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The Fantasy Football Path of Totality

Examining backfield situations to find valuable fantasy football commodities

Astute (and fantasy-obsessed) readers might remember a similar column I did back in 2015 on Running Back Handcuff Power Rankings, but I'm changing the format this year. Most of my reasoning for the change is that I like the format better, but part of it is so I could use an eclipse-themed title for this article. After all, if something hasn't happened since 1979, it's probably discussion-worthy. Because I tweaked the format, I also tweaked my method of classifying running backs and tiers. Let's get into it. I trust you'll catch on quickly.

The Groupings

I examined every team's running back depth chart for their status using the following classifications:

  • Workhorse*
  • Committee with Value
  • Committee to Avoid

*The definition of workhorse is loose, but consider it a player who is the clear-cut RB1, third-down back, and goal line back for his team.

From there, I made six groups, based on their current status and the status of the backfield if the RB1 or lead committee member were injured. I then ranked each RB2/"Committee2" player by their potential situation if the RB1/"Committee1" were injured. Those groups are as follows:

Current StatusIf RB1 Injured
RB1 Workhorse RB2 Workhorse
Committee with Value RB2 Workhorse
Committee with Value Committee with Value
RB1 Workhorse Committee with Value
RB1 Workhorse Committee to Avoid
Committee to Avoid Committee to Avoid

Let's take a look at the categories and discuss some observations for each.

The Tier of Totality (RB1 Workhorse / RB2 Workhorse)

Totality is when the sun is completely covered by the moon, much like these players complete cover all tasks associated with their backfields. These do-it-all players, if injured, would likely be replaced by do-it-all (or at least do-most) backups. This could be due to the ability of the backup, the lack of depth at RB3, or simply a coach's style of feeding his lead back (looking at you, Mike Tomlin).

TeamRB1RB23rd DownGoal LineRB3
Tennessee DeMarco Murray Derrick Henry DeMarco Murray DeMarco Murray David Fluellen
Buffalo LeSean McCoy Jonathan Williams LeSean McCoy LeSean McCoy Joe Banyard
Pittsburgh LeVeon Bell James Conner LeVeon Bell LeVeon Bell Fitzgerald Toussaint
Dallas Ezekiel Elliott Darren McFadden Ezekiel Elliott Ezekiel Elliott Alfred Morris
Green Bay Ty Montgomery Jamaal Williams Ty Montgomery Ty Montgomery Aaron Jones
Indianapolis Frank Gore Robert Turbin Frank Gore Frank Gore Marlon Mack

General Observations

  • This is why Derrick Henry is being drafted so high. Detractors will point out that he has no value; proponents will say that's true...right up until the moment when he has a ton of value.
  • The "one of these things is not like the other" award goes to Ty Montgomery here. While he's not the prototypical workhorse, can you confidently say at this point that he would be replaced in the RB1, third-down, or goal line roles? Perhaps my colleague Jason Wood can, but I'm not ready to make such a declaration. We had a nice back-and-forth on Montgomery earlier this week.
  • The "give a player every chance to succeed" cliche was on display when Pittsburgh gave rookie James Conner 20 carries and 53 snaps in Sunday's Preseason Week 2 game. While coronating Conner as LeVeon Bell's heir apparent the moment he was drafted seemed premature, when your only competition is Fitzgerald Toussaint, you have a chance.
  • Darren McFadden has already seen circumstances increase his value, pending a very notable suspension appeal.

The Diamond Ring Effect (Committee with Value / RB2 Workhorse-Capable)

Despite the football-centric nature of the section header, the "colts" here are not of the Indianapolis variety. They are young players in committees who have the skill set to become workhorses if the opportunity presents itself due to injury or simply overtaking the other members of their backfields.

Although it's listed second, this tier has the most attractive fantasy assets (hence the name of the tier reflecting the most remarkable sight of a total eclipse). If you follow ADP closely, you'll know that these players are in much higher demand compared to the RB2s of the previous tier. By nature of their categorization, they have value now, even with no change to their situation. But if someone is injured in the backfield, these players would acquire so much volume, that they'd wildly outproduce their ADP expectations.

TeamCommittee 1Committee 23rd DownGoal LineRB3
Atlanta Devonta Freeman Tevin Coleman Devonta Freeman Devonta Freeman Terron Ward
Cincinnati Jeremy Hill Joe Mixon Giovani Bernard Jeremy Hill Cedric Peerman
Cleveland Isaiah Crowell Duke Johnson Duke Johnson Isaiah Crowell Matthew Dayes
New York Jets Matt Forte Bilal Powell Bilal Powell Matt Forte Elijah McGuire

General Observations

  • How many running backs not named David Johnson, LeVeon Bell, or post-Week 7 Ezekiel Elliott are you ranking ahead of Tevin Coleman in any given week if he had the Atlanta backfield to himself?
  • For clarity once again, the order here assumes that every RB1/"Committee1" were injured. That's the only world in which I'd rank Coleman ahead of Mixon.
  • While this rank-and-file was done with the second committee member in mind, it obviously goes both ways, with the first member's being enhanced in the case of injury.

The Corona Tier (Committee with Value / Committee With Value)

The corona is the thin ring of the sun that looks like a halo around the moon during a total eclipse. The moon is much smaller than the sun, much like these "Committee2" players are mostly smaller than their committee mates.

Despite this, they arguably have more value than their committee counterparts. At the very least, they have some standalone attributes, but they wouldn't become workhorse players due to lack of size, advanced age, or the continued presence of another passing down back.

TeamCommittee 1Committee 23rd DownGoal LineRB3
Carolina Jonathan Stewart Christian McCaffrey Christian McCaffrey Jonathan Stewart Fozzy Whitaker
Baltimore Terrance West Danny Woodhead Danny Woodhead Terrance West Javorius Allen
New England Mike Gillislee Rex Burkhead James White Mike Gillislee James White
Detroit Ameer Abdullah Theo Riddick Theo Riddick Zach Zenner Zach Zenner
Kansas City Spencer Ware Kareem Hunt Spencer Ware Kareem Hunt Charcandrick West
New England Mike Gillislee James White James White Mike Gillislee Rex Burkhead
New York Giants Paul Perkins Shane Vereen Shane Vereen Paul Perkins Wayne Gallman
New Orleans Mark Ingram Adrian Peterson Mark Ingram Mark Ingram Alvin Kamara

General Observations

  • This is part of why Christian McCaffrey's ADP is so polarizing. Does anyone believe he's the every-down player if Jonathan Stewart is injured? He'll get more snaps in that event, but not close to all of them.
  • Then again, the man listed after McCaffrey (Danny Woodhead) has shown that pass-catching backs can finish as elite PPR RB1s even without a ton of carries. Woodhead is in a great position to do that again this year but still wouldn't see double-digit carries per game if Terrance West were hurt.
  • New England is listed twice -- one line for James White and one for Rex Burkhead, who ranks higher because his role would increase more with a Mike Gillslee injury (as we saw in Preseason Week 2) while White's would likely remain very similar.
  • An argument can be made that Kareem Hunt has already done enough to swap his name with Spencer Ware's. An injury or flat-out benching of Ware would make Hunt a very hot commodity.
  • Mark Ingram was an RB1 in PPR as recently as last season. If his 32-year-old backup coming off a major injury weren't named Adrian Peterson, the Ingram buzz wouldn't be at such a whisper.

Baily's Beads (RB1 Workhorse / Committee with Value)

Baily's Beads is the effect seen just before and just after totality when only a few points of sunlight are visible through valleys around the edge of the moon. In other words, it's only exciting very temporarily. Similarly, these backfields are only exciting without a change, as the resulting committees would be okay but far less inspiring than the current RB1s.

TeamRB1RB23rd DownGoal LineRB3
Minnesota Dalvin Cook Latavius Murray Dalvin Cook Dalvin Cook Jerick McKinnon
Dallas Darren McFadden Alfred Morris Rod Smith Darren McFadden Rod Smith
Denver C.J. Anderson Jamaal Charles C.J. Anderson C.J. Anderson De'Angelo Henderson
Miami Jay Ajayi Damien Williams Jay Ajayi Jay Ajayi Kenyan Drake

General Observations

  • These RB1s are all attractive plays at their prices, but their teams likely wouldn't stick with one main runner if they were injured.
  • Yes, Dallas has now been listed twice. The first was the post-Elliott suspension ranking, while this is the during-Elliott suspension ranking.

The Lunar Eclipse Tier (RB1 Workhorse / Committee to Avoid)

Lunar eclipses are cool, but they're not as exciting as solar eclipses. These RB1s are all exciting, but the thought of what would remain if they weren't in the picture is not appealing.

TeamRB1RB23rd DownGoal LineRB3
San Francisco Carlos Hyde Tim Hightower Carlos Hyde Carlos Hyde Joe Williams
L.A. Chargers Melvin Gordon Branden Oliver Melvin Gordon Melvin Gordon Kenneth Farrow
Houston Lamar Miller Alfred Blue Lamar Miller Lamar Miller DOnta Foreman
Chicago Jordan Howard Jeremy Langford Jordan Howard Jordan Howard Benny Cunningham
Arizona David Johnson Chris Johnson David Johnson David Johnson Kerwynn Williams
Jacksonville Leonard Fournette Chris Ivory T.J. Yeldon Leonard Fournette T.J. Yeldon
L.A. Rams Todd Gurley Malcolm Brown Todd Gurley Todd Gurley Aaron Green

General Observations

  • Tim Hightower has shown that he's capable of replacing an RB1, but San Francisco is going nowhere, meaning they may be working young players in the event of a Carlos Hyde injury.
  • As elite as David Johnson is now and as Chris Johnson once was, would Arizona really hand him the full workload? And would he be able to do anything with it?

Barely Worth Reading the Waiver Wire Columns (Committee to Avoid / Committee to Avoid)

This tier didn't even deserve its own eclipse-themed name. These situations are hard to predict and/or not valuable if you could.

TeamRB1RB23rd DownGoal LineRB3
Seattle Thomas Rawls Eddie Lacy C.J. Prosise Thomas Rawls C.J. Prosise
Washington Rob Kelley Samaje Perine Chris Thompson Rob Kelley Matt Jones
Tampa Bay Doug Martin Jacquizz Rodgers Charles Sims Doug Martin Charles Sims
Oakland Marshawn Lynch DeAndre Washington DeAndre Washington Marshawn Lynch Jalen Richard
Philadelphia LeGarrette Blount Wendell Smallwood Darren Sproles LeGarrette Blount Corey Clement

General Observations

  • Seattle is the most appealing here were either of Thomas Rawls or Eddie Lacy to go down. But C.J. Prosise would be involved on third downs (if not more) regardless. 
  • If Samaje Perine can't overtake Rob Kelley at some point this season, his draft selection will have been a borderline waste. But Chris Thompson isn't going to allow either guy to play every down.
  • Tampa Bay has three talented players, but Dirk Koetter historically uses multiple players, thus capping the fantasy value of everyone involved.
  • Oakland has already said Marshawn Lynch may not get over 200 carries this season. Even if he were injured, they have every incentive to use both DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard, who both played very well as rookies last year.

Path of Totality Top Ten

Below is a quick list of the players who have the best path to an increased workload that would make them far exceed their current ADP. It's not a list of how I would draft them or even their skills and abilities. It's just one fantasy writer's guess on the likelihood of each player's path of totality (i.e. best case scenario) coming to fruition.

  1. Joe Mixon
  2. Duke Johnson
  3. Mark Ingram
  4. Rex Burkhead
  5. Theo Riddick
  6. Bilal Powell
  7. Shane Vereen
  8. Kareem Hunt
  9. Derrick Henry
  10. Tevin Coleman

Questions, comments, suggestions, and other feedback on this piece are always welcome via e-mail hester@footballguys.com