Three-Down Backs to Build Your Fantasy Football Team Around
In recent years, we’ve seen several teams use a running back by committee approach, opting to split the workload up between multiple backs. In some cases, this is because the team does not have a true No. 1 back. In other instances, it is more of an effort to reduce the physical strain the running back position demands. In any event, the dreaded RBBC is just another four-letter word for many fantasy owners, who are looking for true three-down backs.
There are still some running backs who do it all, and they are understandably in high demand in fantasy football. Last week I highlighted options for those trying a Zero RB approach – this is essentially the opposite of that group. Many of the three-down backs highlighted here are first-round picks in most drafts, so it’s not likely you can obtain the services of more than a couple of players mentioned. Unless you play in one of our awesome Salary Cap games, of course.
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Round 1 Three-Down Backs
Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
The conversation regarding three-down backs starts and ends with Le’Veon Bell. Bell touched the ball 406 times and was on the field for an obscene 945 offensive snaps last year. To put those numbers into perspective, Bell had 17.3 percent more touches than the next highest player in the NFL and was on the field for 18.7 percent more snaps than the next-highest running back. Oh, and he sat out the regular season finale.
Over the last two seasons, Bell leads the league in carries and is tied for 12th in receptions. He is the ultimate dual-threat running back. Bell’s contract situation may make some owners nervous, but he is likely to contribute on virtually every single play as long as he is in uniform.
Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
Todd Gurley is the consensus overall number-one pick in fantasy and with good reason. He rebounded from a disappointing 2016 to lead all backs in fantasy scoring in 2017. He was remarkably efficient, but he also rarely came out of the game. Gurley saw 22.87 touches per game and was on the field for 82.22 percent of the Rams’ offensive plays.
The former Georgia Bulldog was utilized much more in the passing game last season than he had been in the past. Gurley had considerably more receiving yards (788-515) and receiving touchdowns (6-0) in 2017 than he had in his first two years combined. He has a chance to approach 2,000 yards from scrimmage for a second consecutive season.
David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
David Johnson led all running backs in both total offensive snaps and snap percentage in 2016. He also finished that year as the overall RB1. He is a threat to reach those perches once again this season. Not only is there no real threat to Johnson’s carries, he is also clearly Arizona’s second-best receiving option behind Larry Fitzgerald.
Johnson has made his intentions known since last season about trying to finish the year with 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving. He will be on the field a ton and is one of the few three-down backs you can build a team around in fantasy.
Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
After returning to action following a six-game suspension for off-field conduct, Ezekiel Elliott nearly matched Bell’s on-field percentage and touches per game numbers. Elliott is a good bet to lead the league in rushing behind a solid offensive line in Dallas.
In addition to being arguably the best pure running back in the league, Elliott may be called upon for more in the passing game in 2018. With a receiving corps devoid of a game-breaking threat, I expect Dallas to feed Zeke as much as possible this season. Elliott has a real chance to touch the ball 400 times this year.
Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
As Melvin Gordon has matured, he has been given more chances to prove he fits among this list of three-down backs. After seeing the field on just a third of offensive plays in his rookie season in 2015, Gordon has exceeded 60 percent in back-to-back years, including staying on the field for 70.74 percent of plays last season. As expected, his total carries and receptions have increased each season.
Gordon hasn’t sported great efficiency rushing the football. He has never reached 4.0 yards per carry and has a career mark of just 3.8. But he has scored 12 touchdowns in each of the past two seasons and is the Chargers’ preferred option on the goal line and out of the backfield. This makes him a very safe RB1 option in fantasy leagues.
Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs
Kareem Hunt burst onto the scene with an NFL debut for the ages and never looked back. He led the NFL in rushing yards and finished third in fantasy points. If you remove a cameo appearance in a meaningless Week 17 tilt, Hunt averaged 21.6 touches per game and was on the field for 68.8 percent of the Chiefs’ plays.
Hunt is the centerpiece of a new-look Kansas City Chiefs offense. With word that he could see added targets from new starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Hunt could produce even better numbers in his sophomore campaign than he did last year.
Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
A rookie running back has led the NFL in rushing yards in consecutive seasons, so don’t let Saquon Barkley’s lack of experience scare you off. He is a dynamic playmaker who proved he could do it all at the college level and has the skill set to easily adjust to the pro game.
Owners should not worry about Jonathan Stewart. The last time Stewart ran for 1,000 yards in a season, Barkley was 12 years old. Stewart is more than 10 years older than Barkley. Think about the bell curve of a running back in the NFL and then reread that last sentence. Stewart’s yards per rush has dropped every season since 2014 and he is virtually invisible in the passing game. Barkley should easily dominate touches in the Giants’ backfield from day one and should finish as an RB1 in 2018.
— Michael Alterio (@mjalterio) July 21, 2018
Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars
Leonard Fournette was slowed down a bit by lower body injuries during his rookie season, but he still averaged over 20 carries per game. That pace was good for third in the NFL. He is one of a handful of three-down backs you can count on for a high number of carries each and every week.
And while he may never be confused with Bell, Fournette was a serviceable receiver last year, finishing with 36 catches in just 13 games. It’s hard for me to envision a scenario in which Fournette is a Top-5 fantasy back this year, but It’s also difficult to picture one where he isn’t a workhorse RB1. Fournette’s sheer volume makes him a consistent source of weekly fantasy goodness.
Other Three-Down Backs with Upside
Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
Dalvin Cook was a bit overshadowed by Hunt last September. But we should not forget how impressive Cook was at the beginning of the 2017 season either. Cook saw 71 touches in Minnesota’s first three games and played nearly 70 percent of snaps. While many will focus on Minnesota’s passing game following the acquisition of Kirk Cousins, it will be Cook who figures to be the engine driving the Vikings’ offense.
Cook may lose some goal-line touches to Latavius Murray, but he should be on the field for the vast majority of snaps in a potent Minnesota offense. Look for him to be a Top-10 running back this season.
LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills
This, of course, comes with the obvious disclaimer that LeSean McCoy’s inclusion here is null and void if he is suspended due to off-field allegations. If McCoy suits up, he should continue to carry the mail for a Bills squad who lacks a lot of offensive weaponry. McCoy has averaged a shade under 20 touches per game in his career and will approach that number in 2018 for however long he is allowed to play.
Jerick McKinnon, San Francisco 49ers
Jerick McKinnon does not have a proven track record as a three-down back, but this should be the year he approaches 300 touches. Head coach Kyle Shanahan would not have signed McKinnon to a $30 million dollar contract if he envisioned him as a mere change of pace back. McKinnon is expected to play the Devonta Freeman role in Shanahan’s offense and should thrive in his new surroundings.
If you’re worried McKinnon’s body type will prevent him from enduring the added workload, consider this: In 2015, Freeman led all backs in total offensive snaps, snap percentage, and fantasy points. Freeman is listed at 5’8, 206 pounds. McKinnon is 5’9 and 209.
Kenyan Drake, Miami Dolphins
I hesitate to put Kenyan Drake here because Frank Gore has yet to blink in his staring contest with Father Time. But the upside is simply too high to ignore. During Drake’s glorified audition last year, he was on the field for a whopping 85.4 percent of snaps and averaged 21.6 touches per game. And on top of that, he was good.
During those five games, Drake averaged 118.8 yards from scrimmage per game and 4.88 yards per rush. Those are RB1 numbers that you can potentially grab in the fourth round. Gore should not threaten Drake’s status as Miami’s featured back. Drake is one of my favorite backs to target once the obvious names are off the board.
— Alabama Pro Updates (@BamaProUpdates) July 21, 2018
Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks
Rashaad Penny is a bit of a wildcard, as he was not an accomplished receiver in college and struggled with pass protection at times. But the opportunity is there in Seattle with a motley crew of running backs behind him. Penny certainly has a chance to dominate touches in a suspect Seahawks’ backfield.
Lamar Miller, Houston Texans
Perhaps the unsexiest pick in all of fantasy, Lamar Miller’s yards per carry and total yards from scrimmage have both declined in every year since 2014. However, he did see the field on a career-high 67.54 percent of offensive snaps last year.
His primary competition for playing time, D’Onta Foreman, is still recovering from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon suffered last November. Miller should lead Houston’s backfield in snap rate and touches. Miller is an uninspiring Flex play but is a useful piece for those looking for a safe weekly floor in what many consider to be a high-octane Texans’ offense.
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