Running backs often face a precipitous drop in dynasty value when they miss significant time with injuries. Both running backs listed below also lost value this past offseason due to either nearing the age of 30 or reaching the final year on their contracts.
In both cases, it’s generally advisable to sell these running backs facing uncertain futures before their dynasty value undergoes a dramatic decline. However, for dynasty rosters that are ready to contend for a fantasy title, these short-term dynasty running back buys can be immediate contributors and value targets to acquire in trades.
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Short-Term Dynasty Running Back Buys
Johnson suffered a bevy of injuries last season, resulting in the Cardinals trading for Kenyan Drake mid-season and subsequently trading Johnson away to the Texans in March. Bill O’Brien suffered plenty of ridicule for the pittance he received in exchange for trading away one of the best wide receivers in the league in DeAndre Hopkins, but that doesn’t change the fact that Houston acquired Johnson with a clear goal in mind.
After Lamar Miller tore his ACL last preseason, O’Brien traded for Carlos Hyde, who split the backfield duties with Duke Johnson in 2019. Hyde performed adequately on the ground despite running behind a Texans offensive line that ranked just 21st in run-blocking, eclipsing 1,000 rushing yards on the season with 545 of them coming after contact. Johnson received the bulk of the passing game work with 62 targets in 2019, which roughly equated to a 12 percent target share.
With Hyde now in Seattle, David Johnson steps in as the new lead back. The return of a healthy Tytus Howard at right tackle could help bolster the line, and while Houston may not boast a top-tier offensive line, the continuity of having all five of the same starters back in 2020 is a boon. Still, it’s concerning that Johnson was an inefficient runner last year with a -10.8 percent rushing DVOA rating last year with the Cardinals.
However, Arizona’s run-blocking unit was even worse than Houston’s in 2019, ranking 22nd in the league, and it’s uncertain how much Johnson’s injuries attributed to his inefficiency as a runner. But even with limited production on the ground, Johnson was a top-five fantasy running back from Week 1 through 6 last season averaging 20.2 PPR points per game prior to injuring his ankle against the Giants in Week 7.
Johnson’s abilities as a receiver help him maintain a high fantasy floor and ceiling. Despite his inefficiency as a runner last year, Johnson still ranked sixth in receiving DVOA among running backs. The biggest question will be how the passing game snaps will be split between he and Duke Johnson, who was also an efficient receiver out of the backfield last season, ranking eighth in receiving DVOA among running backs.
Volume is key to fantasy production for running backs. Even if David Johnson remains an inefficient runner behind a middling offensive line in 2020, he has the opportunity to be a workhorse back in Houston. With Johnson counting over $11 million against the cap on essentially a one-year deal, there is plenty of incentive for O’Brien to maximize his 2020 production regardless of the long-term injury risks.
If Johnson were to see a similar rushing workload to that of Hyde’s from last year while taking even just half of the total targets to running backs from 2019, that would project his 2020 workload to be around 240 carries and 40 targets. Applying his career averages of 4.0 yards per carry, 4.2 percent scoring rate on the ground, 7.3 yards per target, and 4.9 percent scoring rate through the air, 1,200 yards from scrimmage and double digit touchdowns are well within Johnson’s reasonable range of outcomes.
Johnson is definitely a risky dynasty asset to acquire. Back injuries are notorious for recurring, and Johnson could suffer from a flare-up in 2020. That said, prior to his injury-riddled 2019 campaign, Johnson was resilient and played all 16 games in 2018. While his health, or lack thereof, will determine Johnson’s fate and level of production this coming season, his risk is factored into his current dynasty value of an early or mid second-round rookie pick per the Twitter poll results below.
What is David Johnson's current value in #DynastyTrades? Assume a 1QB PPR format.
— 𝔽𝔽𝔸 🏈 𝐌𝐄𝐍𝐆 (@FFA_Meng) June 26, 2020
Based on the current price, Johnson is a risk/reward target for contending dynasty teams in need of help at the running back position. Another year devastated by injury is possible for Johnson, but so is another top-12 running back finish in PPR formats. Bear in mind though that the Texans can cut Johnson with just over $2 million in dead money after 2020, so the soon-to-be 29 year old could hold little to no value beyond this season depending on landing spot.
Like Johnson, Conner’s 2019 season was marred by a slew of injuries. But unlike Johnson, Conner is just 25 years old as he enters the final year of his rookie deal. Pittsburgh’s entire season was lost when Ben Roethlisberger suffered an elbow injury in Week 2 against Seattle. Despite a sputtering offense that relied almost exclusively on the run game, Conner played well last year when healthy.
Conner left midway through the Steelers’ Week 8 matchup against the Dolphins with a shoulder injury. Prior to the injury over the first eight weeks of the season, he was averaging 17.9 fantasy points per game in PPR formats and was the no. 9 fantasy running back. His early-season production also came in spite of opponents focusing on stopping Pittsburgh’s rushing attack with six combined games with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges playing the majority of snaps at quarterback.
Health is a definite concern, as Conner has missed nine games in two years with a variety of injuries since taking over the lead role in Pittsburgh’s backfield in 2018 amidst Le’Veon Bell‘s holdout. However, none of his lower leg, shoulder, or quad injuries are recurring issues, but rather isolated incidents. There is room for optimism that Conner can play a full season in 2020, though an unpredictable factor is his added risk if he contracts COVID-19 based on his prior battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2015. Hopefully for his sake beyond fantasy analysis, he can stay healthy and avoid contracting the virus.
From an efficiency standpoint, 2019 was hardly anything to boast about. Conner was wildly inefficient as a runner with a -11.8 percent rushing DVOA rating last year, and Pittsburgh’s offensive line ranked third-worst in the NFL in run-blocking. Both metrics are likely skewed though, as opponents stacked the box and dared Rudolph and Hodges to beat them with their arms rather than let Conner run on them. If Roethlisberger can stay healthy, the entire Steelers offense should be far more efficient in both yardage and scoring in 2020.
And even if Roethlisberger were to miss time again, Conner’s top-10 fantasy running back production early in 2019 despite inadequate backup quarterbacks under center shows that he can maintain a high fantasy floor and ceiling regardless of Pittsburgh’s overall offensive efficiency. Similar to Johnson, the risks associated with Conner are factored into his current dynasty value of an early second-round rookie pick or so per the Twitter poll results below.
What is James Conner's current value in #DynastyTrades? Assume a 1QB PPR format.
— 𝔽𝔽𝔸 🏈 𝐌𝐄𝐍𝐆 (@FFA_Meng) June 26, 2020
Conner is another running back to target in dynasty trades for contending teams in need of help at the running back position. His long-term dynasty value could plummet depending on what team he’s playing for in 2021 and beyond. But in the meantime, Pittsburgh should have no qualms about using Conner in a workhorse role with the expectation that they won’t pay big money to re-sign him next offseason. Per head coach Mike Tomlin in a recent conference call:
James is a feature runner and a proven guy when healthy, and we’re excited about him getting back to health and displaying that in 2020…Benny Snell is a guy who plays with a physical style in a similar manner as James and might be capable of being a James-type guy if James is unavailable.
The Steelers seem committed to featuring Conner with Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, and recent rookie addition Anthony McFarland in change-of-pace roles rather than true complementary roles as long as Conner is able to handle a large workload. NFL Nation Steelers reporter Brooke Pryor also endorses the belief that Tomlin will use Conner in a featured role if healthy:
James Conner is the Steelers’ featured runner, and as long as he stays healthy, that’s the way it will remain this season. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin prefers to have a workhorse back, and the Steelers believe Conner can return to Pro Bowl form after maneuvering around a season of acute injuries. The Steelers added one running back in the draft, but not until the fourth round — further signalling they believe the future of the run game flows through Conner.
All signs point to Conner maintaining a large role well-suited to generate top-end fantasy production, and the fourth-year running back will have motivation to play as much as possible given that he is in a contract year. Whether he can stay healthy all season is questionable, but the opportunity for a top-10 PPR finish is certainly there for Conner if he plays a full 16-game slate in 2020.
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