Are We Sleeping on David Johnson, Todd Gurley, and Le’Veon Bell? (2020 Fantasy Football)
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It’s not uncommon in fantasy football to have that “fool me twice” mentality when we have been burned by a player and swear to everything holy we will never draft them again. There is only so much abuse we can take as fantasy GMs before we give up and finally move on. As each new year comes around and the NFL draft brings rookie players into the fold, it’s easy to disregard those players who have tortured us for an entire season.
It’s also easy to forget the fact that players like David Johnson, Todd Gurley, and Le’Veon Bell were considered the elite among their peers. Are we ignoring their potential in 2020 at our own peril and sleeping on a fourth-round stud?
Let’s take a look at what has changed for each player and decide if taking another shot on their future production could be worth a look.
David Johnson (RB – HOU)
One characteristic that all three running backs have in common is their ability to be both bruising runners as well as exceptional pass-catchers. They all dominated in both standard and PPR formats. Smashing the draft button used to be an auto-response.
Like our other former elite RBs, Johnson saw his share of fantasy highs and lows. After sitting out a year due to injury, his highly-anticipated return in 2018 felt empty, even though he finished the year as the RB10. We can put a lot of the blame on the Cardinals’ offensive woes. When Kliff Kingsbury entered the scene, we were so excited about his propensity to target pass-catching running backs during his collegiate coaching years. Unfortunately, Johnson couldn’t stay healthy and he lost his job. Johnson believers, myself included, were left scratching their heads and lamenting fantasy football.
In an April interview with the Houston Chronicle, Johnson said, “The Texans are very successful. I’m very thankful talking to Bill O’Brien and the way he wanted to utilize me. It was excitement from the start. I have that chip back on my shoulder. I want to get back to 2016, if not better.”
2016 was his RB1 breakout year when he finished with 293 rush attempts for 1,239 yards, and 16 rushing touchdowns as well as 80 receptions on 120 targets for 879 yards and four receiving touchdowns.
Johnson’s utilization is not without its pitfalls. Critics of his role in the passing game will point out that Deshaun Watson doesn’t typically target his running backs. We saw this play out with Duke Johnson last year behind Carlos Hyde, although the former did see 62 targets and also had his second-highest number of rush attempts of his career with 83.
Speaking of Duke Johnson, he is still on the team. Not only is it going to be very annoying referring to the two Johnsons – D. Johnsons – and figuring out which one actually just scored that TD, but Duke will inevitably eat into David Johnson’s carries and targets. How often this happens will be the key factor to David Johnson’s success.
I’m sure you haven’t forgotten, but for sake of argument, let’s not forget Bill O’Brien completed perhaps the most baffling trade of the off-season, sending elite WR DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals and acquiring David Johnson. There were other parts to the deal, I know, but that is basically the meat and potatoes. I don’t bring this up to reignite any angry Texans fans, but I think it does speak to how O’Brien plans on using Johnson moving forward. In order to justify this transaction, Johnson had better be used effectively, early and often. As we say in fantasy football, volume is king.
As far as the passing game is concerned, Hopkins’ absence vacates 150 targets. No offense to the newly acquired Brandin Cooks, but he is no Hopkins. While the WR corps will see a majority of those targets, let’s remember that Johnson is no slouch in the passing game. Duke Johnson will undoubtedly sniper touches, but having an RB2 of his caliber makes me feel much better about David Johnson’s sustainability throughout the season.
Current ADP: 3.07 PPR, 4.07 half-PPR, 5.04 standard
Todd Gurley (RB – ATL)
Out of the three RBs outlined in this article, I am the most excited about Todd Gurley’s potential with the Atlanta Falcons. He joins the team in 2020 as the unquestioned featured back with only Ito Smith and Brian Hill as the primary competition.
As a native St. Louis-an, I can completely understand that Gurley may be bitter about the breakup with the Rams. It had looked like a match made in heaven until the murmured speculation around Gurley’s knee got louder. He had the fewest rush attempts since his rookie year in 2015 with a career-low 857 yards. He also saw the fewest targets, receptions, yards, and receiving TDs since the team moved to Los Angeles finishing with 49 targets, 31 receptions, 207 yards, and only two TDs.
The Falcons have gone on record to say they have done their due diligence in regard to Gurley’s arthritic knee and Gurley himself is confident in his health. He has something to prove and I don’t blame him. The fact that the Falcons feel comfortable enough to sign Gurley and refrain from adding a big-named back, speaks louder than any press conference quote. His contract with the Falcons is only one year, so I also feel confident that Gurley will use this year to the best of his ability.
In 2019, Devonta Freeman rushed 184 times over 14 games with an average of 13.1 yards per game. If we stat that out to 16 games, we’re looking at roughly 210 rush attempts left on the table. Unlike David Johnson, who must compete with the other Johnson, Gurley is pretty much the only guy in the Falcons backfield who will be absorbing those attempts.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s not just Gurley’s talent as a runner that makes him elite, but the dual-threat he embodies, averaging a 72.4% catch rate on 301 targets over his career. Freeman also vacated 70 targets in the passing game. If the Falcons are worried about sustainability from the line of scrimmage, we may be seeing Gurley as a heavily-utilized target for QB Matt Ryan.
Current ADP: 2.10 PPR, 5.12 half PPR, 7.01 standard
Le’Veon Bell (RB – NYJ)
Bell had to eat a slice of humble pie after his 2018 holdout with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite some early speculation about friction between HC Adam Gase, Bell settled into his role.
That role was being the Jets’ entire offense for practically the whole season.
Bell’s disappointing finish as RB21 in standard and RB15 in PPR wasn’t completely Bell’s fault. Sam Darnold was out with mono for four weeks. Without a good QB, the WRs were ineffective and all defenses had to do was shut down Bell. That also wasn’t a difficult task considering he was the only featured back and the Jets’ offensive line was one of the worst in the NFL. The fact he managed to finish as an RB2 is a feat in itself.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom for the Jets in 2020. They have made some key changes in the off season, the most significant being additions to the porous offensive line, which was the priority for the team after the 2019 season.
The Jets have also added Gase’s favorite running back, Frank Gore, to the RB mix. Of course, this will certainly eat into Bell’s workload, but his addition is not as bad as it seems. While they did add an RB, they also got rid of two, Bilal Powell and Ty Montgomery. Last year, Bell desperately needed help wherever he could get it. With a veteran, line-of-scrimmage back like Gore, Bell should have the opportunity to get more involved in the passing game.
Since I’ve been harping on vacated targets, the Jets have the most vacated targets in the league. With Powell, Montgomery, Demaryius Thomas, and Robby Anderson all absent from the Jets’ offense, that leaves 91 rush attempts up for grabs and a whopping 183 targets. Bell is one of those players who plays a critical role in the passing game, and the Jets did not add high-end receivers. Instead, they picked up Breshad Perriman, Josh Doctson, Braxton Berrios, and drafted Denzel Mims. With the addition of Gore and the lack of an elite WR, this should leave Bell plenty of opportunity to be utilized in the passing game.
Current ADP: 3.07 PPR, 3.05 half PPR, 3.03 standard
I will admit that it will be very difficult for me to pass up on this kind of caliber during my drafts. All three RBs have the potential for week-winning RB1 numbers that I would gladly have as my RB2 or plug into my flex spot. In standard, I may avoid them in the earlier rounds, but if Gurley does truly fall into Rounds 5-7, that is a no-brainer. There is no guarantee these players will finish the year in the top-10 or even in the top-12, but they have the potential to have monster weeks. We know this based on talent and each player has a unique new environment more suitable for success than their previous years. Structuring my fantasy team around drafting these guys as an RB2 or flex is the safest option.