19 Value Plays at Running Back - 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.

Player Receiving 4 Votes

Kerryon Johnson, Detroit

James Brimacombe: It is hard to list Kerryon Johnson right now as a value, but that is how I feel about his talent. I'm so in on Johnson that I want to overdraft him compared to other running backs around his ADP. Rookie running backs are always hard to judge but in Johnson's case the Lions traded up from 51 to 43 overall to land Johnson and were not shy about how badly they wanted him and for me that is enough to believe that he will see a large number of touches this season. With LeGarrette Blount and Theo Riddick as the competition, the Lions will give Johnson all the touches that he can handle to start the season.

Dan Hindery: We have seen rookie running backs be huge fantasy draft steals in each of the last few seasons. Last year, Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara were top-10 fantasy performers drafted much later. All the pieces are in place for Johnson to be that guy this year. First, and perhaps most importantly, he looked the part of an impact talent in preseason action (see Matt Waldman’s film breakdown). Johnson has the type of well-rounded skill set to quickly develop into a true three-down back. Second, he is stepping into a sneakily fantastic situation. Detroit’s offensive line has made major strides and looks capable of supporting a top fantasy back. Plus, Detroit’s outside receiving weapons, Marvin Jones Jr and Kenny Golladay, are dangerous enough deep threats to keep that extra defender out of the box. Johnson looks like the biggest steal on the entire board at his current ADP.

Chad 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 2 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.

Jason Wood: Kerryon, my wayward son! 2018'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 2nd round. He will be their bell-cow if he looks the part in the preseason.

Players Receiving 3 Votes

Rex Burkhead, New England

Phil Alexander: Burkhead’s healthiest stretch in 2017 was Weeks 8-14. Over that span, he scored between 15 and 25 PPR fantasy points in six out of seven games and handled 75% of New England’s carries from inside the five-yard line. With Dion Lewis now in Tennessee and Sony Michel’s Week 1 status up in the air, Burkhead is set up to resume goal-line duties for the Patriots -- the most lucrative role in fantasy football. Since Bill Belichick took over as head coach, New England leads the league in touchdowns from inside the 5-yard line by 13% over the next closest team. Burkhead will also benefit from Julian Edelman’s suspension by absorbing vacated slot targets, which is another feather in his cap in PPR scoring formats. As long as the undisclosed injury that kept Burkhead out of New England’s preseason opener isn’t major, he’s a steal at his current ADP.

Will Grant: Sony Michel is hurt, but he will see playing time this season. However, rookie running backs need a quality pre-season to show they can handle the speed and complexity of the NFL and Michel is going to miss a big chunk of that. He may not be healthy enough to start Week 1 and the Patriots will be reluctant to put him out there with Tom Brady unless Michel is fully up to speed. That means more playing time for Rex Burkhead, a guy who had a decent season with New England last year and is looking to build on it as their primary back. He was injured in practice this week and missed the preseason opener. Keep an eye on him to see if this turns into anything serious.

Jeff Pasquino: I love the upside of Sony Michel, but with him nursing a preseason injury, he is going to be behind the learning curve to become the feature back that the Patriots so desperately want behind Tom Brady. That leaves the door open for Burkhead, who sits atop the depth chart now and should see the majority of work until Michel is ready. I will gladly take Burkhead and hope that he holds onto the top spot through the season at his relatively cheap price outside the Top 24 running backs.

Marshawn Lynch, Oakland

Phil Alexander: From Weeks 9-17 last season (once former Raiders coach Jack DelRio increased his workload) Lynch was the cumulative RB13 in PPR leagues. His results weren’t just volume driven either. Per PlayerProfiler, Lynch led all running backs in avoided tackles per touch last season. And while it was only one preseason play (negated by penalty), his explosiveness appears intact headed into 2018. The only reasons Lynch isn’t being drafted as a clear RB2 are misguided narratives. Jon Gruden is not an imbecile. In fact, he is the definition of a competent offensive mind. Doug Martin is not forcing a timeshare. He is the least efficient running back in the NFL over the last two seasons. With Derek Carr healthy after playing through a back injury for most of 2017 plus a top-10 offensive line, Oakland’s offense is poised for a bounce-back. Let your league mates sleep on Lynch while you scoop your RB2 at an RB3 price point.

Jeff 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. I expect solid RB2 numbers for Lynch in an underappreciated Raiders offense.

Matt Waldman: Marshawn Lynch is old for a starting running back. He also produced as a top-12 fantasy running back down the stretch of 2017. If you heard that he lost his core athletic ability to remain a top back, it’s best to ignore that noise. Returning head coach will have a balanced offense but he knows what to do with the talent along Oakland’s offensive line. He’ll mix heavy sets that lead to big creases with the use of a fullback as well as spreading the field. Lynch—like Ricky Watters, Charlie Garner, Michael Pittman, Warrick Dunn, and pre-injury Cadillac Williams—will benefit from Gruden’s scheming as a major part of the offense. Last year, Oakland had Lynch and scat backs. Gruden brought in a blocking fullback, Doug Martin, and Chris Warren. Gruden intends to bully base nickel defenses and like the Ravens, 49ers, and Seahawks during the passing era – he’ll succeed.

Players Receiving 2 Votes

Isaiah Crowell, New York

Dan Hindery: The foot injury to Elijah McGuire (which may land him on the short-term injured reserve list),() opens the door for Crowell to take on an even heavier workload in what could be a better-than-expected Jets offense. It doesn’t hurt either that Bilal Powell has failed to impress this offseason and may be less of a threat to steal snaps from Crowell than expected. Crowell has been showing the skills of a three-down back, with beat writers consistently saying to expect him to be heavily involved as a pass catcher. The brief glimpse we saw of the Jets offense in the preseason opener confirmed these reports, as Crowell caught a 16-yard touchdown on a play where he split out wide as a wide receiver. The Jets offense overall looks better than expected (Sam Darnold has exceeded expectations), which helps Crowell’s stock.

Jason 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 than he’s getting. Crowell is just a season removed from a top-15 fantasy performance and was often the lone bright spot in a historically 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 6th 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

James Brimacombe: Drake didn't end up seeing an increase in snaps until Week 9 last year and he made the best of it after that point. In his final nine games last year he rushed for 619 yards, 3 rushing touchdowns, 29 receptions, 232 receiving yards, and another touchdown. He looked the part when given the opportunity and with Frank Gore and Kalen Ballage behind him he should still have an increased role to start the season and at his current ADP at the thin running back position he is well worth a look.

Ari Ingel: Drake appears to be the team's lead back with Frank Gore spelling him and perhaps handling some red-zone work. After Jay Ajayi was jettisoned last season, Drake averaged 15.35 fantasy points per game, which would have been good for 10th-best on the year. As PFF pointed out, over the past two seasons, Drake has averaged 5 yards-per-carry, which is the best in the league for all backs getting a minimum of 150 carries over this span. Barett also noted that Drake averaged a monstrous 4.29 yards after contact per attempt, which is by far better than any back in the past 10 years (Adrian Peterson came in second averaging 3.93 in 2012). Drake obtained a rock solid 82 running grade and 72 pass-blocking grade on the year from PFF. In 53 attempts, he only allowed 1 quarterback pressure. Various beat writers have stated emphatically that Drake is going to catch a ton of passes this year and should be owned in fantasy leagues, you should head their advice.

Royce Freeman, Denver

Daniel 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. 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. 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. Take a look at this Spotlight if you want to read more about why Freeman might be this year’s rookie surprise at running back.

Matt Waldman: Devontae Booker lacks patience and good footwork. He’s naturally a better gap runner than zone runner because he loves to hit creases hard and make one quick change of direction. That’s how he thrives. Even so, Booker couldn’t earn the lead role when Denver went to a gap scheme to play to Booker’s strengths. He’s a lame-duck starter until Freeman improves his pass protection skills. Freeman is capable but has occasional lapses of technique that can be tightened up. As a runner, Freeman is ready right now. He runs with smooth footwork and vision to set up creases. He’s quicker and faster than he looks and he runs with power. He’s a good zone runner, which is the favored blocking scheme that Denver has returned to. Booker won’t last a month as the starter; Freeman will produce as no worse than a top-20 fantasy back as a starter.

Players Receiving 1 Vote

Corey Clement, Philadelphia

Jason Wood: Corey Clement is the Eagles’ best running back. I have to laugh when I 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 that 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-15 option. He's grossly undervalued in drafts.

Alex Collins, Baltimore

Matt Waldman: Kenneth Dixon can’t stay healthy and he was Collins’ greatest competition for the lead role. Collins has an excellent combination of vision, balance, and agility, which is like the holy trinity for competent running back play. He was a top-10 PPR fantasy runner after Week 7 last year – and this was for a team without a dangerous passing game and missing All-Pro right guard Marshal Yanda. Let’s not forget that Collins had no off-season preparation time with the team because he was with Seattle until the Seahawks cut him at the end of the preseason. With the offensive line intact, Collins completely acclimated to the scheme, and upgrades to the receiving corps, Collins should once again produce like an RB1 in fantasy lineups.

Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville

Dan Hindery: Fournette is primed for a massive season. He is locked into a huge workload behind a much-improved offensive line. The elite Jacksonville defense should keep the team in every game and allow for the type of run-heavy game plans that will allow Fournette to again average over 20 carries per game. Beyond the excellent situation, Fournette also looks physically primed for a breakout second season. He dropped over 10 pounds in the offseason and looks even faster than he did as a rookie when he wasn’t exactly a slouch in the speed department. Fournette actually had the two fastest times of any ball carrier in 2017 (22.05 mph on a 90-yard touchdown run against the Steelers and 21.76 mph on a 75-yard touchdown run against the Los Angeles Rams). The combination of talent, expected usage, and team situation makes Fournette worthy of a top-six selection in fantasy drafts.

Jordan Howard, Chicago

Ryan Hester: If workhorse backs are valuable fantasy commodities, why isn't Howard getting more love? When the Bears ran the ball last season, it was with Howard 65.1% of the time. That was the fourth-highest market share of carries last season. With an improved offensive scheme, Chicago should not only provide more red zone chances for Howard but also give him more games with a positive script. Howard isn’t the best receiver, but reports say he has been working on it intensely in camp. While Tarik Cohen will make electric plays, he’s not the kind of player whose workload will include every third down and passing situation.

Carlos Hyde, Cleveland

Andy 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 has developed over the last few years. If Hyde hits the ground hard, he will be difficult to dislodge from the starting role and is well undervalued despite the obvious concerns.

David Johnson, Arizona

Phil Alexander: There’s been healthy debate this off-season about which of Johnson, Le’Veon Bell, or Ezekiel Elliott deserves to be the first running back selected after Todd Gurley. But the better argument is whether or not we should be drafting Johnson ahead of Gurley. Johnson would have finished as a top-30 PPR wide receiver in 2016 without rushing for a single yard and produced over 6% more fantasy points in 2016 than Gurley did last year. With Arizona working in a new group of wide receivers behind Larry Fitzgerald and Sam Bradford’s penchant for check downs, it wouldn’t be surprising if Johnson is both the Cardinals featured runner and No. 2 receiver this season. Another 2,000+ yard season with elite touchdown production is within Johnson’s proven range of possible outcomes.

Duke Johnson Jr, Cleveland

Justin Howe: Johnson keeps slipping into Rounds 8 and 9, even in PPR drafts. I can't for the life of me figure what calculations are leading drafters to that result. Johnson finished last year as the PPR RB11, after all, and though the Browns have revamped their run game, they haven't really touched Johnson's role. Nick Chubb is a rookie never known to catch the ball, and Carlos Hyde has among the worst hands in football. There may be peripheral concern over Jarvis Landry's slot volume, but again, there's a massive discount baked in. Johnson can fall 15-20 spots from last year's outstanding finish and still bring home value in a typical PPR draft.

Ronald Jones II, Tampa Bay

Andy Hicks: The only thing standing between Ronald Jones 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.

Doug Martin, Oakland

Andy Hicks: Doug Martin had two top three fantasy seasons and four horrible years with Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers had finally seen enough and let him go. He lands on his feet though with the Oakland Raiders, behind a 32-year-old starter in Marshawn Lynch and a new coach who will be committed to the run. As his best years indicate, Martin has a very high upside and in this situation will be a steal for relatively no draft capital. For a player at the crossroads of his career, Doug Martin has to perform or look for a new career. This is one of the better gambles in fantasy this year.

Lamar Miller, Houston

Ryan Hester: Last season, it looked like Houston was ramping up D'Onta Foreman’s workload so he could take over for Miller. But a ruptured Achilles tendon has cast doubt on Foreman’s 2018. Miller has also shed weight back to the levels of his Miami days when he was a more explosive player. A more dynamic playmaker who should receive the bulk of the running back work on a potentially explosive offense should carry a higher price tag than Miller carries now.

Joe Mixon, Cincinnati

Ryan Hester: Prior to last season, Mixon bulked up in anticipation of a full NFL workload. After averaging fewer than four yards-per-carry, Mixon wanted to get quicker for his second year. He has shed 12 pounds this season and appears to be lighter on his feet and more dynamic. His offensive line, which was dreadful last season, has also improved by trading for tackle Cordy Glenn and spending a first-round pick on center Billy Price. One area where Mixon did perform well in 2017 was in the receiving game, something he has done well since college. Opportunity, offensive line, and improved playmaking skills are among the reasons why Mixon is a value play this season.

Ty Montgomery, Green Bay

Jeff 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 I think he has a ton of upside as a receiver and multi-purpose threat for Green Bay.

Chris Thompson, Washington

Will Grant: Thompson is a still banged up and recovering from a broken fibula that he suffered last season, but he’s practicing with the team and improving more each week. With Derrius Guice done for the year, people are running to Rob Kelley and Samaje Perine as potential replacements. But Thompson was always the best receiving back on the team, and he’ll continue to hold that role with Guice out of the picture. In a PPR league, he’s a nice flex option and that makes him nice value at his current ADP.