The Pittsburgh Steelers will suffer a loss if running back Le’Veon Bell is indeed suspended the first four games of the season. But in actuality, assuming 33-year-old DeAngelo Williams is up to the task to start again, the loss could be minimal.
It’s fantasy owners that will feel the wrath of Bell’s suspension much harder than the Steelers.
Just a couple weeks ago, Fantasy Pros ranked Bell the top fantasy running back, and he was even in the conversation for top overall player. Since the suspension, though, he’s dropped to seventh at his position and 17th overall on the not-so-early training camp fantasy rankings at Fantasy Pros.
It will be interesting to discuss if Bell should indeed fall that far or if he would be a value pick up earlier than 17th overall, but that’s for another time. Owners who want to take a running back early in the first round must now look outside the Steelers backfield for answers.
Assuming Bell does not win his suspension appeal, here are the top three running backs to consider taking first overall at the position. There are plenty of pros and cons with all three, so it’s going to be a very tough decision.
Todd Gurley, Los Angeles
Gurley moves up to the No. 1 RB spot with Bell out for the first four games. He is currently ranked the fourth overall player and has a 3.0 ADP on Fantasy Pros’ training camp rankings.
As a rookie, Gurley rushed for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns. After his first four starts, he was averaging 6.43 yards per carry, but he hit a rookie wall as that average dropped to 4.83. Gurley had just one 100-yard game in the final eight weeks, but he stayed fantasy relevant by averaging over a touchdown per week.
The one knock on Gurley is his receiving ability. He only had 21 catches for 188 yards and no receiving touchdowns last season. In a PPR league, it’s hard to justify him being the No. 1 running back when he averaged fewer than 2.0 catches per week.David Johnson, Arizona
Another rookie last season, Johnson basically had the opposite season as Gurley. While the Rams first-year back starred in his first four starts, Johnson earned the starting job due to injuries to other Cardinals running backs by Week 13. In the final five weeks, he averaged 92.6 rushing yards and a touchdown per game.
Johnson had one of the most epic performances in Week 15, running for 187 yards and three touchdowns. The output couldn’t have come at a better time, as it was on Sunday night during the fantasy playoffs.
Of the three backs on this list, Johnson is the best pass-catcher. He has 36 receptions, 457 yards and four touchdowns, giving him 1,038 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns on just 161 touches.
The upside seems endless, especially in a dynamic offense like Arizona, but he’s still relatively unproven. No one knows for sure how Johnson will respond to a full season of starting at the NFL level.
Adrian Peterson, Minnesota
Peterson is becoming the ageless wonder. At 30 years old, he led the league in rushing attempts (327), yards (1,485) and touchdowns (11). Peterson won the rushing title for the third time in his career and made All-Pro for the fourth time.
His success was really a result of Minnesota handing Peterson the keys to the offense. After Week 1, he had at least 16 carries every week except two games where they fell behind quickly. In the fourth quarter all season, Peterson averaged 6.9 yards per attempt.
But “All Day” is now 31 years old. At some point, he’s going to slow down. Can fantasy owners risk it being this season? Maybe with a second-round choice, but not a first. According to Fantasy Pros, Johnson and Peterson are just behind Gurley at No. 5 and 6, respectively, on the overall rankings.
If owners want any of these running backs, they are going to have to draft them in the first half of the first round. The next four running backs on Fantasy Pros’ list are Ezekiel Elliott, Lamar Miller, Jamaal Charles and then Bell.
Of those seven backs, the two I prefer are Charles and Bell. They are on good teams, have the complete package, and are proven commodities yet still young. However, neither are worthy of a first-round selection, so I wouldn’t recommend drafting them ahead of Gurley, Johnson or Peterson.
If other owners feel this same way, unfortunately, they are just going to have to come to the realization that there aren’t any slam dunk running backs this season. Without a doubt, the three backs listed above could each have fantastic years, but they all come with a lot of risk — at least more risk than the top tier of wide receivers.
Of course Charles and Bell have plenty of risk due to their injury past, too. Elliott and Miller have risk because they are basically unknowns due to this being their first seasons with a new team.
Therefore, due to Bell’s suspension and no clear-cut No. 1 RB, the best strategy for owners at the top of the first round this season might be to target wide receivers early and then backs like Doug Martin, Devonta Freeman and C.J. Anderson in the third round. Those running backs have slightly less upside but less risk too just virtue of the fact they can be taken after already grabbing a couple stud wide receivers.