News & Analysis

Running backs to target in best-ball leagues

CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 8: Joe Mixon #28 of the Cincinnati Bengals avoids a tackle by Greg Mabin #31 of the Buffalo Bills to score a touchdown during the fourth quarter at Paul Brown Stadium on October 8, 2017 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Cincinnati defeated Buffalo 20-16. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Season-long fantasy football mock drafts have resurfaced, but these way-too-early drafts no longer have to be for fun. The emergence of “best ball” fantasy football leagues have changed the game. Now, fantasy football enthusiasts get a chance to be rewarded for the most important day of their season-long fantasy football season — the draft. Best-ball leagues feature the skill of fantasy football players on draft day. Those managers who rely on the waiver wire or trades are not rewarded in best-ball leagues. Instead, a manager drafts a full team with a deep roster (including several bench players at each position), and in the best-ball format, the optimal lineup based on your entire roster is used in any given week. The eventual winner of any best ball league is the manager with the most total points after the regular season is over. For a further breakdown on general best-ball strategies, Tyler Loechner has you covered.

Today, we are breaking down the best running backs to target in best-ball leagues based on the different factors that come into play when targeting the position in best-ball scoring. The two main hosts, Draft and MFL, have different scoring settings. On Draft, running back scoring is more touchdown-heavy (with 0.5 PPR scoring), while MFL rewards more consistent passing-game volume (with full-point PPR scoring). We are also looking to target a different style of running back in best-ball vs. season long because we are not forced to make an educated guess on when we should start a player. Players who are inconsistent week-to-week but put up big numbers on occasion get a major boost in best-ball formats. Players with major talent/upside but an uncertain role can also get a major boost (see: Alvin Kamara, who was selected near or after the 14th round in best-ball leagues last season). Here’s our look at the top best-ball backs in 2018.

Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

Mixon’s rookie season didn’t go according to plan after he displayed the ability to impact the game as both a receiver out of the backfield and independent of his blocking (forced missed tackles and yards after contact) at Oklahoma. Before we call him a bust, though, it’s important to detail the Cincinnati Bengals offensive line collapse. The Bengals finished as our No. 26 unit overall in run-blocking in 2017. They have since added Cordy Glenn at left tackle and plug-and-play first-round center Billy Price to the offensive line. Mixon finished as one of the most efficient pass-catching running backs in the NFL last season with the ninth-highest yards per route run (1.83) among qualified backs. Mixon was impressive in the passing game despite seeing just 34 targets (39th-most) and running 157 snaps in route (43rd-most). Those volume numbers should significantly rise and help add weekly consistency and upside. Mixon is currently being drafted slightly higher on MFL than Draft, which makes sense when you consider the projected jump in receiving volume.

Jay Ajayi, Philadelphia Eagles

Ajayi has finished as one of PFF’s best running backs independent of his blocking each of the last two year, finishing near the top of the list in forced missed tackles and yards after contact per attempt. Fantasy owners will shy away from Ajayi due to Eagles head coach Doug Pederson’s tendency to feature a multitude of running backs, but it’s important to note the Eagles passed on selecting a running back in the first two days of the draft. In best-ball leagues, you don’t have to worry about the weeks where Ajayi doesn’t score or isn’t featured in the offensive game plan. Ajayi is being selected slightly higher on Draft than MFL — that’s correct, considering the touchdown upside in the Eagles offense.

Lamar Miller, Houston Texans

Miller may no longer the flashy back with jaw-dropping breakaway ability (per our advanced stats) that he was when he first joined the Texans, but he doesn't have to be. Houston avoided the running back position this offseason and it’s fair to wonder if 2017 draft pick D’Onta Foreman is ready for a massive workload after tearing his Achilles in the back half of last season. High-volume running backs who are involved in the passing game and play on a potentially high-scoring offense are often the best players to target in the middle rounds of best-ball leagues. Miller is being drafted almost 20 picks later in MFL (No. 75 overall) than Draft (No. 58 overall), as drafters have clearly been fatigued by Miller’s recent disappointing seasons. Miller finished with the fourth-most snaps among all running backs in 2017 — you can’t usually find volume like this in this range of your drafts.

Dion Lewis, Tennessee Titans

The Titans don’t jump off the screen as the best fit for Lewis after leaving New England, but he makes for a very interesting target in best-ball leagues. Lewis has always been one of PFF’s top backs when it comes to elusive rating (which utilizes forced missed tackles and yards after contact) and he has been very efficient as a receiver (both in yards per route run and his grade). The Patriots didn’t use him very often as a receiver out of the backfield, but that should change after new Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur found success with Todd Gurley in the passing game last season. Lewis is coming off the board just a few picks after Ajayi. If Derrick Henry gets hurt, Lewis is going to win you a best-ball league.

Jerick McKinnon, San Francisco 49ers

McKinnon continues to be drafted much later than we expected this offseason after he joined the perfect fit in San Francisco with offensive play-caller Kyle Shanahan. One look at Carlos Hyde’s unexpected breakout 2017 season in the passing game combined with McKinnon’s breakout 2017 season in the passing game should have owners licking their chops when projecting his first season with the 49ers. Adding first-round offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey, a mauler in the run game, can only help McKinnon’s stock. The 49ers’ decision to not use any premium draft picks at the running back position is what sold us on McKinnon as one of our top targets overall at any position. MFL players are more aware of McKinnon’s upside, as he is currently coming off the board at No. 38 overall, but you can still get him (on average) at No. 78 overall on Draft. That is what we call printing money.

Ty Montgomery, Green Bay Packers

Whoever gets the best-ball dart throw that is the Packers backfield correct will have an excellent shot to win their league. That’s how important it is to find the running back in Aaron Rodgers’ offense. We’re going with the least-publicized option in drafts right now, but also the same player who had a large crew of analysts licking their chops over him last August. Montgomery’s ability to create yardage on his own (elusive rating) was impressive during his 2016 season, but injuries derailed his 2017 season. After returning as a stronger player this offseason, his upside in the passing game and red zone (where he has been surprisingly efficient his entire career) make him an excellent bet in the late-12th round where he is currently coming off the board.

Tarik Cohen, Chicago Bears

It’s up to you to decide if you believe the rumors about the Bears shopping Jordan Howard this offseason, but if they were true, it says a lot about what the team expects from Cohen moving forward. In 2017, Cohen forced 33 missed tackles on just 140 total touches. He also finished with the best breakaway percentage, racking up seven rushing attempts of 15-plus yards on just 87 carries. In addition to his ability independent from his blocking, Cohen finished with the 10th-most yards per route run at the RB position. Cohen is the perfect best-ball back and you can get him at No. 97 overall in Draft and about 20 picks earlier in MFL.

Chris Thompson, Washington Redskins

Thompson may be a rich man’s version of Cohen when you consider the expected volume increase. Although the Redskins drafted Derrius Guice at running back, they have already made it clear he won’t cut into Thompson’s role on third downs. Transitioning from Kirk Cousins to Alex Smith may actually help Thompson, as the latter is one of the most efficient passers when targeting the running back position. Thompson’s production may be difficult to predict week-to-week, but that doesn’t hurt you in this format.

Marshawn Lynch, Oakland Raiders

Lynch is a forgotten man in offseason drafts thus far despite finishing with a very productive 2017 season by the advanced metrics. When you factor in new head coach Jon Gruden’s public commitment to Lynch, and the team’s decision to pass on adding any running back other than Doug Martin this offseason, he adds up to be a high-upside best-ball play due to volume and touchdown-scoring upside. Lynch is the perfect player to target in DraftT instead of MFL due to his questionable role in the passing game and his potential to score a lot of touchdowns. Lynch is coming off the board around the beginning of the 10th round in both formats.

Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts

If you’re looking for a dart throw at the running back position to place at the end of your MFL or Draft rosters, look no further than Hines. The former track star who ran a 4.38 40-yard dash can also play football and his best attribute is his ability in the passing game. The Colts’ offseason at running back consisted of adding Hines and losing Frank Gore. Counting on Marlon Mack for a high-volume role is not wise, and if Hines can carve out a rotational role in an offense the could feature Andrew Luck, he is the perfect late-round pick. He is coming off the board around pick No. 200 overall on both Draft and MFL.

Kerryon Johnson, Detroit Lions

Johnson was selected early in the second round after the team traded up eight spots to get him. With Ameer Abdullah an annual disappointment, there’s no reason not to expect Johnson to have every opportunity to prove deserving of a high-volume role in a Lions offense that enters year three with an offensive coordinator they’ve found a great deal of consistency under. Johnson is coming off the board 15 picks later in Draft, but even on MFL, he’s a 12th-round pick. Johnson could be the Alvin Kamara-esque league winner if what he showed as a receiver at Auburn translates to the NFL.

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