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Starters with Shaky Job Security (2020 Fantasy Football)

by Mark McWhirter | Featured Writer
Jul 24, 2020

Whether due to their own disappointing performance or their team drafting a young, exciting player at their respective position, a multitude of starting NFL players will enter the 2020 season with shaky job security.

This article will focus on the running back position, as quarterbacks, wide receivers, and tight ends on shaky ground are mostly well off the fantasy radar. It’s important to be aware of each team’s handcuff, as some running backs enter the new season with an insecure grip on the starting gig. For a great look at the top handcuffs to own, check out FantasyPros’ running back handcuff tool!

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Marlon Mack (IND)
Marlon Mack has performed admirably for the Colts since they drafted in the fourth round of the 2017 draft. Unfortunately, the Colts traded up in the second round this year to snag Jonathan Taylor, the former Wisconsin standout. Head Coach Frank Reich has openly referred to Mack and Taylor as 1A-1B, but Mack’s spot atop the depth chart is on borrowed time. Taylor is a freak athlete who ran for over 6,000 yards during his three-year college career.

Games  Rushing Att. Rushing Yds. Rushing TDs YPC Receptions Receiving Yds. Receiving TDs
14 299 1,977 13 6.6 8 95 0
13 307 2,194 16 7.1 8 60 0
14 320 2,003 21 6.3 26 252 5

There are knocks on Taylor for his receiving skills and apparent fumbling issues, but this is a 226-pound running back who runs a 4.39 forty-yard dash. Taylor’s combination of size, speed, and vision should ensure his success while he runs behind arguably the NFL’s strongest offensive line. Nonetheless, that same offensive line should benefit Mack whenever he totes the rock, and fresh off a 1,000-yard rushing season, he is unlikely to completely fade away. Expect Mack to remain involved, especially early in the season, until Taylor has time to acclimate to the next level.

Mack won’t reach the production levels he enjoyed in 2019, but this team is built to run the football and could theoretically support fantasy success for two running backs. Assuming the offense is improved with Philip Rivers at the helm, there should be increased touchdown potential for the team’s backfield, although Taylor is a serious threat to account for the majority of those scores.

In a worst-case scenario, Mack is the clear number two option. However, a world exists where Mack is plenty relevant for the first half of the season while remaining a viable flex the rest of the way. Mack is risky at his current draft cost at RB33. He should be drafted closer to his expert consensus ranking of RB43, as he could prove valuable to owners fortunate enough to have him fall into their laps later in drafts. For fantasy managers employing the zero-RB strategy, Mack remains a prime target. For more analysis and tips for zero-RB draft strategists, check out an example mock draft and our recommended targets for the strategy.

Damien Williams (KC)
Similar to Marlon Mack, Damien Williams recently watched his team draft a hotshot young running back. The question now becomes whether the Chiefs’ first-rounder Clyde Edwards-Helaire is the immediate replacement for Williams, or whether the two will split the workload in Edwards-Helaire’s inaugural season. Kareem Hunt became an instant sensation in his rookie season with the Chiefs, but it was an injury to then-starter Spencer Ware that paved the way for such opportunity. Thus, it is no guarantee that Edwards-Helaire becomes a workhorse from day one.

The fact remains, however, that Williams is a 28-year-old veteran of six years who has yet to hit the 500 rushing-yard plateau in a season. Much of last season’s disappointing performance can be attributed to poor health, but the Chiefs clearly identified running back as an area of need when they decided to invest so much of their draft capital in Edwards-Helaire. The Chiefs have scored the most points of any NFL team in Patrick Mahomes’ two seasons as the starter, and neither running back needs to receive a true bell-cow role in order to provide fantasy value.

It is incredibly likely that Edwards-Helaire outperforms Williams this season, and the latter’s role should reduce increasingly as the weeks progress. With the uncertainty of playing a season during a pandemic, rookies could hit the ground running slower than usual in 2020, so this provides a glimmer of hope for Williams truthers. He is certainly worth a roll of the dice in the eighth round or later, as the upside is undeniable, and fantasy squads should be well-insulated at that stage of drafts. Drafting Williams as anything higher than your RB4 is likely to be a risk that outweighs the reward.

Kerryon Johnson (RB)
The fantasy hype train of Kerryon Johnson crashed and burned shortly after it left the station in 2019. A talented and elusive runner with enviable pass-catching ability, Johnson hasn’t shown that he can withstand the rigors of an NFL season without succumbing to injury. The Lions evidently grew impatient, as the team selected D’Andre Swift in the second round of this year’s draft.

Swift has a well-balanced skill set and was the top rusher on many analysts’ boards entering the draft. Concerning for Johnson, Swift’s best attribute may very well be his receiving ability. With Swift cutting into this role, Johnson’s floor drastically decreases. Swift profiles as an eventual three-down back, which renders rendering Johnson unlikely to fully command first and second down work, either. This alarmingly results in a lowered ceiling to match Johnson’s lowered floor.

The Lions have finished in the bottom twelve in team rushing yards every season since 2014. The team’s defense has gotten worse with the loss of Darius Slay, and the divisional competition in the NFC North remains fierce. Coming off consecutive last-place divisional finishes, the Lions face an uphill battle to compete. Running backs on bad teams are usually unattractive fantasy assets, let alone running backs who split the workload for a bad team. The pass-catching work should enable both Johnson and Swift to remain flex candidates, but neither is likely to break out as a fantasy stud this season. If I were forced to choose, Swift appears likelier to finish the 2020 season as the 1A to Johnson’s 1B. Keep in mind, however, that this regime drafted Johnson in the second round, and I doubt that they’ll abandon him so soon. This backfield is ultimately shaping up to be a true committee.

Derrius Guice (WAS)
The red flags with Derrius Guice are clear. With nearly as many knee injuries as games played in his career, Guice is about as risky a fantasy prospect as you will find. With plenty of opportunity but plenty of competition, Guice is operating on ground that is far from steady. Chris Thompson has left, but J.D. McKissic has entered. Adrian Peterson remains in town for the time being, and Peyton Barber was brought on board for insurance. Perhaps the biggest challenge, however, could come from third-round running back/wide receiver hybrid Antonio Gibson.

At 228 pounds, Gibson has the size to run between the tackles. Additionally, Gibson’s 4.39 forty speed demonstrates the dynamic athlete Washington has on its hands. New Head Coach Ron Rivera recognizes the value in a three-down running back, especially one with elite receiving skills, having come from the Christian McCaffrey-led Panthers. Caution must be exercised regarding Gibson’s hype train, as only 15.4% of running backs selected in the third round since 2010 have finished as a top-24 running back. Gibson’s selection does undoubtedly pose a threat to Guice’s opportunity to finally emerge, though, and Guice is almost assuredly not going to receive the passing game volume to make him a consistent fantasy asset.

I expect Washington to rely on their defense and rushing attack as young quarterback Dwayne Haskins continues his development. That gives me hope that even if Gibson carves out a role as a rookie, Guice may be afforded enough early-down work to be useful in non-PPR leagues. Until more clarity is provided, either through the release of a veteran such as Adrian Peterson or Peyton Barber, this backfield has more questions than answers at the moment. Washington is unlikely to win a significant number of games this season. Thus, it may behoove fantasy owners to target options more heavily involved in the passing game, a group that Guice is unlikely to be included amongst.

Sony Michel (NE)
Sony Michel was woefully inefficient last season. Michel posted a yards-per-carry mark of 3.7 while dropping to 1.63 yards-per-carry inside the twenty yard-line and 1.41 yards-per-carry inside the ten.

Rushing Att. Rushing Yds. YPC Rushing Att. (<20) Rushing Yds. (<20) YPC (<20) Rushing Att. (<10) Rushing Yds. (<10)
247 912 4 41 67 1.63 27 38

The Patriots selected Damien Harris in the third round a year ago, and while he did not receive much work during his rookie season, a repeat performance from Michel could force the team’s hand. Bill Bellichick historically leaves us guessing when attempting to examine the Patriots’ backfield, and the number of options surrounding Michel provides cause for concern.

Stalwart James White will command the majority of the receiving work in this backfield, leaving Michel, Harris, and the seemingly forgotten man Rex Burkhead vying for carries on a weekly basis. Burkhead quietly averaged 12.33 touches per game from Weeks 1-3 last season prior to getting hurt. Michel averaged 15 touches per game during that same timespan, illustrating the unlikeliness that he is entirely supplanted. Should Harris earn a role for himself, it will muddle the situation even further. Michel does not possess the receiving ability to elevate his floor in the event of a committee, and with Cam Newton stealing goal-line carries, Michel may not be able to save his value through touchdowns. Ultimately, there is a reason Michel’s current ADP sits at RB36 despite him entering 2020 as the presumptive lead running back for a playoff hopeful. The experts agree, as shown by Michel’s ECR of RB34.

Ronald Jones II (TB)
Ronald Jones II enters 2020 with an extremely intriguing opportunity in front of him. With the addition of Tom Brady, the Buccaneers anticipate being playoff contenders. Winning more games should equate to more volume for the running back position. Tom Brady-led offenses consistently rank in the upper half of the league in rushing attempts, having averaged 464 attempts since 2016. During that timeframe, the Patriots have always finished amongst the top ten in terms of rushing touchdowns, with eighteen per season.

Peyton Barber has moved on, and Jones is the favorite to lead this offense in carries. Despite this, Jones currently holds an average draft position of RB32. The experts are even lower, judging by Jones’s ECR of RB35. This fear can be attributed to the team’s drafting of third-round running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who currently has an ECR of RB33. As previously noted, history is not kind to third-round running backs as it relates to fantasy success during their rookie seasons. Nonetheless, Vaughn is a capable pass-catching back, and Brady is known to heavily target the running back position. By all reports, Jones has worked diligently on improving his receiving skills this offseason, and this work will need to translate to production for him to hold off his talented counterpart.

Although the worst-case scenario involves Jones being surpassed by Vaughn, there is unlikely to be a full-scale takeover in year one. David Johnson was unable to overtake an over-the-hill Chris Johnson as a rookie under Bruce Arians, and this situation should play out similarly. Jones possesses tremendous touchdown upside this season, but with a floor that may leave owners desiring greater consistency unless he is able to increase his involvement in the passing game.

Having finished as the RB26 in 2019 despite receiving only 172 carries, Jones should return value at his current ADP even if he does not take significant strides forward. Although an admittedly better pass-catcher, Melvin Gordon’s rookie production closely mirrors that of Jones’s sophomore season. Many missed Gordon’s breakout after labeling him a bust, and those hesitant may do the same with Jones. Fears about Vaughn appear to be overblown, and running backs possessing this amount of upside are rarely available for the cost that Jones’s current ADP reflects.

Complete early mock drafts using our free draft simulator >>

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Mark McWhirter is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Mark, check out his archive.

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