Value Plays: Running Backs - Footballguys

The Footballguys staff finds value at the running back position

A fantasy draft is all about obtaining the most value with each selection. There is value available throughout a draft, and grabbing it is one of the most important keys to a successful fantasy team. In an attempt to point out this value, we asked our staff to look through the Top 150 and identify players that should outperform their draft position.

Players Receiving 4 Votes

Kerryon Johnson, Detroit

Bloom: The other second-round rookie running backs have been more ballyhooed than Johnson, but he is as well-suited to play an every-down role as any of them. While Johnson does have Theo Riddick and LeGarrette Blount to contend with for the passing game and short yardage roles, the rookie has the versatility to fill both of their roles and be the best early-down runner on the team. The Lions signed Blount before they knew whether they would be able to add a rookie back they wanted to build around, when that type of back was available in the draft, the Lions traded up to acquire Johnson. If Johnson plays up to expectations, he’ll have enough opportunity to greatly outperform his modest ADP.

Haseley: Detroit is not known for their running game, but trends do change. The reason for heightened interest in Kerryon Johnson is that it looks like he will be in the mix to compete for the starting back role with LeGarrette Blount and Ameer Abdullah. Blount is more of a situational back, and Abdullah had his chance but did not meet expectations. Expectations are strong that Johnson could be the Lions' primary ball carrier by midseason. He's a great value and investment as one of the better high potential backs this season. Not even taking his impressive SEC talent into consideration, if the carry volume is there, he should outperform his current ranking.

Parsons: Kerryon Johnson was one of the elite metric prospects of the 2018 running back class largely under the radar during the NFL Draft process. Johnson was not an athletic stud or a top-shelf producer at Auburn. However, he was one of the few prospects with good enough size and movement, adding well above-average RUSH and REC scores in college. Johnson enters a Detroit backfield where some dampen his expectations with LeGarrette Blount, Ameer Abdullah, and Theo Riddick on the depth chart. However, Detroit invested an early round-two pick in a lead back-capable option in Johnson. With Riddick segmented to receiving work, Johnson should beat out Blount (who is eroding quickly) by midseason at the latest, and Abdullah is already on the outs with Detroit before the Johnson draft pick.

Wood: Kerryon my wayward son! This year's running back class could go down as one of the best in history, and for once many of the talented runners landed in spots where they could compete for snaps immediately. Too many fantasy pundits are looking at Johnson's landing spot as problematic. It's quite the contrary. Johnson is a powerhouse who was named the SEC's Offensive Player of the Year. Yes, the Lions signed LeGarrette Blount in free agency. Yes, Theo Riddick remains on the roster. No, neither of those veterans will keep a lid on Johnson's upside, particularly as the season progresses. This is a new Lions regime. A new offensive identity. A new head coach. The Lions moved up eight spots to grab Johnson in the early second round. He will be their bell-cow back if he looks the part in the preseason.

Marshawn Lynch, Oakland

Alexander: Lynch looked just fine handling heavy workloads down the stretch last season, and Jon Gruden has made it abundantly clear he plans on playing a smash-mouth style. The running back depth chart in Oakland appears crowded, but Doug Martin hasn't done a thing since 2015, Jalen Richard is a clear complementary back, and DeAndre Washington is probably fighting for a roster spot. We have to wonder how much of Derek Carr's regression last season was due to playing most of the year with a broken back, which puts a bounce-back season in play for all the Raiders main offensive pieces, Lynch included.

Hindery: It happened somewhat quietly because the Raiders were limping across the finish line of the season, but Marshawn Lynch put up fantasy RB1 numbers in the second half of the season. In his final eight games, Lynch had 738 total yards, 16 receptions, and 5 touchdowns. Prorated over a full season, that would have been 1,476 yards, 32 receptions, and 10 touchdowns. Those full-season totals would have made him the RB7 in standard scoring leagues and RB8 in the PPR format. We saw the obvious upside Lynch still has in the role of lead back, and all he has to do to win a similar role this season is hold off Doug Martin. If the worst-case scenario plays out and the Raiders backfield ends up in a messy committee and Lynch is limited to RB3 production, you are basically getting what you paid for out of Lynch, given his RB3 ADP. But you are also getting the legitimate RB1 upside we saw down the stretch of last season basically for free. It all adds up to make Lynch a low-risk, high-reward option at his current draft position.

Pasquino: From a pure value perspective, getting a starter after 32+ running backs are drafted in the average fantasy league is a clear upside play. Just looking at his numbers from last year (over 1,100 total yards, seven touchdowns) the value is baked in for Lynch as the starter, plus new head coach Jon Gruden is very much a fan. Expect solid RB2 numbers for Lynch in an underappreciated Raiders offense.

Waldman: During the final seven weeks of the 2017 season, Lynch was a fantasy starter in standard leagues despite ranking 17th among backs in carries during the first 10 weeks of the year. Former head coach Jack Del Rio played it too cautious with Lynch, who displayed the same burst, balance, power, vision, and agility that he had during his prime in Seattle. Like Seattle during Lynch’s prime, Jon Gruden is building a power running game with the additions of a blocking fullback in Keith Smith and better depth chart contingency plan in running back, Doug Martin—a Pro Bowl-caliber talent who will effectively replace scat backs Jalen Richard and Deandre Washington. Clearly, Oakland wants to target the base nickel packages around the league. Skeptics say Gruden is behind the times, but nickel defenses were the most common defensive packages from 2012-2015 and the 49ers and Seahawks thrived with this style of offensive football. Don’t sleep on Beast Mode.

Player Receiving 3 Votes

Jerick McKinnon, San Francisco

Alexander: Now that the NFL Draft has come and gone without the 49ers adding competition for McKinnon, it's officially time to get excited about what he can accomplish as the hand-picked centerpiece of Kyle Shanahan's offense. Carlos Hyde caught more passes last season playing for Shanahan (59) than he had in his first three years combined (50), which led to an RB8 finish despite Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard sabotaging his game scripts. In Jimmy Garoppolo's five starts, the 49ers averaged nearly 29 points per game and Hyde had four touchdowns, matching his scoring output from the previous 11 games. Even if Matt Breida siphons 8-10 touches per game, McKinnon is still looking at about 15 carries per game and a butt-ton of receptions in what may end up one of the league's better offenses. His ceiling in PPR leagues is inside the top-five running backs.

Bloom: Jerick McKinnon has never even flirted with the level of production that his ADP will require to make him worth the investment. He can meet those expectations and actually exceed and provide first-round value if he stays healthy this year. The 49ers had the third-most targets to running backs last year, and that was without a back possessing the receiving skill of McKinnon. They paid him like a feature back, and the back he is replacing, Carlos Hyde, was able to be a low RB1 last year - in an offense that didn’t have Jimmy Garoppolo for most of the season. The 49ers offense will grow with Garoppolo, and their lead back numbers should grow with him - that means McKinnon’s ceiling is unknown and worth seemingly overpaying for because it doesn’t reflect the top end of the range of possibilities.

Miglio: There is plenty of hype out there for Jerick McKinnon, but he is still undervalued. Kyle Shanahan has a history of rehabilitating, or outright making, running backs in the league. There are plenty of examples, but his most recent might be the best -- Carlos Hyde went from rumored preseason cut to eighth at his position in PPR scoring last season. McKinnon is Shanahan's next subject, and we should all be excited. A top-eight PPR back taken at his current ADP is a huge value.

Players Receiving 2 Votes

Rex Burkhead, New England

Hester: If you had an inkling about Burkhead last season (many did), there's not as much reason to back away as many would suggest. Last year, Burkhead enthusiasts said he was the only player with the skills to perform in every role (passing downs, goal line, and between-the-tackles work). That skill set meant that he was the Swiss Army knife that would allow New England to run no-huddle and keep teams on their heels. This season, Burkhead is getting little respect, despite the team saying goodbye to Dion Lewis. Sure, James White is still around as a pass-game specialist, and yes, they drafted Sony Michel in the first round. But can White carry the ball in typical two-back sets? Can Michel be trusted to pass block? Burkhead is still the guy who can do it all. His injuries were the only thing that kept him from dominating the backfield in 2017.

Howe: Burkhead’s ADP has dropped precipitously since the Patriots drafted Sony Michel, but there shouldn't be much deflation in his value. His outlook hasn't changed much – he was never expected to be a three-down workhorse, and he remains the top change-of-pace option in an explosive, high-snap offense. Last year, over 8 games alongside Dion Lewis, Burkhead averaged 7.8 carries and 3.3 catches, finding the end zone seven times along the way. And Michel is no Lewis – he’s a rookie with concerns of his own, which could inch Burkhead even closer to a timeshare. Burkhead could bust for sure, but he boasts far more boom potential than we deserve in his current ADP range.

Corey Clement, Philadelphia

Pasquino: No matter what Eagle is the lead back, all of them are going to put up some value. While Jay Ajayi gets most of the attention, for now, Clement is the young back being groomed to be the next Darren Sproles. Clement found the end zone in the Super Bowl win for Philadelphia, and he may be a very productive part of a potent offense.

Wood: Corey Clement is the Eagles best running back. It is laughable to read nonsense about 35-year old mini-mite scatback Darren Sproles. Sproles will be lucky to make the roster. Jay Ajayi will have a role, too, but the Eagles are one of the team's most run-happy units. Clement will play alongside Ajayi, and both will have their moments. Meanwhile, it was Clement, not Ajayi, who showed game-breaking versatility as both a runner and receiver. With LeGarrette Blount gone, Clement's spot as 1B to Ajayi's 1A is secure. And that makes him fantasy relevant. If Ajayi gets hurt, Clement could be a top-10 option. He's grossly undervalued in drafts.

Royce Freeman, Denver

Haseley: Royce Freeman could be the back the Broncos are looking for to be their primary ball carrier. Some people will argue that Davonte Booker will steal carries and eat into Freeman's production, but this is a younger running back's game. We saw that last year with breakout performances from Kareem Hunt, Alvin Kamara, Leonard Fournette, and Christian McCaffrey. It would not be a surprise to see Freeman win the job outright in Denver and be a weekly fantasy relevant back.

Simpkins: Denver’s blocking scheme requires a patient runner, one who can identify cutback lanes, and one who can block well when needed. Devontae Booker has not proven himself adept at any of those three. In his rookie year, he often made mistakes, like running into the backs of his blockers and not seeing developing cutback lanes. Last year, Booker was hurt in camp and by the time he returned, he had been displaced by C.J. Anderson. On the touches Booker received, he did not look as if he had markedly improved. On the other hand, Royce Freeman showed both patience and power in his Oregon film. He’s also adept at identifying a developing lane and jump-cutting to set up a bigger gain than if he had just plunged straight ahead. Like most rookies, Freeman does need to improve his blocking, but Booker also hasn’t shown himself to be much better at this task. Assuming rational coaching, Freeman should win the job in camp. He should be the centerpiece in a running game that will have better game scripts than last year, especially now that Case Keenum will be running the offense.

Ronald Jones II II, Tampa Bay

Brimacombe: The Buccaneers showed a lot of trust in Jones, selecting him in the second round without hesitation. Jones will automatically be slotted into the starting running back role in an offense that is very well-rounded. Out of all the rookie running backs not named Saquon Barkley, Jones has the best path ahead of him to succeed early in his rookie season. Peyton Barber is the only back that will push Jones on the roster, and with what the Buccaneers invested in him, Jones will likely beat out Barber early in camp. His current ADP is at a place where you don't have to over-invest a high pick on him. If he is there for you in the fourth round, you have to consider him, and sometimes he is even available in the fifth round which is a fantastic value.

Hicks: The only thing standing between Ronald Jones II and 200 touches is pass protection. Much will be made about his size, but there are plentiful examples of 200lb backs succeeding in the NFL. The most common comparison is to Jamaal Charles, who had an outstanding career. The advantage Jones has for significant playing time is the dearth of quality running backs on the Tampa Bay roster. The veterans are fine complementary players, but they do not have the explosive running ability of the rookie. Another talent Jones has, that only the elite backs have, is vision running the ball. If he struggles in pass protection during training camp, the veterans will be able to hold the fort until he can manage this skill. If he can be even adequate as a pass protector, he will be a steal in most drafts.

Players Receiving 1 Vote

Jay Ajayi, Philadelphia

Miglio: LeGarrette Blount is gone, and the Eagles didn’t do anything to seriously replace him. That leaves 181 touches up for grabs in that Eagles offense, 173 of which were rushing attempts. Ajayi is going to gobble up the vast majority of those, and his touchdown rate is going to regress positively from the one he scored on the ground last season. He is going to prove far more valuable than his current ADP regardless of his lack of participation in the passing game.

Tevin Coleman, Atlanta

Holloway: Tevin Coleman has increased his number of rushing carries in each of his three seasons with Atlanta and should again have similar opportunities. Even while playing a complementary role to Devonta Freeman, Coleman has finished as RB20 and RB22 in PPR scoring the previous two seasons. You should expect similar and possibly better production again this season.

Alex Collins, Baltimore

Waldman: While I’m a fan of Kenneth Dixon’s talent, Collins proved he’s a capable and productive NFL starter behind a Ravens offensive line that lost All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda for most of the year. Collins worked his way up the Baltimore depth chart and delivered production for enough of the season to finish the season the No. 15 fantasy back despite not earning significant snaps until Week 4 and consistent starter snaps until Week 8. Collins has excellent conceptual and technical skill that compensates for his below-average athletic ability for an NFL starter. Although he’s not a top athlete at the position, his physical skills are good enough to “ride the NFL ride.” With Yanda back and Dixon likely competing with Javorius Allen for change-of-pace duty, look for Collins to build on his 2017 campaign.

Dalvin Cook, Minnesota

Hicks: Dalvin Cook was well on the way to becoming one of the top running backs of 2017 when he suffered a torn ACL in Week 4 against the Lions. With the departure of Jerick McKinnon, Cook immediately stands to gain most of the 50 receptions that McKinnon previously registered. Cook's yards-per-carry average was significantly better than McKinnon and backup Latavius Murray, and it is almost certain Cook will see well over 65% of the rushing attempts. The only thing standing between Cook and a top-six finish is the volume of touchdowns. If he gets close to double figures, then he will enter the arena of elite backs. Cook is well undervalued right now due to last years injury. If he is fully fit during training camp, then grab him with confidence.

Isaiah Crowell, NY Jets

Wood: Crowell seems to be a forgotten man in the free agent carousel. Perhaps it's the stigma of being the guy Cleveland decided it didn't need. Or maybe it's the perception New York is a fantasy wasteland. Let's be clear, Crowell is no sure bet for fantasy relevance. But he deserves more consideration. Crowell is just a season removed from a top-15 fantasy performance and was often the lone bright spot in a bad Browns offense over the last four seasons. After New York signed Crowell in free agency, all eyes were on the NFL draft. Draft weekend was a snoozer, as Trenton Cannon was the only addition on the final day in the sixth round. Crowell should be one of the focal points of Jeremy Bates' offense, and he won't have to look over his shoulder for the first time in his career.

Kenyan Drake, Miami

Howe: The Dolphins have looked far and wide for backfield help this offseason, putting off many fantasy drafters who immediately projected Drake into a part-time role. But ultimately, the team added only the ghost of Frank Gore and mid-rounder Kalen Ballage, who underachieved wildly in school. Try as they might, Adam Gase and his staff can’t deny Drake’s 2017 explosiveness – 5.03 yards per rush and 29 receptions over 10 starts – and he looks destined to take the lion’s share of work again. Any time he slips out of the third tier of drafts, I’m pouncing on him. There’s real dual-threat ability here, and he could easily challenge top-12 status by year’s end.

Derrius Guice, Washington

Holloway: Derrius Guice fell to the late second round (59th overall pick), but landed in a great spot in the Washington backfield. They have a huge opening in the depth chart for a two-down running back. Guice will likely relinquish third downs frequently to Chris Thompson but should see plenty of offensive snaps on the early downs. Guice is also a better receiver than perceived, perhaps because LSU does not use their primary running back often as a receiver.

Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis

Bloom: Hines told the media that teams had been working him out at wide receiver in addition to running back, and he landed with an ideal team and coach to take advantage of his multi-faceted abilities. Frank Reich took over the reins in Indianapolis, and he has experience getting the most out of players like Darren Sproles and Danny Woodhead. The Colts lack an experienced slot receiver, so Hines could fit in when other backs line up in the backfield in addition to getting a fair number of snaps as a back when the Colts have defenses spread out. If Andrew Luck doesn’t have the same arm strength as he did before his surgery, that could actually benefit Hines as one of the team’s most dangerous short-range targets. He could have a Chris Thompson-level impact if everything comes together.

Carlos Hyde, Cleveland

Hicks: Carlos Hyde parlayed his best season in the NFL into a healthy free-agent contract with the Cleveland Browns. Muddying the waters was the Browns drafting Nick Chubb in the second round of this year's draft. Until there are clear signs that Chubb will play immediately, it appears as if the Browns are going to let the veterans play first in both Tyrod Taylor and Carlos Hyde. Hyde is a vast improvement over what the Browns have had at running back over the last few years and will benefit from the building program Cleveland is developing. If Hyde hits the ground hard, he will be difficult to dislodge from the starting role and is well undervalued despite the obvious concerns.

Mark Ingram II, New Orleans

Waldman: Sean Payton made it clear that Alvin Kamara will not acquire Ingram’s workload while Ingram serves a four-game suspension to open the season. Although Ingram’s absence will give Jonathan Williams and/or Boston Scott an opportunity to contribute, Ingram is an accomplished runner who has been no worse than a top-15 fantasy runner since 2014. Ingram was the No. 6 fantasy option while splitting the workload with Kamara while also earning 58 receptions—his second 50-reception output in three years. The rookie Scott has skills as a pass protector and Williams has Ingram’s powerful style, but neither is a proven NFL talent. Ingram was the No. 15 fantasy back in 2014 and 2015 with a lesser offensive line despite missing three and four games respectively. Expect Ingram to maintain his role and previous year’s production when he returns.

David Johnson, Arizona

Brimacombe: Last year, David Johnson rushed the ball 11 times for 23 yards and had 6 catches for 68 more yards before his wrist injury ended his season. Johnson is now 100 percent healthy and has a high goal of rushing for 1,000 yards along with 1,000 yards receiving. Coach Steve Wilks is already raving about Johnson saying, "he is flying around and the things that he's doing right now is pretty exciting." Back in 2016, Johnson finished just 121 receiving yards away from his 1,000/1,000 goal. It is hard to place a top four running back as a value play, but if you happen to get Johnson at pick 1.04 or possibly later you have set yourself up for a nice draft overall.

LeSean McCoy, Buffalo

Holloway: LeSean McCoy has been a workhorse for Buffalo, rushing for 2,405 yards and catching 110 passes for another 804 yards over the past two seasons. Expectations are low for the Buffalo offense as they have no quarterback experience, but McCoy should again be the focal point of the offense. McCoy has finished as RB4 and RB7 in the past two years and should continue to have a high number of touches for the Bills.

Lamar Miller, Houston

Haseley: Value comes from players who outperform expectation. There are three reasons why Lamar Miller is in play as a value pick this season. One, he's on a potent offense with Deshaun Watson under center. Running backs on strong offenses tend to perform better as a result. Two, he's the starting back with competition (D'Onta Foreman) returning from an Achilles injury. Miller will be the main focus especially early in the season. Three, he's consistent with a top-17 finish or better in each of the last four years. He's being overlooked and drafted after other backs who have more of a committee situation. Miller is a bargain if drafted outside of the Top 20.

Joe Mixon, Cincinnati

Hester: Mixon showed three-down skills in his rookie season, highlighted by his 30 catches and 287 receiving yards, which included a 91-yard receiving effort in Week 8. His rushing production was lacking, mostly due to a poor offensive line and injuries that led to a disjointed season. Cincinnati attempted to solve the former problem by trading with Buffalo for left tackle Cordy Glenn and drafting center Billy Price out of Ohio State in the first round. Mixon's experience, improved line, and (hopefully) improved injury luck should lead to a better season. And his depth chart situation is excellent, with only undersized third-down specialist Giovani Bernard as a proven commodity behind him.

Ty Montgomery, Green Bay

Pasquino: When Aaron Rodgers is healthy, Green Bay puts up some solid offensive stats in all facets of the game. With Jordy Nelson now gone, the wide receiver depth is a little thin, which makes a pass catcher out of the backfield far more valuable. Montgomery may be in a committee, but he has a ton of upside as a receiver and multi-purpose threat for Green Bay.

Rashaad Penny, Seattle

Hindery: Penny is the single biggest bargain in fantasy football at his current ADP. Let’s do a quick thought experiment. What would Derrius Guice’s ADP be if he was taken #27 overall by Seattle as the second running back off the board and Pete Carroll and John Schneider raved about his ability to be a three-down back? If we’re being honest, Guice would probably be going off the board as a top-20 overall pick. Yet Penny’s current ADP is some 40 picks later. Why the massive gap when Seattle clearly preferred Penny over Guice? Probably because Penny’s not the name brand that Derrius Guice or even Nick Chubb is, which allows us to snatch him up at a discount due to the general public clinging too tightly to pre-draft perceptions. Some of the concerns about Penny’s pass blocking are valid, but this issue is being overblown. Penny is going to spend most of his time on passing downs out running routes. The Seahawks did almost nothing to replace Jimmy Graham and Paul Richardson Jr, who ranked second and third on the team in targets last season. The Seahawks running backs already saw 104 targets in the passing game last season and that number should rise given the personnel on the current roster. If Penny can carve out anything resembling the three-down role Carroll has talked about, he should be a big-time fantasy performer in PPR leagues.

Chris Thompson, Washington

Hester: Had Thompson played 16 games with the production he had through 10, he'd be a hotter commodity this year. But injury shortened his season, leaving his big performances as more distant memories. The Washington backfield is crowded, but no player has a role as clearly defined as Thompson's. And his competition for snaps is a rookie (Derrius Guice), a second-year player Thompson clearly out-performed last season (Samaje Perine), and third-year undrafted free agent (Rob Kelley). Thompson won't carry the ball more than 150 times, but he'll touch it at least 10 times per game, the majority of which will be receptions, which are gold in PPR leagues. He's a PPR RB2, which is much better than his price.