Three Running Backs Who Will Swing Your Fantasy Football League
Generally speaking, the best way to win your fantasy football league is to find a breakout running back. That could be a player who went undrafted (Arian Foster or Alfred Morris) or simply players who go in the middle rounds and vastly exceed their draft position. This year, there is a whole swath of running backs after round two who project similarly to one another but have warts that keep them from being thought of as premium assets. These warts range from playing for a bad team, to a lack of projected goalline work or lack of pass-catching ability. With touchdown upside and a weekly role as a pass-catcher, it is basically impossible to be an RB1 in fantasy. Last season, the lowest target total of a top 12 running back was Joe Mixon with 55. Barkley, CMC, Gurley, Kamara, Zeke, Melvin Gordon, and James Conner all saw more than 70 targets.
These three running backs are some of the hardest to project in all of fantasy football, as most running backs are in the mid-rounds. It is possible to project their playing time with reasonable certainty but the distribution of touches (rush vs pass vs goalline) is more difficult, as is the overall effectiveness of their offenses that they are in. The wide range of outcomes for Josh Jacobs, Aaron Jones, and Leonard Fournette has the ability to swing the course of the fantasy football season in all leagues.
Of these three running backs, Jacobs is the one that I find myself drafting the most often. He is the cheapest of the three, with his ADP coming in at 38th overall as the 20th running back off the board. The history of running backs drafted in the first round suggests that he is due for volume almost immediately. Since 2010, only three running backs drafted in the first round did not reach 100 carries. The other 12 running backs produced six RB1 seasons and four RB2 seasons. There is no immediate competition for Jacobs on the roster as Doug Martin fails to inspire for the fourth season in a row and Jalen Richard is viewed as strictly a complementary back.
The issues for Jacobs reaching his upside is pretty clear. He was not a very good prospect, as he backed up third-round pick Damien Harris at Alabama. He ran an abysmal 4.69 40 yard dash time at the combine and is essentially a 10th percentile athlete. The history of players who were college backups and produced at an RB1 level in the NFL is pretty shallow. To take that further, it is even more difficult to be a member of a bad team and be an RB1. Touchdowns and yards are produced by winning teams, not by losing ones. Only Christian McCaffrey, David Johnson and Phillip Lindsay were top 12 running backs last season on teams that missed the playoffs.
However, you simply will not find that many running backs who have a realistic shot of handling > 60% of their teams carries and over 15% of the teams’ targets. Similar to David Johnson’s season last year, Jacobs is ultimately likely to have more than a few frustrating outings with 10 fantasy points or fewer but if he is used commiserate with his draft equity, Jacobs could pretty easily finish as a back-end RB1 in fantasy football.
Aaron Jones has maybe a wider range out of outcomes than Jacobs because Jones might be playing in an elite offense. Aaron Rodgers hasn’t shown that level efficacy in five seasons (Rodgers YPA last four years: 7.4, 7, 7.3, 6.7) but as someone who once stated Rodgers was the best QB to ever play the game, I am hesitant to put the nail in his coffin just yet. Jones projects to be the lead running back ahead of Jamaal Williams as he was from weeks five to 11 last year. In that time span, Jones had at least 75 yards or a touchdown in each game and topped three targets in all but one contest. That is an elite running back’s level of consistency in terms of usage.
Really, there are only a few concerns about Jones’ overall profile. He is really tied to Aaron Rodgers’ health. Last year, when Kizer was forced to spell Aaron Rodgers, he posted 2.3 adjusted yards per attempt (Not great). Rodgers is now entering his age-35 season after four straight seasons of decline. Green Bay also is undergoing a coaching change that onlookers at training camp have not been raving about. Our projections definitely love Jones more than the market because the average offense with Aaron Rodgers should be above league average. There also are not many running backs who project for more work than Jones but concerns about his role in the passing game remain. Green Bay should have at least three players ahead of Jones in market share of pass attempts (Adams, MVS, Geronimo Allison) but he may also lose some snaps to Jamaal Williams and rookie Dexter Williams on third downs. Speculation from those that follow the team close is that the team may not be throwing the running backs much at all in 2019.
Jones certainly needs more things to break in an unseen or favorable way than the top five running backs (whose only job is to show up and not get injured) but Jones’ 80th percentile outcome season is really pretty magical. Rodgers and Green Bay haven’t seen a stud running back since 2014 Eddie Lacy who had 13 touchdowns, 55 targets in the passing game and 1,566 scrimmage yards. That could never be a median projection for someone in Jones’ position but if he achieved that stat line (with better efficiency because, well, he isn’t Eddie Lacy) at his current ADP, he would feature on a number of league-winning teams.
This pains me to write as Fournette is really not the sort of player I ever try to own. His upside is entirely volume-related which is true for all fantasy players but even more extreme in Fournette’s case. In his lone RB1 season, Fournette averaged 3.9 yards per carry despite recording a 90-yard touchdown run. He also saw 48 targets in 13 games that season while averaging 6.5 yards per target (quite good for a running back). That season, however, the Jacksonville Jaguars were good. They made the playoffs and finished 5th in points scored in the NFL. That is the sort of team whose top running back you would expect would finish inside the top-12 in fantasy football scoring.
Fast forward a year and Fournette was only able to play in eight games. He spent the offseason annoying his coaches and the Jaguars organization while they drafted Ryquell Armstead and signed veteran Alfred Blue. The team appears pleased with the way that Fournette has performed in training camp but more importantly, the coaches seem to want to use him in the passing game. Coach Doug Marrone recently stated “He’s someone that we can use in the pass game, and he has the skill. I’ve said it from the beginning. People have asked me, ‘What’s the one thing about Leonard?’ This is two years ago that that stood out, and it was his pass-catching ability.”
If Marrone does actually mean that, Fournette is probably likely to outperform his fourth-round ADP. In fact, if Fournette is locked into passing down work for Jacksonville, I would be sort of shocked if he wasn’t one of the most valuable running backs in fantasy. Even when he was hurt and playing poorly, the team used him as their primary rusher while he was losing passing-down snaps to T.J Yeldon. I have done enough drafts (particularly in the DRAFT Best Ball Championship) that I have started to take Fournette in the mid-fourth but I still don’t feel good about taking a career 3.7 yards per carry back and expecting him to produce weekly RB2 numbers. If the pass-catching role shows itself in the preseason, however, he will be moving up my rankings.