibility. Bell's upside should drown out any talk of injuries though.
His numbers speak for themselves. Over the last two seasons, through 22 games, he's run the ball 403 times for 1,917 yards (4.76 yards per carry) for 11 touchdowns and has 107 receptions for 990 yards and three touchdowns. So on average, he's putting up 132.1 total yards and .5 touchdowns on 18.3 carries and 4.9 receptions per game.
Will his injury slow him down? I suppose there is a chance of that happening, but Bell's become a very good runner without using top speed, and with the Steelers' offense, we saw DeAngelo Williams, who is in his 60s, do extremely well this season.
Todd Gurley, RB, Rams
Gurley is close to Bell, but his team's offense is painful to watch, and in turn, painful for him as he plows into stacked fronts. But thankfully, Gurley's just too good not to pile up fantasy stats, especially on a team with a strong defense that is willing to run him often. He averaged 20 touches per game (not counting his first game when he was being eased back), and that includes a couple odd games when the Rams were blown out and he averaged nine touches. They were still figuring out how to use him, and after those two especially bad games, he scored four touchdowns in the final three games, finishing the season with 10 in 12 full games. He's going to be a touchdown machine and should improve as a receiver. Even at their most mediocre, the Los Angeles Rams should be able to give him enough work that his natural ability will make him a top running back from here on out.
Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings
Peterson, at times, didn't seem as explosive this season, but the 30-year-old back put up almost identical stats to his amazing career average. His 4.5 yards per carry tied for his second-lowest average, but that number was still fourth for all running backs with over 200 carries, and he led all running backs in carries with 327. Doug Martin was second with 288 and Latavius Murray was third with 266, just to show you how exceptional Peterson's total carries were this season.
Peterson was also the no-doubt motor of the Vikings. Teddy Bridgewater ranked 22nd in total passing yards and 32nd in passing yards per game, while Peterson was first in rushing yards and averaged 92.8 rushing yards per game. He will again be needed next season to keep the offense going, but will probably continue to lose some work to Jerick McKinnon, who has been outstanding in limited work. But I almost see McKinnon's ability as a plus. The Vikings need offense to get them to the goal line, where much of Peterson's value comes from, and McKinnon adds a receiving dimension that Peterson just doesn't have.
Jamaal Charles, RB, Chiefs
The last time Charles tore his ACL, he came back the next season and rushed for 1,509 yards, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Of course, he was 26 years old then, and now he'll be 30 going into next season, but this man has never had a season where he averaged less than five yards per carry! And in 2015, he was still dominant, with 541 total yards and five touchdowns through five games.
Will he be the same player at 30 years old, coming off a torn ACL? I can't answer that, but how about a player who averages 4.5 yards per carry instead of five-plus? That's not the same player, but it's a pretty darn good one, and this Kansas City team is also pretty darn good. These Chiefs are well-balanced, and they'll continue to get him touches and scoring opportunities. So, I'm still on board until he shows me I shouldn't be.
David Johnson, RB, Cardinals
This is a scary place for the soon-to-be second-year player, but his upside in this Cardinals' offense is extreme. We often seem to get trapped by a player putting up huge numbers in limited work one season and then not being able to then keep those numbers going as a starter, but Johnson was able to take on the starting job and a full workload at the end of this season after Chris Johnson got hurt and put up strong numbers. Unlike Andre Ellington's 5-foot-9, 199-pound frame, Johnson is 6-foot-1, 224 pounds and more capable of handling a 20-plus touches per game.
For the season, Johnson put up some crazy numbers. On just 161 touches, he totaled 1,038 yards and nine touchdowns. Long term, he is most likely going to be a better receiver than between the tackles back, but he has the frame to handle that work and the speed to break long-gainers when he's given a crease. The Cardinals' offense will continue to give him room to run, as their passing game is one of the best, if not the best, in the league and his receiving ability puts him in rarified company, as he'll be hard to sit on third and long.
Lamar Miller, RB, Dolphins
Miller most likely won't be back with the Dolphins, but wherever he does end up should use him better than Miami did. On the season, he averaged just 12 rushing attempts and less than four targets per game. And even with such horrid usage, he still finished with the sixth-most fantasy points for running backs.
Of course, we need to wait to see where Miller ends up, but I like his ability enough to bet on him in most situations where a team is going to put up the money for him in free agency.
Thomas Rawls, RB, Seahawks
This and all the other rankings are contingent on a lot of offseason moves, but I don't see how Seattle keeps Marshawn Lynch another season. Rawls is cheap and good, while Lynch is expensive and getting old fast. The Seahawks would add $6.5 million to their salary cap if they cut Lynch, while Rawls is set to make just $525 thousand next season and $615 thousand in 2017. It's, of course, no mortal lock that Lynch's cut, but I think there is a good chance he is and that vaults Rawls into being a top-10 running back on a team like the Seahawks.
Rawls also put up insane numbers in limited work before getting hurt, averaging a crazy 5.6 yards per carry on 147 carries. His style is a lot like Lynch's, and with Russell Wilson opening up the passing game in the second half this season, Rawls should have plenty of holes to run through, with a lot of carries to ice games with leads in the fourth quarter during 2016.
Mark Ingram, RB, Saints
Ingram was a strong fantasy player all season, averaging the ninth-most fantasy points per game through 12 games. His usage was good, as he averaged 98 total yards on four receptions and 14 rushing attempts per game. His six touchdown total held back his fantasy numbers, but he was the preferred goal-line back and that number for a whole season would have been more, while there is upside for even more next year, as Ingram wasn't even there for the strong surge by Drew Brees during the final four games of 2015.
Ingram averaged a nice 4.6 yards per carry and even though Tim Hightower came on strong as his replacement, the efficiency was not there as Hightower averaged 3.9 yards per carry. Hightower's numbers were built on an average of 24 touches in the last four games. He'll be 30 going into next season, while Ingram will just be 26. There is no way Ingram loses his job, and if he can get in on some of that 24 touch-per-game action next season, well, he'll dominate in fantasy. I doubt that happens, but I'll take the 18 per game in a good offense and be happy.
Devonta Freeman, RB, Falcons
Is Freeman a lock as long as he stays healthy? No, sir. His great fantasy numbers are partially due to his insane run of touchdowns Weeks 2 through 6, when he scored nine and then finished the season with 11 total. Freeman averaged just four yards per carry and was underwhelming with bulk ground work for much of the season. So why do I have him so high? Well, he caught 73 passes and averaged nearly five receptions per game, and I don't see those receptions going away next season.
LeSean McCoy, RB, Bills
McCoy was not what we wanted him to be this season, but if you take out the two games in which he left with an injury and the four he missed due to those injuries, he averaged 97.5 yards per game and had a decent 4.4 yards per carry. But the real reason I still like him for this season is he in no way looked done to me.
After Chip Kelly unloaded him on the Bills, I figured back-to-back 300-plus carry seasons had slowed McCoy down too much, but from what I saw of him when healthy this year, he was making the same moves and had the same burst as before. Add in the fact that Tyrod Taylor's ability to run will help whomever is the lead back in Buffalo and I'm going to double down on Shady this year.