If you liked the 2017 draft running back class, you’ll love the 2018 class. It could produce even more core contributors than last year’s class, which took fantasy leagues by storm. There are at least four core contributors in free agency (Dion Lewis, Jerick McKinnon, Carlos Hyde, and Isaiah Crowell), with the assumption that the Steelers will sign or tag Le'Veon Bell. At most, there are 7-10 backfields without an established, proven lead back in place (Indianapolis, New York Giants, Detroit, San Francisco, New England, Cleveland, Tampa Bay - Denver, New York Jets, and Oakland could join them depending on cap cuts at the position). When you do the math, you can see that at least a few running backs that are considered established or proven to some extent will lose value in dynasty leagues between now and May. That lost value is theoretical, as an overall improvement in the running game and use of the backfield in the offense can still boost a player with a perceived decrease in opportunity (Mark Ingram II last year as the best example). Still, it is a good exercise to project which running backs could possibly lose value over the next few months and attempt to get out ahead of that drop in value. Who should we be looking to sell high on in dynasty leagues at running back?
High Priority Sell
James Conner, PIT - I was excited about Conner as a fallback option for the Steelers to have an out from paying Le'Veon Bell huge money if he had trouble staying healthy in 2017 or otherwise discouraged them from committing to him long term. In fact, it was Conner who had trouble staying healthy, and Bell dutifully handled an inordinate amount of work without slowing down. Now, he will likely come cheaper than he would have a year ago despite a rising cap, albeit with more tread gone from the tires. If the Steelers were to move on from Bell, they would likely target a back on the first two days of the draft. Conner as a speculative pick isn’t working out as we had hoped.
Lamar Miller, HOU - If the Texans are seeing what we are seeing, then Miller isn’t even a sure thing to come back at his five million dollar plus price tag. The team could keep him because of uncertainty about 2017 third-round pick D’Onta Foreman (who outperformed Miller as a runner) and his achilles, but they could also choose to move on from Miller via a draft pick or free agent signing. Miller has looked less and less like the explosive back he was at Miami the farther he has gotten into his stint with Houston, and that trend is likely to continue.
Marlon Mack, IND - Mack was one of the few 2017 draft running backs to underperform expectations. Certainly, the performance of the Colts offense as a whole could be partially to blame, but the ageless Frank Gore was still strong playing with the same supporting cast. Mack had a handful of explosive plays as a runner and receiver, but looked pedestrian and limited on most of his carries and didn’t provide the playmaking element he displayed in college on a consistent basis. The Colts are in play to take Saquon Barkley at #3, and they should certainly draft a back from the top ten of this class in any event. Mack is likely to remain a role player, and that role could be more James White than Alvin Kamara. He might garner a second round pick in return with the possibility of opportunity growth, and it’s a good move to take it.
Weigh Your Options
LeSean McCoy, BUF - McCoy is a classic sell high back entering his age 30 season. The Bills should draft or sign a complement, if not an heir to McCoy, but his workload is unlikely to be reduced greatly this season. Unless you are in complete tear down mode, the right answer is to hold McCoy even though he’ll be joined by younger backs in an empty cabinet depth chart. Even teams that appear to be far from contention can surprise by mid-season. The late first/early second round might be the break point of where it is worth selling, with a hope that the mid-round prospects like Rashaad Penny and Kerryon Johnson find plum landing spots in the draft.
Alex Collins, BAL - Collins current dynasty startup ADP is not that far off of McCoy’s. His yards per carry was impressive, with a burst to match, and he did come on as a receiver out of the backfield. Of course, he wasn’t threatened much by a diminished Danny Woodhead, Kenneth Dixon was a non-factor due to a knee injury, and Javorius Allen is a replacement-level back despite his occasional fantasy outbursts. Dixon could be a bigger factor this season, and the Ravens could have a back fall into their laps on the third day to share with Collins if Dixon is out of their plans after his injuries and suspension. If you can get an early second for Collins, it might be a good move in hindsight. The Ravens are usually very smart about taking advantage of value even if they don't have a glaring need at a position, and running back could be the best value on the board for most of the second and third day.
Derrick Henry, TEN - Henry is currently in the same range as Derrius Guice in startup dynasty ADP, and given the choice between the two, I would choose Guice (or 1.02, or even 1.03). While Henry has shown the ability to be a finisher, he also looks like he should be a component in a two-back backfield, with a more nimble back taking passing game and no huddle work, and it’s also possible the new offensive staff in Tennessee constructs an offense that doesn’t embrace Henry’s strengths as directly as “exotic smashmouth” did. Whether it’s a back like Jerick McKinnon or Dion Lewis in free agency, or a John Kelly/Nyheim Hines type in the draft, Henry might not be ticketed for the 300+ touch workload many have him projected for in 2018.
Jay Ajayi, PHI - Ajayi still had moments in an Eagles uniform that reminded us of the marauding force he was at his best in 2016. The Eagles did give up a valuable fourth-round pick just to have him for a year and a half. The Eagles also seem inclined to use three or even four players in their backfield, and Ajayi’s medical red flagged knee issue could encourage them to stick with the same role they carved out for Ajayi in 2017. It feels like Ajayi’s dynasty value has already peaked.
Melvin Gordon III, LAC - The Chargers are three years into Gordon’s four-year rookie deal. He has had microfracture surgery and spend some time on the injury report. While they will have the opportunity to exercise a quasi-franchise tag fifth year option on the 2015 first-round pick and then use the actual franchise tag on him after that, does it make sense from a cap standpoint to pay premium money for a back whose production appears to be replaceable at a much lower cost, and one with an unknown shelf life? The Chargers took a wide receiver with a top ten pick last year despite having three good options on the roster. They could be forward-thinking about running back this year.
Resist the Urge
Kenyan Drake, MIA - Drake was a revelation in December, as he finally married his top-end athletic ability to a “game slowed down” approach to running the ball. He flashed Leveon Bell/David Johnson big play ability as a receiver, although the team doesn’t want to ride him the way Bell and Johnson are relied on primarily by their teams. The Dolphins also didn’t know what they had in Drake, only using him to a great extent after pedestrian talent Damien Williams got hurt. They are likely to sign or draft a back to split the work with him, and CJ Anderson appears to be a top candidate with Denver probably moving on from him. It was the Dolphins that set the current price tag for Anderson with a restricted free agent offer that Denver matched, and the Dolphins added Anderson’s running back coach, Eric Studesville, this offseason. When Anderson is signed (or another back with some bulk is inevitably added), Drake’s value will dip, but with his pass-catching ability, he can still be a borderline RB1 in PPR leagues. While a value hit is coming for Drake, the real advice here might be buy low on that dip.