The Gut Check No.509: The 2020 Running Back Draft Guide Supreme

Matt Waldman knows a thing or two about running backs. From the top picks to the obscure camp guys, he shares his 2020 RB-centric draft strategies, including Upside-Down Drafting. 

This article is about a 24-minute read.

I have a history with running backs. My first fantasy team included second-year runner, Terrell Davis as my third-round pick. Rookie Corey Dillon? Drafted him, too. How about taking rookie Edgerrin James in the first round for the championship? It wasn't great value, but it was a legendary call in my local league back in those days.

And it wasn't just the early picks. Maurice Jones-Drew and his 1,377 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns was a league-winner for me in an industry auction for the bid of a $1. UDFA rookie Fred Lane and his 826 yards and 7 touchdowns is worth name-dropping, too. I was all over Frank Gore and Brian Westbrook early on.

Then I began the Rookie Scouting Portfolio publication. For the past 16 years, I warned you about prospects who were celebrated for as athletes but needed work as running backs—Darren McFadden, C.J. Spiller, Bishop Sankey, and Andre Williams. Meanwhile, I touted runners like Marshawn Lynch and Nick Chubb as equal or greater talents to the likes of Adrian Peterson and Saquon Barkley.

I didn't let you down about surprising early-round picks like Ray Rice, Matt Forte, and Joseph Addai, and I didn't let you be scared away from the overly dour pre-draft outlooks that analysts had with them.

You were cautioned not to immediately count on Tevin Coleman, Marlon Mack, and Kenyan Drake but if you gave them time, they could pay dividends. You were encouraged to be more bullish about Jordan Howard, LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis, and Joseph Addai. Le'Veon Bell and Dalvin Cook.

And, there were the deep sleepers who helped you in a pinch when called upon: Boston Scott, Bo Scarbrough, Jerome Harrison, Justin Jackson, Zac Stacy, Joique Bell, Karlos Williams, Tim Hightower, and Spencer Ware.

Many scoffed at these takes. Most are now subscribers to the RSP.

While I've had my share of misses, when it comes to identifying the value of running backs in the fantasy industry and telling you the 'why' behind it,...

Let's put this knowledge to worthwhile use and give Footballguys' subscribers my personal guide to 2020 Running Backs for re-draft formats.

I'll recommend the best options from every part of the draft and even give you the lesser-known guys to monitor on the waiver wire and during training camp in this crazy COVID-19 environment where knowing about as many potentially helpful backs as possible will prove beneficial.

With this information, you can formulate a draft plan around running backs regardless of your strategy, including an Upside-Down/Do-the-Opposite/Zero-RB approach that I'll cover in the final segment of this article.

An Explanation of Value

I'll be providing a calculated value of players with average draft positions (ADPs) from the early and middle rounds of fantasy drafts. The value is the difference between my overall ranking of the player based on my projections of his fantasy points and his ADP as of August 1.

A negative number means the player is underrated by that number of picks. For instance, James Conner is -30, meaning I believe Conner is underrated by 30 picks and you're getting a player valued 2.5 rounds lower than he should.

A positive number means that player is overrated. Joe Mixon's value is 23, which means he's overrated by nearly two rounds in 12-team formats (more soon as to why I have this stance for this talented player).

As we get deeper into the draft, the variation of where players are taken becomes greater so value won't be as vital as it is in the first 7-11 rounds and even within that range, the room for greater variation should be wider

What About...

The players left off this list? They're not my favorites but that doesn't mean they are bad picks (Miles Sanders and Austin Ekeler, for example) unless they are on my No-Fly List. So far, that list includes nine backs:

  1. Jerick McKinnon
  2. Rashaad Penny
  3. Keshawn Vaughn
  4. Sony Michel
  5. D'Andre Swift
  6. Mark Ingram II
  7. Devin Singletary
  8. Aaron Jones

And, yes, I still have Clyde Edwards-Helaire on the No-Fly List because he's going to earn a top-15 selection in many leagues and I think he's a low-end RB2 in value even without Damien Williams playing this year.

I've listed some of these options from the No-Fly List and placed an asterisk next to their names. These players may be on my No-Fly List for traditional draft plans but not the DTO/UDD/0-RB plan.

And the Players in Bold?

These are players I'd reach more than a round to acquire and use them as touchpoints to formulate a draft plan around.

Rounds 1-3

Safest Values Round 1

Bottom Line
Volume, versatility, and skill makes McCaffrey the best fantasy option in the NFL.
Kamara may not earn McCaffrey's volume but he's a special talent with versatility with excellent surrounding talent.
Barkley will earn McCaffrey's volume on an improving team that has enough holes to perpetuate great highs and lows.
Elliott is the safest pick in the draft. He's an elite and versatile talent on an excellent offense.
The Vikings want to run the ball and Cook has the talent for elite production. Durability is the only mark against him.

Obviously, I'd take any of the backs in this tier. If you have one of the first five picks in your fantasy draft and you're set on taking runners in the early rounds, these are the safest five on the board.

Best Values Rounds 1-3

Bottom Line
Value his '18 season. Consider at the 1/2 turn or mid-2nd if you don't draft at the 2/3 turn. Early 3rd vs. guppies.
A skilled back behind a good OL and won't make it to you in the 2nd unless at the 1/2 turn--and that's a maybe.
Great backs produce without a top line. Chubb is great and has a better OL. Hunt shouldn't scare you. 1st round or 1/2 turn.
A talented back who will earn excellent value isn't a bad choice even of the OL is a little worse than the past two years.
With more efficient red-zone play in '19, he'd be north of RB13 last year. Good in early 3rd.
Carson's fumbles, Rashaad Penny Truthers, and those with NFL Draft capital bias makes him a bargain in 3rd.
Johnson was the No.6 fantasy back in 2019 before getting hurt. Expect similar in Houston. A third-round bargain.

As you can see, there are 7 backs I highly recommend during the first three rounds and 11 that are safe plays. Whether it is 2-3 backs, one back and top talent at receiver and tight end, or three backs in a row, you can approach the opening round of your draft multiple ways and earn a good foundation for your team build with the two charts above.

Rounds 4-7

Unless you're undertaking the DTO/UDD/0RB approach, the number of running backs that I like during these four rounds is much smaller than the opening three. And if you're taking the aforementioned approach, don't let that I just said scare you because you won't need to learn as hard on your running backs to build a contender.

You should begin worrying less about calculated Value category with players after the sixth round. Some players you should value more based on their talent and potential if certain conditions are met (see Kareem Hunt and J.K. Dobbins below) than my projected ranking based on fantasy points if those conditions don't occur.

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