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Fantasy Football 2018: Running Back Primer

A breakout candidate, a sleeping giant and a committee that's not worth it. Five burning questions before drafting a fantasy running back.

Earlier this summer, Stephen Andress wrote a great column for on running back and wide receiver consistency trends. It’s really instructive, and if you haven’t read it, you definitely should. (After reading my column, of course.) I mention it, however, because I want to reference a key point from it to kick off our running back position primer.

Stephen notes in his piece that just 44.4% of the previous season’s high-end RB1s—No. 1 through No. 6—in PPR leagues repeat as top-12 backs the following season. Last year, the top-six backs in PPR formats were Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, Melvin Gordon and Mark Ingram. In other words, I think that success rate is going to increase when Stephen does his study next year.

The top end of the running back class is as good as it has ever been. It includes Gurley, Bell, Kamara, Hunt and Gordon. It also includes players like David Johnson, who missed nearly all of last year after breaking his wrist Week 1, and Ezekiel Elliott, who was a top-12 back despite playing just 12 games. It includes Leonard Fournette, who ran for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie. It includes Dalvin Cook, who was on his way to a huge rookie campaign before tearing his ACL in early October. It includes rookie Saquon Barkley, the fourth overall pick who appears set to continue the recent pattern set by Elliott, Hunt and Fournette of rookie running backs who become instant fantasy stars. And that’s to say nothing of Devonta Freeman, Jordan Howard and LeSean McCoy.

The running back position is in good hands, and even with backs who finished outside the top 12 last year carrying RB1 potential, chances are the power at the top becomes further entrenched this season.


Burning Questions

Where’s the love for Jordan Howard?

The following is a complete list of running backs with at least 2,000 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns over the last two seasons: Ezekiel Elliott, Le’Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy, Todd Gurley, Mark Ingram, Melvin Gordon and Jordan Howard.

Let’s take that one step further. The following is a complete list of running backs with at least 2,400 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns over the last two seasons: Elliott, Bell, McCoy and Howard. That’s heady company, and let’s remember that these two seasons represent 100% of Howard’s career to date. It’s time to treat the Chicago starter as what he is: a top-20 fantasy asset.

Make no mistake, Howard is the starter and will be the primary back in Chicago this season. Yes, the team made a long overdue move in getting rid of John Fox, and Matt Nagy’s offense will direct plenty of passes to its backs, which isn’t exactly a strong suit of Howard’s. Nagy’s offense is also likely to, you know, feature its best players, and Howard unquestionably is one of those. The Bears went 8-24 the last two seasons, finishing in the bottom quarter of the league in points and yards both years. Still, Howard put up consecutive RB1 seasons in standard leagues, while finishing as the No. 10 back and No. 14 back in PPR formats.

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Tarik Cohen’s role will grow this season, and the Bears will lean more heavily on a retooled passing game that includes Allen Robinson, Anthony Miller, Trey Burton and Taylor Gabriel. Still, Howard has been one of the best runners in the league the last two seasons, and the team isn’t going to marginalize him. He’s a rock-solid top-20 pick.

Is there a sleeping giant at the position?

Why yes, there is. Thank you for that wonderfully specific question that allows me to talk about a player who needs to be getting more attention. Lamar Miller is going to win leagues this season.

There is no doubting that Miller’s first two years in Houston were disappointing. He looked like a true breakout candidate heading into 2016, and while he played well that year, fantasy owners justifiably expected far more than the 1,073 rushing yards, 188 receiving yards and six total touchdowns that he gave them. He turned in nearly the same year in terms of total output last season, running for 888 yards, catching 36 passes for 327 yards, and hitting paydirt six times. He finished just inside the top 20 at the position both years in standard and PPR scoring, but bigger things were expected of him when he signed with the Texans. They may be arriving this year.

Every season, we talk about the three necessary elements for fantasy production: talent, environment and opportunity. Miller has the talent. The last two years have been a slog, but he spent all but seven of his 30 games in a Texans uniform playing with Brock Osweiler, Tom Savage or T.J. Yates as his starting quarterback. In six games with Deshaun Watson as a starter last season, Miller had 524 yards from scrimmage, 19 receptions and four touchdowns, good for 12.73 points per game in standard leagues, and 15.9 points per game in PPR formats. Over a full season, those per-game averages would have made Miller the No. 10 back in standard and the No. 8 back in PPR. Give him a quarterback who isn’t terrible, and it becomes clear that he can play.

The environment in Houston this season is potentially great. Watson began training camp without a knee brace, and is expected to be 100% by time the Texans take the field in Week 1. He was truly special before he tore his ACL last year, leading the Texans to five straight games with at least 33 points. If the offense is nearly or equally as explosive with Watson this year, Miller should be one of the main beneficiaries.

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And then there’s the opportunity. D’Onta Foreman is still nursing a ruptured Achilles suffered last November, and is likely to start the season on the PUP list. The next back on the depth chart is Tyler Ervin. Behind him are Troymaine Pope and Alfred Blue. Miller has a legitimate chance to handle 80% or more of the touches out of Houston’s backfield this year.

Talent, environment and opportunity are all coming together for Miller this season. He’s going to be a fantasy monster.

Which committee is more trouble than it’s worth trying to decipher?

There is at least one backfield every year that is such a headache to figure out, and of so little value even if you do complete the puzzle, that fantasy owners are better off ignoring it altogether. Last year, it was the Jets and Giants. The year before that, it was the Redskins. It happens every year without fail, and pinpointing the right backfield can help fantasy owners avoid wasting a pick in the draft. So, which team is it this year?

Allow me to walk you through Detroit’s backfield.

Let’s first discuss the player whose role is easiest to pin down. Theo Riddick will be back as the primary pass-catcher. Over the last three seasons, he has caught 186 passes on 237 targets, topping out at 697 yards back in 2015. He went 53-71-444 last year with two touchdowns, while making negligible additions on the ground. Another season along those lines is likely, making him a depth back in PPR leagues and a fringe roster player in standard formats.

LeGarrette Blount and rookie Kerryon Johnson will stage a training camp battle for the gig as the primary runner. It’s entirely possible that Blount gets cut, and if that’s the case then this entire section is moot. In that scenario, Johnson would enter the season with RB2 upside. Assuming Blount remains on the roster, the more likely outcome of training camp, it’s hard to see either back gaining enough separation to be a trustworthy fantasy player. Blount has been effective the last two seasons, racking up 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns with the Patriots two years ago, and then settling into a complementary role with the Eagles last year, totaling 766 yards and two scores on 173 carries. Johnson, meanwhile, broke out as a junior at Auburn last year, running for 1,391 yards and 18 scores. At this early stage of the football summer, Johnson is expected to lead the team in carries, but it’s Blount who’s slated for goal-line work.

The division of labor may work just fine for the Lions, but it’s the worst possible breakdown of duties in the fantasy world. One back who hogs all the receiving upside, another who leads the team in carries, and still another who gets the touchdown glory. Add it up, and it’s fantasy headache waiting to happen.

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What is Mark Ingram’s value?

Ingram will miss the first four games of the season due to a suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy. He’s eligible to return for the Saints’ Week 5 game against the Redskins, at which point he’ll be joining an offense that features almost exactly the same personnel as it did a year ago when he had the best season of his career: 1,124 rushing yards, 58 receptions, 416 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns.

The personnel in New Orleans may be nearly the same as it was a year ago, but there’s no guarantee that the circumstances will follow suit. The Saints could give more work to Alvin Kamara, and it’s also possible he commands a larger role with his performance in the first four games while Ingram is suspended. Drew Brees could wrest back some of the team’s touchdown production after he threw for just 23 touchdowns last year, his lowest mark in a Saints uniform. There are so many variables, all of which could break for or against Ingram, and the exact position he’ll be stepping into is unknowable at this point. The best we can do is craft a reasonable range of outcomes, and that range suggests that Ingram will be more valuable than many fantasy owners would expect for a player suspended for four games.

The Saints had one of their best years of the Brees/Sean Payton era last season. They went 11-5, won the NFC South, and were a Minnesota Miracle away from getting to the NFC Championship Game. They finished second in the league in total yards, first in yards per play, fifth in rushing yards, first in yards per rushing attempt, and fourth in scoring. Circumstances invariably change from year to year, but it’s reasonable to expect the Saints to try to run things back as near to last year as possible. Last year, Ingram scored 15.6 points per game in standard leagues, and 17.8 points per game in PPR formats. For the sake of conversation, let’s give him a range that sets endpoints of 75% and 100% of last year’s production. Over 12 games, that would put him between 140.4 and 187.2 points in standard leagues, and 160.2 and 213.6 in PPR leagues. For the full season, the bottom of Ingram’s range would put him in the low-end RB2 neighborhood, while the top of it would have him flirting with the RB1 class, and that accounts for the four missed games.

Those are admittedly simplified calculations, but they go to show that Ingram shouldn’t slide too far down your draft board. Remember, it’s not like you take a zero in the starting slot you have reserved for him those first four weeks. Twelve games of Ingram and four games of a replacement back like Duke Johnson, Nyheim Hines or Corey Clement could easily come out to season-long RB1 production. Ingram has a late-fourth-round ADP heading into training camp, and that feels like a fair price. Don’t hesitate to grab him there.

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Why Le’Veon Bell over Todd Gurley?

Most members of the fantasy industry have Bell and Gurley first and second, in either order. Gurley has the higher average ranking, but I would take Bell with the first overall pick, and happily settle for Gurley at No. 2. Why do I have Bell first and Gurley second? It comes down to track record.

Since entering the league in 2013, Bell has 5,336 rushing yards, 312 receptions, 2,660 receiving yards and 42 touchdowns in 62 games. That comes out to 86.06 rushing yards, 5.03 receptions, 42.9 receiving yards and 0.68 touchdowns per game. Translate that to the fantasy world over 16 games, and you get 271.62 standard-league points and 352.1 PPR points. Those would have been no worse than top five numbers in standard and top three numbers in PPR in any of Bell’s five seasons. That, of course, includes his rookie year, in which he ceded 107 carries and 29 targets to Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones and Isaac Redman. In the four seasons since his rookie year, Bell has averaged an astonishing 17.91 points per game in standard leagues and 23.36 points per game in PPR formats, which comes out to 286.56 points and 373.76 points over 16 games.

Bell has been a top-three running back in standard and PPR formats three times in the last four years. No other back has been in the top three in either format, let alone both, more than once. Bell came up short of the top three in 2015 when he missed 10 games due to suspension and injury, and it’s likely he would be working on a streak of four straight top-three seasons had he not torn his MCL in Week 8; he finished that season third in points per game in standard leagues and fourth in PPR.

Much has been made of the fact that Bell had 321 carries and 85 receptions last year, the 43rd 400-touch season in NFL history. That’s certainly a lot of work, and the mileage will eventually be a concern for Bell one of these seasons. This, however, is not that season. We’re still talking about a 26-year-old who happens to be a world-class athlete in the middle of his physical prime. For sake of comparison, LaDainian Tomlinson started his career with seven straight seasons with at least 375 touches, reaching the 390-touch mark five times. He didn’t start to slow down until his age-30 season, which was two years removed from his most recent 375-touch campaign. Bell, meanwhile, has hit 375 touches just twice in his first five seasons. The workload isn’t yet a concern, and neither is missing training camp and the exhibition season, which he will do after he and the Steelers couldn’t come to agreement on a long-term contract. If anything, that’s a positive for a veteran who doesn’t need training camp reps to be ready for the season.

This isn’t a knock on Gurley, who should thrive once again in Sean McVay’s offense. I will happily take him second overall. If I have the first pick, though, I’m trusting the guy who has delivered elite fantasy value on a per-game basis every single season of his career. That’s Bell.