Dynasty League Free Agency Preview: RB (Fantasy Football)
Welcome back to the final part of my dynasty league-centric free agency previews (see QB/TE and WR if you missed those). The 2018 offseason saw more buzz surrounding the rookie class (featuring strong prospects such as Saquon Barkley, Derrius Guice, and Nick Chubb) than the free agent class (headlined by Jerick McKinnon). The premier free agent running back last season was none other than Le’Veon Bell, but after being franchise tagged by the Steelers, Bell sat out the entire 2018 season. 2019 may have the roles reversed, as the rookie class is not as strong, and the free agent crop features some interesting names (including Bell, who should actually move on this season).
Le’Veon Bell (PIT)
Bell is, of course, the premier free agent running back of this year. Despite being past the prime years for the position in terms of career arc, Bell should be fresh after a season off in 2018 due to his contract dispute with the Steelers. In his last two seasons played, Bell finished with over 20 PPR fantasy points per game in both seasons, finishing as the RB1 in points per game in 2016 and the RB2 in 2017. Bell’s ability in the passing game should warrant copious targets regardless of his landing spot, making him still a premier asset.
Bell’s value on the trade market in dynasty should be similar to what it was heading into the 2018 season, so the only way to determine a course of action is to gauge the optimism in your league and adjust accordingly. If Bell can be had at a discount, pull the trigger, because he could easily be the centerpiece of a 2019 championship run. Bell is worth at least an early first round pick, and should still be viewed as a high-end dynasty running back due to his likely near-term production.
Tevin Coleman (ATL)
Other than Bell, Coleman has long been considered the favorite among this group to land a workhorse job. The bad news for Coleman owners is that, when given the chance to carry the load for the Falcons this year, Coleman disappointed and ceded work in both the run and pass games to the fourth-round pick and undersized satellite back, Ito Smith. Even with a good chunk of the season as the supposed lead back, Coleman finished as the RB25 in PPR fantasy points per game. With a much weaker claim to workhorse status at this point, it’s less likely that Coleman will command a big contract in free agency from a team who plans to lean heavily on him.
In 2018, he topped 15 carries just once, and five targets just once as well (and not in the same game); he also totaled 20 touches just once. In the last eight weeks of the season, when Atlanta would be incentivized to run him into the ground before letting him walk, he topped 11 total touches just once, and maxed out at 14 touches. If Coleman was unable to fend off Ito Smith, it’s hard to imagine him in a workhorse role on his next contract, so sell Coleman to a leaguemate who believes he will shoulder the load on his new team. A late first-round pick would certainly be enough for me to move on from Coleman.
Mark Ingram (NO)
With Coleman’s claim to a workhorse role weakening, Ingram may be the best free agent option behind Le’Veon Bell. After finishing as the RB8 in PPR points per game in 2017 (fueled by 12 touchdowns), Ingram played only 12 games in 2018 due to a suspension and finished outside the RB2 range on a per-game basis. Ingram’s decline in 2018 was largely due to Alvin Kamara’s dominance of the backfield targets, as Ingram saw only 2.2 targets per game, compared to exactly double that in 2017. Ingram finished with seven touchdowns in 12 games, so his scoring rate was lower, but not significantly. Ingram still performed well in his age-29 season, averaging 4.7 yards per carry and 5.1 yards per touch. More importantly, Ingram still broke or evaded a tackle on almost 30% of his touches and created 1.62 yards per carry (17th and 14th among RBs, respectively), so he was getting it done on his own as much as benefiting from a friendly system.
Ingram’s 11 goal line carries ranked him 6th in the league among running backs, which may be a main area of decline if Ingram moves on from the Saints. He can still be a strong producer if given the option, but the main question is whether he will be signed as a lead back or as a complementary option. With that uncertainty in the play, it’s best to wait until Ingram lands and then gauge the market in your league — just know that he still has strong workhorse potential and is producing near his prime levels given his opportunity. Ingram’s buy/sell point should fall around the late first-round pick range, and probably just higher than Coleman if I had to choose.
T.J. Yeldon (JAC)
Rarely appreciated by fantasy football players, Yeldon has quietly racked up over 750 scrimmage yards in three of his four seasons with the Jaguars, and he topped 1,000 total yards in his rookie season in 2015. Yeldon has only scored 12 touchdowns in four seasons, so his fantasy output has been uninspiring, but I contend that he could be a strong option in fantasy leagues if he gets the opportunity. Yeldon is averaging an unexciting 4.0 yards per carry for his career (which is better than Leonard Fournette’s 3.7 YPC for comparison), but has totaled 7.6 yards per reception on 171 catches in four years (including two seasons with over 50+ receptions). Yeldon is truly capable in both rushing and receiving, with his receiving work being his best asset. In 2018, Yeldon accrued more receiving yards on 55 receptions than he did rushing yards on 104 carries.
Yeldon may not offer big-play ability, as he only had two runs of 15+ yards in 2018, but he is adept at breaking tackles, doing so on just under 30% of his touches in 2018 (14th best among RBs). Despite an uninspiring fantasy year on its surface, he averaged over 12 PPR points per game, just inside the RB2 range. If given more opportunity (specifically in the touchdown department), Yeldon’s receiving ability could feasibly propel him to a top-12 season. He can be had for cheap now, so it may be wise to pull the trigger now if his cost is low. I would pay a third-round pick now without hesitation, and if he lands on a team in need of running backs, he could be worth as much as a first-round pick if his projected opportunity expands.
Jay Ajayi (PHI)
The biggest knock on Ajayi is his ability in the receiving game, as he has totaled just 86 targets in 42 career games. Ajayi is strong as a runner, averaging over five yards per carry during his current tenure with the Eagles, but his lack of work in the receiving game caps his upside in fantasy football, as targets are more valuable than carries. Ajayi’s 6.7 yards per reception also fails to excite for fantasy purposes, so without racking up touchdowns, Ajayi’s ceiling is a low-upside grinder (a la Alex Collins).
Ajayi’s best-case scenario is to re-sign with the Eagles, as they still lack a clear lead back. Also beneficial to staying in Philadelphia would be the Eagles’ strong offensive line, which should benefit a grinder like Ajayi more than a satellite back. Even in Philadelphia, however, Ajayi’s outlook is still lacking upside, so fantasy owners should be looking to move Ajayi for a higher-upside option.
C.J. Anderson (LAR)
Until his NFL Playoffs breakout, Anderson was no more than an afterthought, and would not have made this list. However, it’s a good bet that after seeing him run all over the Cowboys and Saints in Rams’ run to Super Bowl LIII, an old-school ground-and-pound GM will try to make a move. Anderson has always been underrated as a runner, largely because of his poor offensive situation. Anderson, however, has consistently performed better than his running back counterparts in terms of efficiency, besting the Broncos’ unit average in yards per carry in every year he played for Denver. In limited regular-season action in 2018, Anderson averaged 6.0 yards per carry and over 8.0 yards per reception (on only five catches, however).
Anderson’s potential is still there to be a strong fantasy producer (RB2 level), but the questions at this point are where he will land and how much the hype has built already. His buy/sell point should be low now since there is no guarantee that he lands a starting job (third- or fourth-round pick), but depending on his landing spot, his value could rise into the RB2 range, so test the buying market now.
Jalen Richard (OAK)
Richard is coming off of a disappointing season, especially given that he was primed for a bigger role after Marshawn Lynch suffered an injury that caused him to miss time. Ultimately, in 2018, Richard finished the season with under 10 PPR points per game, despite finishing seventh at the position with 81 targets, which he turned into an impressive 68 receptions and 608 receiving yards (seventh- and sixth-best among RBs, respectively). He was mostly held back by his lack of scoring equity, which was a combination of the Raiders disappointing offensively as a unit, and Richard seeing minimal usage in high-probability scoring situations. Oakland’s offense ranked only 28th in the league in total points scored and 23rd in total yards, so there was limited opportunity to go around, particularly in terms of touchdown scoring. Even when Oakland did reach prime scoring position, they weren’t looking to Richard, who saw just 11 red zone touches all season.
Richard’s receiving ability should give him some PPR value, but his lack of usage elsewhere makes him a tough buy candidate. Ultimately, there’s more value to a dynasty team in stashing an upside handcuff or a young player waiting for an opportunity.
Latavius Murray (MIN)
Murray’s biggest limiting factor at this point is opportunity, and without landing a lead back job, he’s a pretty unexciting handcuff at best. His 2018 season consisted of a few boom games propelled by long touchdown runs, but otherwise suffered from a lack of usage and horrible inefficiency. Murray finished three weeks in a row in the top 12 in weekly scoring (Weeks 6-8), topping 300 yards and scoring four touchdowns in that span. Murray scored just two touchdowns the rest of the season, and averaged 4.1 yards per carry and 4.4 yards per touch (both outside the top-40 RBs in the league).
Murray will likely be limited to a weekly replacement who is dependent on a touchdown to return value. His outlook makes him a poor choice as a buy candidate in dynasty leagues. Murray’s market value is likely low at this point, so it’s hard to sell him, either. Owners will probably have to end up holding and hoping his landing spot changes things.
Gus Edwards (BAL)
Edwards came on strong late in the season for the Ravens after Alex Collins was sidelined with an injury. Despite topping 100 total yards in four of his seven starts, Edwards never finished higher than RB12 in weekly scoring in PPR formats, largely due to the face that he saw just two targets all season. He also only scored twice on the year, as drives were often finished off by quarterback Lamar Jackson. Without being involved in the passing game at all, it’s tough to maintain solid value at the position.
Factoring in the potential to lose short touchdowns to Jackson, and Edwards does not have a path to being a reliable weekly starter, not to mention that Kenneth Dixon also played well late in the season and could see work as well in 2019 and beyond. Dixon is also a superior receiver to Edwards, so it’s a good time to cash out on Edwards if a leaguemate will bite. A second-round rookie pick would be plenty to acquire Edwards from me.
Alex Collins (BAL)
Collins, who saw marginally more usage in the passing game (albeit with Joe Flacco) than Edwards, is also an ideal sell candidate to anyone optimistic about his return from injury. Kenneth Dixon is the most well-rounded back on the team, and Collins only propelled himself to fantasy relevance thanks to eight touchdowns in 10 games in 2018. For all of the same reasons owners should be selling Edwards, Collins is a prime sell candidate this offseason, though owners should gauge their league’s temperature in terms of perception surrounding him regarding both his injury recovery and his landing spot.
Ty Montgomery (BAL)
Though the narrative around Lamar Jackson might suggest he is bad news for satellite backs, Montgomery averaged slightly more targets per game (3.4) from Week 12 onward as he did leading up to Week 8 (2.9). While his value was still basically non-existent, it’s a good sign for him that his role was safe. Still, Montgomery leaving Baltimore is optimal, as just over three targets per game will get fantasy owners nowhere. Montgomery should be basically free at this point, so he’s a fine cheap buy candidate, especially with the possibility that he moves back to wide receiver, or gets dual-eligibility. Dynasty league owners who can afford the roster spot should send out a low offer for Montgomery, as his value can really only go up, and worst case, not much will be lost in acquiring him if his landing spot doesn’t work out.
Rod Smith (DAL)
Smith has been essentially a non-factor in most of his college and professional career, as he served as the backup to Ezekiel Elliott at Ohio State, and again with the Dallas Cowboys. Smith has topped out at 10 carries in a single game during his four-year career in the NFL, but anyone who watched “All or Nothing” on Amazon Prime will know that Jason Garrett and company view Smith as a one-for-one replacement for Elliott in terms of role; they believe Smith has an every-down skill set. Of course, backing up Elliott means his only value is as a handcuff, but if another team is wise to Smith’s potential, he could land in a more competitive backfield situation, and it wouldn’t be crazy to think that Smith could win a job.
As a free (or nearly-free) dynasty asset, Smith is a solid waiver acquisition or late-round trade target this offseason. His ceiling is certainly higher than many of the other players listed above. Even if Smith ends up back with Dallas, he will be a high-upside handcuff for fantasy football purposes, and that holds value, as James Conner dynasty owners will confirm.
Ameer Abdullah (MIN)
It’s hard to believe that the Arizona Cardinals “settled” on David Johnson after missing out on former second-round pick Ameer Abdullah and that Abdullah is now an afterthought. Here we are though, and Abdullah is likely out on waivers in many leagues. It was still only a few years ago that Abdullah was accounting for about a third of Nebraska’s total offense and commanding nearly 10% of the team’s targets, so the all-purpose skill set is there. If a team without a clear starter gives Abdullah a second chance, having him on the bench in dynasty leagues will be a good idea.
If the roster spot is available, or if you’re rostering a player with no upside, Abdullah is a better dart throw this offseason. The 25-year-old could still conceivably churn out an RB1 season if he lands in a good situation and gets enough touches.
Efficiency metrics courtesy of Player Profiler.