It’s championship week, but if you have nothing to play for, you still have plenty to prepare for — next season.
Let’s take an early look at the top of the 2017 draft board, where running backs have reclaimed their old turf. David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell and Ezekiel Elliott are the first three players on my overall board. They lead all non-quarterbacks in points per game this season (in that order), and their situations don’t figure to change next season.
Some early boards I’ve seen are filled with wide receivers in the top spots, such as Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans and Antonio Brown, who was widely ranked No. 1 before this season. But with the WR position deeper than ever, Johnson, Bell and Elliott should be ranked first given their unique abilities.
Elliott and Johnson rank 1-2 in touches, and Bell is fourth behind DeMarco Murray. He probably would be first if he wasn’t suspended for the first three games of the season. Johnson and Bell rank 1-3 in yards from scrimmage, thanks to ranking 1-2 in receptions among running backs. Elliott ranks second in yards, despite ranking 27th in catches.
The three are in a class by themselves. They’re among the most involved players in the NFL, and they have the talent and supporting cast to make the most of their opportunities. They bring stability at a volatile position, and they have plenty of tread left on their tires (Johnson is 25, Bell 24 and Elliott 21).
Granted, top wide receivers aren’t a dime a dozen. But if you pass on one for a running back early in the first round, you still could come away with a quality No. 1 receiver in the second round. You could take one in the third, too, because of the security those three running backs provide.
Whatever order you prefer them in, Johnson, Bell and Elliott should be the first players drafted next season. They show how valuable a consistent, productive running back can be.
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EARLY 2017 TOP 25 DRAFT BOARD
- RB David Johnson, Cardinals
- RB Le’Veon Bell, Steelers
- RB Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys
- WR Mike Evans, Buccaneers
- WR Antonio Brown, Steelers
- WR Odell Beckham Jr., Giants
- WR Julio Jones, Falcons
- WR Amari Cooper, Raiders
- RB Todd Gurley, Rams
- WR A.J. Green, Bengals
- WR Jordy Nelson, Packers
- WR Dez Bryant, Cowboys
- RB Melvin Gordon, Chargers
- WR Allen Robinson, Jaguars
- WR Sammy Watkins, Bills
- TE Rob Gronkowski, Patriots
- WR DeAndre Hopkins, Texans
- WR Brandon Cooks, Saints
- WR T.Y. Hilton, Colts
- WR Alshon Jeffery, Bears
- WR Keenan Allen, Chargers
- WR Demaryius Thomas, Broncos
- WR Michael Thomas, Saints
- WR Donte Moncrief, Colts
- RB Lamar Miller, Texans
WEEK 16 OUTLOOK
The stock market is closed for the season. For championship games in Weeks 16 and 17, let’s focus on Studs and Duds.
Chargers QB Philip Rivers: He has thrown multiple TD passes in seven consecutive games. Never mind his 18 interceptions. The Browns have only eight all season.
Rams RB Todd Gurley: Sometimes a coaching change gives a team a lift. That might be true here, but the 49ers’ league-worst run defense should help, too.
Bears RB Jordan Howard: He has scored in double digits in four consecutive games, and the Redskins have allowed the fourth-most points to RBs.
Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin: The Cardinals have allowed an average of 31.2 points to wide receivers in the last five games.
Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas: He has the hot hand, and the Chiefs have allowed a 100-yard receiver in four of their last five games.
Cowboys QB Dak Prescott: The Lions have allowed an average of 10.6 points to quarterbacks in the last five games.
Bengals RB Jeremy Hill: The Texans have allowed an average of 59.2 rushing yards to RBs in the last five games. That doesn’t bode well for the TD-dependent Hill.
Jets running backs: Matt Forte and Bilal Powell figure to struggle against the Patriots, who rank fourth in run defense and have allowed four rushing TDs to RBs.
Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins: A quarterback change might not save him against the Bengals, who have allowed an average of 12.4 points to WRs in the last five games.
Titans WR Rishard Matthews: The Jaguars rank fourth in pass defense and have allowed one touchdown pass to a WR in the last six games.