Fantasy football rankings: Eric Karabell's running back tiers

Many of us evaluating the running back and wide receiver rankings for fantasy football this season -- and who are we kidding, for every season -- often see groups of players who appear relatively indistinguishable statistically. This might seem normal, but it is often misunderstood by fantasy newcomers.

Rankings tell us only so much. They lack bigger-picture context. A tiered ranking system adds key context that we all need when forced to make significant decisions in a matter of seconds on draft day.

For example, is this No. 5 RB from the rankings markedly better than the next fellow on the list? If not, perhaps go with another position. Where is the drop-off in expected production in the WR2 range? If all options look/feel the same, then why am I picking any of them?! These are important questions that regular rankings do not address because, in most cases, the answers are abstract. We use our gut to make decisions. Ranking in tiers, in advance, at least solves part of the problem.

After all, value is the key for any fantasy football draft, and we are dealing with perceived supply and demand here. All of this is projectable and hardly exact, but we can reasonably decide which players we like a lot more than others, because talent level and opportunity is different. Enter an ESPN draft and everyone sees the rankings, but they are not your rankings, and they do not tell us enough. Crave more clarity. Tier it up, baby, add that context, make things clearer.

Here are one analyst's tiered PPR rankings (ESPN standard) for running backs (click here for wide receivers!), which are sure to change as August news develops. First advice to any fantasy football manager: Do not rely on anyone's rankings but your own. Make your own rankings for your league format and divide players into tiers afterward. These are your fantasy teams. Follow your own advice and make your own choices.

Check out more tiered rankings: WR | RB | QB | TE

Tier 1: Early first round

1. Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers

2. Christian McCaffrey, San Francisco 49ers

Notes: Wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Ja'Marr Chase tend to get the overall nod over these guys, but these are the lone running backs worthy of the top pick. Questions remain, of course. Ekeler is touchdown dependent, and he -- like seemingly everyone else at the position -- wants a new contract. McCaffrey used to be regarded as quite brittle, missing 23 of 33 games over a two-season span, but now everyone seems to believe he is durable. Still, while there is a fundamental difference in value between top running backs and wide receivers, these two stand alone.

Tier 2: Mid-late first round

3. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

4. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

5. Bijan Robinson, Atlanta Falcons

Notes: This tier is about upside and safety, to some degree. Henry is more valuable in non-PPR formats, but his consistency and durability are hard to beat, having led the league in rushing attempts three of four years, and he caught a career-high 33 passes this past season. Barkley remains great, but as with Henry, we have likely seen his best. Everyone expects Robinson to be a star. Ah, running backs.

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Tier 3: Rounds 2/3

6. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns

7. Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys

8. Travis Etienne Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars

9. Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders

10. Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

11. Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers

12. Rhamondre Stevenson, New England Patriots

13. Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers

Notes: This is a rather large tier of players, but then again, with so much similarity in value and guaranteed volume, why not? Fantasy managers missing out on the top options may choose to double up here. Jacobs looks safer than he did a month ago, but do not expect him to repeat his health and volume to the same level.

Tier 4: Rounds 4/5

14. Jahmyr Gibbs, Detroit Lions

15. Kenneth Walker III, Seattle Seahawks

Notes: Gibbs was the second running back chosen in the first round, an elite pass-catcher from Alabama likely to share the stage with proven veteran David Montgomery. Gibbs is better, but this is likely a timeshare. Walker, in his second season, figures to share the volume with rookie Zach Charbonnet. Perhaps these two end up RB1 options, or perhaps few will be pleased.

Tier 5: Rounds 5/6

16. James Conner, Arizona Cardinals

17. Alexander Mattison, Minnesota Vikings

18. Dameon Pierce, Houston Texans

19. Rachaad White, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

20. Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams

Notes: Myriad names in this tier, and unfortunately, myriad question marks. Conner is not young, in running back years, and his team is not expected to be good. Mattison is unproven as a volume option. Pierce and White have quarterback question marks, perhaps Akers as well.

Tier 6: Rounds 7/8

21. Isiah Pacheco, Kansas City Chiefs

22. Breece Hall, New York Jets

23. Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts

24. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

25. J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens

26. D'Andre Swift, Philadelphia Eagles

27. David Montgomery, Lions

28. Miles Sanders, Carolina Panthers

29. James Cook, Buffalo Bills

30. Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos

Notes: Expect missed games in this tier, starting with the Colts' Taylor, who must miss at least the first four games. After that, who knows? There is definite risk. Meanwhile, Swift has yet to play in more than 14 games in a season. The player he replaced in Philadelphia, Sanders, also has a reputation for physical maladies holding him back. Dobbins missed the 2021 season and half of last season because of a knee injury. Williams is recovering from a knee injury. Pacheco hurt his shoulder. Hall has the knee and a pending timeshare. Kamara is out the first three weeks serving a suspension.

Tier 7: Rounds 9/10

31. Jamaal Williams, Saints

32. AJ Dillon, Packers

33. Khalil Herbert, Chicago Bears

34. Jerick McKinnon, Chiefs

35. Dalvin Cook, Jets

36. Samaje Perine, Broncos

37. Brian Robinson Jr., Washington Commanders

Notes: Older, more experienced running backs with little upside reside here. Williams comes off a career year. Dillon probably deserves more volume. McKinnon is a fantastic receiver out of the backfield, and underrated. Cook may offer his best in September, but by October see lesser volume.

Tier 8: Rounds 11/12

38. Rashaad Penny, Eagles

39. Antonio Gibson, Commanders

40. Raheem Mostert, Dolphins

41. Elijah Mitchell, 49ers

42. Ezekiel Elliott, Patriots

43. Zach Charbonnet, Seahawks

Notes: This tier is a popular one for fantasy managers to target the backup running back to one they already roster. Penny, for example, should work in some tandem with D'Andre Swift in an effort to keep each healthy. If something ails Christian McCaffrey, Mitchell investors have his backup. The Miami and Washington running backs might not be popular flex choices. Elliott figures to steal touchdowns in his new home.

Tier 9: Round 12-on

44. Evan Hull, Colts

45. Deon Jackson, Colts

46. Roschon Johnson, Bears

47. Chuba Hubbard, Panthers

48. Devin Singletary, Texans

49. D'Onta Foreman, Bears

50. Damien Harris, Bills

51. Kendre Miller, Saints

52. Tyler Allgeier, Falcons

53. Jaylen Warren, Steelers

54. Jerome Ford, Browns

55. Gus Edwards, Ravens

56. Joshua Kelley, Chargers

57. De'Von Achane, Dolphins

58. Tank Bigsby, Jaguars

59. Chase Edmonds, Buccaneers

Notes: We start with several new Colts expected to carry volume the first month. Fantasy managers should build a base of four or five running backs before they get to this tier, but there are intriguing names to watch at the end of a draft. Harris scored 15 touchdowns two seasons ago. Johnson, Miller, Achane and Bigsby are rookies who just need an opportunity.