Many different factors led to the running back position being devalued. Not only in the NFL game, but especially in fantasy football where PPR scoring, usage in college, position scarcity, and injury risk helped shift the tides away from tailbacks that once dominated scoring. Perhaps the biggest factor that caused the big shift to wide receivers was the increase in NFL teams turning to the dreaded backfield-by-committee.
Three-down, workhorse running backs became scarce as coaches instead chose to rely on multiple players to fill different roles. Not only was this an effective way to keep running backs healthy, but it also helped keep salaries down. Committee backfields became a win/win for NFL general managers and coaches, but a source of frustration for fantasy fanatics.
While we have seen a bit of a comeback with bell-cow runners like Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley, and Ezekiel Elliott, plenty of teams still choose to trot out a committee backfield that will utilize multiple players. Evaluating these committees is an integral part of fantasy football draft preparations and can help well-prepared drafters find potential points out of even the most indecipherable situation. Here is a look at the potential 2018 fantasy fallout from teams that will likely incorporate a committee backfield this season.
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Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, James White (NE)
No team exemplifies the RBBC quite like the Patriots, but you can’t deny the success. New England’s running backs combined for almost 1,800 rushing yards last season, caught 120 passes and scored 25 total touchdowns. Bill Belichick hasn’t used a first-round selection on a running back since taking Laurence Maroney way back in 2006, so we have to assume that No. 31 pick, Michel, is going to get plenty of playing time. Michel has explosive speed and three-down ability, but has little chance at eclipsing 240 touches with Burkhead back in the fold. Burkhead is adept at short-yardage as well as an accomplished receiver who scored eight touchdowns in 10 games. White caught 56 balls but is most likely to be relegated to change-of-pace work as long as Michel is active. The rookie offers the most upside, but Burkhead is the best value with double-digit touchdown potential.
Kenyan Drake, Frank Gore, Kalen Ballage (MIA)
The Dolphins had little success running the ball last season until Drake was given an extended workload starting in Week 13. Drake flashed three-down potential in the last month of the season and is the best bet to deliver an RB2 season. The ageless wonder, Gore, is also in the mix for first- and second-down work. He is also adequate as a receiver and could limit Drake to a 12-15 touch role that would make it difficult for either back to emerge. Fourth-rounder Ballage is huge and has turned heads with his potential as both a runner and pass-catcher.
Isaiah Crowell, Bilal Powell, Elijah McGuire (NYJ)
Crowell will get the first crack at the starting job, but the fifth-year pro never seems to be able to string together consistent performances and is unlikely to emerge as a credible fantasy starter with a subpar Jets offense. The club seems to like Powell in his change-of-pace role. Even if he were called on to start, they would likely limit his touches. Turning 30 in October, Powell isn’t suddenly going to become a reliable workhorse. McGuire was looking like a solid sleeper pick before breaking his foot in the opening week of training camp, potentially sidelining the second-year talent into the regular season. This opens the door for Thomas Rawls to earn a role in the preseason. Overall, the Jets offense doesn’t project well this season, so it’s hard to see any running back as a significant fantasy contributor.
Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines, Jordan Wilkins (IND)
As long as QB Andrew Luck is healthy, the Colts have the potential to be an underrated source of fantasy production via the running back position. Don’t discount Mack as the favorite to not only start, but to play a role in the passing game. Mack wasn’t healthy as a rookie, but still flashed potential in a lost season for the Colts. Fourth-round rookie Hines is being talked up as a versatile weapon who could factor in immediately in the passing game. Hines is a solid PPR target in the mid-to-late rounds of fantasy drafts. Wilkins could also factor in and is one of the top late-round sleepers of the 2018 draft season.
Derrick Henry, Dion Lewis (TEN)
The Titans might have the best shot at producing two fantasy-relevant runners in Matt LaFleur’s first season as the play caller. Henry is the best bet to lead the club in rushes and touchdowns but still needs work as a receiver. Early reports out of training camp are that Henry has a real shot at being a more significant factor as a receiver, and if that happens, he’s got RB1 potential. Lewis is an excellent PPR target in the fifth round of drafts due to his receiving chops and underrated between-the-tackles running ability. For now, I have Lewis ahead of Henry in my 2018 PPR rankings.
Nick Chubb, Duke Johnson, Carlos Hyde (CLE)
The most likely outcome out of Cleveland is that Johnson will once again end up being the safest bet for fantasy points as his significant role in the passing game is expected to remain unchanged. Johnson is also an underrated short-yardage runner who could factor in near the stripe. Hyde will likely open the season as the starter but be spelled liberally by No. 35 pick Chubb, who easily has the most upside in this group and could run away with the starting job if given the chance. Chubb is a solid value at his current mid-range ADP.
Royce Freeman, Devontae Booker (DEN)
Booker is rumored to be in the lead for the starting gig, but I’m not buying it. Booker finished under four yards-per-carry in both of his seasons and had struggled with fumbles. Freeman excelled at Oregon as a runner and an accomplished receiver. Listed at six-feet, 229-pounds, Freeman also has the power to move the pile and makes the most sense in short-yardage. Booker has two years in this system and is better in pass protection, but I’m targeting Freeman as the likeliest candidate to lead Denver in rushing yards and scores as C.J. Anderson’s replacement.
Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement, Darren Sproles (PHI)
After joining the Eagles, Ajayi’s weekly usage more-or-less increased as the season wore on, peaking in the playoffs. With LeGarrette Blount off to Detroit, Ajayi is in the driver’s seat to command most of the early-down and short-yardage work. Ajayi is also decent as a pass-catcher but will cede the majority of that work to Clement and Sproles, who returned after tearing his ACL in September. Clement scored six touchdowns on only 84 touches and starred in the club’s Super Bowl victory. All three players look like solid choices to outplay their current ADPs.
Derrius Guice, Chris Thompson (WAS)
Guice is all but a lock to secure the early down role over Perine and Kelley, but what’s interesting is that Guice has fared quite well in pass blocking and receiving drills throughout the summer. Guice wasn’t asked to do these tasks very often at LSU, but much like we saw with his former Tigers teammate Leonard Fournette, that doesn’t mean he can’t perform well in the pros. Thompson should revert to his change-of-pace and passing-down work, making him a strong PPR option in the middle rounds.
Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman (ATL)
Atlanta’s offense should be much-improved in Steve Sarkisian’s second season, but I’m expecting the club to continue using their backs as they have the past three years. Freeman is the top all-around rusher and preferred choice in short-yardage, while Coleman is better in a change-of-pace role and as a receiver. Should one of the Falcons’ duo get injured, the other is an immediate top-five weekly option. Note that Coleman is set to become a free agent following this season, making him worth nabbing a few spots early in dynasty formats.
Christian McCaffrey, C.J. Anderson (CAR)
The Panthers should utilize a similar rotation as they did in 2017, with Anderson being a significant upgrade over the plodding Jonathan Stewart, who sagged down to 3.4 yards-per-carry but still managed to score six touchdowns. Anderson will likely add at least one full yard to that figure and is far better in the passing game. Anderson’s presence and the return of TE Greg Olsen could cause McCaffery to get fewer touches as a sophomore. If that happens, McCaffrey will need to score more touchdowns to pay off his second-round ADP, and that will be hard to do with Anderson and Cam Newton taking the vast majority of short-yardage rushing attempts.
Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, Terrance West, Jonathan Williams (NO)
With Ingram facing a four-game ban to kick off the 2018 campaign, expectations are that uber-efficient Kamara will see an uptick in usage, primarily as a ball-carrier where he’d likely jump up to 10-15 totes-per-game in September. There’s no chance Kamara repeats his insane efficiency, especially with increased wear and tear, but he’s still worthy of a top-five fantasy pick in PPR drafts. Veteran West will battle with Williams for the Ingram role, making the winner of that competition a viable RB3/flex option for September. Ingram has a good chance at putting up RB2 numbers starting in Week 5 if owners can get by with selecting him in Round 5 knowing he won’t be available for the five out of the first six weeks. New Orleans has a Week 6 bye.
Ronald Jones, Peyton Barber, Charles Sims (TB)
Sims was re-signed, but received just 21 carries last year, and that was with Doug Martin’s pathetic 2.9 yards-per-carry figure. Sims won’t be a factor as a ball carrier and will cede some receiving work to second-round rookie Jones, who is a sneaky pick to be a top-three producer from what looks to be a deep and talented running back class. With the 15-20 touches that Tampa beat writers are projecting for Jones, he’s got RB2 upside. Barber did well with his chances as a rookie, but could be reduced to short-yardage duties as a sophomore.
Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen (CHI)
Cohen caught 53 passes as a rookie and averaged about five carries per game. New head coach Matt Nagy is planning to utilize Cohen more this season, primarily as a receiver, where he’ll line up in the slot or split out wide with Howard in the backfield. Speaking of Howard, he’s a polarizing player whose lack of poise as a receiver draws criticism that outweighs how active Howard has been as a runner, especially in the red zone where he was the league’s most efficient running back in 2017. Howard is my darkhorse candidate to lead the NFL in rushing scores in 2018.
Kerryon Johnson, Theo Riddick, LeGarrette Blount (DET)
Detroit seems to be a perpetual committee of mediocrity for the running back position, so it’s hard to get too excited about second-round pick Johnson, even if he did flash an intriguing skill set at Auburn. With Jim Bob Cooter back as the play-caller, 2018 is shaping up to be another quagmire where Johnson and Blount share early-down work, and Riddick takes the majority of targets. Johnson can take command of the backfield, but there’s little indication that the club will afford him that opportunity. This is a situation best avoided.
Jamaal Williams, Ty Montgomery, Aaron Jones (GB)
Ask three different football analysts which Packers back they prefer, and you’ll likely get three different answers. Jones seemed like the team’s best runner last season before getting hurt. Now slapped with a two-game suspension to open the season, the door is open for Williams to secure the starting gig and end up being one of the top bargains of the 2018 fantasy football draft season. Mike McCarthy seemed to trust Williams with a significant workload to end 2017, and I think he’ll carry that momentum over. Montgomery has had issues staying healthy but should factor is for eight-to-10 touches per game, especially in the passing game. Montgomery is a solid PPR value, with an ADP that regularly dips into the double-digit rounds.
Jerick McKinnon, Matt Breida (SF)
Kyle Shanahan likes to use multiple backs in his complicated offense, so expect Breida to emerge with a robust weekly role, perhaps even in a similar format to how the Falcons used Tevin Coleman. Breida is more than just a late-round handcuff for McKinnon owners. McKinnon is dynamic as a receiver out of the backfield and has flashed a ton of big-play ability, including an impressive showing in training camp. He’ll likely cost you a second or early third-round investment, but McKinnon has all the makings of a stud PPR starter.
Rashaad Penny, Chris Carson (SEA)
Pete Carroll has an unconventional approach to the depth chart, as witnessed back in 2012 when he started a third-round rookie QB named Russell Wilson over newly-signed and presumptive starter Matt Flynn. Carroll has gushed about Carson throughout the summer, saying he’s in line to open the season as Seattle’s starter and have a significant role. I’m going to go ahead and chalk that up to “coach speak” and assume that No. 27 overall pick Penny winds up leading the club in carries and playing time. For now, this situation should be approached with caution because it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both backs play equally behind one of the worst offensive lines in football.
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Jody Smith is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Jody, check out his archive and follow him @JodySmithNFL.