Fitz on Fantasy 2020 Running Back Rankings, 1-10
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.
And now for the running back rankings, explained….
1. Christian McCaffrey, Panthers
How much longer do we have to wait before declaring McCaffrey the best pass-catching RB of all time?
He was a prolific receiver from the jump, catching 80 balls as a rookie for 651 yards and five touchdowns. He’s gradually increased his reception and receiving yardage totals in the two seasons since. It’s in the running game where he’s made a quantum leap, going from 117-435-2 to 219-1,098-7 to 287-1,387-15.
This is a special breed of cat, my friends.
McCaffrey is a pretty bulletproof 1.01 candidate for fantasy drafts, but if I were going to play devil’s advocate, the question I’d pose to potential McCaffrey drafters would be something like: “What if the Panthers are as bad as expected and Matt Rhule, unlike interim head coach Perry Fewell last year, decides down the stretch that McCaffrey’s physical preservation is more important than the shameless pursuit of records?”
With the Panthers hell-bent on letting McCaffrey break his own record for most receptions by a running back in a single season, he averaged 11.8 targets and 9.6 catches over the final five games of the season. As a result, CMC was insanely valuable to his fantasy managers down the stretch last year.
We can’t count on that sort of a late-season feeding frenzy again, but McCaffrey is still as close to a foolproof fantasy asset as we’ll ever see.
2. Saquon Barkley, Giants
This is the prototype of what we’re eternally chasing – an uber-athletic running back who’s lethally efficient as both a runner and a pass catcher.
Barkley sustained a high ankle sprain in Week 3 of 2019, missed three games and took a while to get back into superstar form. He was there by the end of the season, scoring five TDs and averaging 179.7 yards from scrimmage over the Giants’ last three games. Despite the injury, he finished RB6 in fantasy points per game (half-point PPR) and RB10 overall.
The lone concern here is that Barkley will be sailing into a stiff headwind to start the season. His first three games are against the Steelers, Bears and 49ers – three of the better defenses in the league (though the opt-out decision made by Bears DT Eddie Goldman softens their run defense a bit).
We all want a fast start, but the difficult early-season slate isn’t a valid reason to downgrade a player this special.
3. Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys
Former Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett was a one-RB kind of guy. For most of his tenure in Dallas, his offenses relentlessly hammered away at opposing defenses with a single back. DeMarco Murray put up big numbers in 2013 and 2014, and Elliott has been a fantasy monster since entering the league in 2016, finishing RB3, RB3, RB7 and RB5 in fantasy points per game.
I’ve seen people express concern that new Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy could diminish Elliott’s fantasy value. It was McCarthy, after all, who refused to fully unleash young RB Aaron Jones in Green Bay in 2017 and 2018 despite Jones’ obvious talents. In McCarthy’s final three seasons in Green Bay, the Packers’ offense ranked second, seventh and first in percentage of passing plays.
On the other hand, in Eddie Lacy’s first two seasons (2013-14), the Packers were 22nd and 23rd in percentage of passing plays, and Lacy averaged 17.1 carries a game.
Worrying that the dismissal of Garrett bodes ill for Zeke’s career is akin to early Beatles fans fretting about how the dismissal of Pete Best might negatively affect John Lennon’s career. Somehow I doubt McCarthy will turn one of the most talented RBs in the league into a committee back.
4. Alvin Kamara, Saints
Kamara wasn’t the model of efficiency in 2019 that he’d been his first two years in the league. But Kamara was dealing with knee and ankle injuries and later said he played the season “on one leg.”
His year as a Long John Silver impersonator wasn’t all that bad. Kamara still totaled 1,330 yards from scrimmage in 14 games, scored six touchdowns and extended his streak of 81-catch seasons to three. Kamara averaged 20.9 fantasy points a game in 2018, and while his 14.9 fantasy points per game last year represented a significant personal drop-off, he still ranked RB9 in that category.
Kamara isn’t a workhorse, but he has such a meaty role in the New Orleans passing game that it’s not a big deal if he doesn’t get 200+ carries in a season. A healthy Kamara playing in one of the best offenses in the league, behind one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, is quite a first-round prize.
5. Dalvin Cook, Vikings
There was a time when most fantasy managers pooh-poohed all holdout talk because it rarely amounted to anything. Then a lot of people got burned when they spent an early-first-round pick on a disgruntled Le’Veon Bell in 2018, only for Bell to sit out the entire season. Now, when the holdout storm clouds gather, most of us avoid going outside – or at least we grab an umbrella.
It’s been reported that Cook would hold out unless he received a contract extension. There’s been no extension yet. Vikings GM Rick Spielman says he’s working on it. Cook is reportedly at team HQ, though there hasn’t been much physical activity in NFL training camps yet.
The storm clouds haven’t completely passed, but since I haven’t heard the rumble of thunder lately, for now I’m ranking Cook as if he were content with his salary.
Injuries are another reason for sweaty palms if you’re considering Cook with an early pick. He tore his ACL four games into his 2017 rookie campaign and has also missed time with hamstring and shoulder injuries.
But Cook is usually magnificent when healthy. In 14 games last year he had 1,135 rushing yards, 519 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns, which worked out to 19.0 fantasy points per game. He also plays for run-loving Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, so touch volume isn’t a concern.
6. Joe Mixon, Bengals
What an odd year Mixon had in 2019.
Over the first half of the season he ranked RB32 in half-point-PPR fantasy scoring, didn’t score a single a rushing touchdown and exceeded 66 rushing yards only once. From Week 10 on, he was the RB4 in fantasy scoring, averaging 124.3 yards from scrimmage per game. He put the Cincinnati offense on his back in December, topping 135 rushing yards in three of his last four outings.
Now the Bengals have No. 1 overall draft pick Joe Burrow at quarterback, 2018 first-round pick Jonah Williams is back from a season-long injury to improve the offensive line, and WR A.J. Green is back from injury to help with the offensive renovation.
Not all fantasy managers would be comfortable taking Mixon at 1.06 overall, but he’d be my choice in that slot even in a full-point PPR league.
7. Derrick Henry, Titans
Hoo boy. This guy poses a thorny dilemma.
On one hand, it’s hard to ignore what Henry did over the final month of the 2018 season and most of 2019. If you include Tennessee’s three playoff games, Henry ran for 1,986 yards and 18 touchdowns in 18 games last year.
On the other hand, there are reasons to doubt Henry’s staying power as a top fantasy back:
* In 62 career regular-season games, Henry has 57 catches on 74 targets. My buddy Alex Dunlap of RosterWatch, who follows all levels of football as closely as anyone I know, swears that Henry is actually a good pass catcher. I don’t doubt Alex on that, but the Titans have shown no inclination to increase Henry’s usage in the passing game.
* Counting the playoffs, Henry carried the ball 421 times last year. You’d imagine that would take quite a physical toll, even for a 6-3, 247-pound back who’s built like a brick port-o-let.
* The Titans ranked third in percentage of running plays last year and were second in 2018, with a nearly 50/50 run-pass split both years. That’s pretty unusual in today’s pass-happy NFL. We know the Titans want to run the ball, but sometimes game scripts don’t present that luxury.
* For a sample of what could go wrong for drafters who take Henry in the first round, look no further than 2018, when Henry ranked RB37 (half-point PPR scoring) through the first 13 weeks. Henry turned it on for the 2018 fantasy playoffs, but he was also a reason that a lot of his fantasy managers were eliminated before the turnaround.
All due respect to Henry for the show he put on last year, but I’m looking for excuses not to take him, and I feel like there are some good ones.
8. Nick Chubb, Browns
The presence of Kareem Hunt has some people skittish about spending a first-round pick on Hunt. I personally don’t think Hunt is in Chubb’s class as an NFL running back. Hell, the NFL might not have more than two or three better pure runners than Chubb.
He finished RB7 in fantasy scoring last year, averaging 93.4 rushing yards per game and even adding a bit of value as a pass catcher, with 36 receptions for 278 yards. The receiving upside is limited with Hunt around specifically for that role, but it’s hard to envision Hunt stealing much early-down work from Chubb.
As gravy, Chubb will be operating behind an improved offensive line that added veteran Jack Conklin and rookie first-rounder Jedrick Wills.
9. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Chiefs
People were already excited about Edwards-Helaire after he was the first running back to be drafted this year and landed in a seemingly ideal situation with the Chiefs. The enthusiasm turned into downright giddiness after Damien Williams opted out of the 2020 season, leaving the runway clear for a CEH takeoff.
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid has done nothing to temper the enthusiasm. Reid was effusive in his praise of Edwards-Helaire immediately after the draft, comparing him to former Eagles standout Brian Westbrook.
Is there any reason to pump the brakes here?
(Raises hand sheepishly)
Well, um, it’s probably worth noting that Edwards-Helaire wasn’t much of a factor during his first two years in the LSU offense before breaking out as a junior. Granted, it was a pretty spectacular breakout – 1,414 rushing yards, 55 catches for 453 yards, 17 touchdowns – but we should place those numbers in context. LSU may have had the best college offense of all time, and with Joe Burrow at quarterback and La’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson at receiver, opposing defenses weren’t exactly keying on the LSU running game.
For the size-matters crowd, Edwards-Helaire is only 5-7, 207 pounds. At those smallish dimensions, CEH’s less-than-dazzling 4.6 time in the 40-yard dash gives him a 36th percentile speed score, according to PlayerProfiler.com.
Also, it’s been noted that Reid historically hasn’t given his running backs a prolific role in the passing game.
He’s my RB9, so I’m not exactly sounding alarms about Edwards-Helaire. I’m excited, too. But as good as the situation appears to be – and I think we can all agree that the Chiefs are probably going to run a lot of plays and score a lot of touchdowns – CEH isn’t exactly a generational RB prospect, so I’m not ready to put him ahead of guys like Cook, Mixon, Henry or Chubb, let alone move him into the top tier amongst the 2020 Mount Rushmore backs.
10. Miles Sanders, Eagles
Sanders looked lost as a runner early in his rookie season. There were a lot of carries where he didn’t seem to know where he was supposed to go, missing lanes and barreling aimlessly into traffic. Through seven games he was averaging 3.5 yards per carry.
The good news was that Sanders made an impact as a receiver early on. In a Week 3 game against Detroit, he had receptions of 40 and 33 yards. Two weeks later, he had four catches for 49 yards against the Jets, followed by three catches for 86 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings. Over his last 12 games, he had at least three receptions in all but one game (and in that game he had two grabs).
Sanders was also being targeted down the field. He had an average target depth of 2.03 yards, and while that figure doesn’t seem impressive it ranked him sixth among RBs with at least 40 targets.
Then, late in the season, the light seemed to go on for Sanders in the running game. Over the Eagles’ last seven games (their playoff loss included), Sanders had 106 carries for 513 yards (4.8 YPC) and two touchdowns.
There was concern all offseason that the Eagles might sign a veteran running back – Devonta Freeman or Lamar Miller, perhaps – to slice into Sanders’ role. That hasn’t happened … yet.
I’m pretty excited about Sanders and his potentially Kamara-esque skill set.