PITTSBURGH, PA – DECEMBER 30: James Conner #30 of the Pittsburgh Steelers in action during the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field on December 30, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

It is never too early to start planning for the next fantasy football draft. At this point, most free agents have signed with their new teams, and only minor changes in rankings will occur for players. Unlike the past few seasons, there are no top running backs projected in this year’s rookie draft class. That means it is the perfect time to start ranking out running backs to target for the next fantasy season.

This is part two of a four-part series that separates the running back class into four tiers and counts down to the top back.

Pre-Draft Running Back Rankings: Tier Four

Pre-Draft Running Back Rankings: Tier Three

16. Damien Williams

Kansas City Chiefs running back Damien Williams could be one of the highest risk/reward backs this season. Coming into 2018, Williams was the number three back on the roster. However, after Kareem Hunt was cut by the Chiefs for an off-field incident, he moved up the depth chart quickly. Spencer Ware initially took over the starting job, starting weeks 13 and 14. However, he was injured in week 14, and Williams took over from there.

Williams performed much better than expectations. In two of three regular-season games he started, he had over 100 yards from scrimmage. In two postseason games, Williams put up 154 yards, and then 99 scrimmage yards. He certainly looks the part, but there are a few things that might hold him.

The most obvious question is Williams’ lack of playing time. Since he has only started five games, there are questions on how he will handle a full season workload. In fact, Williams might not even get a full workload, since the Chiefs also signed Carlos Hyde. Hyde looked good during his time with the San Francisco 49ers, but he was often injured.

Hyde signed with the Cleveland Browns in the last offseason but was traded the Jacksonville Jaguars midway through the season. He looked good during his time with the Browns but was ineffective with the Jaguars. A lot of Williams workload will depend on what version of Hyde shows up to the Chiefs. If he looks good, this could quickly become a running back by committee (RBBC), limiting Williams’ potential.

15. Derrick Henry

Midway through last season, Derrick Henry was starting to look like a bust for the Tennessee Titans. At week eight, Henry was ranked as the RB49 in standard scoring leagues, averaging a measly 5.5 points-per-game. However, Dion Lewis wasn’t doing much better. He was the RB35, and barely rosterable.

However, Henry had an awakening towards the end of the season. From weeks nine to 17, Henry shot up to the RB4 ranking. However, he really didn’t break out until week 14. Henry made the Jaguars defense look like a pop-warner team, bulldozing through them for 238 yards and four touchdowns.

He continued his destruction the week after, running over the New York Giants defense for 170 yards and two touchdowns.

Henry came back down to earth to end the season, but still had at least 90 yards from scrimmage the final two weeks. Still, one must wonder just how Henry will do coming into next season. 408 of 1,059 yards rushing came in weeks 14 and 15 as well as six of his 12 touchdowns. Henry could pick up right where he left off at the end of the season, or he could average out. The more likely result is averaging out.

14. Leonard Fournette

Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette has been making headlines since last season, but not for his play on the field. It started with Fournette getting injured in week one’s game against the Giants. However, that would be the least of his worries.

He was suspended week 13 for fighting in a game the week before. From there he was largely ineffective, not rushing for more than 50 yards in a game. He would miss week 17 with an injury again and was later blasted by Tom Coughlin for looking disinterested in the game. But it didn’t end after the season either. Recently, Fournette was arrested for knowingly driving on a suspended license.

Will a fresh start to the 2019 season be what Fournette needs to get back on track? He certainly looked the part as a rookie, rumbling to 1,040 yards and ten total touchdowns in 13 games. If Fournette can stay healthy and take care of his off-field transgressions, he has top-ten potential. However, until further notice, he sits at the number 14 spot for the risk involved with drafting him.

13. Dalvin Cook

Speaking of injuries, Dalvin Cook is another back that dealt with injuries in his first few seasons. As a former second-round pick for the Minnesota Vikings, Cook started the 2017 season looking great. In his first four games, he totaled over 400 yards. However, he tore his ACL and missed the remainder of the year. His woes continued in 2018, with him experiencing various other injuries. He only appeared in ten games.

His results were mixed. He compiled 615 rushing yards and 305 receiving yards, but only four touchdowns. He had a 4.6-yard-per-carry average but was still rather inconsistent. Five of the ten games he appeared in, he had less than 50 yards on the ground. His two rushing touchdowns both came in the same game, which also happened to be the only game he went over 100 yards rushing for the season.

Like Fournette, Cook has the potential for a top-ten season. His injury history makes him such a risky pick though. But, unlike Fournette, at least he doesn’t have other issues to worry about. Players who take a chance on him may be rewarded, as he has as high a ceiling from week to week as any running back.

12. Devonta Freeman

Devonta Freeman comes back from injury in 2019 after playing on two games in 2018. He also looks to have the backfield all to himself after Tevin Coleman defected to the San Francisco 49ers. Freeman has been trending downward the past few years but has still been a great runner when he’s on the field. In 2015, he finished as the RB1 in standard leagues. In 2017, he was the RB13 after appearing in 14 games.

So what can fantasy players expect from him in 2019? Probably about the same as his last healthy season. Freeman is a multi-dimensional rusher who can also catch out of the backfield. After he went down, Coleman slid into his role, and then Ito Smith took on the number two back duties. Though Coleman looked solid, he didn’t quite fill Freeman’s shoes. And, Smith was a downgrade from Coleman.

This means that even if the Atlanta Falcons try to put Smith into Coleman’s role again next season, the one-two punch that they had with Freeman and Coleman won’t be there. This could mean an increase in Freeman’s carries. However, expecting is a top-ten finish from Freeman is still risky since there are still some better options ahead of him.

11. Phillip Lindsay

Coming into 2018, there was a hype train being built around Royce Freeman. Some were calling him the next Kareem Hunt: a mid-round running back who was set to burst out onto the scene. However, Phillip Lindsay ended up being the surprise star.

Lindsay is a hometown kid who was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Denver Broncos. From the first week of the season, it was obvious that Lindsay had talent. Lindsay rushed for seven yards, and then put up another 31 yards receiving. The week after, he rushed for 107 yards. Still, he didn’t get his first start until week eight. Despite that, he managed over 1,000 yards rushing on the season even while missing week 17.

Lindsay comes into his second season as the clear-cut running back. He will still share the backfield with Freeman, which could cost him a top-ten spot, but he should still put up plenty of points.

10. David Johnson

One of the bigger disappointments of 2018 was Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson. After putting up one of the greatest fantasy seasons ever in 2016, Johnson basically missed the entire 2017 season after breaking his hand in week one. Since it wasn’t any type of lower body injury, Johnson was expected to come back as good as ever for 2018. However, that didn’t happen.

Johnson was grossly underutilized last season, with the team inexplicably refusing to get him involved in the passing game. It also seemed like every play call had him running up the gut, rather than using his speed around the edges. His utilization improved after offensive coordinator Mike McCoy was fired, but not by much.

Still, despite a disappointing season from Johnson, he still finished as the RB10 in standard leagues, so he wasn’t terrible. He had almost 1,400 yards from scrimmage, which at this point seems like his floor. Johnson is a safe pick as the tenth running back off the board, but no doubt he still has the potential to be the RB1. There’s a chance he rewards the one who drafts him nicely.

9. James Conner

When Le’Veon Bell decided to sit out for the season, many were skeptical about backup James Conner. He was drafted in the later rounds of fantasy drafts last season because no one knew how long he would start. Instead of helping Bell’s case for sitting out, he ended up hurting it with his great performance last year.

Even with missing three games during last season, Conner finished as the RB7, averaging a healthy 17.3 points per game in standard leagues. He fell just shy of 1,000 yards on the ground but showed he can do it all like Bell, racking up 497 yards receiving. He also had a knack for the end zone, finding pay dirt 13 times.

8. Joe Mixon

The final entry on the tier two list is Joe Mixon of the Cincinnati Bengals. Mixon still put up a top ten season last year despite the pieces around him falling apart all season. He missed two games himself with injury, and then players around him started going down.

Star wide receiver A.J. Green was lost for the year after week eight. (He came back week 13 to catch one pass, but his toe injury was still bothering him.) Quarterback Andy Dalton went down with a thumb an injury. Tyler Boyd was having a breakout year before he too was lost late in the season.

Basically, Mixon was the last man standing by the end of year and had to do it all himself. With a full cast to support him, he should pick up right where he left off from.

Last Word on Tier Two’s Pre-Draft Fantasy Running Back Rankings

Many of the running backs in tier two are players with tier one potential but have questions on their usage or health. Most have the potential to finish much higher than their ADP if things go right for them. Be sure to stay tuned in for the final installment of the pre-draft running back rankings.

Pre-Draft Running Back Rankings: Tier Four

Pre-Draft Running Back Rankings: Tier Three

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