Running Backs: Free Agency Fallout

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Free agency and the NFL Draft will have many running backs fighting for touches, and many fighting for their jobs come training camp.

Running backs have only had a handful of trades involving big names this offseason. Most of the fantasy impact will come from the absences these running backs left behind, and the battles to fill those voids. Not long ago, if Todd Gurley and David Johnson had been traded, it would have set the fantasy world abuzz. But after a few lackluster seasons, each of these backs will be looking to rejuvenate their careers in new locations. While many older running backs will be looking to reclaim past glory, the name of the game when it comes to running backs, is youth.

It’s a young man’s game, and the dip in productivity comes faster at the running back position than any other. As the majority of free agency has come to an end, the NFL looks towards the next generation of running backs in this draft. Experts are torn on the rankings of these rookie running backs, but there is no mistaking their overall talent. The influx of these backs will have a reverberating effect on NFL rosters.  As a result, many veterans will be fighting for their jobs after the dust settles from the offseason.

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Winners

Joe Mixon

Mixon managed to close out the year on a relatively high note, despite disappointing fantasy owners early in the season. The Bengals lost their first 12 games and finished with an NFL worst record of 2-14. The snake-bit franchise lost their first-round pick in preseason workouts, and things continued to unravel as the season started.

Mixon couldn’t find any room to run behind one of the worst offensive lines in football. In the past, Mixon has been able to contribute to the passing game. However, when rookie Ryan Finley took over for Dalton, the passing game imploded. Though ending the year on a nice 4 game stretch, Mixon will need a lot of help to get back to RB1 territory.

The Bengals should be selecting Heisman winner Joe Burrow with the first pick in this year’s NFL draft. Despite being a rookie, Burrow’s ability to scramble and make plays on the run will help this offense immensely. Not only will it prevent the defense from loading the box, but it will also help open running lanes for Mixon. The Bengals franchised A.J. Green and, barring a holdout or year-long “injury,” the Bengals will have a potent lineup.

The two biggest obstacles to Mixon’s fantasy success will be the offensive line and his unsettled contract situation. If everything bounces the right way, the Bengals might shock a few teams, and will at least be more entertaining to watch in 2020. Mixon has all the talent to be a high-end RB1 and could be undervalued heading into redraft leagues.

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Leonard Fournette

As of this writing, Fournette is on the trading block. While unknown where the LSU back will end up, it seems unlikely to be a worse situation than Jacksonville. The Jaguars have been a dumpster fire for years now, made public when the team dismissed former head coach and executive VP Tom Coughlin. The team has been slowly cleaning the house, shipping off top talent starting last year when they traded Jalen Ramsey to the Rams.

As a rookie, Fournette rumbled to a 1000 yard season with 10 total touchdowns. He then posted another season topping 1,000 yards last year. While no longer fitting in with the locker room and coaching staff, he will still be only 25 years old. Yes, his touchdown totals have been less than expected, although playing for terrible teams over his first 3 years in the league has a lot to do with that inefficiency. If Fournette can land any situation better than the Jaguar’s sputtering offense, he can return RB1 numbers in 2020.

Austin Ekeler

Melvin Gordon leaving the Chargers to sign with the Broncos was one of the biggest offseason occurrences this year.  Last year, Ekeler got off to an electric start in place of the holdout Gordon. This start gives fantasy owners a sneak peek of what is possibly in store this season. While it is not expected that Ekeler will get all the work vacated by Gordon, he should see a relatively steady diet of touches in both the running and passing game.

With Rivers moving to Indy it appears Tyrod Taylor will be taking over at quarterback for the Bolts. It’s hard to trust in Taylor but Ekeler still has the skillset to make the most out of his touches. Currently, Ekeler is being drafted in the early third round in most redraft mocks. Based on his production the past two seasons Ekeler could be in line to be a sneaky RB1 with value heading into 2020.

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Kenyan Drake

The third-year back from Alabama started 2019 in football purgatory buried on Miami’s woeful offense. A mid-season trade sent him to Arizona and he delivered on Halloween night with 3 TD’s in his electrifying debut. New coach Cliff Kingsbury’s offense struggled out of the gate with a plodding David Johnson failing to deliver big plays. After the addition of Drake, the offense noticeably improved and Johnson was relegated to the bench.

With Johnson now in Houston, Drake will start the year as the unquestioned starter for the first time in his NFL career. He will be joined this year by All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and have the promising young QB, Kyler Murray. Drake is a true dual-threat RB, and his big-play potential should be on display in this improved offense. Drake’s current ADP sits at ____ but he could definitely over-deliver on expectations if he can stay healthy.

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Miles Sanders

Miles Sanders started 2019 in an extremely crowded Eagles backfield, but showed flashes of the talent, making him an early-round selection. Sander’s main competition for carries last year was Jordan Howard, who has been dealt to the Miami Dolphins. This clears the way for Sanders to take on lead-back status. Eagles head coach Doug Pederson has driven fantasy owners crazy by continuing to use a motley crew of RB’s.

However, 2020 might be the year that Pederson finally trusts the young back to take the main load of work. Currently, Sanders is sitting around the early third round. Owners will have to trust the young back to be a true workhorse to commit that early. If Pederson lets the youngster perform, Sanders can be a difference-maker for your squad this year.

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David Johnson

Johnson has been one of fantasy’s most disappointing and snake-bit players of the past 3 years. After breaking out in 2016, Johnson was expected to be one of the next great dual-threat running backs. Injuries derailed that future. Ever since Johnson has lacked the explosiveness and vision that had owners spending first-round picks on him. Last year the wheels fell off completely, and it was clear that new addition Kenyan Drake was by far a more dangerous and explosive back.

Cut to this offseason, where Johnson has been resurrected by the constant poor decision making of Bill O’Brien. The Texans obviously still believe in the 28-year-old back enough to send All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals in exchange for Johnson. While Johnson has not shown any signs of returning to prior form, he will be given the opportunity to be the bell cow in this offense. The offensive line still needs help, but if Carlos Hyde can run for 1,000 yards, maybe Johnson can too. With an ADP of 61, fantasy owners will have to trust Johnson again. At that value, he could be a solid RB2 with volume.

David Montgomery

The Iowa St. rookie showed flashes of excellence in last year’s preseason, sending the hype machine into full force. However, like the Bears offense as a whole, Montgomery failed to live up to those high expectations. While his numbers were not what owners expected, Montgomery did have moments showing he could be a useful fantasy asset going forward.

The biggest problem facing Montgomery is the unsettled quarterback situation and offensive line woes heading into this offseason. Nick Foles has been brought in to compete for the job, and the Bears will look to add OL depth in this week’s draft. If the offense can find some stability and build on younger talent, this offense can return to its 2018 form. Tarik Cohen still caps Montgomery’s passing game upside, but he should get the lion’s share of carries again this year. At an ADP of mid 4th round, Montgomery won’t be a value, but he should be a consistent RB2.

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Devin Singletary

Singletary was relatively unheralded coming into last year out of Florida Atlantic, but he showed an explosion in the preseason. While the Bills’ staff inexplicably leaned on the ancient Frank Gore, Singletary continued to produce on limited work. Eventually, the coaching staff was forced to integrate him more into the game plan, helping spark the Bills offense. Not only was Singletary difficult to bring down, but he was also extremely productive in the passing game.

Gore is currently unsigned, although the Bills might bring Gore or another veteran back, adding depth in 2020. The Bills offense should take a step forward with the addition of Stefon Diggs, bringing balance to the offense. Singletary showed big-play ability while averaging a healthy 5.1 yards/rush in 2019. Singletary also had 29 receptions, and should only add to those numbers going forward. With an ADP of 27, fantasy owners will have to pony up for the young back, but he has the potential to crack the RB1 threshold this year.

Losers

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Phillip Lindsay

Phillip Lindsay has rushed for consecutive 1,000-yard seasons his first two years in the league. So why does Lindsay find himself on the Losers list? While Lindsay has definitely overachieved since the beginning, he has never gained the full trust of the Broncos coaching staff. This lack of trust was crystal clear when the Broncos signed Melvin Gordon to a three-year contract this offseason.

Lindsay is no stranger to competition, as he has managed to overshadow Royce Freeman for the past two years. However, he will face his toughest challenge yet, as money talks in the NFL. Gordon will no doubt be RB1, and it will be interesting to see how the Broncos work-in the explosive Lindsay. Gordon has had prior injury concerns, so Lindsay may be a valuable backup, much like Austin Ekeler as the backup RB. With an ADP of 90, Lindsay is going roughly 60 picks after Gordon, possibly dropping as the season nears. Lindsay won’t have the production of previous years, but he still could have value later in drafts for teams needing RB depth.

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James White/ Sony Michel

There is no getting around how bad many of us think the New England offense will be this year. When Tom Brady left town for sunny Tampa this offseason, it left a massive void at the most important position in football. James White has been a PPR godsend working with Brady in the past, but those days are over. No matter who might be taking over at QB White will be hard-pressed to be utilized to the same extent he was with Brady.

Sony Michel started his career with relatively solid production even in an unpredictable New England backfield. On one hand, Michel might be leaned on more, depending on who is under center in New England this season. But on the other hand, he seemed to regress from his rookie year with an extremely disappointing 2019.

The Patriots have a ton of picks, and this draft will be the most important in their storied history. While I wouldn’t completely rule out a Belichick coach team, the Pats will undoubtedly struggle to score points this year. Although the ADP has dropped drastically for these two backs, I would still stay away from both White and Michel, barring some signs of life in the preseason.

Carlos Hyde

The Ohio State product is the NFL version of the town bicycle, everyone gets a turn. He has played for 4 teams in his 6 years in the league. Barring something unforeseen, he will be on his 5th team at the start of the 2020 season. Last year Houston was desperately in need of a veteran back after losing Lamar Miller to a preseason injury. Hyde took over as the lead back, and while he didn’t win anyone a fantasy championship, he did produce a 1,000-yard season.

Despite getting up in age, he still posted his best YPA since 2016. While Hyde’s time is seemingly done in Houston with the signing of David Johnson, he could end up resurfacing on a team after the NFL draft. Until that happens though, Hyde is only worth a late-round lottery ticket in redrafts.

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Devonta Freeman

The one-time Pro-Bowler is entering his 7th season as a free agent after a truly lackluster 2019. Freeman burst onto the fantasy scene in 2015 and looked poised to be a force for years to come. Freeman though has not had a full, productive fantasy season since 2016. Injuries have played the biggest part in his downfall, and last year that trend continued. Atlanta chose to not re-sign the veteran, and he is currently a free agent heading into 2020.  Freeman looks like a shadow of his former self and will be hard-pressed to be fantasy relevant this year.

Neutral

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Todd Gurley

The Georgia product will be returning to Atlanta, after being unceremoniously let go by the Rams this offseason. After two monster seasons, Gurley’s production was on a roller coaster the past few years. His biggest concern has been the health of his ailing knees. While starting 2018 on another tear, he became the Invisible Man later in the season. This culminated with a disappearing act in the Super Bowl that left many scratching their heads. It was obvious the Rams were managing his touches to keep him healthy last year. His ability to be used in the passing game like years past was also clearing lacking.

Moving to a highly productive Atlanta offense is a bit of a lateral move for Gurley this season. While Gurley will have an opportunity to be the main focus of the rushing game, no one can predict his total touches based on the past few seasons. His health continues to be shrouded in secrecy, and fantasy owners should be wary of trusting Gurley as an RB1 again this year. With an ADP of 74, he could be a value if he continues dropping, but this would be the high watermark for me when drafting Gurley in 2020.

Summary

This wild free agency period has turned many running backs on their heads as we head into the aftermath of the NFL Draft. With many big names changing teams most teams will have more question marks than usual at one of the most important positions in football. As the NFL Draft finishes a lot of veteran running backs could be looking at even more competition heading into training camp. Fantasy owners have to be vigilant in keeping track of who has the inside track for fantasy glory.

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