Fitz on Fantasy: 2020 Running Back Rankings, 11-30
Pat Fitzmaurice finished second out of 160 experts in FantasyPros’ 2019 preseason rankings accuracy contest, and he’s now No. 1 in multi-year preseason rankings accuracy for 2017-2019. Fitzmaurice’s full 2020 redraft rankings are posted here, but this series of articles helps explain the thinking behind the rankings. Be sure to check out his already released explainers:
For more personalized advice, be sure to check out Pat’s Patreon page where you can have direct access to Pat for your specific fantasy dilemmas.
11. Kenyan Drake, Cardinals
After being traded from Miami to Arizona in late October, Drake went on a tear, rolling up 824 yards and eight touchdowns over an eight-game span. He was the RB3 in fantasy points per game from Halloween on.
Does it need to be pointed out that Drake scored half of those eight touchdowns in a Week 15 game against the Browns, whose undermanned defense was circling the drain? Well, in the interest of fairness, we should also remember that in Drake’s first game in the desert, he pummeled an excellent San Francisco defense for 110 rushing yards, 52 receiving yards and a touchdown.
I’m conflicted on Drake. If he’s truly “the guy,” it could be fun to see what he’ll do over a full season in an ascendant, fast-paced offense. With Arizona likely to use a lot of three- and four-WR sets, Drake is going to be operating against a lot of light defensive fronts.
But there are reasons to be wary. Blame Adam Gase if you must, but the fact remains that after four NFL seasons, we still haven’t seen a full RB1 season out of Drake. For me, the more vexing issue is that I like both of the backs behind Drake. Chase Edmonds has looked good in spots over his first two seasons, and I still can’t figure out how Eno Benjamin, who was so productive at Arizona State, fell into the seventh round of this year’s draft.
I’d be willing to grab Drake as early as the first round/second round turn, but anything earlier seems like a stretch.
12. Josh Jacobs, Raiders
It was always about the eye test with this guy. Never mind that he came out of a three-man committee at Alabama. What stood out to me was the way Jacobs cut, planting his foot on the ground and stomping the accelerator. He made one particular cut in the 2019 National Championship Game against Clemson that left me completely slack-jawed.
Yet an RB12 ranking is lower than Jacobs’ FantasyPros ADP of RB9. Jacobs caught 20 passes in 13 games last year, and it’s hard to imagine his pass-catching role expanding after the Raiders re-signed pass-catching RB Jalen Richard and drafted RB Lynn Bowden Jr., who was a wide receiver at the University of Kentucky.
Jacobs is a capable pass catcher. It just doesn’t seem as if the Raiders want to turn him into a true three-down back. And that’s fine – three down backs are a rare breed, and Jacobs still has a path to RB1 value even if the Raiders aren’t willing to let him go full McCaffrey.
And by the way, the Raiders return all five starters on an offensive line that ranked sixth in Football Outsiders’ run-blocking metric, adjusted line yards.
13. Aaron Jones, Packers
Earlier in the offseason, I had Jones ranked as high as RB9, but I’m getting cold feet. It’s not a matter of talent; the kid is terrific. We know he’s not going to score 19 touchdowns again, but the inevitable TD regression would be baked into his price even at RB9.
No, what worries me is that Packers head coach Matt LaFleur seems hell-bent on using a three-man committee. At the NFL Scouting Combine, LaFleur told my buddy Alex Dunlap of RosterWatch that the Packers were looking to add another back in the draft, and sure enough, Packers GM Brian Gutekunst reached for one-dimensional grinder A.J. Dillon in the second round. Green Bay also has Jamaal Williams, a true jack of all trades, master of none.
Jones is the best of this group by far, but I fear his workload won’t reflect it. Some of Jones’ best rushing performances last season came in games where Williams was hurt, and some of Jones’ best receiving performances came in games where Davante Adams was hurt.
As good as Jones is, I think it would be a mistake to take him in the first round, because his usage is bound to disappoint investors.
14. Austin Ekeler, Chargers
Have you seen what Ekeler looks like these days? Holy hell is this dude buff! Good thing, because he might have to put the Chargers’ offense on his back.
When Melvin Gordon held out early last season, Ekeler was RB2 in fantasy scoring over the four games Gordon missed, averaging 23.8 points per game. Gordon has left for Denver, so we should be excited about Ekeler, right?
Well, sort of.
Even with his swollen physique, the 5-foot-9 Ekeler isn’t really built to be a heavy-duty back. During Gordon’s holdout, Ekeler averaged 14 carries a game, so the Chargers weren’t exactly wearing him out. With the damage Ekeler can do as a pass catcher, 14 carries a game could make him a top-five RB. But I suspect he’s going to be used as more of a satellite RB plus, sharing the rushing duties with Justin Jackson and rookie Josh Kelley.
Alas, the Chargers’ QB situation could be problematic for Ekeler’s fantasy value. Philip Rivers has always thrown to his RBs quite a bit, but Rivers is in Indianapolis now. Veteran Tyrod Taylor supported some decent pass-catching seasons for LeSean McCoy in Buffalo, but Taylor hasn’t thrown to his backs the way Rivers has. At some point the Chargers will probably swap out Taylor for rookie Justin Herbert, the No. 6 pick in this year’s draft, and it’s hard to imagine a rookie quarterback having a positive effect on Ekeler’s fantasy value.
I’m kind of expecting this offense to stink out loud because of the QB situation. It’s hard to imagine Ekeler matching last year’s 11 touchdowns, especially since eight of them were TD catches. And if crappy QB play short-circuits a lot of drives, it will mean fewer snaps and fewer touches for Ekeler. I love the player but don’t care for the situation.
15. Jonathan Taylor, Colts
Full disclosure: I’m a Wisconsin grad and have watched all but a handful of Taylor’s 926 college carries, so I’m not exactly unbiased.
With that disclaimer out of the way, I urge you to get Taylor on your fantasy team(s) this year.
Taylor is the best RB prospect since Saquon Barkley. At 5-10 and a chiseled 226 pounds, he has the perfect frame for heavy-duty work. His sub-4.4 speed at that weight gives him a 98th percentile size-adjusted speed score, according to PlayerProfiler.com.
But it’s not all about size and raw athleticism. Taylor has good vision, he knows how to be patient to set up his blocks when he needs to be, and he has the footwork of Fred Astaire.
In three seasons at Wisconsin, Taylor ran for 6,174 yards and 50 TDs. The only time he fell short of 2,000 rushing yards was his freshman year, when he finished with 1,977.
Granted, Taylor isn’t an accomplished pass catcher, but that doesn’t mean it’s a weakness. He was barely targeted in the passing game his first years in Madison. Before his junior year, he asked his coaches to get him more involved in the passing game, knowing NFL teams would want to see it on tape. They obliged, and Taylor had 26 catches for 252 yards and five touchdowns.
The Colts traded up in this year’s draft to grab Taylor with the ninth pick of the second round. He’ll get to operate behind arguably the best offensive line in the league, and the Colts figure to go run-heavy to protect their immobile, geriatric quarterback, Philip Rivers. Other people seem to be more worried about Taylor unseating Marlon Mack as the starter than I am. (I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t happen by Week 2. If not sooner.)
No, Taylor won’t be the third-down back in Indianapolis. That role belongs to Nyheim Hines. But Taylor wasn’t the Badgers’ third-down back either, and he still averaged 23.6 touches a game over three seasons.
Here’s the best part: Taylor’s FantasyPros Expert Consensus Ranking is RB22, and his ADP is RB23. That’s a great price for a phenomenal RB prospect who landed in a terrific situation.
16. Melvin Gordon, Broncos
After coming back from a four-game holdout, Gordon was the RB13 from Week 5 on despite sharing a backfield with Austin Ekeler. In 2018, Gordon missed four games but still finished RB7, averaging 20.9 fantasy points per week. In 2017, Gordon finished RB5.
For a while, there was a preposterous notion in some circles of the fantasy community that Gordon wasn’t actually good because he averaged under 4.0 yards per carry in each of his first three years. Granted, Gordon couldn’t quite light the firewood in his 2015 rookie season, somehow failing to score a single touchdown, but he’s been a prolific TD scorer ever since. He’s also an adept pass catcher, averaging 47.8 receptions over his last four seasons.
Surprisingly, Phillip Lindsay hasn’t been very useful in the passing game, which is one reason the Broncos brought in Gordon. Maybe Gordon won’t be a true workhorse in Denver, but Lindsay probably poses less of a threat to Gordon’s fantasy value than Ekeler did with the Chargers, and Gordon was a valuable fantasy asset even with Ekeler around.
17. Chris Carson, Seahawks
Carson fractured his hip late last season, but he didn’t need surgery and is reportedly fine. Rashaad Penny tore his ACL last year and is said to be having a difficult recovery. Penny is likely to land on the PUP list and miss at least the first six games of the season. The Seahawks signed Carlos Hyde in the offseason, but even Hyde has acknowledged that the Seattle running game is Carson’s show.
The Seahawks’ offense ranked first in percentage of running plays in 2018 and sixth last year. No one has told Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer that they have one of the best quarterbacks in the league, so they relentlessly pound away on the ground, and Carson has been their weapon of choice for the last two years.
Barring injury, Carson is a pretty good bet to return RB2 value.
18. Le’Veon Bell, Jets
The Pittsburgh salad days are behind the 28-year-old Bell, but maybe that’s a good thing, since Pittsburghers have been known to put french fries on their salads.
After a yearlong holdout in 2018, Bell made his Jets debut in 2019 and had the worst season of his career, averaging 3.2 yards a carry and scoring four TDs. The Jets’ offensive line was terrible, and for a running back accustomed to patiently waiting for creases to materialize, crappy blocking was a major hindrance.
The Jets have tried to improve the offensive line. They spent a first-round draft pick on massive OT Mekhi Becton, which should help the run blocking. They also signed Greg Van Roten and George Fant, though neither is especially good. PFF ranks this unit 27th in the league going into 2020.
Fantasy managers hate Adam Gase and seem to automatically downgrade all Jets because of him. I’m no Gase fanboy, but I’m not downgrading Bell because of coaching, even though Gase has done some annoying chirping about wanting to work other running backs into the mix.
I’m not sure if Bell has another great season in him, or if the Jets’ oxygen-deprived ecosystem can support one, but I can get on board with a talented RB who’s a good pass catcher and can be rostered at an affordable price.
19. Todd Gurley, Falcons
Perhaps the biggest error we commit with player evaluation is overemphasizing a player’s situation. A lot of people have fallen head over heels in love with Gurley’s new situation in Atlanta, but I think a cautious approach is the prudent course of action here.
Gurley was undeniably great at the University of Georgia and with the Rams in 2017 and 2018. He wasn’t great last year, averaging 3.8 yards per carry and a meager 4.2 yards per target as a receiver.
The Rams’ offensive line wasn’t a big help, but it ranked 19th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards metric, so it’s not as if lousy blocking was entirely to blame for Gurley’s lack of spark. In fact, the Rams fared better in adjusted line yards last year than Gurley’s new team, the Falcons, who ranked 24th. The perception is that the Falcons have the much better offensive line. That might be true, but it might not be a night-and-day difference for Gurley.
Still, the overall situation does appear to be an upgrade. Atlanta’s passing game is terrific, which should help keep opposing fronts light and help buoy Gurley’s TD potential. The backups are Ito Smith, Brian Hill and Qadree Ollison, so no one is going to poach carries from Gurley on the merits.
The big worry is that Gurley’s creaky left knee isn’t something a little WD-40 can fix. Gurley tore his ACL in 2014 and has arthritis in the knee. Teams were said to be concerned about the condition of Gurley’s knee before he was drafted, and an NFL source told Jeff Schultz of The Athletic earlier this year that the knee is “very bad.”
My friend Edwin Porras, a doctor of physical therapy and a medical analyst for FantasyPoints.com, tells me the condition is permanent and will worsen over time. He says people with osteoarthritis have good days and bad days. Porras says Gurley could conceivably be fine in the week leading up to a game and then suddenly be unable to play on Sunday.
To me, the risk of a balky knee outweighs the perceived appeal of Gurley’s new situation in Atlanta.
20. James Conner, Steelers
Pittsburgh has been beefing up its RB stable over the last couple of years – Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell, Anthony McFarland Jr. – but Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin insists he’s a one-RB kind of guy. I’m inclined to believe him, but his preferred back, Conner, has had trouble staying healthy.
I’m just sort of lukewarm on Conner as a fantasy asset. His role is obviously valuable, but his durability is a concern, and I’m not quite as sold on Conner’s talent as other seem to be.
21. Mark Ingram II, Ravens
Before we get to Mark Ingram the Second, let me use this opportunity to mention that Mark Ingram the First had one of the greatest individual efforts in Super Bowl history to convert a third down by inches on this play. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vgWfLZgr-YA
As for Mark Ingram II …
Before COVID-19, I was worried about rookie J.K. Dobbins cutting into Ingram’s role. But now, with a weird, less immersive training camp and no preseason games, it’s going to be tougher for Dobbins to get a foothold in this offense.
Ingram isn’t going to repeat last year’s 15 touchdowns, but at a relatively affordable cost, he really doesn’t need to in order to return a profit. Ingram is a good fit for a Lamar Jackson-triggered offense, and as competitive as Ingram is, I’m not especially worried that he’s now on the wrong side of 30.
22. David Johnson, Texans
Has anyone torpedoed more fantasy draft capital than Johnson has over the last three years? The good news is that we no longer have to pay a steep price to chase the glory of Johnson’s magnificent 2016 season, in which he totaled 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns. But is he still good at this point?
Johnson has averaged 3.6 yards per carry over the past two seasons, but the Cardinals’ offensive line was subpar. He’s always been a fine pass catcher, and he’ll be playing in a fairly good offense in Houston, even if the offensive line won’t be much of an upgrade for him.
The cost isn’t unreasonable, but I’m generally not pursuing any running backs in the RB17-RB24 range with the exception of Jonathan Taylor (whom I consider to be a top-15 back but always seems to fall into that mid- to low-end RB2 range in drafts).
23. Leonard Fournette, Jaguars
I won’t draft Fournette in any league this year. Fantasy owners are drawn to him because of his usage – he had 341 touches last year and remains the undisputed No. 1 RB in Jacksonville – but there are a LOT of red flags here.
Fournette scored only three touchdowns last year, so he’s due for some better luck in that category, but how much TD upside is there when the Jaguars are expected to be one of the worst teams in the league? Nearly 20% of Fournette’s 2019 rushing yardage came in a 225-yard outburst against Denver.
Fournette was targeted 100 times and caught 76 passes last year. He won’t be used as much in the passing game this year now that the Jaguars have added third-down RB Chris Thompson. Fournette has had a rocky relationship with the organization, and even though none of the other RBs on the roster would seem to pose an imminent threat to Fournette’s role, it doesn’t seem as if Fournette is long for Jacksonville, so the Jags might hold an open audition for the lead-RB role once their playoff hopes are gone.
24. David Montgomery, Bears
Montgomery was a tackle-breaker extraordinaire at Iowa State, but that skill didn’t carry over into his rookie year, and his pedestrian speed was an obvious hindrance. Montgomery didn’t see enough action in the passing game to significantly boost his fantasy value.
The Bears didn’t make any notable additions at running back in the offseason. Tarik Cohen is still around, but he’s a pint-sized satellite back and doesn’t figure to cut into Montgomery’s early down work.
I think Montgomery is better than he showed as a rookie, but maybe not that much better, so even though his meaty role is attractive, I haven’t been taking him in early drafts.
25. D’Andre Swift, Lions
Before the NFL Draft, I had Swift ranked No. 2 in this year’s rookie RB class behind only Jonathan Taylor. Thing is, no one other than Lions fans was excited about Swift landing in Detroit, where he seems destined to share work with Kerryon Johnson.
There aren’t that many true workhorses in the NFL these days, and it’s possible for Swift to be a guy you want in your fantasy lineup every week even if he’s sharing work. This kid makes some killer cuts, he seems to have NFL-caliber run vision, he’s a good pass catcher, and he packs surprising punch for a 5-9, 215-pound back.
The unappealing landing spot has kept Swift’s price down, and I’ve been increasing my stake in him in recent best-ball drafts.
26. Cam Akers, Rams
A lot of people in the fantasy community are excited about Akers, who overcame a lousy supporting cast at Florida State to compile 2,875 rushing yards and 34 TDs in three seasons with the ’Noles. I do wonder, though, if the fantasy community tends to overestimate college RB prospects who were hindered by bad offensive lines in college. (Kenneth Dixon of Louisiana Tech immediately comes to mind.)
The Rams spent a second-round pick on Akers, so clearly they’re excited about him. But they also spend a third-round pick on Darrell Henderson last year, and even though Henderson wasn’t able to get any traction in the offense last year, he was a pretty exciting prospect coming out of Memphis. Malcom Brown is still around, too.
Maybe Akers runs away with this backfield, but I’m not entirely convinced that’s how it’s going to shake out, and there’s always someone in every draft who’s more excited about Akers than I am.
27. Devin Singletary, Bills
Singletary was impressive for the Bills down the stretch last year, rushing for 75 yards or more in five of his last eight games and averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He really passed the eye test for me – Singletary has some serious wiggle, even if he doesn’t have exceptional straight-line speed.
But Singletary had only three carries inside the opponent’s 10-yard line last year, and he ran for just two TDs. Bills QB Josh Allen likes to call his own number when the Bills get close to the goal line, and Buffalo drafted thumper Zach Moss to do some of the grunt work between the tackles. There might not be much TD upside for Singletary.
I like the player more than the situation; Singletary’s price is still just a bit too steep for me to be interested.
28. Kareem Hunt, Browns
Hunt is good enough to be starting somewhere, but not in Cleveland, where he’s stuck behind stud Nick Chubb. The passing-game role that the Browns have carved out for Hunt gives him some stand-alone value, and he’d be a valuable lottery ticket if anything happened to Chubb.
29. Ronald Jones, Buccaneers
Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians says Ronald Jones is his lead RB, even though the Bucs spent a third-round pick on promising prospect Ke’Shawn Vaughn and signed LeSean McCoy.
We can probably write off the possibility of McCoy becoming the lead guy. He wasn’t awful in Kansas City last year, but he’s clearly not the player he once was, and the Chiefs completely marginalized him down the stretch for the most important games of their title run.
RoJo has a better résumé than Vaughn. Jones had a better college career, broke out at a younger age, was drafted in an earlier round and has already played two NFL seasons, even though he’s actually a few months younger than Vaughn. Jones was pretty good last season, so we should probably give him a mulligan for his severely disappointing rookie year.
I’ve warmed up to Jones in recent weeks after initially being spooked by the addition of Vaughn. The one think that still makes me nervous about RoJo is that he’s lousy in pass protection. I think pass blocking is a grossly overrated component of a running back’s game that fantasy managers would probably be better off ignoring entirely, but it’s probably more important here than in other cases since the Buccaneers have 43-year-old Tom Brady at quarterback.
Still, I think Jones is probably the guy to own in the Tampa Bay backfield, and the price is right in most drafts.
30. Raheem Mostert, 49ers
Mostert put up big numbers in December and January — 715 yards and 12 touchdowns in his last eight games, playoffs included — but the overall profile says, “Stay away.”
He’s 28, he doesn’t catch many passes, he was basically a nonfactor on offense in four college seasons at Purdue and in his first four NFL seasons, and he’s destined to share work with Tevin Coleman, Jerick McKinnon and perhaps others. Another possible red flag is that Mostert has reportedly added weight after playing at 205 pounds last year. If he loses quickness, the profile will be even less appealing.
I’m not at all interested in rostering Mostert this year.