Running backs, part 2

When I was in school, it was common for me to walk into the classroom unprepared. The “dog ate my homework” excuse didn’t play well, and I really had no one to blame but myself for being a mediocre student. The apostle Paul is credited with the old adage that you will sow what you reap in life. I agree with Paul and add that this is also true of fantasy football. If you don’t do your homework before draft night, you will reap a subpar fantasy team.

If you’re reading this column, you are already working on your fantasy homework. If you’re just starting, you should start with running back research. Last week I told you there would be two parts to my coverage of fantasy backs. If you missed part one, go back and read it first. The most important information was in the first installment because these are the backs that will be drafted in the first five rounds. The early rounds will make, or break you.

Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara and Derrick Henry were all discussed last week. They all deserve their lofty ADP ranking. I also gave my opinion on Clyde Edwards-Helaire. I’m leery of Edwards-Helaire only because taking a player who hasn’t logged an NFL snap with a first-round pick is risky. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t draft him at the end of the first or beginning of the second round.

In a 10-team league, expect a minimum of seven and a maximum of nine running backs to be drafted in round one. The exception is Mike Thomas, who will get drafted somewhere in the midst of the RB feeding frenzy. Another four or five will be drafted in the second round. If you fail to draft a back in the first two rounds, you could be looking at the RB15 in the third round. That’s Todd Gurley, and I don’t want him as my RB1 if I can avoid it.

There are other landmines to avoid in the first two rounds. I covered that last week. Let’s move on to the middle rounds of the draft and see who’s worth rostering. David Montgomery has a current ADP of 60 and is usually taken in the fifth round. In my opinion, Montgomery is another player to avoid. He is the lead back in Chicago, and he will get 15 carries per game. But the Bears offense is anemic, and the line was in the bottom quartile last year.

Raheem Mostert, who is also going in the fifth round, is a different story. Watching him in the playoffs last year caused many to believe he will break out in 2020. There’s no denying he’s abundantly talented. Matt Breida was traded to the Dolphins, but Jerick McKinnon is back, and there’s still Tevin Coleman, and Jeff Wilson. Despite being on the roster the past two years under Kyle Shanahan, Mostert has received only 171 carries in 25 games.

D’Andre Swift is the next back in line. The rookie was drafted by Detroit, where running backs go to die. Did you forget that Kerryon Johnson was predicted to be the next Barry Sanders when he was drafted two years ago? Pundits who tout Swift as a breakout back must assume that Swift will stay healthy and get 20 touches per game. But Johnson is still there, and he’s good when he’s healthy. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Matt Patricia using a committee.

Speaking of committee, that brings me to Devin Singletary. Here’s another talented runner who could achieve great things if he had the opportunity. But then there was Frank Gore, who got the goal-line work in spite of being close to 50 years old (or it just seems that way). Gore is gone, and Buffalo drafted Zack Moss. General Manager Brandon Beane says Moss will assume the Gore role, which means that Singletary’s upside will be capped again.

I don’t like Montgomery, Swift or Singletary, but I do like the next in line – Cam Akers. Akers is going in the sixth round of most drafts, and he’s one of the last in the draft that I think could make an impact. The Rams cut ties with Gurley this past off-season. The other backs on the roster are nothing to get excited about. Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown aren’t going to lead this backfield. Akers has a clear path to becoming the next Gurley.

It’s unlikely that you will find an impact back after round six. Kareem Hunt is going in the seventh round, and he’s proved he can perform at an elite level. How can we ever forget 2017, when this rookie rushed for 1,327 yards and caught 53 passes for another 455 yards in Kansas City? The problem for Hunt is that Nick Chubb is the lead back in Cleveland, and Hunt has been relegated to a relief role, used primarily in the passing games.

Ronald Jones II, who is going in the seventh or eighth round, has been called the lead back in Tampa for the last two years. The problem is that he only carried the ball about 10 times per game last year, along with two receptions per game. Twelve touches per game won’t get it done. Perhaps, things could change in the Tom Brady era, but the Bucs also drafted Keshawn Vaughn in the third round, so that tells me it’s going to be a committee.

Other running backs ranked lower than Jones are also part of a committee and should be no more than bench pieces for you. One back that might be worth rostering late is the Patriots’ James White.  White has always been a value in PPR formats, and I am intrigued about the possibility of White getting a lot of work in the passing game if Cam Newton wins the starting job. As I recall, Newton passed a lot in the past to another back named McCaffrey.

Philip Lindsay is RB35, and he is the Rodney Dangerfield of running backs. Consider this fun fact. Over the last two years, only Ezekiel Elliott, Derrick Henry, Nick Chubb, Christian McCaffrey, Chris Carson, Saquon Barkley, Joe Mixon and Todd Gurley have more rushing yards. But Denver signed Melvin Gordon during the offseason. Lindsay put on 10 pounds before reporting to camp this year and still wants to earn some respect.

Matt Brieda is RB37 and may be an RB1 in Miami after his offseason trade. But he appears to be going from one committee in San Francisco to another in Miami. With Jordan Howard also traded to the Dolphins, it’s highly unlikely that Brieda gets a big workload. Frankly, I wouldn’t draft any Dolphins running back. The talented Kenyan Drake averaged 7.5 carries a game in his last season in Miami. Why would the less-talented Brieda be different?

Marlon Mack is RB38, and Colts Coach Frank Reich said recently that Mack is still viewed as the Colts’ starting running back. Drafting Jonathan Taylor in the second round of the NFL draft was a harbinger of a changing of the guard in Indianapolis. But I can recall a similar situation in Seattle two years ago when Rashaad Penny was drafted in the first round and expected to quickly supplant Chris Carter as RB1 at the beginning of 2018.

I can’t leave the subject of running backs without discussing handcuffs. It amazes me how many fantasy owners don’t handcuff their key running backs. If you’re new to our game, the word handcuff is used in fantasy football to describe the act of drafting a player in order to provide insurance for another player already on the roster. For example, if you draft Ezekiel Elliott in the first round, you need to add Tony Pollard later in the draft.

Not all running backs can be handcuffed. The reason is that even a bell cow might be replaced by a committee if he is injured. In other words, handcuffing RBs is not an exact science. The importance of a handcuff depends on several factors, including the value of the starter in question and the overall clarity of the backfield situation and the roster size of your league. In my opinion, no RB drafted after the second round needs a handcuff.

I consider only a few backs worthy of a handcuff. With only 15 or 16 roster spots, you must be frugal. In addition to Elliott, I would handcuff Dalvin Cook if I draft him. His handcuff is Alexander Mattison. Like Pollard, Mattison is a natural handcuff, who’s value will go through the roof if Cook is injured (or holds out). Another natural handcuff is Chase Edmonds for Kenyan Drake. I would also handcuff Alvin Kamara with Latavius Murray.

In conclusion, I’ll tell you that professional football is changing for running backs. Bell cows are harder to find, committees are in place in most NFL cities and you should expect less from the backs you roster in 2020. But that doesn’t mean you don’t give this position the attention it deserves. RB is the position that matters most in fantasy football. And there is a short supply of impact running backs, so do your homework before draft night.

Thomas L. Seltzer, AKA Doubting Thomas, is on Twitter. Follow @ThomasLSeltzer1.

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