Well, it was fun while it lasted. When my overall player rankings came out Monday, I had Le’Veon Bell as my top player, ahead of Todd Gurley. My reasoning was that Bell had a longer, more trustworthy track record of top performance, and that his receiving prowess spelled the difference in PPR formats (to which The Post’s fantasy coverage defaults).
It didn’t take long at all, however, for news to arrive that Bell and the Steelers had failed to agree on a long-term contract, meaning that, for a second straight season, he will get the one-year franchise tag. However, as with 2017, Bell likely won’t be in any hurry to sign his franchise-tag tender and could well skip training camp again. More ominously, as ESPN’s Adam Schefter posited, Bell might actually sit out the first half of the season, all the better to hit free agency next spring in good health.
It’s far more probable that Bell will play a full season, but the uncertainty is enough to push him below Gurley, given how close the players already were in terms of expectations. Those two, plus David Johnson and Ezekiel Elliott, form a “Big Four” at the RB spot, after which drafters have a variety of ways to possibly go. Here’s how I see it:
1. Todd Gurley, Rams (Bye week: 12)
Players who finish first in fantasy scoring don’t usually repeat the following season, which could be a point in favor of Bell, but Gurley advocates can also point to the fact that their guy has far more tread on his tires, with 914 touches over three seasons to Bell’s 1,541 over five. Gurley’s first two seasons saw him look explosive as a rookie before going down with the Rams’ desultory ship in 2016. A coaching change and significant additions on the offensive line and at WR propelled the team to the NFL’s best offense last year. Those elements are still in place, with Sammy Watkins replaced by Brandin Cooks and QB Jared Goff a year more experienced, so Gurley, who finished second to Alvin Kamara in RB receiving yardage, should be set for another huge campaign.
2. Le’Veon Bell, Steelers (7)
Assuming that Bell shows up as expected for Week 1, owners know what they’re getting: a player who can be relied upon to get one of the NFL’s biggest workloads and produce. That includes a major role in the Steelers’ passing game, as Bell has averaged 81 receptions on 102 targets over his past three fully healthy seasons, making him pure gold in PPR. It helps that Pittsburgh sports one of the league’s best offensive lines, plus a top QB in Ben Roethlisberger and major talent at WR, meaning that Bell should have a good shot at topping his single-season high of 11 combined TDs (perhaps the one flaw in his fantasy résumé).
3. David Johnson, Cardinals (9)
You haven’t forgotten how incredible Johnson was in 2016, have you? In his second season, he totaled 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns, and he went No. 1 overall in most 2017 fantasy drafts. His owners last year don’t need to be reminded what happened next, as Johnson suffered a Week 1 wrist injury that wound up ending his season. That was a disastrous outcome, but the good news, at least for this season’s owners, is that Johnson’s lower body was unscathed and there’s no reason to think he won’t be as effective as when we last saw him. Well, one reason could be Arizona’s question marks at QB, WR, TE and offensive line, not to mention a new coaching staff headed by former defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, but there’s little doubt that Johnson will be used as a workhorse.
4. Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys (8)
Elliott slides to fourth here because Dallas hasn’t used him much as a receiver, but as a runner he arguably takes a back seat to no one, leading the NFL in rushing yards per game in each of his first two seasons. As with Johnson, there are some questions about how effective the overall offense of his team will be, but Elliott has a good QB in Dak Prescott and a coaching staff committed to giving him all the carries he can handle, including, of course, near the goal line. The former Ohio State star has actually displayed good receiving skills, particularly on screen plays, and with Dez Bryant and Jason Witten gone, it would be surprising if the Cowboys did not increase Elliott’s usage in the passing game.
5. Saquon Barkley, Giants (9)
I’m bullish on Barkley because I expect him to get a massive workload right away, including plenty of pass targets. Something like the 80 receptions that went to Christian McCaffrey, last year’s No. 8 pick, is hardly unthinkable, and Barkley can be expected to get many more carries than his Panthers counterpart, who had 117 in 2017. Hey, the G-Men didn’t spend a No. 2 overall pick on an RB, with tempting options at QB, just to trot out the likes of Jonathan Stewart (described as “plodding” in offseason training sessions) and Wayne Gallman. There is reason to be concerned about Barkley’s ability to run between the tackles, plus New York’s partially rebuilt but still sketchy offensive line, but those issues existed at Penn State and hardly prevented him from looking like a generational talent.
6. Alvin Kamara, Saints (6)
In contrast to Barkley, and almost everyone else, Kamara inspires tremendous optimism because of the ability he showed last season to do more with less. Much less, in fact, than your average stud back, as Kamara got just 201 touches as a rookie but was exceptionally efficient, averaging a league-leading 6.1 yards per carry and a gaudy 10.2 yards per reception, with 13 total TDs. Those rate stats simply must come down, but possibly not drastically as Kamara could conceivably be a slightly bulkier version of Jamaal Charles, and he’s in line for more touches this year, especially as Mark Ingram sits out the first four games with a suspension. At worst, Kamara, who was second among RBs last season with 81 receptions, will be a magnet again for Drew Brees’s dump-off passes, giving him an excellent floor in PPR formats and making him a safer first-round pick than some might think.
7. Kareem Hunt, Chiefs (12)
Hunt had an odd NFL debut last year, bursting onto the scene with 775 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns in his first five games before falling into a prolonged midseason swoon, with just 522 yards and no scores at all over the next seven games. Hunt managed to right the ship just in time to show he wasn’t a flash in the pan, closing the season strong and winning the NFL’s rushing crown, albeit with the fewest yards (1,327) to top the league since Barry Sanders took the title with 1,304 rushing yards in 1990. On the other hand, being compared to Sanders is never a bad thing for an RB, and Hunt’s rookie performance assured him a busy role in what should be a dynamic offense, even if Spencer Ware’s return from injury siphons away some touches.
8. Leonard Fournette, Jaguars (9)
Despite missing three games as a rookie, Fournette finished ninth in PPR scoring among RBs, and he was seventh in per-game scoring. Of course, the missed games are a concern, particularly as they stemmed from ankle woes that have dogged the back since his time at LSU, but Fournette showed that, when healthy, he can trample NFL defenders just as thoroughly as would-be Southeastern Conference tacklers. He scored nine rushing TDs, with another one through the air, and appears to be as good a bet as any to lead the league in end-zone trips, which plays nearly as well in PPR as in standard. Jacksonville’s ferocious defense should regularly tilt the field in its offense’s favor, and the team upgraded its offensive line with path-clearing guard Andrew Norwell.
9. Dalvin Cook, Vikings (10)
We’re left with what-ifs from Cook’s rookie campaign — this just in: last year’s class of first-year RBs was a doozy — because he tore an anterior cruciate ligament a mere four games in. In that span, though, he was terrific, racking up 444 yards and two TDs while averaging 4.8 yards per carry and looking very much like a bell-cow back. We just don’t know whether he would have continued to play that well all season, and while Cook is expected to be fully recovered in time for the start of this season, it takes a bit of a leap of faith to grab him with a high pick. That’s a leap worth taking, though, as Cook is set to be the featured back in an effective offense that lost Jerick McKinnon to free agency.
10. Melvin Gordon, Chargers (8)
We’re still waiting for Gordon to average so much as four yards per carry, but as long as the Chargers are happy to feed him the ball, we might as well be content with the results (if you sense a begrudging tone, you are correct). Gordon went from 295 touches in 2016, with a seventh-place finish among RBs, to 342 last year and the fifth spot. Another top-10 season appears to be in the cards, given that Los Angeles didn’t bring in much backfield competition, adding seventh-round pick Justin Jackson to a depth chart that includes undersized change-of-pace back Austin Ekeler. The Bolts did improve their offensive line, at least on paper, and have the makings of a defense that could allow Gordon to salt away second-half leads.
11. Christian McCaffrey, Panthers (4): With offseason addition C.J. Anderson reportedly slated for a sizable role, McCaffrey might not be asked to do a lot more than he was as a rookie, but that was good enough for 10th place at his position, and he should be a more well-rounded runner this season.
12. Devonta Freeman, Falcons (8): Freeman had a relatively disappointing 2017 season, in which he still finished 13th in RB scoring. His season reflected the overall stumbles of Atlanta’s attack under much-maligned offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who has pledged to get his RBs more involved on pass plays.
13. Jerick McKinnon, 49ers (11): San Francisco paid a hefty sum to bring McKinnon over from Minnesota, so Coach Kyle Shanahan is presumed to have a big role in mind for him, but some see bust potential in a converted QB who has yet to show he can be a headlining back.
14. Joe Mixon, Bengals (9): Mixon mostly failed to live up to the hype as a rookie, amid decidedly adverse conditions in Cincy’s struggling offense, and will get another season to show what he can do with 200-plus touches.
15. Jordan Howard, Bears (5): An awful pass catcher, at least thus far in his NFL career, Howard earns his keep the old-fashioned way, churning out yards and touchdowns with his legs, and he figures to maintain a big role even as new Chicago Coach Matt Nagy installs a more diverse scheme.
16. Kenyan Drake, Dolphins (11): Miami was slow to embrace Drake as its featured back, even after trading away Jay Ajayi midway through last season, and now he must stave off playing-time challengers both young (rookie Kalen Ballage) and old (Frank Gore) while showing that his strong closing stretch of games was a sign of things to come.
17. Derrius Guice, Redskins (4): The physical runner should step into a major role on early downs, and he will need to, given that he caught just 32 balls in three seasons at LSU.
18. Lamar Miller, Texans (10): Miller hasn’t blossomed in Houston the way many fantasy players had hoped, but he should make for a safe RB2 pick, especially with D’Onta Foreman working his way back from a torn Achilles’ and no lock to start the season on the active list.
19. Dion Lewis, Titans (8): Signed to a $20 million contract to form a committee with Derrick Henry, Lewis should be the member who catches more passes, and he showed with the Patriots that he can run between the tackles as well.
20. Ronald Jones, Buccaneers (5): His draft slot (38th overall) says he should quickly take over as Tampa Bay’s lead back, as does the fact that his competition consists of Peyton Barber, Charles Sims and Jacquizz Rodgers.
21. Sony Michel, Patriots (11): Michel flaunts an even higher draft slot (31st overall), a result of mouth-watering college tape, but Michel will have to wrest his touches from Rex Burkhead and James White, with Mike Gillislee and Jeremy Hill still in the mix for the time being, while the ever-inscrutable Bill Belichick pulls the strings.
22. Alex Collins, Ravens (10): An unexpected bright spot for Baltimore’s 2017 offense, Collins’s reward is to start the season as the clear early-downs back, with a good shot at 40-plus receptions.
23. Rashaad Penny, Seahawks (7): Seattle surprised analysts by taking Penny in the first round, and Pete Carroll has talked up his three-down potential, but a healthy Chris Carson might have something of his own to say about that, and the line still needs to prove it’s capable of run-blocking.
24. Tevin Coleman, Falcons (8): Atlanta’s No. 2 back gets enough work to be penciled in for 1,000 total yards, 30 catches and 10 TDs, and he could attain much more if Freeman, who missed two games last year, goes down for any period of time.
25. Derrick Henry, Titans (8): Just when Henry was freed from being DeMarco Murray’s apprentice, he was thrust back into a timeshare with Lewis, but this time Henry has a good chance of getting the lion’s share of the work.
26. LeSean McCoy, Bills (11): Given his age, mileage, alarming drop last year in per-carry average and Buffalo’s gloomy outlook, McCoy was already a risky pick before troubling allegations surfaced that, if borne out, could land him a lengthy suspension.
27. Mark Ingram, Saints (6): We know Ingram will start the year on a suspension, and it’s not a lock that, even after he returns, he fully escapes Sean Payton’s doghouse.
28. Jay Ajayi, Eagles (9): With LeGarrette Blount gone, Ajayi should get most of the short-yardage work, and he could earn much more than that in a high-wattage offense, but Doug Pederson seems to prefer a spread-it-around approach.
29. Marshawn Lynch, Raiders (7): After coming out of retirement to play for his hometown squad, Lynch was used to little effect in the early going, but befitting a player who’s “all about that action, boss,” he perked up when given a heavier workload, averaging 4.6 yards on 135 carries, with five TDs, over his final eight games.
30. Royce Freeman, Broncos (10): The third-round pick should emerge with a valuable role after competing with Devontae Booker and, to a seemingly lesser extent, De’Angelo Henderson for primacy in Denver’s backfield.
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