The Gut Check No.463: Five Running Backs I'm Targeting in Dynasty Leagues

Matt Waldman kicks off a series on players he's targeting in various dynasty leagues.  

It's the most wonderful time of the year. If you're thinking about the playoffs in re-draft leagues, that's understandable but you'd be wrong. It's time that this column can focus on dynasty formats.

If you missed the Gut Check's look at stretch-run candidates, sneaky playoff options and valued players who could face troubling times in December, you now have the links for your re-draft needs.

For the next month, this column will profile five players at each position that should be targeted in various dynasty formats. Each player will fit a specific situation that is common in dynasty formats:

  • Anchors: This is a premium value talent with a supporting cast that can help him deliver multiple years of elite production at the position (no worse than a top-12 player and a great opportunity for top-3 value).
  • Fine Wines: Older talents that can deliver starter production for at least another year or two at a reduced cost in the ageist world of dynasty leagues.
  • Emerging Forces: These players have earned playing time but have only scratched the surface of their top value.
  • Futures: Young talents who have the skills but are waiting for an opportunity to put them on display.
  • Rookies: College players who are eligible for the 2019 NFL Draft.

Two other tiers of players you can also classify are "starters" and "contributors." The definitions are self-explanatory once you understand that neither tier has players that you believe have elite production potential. We won't include them for this series.

Before we get to these five running backs, a short conversation about dynasty strategy is in order.

player Windows

The average NFL career is a little less than three years in length. Early-round picks tend to bolster the length of the average whereas late-round and undrafted players tend to weigh it down.

Using three-year increments to assess the value of your depth chart is a good way to begin evaluating your dynasty team. These three-year increments are called Player Windows. Here are the criteria for each window length (you can adjust them as you see fit):

  • One Window: When projecting the player's value beyond three years is an even greater fool's errand than normal.
    • UDFAs who haven't earned any traction on an NFL depth chart.
    • Players coming off a significant injury with a bad track record for successful rehabilitation.
    • Veterans performing at an age where the majority of long-term starters at his position have already retired or lost starter skill.
  • Two Windows: These players should have at least 4-6 years of starter skills left as long as they stay healthy and have a quality supporting cast.
    • A young running back or receiver with less than four years in the league and has a good track record of health.
    • A top quarterback or tight end with less than seven years in the league.
  • Three Windows: Players with at least 7-9 years of starter skills left as long as they stay healthy and have a quality supporting cast.
    • Rookie running backs.
    • Quarterbacks and tight ends with no more than five years of NFL experience.
    • Receivers with no more than three years of NFL experience.

You should assess every player with these windows and then add the value assessments to each window type:

  • Anchors (these players can have one, two, or three windows)
  • Fine Wines (strictly one-window players)
  • Starters (capable of one, two, or three windows)
  • Contributors (capable of one, two, or three windows)
  • Emerging Forces (capable of two, or three windows -- most will have three)
  • Futures (capable of two or three windows -- most will have three)
  • Rookies (most will have three windows but could have two if enter the league with an injury history)

When you do this exercise, it should give you a clearer idea of the state of your dynasty roster. It will help you determine the strength of your team. Is it centralized and deep at a small number of positions or is it strong at the top of the depth chart at a few positions but spread thin?

This exercise should also help you determine how you should build or maintain your team. For example, this team, which is leading the league in scoring and now a serious contender, was blown up several years ago — trading away the likes of Marshawn Lynch, Peyton Manning, Antonio Gates, and a few other players about three years too early. As a result, it floundered as a below-average team and yours truly compounded the issues by trying to pinpoint specific positions from a draft spot that didn't warrant the picks.

Once yours truly opted to assess his team with this method, it became clear that for this team's situation, stockpiling quarterback talent was better than taking a chance on lesser talents at position need was a better way to go. Although none of these talents (Jared Goff, Patrick Mahomes II, Russell Wilson, and Lamark Jackson) have been traded away for additional resources because the team has improved through the draft and free agency, the stockpiling is hurting other teams in need to quality passers. Eventually, this talent will lead to trades when the need arises.

This exercise should be enough to not only help you assess the players you need but the ones you can actually afford to target without hurting the overall mission of your team-building strategy.

Here are the five running backs the Gut Check is targeting dynasty leagues based on these scenario types explained above.

The Anchor (Todd Gurley)

While there are compelling arguments for Ezekiel Elliott, Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, and Saquon Barkley, only Hunt has a combination of offensive line, receivers, and the quarterback that approaches the caliber of supporting cast that Gurley has in Los Angeles. Gurley is only 24 and signed a four-year extension in 2018 that will keep him with Goff and Sean McVay.

Although Hunt is capable of equaling Gurley's output in any given week, the Rams' offense is built heavily on Gurley's immense skill as a decision-maker as a wide-zone (outside zone) runner. It doesn't appear that impressive to data-heavy analysts but it's easy to miss the context of how many of Gurley's decisions are more difficult than the results appear. There's also a terrific synergy between the Rams' running and passing games that create difficult binds for opponents whose individual defenders guess wrong play-to-play about the position or alignment they should have because of the binds this offense creates.

While some will have concerns about Gurley's ACL tear at Georgia, he returned from that tear in great shape and has been healthy for the past four years. Although ACL tears are still serious injuries, the advances in surgery and rehabilitation have led to longer career arcs for top athletes at the position. Frank Gore and Adrian Peterson have more than a dozen years in the league and are still playing at productive levels.

Even if you don't see Gurley as a Three-Window Anchor player, two windows (4-6 years) of elite production behind a good offensive line and paired with a top-notch passing game is a compelling reason to pay the premium if you have the resources to do so.

The Fine Wine (Lamar Miller)

There were a few other players worth consideration for this scenario but ultimately didn't get the call. If Mark Ingram II had a few years left on his contract, he'd be a candidate. If we knew that a team would consider Adrian Peterson for a starting role next year, he'd be an even stronger contender because he's built from steel and proven he can still play. Marshawn Lynch would be on the list for similar reasons as Peterson.

Perhaps the best candidate who didn't earn the spot is David Johnson. He's 27 years old and based on the history of the position, it wouldn't be wise to expect more than three years of top-shelf play from him at the position. However, he has the athletic ability and healthy legs to play another six years and yours truly wouldn't be surprised if someone will be writing an article in 4-6 years about the extended shelf-life of starting running backs and using Peterson, Gore, Lynch, Johnson, and others as central figures in that argument.

Lamar Miller, who is the same age as Johnson, earns the spot because he's the same age as Johnson has nearly twice the tenure in the NFL as Johnson and he won't be valued at the premium Johnson commands. Seriously, good luck trying to get a discount on Johnson because he's 27, it doesn't happen often in this writer's leagues.

Miller has excellent surrounding talent in the passing game and the threat of Deshaun Watson and Keke Coutee as runners from this option-based offense makes life a little easier for him. Miller has a solid track record of health and another year with the Texans before he becomes a free agent in 2020.

Another exciting development with the Texans' offense that directly benefits Miller is the Texans' recent decision to use more gap plays. Miller is a find cutback runner who can operate in zone running schemes but he's always been a smooth-running speedster with balance who you want to see hit a crease hard and make his moves at the second or third level.

Miller torched the Titans on Monday Night Football with a 12-162-1 performance, including a 97-yard score. As Matt Bitonti mentioned last week in his offensive line report, the Texans' line has been a gamble all season. However, this should be one of the Texans' obvious draft-day and free agent targets in 2019.

While it's recommended to see if you can land Peterson for next to nothing and see if you can talk down someone with Johnson, if you're seeking a reasonably-priced running back in an emerging offense that might have stumbled upon a run blocking scheme that could be an even better fit for the back, Miller is a safe bet.

And to look at it another way, the Texans have not been good at evaluating running back talent for the NFL Draft in recent years. D'Onta Foreman might have proved the exception but he's attempting to rehab an injury that has a horrific track record of successful returns.

Emerging Forces (Nick Chubb)

Saquon Barkley would seem like an obvious choice, but he's already the No.2 PPR runner this year. While he should maintain top-12 to top-15 production with top-5 upside for the next few years (at least), there's a good chance that Barkley will lose Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr, Jr. sooner than later. As much as the fantasy community bashes Manning, there's no guarantee that whoever replaces Manning will upgrade this offense when the line and receiver play will also need a lot of help.

Nick Chubb is the true emerging force. Cleveland has a stronger offensive line that still needs an upgrade to its tackles. Baker Mayfield is performing well as a rookie and he still needs a veteran outside receiver who can force constant attention from a safety or the sole attention of a top cornerback.

Although the direction that upper management takes with the coaching staff is still an unknown, don't expect Cleveland to veer away from Mayfield and Chubb's strengths. Although there's a risk that Duke Johnson Jr could earn enough touches to lower Chubb's ceiling, there's a better chance that the Browns opt to move Johnson permanently to the slot.

The Browns signed Jarvis Landry though the end of the 2022 season but the team has a potential out at the end of 2019. Cleveland signed Johnson to a four-year extension this summer and paid him on the level of a top-10 running back (which is deceptive, because the market will catch up with future contract signings and lower Johnson's contract value relative to the position). It's possible that Johnson, who has lobbied to play receiver in the past, earns more usage in the slot as part of an extended utility role in 2019 and then earns that slot position permanently if Cleveland cuts ties with Landry in 2020.

This would make the most sense because Chubb is an emerging monster at the position. Since Week 7, Chubb leads the league in yards after contact, he's ninth in PPR scoring at the position, and he's becoming a consistent producer in the receiving game.

Mayfield targets Chubb on routes you'd expect to see go to Johnson if you didn't think Chubb was much of a receiver. Meanwhile, Johnson is seeing extended time in the slot and even earning more receiver-like routes in the intermediate range of the field.

If the Browns can upgrade its tackles, it will generate more effective play-calling versatility with inside and outside runs. This alone could turn Chubb into a double-digit touchdown producer on the ground.

Chubb is one of the most recently misunderstood prospects at the position. Many say Sony Michel is the better inside runner, but Georgia teammates have privately acknowledged that Chubb was the best interior runner.

Most didn't think Chubb was an explosive player. However, most don't truly understand the usage and value of combine data and how it translates to the field. They overrate the 40-time and underrate the shuttle and three-cone drills.

Few understood that Chubb could catch as well as he does. If Cleveland's offensive line develops to the level of the Saints, Rams, or a healthy Cowboys' unit, Chubb could post record-breaking numbers in the NFL.

Yes, he's that good.

Futures (Justin Jackson)

Saints runner Boston Scott is an exciting young runner who shined in training camp and could surprise as a weekly contributor in 2019 if the Saints don't extend or re-sign Ingram. Chris Warren III III has the skills of an old-school, downhill, high-volume, big-play runner, but can Oakland build the offensive line and defense to make Warren a successful offensive centerpiece? Will they even try when there's another wave of potential starters entering the league in April?

Jordan Wilkins is one of this writer's favorite options from this draft class who wasn't a marquee name. He's a smart runner with balance and agility that's reminiscent of Matt Forte without the long speed. The Colts run a lot of gap plays, which could be a nice fit for Tevin Coleman and Le'Veon Bell if Indianapolis wants to make a splash in free agency and lessen Marlon Mack's role in the offense.

All three of these runners could be a tad overpriced this winter and find their values have cratered by May. A cheap option who could work his way into a handcuff role by next fall is Justin Jackson.

He's one of the most underrated running back talents in this rich draft class. You can read his Rookie Scouting Portfolio pre-draft report here and watch some of his recent play in this week's Top 10.

Jackson has a great track record as a high-volume producer in the Big 10 as a runner, receiver, and protector of the football. He's another one of those backs whose combine data is better than those who misuse it often realize.

This is a quick runner who plays with excellent leverage and knowledge of angles and despite an injury that cost him training camp and an active roster spot, Jackson has worked his way into a special teams spot and reps from the backfield.

Much of Jackson's production last week came before Gordon got hurt and prior to the Chargers blowing out the Cardinals. Austin Ekeler will earn the lead role while Gordon is out but don't think for a second that Jackson won't earn an extended opportunity in a committee.

With Gordon and Ekeler's contracts expiring in 2019, Jackson could emerge as a productive committee option behind a good offensive line. If he plays to his potential, he could become a surprisingly good NFL starter. While the risk of Philip Rivers retiring and leaving a hole in the Chargers' offense is real, these are all low-investment options.

Rookie (David Montgomery)

Yours truly has studied nearly 130 players for the 2019 Rookie Scouting Portfolio publication (which typically has 150-175 prospects at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and tight end, take a tour of the publication here) — nearly 50 of them have been running backs. This class has decent prospects but not on 2018's level and probably not 2017, either.

Regardless of class-to-class comparisons, David Montgomery is a running back worth consideration. He's a short back with a big frame and low center of gravity whose body type reminds me of backs along the spectrum of Maurice Jones-Drew and Ray Rice.

Montgomery is a tackle-breaker with good quickness and stop-start skills and excellent agility who will probably disappoint with his 40-time but deliver in the metrics that most misapply to running back evaluation. He's a creative player who can work inside and outside the tackles and catch the ball. You can learn more about him here.

Next week, wide receivers.

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