Fantasy Football Running Backs: Kill, Marry, Chill

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Drew Rice

And we’re back! With training camps underway and fantasy-draft season picking up, we’re here as your trusted advisors with another round of “Kill, Marry, Chill.” For the next few weeks, we’ll be going through each position and telling you who to kill (avoid drafting), marry (target as quality options), and chill (keep on your radar as a sleeper). So, don’t get into your draft just yet, because we know what you need to do to take home that championship. Or, at the very least, avoid that last-place punishment.

These ADPs and QB rankings come courtesy of ESPN and were last updated on August 21. I’ll also be looking at these rankings from the standpoint of a 10-team league because an 8-team league is weak and one with 12+ teams is for people who do in-depth research on the Packers’ fifth-string wide receiver.

We’ve already covered the quarterbacks so now let’s go to the running backs. This is the group you need to nail if you want to make a meaningful playoff run in your league, so here are some early-round options to target and avoid, a pair of guys I like as later options.

Kill

Nick Chubb (ADP: 17.1, RB 8)

Chubb is going as RB 8 on ESPN after he was RB 8 in PPR and RB 6 in standard in 2019. The big picture belies the first- and second-half splits though, and they show that he’s probably more like an RB2, especially in PPR.

Chubb was RB 5 in standard and RB 6 in PPR after Week 8, but at that point, Kareem Hunt finished serving his suspension and joined Chubb in Cleveland’s backfield for the rest of the season. With a quality pass-catching back working behind him Chubb was RB 12 in standard and RB 15 in PPR from Weeks 9-17.

Moreover, don’t you want your RB1 to be a consistent producer? Sure, Chubb’s liable to get a breakaway run at any time, but according to Football Outsiders, he had a 45% success rate on his runs in 2019, 37th out of 45 backs with at least 100 carries. That inconsistency showed up in fantasy, too, as the former Georgia Bulldog had under 10 points in seven of 16 games in 2019. You’ll probably see higher-upside and more reliable week-to-week options on the board in the late-first or early-second round, such as Josh Jacobs or Clyde Edwards-Helaire (more on him later).

Honorable Mention – David Johnson (ADP 46.2, RB 19)

David Johnson will have to work quite hard this offseason to justify drafting him as an RB2.

Bill O’Brien makes one of the worst trades anyone has ever seen and all of a sudden David Johnson is going to be good again?

Everyone’s assuming Johnson will be a three-down back because O’Brien wants to save face on his awful decision-making, but this is the same David Johnson that has put up a pathetic 3.65 yards-per-carry on 352 rushing attempts over the past two seasons. That’s the second-worst mark among backs with at least 300 carries since 2018. If the former first-team all-pro keeps playing that way, he won’t get 200+ carries. Sports are a meritocracy.

Da. Johnson also won’t be the sole handler of the backfield’s receiving duties either, because O’Brien used a third-round pick to acquire Duke Johnson last season, and even if the former Johnson is still a solid option in the passing game, the latter is arguably a better one.

This Texans team is also due to regress this season, which may require Deshaun Watson to throw the ball a lot. Fantasy football is a game of opportunities (Todd Gurley and his arthritic knees were still a top-15 RB in 2019), but even if David Johnson gets a predominant share of the carries for some reason, there may not be enough to make good on his draft position. There won’t be any sure-handed running backs left by the time you get to round 5, but there will still be plenty of other guys with more upside.

Marry

Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ADP: 12.9, RB 7)

How do you become a top fantasy running back in an Andy Reid offense? By becoming the undisputed number one back and getting 250-300 touches, the rest takes care of itself. It’s easy to forget that because Kansas City had Damien Williams split starting duties with LeSean McCoy last season, but when Reid puts his trust into one guy, it’s a wrap. Enter Clyde Edwards-Helaire.

While Williams stood to get a healthy number of snaps this season after his monster performance in the last playoffs, he decided to opt out of the season, so there’s no one to take away any significant snaps from the first-round pick out of LSU. And, as I alluded to above, Andy Reid’s top running backs have a long history of dominating in fantasy.

Since 1999, Reid’s first year as an NFL head coach, his lead running backs have an average stat line of 912 rushing yards, 454 receiving yards (1366 yards from scrimmage), and 9.6 total touchdowns. Those lead backs scored an average of 194.3 points in standard format, which would have made the run-of-the-mill Andy Reid running back RB 10 last year. Keep in mind that those numbers include top options in seasons when Reid used a running-back-by-committee approach, so Edwards-Helaire stands to exceed those marks as a bell-cow back.

The draft spot makes him all the more appealing. Picking in the back-half of the first round is a tricky spot some years, but based on ESPN’s draft trends, it looks like you can easily snag Edwards-Helaire and then a top-five wide receiver if you end up picking in the 8-10 range. That’ll get your roster off to a championship-caliber start.

Honorable Mention – Joe Mixon (ADP: 25.9, RB 14)

That’s the face of a man getting no respect in fantasy leagues.

Mixon finished 11th in PPR and 13th in standard last season, so going as RB 14 makes sense, right? Not even close.

Mixon was absolutely atrocious in the first half of the season. And when I say atrocious, I mean Le’Veon Bell had a better first half than Mixon. I’m not sure what happened to Mixon during Cincinnati’s bye week, but during the second half of the year, he all of a sudden became one of the best backs in football, picking up 994 scrimmage yards and 5 touchdowns. Accordingly, the first and second half splits for fantasy were jarring—RB 33 in standard and 31 in PPR in Weeks 1-8, RB 5 in standard and 6 in PPR in Weeks 9-17. Considering he was an RB1 in 2018, I’m feeling confident in saying Mixon will carry over that second-half performance to 2020.

The Bengals also made no meaningful additions to the RB group this offseason and there’s no way Head Coach Zac Taylor wants to keep the ball out of Mixon’s hands. Even if Joe Burrow lives up to the hype, a pro-bowl-caliber running back figures to take on a big role with a rookie QB running the offense.

Don’t risk missing out on Mixon by letting him slip outside of the second round. He’ll be a stud in any format.

Chill

Sony Michel (ADP: 157.4, RB 48)

Here’s a deep sleeper for standard format. He’s not even rostered in 43% of ESPN leagues, but Sony Michel is worth that flier toward the end of the draft.

Yes, he’s working back from foot surgery and his status Week 1 is still up in the air, he doesn’t offer much of anything in the passing game, and he wasn’t particularly efficient in 2019. Ask yourself this though: How many guys available in the last few rounds of your draft were top-25 running backs each of the last two years?

Sony Michel was pretty good not too long ago, I swear.

I don’t know who’s eating into his touches this season. The only notable addition to New England’s running-back group is Lamar Miller, and he’s currently on the PUP list with Michel as he continues to work back from the ACL tear that cost him all of last season. There’s also 2019 third-rounder Damien Harris, who’s now healthy heading into year two, but I’ll still place my bets on Michel getting early-down work over the guy who has all of five career snaps under his belt.

The Patriots’ offensive line should once again be among the league’s best, so Michel has all the pieces in place to be an RB3 again. I’d say he even has some upside to enter RB2 territory if he can crack 4 yards-per-carry and justify another 200+ carries this season. Remember, running backs are capable of bouncing back from rough second seasons after having strong rookie campaigns.

Honorable Mention – Cam Akers (ADP: 89.6, RB 30)

And here’s a sleeper for your PPR league. A second-round pick out of Florida State, Cam Akers was just about the only good thing the Seminoles had going for them last season, putting up 1369 total yards and 18 touchdowns despite a terrible offensive line. Now, he has the opportunity to fill the hole Todd Gurley left behind, and I like his chances to see the lion’s share of those 254 touches that are gone from last season’s backfield.

The competition for snaps in the Rams’ backfield is the consistently mediocre Malcolm Brown and second-year back Darrell Henderson. The 70th overall pick in 2019, Henderson came into the league with some hype as one of the most efficient rushers in NCAA history, but Head Coach Sean McVay didn’t seem to have a lot of trust in the Memphis Tiger, and he saw all of 93 snaps in 13 games his rookie year.

Even if Henderson breaks out though, Akers, who came out of college with high marks for his pass-catching ability, has almost no competition for receiving duties, as Brown and Henderson combined for all of 6 receptions last season. This Rams offense made Gurley one of the best receiving backs in the league in 2017 and 2018, so Akers stands to have some PPR value from the passing game alone. McVay seems to want to go with a backfield committee to start the season, but if Akers gets a hot hand and takes over early-down duties, too, he’s going to make this draft spot look ridiculous.

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