What a difference a year can make. After the spread of the “Zero RB” draft strategy over the last two years, running backs return as the most sought after and valuable commodities in the draft room.
In ESPN’s 2017 rankings, receivers littered the first round. Owners scared by running back volatility were opting to take the perceived “sure thing” with elite receivers.
Things have swung back the other way in 2018, with running backs dominating the early part of the draft. Based on FantasyPros ADP, eighty-percent of the first round will be running backs. These are the ‘backs who you can truly build around as “set-and-forget” options.
Some owners will choose to zig when others zag, taking receivers while others are drafting their RB. Later on, I'll get into the dangers of that strategy.
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Will Saquon Barkley Live Up To The Hype?
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The Giants offense was an absolute mess last season. Eli Manning threw just 19 touchdowns; his lowest total since 2013 and the second worst total over the course of a full season.
Things are looking up this season, as the Giants used the second overall pick on Barkley - called “the greatest running back prospect ever” by some in the industry. That’s a lot of pressure on the rookie. Good thing he won’t have to do it alone, because The Giants will have a new, offensive-minded head coach and a healthy Odell Beckham Jr.
Despite the signing of veteran Jonathan Stewart, Barkley will handle a majority of touches out of the backfield. Head coach Pat Shurmur, known to use his running backs heavily in the passing game, is a massive plus for Barkley’s numbers.
On the other hand, a sub-par offensive line could hold back Barkley. The O-line ranked 26th at Pro Football Focus last season. Fortunately, the Giants went out and signed left tackle Nate Solder, addressing one of the biggest obstacles in the way of Barkley’s production. Solder anchored the Patriots offensive line, which finished 6th in the league in yards before contact on outside rushes.
A vastly improved offense, new coach and ample touches, will give Barkley every opportunity he needs to live up to his first round draft price.
What Will Last Year’s Breakouts Do For An Encore?
Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs
Hunt was incredible for spurts last season, finishing as a top five running back despite a bad mid-season slump. Overall, Hunt ended up with 1,782 total yards and 11 touchdowns as the bellcow for the Chiefs. With Spencer Ware back in the picture, Hunt won’t have sole control of the backfield anymore. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Damien Williams take some of Hunt’s touches in the passing game either.
Reid frustrated Hunt owners last season, by going away from the run for long periods, despite Hunt’s exploits early in the season. With other options in the backfield and the addition of Sammy Watkins, there are far fewer targets to go around.
The biggest change in KC is the promotion of Patrick Mahomes to starting quarterback. No one really knows what the new offense will look like, but I expect Reid to dial up a few more passes than in years past. If the Chiefs defense doesn’t improve, Mahomes will need to throw even more often, further limiting Hunt’s touches.
Hunt has talent to produce another top-five season, but the situation on offense is cloudy enough to make me hesitate drafting him. His current ADP (9th overall) assumes he maintains the same amount of touches as last season.
Kenyan Drake, Miami Dolphins
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Much like Hunt, Drake found himself thrust into a starting role due to injuries and took full advantage of the opportunity. After the injury to the aforementioned Damien Williams, Drake averaged 4.88 yards per carry on 18 attempts per game. He is also a talented pass catcher, averaging 30 reception yards per game in that same span.
It seems the Dolphins weren’t ready to trust him with the starting role, as they signed Frank Gore and drafted Kalen Ballage to challenge for touches as well. Drake still projects to get the majority of the touches, but it’s tough to say how many.
Drake is an interesting option should he continue the same volume as last season, but there’s a lot of risk in taking him at his current ADP of 38th overall.
Which Backfields Will Be Most Frustrating?
The Derrick Henry celebration party lasted about five days before it shut down. Shortly after releasing DeMarco Murray, the Titans signed former Patriot Dion Lewis to a four-year, $20 million dollar contract.
Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur already stated that Henry and Lewis would be 1A and 1B, giving owners nightmares of an even timeshare. Lewis is a far better pass-catcher and blocker than Henry, and the Titans brass clearly do not trust Henry enough as a three-down RB.
My guess is that this backfield nears a 50-50 split with both backs eating heavily into the production of the other. Henry is going nearly 30 spots higher than Lewis in drafts and I think that gap should be a lot smaller.
Green Bay Packers
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The Packers' backfield doesn’t have the name-value of the Titans running backs, but will be every bit as frustrating for Fantasy owners. Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams, and Ty Montgomery are in a heated battle for the starting role and with no indication of who comes out on top.
As of now, the Packers are looking at a committee approach, with Ty Montgomery seeing heavy usage thanks to his versatility in the passing game. This leaves Jones and Williams fighting for the remainder of the carries. If one can establish himself above the other two, owners will have an RB2 on their hands. However, without a clear starter, owners will be playing a pure guessing game as to which RB will produce in any given week.
What Other Rookies Can Make An Early Impact?
Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks
With the direction of their offseason moves, Seattle seems set on moving the offense towards running the ball. In that regard, they drafted Penny 27th overall and plan on him making a significant impact. He has all the physical tools you want in a running back: Speed, power, size and receiving ability that has drawn some comparisons to David Johnson.
As of now, Penny is in line for the bulk of the carries. However, Chris Carson could push him or even earn the starting job if Penny’s pass-blocking issues or reported questionable work ethic keeps him from integrating fast enough. Thanks to healthy competition for touches from Carson and C.J. Prosise, combined with the poor Seahawks offensive line, Penny’s floor is very low in his first season.
Sony Michel, New England Patriots
Similar to the situation with Penny and Seattle, owners hope the investment of a first round pick means that Michel will receive the bulk of the running back work. As always, it’s impossible to read Bill Belichick and the plans he has for his backfield. I believe that Michel will receive a significant workload, that is, until he fumbles.
Now, Belichick doesn’t seem like the guy to use a first round pick on someone who won’t play a ton. However, some over-zealous owners are drafting Michel as if he will be the unquestioned number one. Running backs Rex Burkhead and James White will get plenty of touches, capping Michel's ceiling.
Michel is a dynamic pass catcher and very elusive runner and has the talent to become the lead back, but hasn’t earned the job just yet and it’s tough to risk a 4th-5th round pick on someone who could end up in a three-way time share.
Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
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Chubb drafted into a tough situation and will have the hardest time producing Fantasy points compared to the other rookies. Carlos Hyde is injury prone but, while healthy, is a solid runner who will be first on the depth chart.
Duke Johnson is an excellent pass-catching running back and is the established third-down option. This means that this limits Chubb to a time-share of the early down work. The very talented Chubb would immediately produce if Hyde ever misses time.
Ronald Jones II, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
At the moment, Jones is the pencilled in Bucs’ starter, with Charles Sims acting as the third down running back. As the starter, he is in line for 15-20 touches per game. Jones is a very fast running back with top-notch breakaway speed and quickness.
There’s very little competition for the early down touches from Jacquizz Rodgers and Peyton Barber. However, the Bucs are a pass-first team, rushing the ball in just 37.6 percent of plays last season. Even if they get back to 40 percent, the team’s pass-heavy tendencies cap the ceiling of Jones. For that reason, Jones will likely produce RB2 numbers in his rookie season.
Derrius Guice, Washington Redskins
Like Chubb, Guice came out of the draft into a situation where he will be limited to just early down work. Chris Thompson is the clear third down back, cutting into Guice's touches. However, the early-down work should belong to Guice, but he’ll see some competition from Samaje Perine.
The Redskins offense has favoured passing over the last three years, but it’s tough to say how that will change with Alex Smith now at the helm. In any case, Guice is another rookie with a ceiling cap, but could be a low-mid RB2 if he can fend off the competition from Perine.
As I mentioned at the top, a popular draft strategy is to go “zero-RB”. This method essentially takes the high-end wide receiver and quarterback options early while filling the running back slots with value picks later on. This strategy is extremely risky this year, thanks to the running back depth in the middle rounds.
Based on recent mock drafts, owners employing this strategy remain with dicey options after the first three rounds.
For example, in a 12-team league, owners who went zero-RB for two rounds are looking at Henry, Jerick McKinnon or Joe Mixon as their RB1. Owners who waited three rounds are looking at Drake, Jay Ajayi or rookies Darrius Guice and Rashaad Penny as their RB1.
The running back position is very top heavy this season. Owners going with the more “conventional” RB heavy draft strategy in the early rounds may be putting themselves in a better position thanks to the depth available at wide receiver and quarterback.
Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
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Kamara was an absolute monster last season, but owners expecting him to repeat his 2017 numbers may be in for a rude awakening. Last season, Kamara averaged a ridiculous 6.1 yards per carry and 10.2 yards per catch. He’s good, but I don’t see him continuing to average more YPC than Adrian Peterson did when he nearly broke the all-time rushing record.
Kamara scored 13 touchdowns in 16 games last season. A pace like that would be incredibly difficult to maintain without a major boost in his usage. To put it in perspective, Kamara scored one less touchdown than Todd Gurley, but had 142 fewer touches. Is he really THAT much better than Gurley at finding the end zone?
Compared to the other first round running backs, Kamara doesn’t project to get as many touches, and that’s something too risky for owners to take a chance on in the top five.
Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
In 2017, Mixon rushed for 626 yards on 3.5 yards per attempt. He only produced a couple of standout Fantasy performances all season, one of which was against the Browns. However, Mixon currently drafts at the turn of the second and third rounds.
Mixon will still share touches with Giovani Bernard, putting a cap on his ceiling. The Bengals offensive line was awful last year, and doesn’t project to be too much better this season. As long as Marvin Lewis is head coach, I wouldn’t expect the Bengals league worst offense to support Mixon as a consistent option.
Tarik Cohen, Chicago Bears
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The Bears have brought in a completely new regime to fix the travesty that was their offense. Former Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy will take the reigns as head coach, which bodes well for Cohen. Remember Nagy was the one calling the plays when Hunt went on his late season tear.
Nagy likes using his running backs out of the backfield; Cohen excels at running routes out of the backfield. In the four games with Nagy at the helm, Hunt received 21 targets. Cohen has compared himself to Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill, and Nagy backs up that claim, citing his speed, shiftiness and versatility.
Howard will get the majority of the carries, but Cohen will also be a big part of the game plan. PPR league owners should aggressively target Cohen. In return yardage leagues, owners should reach a couple round for him. Last season Cohen was top 10 in both kick return and punt return yardage.
C.J. Anderson, Carolina Panthers
Anderson is someone who hasn't been able to get over the hump. Injury issues have plagued him and he has now signed with the Panthers as the compliment to Christian McCaffrey.
Anderson will have an opportunity to carve himself a solid role as the between-the-tackles runner for the Panthers. McCaffrey struggled running the ball inside last season, so Jonathan Stewart ended up with 198 carries. With rumors again swirling that Cam Newton will have fewer designed quarterback runs, Anderson could push 200 carries.
Anderson should be able to improve on his 4.1 YPC from last season, as the Panthers O-Line led the league with an average of 2.89 yards before contact. Anderson won’t be a breakout star with an injury to McCaffrey, but he could be a decent FLEX play as the “Thunder” portion of the Panthers backfield.
Visit the F6P Fantasy Football Draft Kit Page for more advice to prepare for the 2018 season.
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