RB1 Predictions (2019 Fantasy Football)
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With the fantasy football season barreling down on us at full speed, we will take a look at the players projected to finish the season as RB1s. There are some notable omissions, including Melvin Gordon, who was able to put up RB1 numbers in just 14 games last season. The rationale behind his drop off the list is that the Chargers appear prepared to move on from him in 2020, and they may reduce his workload in favor of Justin Jackson and Austin Ekeler as they try to decide if they need to draft one of the 2020 NFL Draft class’ blue-chip runners or if they have enough in house to move forward.
Other names some may notice missing from this list include Leonard Fournette and James Conner. Conner will be the lead back in Pittsburgh, but he is a volume back who will see his touches scaled back in favor of Jaylen Samuels and possibly Benny Snell. Finally, Damien Williams is also missing from this list as Darwin Thompson and even Carlos Hyde are superior talents. It will likely only take until one or both have a firm grasp on the playbook before Williams is only seeing 40 percent or less of the team’s backfield snaps.
Christian McCaffrey (RB – CAR)
One of the most exciting running backs in the league, Christian McCaffrey is all but a lock to finish with RB1 numbers once again this season. The Carolina Panthers did not add anyone in the offseason to seriously threaten his touch-based workload, but he will see his insane snap rate dialed back. To illuminate how tremendous CMC was in 2018, let’s put his fantasy points in context. He scored more rushing fantasy points than Melvin Gordon and Marlon Mack. He scored more fantasy points as a receiver than Amari Cooper and Tyler Lockett.
He may see a reduction in fantasy points per game this season, but he is still a safe bet as one of the top four overall picks in fantasy drafts. The Panthers are expected to lean on Curtis Samuel and D.J. Moore more in the passing game, which may lead to fewer targets. They added two bigger backs in Jordan Scarlett and Elijah Holyfield and their presence may lead to McCaffrey seeing less than the tremendous 60 red zone touches he saw last season. McCaffrey saw six of his seven rushing touchdowns come in the red zone.
McCaffrey finished 17th in the league with 124 targets in 2018, and he is a high-end RB2 and WR2 rolled into one. He will remain one of the most valuable fantasy assets on the planet. He should once again push to join the 1k/1k club.
Saquon Barkley (RB – NYG)
A big play waiting to happen, Saquon Barkley amassed an amazing 641 yards on just 16 of his carries. He led the league with seven carries of over 40 yards. He ranked 20th in the league with 121 targets. His 721 receiving yards ranked fourth among running backs. To put that number in context, he had more yards than Dede Westbrook, Demaryius Thomas, Mike Williams and Donte Moncrief.
He was able to do all of this damage despite a negative gamescript for the season. The Giants lost Odell Beckham Jr. in the offseason, and despite incremental improvements to the offensive line, Barkley will likely have less room to run as a result. The good news is, as anyone who watched Giants games or even his highlights can attest to, Saquon creates opportunities for himself. His 688 yards created led the NFL.
In 2018 he averaged a respectable 3.9 yards per carry against stacked boxes, which is important because he may see a ton of them until Golden Tate returns. He averaged an exciting 4.7 yards per carry against the base fronts that he saw 48.7 percent of the time. This number is also important because after seeing the fourth most base fronts in the league last season, he is likely to see them on over 50 percent of his snaps in 2019.
Some may be down on Barkley because he plays for a bad team, but the Giants were a 5-11 team last season and that did not stop Barkley from ranking fourth in fantasy points per game (second if you include Week 17). Barkley should once again hit 2,000 yards from scrimmage and should also threaten to join both the 1k/1k club and the 100 reception club.
Alvin Kamara (RB – NO)
The fantasy point per touch dynamo, as per PFF, Alvin Kamara, put up the best ever per-touch numbers in 2017 when he racked up 1.59 fantasy points per touch. In 2018 he ranked fourth all-time with 1.29 per touch. With Mark Ingram now a Baltimore Raven, the door is wide open for Kamara to see an increased workload.
While some believe that Latavius Murray will automatically assume all of Mark Ingram’s touches, I am not one of them. Murray is a talented back that represents an upgrade on Ingram at the goal-line, but Ingram is superior in every other aspect. Murray is not a Pro Bowl talent, and the Saints added another talented big back this offseason in UDFA Devine Ozigbo. Why does this matter? While Ingram was suspended last season, Kamara averaged an insane 152.8 yards per game for 29.7 fantasy points per contest in Half PPR formats. While Murray will get his carries, as the Saints have averaged 420 carries over the last three seasons, they will not come at the expense of Kamara like they did with Ingram.
As per Scott Barrett, Kamara has averaged 26 points per game in the 17 contests in which he saw at least 15 touches. For some perspective, according to those same scoring settings, Gurley averaged 26.6 points per contest and was 2018’s RB1. Kamara recorded 81 receptions for 709 yards in 2018. His 709 receiving yards were more than what Courtland Sutton and Taylor Gabriel could produce, and his 81 receptions were more than what Brandin Cooks, T.Y Hilton or Kenny Golladay could pull in.
Kamara is a sure thing to finish with RB1 numbers if he makes it through the season healthy. The departure of Mark Ingram raises his weekly floor and could propel him to join the 1k/1k club.
Ezekiel Elliott (RB – DAL)
Ezekiel Elliott was number two in fantasy points from Week 9 to the end of the fantasy season. With Amari Cooper on the Cowboys’ roster to keep defenses honest, we got to see a glimpse of Elliott’s true upside. His contract dispute with the team adds an element of risk to his projection as he appears more likely than Gordon to miss multiple contests in pursuit of a new contract.
When healthy and active, Elliott is one of the best in the league. He proved it by hauling in a career high 77 receptions last year, and by leading the league in rushing yards for the second time in his three seasons in the NFL. Aside from the holdout-based concerns, there is now some concern about his reception upside. Rookie Tony Pollard has been running with the ones with Elliott away from the team and is a plus receiver who will undoubtedly eat into Zeke’s targets. He should still see upwards of four targets per game, but will have a hard time matching his career high 6.3 targets per contest.
Due to the addition of Amari Cooper and the additions the Cowboys made in the offseason, Elliott should see the lowest percentage of stacked boxes he has seen in his career. Currently ranked number three with 520 yards created and first with 23 runs of over 15 yards, Zeke is a big play waiting to happen. Though he’s still a good bet for top-five fantasy numbers on a per game basis, Elliott has seen his ADP drop from 1.02 to 1.05. The risk that he holds out into the regular season is real and makes him a high risk/high reward selection with a first round price tag. The expectation however is that a deal gets done before the start of the regular season.
David Johnson (RB – ARI)
The RB11 in fantasy points per game, and the RB10 in total fantasy points, David Johnson managed to finish as an RB1 in a down season. The Cardinals are expected to pepper Johnson with touches this season, and with little talent behind him, Johnson could threaten for the league lead in touches.
The Cardinals are expected to be an explosive offense in 2019 but they may not be a winning team. However, due to his elite ability as a receiver, Johnson should remain a consistent fantasy force even in losses. Klff Kingsbury targeted the running back position heavily in 2018, and that is something that is expected to carry over to the Arizona Cardinals.
The fifth running back taken in fantasy drafts for most of the spring and summer, Johnson has leapfrogged Ezekiel Elliott and is now the 1.04 based on ADP. He should finish as a top-six fantasy asset at the running back position
Todd Gurley (RB – LAR)
When healthy, Todd Gurley is a beast. Despite playing in only 14 games of the fantasy football season, he led all running backs in total fantasy points and fantasy points per game. He has fallen to an ADP of 1.11, but that is still a jump from the low of 2.04 he hit in mid-July.
The main talking point when it comes to Todd Gurley’s 2019 fantasy football season is the arthritis in his knee. This coupled with the addition of one of the best running backs of the 2019 NFL Draft class had owners panicking. Here is why you shouldn’t panic. Pain tolerance will dictate how much of a workload Todd Gurley gets. He will see his reps managed during the week and he should get maintenance days away from practice. The condition in his knee may be degenerative but will not, in all likelihood, affect him from a redraft perspective, or in the front end of his extension. Darrell Henderson is an excellent talent, but he will be used in addition to Gurley, not as a touch-siphoning vulture.
Although the Rams ran the ball 458 times in 2018, Gurley saw only 256 carries. This leaves plenty of room for Henderson and Malcolm Brown. The Rams targeted the running back position 97 times in 2018, and Gurley saw 85 of those looks. While the Rams’ targets to the position will undoubtedly rise, Gurley’s number may see a slight drop as the Rams have talked up using Henderson in a Chris Thompson like role. Gurley is likely still a shoo-in for RB1 production, so draft with confidence at the end of the first or the start of the second round.
Joe Mixon (RB – CIN)
Third in the league with 83.4 rushing yards per game, Joe Mixon is criminally undervalued. With an ADP of 2.03, Mixon has all the tools and talent to finish as a top-12 fantasy option. Arguably a top-five running back talent, in 13 games played Mixon was the RB11 in total fantasy points and the RB9 in average fantasy points. He was able to overcome a -4.56 gamescript to produce at a near elite level.
With Zac Taylor now in town as the Cincinnati Bengals’ head coach, the offense is expected to be much more innovative. One major change is expected to be that they will start to treat Mixon like the franchise running back that he is. Mixon is not line proof, but like most of the elite backs in the league he does an elite job of creating for himself. He placed seventh in the league with 449 yards created and 15th with 1.60 yards created per carry. He was second in the league with 20 runs of over 15 yards. He had 34 runs of over 10 yards. Mixon tied for second in the league with 11 runs of over 20 yards and tied for third in the league with three runs over 40 yards.
Despite missing A.J. Green for a chunk of the season Mixon ranked fifth in the league with 2.9 yards before contact. Mixon should see a major boost to his targets and red zone touches in 2019, both of which should help him produce at a near elite level.
Le’Veon Bell (RB – NYJ)
The all-time leader in fantasy points per game, Le’Veon Bell has a lot of question marks surrounding him heading into the 2019 season. We all know he is a dynamic talent that can handle monster workloads. However, coach Adam Gase was said to be against signing Le’Veon Bell and may reiterate that fact to management through snaps, at least early in the season. Ty Montgomery is Gase’s choice for the No. 2 two back, and while he has flashed at times, he is not a realistic threat to Bell’s workload. However, Gase may force feed him as he tries to prove a point. It will not last long because we all know what Montgomery is at this point of his career, but it may cap Bell’s upside for the first few weeks of the season.
With that said, Bell is the team’s best runner and their best receiving back. A workhorse in the truest sense of the term, Bell can handle 30+ touches per contest. A motivated Bell could finish with top-five numbers. Sam Darnold is going to lean on Bell as a checkdown target, especially with Chris Herndon suspended for the first four games of the season. Bell’s floor is lower than most want it to be, mostly because his coach did not want him there in the first place, but remember this was a yearly top three pick at his position for a reason.
In 2016 Bell led the league in fantasy points per game, was second in targets, receptions and receiving yards, and finished fifth in rushing yards. Able to create for himself, he led the league with a truly impressive 101 evaded tackles. Do not sleep on Bell on draft day. Currently the 1.07 based on ADP, Bell should continue to see his ADP rise leading up to the kickoff of the regular season.
Nick Chubb (RB – CLE)
A man amongst boys, Nick Chubb reminded us all why he was one of the most highly regarded backs in the 2018 NFL Draft class. Stuck behind Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson to open the season, the Browns coaching staff quickly realized that they had a star on their hands. Hyde was signed before the draft, but the Browns could not pass up Chubb in the second round. A day one talent, Chubb made the most of his opportunity and made his mark as one of the very best talents at his position.
Chubb piled up an insane 4.47 yards after contact per attempt, a number that is the best by any running back in the past decade according to PFF. Even more impressive, Chubb managed to record over 4.5 yards per carry regardless of the front he faced. He placed ninth in the league with 388 yards created and eighth with 1.83 yards created per carry.
Currently the 1.09 based on ADP, Chubb may actually represent a value. With Duke Johnson traded to the Texans and Kareem Hunt suspended for half of the season there is zero proven talent behind him. Chubb is a better receiver than he gets credit for and should be able to make the most with his increased opportunity. Hunt’s return will lower his weekly floor, but the duo will combine to form the most feared one-two punch in the league.
Dalvin Cook (RB – MIN)
An RB1 who is not getting enough love, Cook was the RB9 from Week 11 to the end of the fantasy football season (Week 16). With an ADP of 2.04, Cook is a value in the second round. Able to create for himself, he led the league with 0.27 missed tackles forced per carry. As per PFF, this is the fourth best mark of the last decade.
The addition of running back guru Gary Kubiak is going to propel the Vikings’ running game to the next level. Cook is one of the most talented backs in the league and his backup is a rookie who has talent, but who is not a threat to Cook’s own workload. Kubiak’s run game has finished in the top-12 for rushing yards in each of his 12 seasons as an offensive coordinator. They finished in the top-five a whopping nine times.
With Alexander Mattison around to keep Cook fresh, owners should breathe a sigh of relief. Mattison is a talent, but he will likely not be handed as many red zone touches as Murray was last season. Cook will remain on the field on every down and should see upwards of 230 carries this season. The Vikings are expected to run the ball much more than the 357 times they did last season as they have committed to the run in both word and action. Add positive gamescript to the mix and you have the recipe for Cook to enter the conversation as one of the game’s true elite at his position.
David Montgomery (RB – CHI)
Arguably the most talented running back from the 2019 NFL Draft class, David Montgomery is still flying a little under the radar. Jordan Howard’s departure vacated 250 carries and 27 targets (20 receptions), enough volume for Montgomery to threaten RB1 numbers. A far superior runner and receiver than Howard, he will see more receptions and could even exceed the carry count.
The presence of Tarik Cohen stabilizes Montgomery’s value because the diminutive Cohen is not a threat to his workload. Rather, Montgomery is a threat to Cohen’s weekly touch count. However, the presence of Mike Davis (who was signed prior to the draft) could result in a frustrating siphoning of touches both at the goal line and in the passing game. With that said, the Bears ran the ball 468 times last season which leaves plenty of work for their stable of backs and quarterback Mitch Trubisky. Their 130 targets to the running back position could see a major spike with four plus receiving backs on the roster (including Kerrith Whyte Jr.).
He was compared to Kareem Hunt throughout the pre-draft process, and this comparison was granted legitimacy by Hunt’s old offensive coordinator in Kansas City and current Bears head coach Matt Nagy. Currently going off the board at 3.09, Montgomery is still screaming value at his current ADP. Expect him to be an early third-round pick by the time the regular season kicks off.
Josh Jacobs (RB – OAK)
Despite playing as a backup at Alabama, and not even being the best runner on his college team, Josh Jacobs was drafted in the first round and will be handed a feature role. With only Jalen Richard on the roster to see targets in the passing game, Jacobs could see over 350 touches as a rookie. While it is more likely this number is closer to 300, the aforementioned numbers accentuate his true upside in this offense. While Montgomery will get plenty of work, Jacobs may rarely come off of the field, making him the rookie runner to target in redraft leagues.
Jacobs is an excellent running back whose game brings flashes of Maurice Jones-Drew and Chris Carson: MJD for his ability as both a runner and a receiver, Carson due to his never-say-die attitude as a relentless finisher. An excellent receiver, Jacobs will provide a sure-handed presence out of the backfield. Here is what Jon Gruden had to say about Josh Jacobs:
“I think he’s going to be a centerpiece at some point… My expectation for him – if you’re listening, Josh – I encourage you to get some rest because we’re going to run you a lot. We’re going to give you a great opportunity.”
Jacobs is currently the 3.08 based on ADP in Half PPR and he could see his draft position continue to climb over the coming weeks. Blessed with an every-down skillset, he is a much better value than many of the names being drafted before him. Barring an early-day addition to their running back room in 2020, Jacobs should enter the consensus RB1 conversation heading into next season.