by Nick Ercolano
March 15, 2019
We started off the off-season with our three favorite wide receiver sleepers for 2019 fantasy football. Today, we're doing the same thing at the running back position. Here are our three favorite 2019 fantasy football running back sleepers.
Ironically, Penny wasn't a guy I loved coming out of college last year, at least not as much a like PFF did. They touted him as the greatest running back of all time pretty much. He was pretty solid last year for the Seahawks, when he was on the field, however. Appearing in 12 games, the former first-round pick 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 last year and his 3.5 YAC was the fifth best rate among all RBs that fit that criteria as well. His FPs/snap were top-20 among RBs as well. So, I think we've established, that at worst, Penny is capable NFL 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 impregnante 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 high-risk/bust rate. I've used this ADP chart a few times already this off-season:
These were all of the mid-round RBs from last year. The bust rate was super-high, because none of them operated on 3-downs, or their coach didn't let them. It's VERY difficult to succeed as a fantasy running back in consecutive years if you're not involved on third downs. Of course it happens, and it can here with Carson, but the earlier the pick, the higher the risk and the later Penny goes, the higher the value. The way to spot running back breakouts and sleepers is by identifying good offenses with ambiguous backfields, no one has full control over it. The second running back, and sometimes even the third back are usually the way to go. Carson is currently getting drafted as RB24, pick 49 overall. Which actually isn't crazy draft capital. But wouldn't you rather take Penny in Round 8 and use that 4th/5th round pick on Cooper Kupp, Tarik Cohen, O.J. Howard all guys going behind Carson?
Why are we so afraid of Carson, because of his pass-catching. I dug deep on this one for y'all. Carson finished with 20 catches last year, despite playing on 481 offensive snaps. So, I wanted to see, since I'm claiming it's hard to produce in fantasy YoY while not having a high reception total, I broke down the big facts. I looked at the last ten years, I exported every fantasy running back over the last ten years from RotoViz. I wanted to have a cutoff, because I said I was looking at good fantasy running backs, right, so I wanted to make sure we were only looking at guys that produced, not just any fantasy running back. I put the threshold at 165 half PPR points in a season to cut down the list, because on average, over the last 10 years, the RB20 in fantasy football scored 165 half PPR FPs. So we're looking at any RB over the last 10 years that scored 165 half PPR FPs, that narrowed it down to 202 RBs. Carson caught 20 passes last year, so I narrowed it down to running backs that had scored 165 half PPR points in a season and had caught 20 passes or fewer that season, so you're talking about guys that rely on their ground game, not through the air, just like Carson. That narrowed the list down to 26 running backs over the last 10 years. I wanted to see what happened the following year, were they able to replicate their numbers? Of those 26 backs, 6 of them came in 2018 (including Carson), so we have no next year data for them, so we have a sample of 20 backs. Of the 20 backs, 15 of them had fewer FPs in Year 2 then they did in that first year. Only five backs had a better fantasy year, LaDainian Tomlinson and Cedric Benson in 2010, Michael Turner in 2011, and Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore in 2012. None in the last five years. Of the fifteen running backs that didn't replicate or improve, they fell off by an average of 81.3 fantasy points in the following year, basically half of their entire total. Not a good look for Carson.
Penny is the perfect candidate for a second-year breakout, given his size/speed/pedigree. He's shown great college production, he has workhorse size at 5'11-220, a 92nd percentile WASS, running a 4.46 at 220lbs and he had a 76th percentile college target share so we know he can do well in the passing game. Last year, Carson caught 20 passes on 481 snaps. Penny caught about half (9) on 300 fewer snaps (186). Mike Davis, J.D. McKissic and Tre Madden combined to have more than double the amount of receptions Carson had, they were the "3rd-down back". All three of them are FAs this summer.
HC Pete Carroll already came out and said he wants to use these two as the 1-2 punch in the leagues most run-heavy offense. I think Penny takes a lot of the passing-down work in 2018, and considering they ran the ball 33 times a game, even if you think Carson gets 18 carries/game, Penny can still get away with 12+ passing down work. He's their first round pick, they're going to give him a chance to compete for the starting job again this summer. That's just the way the NFL and their coaches work. If Penny can truly take 50% of the snaps, which I think is highly likely, I don't think it's long before he wins the job, and given Carson's health history, (played in 4 games in 2017 - missed multiple games in 2018), he's not a lock to stay on the field.
I love Penny as the less expensive back in Seattle's backfield.
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Freeman is in a similar situation to Penny, with a little less draft stock. Carson was a 7th round pick, played his way into a starting role. Philip Lindsay was a UDFA and earned the bigger half of this backfield. Freeman was the Broncos 3rd round pick in last year's draft, however.
Freeman shares a lot of the same physical traits as Penny.
He has workhorse size at 6'0-229, with a high college dominator rating, breakaway speed 4.54 at 229 puts him in the 86th percentile for WASS.
Just like Penny, Freeman's counterpart is going early in drafts and he's a ridiculous value much later. Lindsay is the 16th RB off the board right now, in the mid 30's. Freeman is RB36 around pick 90. A stupid gap, which will eventually close a bit.
I don't think most people realized this because Lindsay was so good running the ball and because he's smaller so you kind of assume he's a scat back and catches passes, but Lindsay only caught 35 passes which were the lowest total of catches/game (2.3) among any of the top 12 fantasy running backs in 2018.
The three variables I'm looking at here are Lindsay's season-ending injury, the completely new coaching staff and Lindsay's play down the stretch. Prior to what was called "a possible scaphoid fracture, along with ligament damage" that shortened his stellar rookie campaign, Lindsay was brutal over the last few games for the Broncos. In Weeks 14, 15 and 16, Lindsay carried the ball 38 times for 100 yards (2.6 ypc). His YPR over that span was just 5.2. I hate taking small sample sizes, but it's worth wondering if maybe his 5'7-184lb frame started to wear down after handling the load against NFL defenses. Freeman exploded in the preseason last year and everyone pretty much pronounced him a league-winner in August, but he disappointed pretty big time throughout the regular season. He led the NFL with 3 preseason rushing TDs, only upped that number to 5 in 14 regular season appearances. I do think it's worth noting that in Week 17, without Lindsay, Freeman saw 25 touches, including 8 catches on 10 targets, and went over 100 total yards. Devontae Booker is signed through 2019, he's only a $95,000 cap hit if they release him which wouldn't surprise me since it's a new system and he sucks.
But we need to look at the big facts here, and these are them:
Looking at all efficiency numbers from PFF & PlayerProfiler, it's not close. Freeman wins across the board. You'll notice one single area lindsay one in. In plays where he was in, the offensive line had the 3rd best run-blocking in the NFL. That was 33rd best for Freeman. That is extremely exclusive of running back. That right there, my friends, can be the difference on what broke right and wrong for Freeman. Does that mean he'll get better blocking, or Lindsay, worse? No, but it's a lot more likely the two are on par in 2019 which will skew the numbers back to a near even split.
The new coaching staff has no allegiance to Lindsay. We have Vic Fangio coming in as the HC, but he's purely defensive. Rich Scangarello will be running the offense. Scangarello is a guy that's been working his way up the league and through college jobs as an offensive mind for a long-time, but always having styled his offense based on Kyle Shanahan's zone-run system. He had been under Shanahan as the QB coach for the last two years in SF and was the offensive quality coach under Shanny in Atlanta back in 2015. He knows the offense and he's going to bring it to Denver. The more I read about it, the more I love the fit, especially for Freeman, who will get to pick and choose his holes, he has good vision and based around his 84th % agility score he has extremely quick feet to follow his blockers to find the hole, he's not a power run guy that's going to run in a power system that picks one hole and explodes through.
With Lindsay's injury, he's in for a huge rehab, nearly 6 months, which places him back around June. Their off-season program starts in mid-May. If he's not there, Freeman will have a chance to impress this new coaching staff.
Is James Conners the guy there in Pittsburgh? Definitely, for now. Is there room for another player in that backfield to produce? Definitely. Samuels is a pretty popular name at this point for fantasy football players because last year Yahoo let you put him in either the TE or RB slot in your lineup. That will now happen again this year. He is a running back. Currently the 93rd player off the board, RB37 on DRAFT. On a site like FantasyFootballCalculator he's like pick 167 which is fake news, obviously.
Samuels is really a jack-of-all-trades. He's a weapon. He's a bit too small to play tight end. A bit too thicc to play wide receiver. And king of big to play running back; but not too big.
6'0-225, running a 4.54 puts him in the 82nd percentile for WASS. Has good burst and agility score as well, but the main thing to point out here is the college target share, of the 97th percentile.
Jaylen Samuels is a passing-down weapon, and if there's one thing the Steelers are going to need to replace Antonio Brown with, it's just that. Samuels played a total of 39 snaps through Week 12. But with the Steelers battling injuries to Conner, Samuels stepped up in a big way. He finished the year with 26 receptions on 29 targets. Those 26 receptions are more than Lamar Miller, Mark Ingram, Chris Carson, Jordan Howard, AP, Marlon Mack, Derrick Henry, despite playing on 20.8% of the Steelers plays. Jaylen Samuels is a phenomenal pass-catcher, and if there's one facet of James Conner's game that could be improved, it's that. He's a grinder. A bully, with the potential for highlight plays. He caught 55 passes last year, but that was on 71 targets, a 13% lower catch rate than Samuels and he had 4 drops, 7th highest among RBs. In those five games down the stretch, Samuels caught 22-of-23 targets, which is a ridiculous pace. Pace it out to a full 16 and we're looking at 70 receptions. He's a great pass-catcher, in an offense losing 169 targets from man. But Samuels also has the size at 6'0, 225. And they were not afraid to use him as the workhorse when Conner was out. Week 15 versus New England, Samuels touched the ball 21 times for 172 yards. Sandwiched between an 18-touch and 15-touch game. The last game of the year, when Conner returned from his injury, Samuels operated as the passing-down back, catching 7-of-8 passes. Is that the split we see in 2019?
The other really interesting note here is who Pittsburgh brought in on their coaching staff. They hire a guy named. Eddie Faulkner to be their running backs coach. Prior to joining the Steelers, Faulkner spent six years, 2013-18, at North Carolina State University as the school’s tight ends/fullbacks/special team coordinator. Guess where Jaylen Samuels went to school and played running back/tight end? North Carolina State University.
If there is anyone that knows how to use, and will advocate for the use of Samuels, it's literally this guy. You couldn't name a better person on planet earth.
With Samuels, I see a guy with a passing-down role in an offense that uses their running backs in the passing game a ton. On a team that is losing a lot of targets. He's a great pass-catcher, but he's different because he's not the size of James White, or Gio Bernard, or Tarik Cohen. He's 6'0-225. If something were to happen to James Conner, how has missed at least 3 games in each of his two NFL season, Samuels has RB1 weekly upside. He's a great combination of ceiling/floor that I'd love in round 9 or 10.
Here's the thing. With breakout running backs, it's more of a gamble than a confident feeling. You need things to break right. I definitely won't guarantee these guys monster years, but they fit the criteria that you're looking for in a late-round back with huge upside. Size, speed, backfields that they can take advantage of, whether that's through injury, or draft pedigree opportunity or just lack of a real workhorse in that backfield. Those are exactly the guys you're looking for. Maybe they need to sit on your bench for a whole month, maybe more, but as the season progresses, those are the types of guys that wind up being the big surprises and help you win championships.
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