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What We Learned in 2017: Running Back

A look back at lessons learned from the 2017 season at the running back position

The 2017-18 season is in the books. In my 12 years of closely covering fantasy football, there has not been one that had more twists and turns, and tests for fantasy owners to endure. Now that the tests are over, we can go back and see what we've learned. Running back had another triumphant season at being the most influential position on the fantasy roster, and sea changes under how the position is used in the NFL will keep it a moving target. What can learn about that direction and how that knowledge can help us win fantasy leagues?

1. There’s a youth movement - Did you take a rookie in your 2017 fantasy draft? I hope so. Rookie running backs ruled fantasy leagues and many league winners were lead by a rookie. Alvin Kamara was as valuable as any running back in the second half of the year after going in the second half of drafts. Kareem Hunt had a late surge to the third round after Spencer Ware went down and was the most valuable back of September with a resurgence in December. Leonard Fournette had a few bumps in the road, but returned great value on the third round pick used to select him, and Christian McCaffrey gave reasonable return on a third in PPR leagues. Dalvin Cook was on his way to being the most valuable rookie of them all before tearing an ACL. Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams took turns as the most valuable back in Green Bay after Ty Montgomery went down. Chris Carson emerged from a mess of a backfield in Seattle after being a seventh-round pick. Even Tarik Cohen and D’Onta Foreman could have provided sustained contributions to teams that drafted or added them if their coaches were rational.

How to Apply This Knowledge: The 2018 rookie class might be even better than the 2017 class. Penn State’s Saquon Barkley is a prospect on the Gurley/Elliott/Peterson/Tomlinson level. He’ll be a second round pick before we even know where he lands - and he could still be a value at that price. Georgia’s Sony Michel is a dual threat candidate a la Kamara, and his teammate Nick Chubb could provide an infusion of power a la Fournette, not to mention Fournette’s college teammate Derrius Guice, who can do a decent impression of Fournette. USC’s Ronald Jones has some Jamaal Charles in him, and Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson could be an immediate workhorse. That doesn’t even account for another deep class that has at least 7-10 more possible NFL core contributors who could have fantasy relevance if they find opportunity. Even with some inflation on the heels of last year’s rookie triumphs, rookie running backs have to be part of your draft plan in 2018.

2. Even rookie sensations need an offensive line - Joe Mixon’s ADP was surging as the approached, with some drafts that saw him go nearly as high as Fournette/McCaffrey/Cook, or ahead of one or more of them. Mixon’s opportunity was sufficient to deliver on that ADP, but his offensive line was not. The Bengals let their two best offensive linemen walk in free agency with no suitable replacements on the roster. Mixon frustrated fantasy teams and ended up being worse than a wasted pick because of the temptation to start him in any given week.

How to Apply This Knowledge: Is Saquon Barkley good enough to overcome the deficiencies on the Giants or Colts offensive lines? Can the Broncos give a rookie runner a good environment? What if the Seahawks draft a back? How will the Panthers running game look if they don’t bring back Andrew Norwell, the best guard in free agency. Offensive line is a crucial part of the picture for any back, but especially when projecting backs with no NFL experience.

3. Bad offensive lines can be fixed in one offseason - Minnesota had a stunning turnaround on the offensive line. After Adrian Peterson went down in 2016 (and before, to be honest) the line failed to create any functional room for the running game. Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata were duds and Sam Bradford had to focus on the short game through the air. The Vikings had turnover on the line via free agency and draft, and they had enough rushing prowess to produce two fantasy relevant backs for most of the year - and that’s after their #1 back went down.

How to Apply This Knowledge: The Bengals hired the Cowboys old offensive line coach, Frank Pollack. Quinton Nelson has a chance to be a top five pick as a guard and transform a weak offensive line. This free agent class isn’t as good as last year’s, but Norwell would be as big a gain for team wanting to establish the run as a loss for the Panthers. Bottom line: knowing and monitoring offensive line developments is the analogue for running back value to quarterback play for wide receiver value.

4. Running Back wasn’t significantly riskier than wide receiver in the early rounds - Le'Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy, and Melvin Gordon III all delivered good return on investment, much like Antonio Brown. David Johnson was an early injury bust, but so was Odell Beckham Jr. Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman both underperformed in an underachieving Falcons offense. Jay Ajayi and Amari Cooper were performance busts despite arrows pointing up entering the season. Demarco Murray and Jordy Nelson were performance busts despite a long track record and seemingly good situation. A.J. Green, Dez Bryant, and Mike Evans all fell short of first round value for various reasons. 2015 made everyone want to go wide receiver in the first round. 2016 made more people willing to go running back. 2017 didn’t give us a “right answer” on this question.

How to Apply This Knowledge: That’s because there isn’t a “right answer”. Running backs will dominate the top five and top 20 of drafts in 2018 because the distribution of value at the position is top heavy, while the distribution of value at wide receiver has levelled off. Don’t let position dictate your first and second-round picks, let your belief in the player/situation/momentum combination guide you.

5. Don’t avoid running back by committee situations by default - Very simply, the strategy of taking a Saints back and Patriots back (or multiple Saints or Patriots backs) because of the team’s ability to produce at the running back position and despite the lack of clarity in the backfields was a good strategy. Mark Ingram II and Alvin Kamara destroyed their ADP, and Kamara might have been the most profitable pick at any position. Adrian Peterson was a bust, but two out of three ain’t bad. The earliest drafted Patriots back, Mike Gillislee, was the worst, with only a Week 1 outburst to show for his mid-round price, but James White had sustained PPR value in the first half of the year, then Rex Burkhead delivered second half of the season touchdown punch, and Dion Lewis was a league winner in Week 16. All were second half of the draft picks in the summer. Even the messy Baltimore situation produced a solid RB2 for about half of the year in the form of Alex Collins, and occasional solid games from Javorius Allen - even after Danny Woodhead returned from injury.

How to Apply This Knowledge: There won’t be value to be harvested in the New Orleans backfield this year, but the Patriots backfield has two free agents and could yield profit again this year. The important takeaway here is to be open to committee backs when the backfield is used to a large extent to move the sticks, and especially when the offense creates a large pie of yards and touchdowns to divvy up.

6. Definitely avoid running back by committee situations when a team hasn’t proven that they can run the ball - The Seahawks backfield a similar debate to the Saints backfield heading into drafts - which veteran to target - Eddie Lacy or Thomas Rawls? Or maybe the rookie closing the gap over the summer (Chris Carson). The Lions had 2016 PPR wonder Theo Riddick and a healthy Ameer Abdullah to choose from. The Giants had second-year speculation bet Paul Perkins and an established, if fragile receiving back in Shane Vereen. None of these teams had sustained success running the ball in 2016. While Chris Carson had a glimmer of value at the beginning of the season, running backs from these teams mostly ended up being wastes of roster spots and draft picks.

How to Apply This Knowledge: Obviously this is tied up in offensive line issues and we could see signs of improvement, but we’ll need a pretty strong case of transcendent talent (like Barkley on the Giants roster) to invest a valuable pick in a back from the Lions, Seahawks, or Giants roster this year. Washington, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis also had trouble establishing the run, although Indianapolis should hopefully get back Andrew Luck and Washington dealt with a ton of offensive line injuries in 2017.

7. Coaching Matters: We already knew this heading into 2017, but we didn’t know exactly how much the Jeff Fisher funk was holding back Todd Gurley. He looked like he would take the league by storm after his rookie year in 2015, but like the rest of the Rams, he played with a tentative and defeated nature in 2016. Sean McVay, a new coaching staff, and aggressive personnel moves on offense more than revitalized the morose Rams offense, they turned it into one of the best in the league, and Gurley became the most valuable player in fantasy football.

How to Apply This Knowledge: The Bears are the best candidate to take a major leap on offense with Andy Reid disciple Matt Nagy and former Oregon head coach Mark Helfrick overseeing the offense. The Raiders, Giants, and Browns also made hires that will have a lot of influence over the offense and could turn around disappointing units from 2017.

8. Assumption of rational coaching will still let us down - Derrick Henry was clearly the more capable back in Tennessee all season. Every time the Broncos rode CJ Anderson, they won, but they only won five games. The Raiders coaxed Marshawn Lynch out of retirement, but then didn’t give him 20+ touches in a game until they were missing both of their starting wide receivers. Tarik Cohen was a week 1 game changer, but only touched the ball more than ten times in five games for the rest of the season.

How to Apply This Knowledge: We have to assume rational coaching when we are making our boards and drafting. The good news is that the Titans, Bears, and Raiders have all made wholesale changes in the coaching staff, and the Broncos should have a better offensive coordinator now that Bill Musgrave has had the interim removed from his title. We will be on the lookout for potential irrational coaching, but we can’t always anticipate it.

9. The running back continues to grow as part of the passing game - Thirteen running backs had 50 or more receptions in 2017, one of the highest numbers in league history, and that doesn’t even account for injuries to players like Darren Sproles and Danny Woodhead, who helped typify the receiving back, Ty Montgomery, who was Christian McCaffrey before McCaffrey at Stanford, and David Johnson, who took the receiving back to a new level. Chris Thompson was a high ceiling RB1 in a receiving back role, Alvin Kamara a fantasy MVP, and Carlos Hyde a reinvented route running back with more creative offensive coaching.

How to Apply This Knowledge: Replacement level PPR running back production will be easier to find with more teams utilizing receiving backs. Receiving backs will continue to get more opportunity as more backfield get bifurcated into committees. This also will produce more uberstud fantasy backs - Bell/Johnson/Gurley/Elliott - backs who can handle 300 carries and be a primary receiver - because teams are embracing more running back targets whether it’s a specialist or lead back. Saquon Barkley has the uberstud profile and should get 50+ receptions as a rookie, in addition to being a workhorse. Jerick McKinnon should have more value in free agency as a dual threat back as opposed to the old ‘tweener label.

10. Beware the back who has opportunity by default - The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Giants, and Green Bay Packers all sat out at the running back position in the first two days of the draft despite a perceived big need at the position and the best running back class to come along in ten years. While all three teams took backs on the third day, incumbent backs Doug Martin, Paul Perkins, and Ty Montgomery were boosted by the seeming “vote of confidence”. All three got ample opportunity to take control of their backfields. Martin and Perkins were dismissed due to performance, with Martin’s demotion coming painfully late, and Montgomery was first sitting due to injury and then gave way to rookie backs that were better at bread and butter running plays.

How to Apply This Knowledge: The draft could and should shake up some of these situations, but Samaje Perine, a Jets running back, and Lamar Miller are the most likely backs at this moment to be overdrafted in 2018 because they will carry forward opportunity that they didn’t maximize in 2017.

11. Kenyan Drake learned how to run and unlocked his potential - The Dolphins weren’t geniuses for trading Jay Ajayi because Ajayi was vastly overrated - he showed his boundless energy and ability to get to the second level with the Eagles, albeit in a committee approach. The reason the move was brilliant in hindsight was the emergence of Kenyan Drake. Drake was ideal physically coming out of Alabama, but his processor wasn’t as gifted as his body, and he seemed overwhelmed at times, both in college and early in his pro career. That was not the case once Damien Williams got hurt (evidence that even the Dolphins didn’t know what they had in Drake), and Drake looked like David Johnson east.

How to Apply This Knowledge: The Dolphins expressed that they don’t want Drake to get the kind of workload he had in December, and they should draft or sign an inside running complement. That might not reduce his season-long and weekly ceiling as much as we think, with his big play ability as a runner and receiver, and could help with longevity and durability. Drake will carry a third-round price tag at the most, and with the addition of Eric Studesville to improve the running game, he could be a value pick. Kalen Ballage (Arizona State) could be the next back to learn to unlock his brimming physical potential in the pros, and he's an even better receiver than Drake was at the time of the draft.