RBs Primed For Increased Touches (Fantasy Football)
Vacated rushes and receptions have been an important topic year after year for fantasy purposes as it points out opportunity that is ripe for the taking. Trying to forecast who will absorb these touches is a complex combination of talent, how many touches are available, defined roles, coaching philosophy, and the competition level on the depth chart. What if we could find a way to relatively predict who will increase their touches? Based solely on the amount of vacated backfield touches, the level of competition, and how much opportunity they were given the year prior, we can give ourselves a good outline of who will garner more opportunities each year.
Before we dive into the 2019 season, let’s first look at how this theory played out from 2017-2018. Below you will find the list of 2018 running backs who had over 100 vacated backfield touches available from departures of team significant running backs (a 100+ touch back), and who themselves still had over 100 touches from the year prior. Doing so aims to account for meaningful roles that are now missing from a backfield.
What can we learn from this? First and foremost, it is a good thing to be in a position where opportunity is up for grabs as suspected. Second, the level of competition makes a significant difference in how much they can capitalize on those opportunities (e.g. Saquon Barkley coming to your team with Wayne Gallman being a dud, etc.).
Some players were unable to take greater advantage even when in a prime position to do so, therefore, the trend is not perfect. However, it does still give us a great idea of who will see more chances with the ball. While they did increase their touch total, we expected more from the likes of Derrick Henry, Tevin Coleman, and Kenyan Drake in 2018. An additional consequence is that this is unable to measure opportunity for rookie rushers since it requires a prior year of usage, although vacated touches are still a great indicator of the possible workload they can achieve along with their talent.
Now, onto the 2019 trend. Again, a significant running back is a rusher who had over 100 touches and is now removed from the team, and the team must have a returning back who had over 100 touches in 2018. A few teams have been excluded due to muddy circumstances with rookies and free-agent additions (e.g. Buffalo Bills, Oakland Raiders). See the rest of the 2019 chart below:
This is generally a good list to be on for an increase in fantasy production, although there are exceptions. These players have already proven enough to see a substantial role in the offense and now there is even more opportunity available. As shown by the previous year, most of these players will inevitably see an uptick in usage from their 2018 totals. Injuries are very difficult to predict and while they have a major impact, just know there is always some risk with players who have missed significant time in the past.
We can attempt to break down each qualifier in this list into two categories in order of fantasy relevance relative to last year:
- High opportunity with less competition
- Good opportunity, but solid competition
High Opportunity with Less Competition
1. Leonard Fournette (JAC)
Coming off of a down year from injury, Fournette is the embodiment of a fantasy workhorse. With T.J. Yeldon and Carlos Hyde gone, the Jags brought in only Alfred Blue and rookie Ryquell Armstead. Combining this with an improved quarterback situation and multiple offensive linemen who’ve recovered from injuries they suffered last year, Fournette should easily remain a top-10 fantasy option when healthy.
2. Kerryon Johnson (DET)
So there’s a dual-threat, second-year back who is now the top option in a backfield with 264 touches available? Sign me up! Touchdown vulture LeGarrette Blount and receiving specialist Theo Riddick have been sent away and the only competition they brought in is 28-year-old C.J. Anderson. The only question remaining is if the coaching staff feels he can handle a bell-cow role. The ceiling on Johnson is insanely high for this year.
3. Dalvin Cook (MIN)
After letting go of Latavius Murray, the Vikings were aware enough of Cook’s injury concerns to bring in rookie Alexander Mattison. If healthy, Cook typically sees a heavy workload and the departure of Murray should only reinforce that. Mattison will see his fair share of carries to spell when needed, but this is Cook’s backfield until further notice.
4. Nick Chubb (CLE)
With Duke Johnson now jettisoned to Houston, his fantasy-friendly receiving targets are up for grabs. Chubb has not been known for his receiving potential based on last year, but the Browns have faith in both him and the rest of their depth chart to pick up the slack. The Browns have made it a point to bring in Kareem Hunt, even in the midst of a half-season suspension, which may eat into Chubb’s workload from week 10 on (could be bad news for fantasy playoffs). Chubb will definitely see more touches this year now that he’s coming into the season as the starter in what is looking to be a high-powered offense.
5. Kenyan Drake (MIA)
In a similarly great situation last year, he only increased his touch total by 14. Now in an even better situation, will he finally take advantage? Frank Gore is gone and Kalen Ballage has been mediocre in consistency, albeit he is seeing first-team reps in practice. Now with a fresh coaching staff, this backfield will still have a timeshare to a degree, but here’s hoping he can finally break that 200-touch barrier for the first time in his career. His talent and lack of competition make his situation one of my favorites for 2019.
Good Opportunity, but Solid Competition
6. Tarik Cohen (CHI)
Jordan Howard’s departure leaves a massive 270 touches unaccounted for. At the same time, they brought in both Mike Davis and rookie David Montgomery. Cohen seems to have his specified role, but someone in this backfield has to absorb these touches. This running back group can still be effective with a timeshare given the Bears’ heavy use of the position.
7. Lamar Miller (HOU)
The Texans sent off their top backup in Alfred Blue (170 touches) and then cut what everyone thought was the next backup in D’Onta Foreman. A couple low-key veterans and UDFAs remained to vie for the number two job until they made a big splash in trading for Duke. What would have been a fantasy owners dream situation has now turned murky. It’s hard to envision the Texans making a trade for a player to not use him. The fresh uncertainty in this backfield makes it difficult to predict who will be absorbing the most of these vacated touches.
8. Alvin Kamara (NO)
Mark Ingram is out and Latavius Murray is in. If Murray steps in and fully takes Ingram’s role and touches, Kamara is still on pace for a top-five finish. If Murray doesn’t take them all and they lean even slightly more on Kamara, he could easily make the case for a top-two finish. The potential for touchdown vulturing from Murray could be a point of concern.
9. Chris Carson (SEA)
Coming off a career year, Carson finds himself with an opportunity to see even more. This once three-headed backfield has been trimmed to two with the departure of Mike Davis. That being said, Rashaad Penny looks to be the heavy favorite to absorb the vacated touches given his increasing role throughout last year and Carson’s lack of receiving production (disclaimer: I am a hardcore Penny truther). The outlook can still be bright for both of them in this run-happy offense.
There is near certainty that these teams listed above have a running back on their squad greatly increase in touches, whether or not it gets dispersed to the presumed/reigning starter or spread out in a committee remains to be seen. The first five players listed have the greatest chance to see a dramatic increase in touches based on significant running back vacated touches and the apparent lack of competition rounding out the depth chart.