3 Running Back Breakout Candidates to Target in the Middle Rounds

How to identify the best mid-round running back breakout candidates and three players who currently fit the criteria.

It doesn’t take a deep dive into this year’s ADP data to notice the well runs dry on reliable starting running backs towards the end of Round 3. Drafting at least two running backs inside the first three rounds almost feels like a requirement this year, but history shows us it usually takes more than drafting running backs early to gain an edge at the position over your league mates.

In a normal season, about half of the running backs selected in the RB13-24 range fail to finish with RB2 numbers in 12-team PPR leagues. If merely prioritizing running back on draft-day gives you roughly coin-flip odds of coming away with a reliable second starter, you’ll need to build a contingency plan to supplement your early-round picks.

Unfortunately, history also shows us the probability of drafting an eventual top-24 running back after Round 5 is low. To become one of the lucky few in your league to pluck a starting running back from Rounds 6-9, ignore timeshare backs hitched to questionable offenses and one-dimensional satellite backs. Instead, focus on identifying running backs who check most or all of these boxes:

  • Member of a potential top-10 scoring offense

  • Some ambiguity surrounding the distribution of his team’s backfield touches

  • Versatility as a runner and pass-catcher (which helps establish a floor)

  • Big-play athleticism (which mitigates lack of overall volume and provides upside)

It feels like there are less running backs in this range to choose from this year than most, but as of this writing, there are three mid-round running backs who best fit the criteria:

J.K. Dobbins

We have to like Baltimore’s chances of producing favorable conditions for running back fantasy scoring. The Ravens led the league in points per game with 31.9 last season and their running backs combined for 4.97 yards per rush attempt, which also led the league. Even after subtracting Lamar Jackson’s gaudy rushing numbers, Baltimore still ranked 11th in PPR points produced by running backs.

ADP currently favors Mark Ingram II by two-plus rounds over Dobbins, but it’s fair to wonder if the gap is justified. Ingram will undoubtedly return as the team’s nominal starter. He’s a locker room leader and a proven commodity in an offseason where experience in a system matters more than usual. But as lead backs go, Ingram’s workload left plenty to be desired before Dobbins became the 55th pick in this year’s draft. Among the 26 running backs who accumulated at least 200 total touches in 2019, Ingram ranked 22nd with a 52.5% team backfield opportunity share. There is plenty of room for a running back of Dobbins’ caliber to carve out 10-12 touches per game immediately without any change to Ingram’s role.

By all accounts, Dobbins has soft hands and runs capable routes, but the Ravens offense figures to limit his opportunities as a pass-catcher. Jackson would sooner take off running than get the ball out quickly to his running backs, which left Baltimore's backfield ranked 30th in the league in receptions last season. While catches are unlikely to pad his stats, the efficiency of the Ravens rushing attack combined with Dobbins’ propensity to rip off chunk plays, should compensate. Dobbins did not test at the scouting combine due to an ankle injury, but his explosiveness is not in doubt. He was the best SPARQ athlete in his class coming out of high school, and his exceptional speed and burst already translated into big plays at Ohio State.

His league-winning upside won’t get unlocked without an injury to Ingram, but the mere chance Dobbins eventually captures 70% of Baltimore’s backfield touches makes him the top mid-round running back to target.

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