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Early-Round Fantasy Running Backs: Knowing who to Target

The fantasy football draft clock begins at pick one, but pick four is where the real decision making begins. Running backs one through three are almost a certainty to succeed if they remain healthy all season. Christian McCaffreySaquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott remain the three safest early-round running backs; but who should we be taking after pick four?  

Because players in the same tier are similarly skilled, I looked to the schedule to differentiate which early-round running backs have the path of least resistance.

Using this method, I was able to draft three top 10 RBs before their average draft positions in 2019.

Joe Mixon
Credit: Jeff Hanisch/USA Today Sports

2019 Early Running Back Statistics:

Dalvin Cook, Chris Carson and Mark Ingram had easy 2019 regular-season and playoff strength of schedule to start the year.

Dalvin Cook MIN  SOS: 6 O-Line: 24 Off Eff: 17 Playoff SOS: 7 easiest

Chris Carson SEA  SOS: 9 O-Line: 17 Off Eff: 7 Playoff SOS: 14 easiest

Mark Ingram BAL   SOS: 1     O-Line: 6       Off Eff: 21    Playoff SOS: 8 easiest 

When drafting early-round running backs, it’s important to balance easy schedules during the year but also during the playoffs. If you can find a talented player with both, then that’s a win-win. 

I balance belief in their talent, situation, schedule, O-line, and offensive efficiency against all 32 teams. Four early-round running backs stand out as the best regular-season schedules: Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Kenyan Drake, and Austin Ekeler.

2020 Easy SOS for Early-Round Running Backs

Dalvin Cook MIN   SOS: 2   O-Line: 19   Off Eff: 14  Playoff SOS: 31: (31,22,30)

Joe Mixon CIN        SOS: 5   O-Line: 30   Off Eff: 21  Playoff SOS: 21: (17,28,11)

Kenyan Drake ARI SOS: 6  O-Line: 27   Off Eff: 8    Playoff SOS: 30: (16,23,32)

Austin Ekeler LAC SOS: 9  O-Line: 22   Off Eff: 19  Playoff SOS: 26: (24, 9, 27)

After regular-season SOS, I look at week 15 and 16 schedule rankings. The goal is to win the championship and the best way to do that is lineup players with easy week 15 opponents to get you there. 

Defensive rankings change throughout the season, but it helps to get a generalization of how bad the opponent might be.

Cook, Carson and Ingram’s defensive schedule remained easy going into the 2019 playoffs, as I planned during my draft. Their schedules allowed me to overcome a dominant week 15 Lamar Jackson score from my opponent. Schedules matter week to week, so make them matter during the draft. 

My tier 1-4 of early-round running backs:

SOS O-line Off Eff. Playoff Rank: wk: 14,15,16

Christian McCaffrey CAR   28    14         23          (11 playoff: 27, 13, 3)

Saquon Barkley NYG            26     21        27         (15 playoff: 12,10,26)

Ezekiel Elliott DAL               18     4          5           (22 playoff: 4, 32, 23)

Tier 2

Dalvin Cook MIN  2       19        14          (31 playoff: 31,22,30)

Alvin Kamara NO                  31       2          3            (18 playoff: 23, 6, 21)

Clyde Edwards-Helaire KC 24       9          1          (22 playoff: 5, 30, 24)

Tier 3

Austin Ekeler LAC              9            22       19         (26 playoff: 24, 9, 27)

Josh Jacobs LV                     22          11         18         (7 playoff: 25, 8, 5) 

Miles Sanders PHI             17           3          13         (22 playoff: 30,12,17)

Joe Mixon CIN (holdout?)  5            30        21         (21 playoff: 17,28,11)

Kenyan Drake ARI             6             27        8           (30 playoff: 16,23,32)

Aaron Jones GB                   32           8         10          (2 playoff: 7, 1, 15)

Tier 4

Derrick Henry TEN            27           5          9          ( 1 playoff: 2, 7, 13)

Nick Chubb CLE                   4            24         12        (27 playoff: 26,16,20)

Edwards-Helaire is on such a dominant offense it’s impossible to imagine he won’t be successful right out the gate. Ekeler gets a bump up to my seventh favorite early-round RB because of his easy schedule and week 15 opponent. He’s my favorite back to go after in the second. He has the second-lowest ADP and is accessible from most spots in the first two rounds of a snake.

Even though he’s my seventh favorite RB, drafters should still play the ADP game. Draft another early running back with a higher ADP and hope Ekeler falls to your next pick. This allows you to maximize market value and return on investment. The more you mock draft, the more you see who is consistently available at each draft position. 

Luckily, three of my favorite backs outside of the top six, are later ADPs and should be easy running backs to get because of their running back rankings. Josh Jacobs and Miles Sanders are high on my list because of their playoff schedules, even though their regular-season schedule is not as favorable as some of the backs listed above.

Because RB is a shallow position you have to nail at least one, if not two, of these “sure thing” backs in the first two rounds. It’s hard to let top tier WRs go, but the position is deep enough where you can still get unquestionable WR talent in the sixth round, the same can’t be said for RBs.

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