1. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals:
The second-year running back out of Northern Iowa University put up monster numbers on his way to his first career Pro Bowl selection in 2016. The six foot one inch, 224-pound RB finished seventh in the ’16 NFL regular season with 1,239 rushing yards and had the second-most rushing scores with 16. David led all running backs with 80 receptions on 120 targets and added four more touchdowns through the air. Showing incredible durability, Johnson started all 16 regular season games and averaged over 23 touches a game. With only one other RB on the roster having any previous significant experience in Andre Ellington, Johnson looks to shoulder the vast bulk of the touches out of Arizona’s backfield once again. Speaking at the NFC Coaches’ breakfast at the annual League meetings in March, Cardinals’ Head Coach Bruce Arians said he wanted 30 touches a game out of his third-year back. Even better news for your PPR team? Arian’s wants to reduce the number of carries for David and use him even more in the passing game. Arizona will use the dynamic Johnson as a wide receiver, coming out of the backfield, in the slot, as well as in the running game. Johnson is assured of being the number one running back drafted, and should be the number one overall fantasy pick in your league. 2017 prediction: 1,011 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns, 96 receptions for 1,055 yards and six td’s.
2. LeVeon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers:
When Steelers running back LeVeon Bell left the AFC Championship game with a groin injury early in the first quarter against the New England Patriots, it quickly became apparent just how integral Bell is to the Pittsburgh offense. Bell’s replacement, Deangelo Williams, managed just 34 yards on 14 carries against the Pats. This was following Bell’s combined total of 337 yards rushing yards on 59 carries over the Steeler’s first two playoff games of 2016. That huge drop-off prompted Pittsburgh to select running back James Conner in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, in hopes of having a more capable backup to Bell. Despite that selection, Bell will remain the focus for the Steelers offense, though he will probably average slightly less than the 22 carries a game he posted in ’16. In only 12 regular 2016 games (three games missed due to suspension, one to rest) LeVeon carried 261 times for 1,268 yards and 7 touchdowns and finished as the third highest-scoring RB in Yahoo PPR leagues. LeVeon displayed an incredible patience, vision and acceleration in averaging 4.9 yards a carry. With Antonio Brown being the only consistent threat in the Pittsburgh receiving corps, Bell will again see plenty of passes thrown his way. In his shortened 2016 season, Bell posted 75 receptions on 94 targets (his 8 targets a game were second on the team) for 616 yards and two touchdowns. Throughout the season, the Steelers experimented with lining Bell up as a receiver in the slot, so it would not be a surprise to see both Conner and Bell on the field at the same time. The Patriots game showed that the Steelers offense will only go as far as Bell can take them, regardless of what Big Ben and Antonio can do. Conner may take some goal-line carries away, dropping Bell’s rushing td total this year, but in a PPR league, Bell should still be the second running back drafted. Don’t be worried about his absence from OTA’s, Bell will show up for training camp and play under the Franchise Tag. 2017 prediction: 1,345 rushing yards, 5 touchdowns, 82 receptions, 725 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
3. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys:
As a rookie in 2016, Zeke Elliott set the football world afire by teaming with fellow rookie QB Dak Prescott to lead the Dallas Cowboys to a 13-3 record and a NFC East Title. The rookie running back from Ohio State led the NFL in carries and rushing yards, gaining 1,631 yards on 322 rushes. He finished third in the League with 15 rushing td’s and added 32 receptions for 363 yards with another score. The first-year back showed incredible durability, not missing a game due to injury while averaging over 23 touches a game (he sat week 17 to rest for the upcoming playoffs), displaying the ability to hold up to the grueling demands of a true bell-cow running back. 2017 looks to be more of the same; despite the loss of Cowboys Guard Ronald Leary in free-agency and Doug Free’s retirement, the Dallas O-line will continue to be a major strength, and probably one of the NFL’s best yet again. As Prescott gets another year to grow in the offense, the Dallas passing game will be even more formidable, forcing defenses to respect the pass, thereby ensuring the box is not loaded to stop Elliott. The Cowboy’s organization has made no indication they plan on reducing Zeke’s work-load in 2017, and owner Jerry Jones even hinted they may use Elliot more in the passing game. When Jones was speaking to reporters at a golf outing in May, he raved about Ezekiel’s hands and said he hoped to use the RB more as a receiver. With Dallas letting pass-catching specialist Lance Dunbar sign with the Rams, there is no other 3rd-down option back on the roster, cementing Elliott’s position as an every-down player for the ’17 season. 2017 Prediction: 1,600 rushing yards, 10 td’s, 43 receptions, 463 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
4. Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins:
At the start of the 2016 season, it looked like Jay Ajayi’s sophomore NFL campaign would be a bust. After reportedly being left behind in Miami as the Dolphin’s traveled to Seattle for the season opener due to a poor attitude, Ajayi’s role as a backup to newly-signed Arian Foster, and even his place on the roster was in serious doubt. But when the Foster experiment failed after just four weeks, Ajayi was thrust into the starting job, and he responded big time. In his second career start in a week 6 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the rookie out of Boise State carried 25 times for 204 yards and two touchdowns, including a 62-yarder. It was the first of three-200 yard games on the year for Ajayi, and he finished with 1,272 yards on 260 carries and 8 td’s. Jay was a factor in the passing game too, as he totaled 151 yards on 27 receptions. The second-year back showed great power throughout the season, displaying an innate ability to gain yards on runs inside the tackles. In a series of Tweets, Pro Football Focus credited Ajayi with 29 broken tackles on runs in between the tackles, the most in the NFL, and an average of 3.46 yards after contact per rushing attempt, also tops in the League. Ajayi wasn’t just a power back, as his 4.57 second 40-yard dash time at the NFL combine translated to the playing field, which according to numbers from PFF, allowed him to gain the 5th-most rushing yards in the NFL in ’16 on runs outside the tackles, with 639. Now that the Dolphins have fully realized what they have in the former 5th-round selection, they will look to give the ball to the “J-Train” even more in 2017. Appearing on 560-WQAM Sports Radio, Miami Head Coach Adam Gase said he wants to give Ajayi 22-25 carries a game, amounting to over 350 carries during the course of a 16 game season. Multiple reports have Jay placing a focus during the off-season on improving his skills without the ball in his hands, skills such as pass-blocking, route-running and catching the ball. This, along with Miami’s Offensive Coordinator Clyde Christensen’s comments that Ajayi has definitely improved as a receiver, indicates that Jay could be a full-time, three-down back for the Dolphins in ’17. 2017 Prediction: 1,568 rushing yards, 9 td’s, 33 receptions, 237 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns.
5. Ty Montgomery, Green Bay Packers:
When the Packers let Eddy Lacy sign as a free agent with the Seattle Seahawks and cut Christine Michaels and James Starks, it essentially sealed the deal that Ty Montgomery would become Green Bay’s starter and full-time running back for the upcoming year. Already having enjoyed a breakout 2016 season where he split duties at wide receiver and tailback, this will be the first offseason Ty can focus entirely on learning the running back position. Running entirely on “instinct” as Montgomery told the Packers’ website, the second year Pro out of Stanford accounted for 3 scoring runs and 457 rushing yards on 77 carries (a 5.9 yard average!) to go along with 44 catches on 56 targets for 348 yards. All of this came after he had been drafted as a wide receiver in the 3rd round of the 2015 NFL draft and was buried on the receiving depth chart to open 2016. After being moved to running back in week 6 of 2016 due to injuries, Montgomery showed natural instincts as a runner with unexpected strength and an incredible versatility due to his speed and experience in running routes. Pro Football Focus touted Montgomery as the league leader with an average of 7.05 yards after contact outside the tackles. Ty proved to be a tough matchup for opposing defenses, strong enough to be a threat in the running game and too fast for linebackers to cover in the passing game. Montgomery posted two games with 10 receptions and had a 162 yard rushing performance with two scores against the Chicago Bears in week 15. After being forced to play the receiver spot weighing around 210 pounds, the running back has bulked up to 220 in hopes of being able to handle the extra punishment that will come with additional carries. Green Bay did select three other RB’s in the 2016 draft, so don’t expect a 250-plus carry season for Ty, but he should be counted on to double his carries from ’16 and will remain a dangerous outlet out of the backfield for Aaron Rodgers. Now that he has the time to learn the finer points and techniques of the position, I expect a big year for the third-year back. 2017 Prediction: 783 rushing yards, 5 td’s, 78 receptions for 702 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Next level options:
Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears
LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
Danny Woodhead, Baltimore Ravens
Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers