Running Back Shuffle Up: The Ezekiel Elliott problem

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/29238/" data-ylk="slk:Ezekiel Elliott">Ezekiel Elliott</a> is one of the trickiest calls of the first round (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas)
Ezekiel Elliott is one of the trickiest calls of the first round (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Want to make a bunch of strangers upset at you? Rank something.

And with that, Shuffle Up is back for the 2017 NFL season.

We’ll start off with the hot button of positions, the running backs. This is the one position we all strive to get right, the most beguiling fantasy football exercise there is.

The prices you see are not suggested auction prices — those numbers are so room-contextual, it would be a fool’s errand to suggest any one size fits all. The dollar values below are merely used as a way to compare the players and give you a sense of where the tiers lay (in my opinion, anyway); where talent clusters and where it falls off.

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Players at the same price are considered even. And honestly, a $1-2 difference isn’t a big deal. I’m not going to pretend some lofty level of certainty with these prices when I know what a snow-globe league the NFL is.

Assume a modified PPR scoring system, a half-point per reception.

I’ll add commentary early Friday, and reserve the right to change things as the day goes along. Win the debate, win the rank. Oh, and two other things: I love respectful disagreement, but bring a reason; aimless rants are just a waste of time. And remember the golden rule, no player gains or loses a chunk of value simply because you roster him or don’t roster him.

Want to take a shot at my knees? Head over to Twitter and let me know what you think: @scott_pianowski.

Tier 1 – The Elites 

$49 David Johnson
$47 Le’Veon Bell
$42 Ezekiel Elliott
$42 Melvin Gordon
$42 Devonta Freeman
$41 LeSean McCoy
$38 DeMarco Murray

Until Elliott’s suspension situation gets resolved, I’m leery on him as a first-round pick. Although every NFL player is at risk for injury or other complications, I want to at least feel confident my first pick is headed for a full 16 games. Elliott also enjoyed a perfect offensive-line push last year, both in means of talent and health. A modest dropdown is to be expected for 2017 . . . To everyone who thought Freeman was a fluke in 2015, he actually was better last year. His yards per play spiked both by land and air, and he made it through a full season. Tevin Coleman’s presence isn’t a problem for Freeman’s fantasy value; just about every fantasy team uses two backs these days. You get concerned when a team wants to force three or more runners into the rotation, but there’s no reason to fear that in Atlanta. A committee starts at three in 2017 . . . Murray is a good example of how important a system fit can be. The Eagles signed Murray and tried to force a round peg into a square hole. Fortunately for Murray, it was just one year in purgatory, and the Titans did an outstanding job playing to Murray’s strengths.

Tier 2 – Every-Week Foundations 

$34 Jordan Howard
$33 Jay Ajayi
$32 Leonard Fournette
$29 Todd Gurley
$28 Isaiah Crowell
$23 Carlos Hyde
$23 Joe Mixon
$22 Ty Montgomery
$22 Christian McCaffrey
$22 Dalvin Cook
$20 Lamar Miller

I’d be more enamored with Montgomery if I felt the Packers were fully on board; all through 2016, they were looking for excuses not to use him. The narrative has shifted in Green Bay this summer, to the positive, and although the Packers did add multiple backs in the draft, they did it in the later stages. If Montgomery can prove his chops in pass protection, and handle the workload of a true featured back, it’s possible I’ve ranked him 5-7 slots too low. And obviously ever Green Bay opponent is going to be concerned about Aaron Rodgers, first and foremost. Someone’s getting running lanes here . . . My buddy Mike Salfino presents a strong case for a Howard fade, the idea that you don’t want to spend blue chips on a player who’s tied to a terrible quarterback situation. And it’s not like anyone has much faith in the John Fox coaching staff. Howard did beat the quicksand last year, and he has the skills to play on all three downs, though his hands could use some work. But there are so many bankable wideouts in the second round, I’d prefer to let Howard be someone else’s problem.

I don’t consider Gurley in the second round of any draft, but when the third cycle arrives and he’s still on board, I have to at least consider the case. It’s not that I see the Rams as a playoff contender or even a .500 team, but it’s possible last year’s offense was completely sunk by a coaching staff that was incompetent (their 2016 documentary is must-see TV). I’m not giving up on Gurley yet, and I think there’s still a chance Jared Goff develops into a reasonable quarterback. (Yes, this might sound contradictory to the Howard section, but we’re also talking about a player who’s a round cheaper; that’s a major price difference at this part of the draft) . . . The Vikings continue to rave about Cook, and the offensive line has been fortified. I don’t understand why Minnesota also added Latavius Murray, but I’d be shocked if Murray got in Cook’s way . . . Carolina was the last place I wanted McCaffrey to land, but maybe he’s too talented to fail. Cam Newton is going to be asked to play a style he’s never shown in the NFL.

Tier 3 – Plausible Upside, Tangible Downside 

$16 C.J. Anderson
$15 Mark Ingram
$14 Marshawn Lynch
$14 Mike Gillislee
$14 Eddie Lacy
$13 Bilal Powell
$12 Spencer Ware
$12 Tevin Coleman
$11 Paul Perkins
$11 Danny Woodhead
$11 Ameer Abdullah
$11 Frank Gore
$10 LeGarrette Blount
$10 Adrian Peterson
$10 Derrick Henry

Anderson’s price is more a function of not liking the Denver alternatives than it is a statement about his ability and upside. Devontae Booker was a sea of fumbles last year, in limited playing time, and Jamaal Charles is a 30-year-old back with multiple ACLS on the medical file . . . I’ve ranked Lynch low enough that he won’t be on any of my teams. He didn’t play last year, but more importantly, he showed nothing in 2015. He’s always been an attrition back, someone who seeks out contact. And I like both of Oakland’s alternatives behind him . . . I’m perfectly willing to change my mind on Lacy at some point, but I need to see something this summer — and against an engaged defense, not some simulation drill in practice. And remember, Seattle’s offensive line has been a mess for several seasons . . . Abdullah won’t be Detroit’s third-down back and he probably won’t be their goal-line back, which collapses the ceiling significantly.

Henry has league-winning potential should Murray get hurt, and I’d be willing to chase Henry’s price up a few bucks if the Titans were willing to nudge his role forward. If Henry has weekly value even without a starting job, that’s easily worth a sixth-round pick in most formats . . . Anytime you see analysis that includes a phrase like “but he’s Adrian Peterson”, throw it in the garbage can. Gravity is unkind to all football players, especially the running backs. We know Peterson is a mediocre receiver, and there’s other talent in this backfield. If you beat me with name-brand optimism, so be it, I can live with that. But the peak form Peterson showed in Minnesota has nothing to do with his fair pricing today . . . You’d rather be a year early than a year late on Gore, and no one has any clue how ready Andrew Luck is going to be. You have so many options at this position, why invest your middle-round money on a player you don’t feel sold on? . . . I find myself lower on most Eagles, because I’m not sold on Carson Wentz or Doug Pederson. As for Blount specifically, how many times have the Pats jettisoned a veteran and regretted it? That’s a tiny list in the Belichick Era.

Tier 4 – Start Scratching, Hope for a Set 

$8 Terrance West
$8 Theo Riddick
$8 Samaje Perine
$8 Robert Kelley
$7 Doug Martin
$7 Jonathan Stewart
$7 Matt Forte
$7 Kareem Hunt
$7 James White
$6 C.J. Prosise
$6 Duke Johnson
$5 Jacquizz Rodgers
$4 Thomas Rawls
$4 Darren Sproles

My favorite White nugget comes from Evan Silva, who notes that White was the No. 22 PPR back after Tom Brady returned. White was also a behemoth in the Super Bowl (and would have been a fine MVP selection). The Patriots backfield becomes a lot less intimidating if you have low expectations for Dion Lewis, as I do . . . Rodgers made an impression on Dirk Koetter during their Atlanta days, and Rodgers was the best of Tampa’s backfield last year. Now he gets a three-game trial to prove he can be a long-term solution. I wouldn’t take Doug Martin on a bet . . . I have a feeling I’ll have Rawls up a tier or down a tier by the end of the month, depending on what Lacy shows . . . If the Jets are really going to blow up the foundation and start over, Forte would make sense as an eventual cut. But Powell isn’t as young as many think; he turns 29 just before Halloween . . . Mike Salfino made an interesting point about Prosise in the 2017 debut of the Breakfast Table podcast; a third-down back is more interesting on a team that’s expected to be behind more often than not. With Seattle an expected playoff team on just about everyone’s board, Prosise might find himself squeezed for snaps.

Tier 5 – Dollar and a Dream 

$3 Jamaal Williams
$3 Joe Williams
$3 Giovani Bernard
$2 Latavius Murray
$2 DeAndre Washington
$2 Darren McFadden
$2 Alvin Kamara
$2 Robert Turbin
$2 Jalen Richard
$1 Jamaal Charles
$1 Jeremy Hill
$1 Rex Burkhead
$1 Marlon Mack
$1 D’Onta Foreman
$1 Chris Thompson
$1 Tim Hightower
$1 Shane Vereen
$0 Charles Sims
$0 Jonathan Williams
$0 James Conner
$0 Zach Zenner
$0 Jeremy McNichols
$0 Wendell Smallwood
$0 Devontae Booker
$0 Branden Oliver
$0 Ryan Mathews
$0 Donnel Pumphrey
$0 Dion Lewis
$0 T.J. Yeldon
$0 Wayne Gallman
$0 Jerick McKinnon

Share your comments below, or come tackle me on Twitter: @scott_pianowski.

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