6 Running Back Busts (2020 Fantasy Football)
Maybe it’s the eternal optimist in me, but I always find it much harder to come up with a list of busts than a list of sleepers. Most players who are going in the early rounds of fantasy drafts have a clear path to fantasy value, but we know they aren’t all going to end up getting there. Identifying which ones are going to fail is no easy task. It’s always much more comfortable to talk about exciting late-round lottery tickets which are flying under the radar.
Anyone who tells you they have all the answers is lying to you, and I’d be lying if I said I knew for sure that all of these busts are going to have bad seasons. But we have to make choices in a draft, and these are the running backs that I find myself shying away from for one reason or another.
As in my recent running back sleepers piece, the FantasyPros Average Draft Position (ADP) data listed below comes from 0.5 point PPR leagues on Yahoo and Fantrax. Bust columns tend to generate a fair amount of debate, so if you want to tell me I’m dead wrong (or incredibly insightful!), I’m more than happy to keep the conversation going on Twitter.
Austin Ekeler (LAC) ADP: 21.5
Ekeler has the highest ADP of this group easily, so I expect he’s the choice who will generate the most controversy. There is no shortage of smart people in the fantasy industry who are all-in on the Chargers’ lead back, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding an alternative perspective if you want one.
My concerns with Ekeler are more about the situation than the player. With an underperforming defense and an aging Philip Rivers at quarterback, LA was a bad team in 2019, and that meant they were often chasing points. It resulted in a massive year for Ekeler, who finished second to only Christian McCaffrey in receptions and receiving yards among running backs. Now, the defense should be improved despite the loss of safety Derwin James. Also, check-down machine Rivers has been replaced by “run it yourself” QB Tyrod Taylor. It’s fair to wonder whether Ekeler can come anywhere close to last year’s receiving production.
As far as the player himself, it feels lazy to say that Ekeler is too small to handle a bell-cow workload. After all, he’s not much smaller than McCaffrey! But I do think it is fair game to question whether any back can handle 200+ carries until they prove they can do it. It’s also OK to ask whether he’ll even be allowed to show he can do it. Yes, Melvin Gordon is no longer around, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a massive uptick in touches for Ekeler. Some combination of Justin Jackson and Joshua Kelley — two legit fantasy sleepers — should pick up most of the between the tackles work that Gordon left behind.
Anthony Lynn’s crew has the look of a team that will try to grind out victories in 2020, and that doesn’t bode well for a catch-first back like Ekeler. He could undoubtedly prove me wrong, but it feels like there are safer high-end options available around pick 20 of a fantasy draft.
Todd Gurley (ATL) ADP: 32.0
With nearly 1,500 touches under his belt through his first five seasons, Gurley feels like the “oldest” 26-year old in the NFL. Running backs have notoriously short shelf lives, and you have to wonder whether he is approaching his expiration date.
Last season, Gurley’s efficiency plummeted to just 3.8 yards per carry and 6.7 yards per reception. Still, from a fantasy perspective, he made up for his career-low yardage total by scoring 14 total touchdowns. He’s now headed from one high-octane offense in Los Angeles to another in Atlanta, so it’s tempting to think that he can continue to rank among the league leaders in touchdowns. The problem is that the Rams are among the most run-heavy teams inside the five-yard line, whereas the Falcons have recently ranked near the bottom of the league in goal-line rushing attempts.
With only Ito Smith, Brian Hill, and Qadree Ollison behind him on the depth chart, Gurley is the clear starter, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Falcons take a page from the Rams’ playbook and try to lighten his load no matter who is backing him up. Add up the decline in efficiency, touchdowns, and workload, and Gurley suddenly looks like this year’s version of Le’Veon Bell (who I’ll get to in a bit). Not exactly what you’re hoping for with your third-round pick.
Leonard Fournette (TB) ADP: 40.0
Alright, time to get to the elephant in the room. Fresh off getting cut by the tanking Jaguars, Fournette has landed in Tampa Bay, following in the footsteps of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski and adding even more helium to the Bucs’ 2020 hype balloon.
The Bucs gave Fournette a decent chunk of change, especially for a running back. So it stands to reason that he’s going to get some run, even if head coach Bruce Arians is currently maintaining that Ronald Jones is “our guy” and Fournette is merely an insurance policy. But Jones isn’t going to disappear, and neither (apparently) is LeSean McCoy, who reportedly remains a vital part of the game plan, especially in passing and third-down situations. Even if McCoy doesn’t ultimately factor into the equation, the team still has third-round pick Ke’Shawn Vaughn around, too.
This running back room is filled to the brim. That means that even if he does manage to become the starter, Fournette isn’t going to see anywhere close to the 300-350 touches he was getting each year in Jacksonville. That’s a big problem for a guy who has averaged a very pedestrian 4.0 yards per carry in his career. Fournette’s fantasy value has come through volume more than efficiency or big-play ability, and now that volume is no longer going to be there. And that’s not even accounting for his checkered injury history. That needs to be a consideration for Fournette owners even in the best of times.
The bottom line is that there are way too many paths to Fournette disappointing in fantasy leagues this season. He may continue to go early in drafts because he’s joining an exciting, high-powered offense, but I’ll most certainly be fading him.
Le’Veon Bell (NYJ) ADP: 44.5
How the mighty have fallen. Bell somehow managed to finish as the RB17 in his first season in green and white since his college days, but fantasy managers can attest to the fact that rostering him felt much worse than that. He was the very definition of a low-upside volume play, averaging a putrid 3.2 yards per carry and scoring a combined four touchdowns all year.
What’s changed to justify getting excited about Bell this year? Nothing. He’s a year older (28), and still has Jets head coach Adam Gase around to criticize him through the media and come up with unimaginative offensive game plans. And like Fournette, his diminished efficiency could be about to get a lot more noticeable if it comes with a reduced workload. The Jets have brought in ageless wonder Frank Gore, who has made a habit in recent years of frustrating fantasy managers by stealing away work from running backs who were higher than him on the depth chart.
A slew of negative stories has taken a bite out of Bell’s draft stock, but he’s still going in the fourth round, likely due to name recognition and the belief that he should have plenty of job security. At that stage of the draft, I’d much rather go for a running back with much more upside like James Conner or Mark Ingram, or one of the many desirable WR2s that are sure to be available there.
Devin Singletary (BUF) ADP: 59.0
Speaking of running backs who have lost work to Frank Gore, Singletary ended up with 15 fewer carries than Gore in Buffalo last year. It wasn’t until November that Singletary got double-digit carries in a game, partly due to a hamstring pull that cost him a month. Singletary certainly did look good as the lead back from midseason on, averaging a healthy 5.1 yards per carry when all was said and done.
If the Bills had stood pat at the running back position, it would have been logical to expect Singletary to see increased usage in Year Two. Instead, Buffalo went out and drafted Utah dynamo, Zack Moss, in the third round, which isn’t exactly a vote of confidence in Singletary’s ability to carry the load. Reports out of Bills camp suggest that Moss is going to be highly involved from day one in the passing game, at the very least, and now there are rumblings that Singletary could quickly lose his grasp on the starting job if his fumbling issues persist. Remember, you can’t win your leagues in the early rounds of the draft, but you can lose it when you take a player whose value quickly evaporates.
In a situation like this, where two talented third-round picks are duking it out for touches, I am almost always going to invest in the one who I can acquire more cheaply. The Bills have a running game that you should want to invest in, but why risk a fifth-round pick on Singletary (ADP 59.0) when you can get Moss (ADP 131.0) so much later?
David Montgomery (CHI) ADP: 61.0
Montgomery had no shortage of opportunities in his first season in the league, but he did woefully little with them. His 3.7 yards per carry was second-worst behind only the aforementioned Le’Veon Bell among runnings back who saw 200+ carries.
A third-round pick who showed so little in his rookie year shouldn’t have a lot of job security, but then again, the Bears’ running back room is incredibly thin. With pass-catching specialist Tarik Cohen and trick-play extraordinaire Cordarrelle Patterson, the only proven NFL talents behind Montgomery, it stood to reason that the Bears were going to give Montgomery one more chance to prove his worth. But that was before Montgomery suffered a groin injury that has put his Week 1 status in doubt.
I was already fading Montgomery before the injury because merely saying “the backups suck” is not a good reason to draft someone. We see running backs emerge out of nowhere all the time, so it should be no great surprise if an unknown player like Ryan Nall or Artavis Pierce ends up stealing between-the-tackles work from Montgomery. Or the Bears could at any time sign one of the many veteran free agent running backs who remain available. Either of those scenarios become even more plausible if Montgomery isn’t ready to go at the start of the season — or worse, rushes back and re-injures himself.
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