Backfield Breakdowns

September 11, 2020

Taking a deeper dive into the trickiest RB groups in fantasy football

Running backs are the lifeblood of fantasy football. Everyone loves to start off with a star running back who has clear volume. However, the murkiest of backfields can provide great value for owners given the late ADP that comes with them. Let’s take a look at five of the most difficult backfields to breakdown.

Detroit Lions

RBs: D’Andre Swift (RB28), Kerryon Johnson (RB41), Adrian Peterson (RB64)

The answer? No one!

In all reality, no one will live up to their draft prices here. Johnson and Peterson will dominate early-down snaps for the majority of the season, both working extremely hard to nullify each other for fantasy. Neither will see enough work to be relevant. If Johnson gets injured as he usually does, Peterson could provide flex value but with Swift still around his upside is capped.

Speaking of, Swift is still the most enticing running back but the RB3 price tag is too steep a price to pay. His leg injury has limited him for weeks now and could keep him on a snap count in Week 1. With Peterson and Johnson assured a role, passing downs won’t be enough to provide RB3 value for Swift.

Don’t forget the talent, though. He is not worth the draft price, but he could have a Miles Sanders-esque breakout towards the end of the season, especially if Johnson gets injured.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

RBs: Leonard Fournette (RB24), Ronald Jones (RB34), Ke’Shawn Vaughn (RB65), LeSean McCoy (RB80)

Just as people were coming around to Jones and accepting his valuable fantasy role, Fournette went and pulled the rug out. The fact remains that Jones will still be involved. Head coach Bruce Arians has talked him up for months and he has had a solid training camp according to beat reporters.

BUT.

If Arians truly believed in Jones, Fournette would not be a Buccaneer. It’s as simple as that. Jones might start Week 1 with a surprisingly solid workload but expect that to damper off as Fournette embraces the system. RB24 is a steep ask for Fournette — that’s essentially locking him in the starting lineup — but his draft price has been all over the place. He should play his way into a larger role which could be quite valuable in this high-powered offense. View Jones in the Marlon Mack tier of players with more risk given the emphasis Arians places on the passing game.

The third-down role is where it gets tricky to nail down. Dare Ogunbowale manned the role for most of last season and was a solid pass protector with reliable hands. While Jones has tried to improve himself in both of those categories, he remains a massive question mark in a role that cannot allow an easy hit to 43-year-old quarterback Tom Brady.

Don’t see that as a sign for Fournette to become a three-down back again. He had the eighth-most pass-protection snaps last season yet was graded as the sixth-worst out of 53 eligible running backs, according to Pewter Report. Arians will not allow that subpar play in his backfield, hence why veteran McCoy will likely start the season on third downs. With any luck, either rookie Vaughn or Jones will prove that they can shoulder that load as McCoy is clearly on his last legs. But predicting that would require more than a crystal ball.

Los Angeles Rams

RBs: Cam Akers (RB22), Darrell Henderson (RB50), Malcolm Brown (RB63)

It’s been a puzzling offseason for this backfield. Akers is a terrific prospect that carried Florida State week in and week out. Yet there have been lukewarm reports at best out of camp. Henderson was the one flashing. Brown will start Week 1. The Rams will use a committee. Barely a single positive word has been said about Akers, but his draft price is rising due to Henderson’s hamstring injury.

However, Henderson has returned in full at practice on Wednesday and should be 100 percent for Sunday’s game. He should have an immediate role and could be a flex play, but hopefully, you have better options than taking the gamble on who gets the rock in Week 1.

This is the backfield where someone will emerge as a huge fantasy asset. I’m sure McVay wants to use a committee, but history would suggest he will not. Todd Gurley’s production came on the back of sheer volume, in both the rushing and receiving game. Henderson can remain a home-run play, but Akers will emerge as the leader before too long. He was a second-round pick and has the talent to be the Gurley successor this team desperately needs. Henderson is talented in his own right, but Akers will not get swept aside like Henderson was his rookie year. It might take a couple weeks, but Akers is the guy to target.

Brown, at his current ADP, might be viewed as a sneaky start given his “starter” designation but he is limited in the receiving game and he will not dominate carries. As for him being the starter, anyone remember that Mike Davis was the Bears starting running back last season? It is a nod to the veteran rather than an assurance that he will remain on the field.

Akers will be a popular buy-low should he open the season with less touches than people want the RB22 to have. Henderson remains a late dart throw to see if McVay is serious about using a committee — if so, he should be the beneficiary rather than Brown.

New England Patriots

RBs: James White (RB32), Sony Michel (RB44), Damien Harris (RB49), Rex Burkhead (RB82)

Ah, the Patriots backfield. Always a fantasy crowd-pleaser.

It should surprise no one that the Patriots backfield is among the hardest to figure out, but you already know the answer.

There is no starter.

Head coach Bill Belichick always uses a rotation and it will be no different this season. Michel will see early downs as he is eased back from his injury, but he should still split carries with the other backs. In a plus matchup against Miami and Harris sidelined with a finger injury for at least three weeks, Michel could be utilized as an RB2/3, good value for the RB44.

White is my favorite of the bunch as the go-to target for quarterback Cam Newton, who threw the ball plenty to Christian McCaffrey in Carolina. The volume should be there on a team lacking weapons. The touchdowns will decide whether he finishes as an RB2 or RB3, but his floor seems stable. White’s role is likely the safest as the clear pass-catcher but don’t be surprised to see Burkhead stealing a reception or two.

Newton under center should open up rushing lanes due to the threat he poses with his legs, but he could also siphon off some rushing touchdowns that would normally go to Michel on the goal line. Ultimately, White is the only piece I’m excited to have here. Harris should earn himself a week-to-week role when he returns from injury, likely stealing touches from Michel. His upside makes him an intriguing stash as the training camp warrior and 2019 third-round pick who can have a solid sophomore season with White on a contract year and Michel nearing the end of his deal.

All of that is fine and dandy but when Burkhead scores the most fantasy points of the bunch, know that this is just what the Patriots do. Hell, maybe it’s undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor, who was recently promoted from the practice squad to fill in for Harris. Time will tell, but Michel and White will likely be two solid options in a decent matchup against Miami.

Jacksonville Jaguars

RBs: Chris Thompson (RB48), Ryquell Armstead (RB55), Devine Ozigbo (RB60), James Robinson (RB64)

The release of Fournette has sent the backfield into a whirlwind of question marks. Ryquell Armstead, the team’s 2019 fifth-round pick, seemed set to inherit the starting role after backing up Fournette all of last season.

However, Armstead has started and ended training camp on the reserve/COVID-19 list, putting his Week 1 status in doubt. The next man up for carries would have been Ozigbo, but the Jaguars placed the sophomore rusher on the I.R. on Thursday.

With Armstead increasingly likely to miss Sunday, Robinson should see the majority of carries as the lone running back outside of pass-catching specialist Thompson. The team has listed the undrafted rookie as their No. 1 running back. Robinson could be a solid flex start based on volume alone, but the Indianapolis Colts were very good against the run last season, finishing as the fifth toughest matchup in fantasy for running backs BEFORE adding star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner.

Feel free to pick up Robinson to see if he has any juice — starting running backs should not be on the wire. But his fantasy value will be minimal in a rough matchup on a low-scoring team. The backfield will likely run an inconsistent “hot hand” system when Armstead returns with a low ceiling each week.

In PPR formats Thompson remains the one to own as the best pass catcher of the group. The team will be playing from behind and Thompson should see plenty of quick targets from quarterback Gardner Minshew. The team also signed Dare Ogunbowale, a capable pass protector and pass catcher, but he serves as pure depth in lieu of Armstead and Ozigbo’s absences.

All ADP references come courtesy of the National Fantasy Championship.