RBs Poised for Target Increase in 2018 (Fantasy Football)
As running backs embrace their role in the NFL’s aerial revolution, steady three-down rushing is often not enough to achieve fantasy stardom. Even in standard leagues, it helps to find an all-purpose producer not entirely dependent on a positive game script. Nine of last year’s top-15 running backs (and all seven who tallied over 200 standard points) recorded over 50 catches and 60 targets.
Drafters must now prioritize receiving opportunities from their top-tier backs. While some will point to one glaring exception, a path to increased targets keeps him from cratering down PPR rankings. It’s easy to pencil in Christian McCaffrey for a heavy pass-catching workload, but these players are all due for a sizable uptick because of changes in scenery and surrounding player/coaching personnel. Let’s examine how these projected opportunities affect their fantasy stock.
Ezekiel Elliott (DAL)
More touches are just what Elliott needed. The Dallas workhorse logged 242 carries and 26 receptions in 10 games last season, putting him on pace for 428 touches per 16 games. He got the ball at least 25 times in all but one bout, a Week 2 blowout loss to Denver. After cutting Dez Bryant and watching Jason Witten retire, the Cowboys are going to find out how much more exertion Elliott can handle.
Bryant and Witten accounted for 44.6 percent of Dallas’ targets last season, leaving Terrance Williams (78) and Cole Beasley (62) as the only ones fed more than Elliott (38) in 2018. While those wideouts and Allen Hurns should receive more attention from Dak Prescott, the fleeting options should yield more opportunities for the star rusher, who has secured 58 of 78 career targets for 632 yards.
Of course, his fantasy value isn’t dependent on more catches. However, the possibility fortifies him as the No. 3 standard back with a convincing case for going ahead of Todd Gurley and Le’Veon Bell. An absurdly heavy volume secures his status as a top-five or -six PPR play.
When to Draft: No. 3 in standard, No. 5 in PPR
Jerick McKinnon (MIN)
Despite failing to fend off Latavius Murray for the lead-back role with 3.8 yards per carry, Jerick McKinnon corralled 51 of 68 regular-season targets before grabbing another 14 catches in the playoffs. He now migrates to a 49ers offense that should deploy him more on the ground and downfield.
San Francisco didn’t spend $36.9 million on a change-of-pace back, so the 26-year-old should absorb most of the 240 handoffs vacated by Carlos Hyde, the RB18 in five games with Jimmy Garoppolo. Even more exciting is the chance to inherit his 88 targets and team-high 59 catches. Before Kyle Shanahan left Atlanta for the Bay Area, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined to snag 85 of 105 looks. The head coach is unlikely to reverse those tendencies, as he specifically touted McKinnon’s receiving skills in an introductory press conference, per Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee.
“What is a huge bonus on him is when you talk about the pass game,” Shanahan said. “When it comes to separating and beating linebackers and safeties in man-to-man coverage, I definitely think he’s an issue for teams. I think this league, when it comes to third downs and things like that, you move the chains based off of matchups, which allows you to get points in the long run.”
Even with C.J. Beathard and Brian Hoyer under center, the 49ers threw six more times per game than the Vikings in 2017. McKinnon was already the RB10 in PPR (RB24 in standard) after Dalvin Cook tore his ACL in Week 4, so his ballooning ADP is more than empty hype.
When To Draft: No. 25 in standard, No. 22 in PPR
Dion Lewis and Derrick Henry (TEN)
Tennessee will mercifully ditch Mike Mularkey’s exotic smashmouth offense for Matt LaFleur, who oversaw the Rams’ revival last year. Todd Gurley’s targets jumped from 58 to 87, and Freeman received 97 when LaFleur took over as Atlanta’s quarterback coach in 2015.
If Henry or Lewis got traded today, the remaining back would unquestionably catapult up the ranks. Henry flaunted his breakout potential when given a full plate in the AFC Wild Card Round, and Lewis simply averaged 5.0 yards per carry with 32 catches in 36 targets. For all the talk of New England’s backfield unpredictability, the 27-year-old submitted the seventh-most standard RB points from Week 6 onward. He received 141 handoffs over those 11 games, but had to contend with pass-catchers James White and Rex Burkhead for Tom Brady’s affection.
Henry, meanwhile, has posted just 24 receptions in 31 career games, but that’s not a complete case of inability, as he’s only been given 31 chances. A friendlier scheme should make a world of difference. Per data assorted by Graham Barfield, the Rams ranked first in pace of play, 27 spots ahead of the Titans.
Marcus Mariota should receive more opportunities to make plays with his mobility, which will yield more targets for both backs. I’d personally rather take the cheaper option in Lewis, especially in PPR formats. Henry is too big-play dependent to trust unless given a huge slice of a pie, but Lewis would at least garner flex appeal in a 45-55 timeshare.
When to Draft Lewis: Fifth round in standard and PPR
When to Draft Henry: Fifth round in standard, sixth in PPR
Tarik Cohen (CHI)
Cohen already caught 53 of 71 catches in his rookie campaign, so perhaps it’s greedy to expect any more. He also cooled considerably from an explosive start, averaging 2.6 receptions per game after tallying eight in each of the opening two tilts. He should at least enjoy more consistent involvement now that Chicago has ditched John Fox for Matt Nagy, whose Chiefs compiled the fifth-most total yards in 2017.
Kansas City rostered no convenient backfield parallel to ease the projections, but the 5’6″ sophomore endorsed the rampant Tyreek Hill comparisons. Nagy also didn’t entirely shy away from the juxtaposition to the receiver who surprised some by receiving 105 targets in his second season. Cohen won’t crack double digits, but new management will find more creative uses for the elusive scatback. The second-year pro can clear 60 catches in a crisper offense. Luckily his ADP is not yet demanding a leap; he’s the RB32 in PPR drafts after solidifying an RB30 finish in his preferred format.
When to Draft: 12th round in standard, ninth in PPR