What good is the Fourth of July without a cold beer and barbecue? The same goes for the running backs on your roster. Either you do it right, or you don’t bother. Drafting a stellar backfield gives you a one-way ticket to your league’s playoffs. Considering injury risk and the sudden changes in workload, having a reliable rotation of guys is crucial to your success. In my last article, I listed sleepers at the position to bolster your squad without having to pay up to do so. Now it’s time to explore the dark side of the moon. What happens when your “bonafide stud” turns back into a pumpkin? Not to worry, I’m here to highlight the names of players that carry the highest potential to jeopardize your entire lineup. Draft season is approaching, so there’s no time to waste. Let’s explore the precarious terrain of running back busts.
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2020 Fantasy Football: Running Back Bust Candidates
Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
What if I told you that you could draft a running back who was poised to put up 32 touchdowns this season? You’d probably be thinking to yourself that such a player sounds too good to be true, and ya know what? You’d be spot on. 32 touchdowns is the 16-game pace that Derrick Henry was on from Weeks 10-17, when he posted his first multi-touchdown game on the ground. Here’s the kicker. Henry only played five weeks in that timespan.
I know that the term “regression” infuriates fans who deem the argument as a lazy excuse to fade a player coming off of a great season. Well, here’s the thing. In the nine weeks leading up to that stretch, Henry scored a total of six touchdowns on the ground. Nine weeks is no small sample size. If you extrapolate his totals from that period of time, Henry would have only scored 10 touchdowns on the season.
With Henry’s projected loss of six touchdowns alone, not including the yards amassed on those scoring runs, he would have knocked down three spots to the RB8 in PPR drafts. Depending on which touchdowns you drop from that window of time, based on their corresponding yards, we’re looking at a potential descent to the RB12. I know what you’re thinking. What about his rushing yards? It’s a good question, really. Not only did Henry lead the league in rushing yards with 1,540, but he also averaged the highest yards-per-carry total among running backs with at least 200 carries.
Not to be a wet blanket, but I’m going to poke some holes in that accomplishment. Alongside his ridiculous touchdown rate in the aforementioned length of time, he averaged a sky-high 6.4 yards-per-carry. Again, stretching that figure over 16 games, Henry would have 2,389 rushing yards under his belt. Is it starting to come together? We’re talking about an RB9 performance over nine weeks, to an upgraded RB3 showing for the remainder of the season. Henry has already managed a ridiculous touchdown rate in the last two years. He’s scored on over 20% of his carries. Historically, add another season of this efficiency to his resume is near impossible.
He’s currently being taken as the RB6 in PPR. For a guy who rarely gets involved in the passing game, and who’s in line for a significant dip in both rushing yards and touchdowns, that’s far too steep of a price for me. Go ahead and put the running back bust stamp on No. 22.
Sony Michel, New England Patriots
Does it get more disappointing than Sony Michel’s 2019 season? Fresh off of a dynamite postseason run, Michel looked downright pitiful for the duration of his sophomore campaign. On a sizeable carry total of 247, he only averaged 3.7 YPC and found the end zone just seven times. When you see the workload he received, you’re bound to be somewhat fantasy relevant. Although he rarely pulled his weight in your lineup, he scraped and clawed his way to an RB24 finish. Perhaps Cam Newton opens things up should he get the starting nod, but how much of an increase to his efficiency metrics is feasible?
Inefficiency isn’t the only concern I have with Michel. In just the last three years, Michel has had not one, not two, but three separate knee injuries. Making matters worse, he had surgery performed on his foot in May, and now there’s talk of him starting the year on the PUP. Michel missing time only clears the way for New England’s third-round pick Damien Harris to get involved in the offense. Harris missed nearly his entire rookie season due to injury and considering the draft capital the team spent to acquire him, it would appear that he has a role carved out for him sooner rather than later.
If you want to know what a team is truly thinking, pay close attention to their free agency acquisitions and their draft investments. If Michel was their locked and loaded starter, and Rex Burkhead and James White were still around to share the load, why would they have paid up for Harris? A fair argument to make would be that the Patriots love to employ a committee approach, but could the team perhaps know something that we don’t? Whether or not Michel misses time is moot to a certain extent. Harris is going to get more involved regardless of Michel’s health. If you take away carries from a player who doesn’t catch the ball, then what’s left of his fantasy value?
Michel’s draft price is the one and only saving grace he has. He’s the 36th running back being taken in PPR drafts at the moment. That may not be a hefty price tag, but would you really spend a seventh-round pick on a player with virtually no upside? Yes, Cam can most likely move the ball up to point. Still, this isn’t a team that’s going to see a high volume of goal line opportunities. Let’s briefly recap here. He’s got limited touchdown upside, injury is a major concern, and he’s got three capable backups to fend off for touches. It’s a simple equation. Michel has a “do not draft: running back bust” label attached to his name.
Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers
Some fades are drastic, and some are merely relative when it comes to identifying running back busts. Before you grab your pitchfork, let me assure you, this is merely a soft fade. Much to Melvin Gordon’s dismay, Austin Ekeler proved more than useful as his replacement in the first four games of the season. In that time, Ekeler took the fantasy world by storm as the RB2 behind only Christian McCaffrey. It should be noted, however, that he averaged a sub-optimal 3.9 YPC during that stretch. After scoring three touchdowns in only four games, Ekeler failed to rush for a single touchdown for the rest of the season.
There was never a question as to who was going to get the goal line touches once Gordon took over his spot, but it does raise the question as to how many we can expect Ekeler to see versus Justin Jackson and the rookie Joshua Kelley. Head coach Anthony Lynn continues to bang the drum for both Jackson and Kelley, but it could just be a classic case of coach-speak. Looking at Ekeler’s inefficiency while managing a heavy workload, however, Lynn’s comments are worth remembering. Truthfully, Justin Jackson is of only moderate concern being that he actually weighs one pound less than Ekeler. It’s the 20 pound difference between him and Kelley that has me raising my eyebrows. Should Ekeler continue to receive the majority of the work inside the five-yard, however, it’s still unlikely that he replicates the touchdown pace from his first four games.
The strongest aspect of Ekeler’s game is his work on passing downs. Philip Rivers fed him work to the tune of 92 receptions on the year. Unfortunately for Ekeler, Rivers left for Indianapolis, leaving Tyrod Taylor at the helm. Here’s a number that’s likely to depress you. Taylor’s highest total of passing yards in a season came in 2015 when he barely crossed the 3,000-yard threshold. Even less comforting is Taylor’s history passing the ball to his running backs. LeSean McCoy, a very capable pass-catcher, totaled a season-high of 59 receptions under Taylor’s watch. You may have already done the math, but if not, that’s 33 receptions less than what Ekeler received last year. Taking away 33 receptions, while leaving his yards and touchdowns alone, is already enough to have pushed him three spots lower to the RB7 last season.
Let me reiterate something I mentioned before. My projections for Ekeler represent only a small to a modest downgrade to his fantasy value. Qualifying as a running back bust simply means underperforming at your ADP. He’s more than liable to lose production in every receiving category, with the exception of his yards-per-reception. He’s being taken in the second round as the RB10 in PPR as of now. My projections have him a mid-tier RB2, but that’s still not someone you want to take at his current draft price. Ekeler is too talented not to have a large role in the offense, but don’t expect a repeat of 2019.
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