Goal-Line Backs & Touchdown Vultures (2020 Fantasy Football)
2020 has been weird without preseason games. Camp reports, highlights, and maybe a little coach speak are all we have to help us decipher player roles in their respective offenses. But we do have historical data to rely on to identify trends and tendencies in fantasy backfields. I’ll go back as far as five years to revisit some touchdown machines and project some rookies who could hit pay dirt enough to get us to the top of the standings.
Touchdowns are still important, even if they are a noisy stat. One area of the ground game that tends to be much stickier is goal-line carries. We’re looking for guys with a nose for the end zone that can be productive with those extremely valuable carries. These players outside the first few rounds should provide some useful production via the old TD. We’re down close to the stripe, Ready? Let’s go punch this in!
Latavius Murray (RB – NO)
Murray is the first of three veteran backs I’ll discuss. All three have 44 or more carries inside the five-yard line over the last five seasons. His 24 red zone carries were just four shy of starter Alvin Kamara’s 28, and he has converted over half of his carries (52%) over the last five years. If you are looking for touchdowns, Murray has 23 in that time frame just from carries inside the five. Murray is one of the best handcuffs out there if you value that strategy. Who knows? 2020 could end up being the year of the handcuff with more injuries due to shorter camps and all the COVID concerns.
The Saints gave Murray more work after Kamara got banged up last season, and he’s proven to be productive when Kamara misses games. The Saints even went as far as to adapt their run scheme to benefit Murray in those games, resulting in attractive early-down and overall success rates. He’s going too late in drafts as he provides some safe stand-alone value just from the touchdown potential alone while also being an excellent bye-week filler and best-ball asset for the randomness of weekly variance. When the Saints get in close, they’ll get him the rock; they’re the third team to use him this way.
Mark Ingram (RB – BAL)
Let’s go from the guy taking over for Mark Ingram to Ingram himself. When a team is over 50/50 split in the run game, that’s considered too run-heavy. The Ravens blew that even split out of the water in 2019, running almost 57% of the time! That will likely dip a bit, but the Ravens should still be one of the league leaders in rushing rate. He was a beast in his first season in Baltimore and should be the lead dog again, even with rookie J.K. Dobbins there. He was highly successful at 5.5 yards per touch while running out of all personnel groupings last year, not just short-yardage packages.
Ingram is the second goal-line guy with that five-year history I mentioned above. He’s had an impressive 57 totes inside the five since 2015, and 25 times he’s reached pay dirt. He was excellent in the red zone in both the passing and rushing attacks last season. While some regression is in store on the receiving side, Ingram was still getting a bulk of the carries in the NFL’s most run-heavy offense while putting up 15 total touchdowns. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ravens ride him early and often and continue to throw to him down close. I’m getting shares of Ingram at his current RB16 price tag.
Melvin Gordon (RB – DEN)
Gordon is the last of the triumvirate with an excellent five-year history. Except he only saw one goal line touch in his rookie season, making it more of a four-year record. Remember that? Everyone was saying he can’t punch it in, or he was due to regress to the mean. Gordon has 48 carries inside the five since 2016 and has scored the same amount of TDs (23) as Murray. That 47% conversion rate is right between Murray and Ingram’s 45% mark since 2015. Gordon will get more receiving work than Murray and slightly more than Ingram, but he’s a very inefficient back without TDs.
The Broncos are bringing him in to get most of the valuable touches, which is somewhat concerning. While he’s under-performed, positive buzz surrounds him and his new role in Denver. Last year, he was being phased out of the offense after his hold out. I’m not entirely buying the bounce back, but Gordon is probably the Broncos back to own considering his projected role. He may have one of the worst career rushing success rates and YPC marks, but getting into the end zone almost eight times a year the last four seasons just with goal-line touches alone props up his value a bit.
David Montgomery (RB – CHI)
The Bears were a mess on offense last season as they finished 20th or lower in every advanced offensive metric. Unfortunately, as Mitch Trubisky goes, so does this offense. Nick Foles comes to town, and that could offer a little more offensive stability for Matt Nagy and company. Even as they struggled and Chicago’s head coach grew visibly frustrated, they still had plenty of goal-line touches to go around. Montgomery had a surprising 18 carries inside the five with 14 carries for five scores. It’s not a sexy conversion rate, but the volume is there, even if his groin forces him to sit a week.
While I don’t think the Bears offense will be a lot better, I do believe the efficiency for Montgomery improves with more sustained drives. For where he is going in drafts, he’s usually the last real “workhorse” back off the board. He should get 250 rushing attempts, so the workload isn’t a question. If the Bears are going to give the second-year plodder another 18 touches near the paint, I think there’s a higher ceiling than some are projecting. Montgomery is one of those late-round RBs that can easily hit value or surpass it if he threatens for double-digit touchdowns in 2020.
Jeff Wilson (RB – SF)
San Francisco ran more than they passed last year. But things are still unclear, even after Matt Breida was traded to Miami in April. Up for grabs is 123 carries from a year ago. Oft-injured Jerick McKinnon is supposedly looking good in camp and would probably be the one to assume that vacated workload. However, we’ve still yet to see McKinnon on the field in a regular-season game as a member of Kyle Shannahan’s 49ers as he hasn’t taken the field since 2017. That was the year Jeff Wilson scored 16 touchdowns as a senior at North Texas as an encore to his 15 touchdown campaign.
Fast forward to last year, Wilson is in San Fran, a team that had the second-highest run rate in 2019. He impressively converted four of five (80%) chances to punch it in close. Wilson seems to have a knack for touchdowns and could be someone to put on your watch list if one of the backs ahead of him goes down with an injury. Wilson can also be a decent stash for contending dynasty squads, like those who own Tevin Coleman or Raheem Mostert. After all, Coleman is not a portrait of durability, and Mostert is the definition of a journeyman at age 28 and is playing for his fifth team.
Zack Moss (RB – BUF)
Rookie time! Last season, Devin Singletary only had just two (1.3%) of his 151 carries come inside the 5-yard line. Compare that to teammate Frank Gore‘s eleven of his 166 attempts (6.6%), and it’s easy to see the Bills don’t envision Singletary as a goal-line guy. In his defense, he did convert one of the two, so it was odd to see the inefficient Gore out-touch him so much as the season played out. Gore has moved on, and rookie power back Zack Moss enters the picture as a bruising bowling ball type with good pass-catching chops. This could turn into a full-blown, 50-50 split sooner than later.
I believe the workload share will be fairly even from the jump, and Moss’ touches are likely to be much more valuable if he’s also getting passing work. Moss is also half price when it comes to ADP. Singletary is consistently going in the fourth or fifth round. Moss can be had in the eighth round or sometimes even much later. Moss scored 17 touchdowns last season and twelve the year before in only nine games at Utah. To further emphasize his screaming value outside of essential carries, check out this Graham Barfield tweet from July 28. I’m all aboard the Zack Moss train.
A.J. Dillon (RB – GB)
Dillon averaged 13.5 touchdowns over three years at Boston College but is one-dimensional. He’s an absolute unit at 250 lbs with 97th percentile speed and burst scores. Just Google “A.J. Dillon training camp photo,” and the first page of results is people losing their mind on social media about Green Bay’s massive new power back, in particular, his tree-trunk legs. Dillon is best suited for short-yardage, and it’s pretty clear by the Packers draft class that there is going to be a heavy emphasis on the run this season with their third-round H-back being the only “pass target” selected.
Jamaal Williams (50% conversion rate) and Aaron Jones (58%) have both been decent inside the five over the last three seasons, but only have a combined 30 carries inside the five during that span. Bringing in a monster like Dillon shows the Pack wants a short-yardage specialist. After a season where Jones ran for 16 scores, he’s bound to see that number regress. The Green Bay staff is likely trying to preserve Jones a bit and potentially give him more looks in the passing game. We won’t know how the big boy factors in until he takes the field Week 1, but expect most of the goal-to-go carries.
Cam Newton (QB – NE)
Cam comes to New England with a track record of being one of the best goal line backs of all-time already. With 23 carries inside the five-yard line since 2015 (Cam’s MVP season), he converted an incredible 18 times for a ridiculous 78% conversion rate. That kind of efficiency between the pylons is probably one of the reasons Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels brought him in. With questions surrounding the New England backfield, it makes a ton of sense. Last year’s team leader in carries inside the five (12) was Sony Michel, but he’s due to miss the first half of the season.
His primary competition for getting into the box is sophomore Damien Harris, who has flashed in camp after being used very sparingly in his rookie year. The only real certainty here is James White as the pass-catching role, but don’t sleep on Can’s upside from scoring on the ground. An average Cam season is getting you four or five trips to TD Town with his feet alone, which is a lovely built-in floor. Fantasy managers have invested in the cheapest piece of this backfield or the back with the best shot at the goal-to-go touches for years. There is a good chance Newton could be the latter this year.
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