On Second Thought: Running Back Edition

A look at how our running back views have changed over the preseason

It's hard to believe that we're less than two weeks away from the start of the NFL regular season. For many fans, they're just now starting to pay attention. But for fantasy owners, for FOOTBALLGUYS, we're already many months into our preparation. As one of the contributors to the site's projections, I have had the entire league modeled and projected since late April. A LOT of things happen between then and the beginning of September. I, along with the other staff, tweak our projections and expectations in real-time. But it occurs to me that very little is ever said about the way our opinions change. This article, and others like it, will highlight qualitatively the assumptions that went into my initial projections that have since changed considerably. Enjoy.

On Second Thought...

Tevin Coleman (ATL) is a risky proposition as your RB2, even in PPR formats

Coleman ranked 18th last year, and initially, I projected him as a mid-tier RB2 particularly in PPR formats. The 3rd-year running back did nothing this preseason to sour me; it’s just that a more careful analysis of his 2016 achievements warranted caution. Coleman averaged better than 10 yards per reception last year, but nothing in his pedigree suggests he can maintain that level. He also averaged 4.5 yards per rush, and I was projecting nearly 5 yards per carry. Adjusting his “per touch” averages to more realistic levels puts Coleman as a fringe RB2 and an ideal RB3.

Terrance West (BAL) is the Raven worth drafting, not Danny Woodhead

Once Kenneth Dixon was lost for the season, projecting Baltimore’s backfield became challenging. Too many fantasy pundits glommed onto Danny Woodhead as a PPR savior, but he spent more time in the offseason in the training room than on the field; as is typical. Between a change of venue, his injury history, and a new coaching staff, I’m not buying into Woodhead’s reception total being enough to offset his inconsequential rushing role. West isn’t exciting, but he’s present. He knows the scheme, he stays on the field, and he can protect Joe Flacco’s blindside. West is going cheaper than most projected starting running backs and should be targeted as a high value, low floor RB3 or RB4.

Christian McCaffrey (CAR) will be elite, in both PPR and standard formats

I entered the season as McCaffrey’s biggest fan; I had the highest ranking and projections for the talented rookie. That hasn’t changed, but what has changed is his value in non-PPR formats. McCaffrey has shown an ability to play in all downs and distances this summer. He already knows the blocking schemes and has looked as good running inside as he does catching wheel routes. Jonathan Stewart is a talented veteran and won’t be cast aside, but McCaffrey will be no worse than a mid-tier RB2 with Top 10 upside if Stewart gets hurt (which he often does).

Joe Mixon (CIN) could be a stud, but the Bengals appear ready to use a 3-way committee

Joe Mixon has lived up to scouting reports all summer, but what’s different is how well Jeremy Hill has looked. Hill sits atop the depth chart and has since the initial release. He’s taken most of the first team reps in the preseason and run well, including converting short-yardage scores. Giovani Bernard is 100% healthy and is the best fit for a 3rd down role. In other words, all three running backs should have roles while healthy. That makes Mixon a risky bet at his current ADP.

Ezekiel Elliott (DAL) is not a consensus Top-3 pick

Elliott faces a six-game suspension, pending an appeal, and becomes too risky to pay a Top 3 price. Absent the suspension; I projected Elliott on par with David Johnson and Le'Veon Bell, but now he’s only viable as a second round choice for a team confident in staying afloat while he sits. Darren McFadden regains fantasy relevance thanks to Elliott’s suspension.

C.J. Anderson (DEN) is the clear #1 in Denver

Anderson has been more promise than production throughout his career, and an injury-marred 2016 season seemingly left the door open for competition. To Anderson’s credit, he stayed healthy this preseason, ran well in the preseason dress rehearsal, and appears locked in as the primary ballcarrier.

Ameer Abdullah (DET) gets one more chance at the bell-cow role

I’ve lost a lot of leagues betting big on Ameer Abdullah and was set to forget about him this year. My initial projections hedged Abdullah’s role in spite of appreciation for his immense talent. However, a pristine preseason coupled with the unquestioned endorsement of his coaches and front office have me taking one more leap of faith. Abdullah can be a Top 15 option in any format but comes at a fraction of the cost.

Ty Montgomery (GB) is not a FEATURE BACK, but Jamaal Williams might be

The Packers built running back depth this preseason with two rookie draft picks, as a way to ensure they weren’t wholly-ineffective running the ball as they were at times in 2016. Ty Montgomery will still be the nominal starter, but he’s not built for a workhorse role. Jamaal Williams had a fantastic preseason and has the size and power to handle 20+ touches. Expect a 1a and 1b committee to start the year, but don’t be surprised if Williams earns the lead role while Montgomery transitions to a 3rd-down, receiving role – where his skills are best utilized.

Marlon Mack (IND) should not be forgotten

In a year full of promising rookie running backs, Marlon Mack was lost in the shuffle. The Colts are not particularly good at running the ball, and Frank Gore continues to defy Father Time. Mack appeared no better than #3 behind Gore and Robert Turbin to start the preseason. Over the course of the summer, Mack has flashed an explosiveness neither Gore nor Turbin possesses. Given Gore’s age, it’s not unreasonable to think Mack could be in line for a major role later in the season. He’s up for the task.

Leonard Fournette (JAX) is not necessarily the top rookie fantasy running back

When the Jaguars used the 4th overall pick on Fournette, it seems obvious he would become the centerpiece of a run-oriented offense and be in line for 280+ carries. The former LSU powerhouse remains in line to start in Jacksonville, but he’s dealt with foot issues for much of the summer. The Jaguars passing attack also looks suspect, making it easier for defenses to key on Fournette. With other rookies including Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey securing lead roles in better offenses, Fournette has fallen back to the pack.

Kareem Hunt (KC) will be the Chiefs’ lead back

Spencer Ware tore multiple ligaments in the third preseason game and is done for the season. That vaults Kareem Hunt from intriguing handcuff to potential workhorse. Charcandrick West and C.J. Spiller should also contribute, but Andy Reid has never shied away from featuring a single back. Hunt will get every opportunity to be a driving force in a balanced offense. He vaults from RB4/RB5 consideration to a high-end RB2.

Todd Gurley (LAR) is going to bounce back

Todd Gurley was so woeful last season; he was easy to avoid at his early 2nd round ADP. However, the Rams don’t appear to be a train wreck anymore. The offensive line is better. The team added legitimate talent at receiver including Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp. Sean McVay is a better play-caller than anyone associated with Jeff Fisher. Gurley is also going to be more involved in the passing game now that Lance Dunbar is done for the year. That adds up to giving Gurley the benefit of the doubt, especially as a high-upside RB2 if you draft another running back in the first round.

Dalvin Cook (MIN) is ready for prime time

Latavius Murray isn’t an exceptional talent, but he was productive in Oakland, and Derek Carr was unhappy to see him sign with Minnesota. The Vikings paid Murray to be the new starter, and at first, I expected Murray to be the 1a to rookie Dalvin Cook’s 1b. Unfortunately, the veteran free agent missed most of the preseason while Cook shined in every facet of the game. Cook has done everything necessary to become the centerpiece of Minnesota’s offense.

Mike Gillislee (NE) is being over-drafted, while Rex Burkhead may be undervalued

When the Patriots signed Mike Gillislee, he seemed an obvious fit to replace LeGarrette Blount’s bruising, short-yardage role. Gillislee may still have that role, but he missed a chunk of the preseason and fellow free agent Rex Burkhead played well in his stead. It’s anyone’s guess how the Patriots’ backfield shakes out, which means the smartest play in fantasy is to draft the cheapest pieces late.

Mark Ingram II (NO) is too risky to draft as a high-end RB2

Mark Ingram II can do anything he’s asked. He’s powerful. He’s a good receiver. He can block. He’s also someone that always falls out of favor with his coaches. His role has never fit his talent, and the Saints went old (Adrian Peterson) and young (Alvin Kamara) in the offseason to add competition. We shouldn’t be surprised if Ingram is marginalized once the regular season begins. Since I can’t rule that possibility out, I can’t draft him at his current ADP.

Paul Perkins (NYG) is not the next fantasy bell-cow

Perkins was serviceable as a rookie, but the coaches resolutely believed he could earn the feature-back role with a strong preseason. Offensive line woes and Perkins’ tentativeness derailed that outlook, and it seems the Giants are destined for another committee approach.

Bilal Powell (NYJ) has star potential, particularly in PPR formats

My initial projections had Matt Forte as a mid-tier RB2 and Powell as RB3. The preseason has brought me around to the consensus view that Powell is the back to own. Forte missed much of camp and is on the wrong side of 30 for a team looking to lose, or “rebuild.” Powell can catch dump off passes from the cavalcade of awful quarterbacks and is capable as a between-the-tackles runner.

Wendell Smallwood (PHI) is an ideal late-round draft pick

Ask five beat writers about the Eagles running back situation, and you’ll hear five distinct outlooks. As the preseason drama unfolds, Wendell Smallwood’s outlook has brightened. The second year back is the only runner on the roster that can credibly play all three downs. LeGarrette Blount has a role but has been unimpressive this summer. Neither Darren Sproles nor Donnell Pumphrey can handle more than a handful of carries. Smallwood remains an unproven commodity, but he’s one of the cheapest potential starters at the position and has plenty of upside running behind of the league’s best offensive lines.

Carlos Hyde (SFO) is a viable fantasy RB2

I’ve been down on Carlos Hyde for many reasons, including his horrific injury history and the 49ers change to a blocking scheme that doesn’t suit his style. To Hyde’s credit, he shook off early criticism from the coaching staff and has outclassed the other backs in camp. The injury history and blocking scheme remain potential risks, but Hyde enters the season as one of the main cogs in Kyle Shanahan’s wheel.

Eddie Lacy (SEA) is not one of the best values on draft day

My projections for Eddie Lacy were significantly higher than consensus for much of the summer. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell prefers using one workhorse back, and it seemed Lacy was poised to secure that role as long as he could make weight. Lacy made weight but unexpectedly struggled in the preseason. Thomas Rawls looked better and was listed as the #1 on the depth chart following the preseason dress rehearsal. Rookie Chris Carson also outplayed Lacy in limited first team reps. I still like Lacy if he gets a full-time role, but I don’t see him as someone well suited to a committee situation. He didn’t play well sharing snaps in Green Bay, either.

Doug Martin (TB) will be a fantasy starter upon his return from suspension

If the Buccaneers opted to move on from Doug Martin this offseason, no one could blame them. Martin was hit with a suspension, and the coaches were frustrated with his up-and-down career. However, Tampa Bay didn’t draft anyone of significance nor did they sign anyone in free agency. Martin has been the best runner in camp, and his teammates and coaches have spoken well of him. Martin was the #3 fantasy running back just two seasons ago; his upside is immense versus his current ADP.

Rob Kelley (WAS) is not ready to give the job over to Samaje Perine

I drank the Samaje Perine Kool-aid after he was drafted, believing the Oklahoma Sooners’ all-time leading rusher would immediately take hold of the job over incumbent Rob Kelley. Perine hasn’t been bad this preseason, but he’s been a typical rookie in needing time to learn blitz pickups and adjust to the speed of the NFL. Kelley, on the other hand, took Perine’s presence as inspiration and has looked stronger, faster and more determined. Kelley will be the lead back to start the year; and will need to actively lose the job through poor play for Perine to gain relevance in redraft leagues.

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