by Nick Ercolano
February 05, 2019
The BDGE early running back rankings for 2019 fantasy football lie beneath this opening like a devout, virgin Catholic woman on her wedding night lies underneath her husband unaware of positions outside of missionary.
Todd Gurley seems like a no-brainer at 1 after finishing as the top fantasy RB on a PPG basis in each of the last two seasons, but goddam goddam it's gonna be hard to fade Saquon Barkley at 1, given he's already the best running back in the history of the NFL. In fantasy PPG, Gurley was a full 3.1 FPPG better than Barkley. He finished with 1,831 YFS (131/game) and would've crushed 2,000 for the 2nd straight year if he played the full slate, but the TD numbers were what did it again from him. 21 total TDs for Gurley this year, 1.5/game, insanity. And those aren't fluky behind the Rams offensive line, who led by Andrew Whitworth, ranked as the NFL's #1 run-blocking line by both PFF and FO's, a year after being top-5 by both platforms as well. Gurley dominates GL touches which is what makes him so valuable. Alotta y'all getting hyped about C.J. Anderson, but you have to understand that anyone in that offense is going to be an elite fantasy RB. Unless they go out and say they want to limit Gurley's touches, have him well rested for the playoffs and sign a solid pass-catching back, which there are a few on the market like T.J. Yeldon, Gurley is a lock to finish as a top-3 fantasy RB again with 20+ TD upside again.
However, if I have the number one pick in more than one draft, I'll split the difference. Gurley in one, Baequon in another. Simply put, if he did what he did in 2018, in a bad offense, with Eli, behind the 26th ranked RB-ing line (per FO's) as a ROOKIE, imagine what he does when even a fraction of that equation gets upgraded. The way I look at it is this. Barkley is the best running back in the NFL. When all is said and done with his career, whichever season goes down as his best statistical season is going to be earth-shattering, easily a fantasy league-winning year & I'm not sure I want to risk fading that. After picking David Johnson a lot in the first last year, my brain is telling me to be a bit more risk-averse which says Gurley over DJ at pick 1.
I think you can make an argument for any of the next four running backs from slots 3-6, and it'll come down to your league's scoring type. You gonna fade Christian McCaffrey in full PPR? Like I fade $1 margarita month at Applebees. He's the 1.03. In 0.5 ppr, which is the only league setting we acknowledge, I'm likely grabbing Ezekiel Elliott here at 1.03. After scoring 25 tugs in 25 games to start his career, Zeke's TD rate dipped a bit totaling only 9 in 2018. This was due to a slow start by the team which did a complete 180 spin, much like me after $1 margs at Applebees, after they acquired Amari Cooper.
The offense transformed, as did Zeke's production over the second half of the year. Starting in Week 10, he caught a minimum of 5 passes in every, and over the last 8 games he was averaging a ridiculous 150+ YFS/game. Pacing out his 2H of the season numbers to a full 16 games and you're looking at:
Beating both Gurley and Saquon this year.
The big difference maker was his involvement in the passing game. If that continues, where I don't see why it won't, he's every bit the elite fantasy RB as Gurley/Saquon.
The other thing to take into consideration for Zeke is the offensive line. They've had the elite run-blocking line for the last few years, but they health was a big concern this year. They had all-pro guard Zack Martin miss a few games and deal with a lingering knee injury, and Travis Frederick arguably the league's best center missed all of 2018, his backup Joe Looney, was the 32nd graded C per PFF this year. The o-line still finished as FO's 8th best RBing line and PFF's 13th best. Frederick is reportedly expecting to return for 2019, which we should probably take with a grain of slate, but if it's true, it's a monster upgrade for the line and Zeke.
A battle of riches is what fantasy drafters are left with at the 1.04, deciding between Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara, finishing as fantasy's RB3 and RB4 in 2018, respectively.
I'm likely leaning C-Mac after showing phenomenal durability finishing with 326 touches despite his smaller frame. His 107 receptions was an NFL record for a RB, and what that does is minimize the wear and tear on his body. He played on 91% of the Panthers offensive snaps this year, compared to just 70% from 2017. And he received 95% of the Panthers RB touches this year, despite not really playing in Week 17. Most importantly was his involvement near the tuddy zone. The Panthers "running back" finished 4th in the NFL with 46 RZ carries, 5th with 29 10Z carries, and 7th with 12 GL carries. It's too much talent and volume to pass up.
Kamara certainly makes it tough though. In one of the best offenses, behind an elite offensive line, Kamara balled in his second season, topping his 13-TD rookie mark by adding an extra five scores. He hit 80+ receptions again, which seems to be a lock YoY given how they use him in this offense all over the field, but the big variable here is what happens with Mark Ingram. He's an UFA this summer, so do they resign him? That is the million dollar question. Kamara was by no means bad when Ingram returns, but the splits were staggering:
He still gave you that 30-point upside any given Sunday, but the floor took a hit. His play time obviously did too, his snap % dropping from 82% down to 60% with the return of Ingram.
Will they resign their backup RB? We know the two sides have had issues, Ingram says he wants to stay in NO, but I doubt they pay him the money he might be able to get elsewhere. He's been in the league for a while, but just like that one cheap ass friend from high school that never wanted to be the one to drive anywhere, Ingram really doesn't have too much tread on the tires, I bet a team is willing to let him be their guy since he can do it all.
Melvin Gordon slides in at the 1.06. He's just as good of a fantasy option as these other guys and was actually better on a per game basis in 2018, but that's the problem in my eyes. He's now dealt with multi-week injuries in 3-of-4 NFL seasons, two games his rookie year, three his sophomore, played in full in 2017, then missed four in 2018. The underlying problem here is that yeah, maybe you miss 3 or 4 games, but you also have to think, the games that sandwich those 3 or 4 missed games. He likely left the game early and hurt your fantasy team and when players return from multi-week injuries, they're productivity and usage decreases:
SportsInjuryPredictor.com (which I've found to be creepily accurate over the years):
I feel like fuckin airport security, repeating myself, "laptop out of the bags, shoes off" -- "this pick is tough", "this pick could go either way" buttfuck mane, it is!!!! At pick 1.07, I'm rolling with the Browns starting RB, Nick Chubb, who dominated that backfield once Carlos Hyde was traded to the Jaguars. From when he was handed the starting job in Week 7 through the rest of the regular season, Chubb's 797 rushing yards trailed only Zeke for the NFL lead. What concerns me about Chubb is his involvement in the passing game. He had just a 6.5% target share at Georgia and had a combined 13 catches over his last 34 games for the Bulldogs. When he took over as the starter in Cleveland, he caught only 20 passes over the final 10 games. It's very hard to succeed in fantasy football without catching around 40 or more passes. Chubb does have a lot of things working in his favor. A full summer preparing as the starter, with Baker Mayfield under center, Freddie Kitchens taking over as the HC and Todd Monkgawd as OC. I absolutely love Cleveland's offensive setup in 2019. I expect the game script in the majority of the games to keep Chubb on the field, which would be phenomenal considering how good he was running the ball last year. Chubb finished the year as the single most elusive running back in the NFL per PFF and the 2nd highest grade overall behind only Melvin Gordon. He's a 90th % and up athlete in WASS, burst, strength and SPARQ.
Chubb finished 4 rushing yards shy of 1,000 despite seeing a total of 16 rush attempts through their first six games. Starting in Week 7, Chubby went full SALUTE. From that point until the end of the fantasy season, Chubb's NFL ranks:
Aka, he's good. What else I noticed was:
If Kitchens uses him like he did last year, 2x as much in the slot/wide, half as much in the backfield, Chubb can stay on the field with Duke and both can be involved in the passing game. It's not one of the other.
James Conner scares me. He scares me like a spicy chick fil a sandwich scares me. I am NOT good with spicy foods. There is a very low floor for me when it comes to this food. But if it's just a kick of spice, this could be a game changer. Enter James Conner stage left. He scares me in that his range of outcomes is all over the place. He has the chick fil a chicken sandwich ceiling, but if he's too spicy, and gets hurt, you're left hungry and unfed. Conner was undoubtedly the workhorse for Pittsburgh in 2018 thanks to Le'Veon Bell's $14-million vacation. If the Steelers commit to Conner as their horse in 2019, and he stays healthy, you're getting a legitimate fantasy stud and RB1. However, I see a couple of red flags with Conner. One is his health. His tore his MCL in 2017 leading to missing the last four games of the season, then dealt with lower leg/concussion injuries in 2018 which forced him to miss another three. His injury history during his time in the NFL is at least a minor concern, in my opinion. Second, do we see the Steelers split backfield work in 2019, instead of giving Conner 90% of the snaps/touches like they did this year? Jaylen Samuels filled in pretty well for Conner when he missed the three-game stretch, and when Conner returned in Week 17, Samuels out-targeted (8) and out-caught (7) Conner (3-3). Do we see Samuels' receiving role expand in 2018? My thinking is yes, and that's because of a certain coaching move they just made:
Conner isn't that great of a running back, if we're being honest. He does have some highlight real plays for sure, but in terms of creating yards, elusiveness, making guys miss, eh. That was what I saw when I watched so I wanted to confirm, and his yards created per carry (PP) ranked 38th among RBs, his PFF rushing grade was 26th, 26th in YAC and 20th in tackles evaded/attempt (PFF).
So if Conner isn't used as the full-time back in PIT, I worry he could wind up as an RB2 with big time, but busty games in 2019.
Joe Mixon broke out in 2018. He played in just as many games this year (14) as he did in 2017, but saw a major spike in every major statistical category: 280 touches, 1,464 YFS, 9 TDs, finishing as fantasy's RB9. He looked like a meatball in 2018. He dropped some weight and became way more explosive and shifty, resulting in his 4.9 ypc, which ranked 7th among 31 RBs with at least 140 carries. Mixon had 20 carries of 15+ yards on the year too, 2nd in the NFL.
He showed good consistency throughout the year, and exploded down the stretch averaging 21.3 touches and 117.1 YFS/game, scoring 3 times over the last six weeks, fantasy's RB6.
I do of course have my concerns, I'll lay out the big facts for every one of these players. Both the good and bad, unbiased for y'all.
Their offensive line is still really bad, it barely improved in 2018:
I'm also not sure what to make of their coaching moves. I'm happy that Extra Medium Marvin is out of CINCY, but we have a former WRs assistant coach/QB coach taking over as HC and another QB coach as OC. Regardless, their offense was stagnant af:
The Bengals went from 32nd in the NFL in total offensive plays to 27th in 2018, an increase of just 11 plays. Per FO's, Cincy ranked 31st in total TOP as an offense, 30th in YPD and 28th in PPD. It can't get much worse. Mixon is a high-floor, high-ceiling player that I'd love to grab in the second round of drafts. We'll see what happens with Gio who is an UFA this summer. If they can get Mixon more involved in the passing game, he may very well finish as a top-5 fantasy back, both the new HC and OC come from offenses (LAR/OAK) that use their RB in the passing game pretty heavily, so we'll have to see.
I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't going to biasly put David Johnson at like RB39 after this year, but I guess for a specimen like himself, there's nowhere to go but up, or so I've been told.... 2018 was a year to forget, and DJ might honestly forget it just by default, he might actually have CTE from the amount of times they slammed him up the middle on 1st and 10. Getting rid of Bruce Arians and bringing on the combination of Steve Wilks/Mike McCoy proved to be possibly the worst hire in the history of professional football. We take a look at the chart above, Arizona went from running the 5th most (1,059) plays in the NFL in 2017 to dead last (902) in 2018, partly due to the pace of the offense, ranking 19th in pace (seconds b/w plays - FO's) in neutral situations, and dead last in when trailing by a TD or more. Why tf are you taking your sweet time when you're getting your ass kicked.
Many of the concerns about David Johnson entering 2018 will still manifest into his 2019 fantasy outlook. Shaky offensive line, if we're being generous. They ranked 25th in RBing, 26th in PBing per FO's, 20th and 32nd respectively, per PFF.
I mean, not a single player on their line inside the top-32 at their position. That's hard to do if you tried.
The Cardinals do have the 11th most cap space available and obviously the 1st overall pick this year, along with a pick in each round, so that should be something they address right off the bat.
The QB situation is another concern. Rosen was terrible in 2017. But if you're going to give DJ a pass, you have to at least give the former Bruin something, too considering their pass-blocking was arguably the worst in the league and he had little to work with in terms of weapons; a geriatric Fitzgerald, a rookie in Kirk for half the year and a DJ that was criminally used.
Obviously, any optimism for a DJ bounce back stems from Kliff Kingsbury coming in as the new HC. I talked in depth about Kingsbury, as well as the rest of the coaching hires this year and their impacts on the team in depth in a video last week, which I'll link here and at the end of the video so go watch that afterwards. So, what do we get from DJ with Kliffy manning the team? I listened to one of the FFBallers podcasts last week, and I believe Jason Moore, who is coming on the channel sometime this month so stay tuned for that read off this stat that he got from PFF:
"Since 2014, Kliff Kingsbury's RBs have received 372 targets (6th most in NCAA) 293 catches (6th), 2,551 receiving yards (5th)." Love to hear that. DJ finished as the RB10 in fantasy, so you want to say, oh not that bad, but he had half of his games go for fewer than 12 (half PPR) FPs, which is terrible. I will think about him in the late 2nd, early 3rd, but I'd prefer Mixon or a top-WR in the early/mid 2nd to him at this time.
As far as I'm concerned, Dalvin Cook is Melvin Gordon lite. He doesn't have the track record, and the injury concern is the only red flag. But, Cook can do it all. He's one of the few RBs in fantasy that has the 3-down skillset and talent to battle for the fantasy RB1 throne. His injury concerns have been far worse than Gordon's, however. Cook's missed 17-of-32 possible career games. But when he's fully healthy, he's a monster. I.E. the first four games of his rookie year before tearing his ACL, he averaged over 21 touches, 111 YFS and scored twice. One he was finally healthy in 2018, down the stretch, becoming fantasy's RB6 over the last five weeks of the season. Small sample sizes are usually where potential goes to die and I tend to stay away. But I also like this:
This team is going to be GROUND-HEAVY between Zimmer and Stefanksi. So, again, it comes back to his health. If he's healthy, you likely got a steal in Cook wherever you took him. But he's not someone I'm actively looking to take as my RB1. I'll take him in one of my leagues, but not all of them.
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