Predicting a Running Back Breakout
As you may or may not know, earlier this week we covered potential wide receiver breakout seasons by way of looking at historical trends for certain prospect molds. Well, we’re back at it again, but this time, taking a look at another position that brings immense value in fantasy football: runningbacks.
Sure, this position may be a bit more straightforward, as you look for those given opportunity in good offenses with solid blocking, but what about those who haven’t been unleashed yet? Those who, seemingly, are buried in the depth charts become dart throws that sometimes hit, and hit big. Just look at David Johnson. Sure, your memory may be clouded by his recent stretch of terrible performances, but he was a guy that went under everyone’s radar because a 37 year old Chris Johnson was the head of the Cardinals’ backfield, but when given the opportunity, he not only returned RB1 value, he was THE RB1. How about Alvin Kamara? Entrenched behind Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson, the chances of him every returning value were slim to none, right? Well, he went out and proved he was, and still is, a very valuable asset. There are many other examples of course, but these two I brought up both fit each of the “models” I used to try and pinpoint the next breakout back. So, without further ado, let’s find our next Alvin Kamara, shall we?
This sample, gathered from PlayerProfiler.com contains 535 backs, including those who have retired. I don’t know why, but Barry Sanders also has a profile, so he’s part of the sample as well. From this original sample, we cut it down to those who boasted a 120.3 (or greater) burst score and a 98.9 (or greater) speed score, both of which are thresholds for the 60th percentile in each respective metric. On top of that, the final filter was for those backs who were Day 1 or Day 2 picks in the NFL Draft, which means they were picked within the first three rounds. You may be wondering why I chose these parameters, and in my opinion, it’s simple. The speed score indicates whether or not the back was “fast” relative to their size, and their burst score tests their explosiveness. I’m not an NFL scout, but I think being a well above-average athlete, especially relative to your size, is important at the next level where everyone is a #freakathlete. As for the Day 1 or Day 2 pick parameter, it’s no secret that if a team spends an early pick on you as a runningback, the path to touches is generally less difficult than someone who was selected later, or not at all (unless you’re Ekeler, Lindsay, or Breida). I mean, look at Sony Michel; the guy stinks but still gets immense work because New England picked him early. Whatever. So, with these three marks, the original sample of over 500 backs was cut down to just 40.
From here, I went through and decided to see how many of these backs reached RB3, RB2, or RB1 value in their career. Now, I didn’t do it for every RB in the sample…I did it for 38 of them, and for good reason. I only marked those that have either already hit each tier (basically, if they returned RB1 value at least once) or those that, in my opinion, can’t reach a peak higher than they’ve already hit. For example, Jerick Mckinnon. He fit the model and only ever topped out as a RB2, but I included him because I don’t see him ever hitting RB1 status (R.I.P. to those who drafted him in 2018).
Now that we got that out of the way, here’s the good stuff.
Of those 38 runningbacks I included in the evaluation, 78.9% of them returned RB3 or better value at least once in their career. Not bad, not bad at all. That percentage decreased for those who eventually went on to post a top 24 campaign, but it was still an impressive mark, standing at 68.4%. Lastly, the best of the best, those who ended a year as a top 12 option at the position. Again, the percentage decreased, but it was still remarkable. 52.6%. Yup, that’s right. Over half the runningbacks that fit this criteria eventually went on top be extremely valuable fantasy assets for at least one season.
Now, I’m certainly not saying the two guys, who I haven’t named yet, that I left off the list are going to go on and become household names, but they aren’t complete dart throws. I mean, some of the backs in the sample that returned top-24 value weren’t necessarily the biggest of names at the time, whether it be Ronnie Hillman, Mike Leshoure, or Charles Sims, so even though one of these two guys I’m about to name isn’t regarded as a must-own player, that doesn’t mean he won’t ever be useful.
So, who are the masked men? Firstly, we have Miles Sanders, who already sort-of broke out. He was almost included in the sample because he was close to being a RB1 already, but since he didn’t meet the criteria of already reaching his peak/retiring, I left him out. He seems to be proving this “model” somewhat right, as he had a fantastic rookie season, and I’d argue if he was given the reigns from day one, he would’ve easily been a top-12 option this year. There really isn’t much more to say about him, as he is pricey as it is and is in a great situation, so if you have him, hold on, and if you don’t, pray someone is trying to ship him off.
Now, for the forgotten one. The only other back in this “model” that was left off, and for good reason. He goes by the name of Damien Harris, remember him? He was the Patriots’ third round pick out of Alabama, which was surprising seeing as they had selected Georgia RB Sony Michel in the first round just a year prior. On top of that, they already had James White and Rex Burkhead under contract, so the addition of a fourth back made little sense, especially with the playoff run (no pun intended) Sony had just a few months prior. Let’s take a deeper look, though.
Both White and Burkead are UFAs after the 2020 season, and Rex can be cut for only a $1mm dead cap hit. Even if he isn’t released, Burkhead has shown zero signs of consistency, health-wise, which should get Harris some run next year. As for White, he’s only 27 and a huge part of that offense, so paying him seems inevitable. Lastly, for Sony Michel, it would be an understatement to say he was garbage this year. The only person he made miss all season long were those who drafted him in the 4th round in August. Despite how terrible he looked, behind what was regarded as one of the league’s worst run-blocking lines, he still went for over 1,000 YFS. There wasn’t a semblance of efficiency for him all year, but opportunity trumped all and made him become a somewhat usable player. Now, I’m not saying Harris will just jump him on the depth chart, but why couldn’t he? I know it was just preseason and the competition isn’t nearly the same, but Harris looked legit good and he has a much more complete skillset than Michel. He boasted a 5.3% college target share, which, sure, isn’t extremely impressive, but you have to remember he was sharing the backfield with Josh Jacobs and Najee Harris while also having Jerry Jeudy, Devonta Smith, Henry Ruggs, and Jaylen Waddle catching passes. He’s not CMC or Barkley, but he’s serviceable in that facet of the game, something Michel, through two years, has shown he certainly is not.
In conclusion, do I think Harris will reach top-12 status in the near future? Maybe, maybe not, but the potential is certainly there for him to lead New England’s backfield, and for the price you have to pay to acquire him, it’s worth the shot. I’d be willing to bet, around draft time, you could flip a mid 3rd for him which is arguably a bigger risk than having someone like Harris on your team.
On top of this, though, I went through a second method of evaluation. A second “model” if you will. This one had two of the same parameters (draft capital and speed score), but I replaced the burst score with BMI. Again, I made the BMI threshold the 60th percentile (which worked out to be > 30.6), and in doing so, that sample of 535 backs was cut down to 31. Again, I went through and took out those who haven’t hit their peak yet, and only evaluated the remaining runningbacks in the sample.
Now, I’m not saying I found the secret to determining whether or not a back will be elite, but the results were promising. Of the 26 RBs that remained, a whopping 92.3% had, at lest once, returned RB3 or better value, 80.8% went on to become top-24 options, and an astounding 61.5% eventually worked their way into a top-12 finish. I’ll include both charts at the end, but to just highlight, the only two backs in this sample that never returned top-36 value were Toby Gerhart and D’Onta Foreman. Other than that, every other RB had legit value at one point or another, which is incredible. So now, again, we ask, who were those that were left out of the sample? Let’s find out.
Admittedly, I don’t have a good feeling about most of these guys. Two that haven’t really done all too much are Royce Freeman and Rashaad Penny. Freeman was jumped on the depth chart by Phillip Lindsay, the UDFA out of Colorado, and Penny never cemented a role with Chris Carson leading the charge in Seattle. Now, after a torn ACL late in the season, I’m not so sure he ever really becomes a usable piece in fantasy, at least for the foreseeable future. When he played, he looked decent on occasion, but he lacked consistency, which definitely tempers my expectations for him. As for Freeman, again, I don’t see him ever leading his own backfield as long as Lindsay is there. Sure, he could get traded or Lindsay could get hurt, but I don’t really want to invest heavily into a back that needs everything to go right for him to be relevant (obviously the same is the case for Harris, but you have to pay a lot more for Royce than you do for Damien). He did prove he isn't a zero in the passing game this season, though, so maybe if he gets traded/signed elsewhere, he could secure a job where he isn't just a change of pace to a 190 pound back.
Okay, how about some that I do believe in. Let’s start with Darrell Henderson, formerly of the Memphis Tigers and now backing up Todd Gurley. TG had a fine season, mostly propelled by his TD total. He didn’t look like his old self whatsoever, but he was able to get the job done relatively well. This doesn’t mean Henderson will never get a crack at a decent workload, though, as he’s still extremely young, and the fact that the Rams selected him as high as they did shows that they have some concern about Gurley’s longevity. He showed great burst in his limited sample this year, and although not an elite passcatcher, he caught 19 or more balls every season in college, despite competing with Tony Pollard and Anthony Miller. He will likely be less expensive to acquire than Royce, and if he can be had for anything less than an early 2020 2nd round pick, I’d jump all over it.
Second to last, someone who already sort-of broke out, but didn’t. Yes, that doesn’t make sense, but when I say the name, it will: Derrius Guice. The guy hasn’t been able to catch a break at all in his career, and his history of knee injuries doesn’t bode well for him considering it’s the Redskins’ medical staff taking care of him. When he was on the field, though, the guy was electric. He broke off a 60 yard run and 45 yard reception this year, showing he has more than enough juice to get the job done, and although he ended the year injured, what he suffered wasn’t something that will impact him to start 2020. He has a full offseason to get healthy, and after seeing what AP did in that backfield these past two years, and even glimpses of what Guice showed us when active, I have no doubts that he will, if healthy, showcase legitimate RB1 upside. I will say, though, I’m apprehensive about buying him. I’m a believer in the talent, but it’s an extremely risky investment. Then again, those who are rostering him will likely field any offer made for him due to his inability to get on the field, so you can use that to your advantage and acquire him for what may be a value. The kid’s still just 22 years old, too, so I’m far from completely writing him off at this point.
And lastly, the final player on this list. It is…drum roll please…Damien Harris, again. We already touched on him earlier, but now knowing he’s in truly elite company, I’m fully bought in.
If you want to see the charts I used to find this information, they are shown below (in the order of how I presented them in the article).