Old Faces, New Places: Running Backs
More than a dozen running backs will put on a new NFL jersey this season, and that’s not including the future talent that will be drafted next week. There are still a couple of impactful players available on the free agent market, such as DeMarco Murray and the recently released C.J. Anderson to keep an eye on. Some who signed landed in better fantasy football environments, while others are likely to provide a fantasy hit to their stock or new teammates.
The days of the bell-cow back are diminishing. There are only a handful of three-down backs in the league today, and you may see more teams follow the same path the New England Patriots have taken for years, or the route the Philadelphia Eagles took last season. The more backs, the more balance, and the better it can be for your football team.
In fantasy, however, you never want to hear the term “timeshare” or “running back by committee” (RBBC). The Eagles were one of only two teams (New York Jets) with three running backs to total at least 300 rushing yards last season, and they were the first team since the 1990 New York Giants to reach a Super Bowl without a player racking up 1,000 scrimmage yards. The balance worked for them, and it kept their guys fresh all season long. Philly finished the 2017 season with the third most rushing yards in the NFL, but they didn’t have a true RB1 or RB2 that you could count on in fantasy.
Of course, any team will tell you they would love to have a Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley, or Ezekiel Elliot. However, the reality is, more and more teams are carrying two or three capable guys. My fantasy football draft strategy remains the same: Take as many three-down backs as you can and as early as you can. Saquon Barkley is a rare breed we’ll get into as the draft approaches. Below are all the notable running backs who switched teams this offseason and what it means for their fantasy football values.
Carlos Hyde, Cleveland Browns
The Browns’ signing of Carlos Hyde was a surprising move to some, as it essentially takes Saquon Barkley off the board for them come draft day. Cleveland revamped the rest of its offense, too, acquiring quarterback Tyrod Taylor, wide receiver Jarvis Landry, and tight end Darren Fells. Yes, that’s right, Darren Fells — one of the best blocking tight ends in the game.
Hyde is an upgrade over the departed Isaiah Crowell. Health has always been a concern for Hyde, but he’s coming off a season in which he played a career-high 16 games. The 27-year-old also had a career-high eight rushing touchdowns and 59 catches last season, paving his way to RB11 status in standard leagues and an RB8 finish in PPR formats. He’s unlikely to repeat the 87-target mark in Cleveland with pass-catching back Duke Johnson still in the picture, but Hyde has the upside to return positive value again this season. He won’t be drafted as an RB1, but he could finish inside the top-12 yet again. Hyde’s first 1,000-yard rushing season with double-digit touchdowns is certainly attainable.
Jerick McKinnon, San Francisco 49ers
With all of the hype surrounding the 49ers this season, I have a feeling Jerick McKinnon will be over-drafted. Don’t get me wrong; this is a fantastic signing, and it’s very exciting to think about what he can do in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Tevin Coleman immediately comes to mind, and it’s a fair comparison. However, like Coleman, McKinnon may not get a full workload or many goal-line rushing attempts, as San Francisco will likely add another running back. With that said, the former Viking is a great receiver and is very explosive. Take a look at some of his receiving stat lines in 2017: 7 receptions for 114 yards in Week 3; 6 receptions for 72 yards in Week 9, 11 receptions for 86 yards in the playoffs. That shows McKinnon’s upside in the receiving game.
McKinnon has 94 catches on 122 targets over the last two seasons. Hyde and Matt Breida combined for over 100 targets in Shanahan’s offense last season. Think of McKinnon as a solid RB2 with upside to be an RB1 on a week-to-week basis in PPR formats. In his four seasons, he’s hit the 20-carry mark only once, and that happened in 2016. Let’s see what the 49ers do during the draft. Breida is still around, as is Joe Williams, who was drafted last season but didn’t play due to an ankle injury.
Fun stat: Hyde averaged 21 opportunities per game (rushing attempts plus targets) in the six games Jimmy Garoppolo started for San Francisco. If the 49ers do in fact intend to give McKinnon a full workload, look out! He was already RB17 in PPR formats last season.
Dion Lewis, Tennessee Titans
This is one of those good real-life football signings that kind of stinks for fantasy. This signing squashed any hopes that Derrick Henry would become a bell-cow back in his first season without DeMarco Murray. Henry has a 4.3 yards per carry mark over 286 attempts in his two NFL seasons and some – -myself included — were hoping he would be a consistent 20-touch guy in 2018. Henry disappointed at times throughout the season when given an opportunity to be The Man, but he also showed what he could do when given the chance. Henry racked up a 191 total yards on 25 touches in his first ever NFL playoff game (without Murray in the lineup). Despite five catches in two playoff games, Henry had only 11 grabs in the regular season.
That’s where Lewis comes in. He has 85 catches over the last three seasons. The former Patriots running back was more than just a third-down guy last season, though, as he had a career-high 180 rushing attempts, 896 rushing yards (5.0 YPC), and six rushing touchdowns. This will be a one-two punch in 2018, with Henry likely getting first- and second-down work, as well as most of the goal-line opportunities. With that said, Lewis is also capable of handling a significant workload. In fact, he finished ninth in the NFL with 35 red zone rushing attempts last season. All nine of Lewis’ touchdowns in 2017 came inside the red zone. Great real-life signing for the Titans, but Henry’s 2018 value takes a hit here.
LeGarrette Blount, Detroit Lions
If you’ve watched the Detroit Lions over the years, you’ve seen a team that’s capable of putting up points but has to rely on Matthew Stafford inside the red zone way too often. Thirteen of Stafford’s 29 touchdown passes in 2017 came inside the 10-yard line, and 12 of his 24 TDs in 2016 came inside the 10. LeGarrette Blount will surely steal a few of those red-zone attempts this season.
Blount has 104 red zone rushing attempts and 18 touchdowns over the last two seasons, including 34 attempts inside the five-yard line. Meanwhile, Ameer Abdullah has six rushing touchdowns in three seasons with the Lions. Stafford has never had a back like Blount, and he’ll be the Lions’ go-to guy inside the red zone. That said, he’ll still be nothing more than a fringe RB2 in standard formats. Even that is likely pushing it. Think of Blount as a bye-week replacement unless the Lions decide to move on from Abdullah. And even if they do, they’ll like grab another back in the draft.
Isaiah Crowell and Thomas Rawls, New York Jets
Isaiah Crowell and Thomas Rawls join a backfield that already consists of Bilal Powell and Elijah McGuire. Crowded much? The Jets certainly get a bit younger with the addition of Crowell and departure of Matt Forte, but there are too many mouths to feed at the moment. Battles will be won throughout camp and cuts will be made, but this is a backfield to stay away from. Crowell has the most upside despite failing to live up to his breakout campaign in 2016, when he rushed for 952 yards (4.9 YPC) with seven TDs and 40 receptions. In 2017, Crowell declined in every category and managed to score only two rushing touchdowns. It’s hard to the see the Jets offense being very productive in 2018, which means Crowell will likely settle in as an RB3 with some RB2 upside in the right matchups.
As for Rawls, the focus for him will be to stay healthy throughout training camp and the preseason. Powell will leave us with the memory of his 145- and 163-yard rushing games, but ultimately he was a major letdown last season. And now, has Crowell to deal with.
Frank Gore, Miami Dolphins
This move has to bum out Kenyan Drake dynasty owners a little bit. Drake will still be the lead dog in Miami, but the 25-touch games we saw from him will likely be gone. Gore has been one of the most durable backs in the NFL, having played at least 14 games in 12 of his 14 seasons, including seven straight 16-game seasons. Despite 900-plus rushing yards in all of those seasons, Gore seems to be running out of gas.
Gore’s yards-per-carry mark has been below 4.0 for three straight years, but he has surprisingly racked up 101 catches over those seasons. He’ll take on a reduced role in Miami but will still piss off Drake owners from time to time. That said, 16-20 touches per game are still within reach for The Drake in 2018.
Doug Martin, Oakland Raiders
Martin had every opportunity (after his four-game suspension) to bounce back and prove that he was still the same guy who twice posted 1,400 rushing yard seasons. Instead, he churned out the same 2.9 yards-per-carry mark and matched his three touchdown total from a year ago. It’s a crowded backfield in Oakland, with Marshawn Lynch, DeAndre Washington, and Jalen Richard still in the picture for now. There’s really nothing to see here besides the fact that you can draft Martin with much lower expectations this season, with a pick that won’t cost nearly as much.
Jonathan Stewart, New York Giants
Speaking of nothing to see here … there is absolutely nothing to see here with the Giants’ signing of Jonathan Stewart. If you take away Cam Newton’s rushing yards last season, the Panthers were the worst rushing team in the NFL, and a lot of it had to do with Stewart. The offensive line in New York is among one of the worst in the league, and Wayne Gallman is flat-out better at this point. Of course, it doesn’t mean you want Gallman, either, but does have a higher ceiling.
Don’t be surprised if the Giants draft Saquon Barkley. If that happens, you can forget about Gallman, too.
Jeremy Hill, New England Patriots
Hill shouldn’t be on anybody’s radar come draft day, but it’s worth noting that he had 29 rushing touchdowns in his first 47 NFL games. It’s also worth noting that this signing by the Patriots creates another season where you’ll give yourself headaches trying to figure out their backfield. Rex Burkhead is the guy you want, but don’t be surprised if Hill steals a few red-zone rushing attempts. James White and Mike Gillislee are also still around.
Chris Ivory, Buffalo Bills
Ivory is nothing more than a back up to LeSean McCoy. The DFS community will talk about him when McCoy gets hurt and has to miss games. It’ll likely be uncalled for.
Christine Michael, Indianapolis Colts
I’ve listed Michael here just because people actually still think he is good… Marlon Mack looks destined for a much bigger role in year two of his career.
Damien Williams and Kerwynn Williams, Kansas City Chiefs
Kareem Hunt is the real deal, but it makes you wonder about Spencer Ware’s recovery from last season’s knee injury. This is a reminder Alex Smith finished with more rushing touchdowns than Ware in 2016.