We’re just now at the outset of the second week of the 2019 preseason—and already the running back position in fantasy football has been thrown into chaos.
Two of this year’s top five tailbacks (Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys and Melvin Gordon of the Los Angeles Chargers) remain embroiled in contentious contract holdouts with their respective teams. A young tailback many expected to exceed his asking price in 2019 (Kenyan Drake of the Miami Dolphins) is in a walking boot and may not return in time for the season opener.
It’s the nature of the position—a constant carousel of carnage.
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Tevin Coleman Gets His Chance
However, every time one player goes down, another steps up. One man’s misfortune is another’s opportunity. A golden one (so-to-speak) has opened up in San Francisco, where what once looked like a crowded and muddied backfield now has the makings of a chance for Tevin Coleman to emerge as one of the biggest potential values at fantasy’s most important position in 2019.
Coleman joined the 49ers in free agency after four years with the Atlanta Falcons, where he served mostly as a passing-down complement to Devonta Freeman. However, that wasn’t the case in 2018—with Freeman on the shelf most of the year, Coleman was thrust into a role as the team’s de facto lead back. However, despite averaging a robust 4.8 yards per carry, topping 1,000 total yards and scoring nine touchdowns, Coleman’s RB18 finish in PPR formats was widely considered something of a disappointment in many fantasy circles.
There were some valid reasons for that. From Week 3 to Week 16, Coleman only managed six games of 10+ fantasy points. Following a great game in Week 2, he did not eclipse 100 yards again until Week 15. And while Coleman’s YPC for the season looked good, Coleman only managed more than four YPC in eight of 16 games.
In the eyes of many, Coleman’s 2018 reinforced the perception that talented though he may be, he’s not a lead tailback at the NFL level.
Still, the 49ers thought enough of Coleman to give him $5 million a season, and Matt Barrows of the Athletic believes that Coleman’s well-rounded skill set sets him up to lead the San Francisco backfield in RB touches.
“Coleman knows Shanahan’s offense, is dangerous as both a runner and pass catcher and — perhaps best of all considering the 49ers’ recent injury-riddled past — missed just six games in four seasons,” Barrows said. “Shanahan likely will cycle through all of his running backs this season; Coleman, 26, promises to be the most popular among fantasy football geeks.”
Despite that status as San Francisco’s No. 1 back, the fantasy community has been lukewarm on Coleman much of the summer. His current ADP at Fantrax is 31st among running backs and 71st overall. Largely, that lack of enthusiasm can be traced to concern about Coleman’s share of the touches in a backfield that also includes Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida.
However, the winds have shifted there. Per Barrows, McKinnon suffered a setback in his rehab from an ACL tear that was serious enough that the team’s decision to remove him from the PUP list now appears to have been a mistake. Unless the 49ers are prepared to leave McKinnon active despite the fact there’s no real idea when he might play, their only real recourse at this point is to put McKinnon on injured reserve again—meaning he wouldn’t be eligible to play until at least Week 10.
That leaves Breida as the primary competition for touches. And while the third-year pro impressed with over 800 rushing yards and 5.3 yards per carry after being pressed into action last year, Breida’s also had problems staying healthy—including a pectoral injury that caused him to miss the exhibition opener.
There’s also the matter of Coleman’s reunion with 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, who was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator from 2015 to 2016. In Shanahan’s second season, Coleman produced the best fantasy campaign of his career—941 total yards, 31 receptions, 11 total touchdowns and an RB14 finish in PPR fantasy points per game.
And that was playing second-fiddle to Freeman.
So in Tevin Coleman, we have a talented, versatile running back in the prime of his career with a head coach that knows how to use him and a clearer-than-expected path to significant touches in 2019.
If you think that sounds like a valuable fantasy asset, you aren’t alone—Dave Richard of CBS Sports singled Coleman out as a potential breakout candidate in fantasy backfields this season.
“Admittedly,” he said, “it will take a lot for Coleman to exceed the 11 total touchdowns he set as a career-high in 2016, but his 1,076-total-yard watermark should fall. Coleman is the healthiest, most versatile, most goal-line-likely running back the 49ers have. His familiarity with Kyle Shanahan’s system from when the two worked together in Atlanta should help him assimilate into the offense. The best part? Coleman’s finished as a top-24 running back each of his last three seasons. His fourth should be his best.”
Richard’s colleague Chris Towers went him one farther—predicting that Coleman could crack the top-10 running backs if things play out the right way.
“There was already production available in this backfield because Matt Breida, Jeff Wilson, Alfred Morris and Raheem Mostert combined for 1,769 rushing yards and 457 receiving yards on 364 carries and 66 targets last season,” he said. “Breida isn’t going anywhere, and Jerick McKinnon could play a role if he gets healthy, but Coleman should be the main option here. Coleman is best suited among this group to handle goal-line work, which makes him a good candidate to avoid what Ben Gretch calls the running back TRAP. If this offense jumps into the top 10 with a full season of Jimmy Garoppolo, it’s not hard to see a 1,650-total-yard, 10-plus-touchdown season from Coleman with 50-plus catches — enough to be close to a top-six back last season.”
Admittedly, a top-six (or even top-10) season from Tevin Coleman likely toes the line between optimistic and day-drinking. But it also can’t be completely ruled out. Even if all Coleman does is back up his production from the past couple years in Atlanta, he’d be a substantial value at his current ADP. If he peels off a top-15 season (something he’s already shown capable of doing) Coleman would be a steal.
And getting that kind of value at running back outside the first five rounds is how fantasy football leagues are won.
Are you buying into Tevin Coleman in 2019? For more great analysis check out the 2019 Fantrax Fantasy Football Draft Kit.
A member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and Pro Football Writers of America who resides in Columbus, Ohio, Gary Davenport has been featured on a number of fantasy websites and in nationally circulated publications, including the USA Today Fantasy Football Preview and the magazines distributed by Fantasy Sports Publications Inc., for whom Gary is both a contributing author and associate editor. Gary is an eight-time FSWA Award finalist and two-time winner who has been a finalist for that organization’s Fantasy Football Writer of the Year award each of the last three years. He won the honor in 2017. Gary also appears regularly on Sirius XM Radio (including live from Radio Row at Super Bowl XLIX) and over-the-air stations across the country. He knows football. Or so he’s heard.
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