Throughout this series, I will be your guide in taking you through the ins and outs of how each position is evolving in the fantasy football landscape. My goal is to give you actionable advice that you can use to become better fantasy players. This advice will shed a light on positional trends, and enable you to properly evaluate which players and positions you should be prioritizing. Whether you are using this information for your startup drafts, rookie drafts, or simply general strategy, I promise you will leave more informed than you came.
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Now, without further ado, let’s jump right into it.
In view of the fact that, by and large, running backs receive more opportunities per game than that of the other skill positions, it should be no surprise that running backs also carry a significantly higher floor. Thus, our approach to identifying league winning running backs will be substantially different than that of wide receivers. Rather than prioritizing floor over ceiling, we need to seek out the backs who offer week winning upside at the highest rate. Floor is still a consideration, however, it takes a back seat to ceiling.
One of the key ways in which the running back position has been changing in fantasy over the last 5-10 years is that there aren’t nearly as many running backs with a dominant opportunity share as there once was. While identifying the few with huge opportunity shares can be fruitful, these backs are increasingly rare, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who they are (Cook, Henry, McCaffery, Barkley, Kamara, etc.).
How then, can we identify the less obvious indicators of slate-breaking potential?
One performance measurement that is becoming increasingly valuable is identifying the running backs that are the most efficient; the guys who make the absolute most out of their opportunity. Case in point: In 2019, Aaron Jones finished as the PPR RB2, despite only having a 60% opportunity share. There were exactly 20 running backs who finished with a higher opportunity share than Jones did that year, including guys like DeVonta Freeman, Carlos Hyde, and Bo Scarborough.
Another consequence of the running back position having a relatively high floor is that we don’t need to be nearly as concerned with how volatile each player is. Therefore, in order to hone in on the growing relevance of running back efficiency, replacing the volatility ranking metric is that of yards created/game. This statistic measures “the total yards created by the runner after the first evaded tackler” per playerprofiler.com.
The table below uses the top 30 PPR running backs, and tracks the frequency of their top 30, 20, and 10 weekly finishes throughout the season to give you an idea of floor and ceiling. As mentioned above, I’m using the metrics yards created/game for efficiency, and weighted opportunities per game (which weighs targets more heavily than carries).
2020 RB Statistical Analysis:
Top 10 Takeaways
Josh Jacobs ranked 10th in weighted opportunities per game; nevertheless, he finished as a top 10 running back in only 21% of his games, tied for 20th at the position. This was worse than guys like J.D. McKissic, Giovanni Bernard, and David Johnson. What’s more, Jacobs only finished as a top 20 running back in 50% of his games. Despite these concerning indicators, he did end up finishing as RB8 on the season, which will allow his owners to sell for full value this offseason. I believe Jacobs is indeed overvalued, and that owners should cash in while they still can.
Nick Chubb: 25th in weighted opportunities per game, and 2ND, yes you read that right, 2ND in yards created per game. Chubb was, hands down, the most efficient running back in the league with his touches in 2020. He firmly belongs in the upper echelon of real life and fantasy running backs. If the Chubb owner in your league has any concerns whatsoever about the lingering presence of Kareem Hunt, I would use that as an opportunity to buy him wherever you can.
When it comes to which backs picked up the most yardage after making the first defender miss, Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb are in a class of their own. Besides Dalvin Cook who came in 7 yards behind Chubb, the closest to either of the aforementioned players in yards created in 2020 was James Robinson, who came in a shocking 24 yards behind Chubb and 32 yards behind Derrick Henry. Because Chubb is 2 years younger than Henry, I would prioritize targeting him. Regardless, any of Henry, Chubb, Cook and Robinson are very solid buys if you can get them at fair value.
James Robinson was truly elite in 2020. Even still, most in the dynasty community are hesitant to anoint him as a top 10, or even top 15 running back; pointing to the possibility that Jacksonville brings in competition to the running back room. While this is a possibility, there are a select few backs in the 21’ class that would take significant volume away from Robinson, and the Jags are unlikely to spend the draft capital it would take to get them. Furthermore, the arrival of Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields will improve the offense as a whole, and with it, JRob’s outlook.
J.K. Dobbins: 30th in weighted opportunities, 15th in yards created per game. De’Andre Swift: 24th in weighted opportunities, 11th in % of finishes amongst the Top 20. Clearly, both of these backs deserved more volume than what they received their rookie years. Both are oozing with potential; look for them to take a larger portion of the opportunity share in their respective backfields next season, and for years to come.
While providing a decent floor, Clyde Edwards-Helaire fell well short of expectations his rookie year. He struggled to score touchdowns, and wasn’t as dominant in the passing game as most people anticipated. I’m not completely out on CEH, but I do now have Jonathan Taylor, James Robinson, J.K. Dobbins, De’Andre Swift and Cam Akers ahead of him. There’s an argument for Antonio Gibson over CEH as well, as he flashed significantly more upside this year. It has now become apparent that CEH falls somewhere in the 5-7 range in his own class, a disappointing development for his owners. If there is still someone that will pay a premium for Clyde in your league, I would look to sell him. Otherwise, one can only hold and hope for a rebound in touchdowns and overall ceiling in 2021.
Making a surprisingly competent appearance in these rankings is none other than Nyheim Hines. It is unlikely the Colts re-sign Marlon Mack, and Hines, while not being anything other than an upside flex play, is undervalued and can be acquired for pennies on the dollar. In the same vein, JD McKissic finished as a top 20 running back at a higher rate than Josh Jacobs, Jonathan Taylor and Miles Sanders, amongst others. He still has one year left on his contract, and could provide dynasty owners a short term solution to depth at a scarce position.
David Montgomery had a very strong finish to his 2020 season, there is no debating that. While Montgomery certainly helped win some championships this year, I am not bullish on him maintaining this end of season production run into next year. A perfect storm of an easy schedule and massive opportunity share catapulted him this year, and are anything but givens next year. I can say with certainty that if you own any Montgomery, there won’t be a better time to cash out than now.
Myles Gaskin was one of the biggest surprises of the 2020 fantasy season. Most (myself included) assumed Jordan Howard and Matt Breida would share the duties of that backfield, but boy were we wrong. The Dolphins clearly love Myles Gaskin, as he was top 10 in weighted opportunities per game. He didn’t disappoint with those touches either, as he finished top 12 in yards created, and top 10 in % Top 30 and % Top 10 finishes. According to DLF’s latest dynasty startup ADP, Gaskin is valued as the RB33. Similarly to James Robinson, dynasty leaguers seem to view Gaskin as a short term solution, and fear that Gaskin will lose significant volume next year. Brian Flores, however, has shown that he understands positional value, and I believe he is unlikely to spend high draft capital to bring in another running back this offseason. Gaskin is a screaming buy and someone who shouldn’t cost a fortune.
Ezekiel Elliott’s value is the lowest it’s been in years, and this is largely a result of dynasty leaguers souring on his performances after Dak Prescott was injured. Elliott finished as a top 20 back in all 5 of Dak’s starts, and a top 10 back in 3 of those 5 games. Elliott will return to value next season, and should be bought at these current levels.