What We Learned in 2018: Running Back

A look back at what we learned at the running back position in 2018

Links to other positions:

QB: https://subscribers.footballguys.com/apps/article.php?article=2019-what-we-learned-qb

WR: https://subscribers.footballguys.com/apps/article.php?article=2019-what-we-learned-wr

TE: https://subscribers.footballguys.com/apps/article.php?article=2019-what-we-learned-te

The 2018 fantasy season was full of ups and downs at running back, often connected to and even setting each other in motion. The turns of fortune made a top five pick worthless and late round pick a top five producer before the season even started. Fantasy players who heavily value elite running backs and those that spend lightly at the position both found reasons to double down on those strategies in 2019. Let’s review what we learned at the running back position.

Maybe don’t fade the holdout

Le’Veon Bell seemed to act and talk the same way he did in 2017 throughout the 2018 offseason, but when it came time to report, the results were very different. He didn’t play and took the holdout over the cliff, crushing teams that spent a barely discounted ADP (even after the threat of the holdout took on more gravity as the season approached), and taking teams that spend a pick on James Conner to the playoffs. With a labor situation looming in 2021, perhaps we could see another mutually assured destruction scenario or two in upcoming years.

2019 Application

Le'Veon Bell is going to be a hotly debated player no matter where he lands, although most of the biggest possibilities (Tampa, Jets, Colts) are positive and possibly value enhancing. Of course, if you backed off of Bell because of specific and general holdout risk and dodged the bullet last year, you won’t be more excited to draft him after a year off. Melvin Gordon III will be playing on a fifth-year option, but there’s no reason to think he or any other top back will hold out for a new contract this season. Conner probably won’t last past the top 15-20 picks in 2019 drafts, but Jaylen Samuels was strong enough as a runner in place of Conner for the Steelers to rethink their bellcow approach in the backfield when you consider that the 2018 sixth-rounder is one of the best receiving backs in the league, too.

Even the best running backs are replaceable

As discussed above, Bell goes out, Conner comes in, the Steelers offense doesn’t miss a beat. Then Conner goes out, Samuels comes in, and the Steelers offense doesn’t miss a beat. The Chargers beat the Steelers on the road without Melvin Gordon III and the Chiefs on the road without Gordon and Austin Ekeler and the backfield remained productive from a fantasy perspective. The Chiefs went from Kareem Hunt to Spencer Ware to Damien Williams and lost little if anything in fantasy value and offensive effectiveness. The Rams went from Todd Gurley to CJ Anderson and Anderson ended up being so good as a street free agent that he turned the backfield into a committee in the playoffs. Two of the three biggest games by a Minnesota running back came from bargain backup Latavius Murray. All of these starters were first or near first round picks in fantasy leagues. Is the value created by the back or the situation? The answer isn’t simple, but 2018 will do little to help players like Bell get their demands met in free agency or convince teams to invest more in starters after even a street free agent like Anderson showed he can come through on short notice.

2019 Application

It’s still difficult to recommend handcuffing a backup from the draft on because of the roster spot clogging that can cost you a chance at a key early waiver wire pickup, but our urging to stack your bench with backup running backs in good situations will remain in effect as we get closer to the end of the bye week gauntlet.

Situation is still king

In addition to the backups, third stringers, and street free agents that cashed in the value of great situations, running backs with murky situations ended up frustrating fantasy players all season. Miami, Philadelphia, Tennessee, Atlanta, and Philadelphia failed to give us sustained production or predictable workloads from any one back in their committee-based approach divvying up the work in the backfield. Baltimore was equally frustrating until they turned back the clock when Lamar Jackson took over the offense. Some uncertain situations entering the season like Denver and Chicago clarified themselves on the basis of running back play, and the Patriots continued to defy the old conventional wisdom about avoiding Belichick backs, but the path to finding hits in crowded backfield was littered with costly misses.

2019 Application

Nothing is changing here, accomplished clear lead backs will dominate the first half of the first round and make up about half of the first 30-35 picks, while backs with more questions about the size of their role won’t be tempting until the fourth round or later.

It’s hard out there for a running back

Running back injury cost was bad enough, taking Leonard Fournette, Devonta Freeman, and Dalvin Cook for significant parts of the season and denying us from even seeing Jerick McKinnon in a regular season game. This year three first round running backs turned into landmines due to an historically bad offense (David Johnson), an offseason incident that got buried in the newscycle (Kareem Hunt), and a holdout (Le'Veon Bell). Many of the running backs that did carry us into the playoffs weren’t there for us in December because of injuries. Only Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffery and Ezekiel Elliott delivered big numbers wire to wire.

The early draft running backs at least had a solid hit rate and that group carried a position that was gory from the third round on, with few sustained success stories. Injury and usage complications turned the running back slots in our lineups into revolving doors that turned faster than Texans offensive linemen trying to protect Deshaun Watson.

2019 Application

As mentioned in the intro, no matter your drafting philosophy at the running back position, you’ll find evidence to reinforce using that strategy in this year’s drafts. This is good for fantasy - after all it was the monolithic alignment to the “stud running back” theory that led to the addition of PPR scoring to diversify strategies and keep the early rounds from being too predictable.

The receiving role for running backs is increasing overall, but it isn’t increasing week-to-week fantasy predictability

2018 saw an uptick in the number of backs with 50+ and 60+ receptions, which is ironically making PPR scoring a vehicle for some running backs to once again become overvalued compared to their “real football” contributions. Players like Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley were elite PPR performers even in weeks when they struggled to get consistent gains as a runner and receiver, and players like James White, Tarik Cohen and Chris Thompson (for a blink of an eye) found RB1 numbers within reach because their offenses used their receptions as functional equivalents for running plays when the game plan called for it. Jalen Richard became a second half fantasy starter because of his intersection with Derek Carr’s penchant for the short passing game.

Don’t think this meant that receiving running backs became the new hack for minimal running back draft strategies. TJ Yeldon and Austin Ekeler for the most part only hit when their starter ahead of them was out, which means their strong ROI at a late ADP was because of their handcuff status, not their receiving prowess, and the same was true of White to an extent. Duke Johnson Jr, Giovani Bernard, Bilal Powell, Theo Riddick, and Dion Lewis all failed to deliver any consistent contributions despite strong resumes as receivers out of the backfield coming into the 2018 season.

2019 Application

The stud running back who can also catch 60+ passes will dominate the top of the draft, and perhaps White will be overvalued after yet another strong January and year-end numbers that mask his muted impact when he was in a three-back backfield. The big takeaway here is to consider a change to scaled .5 PPR for running backs, full PPR for wide receivers and 1.5 PPR for tight ends to equalize the scoring impact of receiving roles and keep the games with running back reception spikes from tilting matchups as the game continues to change.

Age ain’t nothing but a number

Frank Gore, Adrian Peterson, and Marshawn Lynch all played at a level at or near recent years performances despite being at an age that has been a death knell for backs in the past. We should probably only apply this to backs that were elite at their peak, and Gore did more to wreck Kenyan Drake’s value than create value of his own, but it was still fun to watch their desire and savvy shine at a position that favors youth.

2019 Application

If Lynch and Peterson get starting roles again and remain outside of the top five rounds like they did in 2018 drafts, they’ll merit consideration. If they don’t start and go undrafted, but get mid-season opportunity, open up your waiver wire wallet

The most expensive rookie back was the most impactful, but overall drafting hot rookie names was a mixed bag

2017’s rookie running backs changed the outcome of league championships, so there was a lot of anticipation to add top-drafted backs from a 2018 class that had a claim to being even better than 2017. Saquon Barkley was everything he was advertised to be and more (imagine if the Giants get a quarterback), and proved to be a value even at his mid-first round price tag. Derrius Guice, the #2 drafted rookie, at least until preseason, went down with a torn ACL in his first preseason game. Royce Freeman, Rashaad Penny, and Ronald Jones ended up being complete wastes of mid-round picks. Nick Chubb was a massive hit after looking like he would be a complete waste. Thankfully, rational general managing won out in Cleveland and the Browns undid the free agent signing of Carlos Hyde that ended up being unnecessary after Chubb was drafted. Kerryon Johnson was in the middle of a breakout when he went down, and Sony Michel was more than worth the modest investment to land him, but required patience through multiple injuries. Phillip Lindsay deserves a mention here - an undrafted rookie who leapfrogged the higher drafted Freeman to become an RB1 for most of the season and the waiver wire pickup of the year.

2019 Application

This class won’t be nearly as strong as the previous two, and the strength of those classes has limited the number of opportunities heading into the season. Rookie fever will be rightfully mild and perhaps it’s better to fade rookies in early best ball drafts. Lindsay (and Jaylen Samuels later in the season) reminds us to be active on the waiver wire when it comes to rookie backs, and Michel/Chubb/Johnson remind us to be patient.

You want Derrick Henry on your roster when the weather turns cold

Even though Derrick Henry was a frustrating fantasy option most of the season, he was an MVP in the fantasy playoffs when he sometimes literally ran over defenses.

2019 Application

Way too early ADP points to Henry going in the 3rd/4th round range just like he did last year despite the wide valley and short peak. The Titans have a new offensive coordinator after the Packers hired Matt LaFleur to be their head coach. Arthur Smith was the tight end coach and promoted from within, so there’s some hope that Henry’s September 2019 usage will resemble his December 2018 usage. He’s not a bad proposition at his current price despite the lack of passing game usage.

Ignore offseason and preseason buzz regarding backfields with rookies at your own risk

Offseason/preseason buzz ties well into earlier lessons about rookie backs. The first time Lindsay got on our radar came after a strong start to camp that never let up in the preseason. Chris Carson was considered the most impressive back in Seattle from the first OTA on and never relinquished his starting job even though he sometimes went 8-10 rounds after Rashaad Penny in drafts. Praise of Peyton Barber portended his holding the top of the depth chart through the end of season (and the lack of buzz about Ronald Jones was also instructive). In more of a mixed result, Carlos Hyde also created good vibes in Cleveland and produced well enough to justify his optimistic ADP until management stepped in and let the superior rookie play.

2019 Application

We’ll be watching the reports this spring and summer about every backfield populated by a drafted rookie very closely. The outcomes in Detroit and Cleveland showed that rookie talent can resolve a backfield in the youngster’s favor even when the coaches see it different at the beginning of the season, but the more decisive outcomes for fantasy came in Seattle, Tampa Bay, and Denver, where coaches tipped off that they saw the depth differently that draft capital would dictate.

Irrational coaching ruined two backs, but rational coaching and rational general managing saved two others

Kenyan Drake tore up the league in December 2017, but he only got the opportunity because Adam Gase had no other choice. The Dolphins signed Frank Gore in the offseason and drafted Kalen Ballage, signaling their lack of confidence in Drake to hold up in a feature back role. Fantasy players, always enamored (rightfully) with proven ability combined with a player being on the upslope of his career arc, took Drake in the fourth round anyway. He had two multi-game runs of fantasy relevance, but was too unpredictable to trust week after week. The Cardinals offense cratered from day one, and the coaches appeared to be puzzled when posed with the question of how to use one of the most talented running backs in the league. They fired their offensive coordinator, Mike McCoy, in a potentially positive sign for David Johnson’s passing game and outside running involvement, but nothing came of it and Johnson languished as a low RB2 all season.

Not that we didn’t see coaches and decision makers learn how to manage their backfields as the season unfolded. Nick Chubb was freed when Carlos Hyde was traded to the Jaguars and Aaron Jones was finally installed as the featured back in Green Bay after some prompting from Aaron Rodgers and continued outstanding running from Jones.

2019 Application

There’s no clear lesson here. Some organizations and coaches will admit mistakes in backfield division of labor and some won’t in the face of overwhelming evidence. The smart bet is to assume coaches won’t change from year-to-year. The Jets have a wide open backfield, except Adam Gase to frustrate us once again unless they sign Le’Veon Bell. The Cardinals have a new “offensive whiz” head coach in Kliff Kingsbury. We can only hold that he won’t make something simple into something difficult like his predecessors did. We could see a team or two sign a veteran back and then draft a rookie on the second day like Cleveland did, but the rookie vs veteran results were so mixed last year that we shouldn’t assume the general manager will fix the situation mid-season like John Dorsey did last year. Green Bay has a new coach in Matt LaFleur, we’ll be monitoring his offseason comments on the backfield closely.

Backs that have trouble staying healthy will continue to have trouble staying healthy, but can still contribute enough to earn their ADP in some cases

Chris Thompson was a fantasy force at the beginning of the season again, only to fade even faster than he did in 2017. Lamar Miller had a brief mid-season resurgence and then let fantasy teams down when it mattered most. Dalvin Cook and Leonard Fournette came back too early from hamstring injuries and ended up missing additional time. Devonta Freeman had a nebulous knee problem in 2017 that may or may not have played a part in further injuries that torpedoed his 2018. Sony Michel and Marlon Mack came into the season hurt, and missed additional games with additional injuries later in the season, but provided plenty of return on investment when they were healthy. Matt Breida came into the season hurt and flashed in short periods of better health, but never got completely healthy and let fantasy teams down just when they were starting to trust him.

2019 Application

Melvin Gordon III has played more than 14 games exactly once in four years and missed two Week 15s and two Week 16s. Should he still go in the first round? Alternatively, Freeman, Cook and Fournette are going a half-round to two-plus rounds after their 2018 ADP, so early drafters have priced in their injury histories. Michel and Mack are going to be more expensive than 2018 prices and might be unwise buys if their ADP creeps into the third round. Breida is going after Jerick McKinnon (who had terrible injury luck in 2018) in one of the tougher backfields to project for 2019.