by Noah Pires
May 16, 2019
With the NFL Draft right around the corner, I figured I'd get this series out of the way (nevermind, this took longer than expected). We've already touched upon the Quarterbacks and Tight Ends, as well as the Wide Receivers, so now, it's time to finish up with the runningbacks.
JERICK MCKINNON - SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Oh how the turns have tabeled for Jerick Mckinnon. Heading into 2018, Jet was being selected as the 15th RB off the board in half PPR leagues, a far cry from his current RB30 status. Though it may seem fair due to the recent addition of Tevin Coleman, along with the emergence of Matt Breida, I believe he's a screaming value, especially in full and half PPR formats.
The last time we saw JM on the field, he was wearing purple and gold like a Priest during Advent. He split the field with Dalvin Cook for four games, which would hinder any runningback's production, and even after Cook went down with an ACL tear, the Vikings still opted to use a two-headed running attack lead by Latavius Murray. Mckinnon was outcarried by 62 rushes over that span (140 vs 202), yet dominated the receiving game, hauling in 43 of 56 targets in comparison to Murray's 13 for 15 mark. This type of production out of Mckinnon led to him finishing as the RB22 on the year, and the RB11 from Weeks 5-17 (after Cook got injured) with a 187/725/4 rushing and (75 target) 57/508/3 receiving pace over that span. I say this to say, Mckinnon doesn't need to be a bellcow back to bring top-20 production. Hell, he showed he didn't even need to be his team's first option. So long as he's the best pass-catching weapon out of the backfield, which he is in San Francisco, he's going to produce.
Contrary to popular belief, the Vikings' offense is actually not the same as the 49ers. I know, shocking, right? Therefore, I'm not going to say we should expect a carbon copy of Mckinnon's production from 2017 solely based on the fact that it's the last time we've seen him on the field; rather, let's take a look at how he will fit in the context of his (kind of) new offense.
It's not going to seem right, I know, but I'm going to be looking at a three-game sample from 2018 (weeks 1-3) and five games in 2017 (weeks 13-17). Can you guess what these games have in common. I'll give you a hint: the guy playing behind center was also getting snaps with Kiara Mia last offseason. You guessed it, Jimmy G was playing! In that eight game sample, the 49ers actually ran the ball 55% of the time, which, for a full season, would have ranked as the 6th lowest mark in 2018 tied with Da Bears and Pats. When they were throwing, though, guess where a whole lot of those passes were going? Well, in 2017, only 23% of those attempts were directed at runningbacks, slightly above league average (21% in 2017), but the 9ers ranked 5th in success rate when throwing to RBs over that span and Jimmy G clocked in with the 7th most yards per attempt to the position (7.5). These looks increased in Garoppolo's very small sample last year, peppering the runningback on 1/4 of his tosses while ranking 3rd in success rate and 2nd in yards per attempt (9.1). Simply put, he has shown he wants to utilize a receiver out of the backfield, and when he does, it's extremely effective. This may be due to Shanahan, too, as Atlanta targeted runningbacks 22% of the time in 2016, a much higher percentage than last season (15%). Mckinnon will slot in as their best receiving option out of the backfield, so he should have no trouble bringing value to the table in any kind of points per reception format.
Not only can he catch passes, he's also serviceable as a runner. To be honest, he may be the third best on his own team in this category behind Breida and Coleman, but it's not like he's a complete liability. In 2016, he posted a 26.2% juke rate (23rd best) and nearly matched it again in 2017 (23.8%, 28th best). His 3.8 YPC mark from 2017 looks terrible, but keep in mind Minnesota's offensive line was abysmal, ranking 20th in yards before contact with 1.43 (SF was 8th that year with 1.73). Even last year, the 49ers showed they were above average in run blocking, posting the 10th best adjusted line yards (4.56), which will certainly play to Jerick's benefit when he is used on the ground.
Lastly, touching on Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman. The signing of Tevin seems like huge news because he'll be reunited with Shannahan, but lest we forget he was NEVER used as their primary ball carrier nor their pass catching back during his time in the ATL? Even when Freeman was injured, it wasn't like he was dominating on the field.
Even last year, Ito Smith outcarried him in the redzone 21 to 14, and though Coleman had two more carries than Ito inside the 10, he was outscored by Smith 2:1. Both Matt Breida and Coleman accounted for roughly 1/3 of their team's rushes inside the ten last year (Breida 34.3% Coleman 37.0%) despite being their team's best back, so it's not like we should come to expect either one of them greatly outcarry Mckinnon by the endzone. In fact, Mckinnon handled 20% of Minnesota's rushes inside the 10 in 2017, which by itself doesn't seem like a lot, but keep in mind he was teammates with the bowling ball that is Latavius Murray, who had the 10th highest rush % inside the 10 that year. I'm not saying Mckinnon is a lock for these looks, far from it, but I'm tempering expectations of any one runningback becoming the de facto goal line runner.
As for Breida, don't get me wrong, I think he's awesome. He was extremely productive despite playing in this terrible offense, and I wouldn't be surprised if he has the most rush attempts on this team in 2019. If I believe this, then why am I still a fan of Mckinnon? Well both things can be true; Breida can lead the team in rushing AND Mckinnon can be serviceable. Mckinnon's production doesn't stem from his rushing abilities to begin with, and as we saw in Minnesota, he doesn't need to carry the ball 200x to be an asset. According to pro-football-reference.com, the 9ers ran the ball 423 times in 2018, 153 of which attributed to Breida. For the sake of argument, let's say he has 140 next season, which I believe is fair because although he did miss two games in 2018, he now has more competition. Alfred Morris somehow rushed the ball 111 times last season, and Tevin Coleman topped out at 167 last year despite starting 14 games, so let's meet in the middle and say he totes the rock 130 times with the Niners. These generous rushing totals would STILL leave 153 carries on the table, though I'd imagine Kyle J (I'm not attempting to spell his last name) and a few others will get peppered in there. Because of this, let's give Mckinnon 120 rushes. That's just 30 less than what he saw in his 2017 season with the Vikes, and behind an improved o-line, I'm not sure his production on these rushes will be all that far off.
I'm all in on Mckinnon at his current ADP of RB30. He's currently being taken behind his newly acquired, one-dimensional teammate Tevin Coleman (RB27), which is inexcusable. Jet has a path to touches, especially in the receiving game, despite being part of a three-headed monster, which is all you can ask for at the runningback position. Sure, he's not the bellcow everyone was hoping he could be heading into 2018, but that realization is baked into his ADP. I'd honestly have a pretty easy time deciding between JM and Derrick Henry, who is being taken as the RB20 (as of re-reading this, he is RB16 and Jerick is RB32) off the board, simply because I know Mckinnon has 50+ reception upside while also having the ability to do SOMETHING on the ground, which Henry can't do through the air. I'd place Mckinnon in the same tier as a guy like Cohen, though slightly behind, so being a middling RB3 is a great value in my eyes.
LEONARD FOURNETTE - JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
LF is a tricky one. When on the field, he's a menace. The only issue there? He's never on the field. Whether it be due to ghosting a picture day or trying to play through a hamstring injury, Fournette just can't keep his ass on the gridiron.
As I said before though, when he gets some run, there's no stopping him. Just look at this chart (from Mike Tagliere on Twitter):
Ridiculous. He's finished as a top 12 runningback in over half of his games, which is even more impressive considering he played through injuries all of 2018. On top of this, he's been a top-24 option in nearly 3/4 of his games, a mark reached by very few backs. In real life, his efficiency is a major issue, but when it comes to fantasy, this has relatively insignificant relevance simply because of the volume he handles. Just look at Melvin Gordon, who, prior to last year, had never surpassed 4.0 YPC yet finished inside the top-8 because of his volume and usage in highly valuable areas: the red zone.
In just eight games in 2018, Fournette amassed 22 red zone carries, which, when paced out to a full season (44) would have ranked behind only Todd Gurley (64!), Alvin Kamara (51), Saquon Barkley (50), and Christian McCaffrey (46). Pretty impressive considering his lingering hamstring issues and relying on an offense led by a combination of Blake Bortles and Cody Kessler to move the ball downfield. Even more valuable, though, are carries inside the five. In 2018, LF handled 10 of them, which again, paced out to 16 games, totals 20. That would have led the league (Todd Gurley led with 18), and because of his four scores on those touches, it's not unreasonable to think he could approach ~8 tugs from that distance if healthy. On top of that, with the upgrade at QB, Big Dick Nick should be able to lead the Jags into the redzone on a much more consistent basis than Blake had these past two seasons, further playing to Fournette's advantage.
Another thing to consider when projecting LF's upside is his offensive line play and what happened last season. In 2018, Jacksonville ranked 21st in adjusted line yards, no bueno. The thing is, their center, Brandon Linder, missed seven games, all-pro guard Andrew Norwell missed five, Jeremy Parnell missed three, and Cam Robinson tore his ACL, only allowing him to participate in three contests. All should be healthy and returning for 2019, except for Parnell who is no longer on the team, but with the addition of former Crimson Tide OT Jawaan Taylor through the draft, they should be fairly stout in the trenches.
Lastly, the backfield has been with ZERO depth behind Fournette. Currently, Alfred Blue, the 28 year old back who hasn't topped 500 yards since 2015, is their #2 so there should be no worries of him stealing carries there. In the draft they added Ryquell Armstead in the early 5th, an athletic back, but he topped out at 14 receptions at the college level and surpassed 1,000 yards once. Corey Grant is coming off a foot injury and is nothing more than a change of pace back, and Benny Cunningham is a new face, one which hasn't surpassed 40 touches since 2016. Fournette's ability in the redzone, between the 20s, and even an improvement in the passing game (on pace to total 44 receptions even with Yeldon still on roster) should bode well for him playing a true 3-down role, being spelled occasionally by one of the four backups who have done nothing to prove their worth in the NFL.
According to FFCalculator, Leonard is being selected as the 15th RB off the board, going in the early 3rd round. Just looking at the two RBs being selected directly behind him, Sony Michel and Derrick Henry, I'd argue Lenny has infinitely more upside due to his ability to add value in the passing game, something neither of those two backs provide. There's definitely risk baked into selecting him due to the sheer amount of lower body injuries he's suffered in the past, but if you can snag a runningback that has as good a chance as any to finish in the top 5 at the position in the late 3rd/early 4th (where he'll probably land come draft season due to fantasy players' apprehension), take some advice from Nike and Just Do It.
DEVONTA FREEMAN - ATLANTA FALCONS
Back in 2015, Freeman dropped in from the clouds, finishing as the RB1 on the year (funny enough I drafted him that year with one of my last picks and dropped him after week one. Good times had by all). Since then, he's been drafted as a top-12 runningback with little to no arguments against it, despite sharing touches with Tevin Coleman. Now, with TC in SF and Devonta fully healthy from the ailments he suffered last season, why is he being selected as the 19th RB off the board (per FFCalculator)? To be honest, I'm not sure.
The common point brought up regarding Freeman is his health concerns, but I think we again are falling victim to recency bias. During his 2015 breakout campaign, he missed one game to a concussion. Ok, I'm fine with that, everyone misses a few weeks here or there banging their head into 250 pound monsters at 20 mph. A year later, he played a full season, and in 2017, he missed two games again because of a concussion. Sure, it's not great, but missing 1-2 games for and injury 95% of runningbacks sustain on each carry isn't too much of an issue. The big concern, though, was that last season Freeman sprained his knee in week one, returned for their fifth game, and then shut it down after spraining his foot. In total, 2018 was a lost year for the former RB1. Reports said he had a shot to return later in the season, but with the Falcons having nothing to play for, they decided it would be better to play it safe and have Devonta head into 2019 with fresh legs.
Because it seems his injuries were monitored closely, I'm not all too worried about his health heading into 2019. I'm no doctor, but I'll bet on an RB who has played 14+ games in three of his past four seasons as the team's starting back. On top of that, he's just turned 27 so he's by no means old, and he isn't a small back either. Sure, he isn't tall, but his compact frame ranks him in the 74th percentile for BMI (31.3). The last point I'm going to make for Freeman's health: look at other backs being drafted well ahead of him. Todd Gurley (RB8) has torn his ACL during his time at Georgia and now has an arthritic knee. David Johnson (RB6) missed all of 2017 with a wrist injury. LeVeon Bell (RB7) has missed 15 games since 2015 (not counting last season) and sat out a full year. Dalvin Cook (RB11) has missed more games (17) than he has played (15) since entering the NFL with both a hamstring strain and ACL tear. Leonard Fournette (RB15) has missed 11 games in the past two years and was regularly injured throughout his collegiate career at LSU. Lastly, Sony Michel (RB18) missed three games but was limited in others, has torn his ACL, and strained his knee three times since 2017. I say all this to say, if you're going to shit on Freeman for being injury prone and you don't want to risk a 4th rounder on him because of it, then logically, you shouldn't feel comfortable taking any of these guys. It's not like DF is significantly older than the men listed previously, in fact, he's younger than both DJ and Bell and is only three years separated from the youngest back in the group (Dalvin Cook, almost 24).
Now that we have those injury concerns (somewhat) behind us, what is it that makes me like Freeman going into 2019? Obviously, Tevin Coleman is gone who occupied ~165 touches/year when splitting time with Freeman. They didn't add a back of note through the draft (Qadreee Ollison in round 5) but I don't expect Devonta to absorb all of these touches. Many will go Ito Smith's way, a back who proved to be serviceable on the ground and through the air during his rookie campaign, and the scraps will be handed to Ollison. With the backs they have currently, Freeman is clearly the #1 with an ability to play on all three downs and produce in the redzone. Even when Coleman was there, DF dominated touches inside the 20, outcarrying Coleman 34-23 from that range in 2017 and 14-6 from inside the five. In 2018, the Falcons rushed 52 times inside the 20, down from 70 the year prior, but although their offense may not be as potent as it once was (which may well change with Koetter calling the plays), Freeman being the clearcut goal line runner should more than make up for the lack of total volume.
As for the new OC in Atlanta, Dirk Koetter. Common belief is that he's only concerned with throwing the ball, but I'm not sure that's completely true. Don't forget that Tampa also had Todd Monken as their OC since 2016, so that pass-happy approach could be attributed to him (or because of their poor RB play after Doug Martin's second peak). The last time Koetter was an OC was in 2015 for the Bucs, a season where they passed just 54% of the time. That would have ranked as the 4th lowest percentage this past season. It was Jameis' first season and Doug Martin rushed for 1,400 yards, a combination that would typically lead to a run-heavy approach, but it isn't unreasonable that if Koetter sees Freeman is a different beast from what he's had at his disposal in the backfield recently, he'll feed him the touches he deserves.
Lastly, Devonta is just good. His fantasy finishes from 2015-2017 were RB1, RB6, and RB13 (RB11 on PPG basis not counting Dalvin Cook who played just four games) all while being spelled by Tevin Coleman. Sure, he likely won't be a 300-touch workhorse, but he doesn't need to be to return value. He was the RB13 on just 232 touches, a total which seems in the cards so long as he doesn't go down with an injury. With his fourth round ADP, I'm all in on Freeman and would be much more comfortable grabbing him ahead of Sony Michel (RB18), Derrick Henry (RB16), and would put him in the same tier as Leonard Fournette (RB15).
AARON JONES - GREEN BAY PACKERS
The common theme for this article thus far is not only my opinions on these players returning from injury, but also my belief that their ADP is far too low. This isn't exactly the case for Jones, who I do think is a fantastic runningback. Currently being taken off the board at RB17, I'm not too sure I'd put him ahead of any one back listed ahead of him (alright you got me, I still would choose him over Henry). That's not to say I don't like the guy, I do, but it's hard to see a situation where he becomes a workhorse back in 2019.
The main issue I have is with their new HC, Matt LeFleur. Sound familiar? He's the guy who played Dion Lewis and Derrick Henry in a complete timeshare all season up until about week 15 where DH finally earned over 50% of the snaps from there on out. It only came after his 238 yard and four TD performance against a solid Jaguars defense for Henry to supplant the equally unimpressive Dion Lewis. Now, LaFleur has said he envisions a RBBC in Green Bay, which, if true, certainly caps Jones' upside. I'm not sure Williams is better than Jones in any facet of the game, surprisingly even the redzone where Jones found paydirt three more times than Williams on just four more touches, despite his smaller frame. If Matty realizes this sooner rather than later, as a reasonably smart person, he should lean heavier on AJ than J Dub.
As for Jones' ability on the field, he's simply incredible. He finished as an RB2 or better in seven of 12 games last season and finished inside the top-15 five times. After their week seven bye, he supplanted Jamaal for lead-back duties, and from then on, was one pace for a 222/1,216/16 rushing line and 50/233/2 through the air (not counting the game he left injured). From that point forward his lowest weekly finish was WR28 and averaged 19.7 fantasy points per game, which would have ranked him as the RB5 on the year. Running behind one of the league's best lines (every lineman graded out as "average" or better on PFF [3/5 were "above average"]), I'm not concerned about a dip in efficiency from Jones. He averaged 5.1 true yards per carry (per PlayerProfiler) which ranked 4th in the NFL and his 5.9 yards per touch also landed him inside the top-10 at the position (9th), so if the Packers decide not to run him into the ground, these numbers are certainly attainable.
Along with his efficiency and OL play, the Packers have made some valuable additions this offseason. Not only did they spend their two first round picks on defensive players (Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage Jr.), they also added Adrian Amos (PFF #8 Safety), Preston Smith (PFF #19 Edge), and Za'Darius Smith (PFF #33 Edge, #15 Pass Rush Edge). With an improved defense filled with young studs, the Cheeseheads may not be playing from behind as often as they did this past season, a scenario which led to them being the pass-heaviest team in the league. The combination of a solid defense and strong line will certainly bode well for Jones, especially if he tells LeFleur to fuck off and cements himself as the #1 back.
Right now, the only cause for concern is that Jones splits duties with Williams. Though this seems like an issue, I believe cream always rises to the top, even when LeFleur is holding the mug. They also brought in rookie Dexter Williams out of Pittsburgh, but he isn't a pass-catcher, was selected in the 6th round, and never topped the century mark during his four years in college. I'm not worried one bit. Where Jones is being drafted now is a fair spot, but if he starts to fall down draft boards come August (for no reason outside of recency bias), just remember, the kid can ball and is in a great situation to do so.
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