League Winners: Running Back Edition
I did a WR Edition last week which you can check out here. This week it’s the running backs. These are the players that have the talent, opportunity and underrated value to be potential league winners. I suggest buying or picking up these running backs while they are being incorrectly valued for the rest of the season due to a slow start or an injury. Some of them will emerge very soon. It’s unlikely all of these guys end up reaching their ceiling but running backs are hard to come by and finding a hidden gem could be season altering. Some of these guys will be widely owned (especially Kerryon Johnson who had a very important game last week and I wish I did this article a week sooner). I offered some usage stats for Kerryon Johnson and Sony Michel. The other backs have only played at most one game so far and I don’t think that first game tells us much. Aaron Jones and Marlon Mack were just being eased in and didn’t get many carries. Numbers are based on standard scoring and usage stats are provided courtesy of Football Outsiders.
D’Onta Foreman (HOU)
Ceiling: Weak RB2
The only little known and little owned player on this list. The waiver wire should be incredibly thin in most leagues at this point. Few running backs show any sign of emerging barring injury. Part of that is due to an increase in stashing high upside RBs with league winning potential. Kamara has brought a great awareness to this late season breakout phenomenon. I see many players on fantasy radars that might be otherwise ignored in previous seasons. One name I have rarely seen brought up if at all is D’Onta Foreman. Foreman is an easy back to forget as he is part of a one of the best running back classes in recent memory. Foreman also injured himself last year and has not practiced a single day yet this year. Foreman is a talented running back that is in what I expect to be an above average offense that has great field stretching weapons. Foreman will have to run behind a poor run blocking unit and he has Lamar Miller to compete with, but I would not be surprised if he split carries or even surpassed Miller on the depth chart. Miller is perennially a solid player but Foreman could offer the late season energy needed to push the Texans to a playoff berth. Lamar Miller is as reliable a workhorse as you can find in the NFL but he doesn’t offer much in the way of big plays. He’s not a major difference maker. His production is definitely replaceable if a more talented back comes along. I think Foreman might be that guy.
As a result, I wouldn’t find it egregious for D’Onta Foreman to pass Lamar Miller on the depth chart, at least on 1st and 2nd down (Miller is a better 3rd down back). Foreman reminds me of Alex Collins and I could see a similar impact. Foreman has a great frame to sustain the amount of hits that he will receive behind the poor Texans offensive line and his speed and great footwork will help him gain yards after contact. He has the type of talent that could potentially be league winning and I would strongly put him on your radar. Foreman is currently on the PUP list and I don’t expect him to get going immediately. I would consider adding him around Week 6 before it is announced that he will return. If you are in deeper leagues, I would definitely say he is worth the add as soon as possible. I guarantee most league mates have forgot he existed.
Marlon Mack (IND)
Ceiling: Weak RB2
It seems that the injuries to Marlon Mack have made him lose a significant amount of the hype he was getting at the end of last year. Mack was very impressive nonetheless, showcasing great big-play ability in 2017. Mack has a nasty stiff arm, has good speed, is very shifty, and has excellent burst to turn a corner in a heartbeat. The biggest downside to Mack’s game is very questionable power and the fact that he rarely breaks tackles. The upside for Mack is he causes many people to miss tackles. For the most part, his big play potential and his receiving abilities make up for the deficiencies in his power. In terms of his situation, Marlon Mack is in a good spot for fantasy purposes. He plays in an above average offense that has the makings of a great offensive line. Quenton Nelson especially is a fantastic talent and he should be a superb run blocker right out of the gate. Mack is a capable pass catcher and the offense doesn’t have a plethora of options so I would garner he might be able to get some targets as well. Another plus for Mack is the defense. The Colts were expected to have one of the worst defenses in the league but they surprisingly have performed very well against the Bengals, Redskins and Eagles. The defense has a very long way to go but it’s comforting to at least know it won’t be bad. With the defense making more stops, this makes this offense a lot more balanced and Luck won’t have to throw 40 passes a game to win anymore.
The only significant worry I have about Mack is his competition. For rushing downs, Mack has Jordan Wilkins nipping at his heels. In my opinion, Marlon Mack is a better rusher than Wilkins. For passing downs, I worry that Wilkins or Hines could take the third down role from Mack, as they are both capable receiving backs as well. If Mack can cement himself as the best rusher, there might not be a reason to take him off the field. Overall, Marlon Mack is an impressive young running back and I would buy him while his stock is very low. Once he properly returns from injury, I think he will lead the backfield. I would have less confidence in Mack breaking out if there is evidence that he won’t receive passing down work but I personally think he is the best rusher on his team and as a result will be a valuable fantasy asset.
Aaron Jones (GB)
Aaron Jones is returning from suspension and I expect him to take off in a few weeks once he gets acclimated to playing again. Aaron Jones is a running back with the vision, burst and big play capabilities to be an effective starter in the NFL. Aaron Jones ran very well last year and was able to maintain a 5.5 YPC average in 81 rushes. He is no doubt a talented rusher and a lot better than Jamaal Williams in that department. Jones is also part of a Rodgers led offense. The Packers offense isn’t as potent as it used to be but there is always very little worry about the Packers passing game and offensive line. Every year Rodgers is on the field, the passing game is a strength. No one is going to be stacking the box and few defenses are going to be able to terrorize this offensive line.
The biggest problem with Jones is his deficiencies result in him needing to be in a committee. His two biggest weaknesses are his tackle breaking in short yardage situations and his poor third down abilities. As a result, Jamaal Williams and/or Ty Montgomery will have to be involved in those situations. Regardless, Aaron Jones is an explosive rusher that should see the majority of the two-down work soon. He is a talented enough rusher that even a sharing of touchdowns and limited receiving work will see him have solid value. He doesn’t have the upside of the players below but he is still a talented player that could return low end RB2 value at a modest price. Last year, he was putting up RB2 numbers for a few games even without Aaron Rodgers. I would try to buy Aaron Jones before it’s too late.
Kerryon Johnson (DET)
Ceiling: Strong RB2
Touches (Week 1 / 2 / 3): 8 / 13 / 18
RB Touch Percentage: 36% / 40% / 48%
Snaps: 16 / 36 / 33
RB Snap Percentage: 23% / 44% / 41%
My favorite breakout pick from a talent standpoint. Kerryon Johnson is a special talent. I love Johnson and he is a on every single fantasy team I have. I highly suggest trading for Johnson now before he takes control of the Lions backfield. I don’t expect Blount to be a problem much longer and Johnson is just as talented a pass catcher as Riddick. Johnson is a great talent that excels at using his vision to find open holes and his burst to get through them. He has awesome one cut moves in the open field. His patient running style is similar to that of Le’Veon Bell at the first level. He’s a very talented pass catcher and has great hands, ability in pass protection, and route running. Johnson also plays in an above average offense that has a great run blocking offensive line.
There are a few negatives to Johnson’s situation. First off, Johnson plays in a pass first offense that is often behind in games due to a poor defense. The Lions showed promising signs of improving their defense against the Patriots, however it should be noted Matt Patricia was most likely very well prepared for that game. The Lions simply don’t have the talent on that side of the ball to give Johnson many very favorable game scripts. Johnson is a capable pass catcher so game script isn’t a huge problem, but he has a lot of competition for targets in Marvin Jones, Golden Tate, Kenny Golladay, and even Theo Riddick. Another downside to Johnson’s situation is the Lions game schedule. After Week 8 which is around when I expect Johnson to completely have the lead back role, he has a stretch of playing the Vikings, Bears twice, and Rams in the span of 5 games. I normally don’t fret too much about matchups but that is as tough as it gets against the run. However, he does get the Cardinals and Bills in Week 14 and 15 which could be a huge boost to his value even if he has the Vikings in Week 16. The Bills and Cardinals might be the two worst teams against the run in the league this year. The last potential issue with Johnson is the fact he is on the Lions which have historically underutilized running backs. I don’t endorse this line of thinking because Johnson is the best running back they have had since Reggie Bush and that seems to be quite a one dimensional argument. Running game dependence will of course differ from coach to coach.
Johnson definitely has some obstacles to becoming a fantasy star including being in a pass first offense and having to compete with lots of competition for targets as well as his team having a poor defense (pass more). However, Johnson looks talented enough to produce regardless and a good enough offensive line to potentially be a surprise RB2 by the end of the year. Special talents find a way to produce regardless of situational factors.
Sony Michel (NE)
Ceiling: Strong RB2
Touches (Week 2 / 3): 11 / 15
RB Touch Percentage: 41% / 63%
Snaps: 13 / 23
RB Snap Percentage: 21% / 42%
I really liked Sony Michel coming out of college and he was probably my favorite running back from that class besides Saquon Barkley and Kerryon Johnson. Michel has great vision, burst, and elusiveness and actually decent power too. He is a reliable runner and I expect him to pretty easily take the lead rusher role. I have my doubts about him seizing the pass catching role because of the presence of James White, which does limit his upside. With Burkhead injured that role does have less competition, so it is possible Sony Michel gets a decent number of targets. Regardless, I expect Michel to be a valuable player and if he showcases enough as a lead back, the Pats may not have to take him off the field. The fact the Patriots used a first round pick on a skill position player tells you they see something special in Michel. Belichick very rarely does that, especially in recent years. Sony Michel is in a similar position as Kerryon Johnson, as they both play in pass first offenses that have less than stellar defenses. The poor defense for the Pats is definitely concerning but running backs have produced despite the poor defense in the past few years. There was considerable proof last year that a singular running back could be a fantasy success for the Patriots with Dion Lewis. Lewis had a great year and finished 12th in standard for running backs. I could potentially see Michel in a similar range, especially with Burkhead and Hill injured. Sony is going to get the majority of the carries and all the targets he gets is a plus. Michel is a running back to try to get before it’s too late and his value skyrockets. The touches are already there for him to blow up. The production and efficiency just hasn’t been there yet. I think it will be. If he puts it all together, Sony Michel has the highest upside on this list due to the sheer lack of competition for carries. Just be aware that owning a Patriots running back is often a frustrating endeavor.
Keep an Eye On: Phillip Lindsay (DEN), Corey Clement (PHI), Bilal Powell (NYJ) [PPR]