by Nick Ercolano
July 30, 2019
Running bykes are the HEART and soul of every fantasy football team. Wide receivers are fun and safe and you might even pretend like they're going to win you your fantasy championship, but my mans, this ain't it. Running backs are it. There are a few guys I'm looking at this year that I will be targeting, and looking to own in EVERY single fantasy football season-long draft. I've had one so far, the #SFB9, and I own them.
So we check off almost everything here. There’s no more enviable position for a fantasy running back then the one Marlon Mack finds himself in entering 2019. The Colts offensive line, which was an absolute liability just two years ago, has transformed itself like Caitlyn Jenner in just one year. Indy now boasts a truly elite offensive line from both a passing (went from most sacks allowed in 2017 to least allowed in 2018) and rushing vantage point. Even if you don’t think Mack is a phenomenal running back, the line will take him the rest of the way. Let’s not forget to mention he’s playing behind a top-5 quarterback in the NFL, who, while not 100% healthy for a quarter of the season, led this Colts offense to a top-5 scoring finish (27.1 PPG). The number of goal-line opportunities Mack is in store for in 2019 is going criminally underrated. He’s the Davante Adams of running backs, with a floor of double-digit rushing scores.
So, it’s all gravy – why the hesitation on Mack from fantasy football drafters? His name is Nyheim Hines and it’s the least intimidating thing I’ve heard since Nam. Hines was the “pass-catcher” out of Indy’s backfield in 2018, I won’t argue that, but the far majority of his work came in those games in which Mack was sidelined (hamstring).
Hines was only averaging 3.9 targets/game when Mack played. If Mack was healthy, are we looking at Hines as 55-60 target back? Mack also isn’t a scrub in the passing game, his college target share was in the 76th percentile…. And at that point, we’re not as concerned with Hines as being real competition. And as I mentioned, in their two playoff games, Hines didn’t’ receive a single target…
The question of Mack being game-scripted out is the only legitimate argument I’ve heard against Mack, and to that I say… how many games do you expect the Colts to lose in 2019? 6, maybe? Vegas has their over/under for wins at 10. And of those 6, do you think there will be any games that they’re getting blown out? It’s highly unlikely, which makes me feel very, very good about Mack.
Here's the point I'm trying to get across. If you take Marlon Mack's rushing stats from the 12 games he played in 2018 (195-908-9) and pace them out to a full 16 games, while giving him ZERO's across all receiving categories, Mack finishes as the fantasy RB14. If you exclude the two games he was returning from an injury and only played like 30% of the snaps, he's a top-12 fantasy back, just off rushing numbers. I literally calculated 0 rec. numbers for this. Point is, the rushing production that's going to come from him in this backfield is well worth the wherever you pick him. If you told me that he's going to catch 40-50 passes in 2019, he's a top 6 fantasy RB.
I think at the end of the day, when we look back at this Colts backfield what can you really see happening? Jordan Wilkins forced a timeshare with Mack? No shot. Worst case, Hines ate up pass-catching duties. Everything we've heard from INDY camp has one, been from the GM or the coaches mouth saying that Mack is the guy, 2. backed up by their actions - not selecting an RB in the draft, not taking on anyone of significance in free agency. Yes, Spencer Ware came on, and he's literally nothing to worry about, he's far more likely to lose the camp battle to Jordan Wilkins and get cut then he is stealing work from Mack, you can take that ish straight to the bank.
Became the starter in Week 7 and was one of the league's best running backs. From that point forward, he was 6th in the NFL in rushing yards (848), while forcing the single most missed tackles (38). That doesn't include his Week 4 game where he was given THREE carries, took two of them two the crib for 105 yards. Imagine how bad of a coach you have to be to leave him on the bench for the next three weeks lol. On the season he had PFF's 2nd highest rushing grade only behind Melvin Gordon, and the singles-highest elusive grade of any back with more than 60 carries and the single-highest yards after contact rate among all NFL backs. He had 4 runs of 40+ yards last year, top-10 in breakaway runs, like this guy is just a massive, best of a big play machine waiting to happen. That made no fuckin sense but y'all get the point.
We know he has the size, we know he has the speed that we look for in an upper echelon, workhorse NFL back
The concern on people's mind is two-fold: will he catch passes now and what about Kareem Hunt? The backfield is messy, but we know this for certain - Kareem Hunt won't be back on the field until the earliest Week 10 - assuming he doesn't do something dumb off-the-field by then.
Pass-catching it's a concern for sure. Over their last 8 games last year, Chubb caught 20 passes, on 27 targets. Double that for 16 games, if you're giving me 40 receptions from Chubb along with his groundwork - I'm all in. Duke Johnson was still very much there while that receiving pace was there for Chubb, so there's no reason to assume Chubb won't finish flirting with that 40-catch mark. The other thing to note, Freddie Kitchens took over after Hue and Haley were let go following their loss to Pittsburgh in Week 8.
It's clear they didn't want to use Duke as a pure running back as much. Why would you with Nick Chubb there. Meaning, Duke, even if he still is a big part of this offense is going to play more slot/out wide with Chubb operating primarily out of the backfield. Once Chubb took over as the starter in Week 7, he commanded over 76% of the Browns running back touches. That's a significant number, any increase there would throw him into the elite RB conversation for fantasy purposes. Even if you don't believe that he'll be involved in the passing game, I mean the floor that he gives you from a rushing perspective is massive - 18, 18, 22, 20, 28, 20, 19. those are carry totals over the second of the year. And the big piece here is that with the homerun ability he gives you, like he's as good of a bet to breakaway on a 60 yard run as any back in the NFL, so the more carries you give him the better chance he has to take one to the house - he was 3rd in the NFL last year in % of his carries to go for 40+ yards.
Kareem Hunt, though. Guys you gotta stop thinking 10 weeks ahead, it's not how you win fantasy leagues. So much can happen between now and then. We already know Duke wants to be traded. This was just a fantastic business move by the Browns, getting a quality running back for $1M... they ate the PR bullshit that came along with it, people are over it, and now they have their depth. If Duke gets moved, we're going to be looking at this Hunt signing as a genius move. Hunt can step in and contribute immediately in the receiving game. Hunt isn't there to compete for the starting running back role in 2019, it ain't happening. By Week 10, Chubb is already going to be tearing up the NFL - you don't just fuck that up. You just don't.
The Browns will obviously be a much better offense and team this year, leading to fewer game scripts, not in favor or Chubb. I'm all in on his talent, on his opportunity and him in the 2nd or 3rd round - give me that all day.
He's going to be a consensus top-10 pick next year in fantasy drafts, if not top-5 no doubt in my mind.
Ironically, Penny wasn’t a guy I loved coming out of college last year, at least not anywhere near PFF’s unsettling love for him (and Ronald Jones). PFF basically touted the Seahawks 1st rounder as the greatest running back of all time by May. Okay, enough of that, apologies. Altogether, Penny was pretty solid during his rookie year, when he was on the field, at least. Appearing in 12 games, Penny ran the ball 85 times for 419 yards (4.9 ypc). The 4.9 yards per tote ranked top-12 among all NFL RBs with at least 85 carries in 2018, and his 3.5 YAC was the 5th highest rate among all RBs that also fit the criteria. More importantly for us, the rookie’s fantasy points/snap were among the 20 best running backs last year. So, I think we’ve established, that at worst, Penny is a capable, if not above average NFL-caliber running back.
The big elephant in the room here is obviously Chris Carson. Carson was a fucking monster last year. After an impressive rookie year we saw cut short, Carson bounced back to post over 1,300 YFS and 9 touchdowns in 2018. He won the starting job during camp and never looked back. I love Chris Carson, I really do. Always have, always will. I might let him impregnate my wife tbh and raise the kid as my own. But we’re talking fantasy football. Carson is the prime example of the early-mid round RB that doesn’t catch passes who has a sneaky-high risk rate. I’ve used this ADP chart a few times already this off-season:
Year after year, we see mid-round running backs bust and kill your fantasy team. Because after the, say, top-12 backs who are "workhorses" for their team, shit gets risky, and you're using a 3rd, 4th, 5th round pick on these guys. But it's usually really easy to see which guys are the terrible values here. What are the red flags. Non-pass catchers for some. The injury risk is high from others. Some are in a timeshare backfield. Chris Carson pretty much falls into all 3.
Carson caught 20 passes last year. 20. On 481 snaps. I say this often guys, we usually know who a player is coming out of college. Carson had a 4.6% college target share, 22nd percentile.
Last year, his 22 targets on Wison's 427 pass attempts... 5.1% target share. Pass-catching just isn't who he is. But Penny, was in the 75th percentile coming out of college and is much more well-rounded as a back than Penny.
Injury concerns. Going ALL the way byke. Carson was highly recruited coming out of high school and had offers to play at many schools, including Georgia. Carson tore his ACL his senior year of high school. Dealt with an ankle injury for most of 2015, and a broken thumb in 2016 that cut his senior short. He was a few picks away from going undrafted, but the Hawks took him, he started out like a beast... but ended his rookie season on injured reserve after suffering a broken ankle in Week 4. Dealt with a hip sprain last year which cost him time. Had surgery on his knee already this offseason. He's expected back for training camp, but has there ever been someone not expected back? An injury, which isn't hard to envision for Carson, puts Penny as the lead dog in an offense that runs it at the highest rate of any NFL team.
That injury concern leads us into concern #3 - the timeshare with Rashaad Penny. HC Pete Carroll came out early this offseason and told us this would be a 1-2 punch. With Carson missing time, it's been all Penny with the 1's. He was out of shape coming into last year, his conditioning was terrible, I mean can you blame him, coming out of San Diego? He's supposedly dropped that extra weight and looks fantastic so far, anytime an RB drops weight, it's a good thing.
Penny is the perfect candidate for a second-year breakout, given his workhorse size, elite weigh-adjust speed, and significant college production profile. A 76th percentile college target share lets us know he’s a capable if not above average pass-catcher. so we know he can do well in the passing game. It’s clear that the Seahawks don’t want to use Carson in the passing game and now Mike Davis is gone (112 carries, 42 targets). Between Carson, Penny and Davis, the three Hawks backs combined for a total of 522 opportunities (carries + targets). Even if Carson stays healthy, Penny is a good bet to settle north of the 200-touch mark. If the Seahawks and Wilson go just a bit more pass-heavy in 2019 as I expect them to given their off-season acquisitions and their QBs contract extension, it’ll be wheels up for Penny. You're not going to find a RB this late that has legitimate mid-high end RB1 upside, with a nice floor added in. He is a must-own 6th round running back.
There aren't any running backs, outside of like the top-8, that I feel as strongly about drafting everywhere as these first two, but I love Latavius Murray this year. Mark Ingram has averaged nearly 16.5 touches/game since Kamara entered the league. He gets a stupid number of GL looks and is involved in the passing game. Murray will get all of that behind one of the best offensive lines. If something happens to Kamara, Murray becomes an RB1 right away, but he has just as good of a chance to hit double-digit touchdowns in this offense as a large majority of the backs getting picked before him.
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