With just 32 starting running backs in the league, finding a valuable backup can be the difference between missing the playoffs and winning the championship.
There is no more valuable fantasy football asset than a starting running back. There is a reason that the first two rounds of fantasy drafts are packed with starting RBs.
With just 32 starting backs in the NFL, they are a hot commodity. However, that does not mean that only 32 running backs that have value. Snagging a backup RB in the draft or on the waiver wire that ends up producing at a high level can be the steal of your fantasy season.
There are a few ways that second-stingers can provide value. The first is carving out a very specified role in the offense. That could be a pass-catching role such as Darren Sproles over his career. It could also be in a goal line or short-yardage role, like Mike Tolbert.
Then there is the key handcuff player – Backups that are behind injury-prone or ineffective starters become instant fantasy starters when they take over the role. Players like James Conner and Austin Ekeler have used that role to springboard themselves to top-10 fantasy seasons in recent years.
Here are five of the best backup running backs to target in 2020:
Easily the most overqualified backup in the league, Hunt led the league in rushing in his rookie year with 1,327 yards finishing as the RB4. He followed that up with a RB12 finish in just 11 games in 2018.
Hunt finds himself behind Nick Chubb in Cleveland because of the suspension that cut his 2018 season short. He played in only eight games in 2019 because of that same suspension. The Browns’ offense did not feature Hunt much last year. He got just 80 touches, producing 464 total yards and three touchdowns.
2020 figures to be a much bigger year for the former Kansas City Chief. With a full season to be a part of the offense, Hunt offers Cleveland the perfect complement for Chubb.
Hunt is a more effective weapon in the passing game than Chubb. In both backs’ first two seasons, Hunt outgained Chubb in receiving yards 833 to 427. He also has more receptions (79 to 56) and receiving touchdowns (10 to two).
It is yet to be seen exactly how Hunt’s presence will impact Chubb’s carries. Over the second half of the season, when Hunt was suiting up, Chubb had 10 less carries and did not get over 17 carries in any of the last five games.
Whether or not Hunt gets any meaningful production on the ground should not keep him from being a valuable fantasy asset. There have been discussions about using him as the third receiver in Cleveland so he has substantial value on his passing role alone.
While Hunt’s appeal comes from what he can do alongside the starter, Mattison’s comes primarily from what he can do in place of the starter. Mattison is the most valuable handcuff in fantasy thanks to his place behind the oft-injured and holdout-threatening Dalvin Cook.
In addition to his spot behind Cook on the depth chart, Mattison has shown his ability to be an effective runner when given the chance. In the four games he had double-digit carries, Mattison racked up 228 yards with at least 46 yards in each game. That accounts for nearly half of his season rushing yardage: 462 yards in 13 games. He also finished the season with a 4.62 yards per carry average. That number was actually better than Cook’s average of 4.54 yards per carry (although Cook did have 150 more carries).
For all his skill and talent, it doesn’t matter if he can’t get onto the field. Luckily for Mattison, he finds himself in a situation that makes getting playing very likely. Cook has missed 19 games in his three-year career and has yet to play a full season. Mattison will surely see the field if that trend continues. The only question is how many games Mattison will get as the starter if Cook misses time.
On top to the injury history, Cook is amid a holdout until he receives a contract extension. The Vikings may be reluctant to pay Cook given the leaguewide view on running back contracts, opening the door for Mattison.
If he does see time as the starter, he could be a breakout star and a huge fantasy asset.
Murray is another example of a backup running back who may be a bit overqualified for his role. He is a former Pro-Bowler and 1,000-yard-rusher but now finds himself as the number two on the New Orleans’ depth chart.
Murray was able to remain productive despite the lesser role. He ran for 637 yards and five touchdowns on 146 carries, giving him a 4.36 yards per carry average. He also caught 34 passes for 235 yards and another touchdown.
When Murray was able to operate in an increased role, he showed he is still an incredibly effective back. In the two games that starter Alvin Kamara missed, the offense did not skip a beat. Murray racked up 221 yards and three touchdowns in that two-game span. His production made him a top-three fantasy running back each week and the RB1 overall in the span.
Murray was not unfamiliar with a secondary role before last year. In his second season in Minnesota in 2018, he served in a similar capacity. He rushed for 578 yards and six touchdowns on 140 carries. He started just six games that season but was once again effective when he got the chance. In a five-week stretch, weeks 5-9 in 2018, he was the RB7. This included three top-10 performances from weeks 6-8.
Even when not starting, Murray has flex value each week due to his role in the High powered New Orleans’ offense. He could find the endzone or break a few runs any week and reward you for inserting him in your lineup.
The Steelers are not unfamiliar with a backup running back having a breakout year in place of the starter. That is exactly what current starter James Conner did in 2018 in place of Le’Veon Bell’s holdout. Conner has not done much to follow up on his star-making season. That means the door could be open for Snell to do what Conner did two years ago.
The Pittsburgh offense relies upon a single workhorse running back more than any team. Bell had a 16-game pace of 317 carries a season during his five-year tenure as a Steeler. As such, Snell does not have much appeal in his current role as Conner’s backup. However, if he finds himself as the starter for any length of time in 2020 then he will be a weekly must-start.
Luckily for Snell, Conner has provided Pittsburgh with reasons to go to his backup.
The first reason is his inability to stay on the field. Conner has missed nine games due to injury in his time as the Pittsburgh starter. He has also started multiple games that he then left with an injury, supporting the injury-prone label.
Those nine games missed account for over a quarter of his games as the lead back. If that continues, Conner will be due for at least four inactive games, giving Snell a chance to shine.
The other reason for hope for Snell is that Conner’s production was down when he was on the field.
He went from rushing for 973 yards and 12 touchdowns in 13 games in 2018 to rushing for 464 yards and four touchdowns in 10 games in 2019. He did have 99 less carries last year, but his YPC was also down from 4.53 to an even 4.0.
Snell thrived in the starting role last season despite limited opportunities. He rushed for 426 yards and two touchdowns in 2019 but his best performances came as the lead back. He rushed for over 90 yards in both games that he started in place of Conner, finishing top 16 each week.
Given Conner’s injury history and decline in production, Snell could have a breakout season in 2020.
Out of all the top 12 running backs from week 14 through the end of the season, one name seems out of place: Boston Scott. Maybe it is because he had just 99 total yards up to that point in the season, a year which he started on the practice squad.
Believe it or not, Scott was the RB7 in PPR over the last four games of the season. While most of his fantasy production came in a three-touchdown, 35-point performance in a fantasy-irrelevant week 17, it is still a good sign of what could be to come in 2020.
Scott’s fantasy potential this season is largely based on the Philadelphia offense. HC Doug Pederson has shown in his four years in charge of the Eagles that he likes to use a RBBC approach.
No ball carrier has had over 180 carries in Pederson’s time at the helm. On the other hand, three running backs have recorded over 90 touches in each season, except for last year when Scott was at 87 touches in 11 games.
Miles Sanders has the Eagles starting job locked down after an impressive rookie season. That doesn’t prevent Scott from having fantasy impact as a featured back up.
Scott proved to be a very reliable pass catching option out of the backfield last year. He was targeted just 26 times as a receiver but managed to haul in 24 of those targets. That catch percentage of 92.3 percent was best in the league for anyone with double-digit targets.
Scott’s ceiling is a consistent flex play that gives you high upside in favorable matchups. His floor is a quality handcuff that could have a good week or two as a backup.
Either way, not bad outlooks for a player that is available in the last round of fantasy drafts.