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Who will be the top running back in fantasy football this season?

Using all kinds of data to figure out which of the top running backs in 2019 can be considered ‘opposition proof’.

USA TODAY/Getty Images/Pete Rogers Illustrations

When it comes to the best players in fantasy football, the margins between the top tier players can be extremely fine and who to draft can be a matter of personal preference rather than based on any particular analysis. With this is mind, I wanted to see if there were any edges to be had based on historical matchups and who could be considered “opponent proof”. In the second part of this series, I’ve looked at the current top-12 running backs according to ADP from fantasyfootballcalculator.com and looked back at their last three year PPR scores and grouped those scores against ranked defenses from each of those seasons.

Top 12 Running Backs by ADP 2019

Player Team RB ADP Rank Overall ADP
Player Team RB ADP Rank Overall ADP
Saquon Barkley NYG 1 1.01
Alvin Kamara NO 2 1.03
Ezekiel Elliott DAL 3 1.03
Christian McCaffrey CAR 4 1.03
David Johnson ARI 5 1.06
Melvin Gordon LAC 6 1.06
Le'Veon Bell NYJ 7 1.09
Joe Mixon CIN 8 1.12
James Conner PIT 9 2.02
Todd Gurley LAR 10 2.05
Dalvin Cook MIN 11 2.06
Damien Williams KC 12 2.08

The defense rankings are my own system that I have developed over the past few years, and I have ranked each team by season all the way back to 2007. The rankings are derived from a weighted formula I’ve created that is based on over 20 defensive metrics. The defense rankings for the 2016-2018 seasons are below:

Now that we know the players and the defenses, how have these sorted themselves out when clashed together? Taking the last 3 seasons, the below graph shows the average points per game achieved by each of the top 12 players against the top 10, middle 12 and bottom 12 defenses across those seasons.

So what can we learn? The first I noticed from looking at the data over the past 3 years is that only two of the 12 players being studied have played in every game they have been available for, and neither have more than two years experience in the league: Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley. In fact, 6 of the 12 players have two years or less experience, showing how reliant we are as fantasy players on young running backs to form the backbone of our teams.

In terms of scoring, despite missing last season, Le’Veon Bell was the strongest scorer over the last 3 seasons, averaging 24.56 points per game and finishing as the top scoring player against both top 10 and mid 12 defenses. Over the past 3 years, only Saquon Barkley (81%) faced a higher percentage of top and mid tier defenses than Bell did (78%) so Bell has been incredibly productive whoevere he’s found himself against.

Saquon Barkley is the second highest scorer of the group, even after just one season with an average of 23.99 ppg. In his first season, Barkley faced by far a higher percentage of top 10 defenses than anyone else (56%), so despite worries about the offensive line and the quarterback, he showed generational play in his first season.

McCaffrey by contrast over his first 2 seasons has faced the lowest volume of top 10 defenses, with just 16% (5 of 32) games coming against premier defenses.

At the other end of the scale in terms of scoring we have Damien Williams, who is brought down by limited work in his two years in Miami where he averaged just 6 touches and 7 ppr points per game. After he replaced Kareem Hunt in Kansas City last season, over the last 5 weeks he saw 14 touches per game and averaged 19.94 ppg with 6 total touchdowns.

2019 Schedule

Now we know how these elite players have contributed over the past 3 years, the next step is to look at what might happen in the coming season and how it could affect your decision making in your drafts. I have taken my projected defense rankings for 2019 and applied that to the top 12 players’ schedule to see who has the best and worst chances of success next season.

Top 12 Running Back 2019 Schedule Breakdown

Name Team RB PPR Rank Top 10 Mid 12 Bottom 10
Name Team RB PPR Rank Top 10 Mid 12 Bottom 10
Saquon Barkley NYG 1 5 3 8
Alvin Kamara NO 2 4 6 6
Ezekiel Elliott DAL 3 4 5 7
Christian McCaffrey CAR 4 4 7 5
David Johnson ARI 5 3 8 5
Melvin Gordon LAC 6 5 5 6
Le'Veon Bell NYJ 7 6 5 5
Joe Mixon CIN 8 6 6 4
James Conner PIT 9 4 9 3
Todd Gurley LAR 10 5 7 4
Dalvin Cook MIN 11 4 6 6
Damien Williams KC 12 7 6 3

What it all means for 2019 - Paddi’s Elite Running Back Rankings

Though he has the least experience, Saquon Barkley’s incredible rookie season and projected much softer schedule in 2019, including half of his schedule against projected bottom 10 defenses, Barkley is easily my number one running back for 2019 and deserves his current 1.01 ADP.

Todd Gurley and Damien Williams have me the most nervous with mid second round ADPs. Gurley will always have touchdown upside even if his volume drops in 2019 and Williams as a feature back in an Andy Reid offense could go off but I’m happy to take the L if I go receiver in round 2.

Paddi’s 2019 Elite Running Back Rankings

Name Team Current ADP Rank My 2019 Rank Comment
Name Team Current ADP Rank My 2019 Rank Comment
Saquon Barkley NYG 1 1 Elite talent with a softer schedule and improved offensive line. My clear number 1.
Christian McCaffrey CAR 4 2 Primed to break 2000 all purpose yards with over 100 catches for the second straight season.
Ezekiel Elliott DAL 3 3 Your 2019 rushing champion with a further 70+ catches as the heartbeat of the Dallas offense.
Alvin Kamara NO 2 4 Expect his first 1000 yard rushing season alongside 80+ catches
David Johnson ARI 5 5 Bounceback season for Johnson in a new offense that features running backs in the passing game
Le'Veon Bell NYJ 7 6 Question marks after a season out of the league but will see 375+ touches in 2019
Melvin Gordon LAC 6 7 Any holdout will not effect Gordon's all round ability in a balanced offense
Dalvin Cook MIN 11 8 Cook to bounceback to his pre-injury promise with an improved offensive line in Minnesota
James Conner PIT 9 9 No reason he can't repeat his 1000/500 form from 2018 with one of the best offensive lines returning all starters
Joe Mixon CIN 8 10 Nervous around pieces lost from offensive line and use in the passing game
Todd Gurley LAR 10 11 Massive wildcard with the degenerative knee condition. Could still lead the league in rushing touchdowns
Damien Williams KC 12 12 Small sample size from 2018 not enough to think Williams is a true elite back

Next up, I’ll be looking at the Tight Ends ahead of the 2019 season. You can find me on Twitter @PaddiCooper.