HSAC’s Fantasy Football Sleepers & Busts: Running Backs

by Danny Blumenthal

Running backs are the backbone of a fantasy football team. It’s critical to choose a few workhorse running backs who can consistently get carries, and complement them with players who can rip off some big plays. HSAC is here to recommend some running backs who can carry your team to victory. As a reminder, the “sleepers” are players who will likely exceed their ESPN Average Draft Positions (ADP), while the “busts” might do well, but not live up to the hype.

Running Back Sleepers

Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers (ADP: RB13, Pick 20.1)

Check out the following players, based only on their receiving statistics. Who would you choose for your team?

CatchesReceiving YardsReceiving TDs2019 PPR Points (receiving only)
Player A 6711578232.7
Player B 8210578235.7
Player C929938235.3

While the three players have very different styles, they still had similar production. However, while Players A (Mike Evans) and B (Tyler Lockett) are both top-tier receivers, Player C is running back Austin Ekeler. Even as he split time with Melvin Gordon, Ekeler still put together a sensational 2019 season. He finished as RB4 in PPR scoring (ahead of players like Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb) despite having 100 fewer touches than those two running backs. And while some may argue that Ekeler only has value in PPR leagues, he still ranked as RB7 in non-PPR scoring last year. 

Now, Gordon has moved to the AFC West rival Broncos. Therefore, Ekeler should get more carries, and he may score more rushing touchdowns. The offense will probably rely on him as the team adjusts to life after Philip Rivers. In the passing game, Tyrod Taylor starts the season as the Chargers quarterback. Given that Taylor frequently checks down to his running backs, Ekeler’s target share shouldn’t fall too far. Ekeler will probably repeat as a star running back, so his ADP of RB13 is far too low. 

Le’Veon Bell, New York Jets (ADP: RB19, Pick 47.2)

Le’Veon Bell is another running back who should reach the end zone more in 2020. He was not reliant on touchdowns at all last year, racking up fantasy points through volume, rather than efficiency. Only 14% of his fantasy production came from touchdowns, the 3rd-lowest rate among starting running backs. Since the average rate for running backs is almost twice that, Bell will probably score more touchdowns this year. 

Bell is also likely to see a lot of volume, both as a receiver and as a rusher. Firstly, he ranked among the top 10 in catches among running backs last year, a skill that distinguishes him from many other players drafted around him. On the ground, both of the Jets’ next two leading rushers have moved to other teams. Even though the Jets added the ageless Frank Gore, no returning Jets rusher had more than 10 carries last year. The team seems committed to giving him the ball, so Bell should be quite consistent and have a high floor.

When Bell got touches last year though, he received no help from the Jets’ porous offensive line. He was consistently battered before plays even developed, so he had no chance to make anything happen. As a result, Bell was tied for the NFL’s worst finish in yards before contact per carry (1.2). Now, the Jets have upgraded their offensive line by drafting Mekhi Becton in the first round and signing free agents Connor McGovern and George Fant. Bell can finally enhance his efficiency in combination with his significant volume.

Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team (ESPN ADP: RB44, Pick 148.3)

If you’re looking for a late-round pick with upside, check out Washington’s Antonio Gibson. Now that Derrius Guice has been cut, there is little clarity about Washington’s running backs. On top of this, the team has little in terms of wide receiver depth after Terry McLaurin. Gibson can fill these holes, as he was used at both positions during his college years at Memphis. Whether Washington sees him as more of a rusher or a receiver, the versatile Gibson could see the ball often on a depleted squad.

And when he does get the ball in his hands, watch out. Gibson combines explosiveness and strength (16 broken tackles in 2019) with sensational speed (40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds), and he can turn a broken-down play into a touchdown with ease:

To start the season, Gibson is likely to complement Adrian Peterson as a change-of-pace back. As the year goes on though, the team may get creative with their play-calling and try to get the ball into Gibson’s hands in other ways. With talent as both a receiver and a running back, Gibson has the opportunity to be a high-upside pick in the final rounds of the draft.

Ronald Jones II, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (ESPN ADP: RB30, Pick 80.6)

Ronald Jones II will benefit greatly from the Buccaneers’ offseason moves. Since Tampa Bay’s offensive line was so weak last year, its running backs were among the worst in the NFL in terms of yards before contact. The Buccaneers addressed this by trading up for offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs, and Rob Gronkowski, an underrated blocker, should also give Jones more breathing room. In addition, with Tom Brady calling the shots, opposing defenses are not likely to stack the box.

Another offseason move will also help out. Last year, Peyton Barber was a touchdown vulture, stealing red zone carries from Jones despite being much less efficient. This year, Barber will be playing in Washington. Jones will still have some competition from LeSean McCoy and rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn, but with Barber gone, Jones looks to be the main man among the Buccaneers’ running backs. Other players with similar ADPs to Ronald Jones II, such as Mark Ingram (RB25), D’Andre Swift (RB26), and Raheem Mostert (RB27), have murkier paths to getting carries. Therefore, Jones may have a higher floor than these players. Still only 23 years old, Jones could be a break-out star in 2020.

Running Back Busts

Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers (ESPN ADP: RB11, Pick 16.7)

Jones was highly reliant on touchdowns last season, as more than 42% of his fantasy points resulted from touchdowns (the 2nd-highest rate among all running backs). This mark makes him a candidate for touchdown regression, and therefore, the main way he could maintain his high status is an increase in touches. However, that is unlikely to occur. First of all, the Packers spent a high draft pick on running back A.J. Dillon, who should see carries alongside Jones and Jamaal Williams. Dillon had three straight seasons of double-digit touchdown runs in college, indicating that the power back could siphon off some goal-line carries from Aaron Jones.

In addition to Dillon’s arrival, Jones will likely see fewer carries in 2020 because the Packers are due to regress as a team. Although Green Bay’s 13-3 record was tied for 2nd in the NFL, they were not as good as their record. Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings placed them as the 10th best team last year, and their point differential suggests that they played more like a 10-6 team than a 13-3 one. Players on teams due to decline, such as Jones with the Packers or Chris Carson (RB15) in Seattle, will see fewer carries because their teams will look to throw the ball more in an effort to come back in games. RotoWorld’s Hayden Winks demonstrated that Jones, and Carson in particular, saw the ball more often when their teams were leading than when they were behind. With a likely decline in both carries and touchdowns, Aaron Jones will probably only be an RB2 this season.

Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans (ESPN ADP: RB6, Pick 7.5)

Last year, the Titans overachieved, riding Derrick Henry all the way to a surprise appearance in the AFC Championship Game. This year’s team, and Henry in particular, could regress. In the red zone, Tennessee is unlikely to repeat the ruthless efficiency that enabled them to rank 3rd in touchdowns while finishing last in field goals. Henry led the Titans in this regard, as he piled up 16 touchdown carries. However, Football Outsiders has demonstrated that red zone performance is inconsistent across years and players who score a lot one year will tend to put up worse numbers the following season. Teams also will have more information on how to slow down Henry and the Titans’ offense in 2020. Kansas City shut down Henry in the AFC Championship Game last year, and teams can take a page from the Chiefs’ playbook when they face Tennessee this year. Henry is a prime regression candidate, since he should see fewer red zone opportunities and opposing defenses will know more about how to stop him.

In addition, Henry ripped off 40 “big plays” (runs of more than 10 yards) in 2019, and only Lamar Jackson tallied more. However, these big plays tend to be fairly unsustainable, because they require excellent blocks upfield and poor play from opponents in addition to innate strength. For example, Henry had only 40 “big plays” in 2017 and 2018 combined. If he has fewer long runs, Henry’s efficiency should also take a tumble in 2020. Add in the departure of star tackle Jack Conklin, and fantasy football players should be wary of taking Henry with their first-round pick.

Mark Ingram, Baltimore Ravens (ESPN ADP: RB25, Pick 73.2)

Ingram is another running back who was highly reliant on touchdowns last season, so he too is likely to score less often in 2020.  He ranked only 22nd in carries last year, and his role in Baltimore will probably decrease further after the Ravens drafted J.K. Dobbins. Even though Baltimore runs the most of any team in the league, they have so many mouths to feed that it is difficult to envision Ingram seeing as many carries. 

As the fantasy draft goes on, it’s usually better to go for players with more upside and high ceilings, since players drafted in later rounds might not be consistent starters for your fantasy team. Therefore, opting for running backs with less competition for carries and big games (such as Ronald Jones II or David Montgomery) or more big-play ability (Raheem Mostert or Kareem Hunt) would be wiser than selecting Ingram. 

Saquon Barkley, New York Giants (ESPN ADP: RB2, Pick 2.9)

Saquon Barkley should have a tremendous season in 2020, but he is a “bust” because of his ADP. He broke out in his rookie season, but fell off a little in Year 2 after suffering an injury. Unfortunately, per HSAC’s research, running backs who suffer sophomore slumps tend to continue declining in their third year.

On top of possible decline, Barkley might not see as many carries as other top running backs. The Giants had the third-highest passing rate in 2019, and as Daniel Jones continues to improve, they will continue throwing the ball. While that could translate into more receptions for Barkley, it’s critical to remember that there are a lot of capable receivers on the Giants’ offense. Still, the Giants (19th in scoring in 2019) are probably not going to put up as many points as other teams with elite running backs, such as the Dallas Cowboys (6th in scoring). As a result, Barkley should see fewer red zone touches than the Cowboys’ star running back, Ezekiel Elliot. Saquon Barkley could have a great year, but Elliot might be a more valuable option with the #2 pick.

For more sleepers and busts, check out the rest of HSAC’s fantasy football coverage this week.

Quarterbacks: https://harvardsportsanalysis.org/2020/09/hsacs-fantasy-football-preview-quarterback-sleepers-busts/

Editor’s Note: If you have questions about this article (or about fantasy football in general), please reach out to HSAC on Twitter – @Harvard_Sports – or over email at harvardsportsanalysis@gmail.com.

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