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RB3s With RB1 Potential (2020 Fantasy Football)

RB3s With RB1 Potential (2020 Fantasy Football)

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Over the last few weeks, we’ve looked into running backs and wide receivers that you should avoid at their current draft-day cost. Last week, we went in a different direction, identifying wide receivers outside the top 30 of our current Expert Consensus Rankings (ECR) that have a shot at finishing as a WR1 in 2020.

With the wideouts in the books, we’ll turn our attention to the backfield and see which current RB3s our writers feel have the best chance to finish as an RB1 for the 2020 fantasy football season.

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Q: Which current RB3 based on ECR has the best chance to finish as an RB1 for the 2020 season?

Damien Williams (KC): RB35
Damien Williams burned fantasy managers who invested an early-round pick in him last summer. The Chiefs signed LeSean McCoy right before the season, and Williams dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness early. Of course, he caught fire toward the end of the year and throughout the playoffs, proving optimistic drafters correct regarding his upside. Except it was too late.

Kansas City clearly does not view the 28-year-old as its long-term answer at running back after selecting Clyde Edwards-Helaire with its first-round pick in the 2020 draft. “CEH” is widely considered to be a more talented player than Williams and by 2021 could have the backfield to himself. However, would it be a complete surprise if the incumbent starter received the most touches in Weeks 1-4? Not at all. Edwards-Helaire is coming into the league without a real offseason, and Williams already knows this offense. I expect him to get the majority of touches initially. Perhaps this backfield remains a timeshare longer than we think right now. As RB35 in our expert consensus rankings, the near Super Bowl MVP is worth betting on.
– Brendan Tuma (@toomuchtuma)

J.K. Dobbins and Matt Breida both have really nice upside if they can capture a significant workload in their respective backfields, and Alexander Mattison cannot be ignored as long as Dalvin Cook’s holdout status is uncertain. But the clear answer is Damien Williams. In the five games where Williams received 10+ carries in 2019, he finished as a weekly RB1 in four and RB15 in the fifth. The Chiefs added first-round RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire via the NFL Draft, but the undersized back is not guaranteed to steal all (or even most) of the work in the backfield. Williams has obvious upside in the event Edwards-Helaire either gets hurt or just outright busts, and he could maintain a lead-back role, including goal-line work, in the league’s most prolific offense.

Nothing in particular jumps off the page about Williams. Then again, nothing does for Edwards-Helaire, who as recently as 2018 was unable to supplant Nick Brossette at LSU. Brossette, of course, went on to be undrafted, carry the load for the Patriots in a few preseason games, and then disappeared into the void. Consider me not-at-all confident that Edwards-Helaire will be the starter and lead back in his rookie season, much less in Week 1, and let me have Williams for cheap on all of my fantasy rosters.
– Mark Leipold (@LeipoldNFL)

Ronald Jones II (TB): RB38
Although labeled a disappointment thus far in his career, Ronald Jones is only 22 years old and is in an excellent position to break out this season. The 2018 second-round pick finished as the RB26 last season, but he’s now part of a new-look offense that should be friendlier to the running back position. The Buccaneers ran the ball 409 times last season. Since 2016, Tom Brady-led offenses have averaged 464 carries. While this offense will not operate the same way the Patriots did, the team should win more games with the future Hall of Famer on board and will be able to utilize a more balanced attack as a result.

Further bolstering Jones’s opportunity is the departure of Peyton Barber and his 154 carries. Third-round rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn will account for a portion of those vacated carries. Although Vaughn is talented enough to threaten Jones for the starting gig, head coach Bruce Arians’ recent history suggests those fears may be overblown. Under Arians, 2015 third-round rookie David Johnson toted the rock only 35 times through his first 11 games until an injury to veteran Chris Johnson provided him with additional opportunity. Chris Johnson handled 196 carries through those same 11 games.

Jones showed signs of promise last season, compiling over 1,000 scrimmage yards and finishing as the RB21 from Weeks 11-17. Examining the success of Patriots running backs from recent years, notable fantasy finishes include James White as the RB8 in 2018 and Dion Lewis as the RB14 in 2017. Encouragingly, both White and Lewis managed those finishes despite neither operating as a true workhorse back. That point is important, as Jones is unlikely to be heavily utilized in the passing game. Nonetheless, his touchdown upside as the presumptive goal-line back for a good offense provides ample opportunity for RB1 production. Jones found the end zone six times last season while Barber scored seven times. Double-digit touchdowns are within the range of outcomes for Jones if he hangs onto the starting job. Jones has reportedly bulked up in anticipation of handling a greater workload on the ground and is likely to begin the season receiving first and second-down work. If successful early, Jones could earn a leash long enough to cruise toward an RB1 finish in 2020.
– Mark McWhirter (@mmcw19)

Ronald Jones II has become a forgotten man by many after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers used a third-round draft pick to select Vanderbilt RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn. Vaughn has many fantasy players excited this offseason, but it’s Jones who will unquestionably get the first crack at becoming the Buccaneers’ starting running back to open the season. Let’s go back in time to 2015, when Bruce Arians was the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. They selected Northern Iowa RB David Johnson in the third round, and many expected him to compete for touches with the newly acquired Chris Johnson. Although Chris Johnson was 30 years old at the time, Arians basically ran him into the ground the first 12 weeks of the season before he eventually wore down and got injured. It wasn’t until Week 13 that the Northern Iowa rookie received more than eight carries in a game.

Jones will get the early opportunities, but is he talented enough to hold onto the starting job? At just 22 years old, he’s a year younger than Vaughn with two more years of NFL experience. He improved dramatically from his rookie season to last season, when he rushed for 724 yards and six TDs on 172 attempts in tandem with Peyton Barber. Jones added 309 yards on 31 catches in the passing game, pushing him over 1,000 all-purpose yards on the year. Furthermore, per Pro Football Reference, he ranked No. 4 in break tackle percentage in 2019, breaking a tackle every 7.5 rush attempts.

Jones flashed his ability as both a runner and as a pass-catcher last season, and if he can provide Tom Brady with adequate pass-protection, it’s going to be hard to take him off the field. If his talent and opportunity alone don’t scream value to you as the 38th-best RB based on ECR, Buccaneers GM Jason Licht went on record earlier this offseason saying Jones “hasn’t even scratched the surface of what he can be.” If he comes out of the gates with the trust of Tom Brady and Tampa Bay’s coaching staff, look for Jones to put together a breakout campaign on his way to a potential top-12 finish at the RB position.
– Adam Koffler (@AdamKoffler)

Jordan Howard (MIA): RB34
When I tooted the Jordan Howard horn back in April, I pointed out how he’s rushed for the third-most yards in the NFL since getting drafted in 2016, putting him just behind Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley. Nearly three months later, I’m still invested in Howard as a potential RB1, and that’s even after the Dolphins went out and signed San Francisco castaway Matt Breida. As Vaughn Dalzell points out below, both running backs aren’t that far apart in the consensus rankings. Even though Breida has the potential to pop here and there in 2020, I’d rather roll with Howard as an RB1 breakout candidate in redraft leagues.

Howard’s shoulder injury is completely behind him. At 100% health, he’s sure to return to form. Remember, Howard is entering just his fifth NFL season, so it’s not as if he’s some injury-prone plodder that recency bias might trick us into thinking. In his three years toting the rock for Chicago, Howard only missed one game. Howard (6′, 224 lbs) is simply the bigger, better, more established back. He’s carried the ball at least 250 times in three of four NFL seasons, eclipsing the century mark twice and proving his workhorse capabilities. He’s got experience handling the heavy workload you expect from your RB1, whereas Breida (5′ 10″, 190 lbs) has averaged just 127 carries in his three seasons as a middling, change-of-pace back, only showing flashes of excellence from time to time. And don’t be fooled: It’s not as if Breida is a standout pass-catcher, either. When you compare the two, Howard has averaged 20.5 receptions per season to Breida’s 22.3. Not much of a difference there.

Finally, it doesn’t matter who’s under center for Miami in 2020. With a much-improved offensive line, the Dolphins are going to run the ball a ton this season. The team would be smart to trust the more experienced running back more often. I expect Howard to out-touch Breida by at least a two-to-one ratio in 2020, making Howard more likely to achieve RB1 status among the two, and the best running back outside the top 30 to do so as well.
– Jim Colombo (@widerightnblue)

Howard, currently 34th among all running backs in the latest ECR, has the best shot of any back outside the top 30 to finish as an RB1. He signed a two-year, $10 million contract with the Dolphins this offseason and is projected to lead the team in carries. The 25-year-old missed the majority of the second half of 2019 due to a shoulder stinger, but he is reportedly 100 percent recovered from the injury. Howard and Matt Breida will form a “thunder and lightning” pairing, where Howard offers power and Breida delivers speed. The Dolphins are expected to rely on Howard heavily in goal-line situations, where he has hit pay dirt 30 times across 46 games in his four-year career. He logged 119 carries for 525 yards and six touchdowns across 10 games for the Eagles in 2019. New Dolphins OC Chan Gailey loves to use the power-run to set up play-action, which suits Howard’s style of play. Howard is capable of handling a large workload, while Breida is often injured and has yet to eclipse 180 carries in a single season. Barring injury, Howard could easily be an RB1 in 2020 with a prominent role behind an improved offensive line.
– Brad Camara (@beerad30)

Matt Breida (MIA): RB36
The 49ers shipped Matt Breida away to the Dolphins this offseason. Despite going from one of the best teams in the league to one of the worst, he can receive a much larger workload. His only competition for carries is Jordan Howard, who missed six games last season due to a shoulder stinger. Howard enters his first season with Miami and ranks as the RB34, only two spots ahead of Breida (RB36). Both running backs are currently 25 years old and provide different running styles for the Dolphins, who have lacked a running game in general. Howard’s game is built more for short-yardage, up-and-down football, while Breida is more of a playmaker.

Breida hit 22.3 mph on an 83-yard touchdown last season, registering as the fastest ball carrier per NFL’s Next Gen Stats. With the second-ranked 49ers rushing offense, Breida faced eight men in the box 30% of the time. That number should be much lower with the Dolphins, as none of their running back reached 75 carries last season. Breida posted a higher rushing efficiency (4.06) than Howard in 2019 (3.5) and was more productive on a similar number of carries (119-123), out-rushing Howard 623 yards to 525. If Breida can increase his touchdown total from a year ago and record an even amount of carries or more to Howard’s load, Breida can be a low-end RB1 in 2020 and a friendly dynasty acquisition.
– Vaughn Dalzell (@VaughnDalzell)

Tarik Cohen (CHI): RB42
Coming off a surprisingly efficient 2018 that saw him finish the year as RB13 in half-PPR formats, Tarik Cohen had a good old-fashioned slice of humble pie — along with the rest of the Chicago Bears — in 2019. Heading into last year, with so many additional mouths to feed, there was legitimate reason to be concerned about Cohen’s role in the Bears’ passing attack. While his carries took a 35% hit from the previous year, Cohen surpassed 100 targets for the first time in his career. With the increased targets, Cohen set a career-high with 79 receptions, which ranked fourth among all running backs.

Despite the added workload in the passing game, Cohen’s efficiency took a nosedive. He averaged a career-worst 5.8 yards per reception, compared to the eye-popping 10.2 yards per catch from 2018. An instant spark plug out of the backfield, Cohen needs to revert back to his chunk-play potential in order to sniff weekly fantasy relevance in 2020. After recording seven different touches of over 30 yards in ’18, Cohen had all of one catch that covered that distance last season. Granted, the discrepancy in big plays was a quintessential microcosm of the Bears’ offense as a whole last year.

In light of David Montgomery’s first-year struggles, I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if head coach Matt Nagy decided to give a few more carries back to Cohen this season. With Cohen’s role solidified in Nagy’s offense, especially in the passing game, I’m betting on Cohen’s talent bringing his production closer to what we saw out of him two years ago. Currently going as the RB46 with an RB42 ECR, you’re not going to find a better PPR back this late into your draft(s). Fantasy players should realistically expect Cohen to reach 70+ receptions for the third year in a row. With some big-play juice reminiscent of this gem from ’18, Cohen has the potential to quickly skyrocket up the fantasy running back hierarchy this season.
– Rob Searles (@RobBob17)

J.K. Dobbins (BAL): RB39
Running back is the one position where a rookie not drafted in the first round can have an immediate impact on offense. In the last five years, at least one rookie running back who wasn’t a first-round pick has finished in the top 15 at the position. David Johnson, Jordan Howard, Alvin Kamara, Phillip Lindsay, and Miles Sanders were not on anyone’s fantasy radar as weekly starters at the beginning of their rookie seasons, but all of them emerged as elite fantasy backs by the close.

When looking for bargains at running back, I like young talents in good situations, and nobody is in as good of a situation as Dobbins. He joins an offense that led the league in scoring and ranked second in yards gained last year. His quarterback is the reigning MVP of the league, Lamar Jackson. Pro Football Focus ranked the offensive line second in the NFL. The only downside for Dobbins is that Mark Ingram is coming off a season in which he tallied 1,265 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns, so he should be the starter to open 2020. That means Dobbins will begin as the backup, but he has a great chance to have a role on third down. Ingram is turning 31 years old this year and has had injury issues in past seasons.

Dobbins has a real shot to emerge as the Ravens’ featured running back in the second half of the season. As a starter, he would skyrocket to an RB1 in their explosive offense. That tremendous upside for the 39th-ranked running back makes him a great bargain in fantasy drafts.
– Derek Lofland (@DerekLofland)

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