By 2016 the bulk of the Fantasy Football community was in full-blown “Zero RB” mode. The draft strategy was that one should have drafted WRs with the first two or even three picks in his/her draft. While many overdid this and rostered teams with way too many wide receivers, there was a legitimate case to be made. Missing out on top-tier wide receivers could have lowered a team’s ceiling and taking a chance on a guy who was sharing a backfield who would not return value could have been disastrous to a draft.
Those days are behind us, folks.
Last year’s rookie class of Kareem Hunt, Alvin Kamara, Leonard Fournette, and Dalvin Cook –just to name a few- proved that the running back position was not dead. The rookie class brought elite level running back play to a good number of teams and has subsequently put the drafters that are still hell-bent on their “Zero RB” theories in a precarious situation. Missing out on at least one running back in the first three – maybe even first two rounds next season – will put any hopeful drafter in an uphill battle before the season even begins.
In the first three rounds of 2018 drafts, the talent level and Fantasy upside combined with opportunity of touches for the available running backs may be too good to pass up regardless of roster construction.
Here are some early 2018 running back sleepers and values in the front-end, middle, and back-end of drafts in Points Per Reception leagues.
McCaffrey finished as the RB10 last year in PPR scoring. His 80 catches on 113 targets for 651 yards contributed substantially to that as his value was not close in standard scoring leagues. However, in leagues where receptions are worth Fantasy points, McCaffrey must be on everyone’s radar going into 2018. The former Stanford Cardinal was tied with Le’Veon Bell for 7.1 targets per game at the running back position. The undersized rookie who was criticized for being too small and was drafted by a team that does not use the traditional satellite back was tied for the most targets per game with the running back that is used like a wide receiver (and wants to get paid as such).
Of course, that is where the comparisons end with McCaffery and Bell as the latter is an established superstar runner in the NFL as he racked up 321 carries to McCaffrey’s 117 last season. With Jonathan Stewart’s 198 rushes out of town, however, there is huge upside for the second-year RB. Odds are that the Panthers will draft a back in 2018. Giving another talented back to Cam Newton and that offense makes a world of sense. The 22-year old McCaffery is not going to be the every-down back, but there is a nice floor for him with 70-80 catches. If those 117 carries turn into 175-200 he could be on pace to have over 1,600 yards of total offense. McCaffrey is currently ranging from RB10 to RB15 on various game hosting sites, but the range widens from RB12 to RB52 in National Fantasy Football Championship drafts with an average ADP of 30.41. The former eighth overall pick in 2017 has upside to finish as a Top 8 back and can be drafted in the third or fourth round. An RB2 with RB1 upside- McCaffery is the perfect target- not only for Cam Newton, but for Fantasy players in 2018.
— Niners Nation (@NinersNation) March 29, 2018
The 49ers and Kyle Shanahan went out and got their guy this offseason. To the surprise of many, that guy was Jerick McKinnon to the tune of four years, 30 million dollars with $15,700,000 guaranteed according to Spottrac.com. With a team that already has Matt Breida and Joe Williams on the roster, even if San Francisco decides to draft a running back, the contract given to McKinnon has seemingly guaranteed him a sizable workload for the first time in his career going into his fifth season.
While last year was a struggle during Kyle Shanahan’s first season, there were some good things to take away from the end of the season. The obvious was the competent and reliable play of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. “Jimmy G” assured the 49ers that they have their QB of the future and raised the eyebrows of Fantasy players that the Niners’ weapons can be viable options for Fantasy next season. But what Shanahan proved, as he did in Atlanta as the Offensive Coordinator, is that he is really, really good at utilizing his top players to make them the best they can be. Jimmy G made Marquise Goodwin look like a legitimate number one receiver in the last few games of the season -albeit he was the de facto X-wideout after Pierre Garcon took an early exit from 2017 with an injury. The first-year coach, notoriously known for finding ways to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers in space, provided Carlos Hyde with 59 receptions last season – a career high.
Now comes McKinnon, who caught 51 passes for 421 yards and two touchdowns while splitting touches with Latavius Murray. He also added 150 carries for 570 yards and three touchdowns. Fantasy Football Reddit forums and Twitter threads have been full of those clamoring for McKinnon to be unleashed, despite having not achieved sustained success over time. The 25-year old running back is now put into a position where he is going to get a chance to prove the Fantasy community right. According to playerprofiler.com, McKinnon was Top 15 in the NFL in receptions for running backs despite a below 50 percent timeshare.
It is safe to project McKinnon for a 60 percent workload in 2018. Like Christian McCaffrey, his receptions will give him a safe floor that would make him valuable in a .5 PPR league as well. Right now, he is the consensus RB19 on FantasyPros.com and would be an absolute steal for that price. The workload, combined with an improved San Francisco offense in Jimmy G’s first year as a starter will put McKinnon as a high-end RB2 in 2018, making his draft price a steal.
In an abysmal season for the Seahawks in terms of running the football (23rd in total rushing yards, 21st in yards per carry, and last in rushing TD’s with four), Chris Carson’s rookie season is being criminally overlooked. Only playing in five games, Carson was able to carve out a role for himself in Seattle. He was clearly Pete Carroll’s preferred option to Eddie Lacy and Thomas Rawls. The seventh-round draft pick out of Oklahoma State was thrust into 20 carries in Week Two of 2017, where he finished with 92 yards. This came after an impressive 30-yard run in Week One run against the Packers, where he displayed a decisive ability to plant his foot in the ground and change directions while breaking away from the defense.
Both of the backs mentioned above will not be in the Seattle backfield in 2018. The Seahawks re-signed Mike Davis and will feature C.J. Prosise as the satellite back if he can stay healthy. This is promising for Carson, as he will be the lead dog in the backfield. In his 49 carries last year, Carson managed 208 yards which was good enough for 4.2 a pop behind a poor offensive line. It should give Fantasy players hope that Seattle signed guard D.J. Fluker, who adds talent to a line that desperately needs it. Look for Seattle to address this issue in the draft as well. With an improved line and an expanded role, Carson’s current ADP of 85 (RB31) jumps out as a sleeper. The Seahawks know they will have to run the ball more effectively and Carson will be an intricate part to their success on the ground next season.
Sometimes no matter what a running back does in his time as an NFL running back, he simply does not get the respect he deserves in Fantasy. The best example of this is Mark Ingram, who has finished as a RB1 in 12-team leagues for the past three seasons, but continues to be drafted in the fourth or fifth round of Fantasy drafts. Add Dion Lewis to the “No Respect” list with Ingram and Rodney Dangerfield. The newly signed Tennessee Titan is currently ranked as the RB22 (203 Fantasy points) in PPR scoring according to FantasyPros.com; however, last season Lewis finished as the RB13 in amidst a crowded Patriots backfield.
Lewis carved a role for himself as he was recovering from ACL surgery in the beginning of the 2017 season. He eventually established himself as the first and second down back, even with Rex Burkhead competing for carries. Lewis’ role was expanded towards the end of last year when Burkhead was in and out of the lineup with injuries. He finished the season with 180 carries for 896 yards and 32 receptions for 214 yards with nine total touchdowns, by far his best season in the NFL. The 27-year old will enter the season in a familiar situation with the Titans, as he will be splitting running back duties with bruiser Derrick Henry.
The Titans filled a need adding Lewis to the running back corps as the primary receiver option out of the backfield. It remains to be seen how new Head Coach Mike Vrabel will use the two backs, but Henry will cost a lot more than Lewis is Fantasy drafts. By August, Henry may be a full two rounds more expensive than Lewis, but they should see a split timeshare in terms of touches by season’s end. Think of Lewis as a discount that can be scooped up in the middle rounds that can finish as a high-end RB2 in 2018.
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