Going into 2016, I wrote an article where I went over how zero-WR is dumb and zero-RB is a ray of sunlight and truth. I was half right. 2016 was not the year to do the "Zero RB" game and hope to win your fantasy league. (OK Jordan Howard and Jay Ajayi owners, stop tweeting at me.)
You'll see people, like preachers on street corners, beg that you throw away your love for running backs and focus on talented WR, but this year's champions know the truth. Without some combination of David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott, and Le'Veon Bell at RB1, you didn't sniff the championship game this year. However, that doesn't mean that talent was totally desolate among other rookies and underrated players. Here are the biggest surprises at RB in 2016.
Biggest RB Surprises of 2016
DeMarco Murray's name will haunt me for years. I was among a select group of intelligent individuals who thought the running back would be a change-of-pace option ultimately behind Derrick Henry. While Henry ended the year with strong work in Tennessee, DeMarco Murray started the season on fire and ended up as the RB5 in PPR leagues. Murray may eventually lose his job to Henry, but this year saw a very respectable average of 80 rushing yards per game. Yes, even more than David Johnson and Melvin Gordon. Murray is still a stud for the team, and a pleasant surprise for anyone who had the nerve to draft him at his 19th RB (48th player overall) ADP.
Melvin Gordon ended last year on a lot of analysts' "Not Again" lists, decrying the fact that the highly regarded back was largely useless in 2015. Gordon saw respectable numbers that, up until a grizzly injury during the fantasy playoffs, helped guide a lot of teams to consistent victory. 254 attempts on the season saw a slightly disappointing 997 yards of rushing, but Gordon was a frequent red zone visitor and owned a respectable 3.9 yards per attempt. The numbers aren't incredible, but his consistent usage and improved results are a reminder of how low the expectations were. Gordon was RB23 off most boards, well below Jonathan Stewart and Jeremy Hill, only slightly below Jeremy Langford, Ryan Mathews, and just above Arian Foster. In a year where many people bet on Thomas Rawls and Eddie Lacy as their RB1, Melvin Gordon was a celebrated RB2 for most of the year.
LeGarrette Blount's draft card was simple; Dion Lewis might come back soon, but until then you could do worse. Not that the argument won over a lot of drafters; he was RB36 in average ADP, taken behind both Jacksonville running backs in most leagues (because we now live in a world where guaranteed touchdowns for a few weeks are not as good as possibly no touchdowns ever.) This fact will help you win some bar trivia too. In a year that saw so many dominant run-and-catch backs, Blount stuck to pounding the ball and led the league with 18 rushing touchdowns. It's anyone's guess if Blount will return to such high-scoring form with Dion Lewis running rampant in the playoffs, but believers in 2016 benefited from a player who operated on red zone autopilot.
This is where I give you the all-too-recycled Jay Ajayi take: he deserves it too. 4.9 yards per attempt, 1,272 rushing yards, eight touchdowns, all more incredible given the fact that he didn't see consistent opportunity until nearly halfway into the (fantasy) season. I watched people do a full 180 degree turn on Ajayi, from "he's being left off the team plane cause of behavior? DROP HIM" to "Oh my god did you see that third touchdown? He's incredible." Just goes to show you, talent always gets benefit of the doubt. Once the Dolphins' starting O-line returned to health, Tannehill and Ajayi both benefited greatly, and given this health prerequisite, Ajayi should operate similarly next year.
Jordan Howard was my pick in a lot of leagues, even when he was largely not being drafted. I'm an evangelist of ESPN's Mike Clay, who was so deliberately down on Jeremy Langford all season, I thought I'd give the backup a flyer. Langford lost his job quickly, and Jordan Howard quietly garnered the fourth-highest total of receiving yards on an otherwise bad team. Howard was consistent, talented, always making runs meaningful, and cashing in on about 87.5 yards a game statistic that casually ignores the fact he didn't play much until about Week 5. Howard is likely in the second tier of running backs in 2017, but could absolutely thrive on what appears to be buildable-upon results. He's my favorite player on this list for next year's potential.
Check out RotoBaller's famous 2017 fantasy football draft sleepers and waiver wire pickups list, updated regularly!