2020 was a strange year. With everything from the pro-days being canceled, no OTA’s, limited training camp, and the plethora of injuries to our star-studded rosters, there were some very interesting finishes among the skill positions. Today’s article will attempt to outline my regression candidates in the top 12 at the RB position. QB and WR will have to wait for another day.
I came across an interesting tweet from @TomKislingbury that went over the average turnover at each position among top performers. Being that we’re exploring RB today, I’ll limit the discussion to that position. On average, RB’s see only 5 of the top 12 finishes repeat, which means seven won’t. So who, among our top 12 finishes last year, will fall outside the top 12? How do we identify outlier seasons and predict regression (Marked R next to player names)? Of the guys I expect to repeat as top 12 RB, I’ll give a quick blurb, but we’ll dive into the guys I’m fading a bit deeper. All of my predictions assume no injuries with their current rosters (No Todd Gurley bombs anticipated!). The last caveat I’ll add is that… 7 not finishing is a historically derived number but, as averages go, doesn’t dictate that we’ll get to 7 on this list. I’m just giving you my outlook on each of these studs.
Let’s take a look at our top 12 (PPR, no rushing bonuses):
Alvin Kamara – Although I do expect him to regress with the loss of both OC Joe Lombardi and QB Drew Brees, he’s simply too talented on a strong offense with great coaches to fall outside of the top 12. I have him finishing in the 6-8 range, but he’s too integral to the offense to completely fall off the map.
Dalvin Cook – Minnesota’s defense was abysmal last year. With an improved defense, I expect the passing game to falter as they rely on clock control and game management more than shootouts. I expect Cook to repeat and, in addition to being a strong candidate, the RB1.
Derrick Henry – Every year we talk about the workload and how the body can’t keep taking the beating, and every year we’re wrong. The Titans lost their OC Arthur Smith and, while this undoubtedly will lead to changes in the Titans Offense, it shouldn’t shift them far from their superstar RB. I expect him to repeat.
David Montgomery (R) – Here is my first regression candidate. David Montgomery put up a pedestrian 10.9 PPG last season through the first ten weeks. This was against weak running defenses like Detroit, Atlanta, Carolina, Tennessee, and New Orleans (who admittedly got better towards EOS but were not playing well to start the year). So how does a guy who was RB21 through the first 11 weeks end up as the RB4 in the next 6? He ended the year averaging 26.2 PPG. When we look at why this occurred, we’re forced to explore a multitude of factors that influenced his play. The two most obvious explanations are a) Tarik Cohen tore his ACL in week 3, essentially shifting all of the RB targets to Montgomery, and b) They played some of the league’s worst rushing offenses in weeks 12-17. I’m an Occam’s Razor kind of guy.
With a healthy Tarik Cohen coming back into the fold, a QB with rushing ability being drafted early on Day 1, and a Strength of Schedule ranked 3rd hardest, it’s easy to see his upside vanishing and him reverting to his previous low-end RB2 finishes. He’s a hard “sell at an elevated price if you can” candidate.
Aaron Jones – He’s an elite athlete on an elite offense. Aaron Rodgers’s holdout continues to make projections difficult. Still, if we’re assuming Rodgers reports (I am), he’s easy to project as a top 12 RB, especially with the loss of Jamaal Williams. I don’t see AJ Dillon pushing Jones out of much work, Quadzilla and all.
Jonathan Taylor – High expectations were met in the second half of the season with Jonathan Taylor. He had us guessing the first half, but in typical rookie fashion, he showed up in the second in a very Montgomery-esque way. But there’s a difference. Indianapolis will play those bad defenses every year. Indy is in a division with Jacksonville, Houston, and Tennessee, all looking to be the chew toy for AFC RB’s. Elite talent and physically gifted RB’s beating up on bad defenses is never a bad thing, and though he struggled early on in the season, this is typical for rookies coming into a new system. The aggravating weeks of Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins taking snaps away from JT cost some of us some sleep, but as the season went on, he proved he has pass-catching chops and could be the stalwart centerpiece of that offense. JT fully assumed the workload he was given and produced at an elite level to wrap up the season. I’m confident in a repeat top 12 finish.
James Robinson (R)– An UDFA who quickly rose to the top of the RB performers, James Robinson was a polarizing prospect this off-season. Most keen dynasty players sold high, assuming that Urban Meyer would draft a higher profile weapon for his run game, and he did in Travis Etienne. James Robinson was not particularly efficient his rookie year, but he garnered 240 rushes and 60 targets, fully embodying the phrase “Volume is King”. James Robinson had an absurd 82% rushing opportunity share and a healthy 55% passing work share among Jacksonville RB’s. Add Etienne, an elite rusher and solid pass catcher in college, and James Robinson’s upside is gone. I still expect him to take the majority of goal-line touches and have a hold of the rushing attack, but instead of an 82% opportunity share, I’m projecting ~60% with far fewer receptions. This will hold him back as a low-end RB2 ceiling.
Josh Jacobs (R) – Many of us dreamed of Josh Jacobs building on his rookie season and assuming a hefty passing volume, but, as happens far too often, our hopes and dreams were dashed. He has performed at an elite level since coming into the NFL but, for some reason (maybe workload concerns?), Gruden simply will not hand him the keys and make him the center of the offensive attack in Las Vegas. Jacobs finished as the RB8 with 273 rushes and 45 targets, but 16% of his fantasy production came in week 1 when he had three touchdowns, and another 14% came in week 10. This type of spotty and inconsistent production made him hard to trust last year, even though his finish was elite.
The Las Vegas Raiders shredded their offensive line this offseason, as well as adding Kenyan Drake at a hefty price tag. I expect Jacobs to maintain the rushing role with Drake filling in as the 3rd down and breather back, which is enough to cap Jacobs upside. I have Jacobs with a mid RB2 finish in the 2021 season.
Ezekiel Elliott – An elite producer since he came into the NFL, Zeke had a down year. A down year that equates to an RB9 finish instead of RB1-3. At only 26 years old coming back in with a healthy offensive line and QB, I expect Zeke to return to form and finish as a top 5 RB. He is aging, the threat of reduced tire tread exists, but for 2021, I expect him to repeat.
Kareem Hunt (R)/Nick Chubb – Having 2 RB’s finish in the top 12 is something special. I love the Cleveland Browns rushing attack. Teams have to consider whether they need to cover OBJ or stack the box. Cleveland owns the league’s #1 offensive line, and with Head Coach Kevin Stefanski at the helm, they are dominating opponents at the line of scrimmage and wearing them down. But is there enough for two repeat top 12 finishes?
Kareem Hunt finished as the RB10 in PPR formats, but when we look at his usage, it came almost entirely in the 4th quarter. They let Chubb do his damage and beat up on defenses for 45 minutes before they finished the job with Kareem Hunt. Though I view Hunt as a value in most drafts today (ADP of 82.5 in SF formats), I cannot see him finishing in the top 12 as the clear #2 RB in this offense.
Let’s take a look at how we got here – Nick Chubb had 54 opportunities in the first three weeks (18 touches per game), while Hunt had 50 (16.5 touches per game). And that sounds like an even split! But the first week where Hunt had 19 of those touches, they got blown out by the Baltimore Ravens, and Chubb was effectively game scripted out. After Chubb went down, Hunt had the backfield more or less to himself. And he did well with it, though his average touches per game only went up by 1.5 (18). I don’t project Chubb to get injured again, and I think the Browns found their true identity as the season progressed. Weeks 10-17 Chubb averaged 18.5 touches per game, and Hunt’s role shrunk a bit to 13.6 touches per game. I think that’s the trend to consider moving forward. Hunt moves out of the top 12, Chubb stays.
Mike Davis (R) – The Carolina Panthers added Mike Davis in 2020 to provide relief for CMC, and that he did for three whole weeks of the season! The rest of it? The Panthers had CMC on the bench due to injury and, I’m assuming, caution for their most significant asset. In the games CMC was in, Mike Davis had two rushing attempts and 14 targets, which isn’t awful for a backup. But it does speak to the divide in talent between the two. Mike Davis performed admirably with CMC sidelined, but as he moves to a weak Falcons team, though there may be more scoring opportunities, I don’t expect Mike Davis to be nearly as prolific as last year. He’s probably the most obvious regression candidate I can identify.
To summarize, I expect Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, Aaron Jones, Jonathan Taylor, Nick Chubb, and Ezekiel Elliott to retain their RB1 finishes in 2021. I expect David Montgomery, Josh Jacobs, Kareem Hunt, Mike Davis, and James Robinson to regress and finish somewhere in the mid to back end of RB2’s.
Hope this helps! Tune in for my upcoming 2021 Regression Candidates – WR edition!