Running Backs to Target in 2019
Author: Kiel Messinger (@KielMessiFFA)
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Running backs are the engine that your fantasy team runs on. Some will take you through the finish line, like Saquon Barkley or Christian McCaffrey (most common player on championship rosters) last season. However, similar to engines, they can explode at any moment. Just ask those who drafted Todd Gurley last season and rode him all the way to the fantasy playoffs before watching him crash and burn. Given the injuries, committees, and dependence on the offense, elite workhorse running backs are hard to come by, and landing one on draft day gives your team a significant advantage over your opponents. Though there will be a couple waiver wire gems like James Conner and Phillip Lindsay, reliable running back production is almost impossible to find on the waiver wire, and when it's there, you must pay for it. Therefore, your success in drafting running backs is more vital than any other fantasy position. It can, and likely will, make or break your season. This doesn't mean you have to draft running backs early (Zero RB can be a valid strategy), but it does mean your hit rate when you choose to draft them needs to be high. With that in mind, here are the running backs I am targeting at their current ADP.
David Johnson (ADP: RB #5)
Disappointing. That is the only word that can describe David Johnson in fantasy over the past two seasons. He was a workhorse last season, top five in both snap share and touches among running backs, but on the league's worst offense, Johnson's efficiency was extremely poor, with 3.6 yards per carry (4.1 career average), and 8.9 yards per reception (10.8 career average).
Kliff Kingsbury changes all this. Let me preface this by saying I don't believe that they will achieve their goal of running 90 plays per game, because that is, as Kliff Kingsbury may have been when saying it, ridiculously high. However, if they shoot for the moon, they'll land somewhere among the stars, and given that Kingsbury averaged 84.3 plays per game in college, I expect them to be among the league leaders.
Speaking of (s)pace, something Johnson saw little of last season (top 6 in stacked box percentage), the addition of a mobile quarterback and improved pass-catchers will prevent opposing teams from just focusing on stopping the run, allowing Johnson to be more efficient. Whether you believe in this "air-raid" system from an NFL perspective or not, there is little doubt that it is good for fantasy. In Kingsbury's six years at Texas Tech, the Red Raiders averaged at least 30 points and 470 yards EVERY season, showing once and for all, that Raiders can score the ball. Though this system has been most beneficial to the passing attack, his offenses averaged at least 140 rushing yards per game in four of those six seasons, and were fifth in the nation in terms of targets to running backs. With clear talent, workhorse touches, an improved offense, and given the question marks among other elite backs, Johnson is a clear top five pick for me in all formats.
Joe Mixon (ADP: RB #10)
After disappointing from an efficiency perspective in his rookie year, Mixon showed why he was such a touted prospect last season, averaging just under five yards per carry, finishing top six in the league in yards created per game, and finishing as the RB 9 in fantasy. Most importantly, he did it under one of the worst offensive minds in the history of the NFL, Marvin Lewis. Yes, that dude who coached for 16 seasons without winning a playoff game (the Dallas Cowboys of coaches), and last season, hired Hue Jackson- a man who had the same amount of wins in 2017 as I did- to assist in playcalling.
I have no clue whether or not new head coach Zachary Taylor will be good, but similar to Lamar Jackson taking over from Joe Flacco last season, the bar has been set low. The offense is definitely a concern, with A.J. Green dealing with injuries, and rookie Jonah Williams out for the year, but remember, Green missed significant portions of last season, and Jonah Williams wasn't even on the team. The Bengals were still 17th in scoring, even with Jeff Driskel as the starter for a couple games, and he is no Red Rifle (had to sneak that in). Though the offensive concerns hinder Mixon's fantasy outlook, last season was likely his floor, and if Zachary Taylor paid attention in running back class under Sean McVay, Mixon’s talent gives him borderline top 5 upside.
Dalvin Cook (ADP: RB #11)
"He's injury prone". That is the only argument I have heard this offseason against Dalvin Cook. However, that is being baked, or more appropriately, “cooked”, into his draft price. If health wasn't a concern, Cook would be a first round pick for me, as a top 6 running back. Instead, he is going at the end of the 2nd round. When on the field, Cook has been more than dynamic, leading the league in missed tackles forced per touch and juke rate success, and among the league leaders in yards per carry. And that was with him playing through a hamstring injury last season. He is also extremely involved in the passing game, with over 40 catches in 11 games last season.
When Cook has been on the field and healthy, he has been a borderline top 10 running back, and this season, the team added Gary Kubiak as the offensive coordinator. Kubiak's offenses have always ranked top 12 in rushing yards and were top 5 in nine of his twelve seasons. Though Cook may be vultured by Alexander Mattison at the goal line, he has been vultured by Latavius Murray in each of the past two seasons, yet still finished as a RB 1 when healthy. Though Cook's health is definitely a concern, last season's hamstring injury was simply a follow-up to the ACL, as we see commonly in the NFL (just look at Derrius Guice). You know you are getting an RB 1 when healthy, which can't be said with everyone in this range.
Aaron Jones (ADP: RB #15)
FREE THE MAN. Aaron Jones has been nothing but the league's most efficient running back in his two seasons in the NFL, averaging 5.5 yards per carry in BOTH seasons, and is PFF's highest graded runner during that stretch. New head coach Matt Lafleur is in town, but has not yet awarded Jones with his sock. The truth is, as much as I would love to believe that Lafleur learned his lesson with Derrick Henry in Tennessee that he should play his best guy, I can't be certain. All reports indicate that Green Bay will once again have a running back by committee, where the last featured back was Eddie Lacy, who ate up at least 15 carries per game (keeping his carry to Big Mac ratio in check) for two straight seasons.
So, if I am unsure he gets the touches, why do I have so much faith in Jones? The answer is that he doesn't need that many touches. Last season, from weeks 7 to 14, Jones averaged 18.1 fantasy points per game, which was top 8 during that span, averaging under 14 rushes per game. Green Bay had historically low rushing attempts last season, and whether Lafleur uses a committee or not, that will change, especially with an improved defense. Jones has also been working in the passing game, which could greatly increase his week to week floor. So, even if Jones remains in a committee, he can still be a fringe RB 1, and if the man is freed, he has league winning upside. #FreeAaronJones.
Kerryon Johnson (ADP: RB #16)
Call me crazy, but I think Kerryon Johnson is this year's Christian McCaffrey. Both were limited in early down work as a rookie, and though McCaffrey showed more of his receiving prowess, with over 80 receptions, Kerryon caught over 80% of his passes (70% for CMC) and had 32 catches, while only playing 10 games. The Lions cut Theo Riddick for a reason, who had over 50 receptions in each of the last three seasons (60 last year). Kerryon will inherit this pass-catching role, almost guaranteeing 60 catches, with the upside for more.
The Lions coaching staff has also made it clear they want to run the ball. Last season, Kerryon averaged 5.4 yards per carry, DOUBLING that of his teammate LeGarrette Blount. Yes, new signee C.J. Anderson could inherit the Blount role, but Anderson should be remembered for being cut by the Panthers last season after a man named Christian McCaffrey proved he was better on early downs. Even with Blount taking 154 carries last season, Kerryon was on pace for over 175 carries in his 10 games. The only players with 175 carries and 60 receptions last season were Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Alvin Kamara, and once again Christian McCaffrey. That is some pretty nice company to be in, especially given Kerryon's aforementioned efficiency on his touches.
Though touchdowns could be an issue, given that the Lions aren't exactly the cream of the crop, the team averaged 20.3 points per game last season with Marvin Jones injured and Matthew Stafford playing with a broken back. Christian McCaffrey's Panthers averaged just three more points per game. The Lions also added Danny Amendola and T.J. Hockenson to add some offensive weapons. LeGarrette Blount had 17 red zone rushes last season, and he is no longer in town. If Kerryon stays healthy, I have little doubt he will be a top 10 back this season.
Josh Jacobs (ADP: RB #20)
When he's not trading away his best player, reaching in the draft, cursing out his team on Hard Knocks, or praising Nathan Peterman, Jon Gruden loves feeding his workhorse back. There is a misconception that Gruden prefers not to have a workhorse running back and like saying he's a good coach, that is just flat out false. After drafting Cadillac Williams in the first round in 2005, Gruden gave him over 300 touches in only fourteen games. The next season, despite being horribly inefficient, Williams had over 250 touches in 14 games. In all of Gruden's 7 seasons as head coach in Tampa Bay, the starting running back was on pace to surpass 200 carries. Even last season, Marshawn Lynch had 15 carries per game. So, Gruden has almost always had a workhorse back in the past, and Jacob's first round draft pedigree along with the lack of competition indicates he will be the guy.
Also, Jacobs is an elite pass-catching prospect (led the nation in yards per target and yards per route run), and though Jalen Richard is there, it is unlikely Jacobs won't have passing down work. Last season, only 7 running backs had over 200 carries and 35 targets, and they were ALL top 10 fantasy running backs. Though the offense is a concern, it will be significantly improved from last season with the additions of Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams. The offense could limit Jacob's upside, but his volume gives him a very solid floor that he is likely being drafted below.
David Montgomery (ADP: RB #23)
I'm going to preface this by saying the Bears running back situation is something to monitor during the preseason, as if it becomes a 3-way committee, Montgomery likely won't return value. However, I am of the mindset that head coach Matt Nagy wanted a Kareem Hunt (on the field), an every down back that he could use without telegraphing his play. Last season, the Bears had a pure rushing back in Jordan Howard and a pure receiving back in Tarik Cohen.
Nagy is from the Andy Reid coaching tree, where one workhorse back is preferred. So, why didn't they use one? Few remember that they tried. In the first two games of the season, the team tried to make Howard a three down back, giving him five and four targets, the highest totals of his career. Cohen only had four and one target in those weeks. However, the team noticed that Howard just couldn't perform in the passing game, and from then on, Howard never topped two targets in a week, while Cohen averaged over 6. This offseason, the team signed Mike Davis, a capable 3 down back, and drafted David Montgomery, who showed he could be a 3 down back in college.
Though many criticize Montgomery's speed, his 40 time is .01 off of Kareem Hunt's. However, similar to Hunt, he is extremely elusive, as Montgomery was the only running back since 2014 to have over 100 missed tackles forced in a season, and he did it twice. According to the Chicago Tribune, Tarik Cohen, "might not get as many touches as he has at running back," hinting that Nagy wants to keep Monty on the field on 3rd down. Remember, Jordan Howard had 270 carries last season, so if Monty gets even 250, and some passing down work, he could be a star. As stated earlier, ALL running backs that received 200 carries and 35 targets were top 10 fantasy backs, and the rookie could easily exceed both numbers. If you are drafting now, take Montgomery before his price rises.
Rashaad Penny (ADP: RB #32)
Though a bust from a fantasy perspective last season, Penny was actually surprisingly good when on the field last season. He averaged 4.9 yards per carry and was among the league's leaders in breakaway percentage and juke rate. A highly touted prospect taken in the first round, Penny is by no means a lost cause, and though Chris Carson will likely remain as the lead back for the Seahawks, they led the league in rushing attempts last season, allowing multiple backs to have fantasy success.
If Penny adds to his 94 touches from last season to the over 140 touches missing from Mike Davis, he will have a decent floor. Penny has enough touches for consistent RB 2 numbers, especially if he continues to be efficient and gets passing down work. However, what makes Penny such a great pick is that he not only has stand alone value, but RB 1 upside if Carson goes down. Though you never want to bank on an injury, Carson hasn't played a full season since high school due to injuries. Penny is a steal at his current ADP, being drafted at his floor with significant upside.
Miles Sanders (ADP: RB #34)
Every day I check my phone. And every day I see tons of training camp reports. Antonio Brown getting foot cancer. Antonio Brown wanting brain cancer. Ryan Fitzpatrick being the best quarterback in Miami (or the world). Nathan Peterman growing on Gruden (along with the first pick in the draft). Devante Parker being in the best shape of his life (wait, we haven't gotten that report this year). The list goes on...
However, among all the hype, news, videos, and reports, the one thing that I notice every day is some variation of Miles Sanders being by far the best running back on the Eagles. Originally, I was off of Sanders, with Doug Pederson's history of using a committee and Jordan Howard getting first team reps, but at this point, there are so many reports on Sanders from numerous beat reporters that it can't be ignored. I mean, it seems Sanders is the best runner, pass-catcher, pass-blocker, kick returner, and waterboy on the team. In all seriousness, one coach saying someone looks good means nothing to me, but there is a point where so many respected reporters are saying the same thing, you have to believe it, as seen with Chris Carson's training camp hype last season.
Sanders was many people's No.1 RB prospect in this class, totaling more rushing yards at Penn State in 2018 than this dude named Saquon Barkley did in 2017. Though Pederson has always used a committee, he hasn't really had a capable workhorse like Sanders. Last season, before getting injured, Pederson gave Jay Ajayi 15 touches in 2 of 3 games. After that, the Eagles running backs were Darren Sproles, Josh Adams, Corey Clement, and Wendell Smallwood, so it made sense to have a committee approach. If Sanders gets 15 touches on this offense, he will very likely be an RB 2 or better. So, he doesn't have to be a workhorse to return value at this price, but there is elite upside if Pederson decides to commit to him.
Latavius Murray (ADP: RB #35)
If a player inherits a role that has finished RB 8 and RB 27 over the past two seasons, and has mid-level RB1 upside, where do you draft him? RB 35? That is the value of Latavius Murray, who takes over the Mark Ingram role from years prior. The Saints offense has always featured more of a two-headed approach in terms of running backs, and with the team finishing first or second in running back fantasy points for SEVEN straight seasons, both are usually fantasy relevant.
Though many assume Murray to be a downgrade from Ingram, last season, they had the same number of evaded tackles, and Ingram had only .12 more yards created per attempt. Murray has excelled around the goal line throughout his career, where Mark Ingram was featured in New Orleans (19 touchdowns in his last 28 games). The team has stated that Alvin Kamara will get similar touches to last season, so the opportunities will be there for Murray. Along with weekly flex appeal, Murray has elite upside if Kamara goes down, giving him a fantastic floor/ceiling combination at his price.
Austin Ekeler (ADP: RB #37)
This is somewhat dependent on Melvin Gordon holding out, but Ekeler finished as the RB 24 last season, so he could have value either way. Though this was largely due to Melvin Gordon missing 4 games, Gordon has not been a model of health, playing 16 games only once in his career. When Gordon is on the field, Ekeler can still be used as a flex option given his targets and efficiency. Though some would argue Justin Jackson is the handcuff to Gordon, it will likely be a committee, with Ekeler as the lead. In the 3 games Gordon was out and Ekeler was active, Ekeler averaged over 17 touches, while Jackson averaged 7.
Though many point to the fact that Jackson started in week 14, that was only because Ekeler was injured. When on the field last season, Ekeler was top 10 in yards per carry, yards per target, elusive rating, PFF grade, and breakaway rate. As impressive as this is, he was actually MORE efficient in 2017. If Gordon holds out, Ekeler will see at least 15 touches a game, which could still put him in borderline RB 1 territory. If not, he was ranked as my RB 40 before the hold out news, so he can still be used as a bye week fill in.
Damien Harris (ADP: RB #43)
Speaking of rookie running backs on elite offenses behind a starter with knee issues, enter Damien Harris. In each of the last three seasons, a Patriots running back drafted outside of the top 30 has finished as an RB 1. Though many were shocked that the Patriots drafted Harris in the 3rd round a year after spending a first round pick on Sony Michel, the pick makes more sense when you realize Michel had injury issues in college and his rookie season. Last season, the Patriots saw how valuable it was to have Michel healthy in the playoffs, as they, you know, won that thing called the Super Bowl. According to my expert analysis, Bill Belichick is a smart guy, and therefore he knows it is unlikely Michel will stay healthy the whole season if given a major workload. That leaves room for Harris to take significant work in early down and goal line situations.
Though many tout Michel as an excellent short yardage back, in college, he had a 51% conversion rate in scenarios within 3 yards, and Harris was at 62%. In an offense where LeGarrette Blount scored eighteen rushing touchdowns in 2016, I want the goal line back. We know that the Patriots use every back on their roster, and they are surprisingly run-heavy (3rd most rushing attempts in the league last season), so there is room for multiple fantasy relevant running backs, even if Michel stays on the field, and that is a big if. A Michel injury would instantly catapult Harris into the RB 1 territory.
Duke Johnson (ADP: RB #47)
Duke Johnson could be the most underrated back in the league. And if there's one thing that can ever boost someone's career, it's getting out of Cleveland. Though rarely mentioned, Duke ranked 2nd best in the league in elusive rating last season. Despite being used as a gimmick back, he is consistently among the league leaders in missed tackles forced. The one part of his game that is respected is his pass-catching ability, and rightfully so. He has caught over 70% of his targets every season, even with horrific QB play, and averages just under 60 catches a year throughout his career. So, how will he be used in Houston?
Well, the departure of Alfred Blue leaves 150 carries on the table, which Duke should easily take. Though he hasn't seen over 104 carries in an NFL season, few remember that Johnson was a workhorse in college, and is not horribly small at 210 pounds. If Alfred Blue can get these carries, anyone can. We know Duke excels in the passing game, which should lead to work on 3rd downs, and in the slot, especially if Keke Coutee remains injured. These roles could easily get Duke to 150 carries and 50 receptions, which would put him in some good company. The only running backs last season to achieve these numbers were Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Melvin Gordon, David Johnson, James Conner, Todd Gurley, and Dion Lewis. The only member of that group who finished outside of the top 10 in fantasy was Dion Lewis, and he was horribly inefficient. Duke on the other hand has been efficient throughout his career and is on what could be a top 10 offense (11th last season).
So, Johnson already could have major value, and we haven't even taken into account the possibility that he wins the job from Miller. Miller is 28 years old, with over 1500 career touches. This makes it likely that he regresses or gets injured, and even if he doesn't, Duke has rated higher than Miller in almost every efficiency metric. Duke is a steal at the end of drafts.
Matt Breida (ADP: RB #50)
Matt Breida is a hell of a running back. Last season, he was top 10 in yards per carry, yards per target, and breakaway rate. We know what Tevin Coleman is, an average runner who can contribute in the passing game. We also know what Jerick Mckinnon is, averaging just 4.0 yards per carry over his career, almost always struggling with injuries, and though touted as an elite pass-catcher, never had a more efficient season in the passing game than Breida last season. And, we know a Kyle Shanahan offense can produce two fantasy relevant running backs, so is the most efficient back not going to be one of these two?
Well, ADP reflects that, with Breida being drafted last of the trio. Breida comes with massive upside if he is used in the Devonta Freeman role of the Shanahan offense, which he fits best. Though many think Coleman will be the lead back, which he very well could, he showed us last year when Devonta Freeman went down that he is not a workhorse back, as the Falcons used Ito Smith and Brian Hill to take away touches. Breida is an almost free shot at someone who could easily be a weekly RB 2.
Devin Singletary (ADP: RB #51)
This is another one to monitor in pre-season, but as much as LeSean McCoy may think he is the guy in Buffalo, and Frank Gore may continue to be Frank Gore, Singletary should be the workhorse for the Bills. Singletary has been getting first team reps and looked good in his first pre-season game. Though he is not hyper athletic, he was one of the shiftiest backs in college on film, and his NFL comp is Shady McCoy, making him the perfect replacement.
I do not know what the Bills offense will look like this season, but they have indicated it should involve more running. Though it is a legitimate question whether Josh Allen can make an accurate dump off, Singletary significantly improved his route tree in college, and that can't hurt. It is unlikely Singletary will have a major impact out of the gate given the veteran presence around him, but if you are willing to sacrifice a bench spot and stash him for a month, it could pay off in a huge way.
Darwin Thompson (ADP: RB #64)
The starting running back on the Chiefs will be a fantasy stud. Not only are they the best offense in the league, but Andy Reid has had more success than any other head coach in terms of fantasy running backs, with a top 8 fantasy running back in points per game in 12 of the last 15 seasons. Whoever is there will succeed, but the question is just who it will be?
Darwin could very well be the guy. Damien Williams already has a hamstring injury and has never handled more than 50 carries in a season. Carlos Hyde is on his third team in 3 years. That leaves just Thompson, the 6th round rookie out of Utah State. Though many would argue that Thompson is not a workhorse due to his size, he has already received first team reps, showed he can handle a workload in college, and is ridiculously strong. The man, or shall I say beast, squatted OVER 600 pounds. That's like, at least 1.5 Andy Reid's.
Though he is still likely third in the pecking order, there is no doubt Darwin has a chance at the starting job, and as stated earlier, that starting job almost guarantees RB 1 numbers. Even if his chances are only 10% (I think they are higher), are you really gonna pass up a 10% chance at an RB 1 in the last round of your draft? Darwin is the cheapest player with clear RB 1 upside and should be stashed in every league.