Evaluating Expected RBBCs (2020 Fantasy Football)
It’s the word fantasy managers never want to hear: “committee.” But this is 2020 when specialization is king, so here we are. The bell cow back hasn’t exactly gone the way of the dodo bird — you could even argue it’s had a bit of a resurgence of late — but it’s certainly on the endangered species list.
Not all committees are created equally, mind you. There is still immense fantasy value to be mined in some committee situations, particularly when it comes to explosive playmakers operating in high-scoring offenses. Whether your league employs a standard or PPR format will also go a long way towards determining who, if anyone, you want to target in a given backfield timeshare.
But enough with the chitter-chatter! Which NFL backfields are shaping up as committee situations, and who should you target in those backfields? Let’s explore. Oh, and if you’re curious about any backfield not mentioned here, ping me on Twitter, and I’ll happily share my two cents –and please check out my new fantasy sports show MFSN’s The Hub on YouTube!
The Ravens led the NFL in rushing by a wide margin in 2019, and even if you subtract Lamar Jackson’s production from the equation, they were still easily a top-ten rushing unit. Lead back Mark Ingram finished as the overall RB8 in 0.5 PPP formats, even as the team provided nearly 200 carries to backups Gus Edwards and Justice Hill. Then Baltimore went out and selected J.K. Dobbins in the second round of the draft.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh says Dobbins is probably going to have “a significant role” in the offense, but that shouldn’t scare you away from drafting Ingram. Given how often the Ravens run the ball, Ingram could once again deliver borderline RB1 numbers for fantasy owners even while continuing to share the workload. Edwards could also be a bit of a factor. Still, it’s clear that Dobbins is now the second back behind Ingram, and the highly-skilled Ohio State tailback is the definition of a player who can make some noise in fantasy leagues with limited touches. He may not have consistent flex value right out of the gate, but he needs to be drafted as a potentially league-winning handcuff who should gain value as the season goes along.
Much to the chagrin of fantasy managers, the Bills ended up doling out 15 more carries to Frank Gore than rookie Devin Singletary last season, with Gore seeing the lion’s share of the work through the first two months and Singletary taking over down the stretch. Gore is now with the division rival Jets, but the Bills reinvested in the running back position by picking Utah’s Zack Moss in the third round — the same round they took Singletary the year prior.
Singletary will open the season as the “starter.” Still, Moss is reportedly going to be involved in the passing game from day one, and Singletary’s hold on the lead job appears to be tenuous due to his persistent fumbling problems. The Bills’ game plan could also shift week to week based on opponent, with Singletary getting more run against ends and linebackers that struggle to contain the outside, and Moss being featured between the tackles against smaller defensive fronts. Even if he ends up with fewer total touches, Moss has three inches and 20 pounds on Singletary, which could make the rookie the preferred option in goal-line situations.
The Bills were a top-eight rushing unit in 2019, and there is some belief that quarterback Josh Allen will run less this year, which could create even more opportunities for the backs to shine. Singletary and Moss are both high-upside committee backs with immediate RB3/flex value, but Moss is the far superior value based on ADP.
The Bears were set to have a reasonably straight-forward committee arrangement, with sophomore David Montgomery serving as the primary rusher and Tarik Cohen again being utilized as the passing down back. But with Montgomery’s status for Week 1 up in the air due to a groin injury, this situation has become considerably murkier. Cohen’s role is unlikely to change, and Cordarrelle Patterson is more of a gadget player than anything else. Someone like Ryan Nall, Artavis Pierce, or a free agent signing to be named later may see double-digit carries to begin the season if Montgomery isn’t back.
The Bears were one of the worst rushing offenses in the league last season when Montgomery averaged the second-fewest yards per carry (3.7) of any back with 200+ rushes. He was over-drafted before the injury, and while he’s still well worth rostering, a breakout season isn’t looking particularly likely. Meanwhile, it doesn’t hurt to take a stab on whoever is getting opportunities in Montgomery’s absence, but it could prove to be more frustrating than it’s worth. Cohen is the most stable fantasy asset in this backfield, but he probably tops out as an RB3/flex option in full-PPR formats.
The Browns are a committee situation that we should have a pretty good handle on — because we got to see it in action in the second half of last season. In the eight games following Kareem Hunt’s return from suspension on November 10, Nick Chubb was the RB22, and Hunt was the RB29 in 0.5 PPR formats. And if you discount the final two weeks, when neither Browns back did much of anything, they were even more valuable than that. When both were healthy and available, Chubb typically handled around 20 weekly touches, mostly on the ground, while Hunt saw 10-12 touches, mainly through the air.
The Browns will have a new coaching staff in 2020, but with run-heavy Kevin Stefanski calling the shots, we can still expect them to utilize their two talented running backs as much — if not more — than they did last season. That means that Chubb still deserves to be considered a low-end RB1 heading into 2020, while Hunt is a legit RB3/flex option — especially in PPR — with league-winning upside should Chubb succumb to injury.
It seems safe to assume that the Broncos gave Melvin Gordon a two-year, $16 million contract with the full intention of making him their unquestioned number one running back this season. This, even though undrafted free agent Phillip Lindsay has been a smashing success in his first two NFL seasons, averaging nearly 5.0 yards per carry and topping 1,000 rushing yards in both 2018 and 2019.
While it’s clear Gordon will be the starter, it’s not clear at all how much work each Denver back will receive. Both Gordon and Lindsay are capable rushers and receivers out of the backfield, so this doesn’t seem like a situation that will break down neatly between an early-down runner and pass-catching third-down back. Currently, estimates range from Gordon producing more than twice as much fantasy value as Lindsay to the two backs operating in an even 50-50 timeshare. A 60-40 split seems like a fair guess, but it will just be a guess until we get some actual numbers to work with in Week 1.
The Lions’ decision to splurge on Georgia tailback D’Andre Swift in the second round of the NFL draft did not speak well to the team’s confidence in incumbent starter Kerryon Johnson. Then again, Detroit may look at Swift as a necessary complement and an insurance policy for Johnson, who has missed a combined 14 games due to knee injuries over his first two NFL seasons.
This preseason, it is Swift — not Johnson — who has missed time with a leg injury, which makes it all but sure that Johnson will operate as the starter in Week 1. Lions coach Matt Patricia says he will try to work Swift in as he acclimates to the NFL gradually, but how quickly that happens will likely depend on how Johnson and Swift perform on the field.
Swift was a prolific pass-catcher in college and should be able to quickly carve out a significant role in the passing game as long as his pass-blocking is up to par. He may prove in time that he is also the superior rusher to Johnson, who averaged just 3.6 yards per carry last season. That makes Swift’s ADP of 64.5 more than reasonable for patient-minded fantasy owners, but as the evident touch favorite to begin the season, Johnson also looks like an excellent value way down at pick 113.5.
Marlon Mack had his first 1,000-yard rushing season in 2019, but it was not enough to convince the Colts’ brass to stick with him as the centerpiece of their offensive attack. Instead, Indianapolis snagged Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor with the ninth pick of the second round.
Mack is expected to open the year as the starter, but given his expiring contract and the draft capital the Colts spent on Taylor, Mack’s leash figures to be exceptionally short. One major wildcard is the role of Nyheim Hines, who has served as the passing game complement to Mack the last couple of years. If Hines remains on the field in obvious passing situations, it will be next-to-impossible for both Mack and Taylor to be weekly flex options.
As such, it is hard to recommend anyone in this backfield as a high-end fantasy option until we see how things shake out. But Taylor stands far above Mack and Hines in terms of season-long upside and is well worth drafting aggressively. If he’s as good as he was at Wisconsin, this entire backfield could be his before long.
After months of shopping him around the league, the Jaguars finally bit the bullet and sent Leonard Fournette to the waiver wire. That seemingly opened the door for 2019 fifth-round pick Ryquell Armstead, but Armstead missed time in camp with a groin injury and was recently placed on the Covid-19 list for a second time. That means the last two men standing for early-down work in Jacksonville are perennial training camp sensation Devine Ozibo and rookie James Robinson. Both joined the Jags as undrafted free agents.
If Ozigbo and Robinson split the rushing duties fairly evenly, it is unlikely either will be a reliable fantasy option in 10- and 12-team fantasy leagues. If one can run away with the job, they’ll become a weekly flex option at worst, but their upside could still be capped by negative game scripts on a team that is projected to give up a lot of points and lose a lot of games.
For that reason, the player with the most steady role in this backfield — Chris Thompson — could also end up being the most valuable fantasy option, even in non-PPR formats. Thompson is the clear choice for the Jaguars in obvious passing situations, which they project to find themselves in early and often in 2020. He’ll be on the flex radar in all leagues and could even conceivably return low-end RB2 value in PPR formats.
Kansas City Chiefs
Those who spend a first-round pick on Clyde Edwards-Helaire won’t want to hear this, but there are some indications that Edwards-Helaire could split this backfield fairly evenly with Darrel Williams in Week 1. It would only make sense, really, given the challenge of rookies acclimating to the NFL during a pandemic with no preseason games.
Still, it seems abundantly clear that CEH will quickly take ownership of this backfield. Williams has done a fine job in spot duty over the last two seasons, but we’re talking about a 2018 undrafted free agent who has 185 career rushing yards to his name. Darwin Thompson isn’t going to stand in Edwards-Helaire’s way, either.
We all know the upside of a bell-cow back in an Andy Reid offense, which is why many fantasy analysts (including yours truly) are justifiably ranking CEH as a top-10 fantasy running back. Williams, meanwhile, is a viable flex option in Week 1, but he may not be one for very long.
Las Vegas Raiders
This is one situation that may not end up being a committee, but it was one last year. Last year, Josh Jacobs carried the ball 242 times and averaged an impressive 4.8 yards per carry. But Jacobs caught just 20 passes, while DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard each caught 36. Washington is no longer in the picture, but Richard is. The Raiders also brought in third-round pick Lynn Bowden and veteran third-down back Theo Riddick as additional pass-catching options, but then interestingly decided to part with both (Bowden via trade, Riddick via release) during roster cutdowns.
The Raiders say they want to get Jacobs more involved on third down, which would allow his reception total to spike, but we’ll have to see if that talk is met with action. If it is, Jacobs has top-5 RB potential. The decision to get rid of two other pass-catching backs seems like a promising sign.
Los Angeles Chargers
Austin Ekeler had a heck of a year last season, particularly as a receiver out of the backfield, and he’ll quite obviously be the Chargers’ preferred running back in passing situations again this year. But with Melvin Gordon no longer around, it remains to be seen whether Ekeler is given a chance to significantly build on the 132 rushing attempts he had last season.
He may see an uptick in carries, but I don’t expect Ekeler to transform into an every-down back suddenly. The more likely outcome is that some combination of Justin Jackson and rookie Joshua Kelley step in to replace most of Gordon’s between the tackles work. Whether it’s Jackson or Kelley is anybody’s guess, but Jackson is currently dealing with a toe injury that could give Kelley the edge. With Tyrod Taylor under center and a talented defense on the other side of the ball, it stands to reason that the Chargers will play a more run-heavy, ball-control offense than they did with Philip Rivers flinging the ball all over the field.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams saw the writing on the wall with Todd Gurley, parting ways with their star running back and then investing a second-round pick in Florida State’s Cam Akers. Akers landed in a very favorable spot for his long-term fantasy value, but it may take a little time for it to come to fruition entirely.
It’s quite likely that veteran Malcolm Brown is the “starter” in Week 1, and it will be interesting to see whether that is merely a ceremonial honor or a sign of things to come. Brown should remain involved in short-yardage and goal-line situations, at the very least. Akers will also have to compete for playing time with 2019 third-round pick Darrell Henderson, who played behind both Gurley and Brown last season and is currently recovering from a hamstring injury. If Henderson can return by Week 1, it could make this committee even tougher to predict on a week to week basis.
A bet on Akers is a bet on talent, and he is an enticing breakout candidate given his good team situation and the Rams’ lack of strong alternatives at the position. But we may have to wait until the second half of the season for him to be given the reins.
Jordan Howard is likely to serve as the Dolphins’ starting running back, but that doesn’t mean he’ll accrue the most fantasy value. Howard’s apparent limitations as a pass-catcher mean that fellow offseason acquisition Matt Breida could end up on the field more often than Howard, mainly if Miami is playing from behind as much as they did last season. The Dolphins also traded for Raiders third-round pick Lynn Bowden, but he played wide receiver in college and is unlikely to be much of a factor in the backfield early in the season.
Breida is a perfectly capable receiver, but the 5.0 yards per carry he averaged during three seasons in San Francisco show that he’s also no slouch when it comes to running the football. While Howard will likely need to find the end zone to pay off for fantasy managers in any given week, Breida could prove to be the more consistent RB3/flex option in standard and PPR formats alike.
New England Patriots
Bill Belichick simply never makes it easy on fantasy owners when it comes to predicting how he will divvy up backfield touches from season to season — or even week to week. In recent seasons, the one constant in this backfield was James White, whose defined pass-catching role ensured that he could serve as a reliable flex option who could even sneakily approach RB2 value. It’s hard to say whether Cam Newton will have the same rapport with White that Tom Brady did, but he remains the most bankable fantasy asset in this backfield.
As for the primary ball carrier job, it’s as challenging to predict as always (that’s how Belichick likes it). Damien Harris, who essentially red-shirted his rookie season in New England, was generating buzz early in camp by hogging the first-team reps while Sony Michel (foot) was sidelined. But now Harris is dealing with a hand injury that could keep him out in Week 1, meaning we are back to square one. This situation could fluctuate a lot during the year — I haven’t even mentioned the Swiss Army knife, Rex Burkhead! — but until we see someone other than Michel carry the load, he has to be considered the favorite. Harris is a high-upside lottery ticket.
New Orleans Saints
Alvin Kamara is rightly going near the top of fantasy drafts, but make no mistake, the Saints employ a running back committee. Last year, Kamara handled 171 carries in 14 games while Latavius Murray rushed 146 times in 16 games. Kamara was the much more productive of the two in the passing game, catching 81 balls, but Murray chipped in there as well with 34 receptions.
In the end, Kamara finished as the RB12 in 0.5 PPR, while Murray was the RB29. And the good news is that little has changed in the Saints’ backfield, other than the addition of hybrid RB/WR Ty Montgomery, so we can expect more of the same in 2020. Kamara is a no-doubt RB1, while Murray is a weekly RB3/flex option with league-winning handcuff appeal.
New York Jets
Teams with Le’Veon Bell rarely use a committee, but after Bell’s thoroughly pedestrian 2019 season, that looks to be changing this year. The Jets brought in ageless wonder and noted fantasy vulture Frank Gore, who has reportedly outplayed Bell in camp. Adam Gase has been utilizing a roughly 60-40 split between Bell and Gore throughout camp, and that’s about what we should expect heading into Week 1. Both backs are capable pass-catchers and can handle goal-line work, so they are more likely to alternate series than come in and out at a specific down and distance.
That sort of projected usage means that Bell is significantly over-drafted at his fourth-round ADP, while Gore will be more of a thorn in Bell’s side than a standalone fantasy option. With declining productivity and a diminished role, it is hard to see Bell returning RB2 value in 2020, let alone the RB1 value of old.
While Eagles coach Doug Pederson has been a loyal proponent of the running back by committee approach, he has said that he wants Miles Sanders to be “the guy” in Philadelphia’s backfield this season. If Pederson follows through, the sky is the limit for the immensely talented second-year back. The problem is that Sanders is currently dealing with a hamstring injury, and while he’s expected to be ready for Week 1, it could be enough reason for Pederson to ease him into a heavy workload.
If Sanders is in any way limited, it should open the door for Boston Scott, who flashed some big-play ability down the stretch last season. Scott figures to have some passing-down role regardless of Sanders’ health, but he’ll likely need a couple of big early-season performances to nail down a weekly role that is viable in fantasy leagues. Corey Clement could factor in, too. Still, Scott is an enticing late-round fantasy pick as a high-upside handcuff with a path to weekly flex value.
San Francisco 49ers
We know the routine with Kyle Shanahan by now. He can turn just about any running back into a fantasy stud, and while it can be tough to predict who will earn the opportunity from year to year and game to game, it’s well worth the hassle to find out.
Case in point: Raheem Mostert. The undrafted journeyman special teams specialist finally got a chance to carry the load, and he responded by finishing as the RB8 over the last six weeks of the season. He was then even better in the playoffs, most notably in his ridiculous 220-yard, four-touchdown performance against Green Bay in the NFC championship game.
Mostert’s incredible finish to last season has earned him the starting job to begin this one. The question is whether he can hold onto it. Mostert will quickly return RB2 value as long as he sees around 15 touches in this offense, but he’ll need to hold off Tevin Coleman, who is a solid but unspectacular option for Shanahan to turn to. It helps Mostert’s cause that Matt Breida is no longer around, but Jerick McKinnon has been making some noise in camp and could carve out a role, particularly on passing downs.
Given Shanahan’s track record of the RB productivity, it makes a lot of sense to take the chance on Mostert as an RB2 and/or grab Coleman or McKinnon as a bench stash.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Bucs head coach Bruce Arians is currently maintaining that Ronald Jones is “our guy” and newly-signed Leonard Fournette is merely an insurance policy. But it seems unlikely that Tampa Bay would have given Fournette $2 million guaranteed to sit on the bench. The more likely outcome is that Jones and Fournette share the early-down workload until one of them proves to be the superior option.
Another wrinkle is the presence of LeSean McCoy, who reportedly remains a vital part of the game plan, especially in passing and third-down situations. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that third-round pick Ke’Shawn Vaughn could eventually play a role, too.
With all the possible ways this backfield could go, it’s probably best to ignore the hype and invest cautiously.
Washington Football Team
It’s been a crazy year for the Washington football team, and that craziness has extended to the team’s backfield this summer. With Derrius Guice out of the league and Adrian Peterson shockingly shown his walking papers, the path has suddenly cleared for third-round rookie Antonio Gibson to lead Washington’s committee. But Gibson was a wide receiver in college, not a running back, and it is entirely unknown how effective he can be as a between-the-tackles rusher.
Gibson is the most intriguing RB in Washington, but it stands to reason that another back could end up seeing a lot of the early-down work. Washington doesn’t have terrific options in that regard, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see ex-Buccaneer Peyton Barber get a frustratingly large amount of carries in the early going. Bryce Love is another option, but the former fourth-round pick hasn’t looked the same since he suffered an ACL tear in 2018, so he’s reportedly going to have a reduced role, at least initially.
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