Fantasy running back values: Big changes since start of season

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Todd Gurley (left) and Ezekiel Elliott are both Top 5 centerpieces in 2017 (AP/Michael Ainsworth)

Running Back Shuffle Up: Todd Gurley, back in business

Week 5 is a key week on on the fantasy football calendar. The byes start, and with that, trading season starts. Some fantasy teams have quickly acquired leverage, some other teams are already dripping with desperation. You only get 13 games before playoff time in most leagues. Time to move on, time to get going.

Week 5 also marks the opening of the Shuffle Up series, where we’ll take a microscope to the current tiering landscape. I’ll do running backs, the granddaddy of all positions, this week. Next week, the wideouts go through the car wash. The following week, I’ll link quarterback and tight ends. And then the cycle begins again in Week 8.

Assume a half-point PPR scoring system, with everything else standard. Players at the same price are considered even. I reserve the right to tweak this list within the first 24 hours of release. I welcome all reasonable, respectful disagreement, but bring a reason. And remember the golden rule: no one gains or loses value simply because you roster (or don’t roster) that player.

Hit me up on @scott_pianowski, let’s hear what you have to say. Game on.

$45 Kareem Hunt
$45 LeVeon Bell
$43 Ezekiel Elliott
$41 Todd Gurley
$40 Devonta Freeman

It’s not hard to see why Gurley has rebounded so emphatically this year. The coaching staff was overhauled; the offensive line upgraded; the receiving threats bolstered. This offense didn’t have a chance under the Jeff Fisher regime, but it sure looks like Sean McVay was a home-run coaching hire. Gurley’s also getting extensive work in the passing game, too, which does two important things — it protects Gurley from negative game scripts, and it regularly allows Gurley to get the ball in space, take on a limited part of the defense, as opposed to the punishment-inducing work between the tackles.

That’s all lovely, and yes, keep it coming.

Some have feared that Gurley’s schedule will eventually turn sour and take down the story, but I’m not especially worried about that happening. Consider his next two opponents, Seattle and Jacksonville — they’ve both getting crushed by the run, allowing 5.0 and 5.7 YPC, respectively. The Giants respected defense has been leaky, too (4.6 YPC). There are some other draws that are challenging, but I’m going to bet on the talent, the creativity of the coaching staff, and the momentum. The places where I hold Gurley, I’d need a lofty price to move off the perch.

As for the other backs in the Fab 5: The only minor concern on Hunt is how the Chiefs have backed off him as a receiver in the last three weeks. Eight catches are fine, 59 yards are mediocre. After watching Hunt rip the Patriots with intermediate and deep routes in the opener, I thought Hunt would continue to get that type of usage. But he’s been so dynamic on the ground and the Chiefs are looking like a legitimate Super Bowl contender, so we won’t hassle it . . . The Steelers have passing-game issues, specifically Ben Roethlisberger issues, but Bell’s started to come around after a predictable, slow start. You miss the entire summer, it comes at at least something of a conditioning cost. I’d have no problem taking Bell first or second in a redraft, depending on how sold you are on Hunt . . . The Dallas offensive line has slipped a notch and it’s possible Elliott, like Bell, wasn’t in top shape on opening day. But Zeke had a get-right game in the loss to the Rams, and while I’m not a lawyer, it sure looks like he’ll be able to hold off the legal proceedings for the rest of the year . . . Freeman was born in the end zone, or so it seems. New OC Steve Sarkisian talked about getting Julio Jones more involved in the red zone, but mostly what this offense has done through four weeks is feed the Freeman touchdown machine. Freeman’s YPC has taken a drop and he’s getting far less use in the passing game, but the touchdowns are a perfect deodorant.

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$36 Leonard Fournette
$35 LeSean McCoy
$33 Carlos Hyde
$30 Jay Ajayi
$29 DeMarco Murray
$26 Melvin Gordon
$24 Jordan Howard
$23 Lamar Miller
$22 Christian McCaffrey
$21 *Ty Montgomery
$21 C.J. Anderson
$21 Joe Mixon
$20 Ameer Abdullah

I don’t see an obvious right answer on Montgomery. He doesn’t just have a rib injury, he has several broken ribs, and he plays a volume position where punishment is standard. I am not sorry I cashed out on my primary Montgomery share a week ago, though obviously I didn’t see him getting hurt. And keep in mind before the injury, Montgomery was all volume, no efficiency; oddly, the opposite of his 2016 story. The offensive line has a lot to say in that, but that isn’t something we can ignore when we price Monty . . . I’m staying firm with Ajayi, even as I don’t trust Jay Cutler much (can Matt Moore be any worse?). The Dolphins had the schedule from hell: hurricane PPD; trip to San Diego; trip to New York; trip to London. Ajayi ran hard in Week 2, and was okay in the Saints loss. He’s not the problem here, and the passing game should at least improve somewhat . . . Fournette is one of five backs who have 16 or more touches in four straight weeks; Abdullah, McCoy, Gurley, and Hunt are the others. Projectable volume is a huge part of the game. If we push the qualifier down to 15 touches, Hyde also makes the list.

Marshawn Lynch, gridlocked on Narrative Street (AP)

$19 Tarik Cohen
$18 Mark Ingram
$18 Tevin Coleman
$17 Duke Johnson
$17 Doug Martin
$17 Chris Thompson
$16 Marshawn Lynch
$16 Alvin Kamara
$14 Latavius Murray
$14 Isaiah Crowell
$12 James White
$12 Wendell Smallwood
$12 Bilal Powell
$11 Mike Gillislee
$11 Derrick Henry
$11 Frank Gore

[Week 5 fantasy rankings: Overall | PPR | QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs | FLEX | DST | Ks]

Lynch grades just outside the Top 24, which makes sense — I haven’t considered him a set-and-forget RB2 all year, and I have him on every avoid list I submitted. Football’s hard enough without a full-year sabbatical, and remember he looked sluggish and cooked back with Seattle in 2015. I see no reason not to root for the guy, it’s a wonderful story, but I’ll root with my heart, not my fantasy checkbook . . . Washington is not comfortable giving Thompson an increase in workload, but he might see just enough volume to push into the every-week starter area, despite the uphill climb of his setup. At least Washington doesn’t have any other notable talent in the backfield; no one is likely to shove Thompson out of the way . . . If I knew Matt Forte would miss significant time, Powell would instantly climb a tier, though I also like what I’ve seen from Elijah McGuire. The Jets were everyone’s pick to be the worst team in football, but they have been scrappy and competitive in every game . . . Minnesota is sick over losing Dalvin Cook, but at least the offensive line is better. I’m betting on Murray over McKinnon because the Vikings paid Murray, but like so many teams, this will probably turn into a hot-hand situation, with the club hoping someone can prove it on the field and take away the decision stress. Murray is likely to start with the baton and he’s done more at the NFL level, so he gets the benefit on the initial rank.

$9 Alex Collins
$9 Jonathan Stewart
$9 D’Onta Foreman
$8 LeGarrette Blount
$8 Theo Riddick
$8 Aaron Jones
$7 Andre Ellington
$6 Jerick McKinnon
$6 Javorius Allen
$6 Wayne Gallman
$5 Robert Kelley
$5 Matt Forte
$5 Giovani Bernard
$4 Jamaal Charles
$4 Charcandrick West

Collins keeps busting off big runs in the second halves of games, though he needs to prove he can be trusted not to fumble (Jim Harbaugh has specifically complained about this, too). But at some point, the Ravens have to give extensive work to their only back who’s doing anything on the ground . . . Ellington has a passing role carved out on an offense that probably won’t be able to run the ball . . . I probably come in low among the Gallman rankers; I don’t trust that line (or Ben McAdoo) at all, there’s gridlock in the backfield, and the overall offense is probably a drain on any back’s efficiency. I thought Gallman looked okay at Tampa Bay; the rewatch didn’t jolt me out of my chair. I think the New York running game has been so awful for so long, perhaps some of us are tempted to overrate anything that’s even remotely positive . . . No one really likes Miller that much and Foreman had a couple of nifty plays in the New England game, but he’s still averaging 3.4 YPC. Is Foreman an interesting lottery ticket, sure. Is a changing of the guard imminent? Are the Texans eager to push Miller off the field? I don’t think so.

$3 Rex Burkhead
$3 Jalen Richard
$3 Thomas Rawls
$3 Jacquizz Rodgers
$3 C.J. Prosise
$3 Eddie Lacy
$3 Elijah McGuire
$3 Jamaal Williams
$2 Marlon Mack
$2 Terrance West
$2 Mike Tolbert
$2 Chris Johnson
$2 James Conner
$2 Robert Turbin
$1 DeAndre Washington
$1 Chris Ivory
$1 Matt Breida
$1 Shane Vereen
$1 Damien Williams
$1 Orleans Darkwa
$1 Malcolm Brown
$1 Dion Lewis
$1 Alfred Morris
$1 Branden Oliver
$1 Corey Grant
$1 Charles Sims
$1 Adrian Peterson
$1 Corey Clement
$1 J.D. McKissic
$0 Paul Perkins
$0 Kenyan Drake
$0 Jeremy Hill
$0 Samaje Perine
$0 Aaron Ripkowski
$0 Devontae Booker

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